Unsurprisingly, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, many critics took to their keyboards to cry about how Dylan didn’t deserve it. “Just another white male,” whined The Guardian, which has long been a parody of a real newspaper.
Everyone I spoke to seemed to scratch their heads over why Dylan, a singer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature of all things. But Dylan is the most deserving recipient since John Steinbeck in 1962.
Music, if done the right way, counts as literature. And Bob Dylan did music the right way. I’m not sure any musician from the 1960s deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Elvis, but if anyone does, it’s Bob Dylan.
One of my favorite things about Dylan is that he appears to actively detest his fans. If you want to see someone who’s going to give the fans what they want, don’t go see Dylan. His live shows might well be a giant troll against his fans. If he plays “The Times They Are A-Changin'" you won’t recognize it until the second chorus. Then you walk out of the gig with your head hung low. This pleases me because, like Dylan, I too hate most of his fans and reflexively love musicians who hate their own audience.
And then there’s the man’s music. So much of what is good about rock & roll after the original wave of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy, Gene and Eddie imploded came from Dylan. His early folk stuff doesn’t do much for me. As a friend of mine pointed out, the whole “being on Pete Seeger’s dick” period of his career probably even embarrasses Dylan at this point. For my money, Dylan comes into his own with his Judas moment, going electric.
Dylan has an extensive catalog, but for me, it ultimately boils down to four super-important works: Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes and Street-Legal.
Highway 61 Revisited was his first fully electric record and boy howdy were folkies triggered. “From a Buick 6” is one of those songs you could play to space aliens who just landed from Mars if they wanted to know what rock & roll was. The title track is another standout, as is “Tombstone Blues.” Here, Dylan is the world’s greatest bar band performer, something out of a Gordon Lightfoot song. This is On the Road on wax.
Blood on the Tracks has Dylan at his most bitter and cynical, but also at the peak of his lyrical powers. There’s not a single dud on the entire album, but the lazy ballad “Tangled Up in Blue,” the loose blues of “Meet Me in the Morning,” and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" are standouts in an album full of winners.
Where to begin with talking about the sprawling masterpiece that is The Basement Tapes? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a collaboration with The Band and he doesn’t sing on some of the tracks. So what? This is Dylan at his purest and most exuberantly creative, worth the slog every time.
Old fogeys are going to get mad about the inclusion of Street-Legal. Every time I say I like this album in front of someone who remembers the Johnson administration, I get a strange guffaw. But this is what Dylan should have sounded like in the '70s, remaining true to his roots while also incorporating new sounds on his own terms.
His masterwork might be dodging the awards ceremony. The Nobel Prize people have given up trying to get him to respond. Hell, he might even go so far as Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined the award entirely.
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Leonard Cohen has said that giving Dylan an award is like giving Mt. Everest a medal for being the tallest mountain. I agree, but I’m glad they gave it to him just so I can listen to people cry about it.
The only downside? In 40 years they'll probably give this award to Kanye West.