Song of Surrender

Monday, 19 December 2016

Nobelman at the gates

By Jaideep Varma


It is perhaps not hyperbolic to say that Bob Dylan’s prize for Literature is the most discussed Nobel award in its history. However much people had argued over eventual choices in the past (including bizarre ones like Obama winning the Peace prize in 2009), no one quite had the occasion to argue about the recipient’s presence in that specific category. Never had so many people appeared to care so much. 

While the literary fraternity appears to be divided about the validity of this choice, there are many more who have voiced outrage this time more than ever before. Sample writer Irvin Welsh’s response, for example, that this was “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Meanwhile, fans of Murukami, DeLillo, Oates, Kundera and Roth, were dismayed, not to speak of those who supported the Syrian poet Adunis or Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o – other favourites, if bookmakers were to be believed.

Thing is, the latest recipient would probably be the last one to argue about this. It is curious that Dylan did not respond for over two weeks, after the announcement, much to media outrage, before finally letting on that he was “speechless”, adding that it was “amazing, incredible; whoever dreams about something like that?”

The roots to his relative indifference perhaps lie elsewhere. In 2004, when St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland, bestowed an honorary degree on Dylan (his second, after the one from Princeton in 1970), he was asked on stage what his songs were about. Dylan deadpanned: “Some of them are about three minutes and some are about five minutes.” This sits neatly with a famous 1965 interview moment where, in answer to the question, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” he replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” The consistency of thought over 39 years reveals a great deal of how Dylan sees himself and his art.

Dylan  is the greatest creator of songs in human history, if volume, influence, innovation and longevity are prime factors. There is little to argue about there. (But some still do, and I envy the time they have on their hands.) But, and this is the relevant departure here, this is not because of his lyrics. 

Mythologizing lyrics 

Song lyrics are not meant to be poetry; they may have a lot in common with poetry, but fundamentally, the two are different art forms. 

Otherwise, what stops the finest musicians of our age from teaming up with the greatest contemporary poets and producing unalloyed masterpieces? Has it happened even once in popular music? Sure, artists as varied as Joni Mitchell, Aaron Copeland, Carla Bruni, The Waterboys, Natalie Merchant, Keane and many others have attempted this, but despite their relative merits, no one would say that any of that music would figure on a list of even their most memorable work. 

Another point, in the same vein: if Dylan was primarily a lyric-writer — like, say, Robert Hunter (who wrote for the Grateful Dead) or Bernie Taupin (who writes for Elton John) — do you honestly believe his words would have had anywhere near the same impact? Finally, how many people do you know who read Dylan purely as poetry, as text? 

Bob Dylan’s greatness as a songwriter is about how he expressed himself through song. This is self-evident really: that searing sensibility crackling through the ether, where the power of his harmonica complemented that uniquely straining voice delivering those words while guitar chords lurked beneath. Those words are less notable as autonomous poetry than as navigation points for the song as a whole, rhythmically and thematically (a very significant and noticeable role), and how they themselves sound (as opposed to mean). This may seem blasphemous, but many of his famous lines could easily perhaps be interchanged with others, and no one would really miss them, given the weight of that sensibility, if the familiar words were not lodged in listeners’ heads. It’s not the words themselves that are indispensable; in song, their power lie elsewhere. 

An analogy – lyrics perhaps carry the same weight in a song as the leading actor does in a film. Even if he or she is sometimes the most visible thing about a film (as words often are in Dylan’s uniquely articulated music), the question to ask is if he or she is really indispensable? Again, it may be blasphemous to say that someone other than Marlon Brando could have made “On the Waterfront” as memorable, or someone could have replaced Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” or Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” – but there are enough instances of famous performances not being done by first-choice artists for the conceit of that conviction to be rather misplaced. But can we say that about the script or the director of those films? Are they not far more indispensable to the film? 

Those who repeat many of Dylan’s lyrics as slogans for our times really miss the point. What proportion of greatness in the song “Not Dark Yet” lies in the most quoted line of the song "Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain”? Or does the line “"He not busy being born is busy dying" justify the existence of the song “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”? Does the line “She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure’s no success at all” define the song “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit”? Would these songs really be any lesser if these three lines were not in them? There are rooms you might be laughed out of if you insisted on calling them “poetry”, as you would if you put up the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” and hailed them similarly. Do they really retain their power on paper? Sometimes people have argued that Dylan’s own process of being led by those words (which sometimes came first) led to those songs. That may be true, but that is as significant to his listeners as whatever else may have inspired him: his Muse or the light falling on the wall or his favourite cushion. 

And yet, there is no doubt that Dylan’s most unique contribution was to bring a certain literary sensibility and approach to the popular song, and expanding its scope with his own influences: classicist poetry at first, then the Beats and the symbolists (Rimbaud remained a big influence for a long time) in a manner no one before or since has done. He changed the preoccupation of the popular song and redefined its boundaries, bringing it closer to literature than any other artist. But, in the end, it wasn’t the words that gave the songs their emotional resonance (inarguably, their most important function); it was the music they served. 

Scholars of all hues have compared Dylan’s lyrics with poetry in the past, with Keats, Blake, Eliot and the Ancient Greeks, most notably the former professor of poetry at Oxford University Christopher Ricks, in his 2003 book Dylan’s Visions of Sin. It has never been a particularly well-received argument because it was devoid of the big picture.

Melody as the mainstay 

Curiously, during the same week Dylan won this prize, The New Yorker carried an article on Leonard Cohan by David Remnick, in which Dylan is quoted as saying, “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius.” It is a pity not enough people talk about Dylan in that context; there is much, much more to speak of here, in fact, more than about any other musician in history. 

That is what really expanded the folk song in the 1960s, when he wrote some of the greatest songs in that format (“Blowin’ In the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”). He wrote modern music’s first “anti-love” song (“It Ain’t Me Babe”) and later its first anger song (“Positively 4th Street”) – as notable thematically as musically. 

Then, calling the folk format “static” and “one-dimensional”, he went electric, and created folk-rock and some of the greatest music in history till date (“Like A Rolling Stone”, “Visions Of Johanna”). Earlier in that phase, he laid the seeds of rap (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), which was also famously the world’s first music video.

Then, with The Hawks (who later became The Band), he made rock even more distinct from rock 'n' roll music (“I Shall Be Released” and The Basement Tapes), laying the roots for Americana. Then, he did a country-rock album, that still has at least two bonafide classics (“Lay Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”). He did one ostensibly confessional album (Blood On The Tracks) in his career, and it remains one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in that sub-genre (“Simple Twist Of Fate”, “Idiot Wind”).

In his born-again Christian phase that lasted five years, he wrote gospel songs, a few of which will perhaps have the same status 200 years later that “Amazing Grace” has now (most notably “Every Grain Of Sand”). He lost his way thereafter somewhat, even though he produced masterpieces occassionally (“Jokerman”, “Dark Eyes”) and his second wind came with an album that overcame a serious creative block “Man In The Long Black Coat”, (“Shooting Star”), which was also stunningly captured in a chapter on the album Oh Mercy! in his book Chronicles: Vol 1 – one of the best pieces of writing on that subject.

A serious health scare in his mid-50s led to a Grammy-winning album which has some of the greatest songs on mortality in popular music (“Not Dark Yet”, “Trying To Get To Heaven”). His work over the last 15 years has been groundbreaking too, as no one in popular music has chronicled the last quarter of life as vividly as Dylan has been doing (“Mississippi”, “Ain’t Talking”, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”, the album Tempest). 

The point here is that Dylan has always sung his age, his preoccupations invariably keeping pace with that, and of course, his words servicing this sensibility. But the only reason why his work has been so relevant for so long, with so much of it ostensibly timeless, is because of how he contructed those songs, and that goes way beyond just the words. 

His own voice 

It is also about his voice, often reviled for its unusually rough quality. But unlike classical music, where virtuosity plays such a big part, modern music (especially rock) is about expression and the quality of being “real”. It is not about prettiness or technical prowess but about how much they “tell the truth”.  Even in his 70s, Dylan’s chalk-and-gravel voice rasps with an urgency and honesty most younger singers with far more energy cannot match.

So, if there are so many other elements to Dylan’s art, how does his Literature Nobel make sense then? Well, the Nobel citation specifically praises Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It does not mention lyrics or words but poetic expressions, which is what songwriting is (not “song writing”, which is equated squarely with only lyrics in India, but “songwriting” as the composer of songs, and the lyrics). Thing is, words did lead the way in this – much like, to use an earlier analogy, a leading actor may get a film made purely on his star power. But, in the end, the film stands on its own feet because of how it is written and directed, and how all the elements come together. So, even if lyrics do not constitute the most critical element in Dylan’s songs, they have led the way noticeably and invaluably in defining his art. 

There is an argument that suggests that Dylan is, in fact, the second songwriter to get the Literature Nobel—after Rabindranath Tagore, who got his in 1913 primarily for a book of verse “Gitanjali” which was actually a bunch of song lyrics translated from Bengali to English. It is a spurious argument though because it is clear from Tagore’s citation (“his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the west”) that the panel never even considered the context of song here; they were clearly seen as verse on paper, meant to be read. In any case, while it had huge impact in Bengal, Tagore’s music meant (and means) nothing to most people outside that region, leave alone India, nor did his music ever really transcend its form, like Dylan’s did, several times. And that is not merely because of the universality Dylan’s language gave him. 

Those who seem to think that Dylan’s Nobel opens the door for other songwriters and musicians to also get the prize should also give it a rest. No one else comes close to what Dylan did – using a unique approach to words to change an art form repeatedly. Words as a means, not an end, but still crucial in their import. 

Forget music, there is no other artist who comes to mind, who used words in such a manner as to transcend and transform his art form. Those who think this also opens the door to screenwriters, web series creators and stand-up comics to be awarded the Literature Nobel, might just struggle to determine who the Dylan equivalent is in their respective art form. No single person even comes close. 

Yes, giving the award to Bob Dylan has expanded the scope of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a good thing in these rapidly changing multimedia times. But it is highly unlikely anyone else will be let in through these expanded gates anytime soon. The purists can breathe easy.

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