Bob Dylan’s recent award of the Nobel Prize for Literature has created a palpable buzz in artistic circles. It asks questions as to the nature of literature, the role of songwriting in literature and even the relevance of the Prize itself.
Andrew Bolt, in his News Corp blog, praised the giving of the prize to Dylan. Stephen Wright, in Overland, ‘disses Dylan for ‘whining and perpetuating ancient sexualised stereotypes of women’. There are interesting insights in Overland’s twisted take. Patrick McCauley offered the term, ‘misandrist’, reverse misogyny, to describe it. Wright’s essay is generally myopic, but also extremely odd in Overland, which is a bastion of the Left (same as the inner circle of the Swedish Academy.) And Andrew Bolt, normally tarred with the brush of the Conservative Right, has uncritically embraced Dylan. (Well, Andrew has always been a sook for music!) But the shoes are now on opposite feet. The main weakness with both these views is that they are poor reviews — they each lean way too much to one side, or the other. Merge them together and we might get a better understanding of the paradox that is Bob Dylan.
But it’s still good, however, as it shows the whole bunch of us merely have opinions (which contains the crying-when-cut word ‘onions’) — and there is no absolute truth anywhere in the house, despite all the high-falutin’ credentials.
There has been controversy for years about whether the Nobel Prize has validity for measuring anything at all. The Peace Prize was awarded to Obama after only nine months in office, and to Kissinger while he was bombing Hanoi. Yassar Arafat got one. The Chemistry Prize once went to the inventor of the lobotomy. Literary giants James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain were passed over for the Literature Prize. But without Twain, and his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there could be no contemporary Americana Bob Dylan songs.
I have learned enormously from Dylan — from his true strengths as a writer — but also to avoid his true weaknesses in our own work. A skilled mechanic must be able to take an engine apart in order to put it back together. Change the spark plugs when they aren’t sparking. The Literature Prize was bestowed on Dylan for a life’s work of introducing ‘literary values’ into popular music, not for any actual literature but for his songwriting alone and, more importantly, for its impact culturally.
Now songwriting is a category excluded from every single literary prize in the world. Ironically, the very form Dylan writes in — the rhyming, lyric-ballad structure — is discouraged and rejected, like the plague, in every major poetry contest in preference to modernist deconstructive academic wankery. The pantheon of major poet/editors who pay lip service to Dylan now have utter contempt for the very lyric structures he writes in — if they are done by anyone else — except him.
Quadrant‘s Les Murray and Geoff Page are the only serious poet/editors in Australia open to the rhyming, lyric-ballad structure, thank Zeus and Hera. Murray, intuitively, is a champion of the very forms Dylan lives and breathes in. Garcia Lorca once said: “I can imagine no other poetry other than the lyric.” Percy Grainier wrote: “There is no musical notation yet invented that can capture what happens when a folk singer sings.” These poetic and musical visionaries understood what is really going on.
The quality of writing in the brilliant songs upon which Dylan built his reputation: The Time’s They Are a Changin’, Blowing in the Wind, and many other solid folk-based masterpieces from the late 60s, and the surreal fragmented social commentary of the songs on one of his greatest albums, Blonde on Blonde, have all but vanished from his work over the past three decades. His writing has becomes steeped in tepid Americana. Mark Twainism. But his true fans don’t care about this. They have unconditional love. Dylan is Religion for them.
I defy any thinking person out there to tell me wehat the almighty vision is that is contained in one of Dylan’s recently acclaimed album, Modern Times.
His writing, on this album, is so cliche-ridden, and he is so bad at putting language together, that I can barely find the energy to make notes. I really tried. I wanted to be fair. But it’s useless because the man himself is cheatin’. I started on ‘Thunder on the Mountain.’ I put my pencil down when I reached the line, ‘I want some real good woman to do just what I say.’ (A red flag went up: what is this waffle doing in my Bob Dylan song?) Further down, he says, ‘Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches, I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages, I’ve been to St Herman’s church, said my religious vows, I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.” That verse made me laugh out loud. I actually liked that . . . in a perverse sort of way. I could visualize him sucking down there under the cow. (OK, I didn’t like it that much.) Is this the same mind that wrote, ‘In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand, at the mongrel dogs who teach, fearing not that I’d become my enemy, In the instant that I preach.’ — My Back Pages? Please . . . anyone . . . just read the lyrics to My Back Pages and then tell me a iPerson hasn’t taken over Bob Dylan’s body, with burrowing tentacles into his spine and grey matter, moving his lips and fingers.
The next couple of songs that I looked at, desperate to write some kind of empowering comment for counter-balance, were so filled with nothingness, that I just kept turning the pages, until this corker stopped me dead: I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain, some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains. Gag. Disgusting and pathetic. (But probably true. Not Woody Guthrie, alas, but et tu Woody Allen?) That little literary jewel of misogyny festers in the middle of a verse of his song, Rolling and Tumbling. The first line goes, I rolled and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long. Sound familiar? It should: it is plagarized word-for-word from Muddy Waters’ great classic, Rolling and Tumbling. So . . . did Dylan copy the title and key images from Muddy’s song for a reason? To serve some larger purpose? Read it over. There is no reason. There is no larger purpose. Just plain laziness and bad writing — and he thinks he can get away with it on account of he’s Bob Dylan.
Well, he ain’t Bob Dylan no more. And I ain’t gonna work on Bob Dylan’s farm no more.
I acknowledge Dylan’s cultural importance and have personally been influenced beyond measure by his music, knowing many of his best songs by heart. Many of my own songs couldn’t have been written without their influence. Many will say that this article is filled with venomous, bile, bitter, mean-spirited and immodest comments, forgetting that Bob Dylan, in his prime as a songwriter, was also the most venomous, bile, bitter, mean-spirited and immodest dude in music.
And Dylan gets extremely defensive when people compare his recent songwriting to his classic 60s repertoire.
“If I’ve got any kind of attitude about me – or about what I do, what I perform, what I sing, on any level, my attitude is, compare it to somebody else! Don’t compare it to me. Are you going to compare Neil Young to Neil Young? Compare it to somebody else, compare it to Beck — which I like — or whoever else is on his level. This record should be compared to the artists who are working on the same ground. I’ll take it any way it comes, but compare it to that.”
But this is dead wrong, as that is precisely what has to be done. Self-growth is really about personal best so, in fact, you have to compare it to other work in the artist’s own catalogue. And that is my point: when you do that, Dylan’s contemporary work pales in comparison with his best work. He is on a descending path. He performs very hard — but he now writes . . . too easy.
So why isn’t Dylan capable of transcending his early stuff? Why did J.S. Bach create fifty solid years of ascending, white-hot masterpieces that only ceased with his death? How could Beethoven create the Ninth Choral Symphony — the key work that influenced all of Wagner’s — at the end of his life, when he was deaf? Some folks keep going, some explode, some implode and some fade away. Dylan is on the slow fade.
It is one of the responsibilities of the artist to shine some light on this process of disintegration which we see happening before our very eyes, over and over again. Artists become extremely famous and rich. The become deities. Then their work atrophies, or they self-destruct. I respect the emotional connection people have with Dylan. I have one too, but in a different way. Let’s remember fondly, and be inspired by, their best work — but let’s also learn something from their profound, and often deadly, mistakes.
In a 2012 article for the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Epstein said:
“Would the literary world be better off without the Nobel Prize in Literature? Certainly it would be no worse off without the Nobel, for as currently awarded the prize neither sets a true standard for literary production nor raises the prestige of literature itself.”
One of the benefits of the great misunderstanding of Dylan receiving this weird Ancient Award might be more respect being given once again to these great lyric-ballad forms in the minds of the academic literary gatekeepers. Perhaps the level of songwriting in popular music will also begin to return to the Golden Age of the Folk Song — the late 60s, when folk-inspired artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Donovan and The Byrds topped the charts. A turn back to real People’s Poetry: the hymn, the ballad, the rhyme. The way children learn to sing and are first exposed to writing.
This is an edited version of a much longer essay to appear in the December, Quadrant. Some portions originally appeared in Meanjin