NEW YORKER: Then came the news, early this morning, that Bob Dylan, one of the best among us, a glory of the country and of the language, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ring them bells! What an astonishing and unambiguously wonderful thing! There are novelists who still should win (yes, Mr. Roth, that list begins with you), and there are many others who should have won (Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Auden, Levi, Achebe, Borges, Baldwin . . . where to stop?), but, for all the foibles of the prize and its selection committee, can we just bask for a little while in this one? The wheel turns and sometimes it stops right on the nose.
And please: let’s not torture ourselves with any gyrations about genre and the holy notion of literature to justify the choice of Dylan; there’s no need to remind anyone that, oh, yes, he has also written books, proper ones (the wild and elusive “Tarantula,” the superb memoir “Chronicles: Volume One”). The songs—an immense and still-evolving collected work—are the thing, and Dylan’s lexicon, his primary influence, is the history of song, from the Greeks to the psalmists, from the Elizabethans to the varied traditions of the United States and beyond: the blues; hillbilly music; the American Songbook of Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter; folk songs; early rock and roll. Over time, Dylan has been a spiritual seeker—and his well-known excursions into various religious traditions, from evangelical Christianity to Chabad, are in his work as well—but his foundation is song, lyric combined with music, and the Nobel committee was right to discount the objections to that tradition as literature. Sappho and Homer would approve.
NEW YORKER 1964: Five minutes after seven, Dylan walked into the studio, carrying a battered guitar case. He had on dark glasses, and his hair, dark-blond and curly, had obviously not been cut for some weeks; he was dressed in blue jeans, a black jersey, and desert boots. With him were half a dozen friends, among them Jack Elliott, a folk singer in the Woody Guthrie tradition, who was also dressed in blue jeans and desert boots, plus a brown corduroy shirt and a jaunty cowboy hat. Elliott had been carrying two bottles of Beaujolais, which he now handed to Dylan, who carefully put them on a table near the screen. Dylan opened the guitar case, took out a looped-wire harmonica holder, hung it around his neck, and then walked over to the piano and began to play in a rolling, honky-tonk style. […]
Dylan came into the control room, smiling. Although he is fiercely accusatory toward society at large while he is performing, his most marked offstage characteristic is gentleness. He speaks swiftly but softly, and appears persistently anxious to make himself clear. “We’re going to make a good one tonight,” he said to Wilson. “I promise.” He turned to me and continued, “There aren’t any finger-pointing songs in here, either. Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see anybody else doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know—be a spokesman. Like I once wrote about Emmett Till in the first person, pretending I was him. From now on, I want to write from inside me, and to do that I’m going to have to get back to writing like I used to when I was ten—having everything come out naturally. The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk.” Dylan frowned. “Not that I even walk or talk yet like I’d like to. I don’t carry myself yet the way Woody, Big Joe Williams, and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to someday, but they’re older. They got to where music was a tool for them, a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel better. Sometimes I can make myself feel better with music, but other times it’s still hard to go to sleep at night.” MORE
DAVID REMNICK: For Dylan, the greatest and most abundant songwriter who has ever lived, the most intense period of wild inspiration and creativity ran from the beginning of 1965 to the summer of 1966. (Yes, I get how categorical that statement is. If you’d like to make an argument for Nas, Lennon & McCartney, Smokey Robinson, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jacques Brel, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern … or fill-in-the-blank, write to email@example.com.) Before that fifteen-month period, Bob Dylan, who was twenty-three, had already transformed folk music, building on Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. Now he was scribbling lyrics on pads and envelopes all night and listening to the Stones and the Beatles and feverishly reading the Surrealists and the Beats. In short order, he recorded the music for “Bringing It All Back Home” (the crossover to rock that ranges from “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”); “Highway 61 Revisited” (the best rock album ever made; again, send your rebuttal to firstname.lastname@example.org); and “Blonde on Blonde” (a double album recorded in New York and Nashville that includes “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman”).
In that same compacted period, Dylan travelled the U.K. as a solo act, a tour which is memorialized in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film “Dont Look Back”; scandalized Pete Seeger and much of the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival, on the night of July 25, 1965, by “going electric” and performing raucous versions of “Maggie’s Farm,” “Phantom Engineer” (later known as “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”), and “Like a Rolling Stone” with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; and toured North America and the U.K. with the Hawks, a rootsy Canadian-American combo that soon became The Band. (The record of the U.K. tour, “Bob Dylan Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert,” is, as a live album, in a rarefied class with James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” and B. B. King’s “Live at the Regal.”)
Dylan was exploding with things to say and sing. As he later acknowledged, it was as if he were taking dictation from somewhere, from somebody. And, at the same time, he seemed on the brink of self-annihilation. Amped up on nicotine and speed and who knows what else, racing from place to place, thought to thought, song to song, and embittered by the jeering and booing he encountered from the folk-loyal fans from Newport to Manchester, Dylan was headed for a crash. One day, while riding his motorcycle near his house, in Woodstock, he was, according to one account, blinded by the sun, hit a slick in the road, and was smashed to the ground. The bike ended up on top of him. Having suffered a concussion and some broken vertebrae, Dylan “retired” to spend time in Woodstock out of the public eye with his wife, Sara Lownds, and their children. “I couldn’t go on doing what I had been,” he said later. “I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. … I probably would have died if I had kept on going as I had been.” MORE