Unfortunately, I think he’s a tormented genius and in many ways a very unhappy man. So I’m feeling bad for Bob Dylan because I suspect he’s feeling sad and confused about having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’d been nominated for it repeatedly over the years. I don’t know why the Committee decided this was the year, but the reason given for the award is "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” So said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Nobel Academy, at a news conference last Thursday. She said there was "great unity" in the panel's decision. "Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear, but it's perfectly fine to read his works as poetry." For the record (no puns intended), the honor comes with $927,740. Monetary coal to Newcastle, I know, but he could do something meaningful with that.
I’m proud of and happy for the scrappy troubadour who one of the Nobel Committee members called "probably the greatest living poet." But, not surprisingly, the Committee can’t locate/communicate with Dylan directly. He’s made no public statement nor sent any private word to them. Someone described as his “closest collaborator” (?) is painting a positive picture of Dylan’s response and the Committee is minimally hopeful the recipient will attend the December 10th ceremony and accept his award. He did show up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, but as soon as he could he fled those events with the speed and stealth of a cartoon super-hero.
I don’t think he wanted those awards and I don’t think he wants this one, because part of him feels unworthy and another part of him thinks it’s meaningless. That’s the sad and confused part and if it’s so, he’s wrong on both counts. Also, it seems some noted novelists are voicing their displeasure. Clueless, sour grapes, I say.
Part of Dylan’s appeal, I think, as well as his personal misery, stems from the fact that he’s never seen himself as a genius let alone the Voice of His Generation (he first said so to Rolling Stone decades ago). He knows he’s got something special and he’s certainly aware of where it’s taken him and what it’s meant to others. Like most artists he has some measure of ego, so I think he somewhat enjoys all that.
But my intuition tells me he also feels it’s ill-gotten gains for a talent that was, as time went on, just kidding – but everyone took it to heart. He once implied during a 60 Minutes interview that he had made a deal with the Devil to get what he got. Maybe that’s why so much of his post-folk and post-folk-rock stuff – the wildly disparate music that came out (and sometimes got lost) amidst all the “Best Of” and bootleg records – was a series of musical searches for God. I think the core thing to understand about Bob Dylan as an artist and a man is that to his great surprise and discomfort, he’s been treated like a God, when all he’s wanted is to find God himself. Dylan talks a lot about God, when he does talk. What spiritual irony!
Bob Dylan spends most of the year touring. When he’s not on the road – which is only for a few weeks here and there – he lives alone in a house in California. I can’t imagine what it looks like. He has a big family but I know nothing about his relationships with them, or his friends, or if there’s presently a woman in his life, or what his hobbies and pleasures might be. He seems to just want to keep moving and keep singing whatever it is he feels like singing at the moment, and try to feel like a real person instead of an icon. His problem is, he is an icon, a real one, and that must be a hell of a burden.
But what do I know? My observations come from a combination of articles and interviews read, and intuitive conjecture voiced. Whatever. Congratulations Bob wherever you are. I hope you’re in better shape than I fear. I hope you’ll go get your prize, make a nice speech, and feel good when you get back to California. Because like it or not, you are one of The Greats – and still needed and wanted and loved. You have been the soundtrack of my life and millions (maybe billions) of others. You told us you (yourself, we, all of us) “gotta serve somebody.” Thank you for your ongoing service.