Why Dylan Deserves It

Patti Smith and Bob Dylan at the Bitter End on the night they first met, New York City, June 1975
Estate of Chuck Palin/Cache Agency
Patti Smith and Bob Dylan at the Bitter End on the night they first met, New York City, June 1975

In her interview for No Direction Home (2005), Martin Scorsese’s brilliant three- and-a-half-hour documentary about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez suggested there is something in Dylan’s music that goes “to the core of people”; there are those, she acknowledges, who are simply “not interested—but if you’re interested, he goes way, way deep.” Books on Dylan have been pouring from popular and academic presses for decades now, not to mention the numerous long-running fanzines that often combine recondite nuggets of information about Dylan performances or recording sessions (who was on bass on which take, what kind of hat he wore on stage) with scholarly accounts of sources for particular images or general appraisals of his musical and literary influences. Occasionally one learns about the more egregious of his many eccentricities. The sheer volume and variety of this secondary literature on Dylan is itself weighty testimony to the impact of his music on those who like it: it goes way, way deep, and provokes this need to explore Dylan’s effects, to analyze his compositional habits, to interpret the carnival of characters that he creates—including, of course, the overarching one of Minnesota-born Robert Zimmerman’s creation of Bob Dylan.

But explaining the magic of a song or performance is much harder than explaining the excellence of a poem or novel. There’s an uncomfortable scene, for Dylan fans, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, in which the Allen character grimaces almost in pain as a rock journalist (played by Shelley Duvall) recalls a Dylan concert she has just been to, and then admiringly quotes the chorus of “Just Like a Woman.” Allen’s scorn at first makes you wonder how you would set about defending the lines, but that quickly comes to feel pointless. Sixties hipster language takes us much closer to what is perhaps the only question really worth asking about Dylan: Hey, do you dig what this cat’s up to—or are you some kind of square?

It was delightful to learn this October that the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature dug Dylan, although, it soon turned out, this didn’t mean that Dylan dug the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature. A message fleetingly appeared on his website acknowledging that he had won the prize, but that soon disappeared; the “wanted man” was nowhere to be found; he was, like the girl berated in “Like a Rolling Stone,” “invisible now.” Contrary to reports in the popular press, Dylan has given hundreds of interviews throughout his career—indeed there’s a whole book of them, called Dylan on Dylan (2006). But clearly he wasn’t eager to confront armies of journalists and mouth platitudes about…

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