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Ten Reflections on Bob Dylan, Our Newest Nobel Laureate

Oct 14, 2016

Bob Dylan's own reaction to winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature isn't known yet. In his first public appearance following the news, a couple of days after the announcement, he took the stage for a concert Las Vegas. He said nothing about the award.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. How unexpected was this decision?

Dylan has been marginally in the Nobel conversation for years. But as recently as this month, odds makers tended to place him in the 50-to-one-or-longer category, one that included some pretty out-there figures.

Not to embarrass anybody, but just a week before the announcement, Alex Shephard of The New Republic wrote a lengthy and impressively detailed analysis of the situation. He discussed dozens of names and thoughtfully assessed their chances.

His only remark abut Dylan:

Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.

2. You do have to feel sorry for several people.

Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, and perhaps a few other American writers -- the consensus is -- will now never get the ring, because it won’t be an American’s “turn” again for many years.

The most recent previous American winner was Toni Morrison in 1993.

I also feel sorry for, in order, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. Their respective bodies of work can be plausibly compared to Dylan’s.

But given everything, it will be a cold day before another songwriter gets the call. Of course, there are a lot of cold days in Stockholm, so you never know.

3. The citation mentions Dylan’s work within the “American song tradition.”

I wonder if any of the jury members read Tarantula, Dylan’s wince-inducing “experimental” 1966 “book.” If so, did they take points off?

On the other hand, maybe Chronicles, Vol. I earned him some points back.

4. I also wonder if music played any part whatsoever in the jury’s thinking.

I ask because Dylan’s music – the extreme hardcore fans will, as always, fight me on this but they are not thinking rationally – has been nicely serviceable over the years but not more than that. This where my sympathy for Simon and Mitchell, especially, rises.

5. Even laureates have off nights.

I think back to a night, maybe 25 years ago, when I saw Dylan perform in some crummy converted movie theater in central Massachusetts. He was on a bill with a young Lenny Kravitz.

It was one of those nights when Dylan seemed supremely uninterested in being where he was. He barked and slopped his way through a shortish set. He was halfway through “Masters of War” before I realized what song it was.

Not a good night for Bob, I recall thinking. The volume was insanely loud. The house had a fair number of empty seats, and the crowd was less than fully engaged.

It was one of those evenings where it seemed like the sun might be setting on Bob Dylan. It would have been cool, on that evening, to stand up, a la Marty McFly, and shout “Ladies and gentlemen! Listen up, because you are witnessing a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature!”

Maybe some of the people at that concert are having that same thought; I don’t know.

6. A killer opening.

Arguing on behalf of the award, I’ve always thought that one of the most truly revolutionary first lines any song ever had was this:

You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend;

When I was down you just stood there grinning…

7. Will he pull back the curtain?

I wonder, as the awards pile up, not to mention the years, if Dylan will ever – as they say in the theater – break character and offer a completely lucid and straightforward exegesis of at least some of the songs, early as well as later.

Of course, that could be uncomfortable for the thousands of elbow-patch academics who have tried their hand.

It might call to mind that moment in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen suddenly produces Marshall McLuhan from the wings, and has him confront a know-it-all professor. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan says to him.

8. Say what?

It was nice, and surprising, to find Dylan talking extensively about the aforementioned Leonard Cohen, his old pal, in the piece that David Remnick wrote about Cohen for The New Yorker this very week.

Then again, there is the patented verbal fog from our new laureate:

“His gift or genius,” Dylan says at one point concerning Cohen’s melodies, “is in his connection to the music of the spheres.”

Say what?

9. Ok, I'll bite.

Since everybody is suddenly playing, or being asked to play, a quick round of Name Your Favorite Dylan Lyric, I choose this verse from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”:

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row,

And your magazine husband who one day just had to go,

And your gentleness now, which you just can't help but show,

Who among them do you think would employ you?

Now you stand with your thief, you're on his parole

With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold,

And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul,

Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you?

10. Should he have won?

Was this award “appropriate” or “deserved?” At the solemn announcement, when the solemn academy secretary solemnly read Dylan’s name, the assembled international press corps broke into applause. I’m told that doesn’t happen.

The Asylum Hill Congregational Church.
Credit Asylum Hill Congregational Church

Music With a Message at AHCC

On Sunday afternoon, October 23, the Asylum Hill Congregational Church will present “Footsteps of Peace,” a musical production promoting peace through the arts -- an event described as a “concert of original music, song and spoken word.”

The event is the creation of Joel A. Martin, pianist and former music director for opera superstar Kathleen Battle. The program will incorporate portions of Stan Satlin’s "Auratorio Americana: Songs of Peace, Love And Spirituality," as well as the East Coast premiere of Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” set to the final words uttered by unarmed African American men prior to being killed in a series of now-infamous confrontations with authority figures.

Michigan Men's Glee Club- Seven Last Words of the Unarmed & Glory Preview Film from Michigan Media on Vimeo.

The musical forces will include a 70-voice choir featuring members of the AHCC Sanctuary Choir, the United Church of Christ CT Conference Choir and the University of Connecticut Men’s Glee Club.

Among the soloists will be cellist Eugene Friesen, jazz singer Sharon Clark, gospel/jazz artist (and Hartford native) Jolie Rocke Brown, as well as painter Josee Nadeau, who will be creating visual imagery live during the performance.

The performance is at 4:00 pm in the AHCC sanctuary, 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford. Admission is $25.

For, more information, including details of a pre-concert community conversation on race beginning at 1:30 at the church, please visit the church website.

Steve Metcalf can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.