The Nobel Goes Electric!
To: Professor Sara Danius
Nobel Academy Secretary
Nobel Prize Committee
Dear Professor Danius:
Perfect! A Nobel Prize for literature to Minnesota-born Robert Zimmerman, a world-class poet comparable to Homer and Sappho (and who took the name Dylan in honor of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas).
While your Nobel Prize committee cited his album Blonde on Blonde specifically, many Dylan fans would reference The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town,” “Masters of War”), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (“The Times They Are A-Changin’”), Another Side of Bob Dylan (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”), Bringing It All Back Home (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), Highway 61 Revisited (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row”). The Wall Street Journal estimated that since 1988, Bob Dylan has averaged more than 100 concerts a year. So if nothing else, Dylan represents the quintessential American middle-of-the-country work ethic.
More than 800 of Dylan’s songs have been recorded, many of them more successfully released by other groups (The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for example). But Dylan himself has sold more than 100 million records.
It’s not the voice, so what is it?
The poetry. If famous poets (and Nobel laureates) have catchphrases like T.S. Eliot’s “In the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo,” try these: “How many roads must a man walk down,” “A hard rain’s gonna fall,” “Don’t think twice, it’s alright,” “For the times they are a-changin”and “Like a rolling stone.” These phrases have entered our common discourse in the same way that phrases like “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark” has entered our lexicon. The difference is you can sing Dylan’s lines. Try that with Shakespeare, or Homer for that matter.
And something else: Dylan has almost single-handedly remade poetry. We now have a Nobel Prize winner in poetry who rhymes! If you wanted to hear Jack Kerouac more poetic, chaotic and rhyming, try listening to “Like a Rolling Stone”—the very same song that Rolling Stone voted No. 1 of the top 500 songs ever produced in the United States. English students are now free to write their thesis analyzing: “You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat/Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/Ain’t it hard when you discover that/He really wasn’t where it’s at.”
And of course Dylan will always be linked as the “voice of a generation” of baby boomers who are now knocking on heaven’s door (Dylan is 75). The 1960s was the decade of revolutionary change. Dylan’s anti-authoritarian epic, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was the anthem of youthful rebellion.
This song and his poetry, more than anything else, are why Bob Dylan is part of so many of us. But it’s interesting to note that Dylan never once mentioned Vietnam by name, nor Stonewall, nor the Equal Rights Amendment. And, in fact, Dylan’s skepticism about protest is found in many of his very early poems/songs: In “My Back Pages” we find “Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats/Too noble to neglect/Deceived me into thinking /I had something to protect.” Throughout his career, Bob Dylan refused to accept the label of protest/folk singer.
The undersigned can attest to Bob Dylan’s ambivalence toward causes and protests. In 1986, I was the finance director of the Rudy Perpich Reelection Committee. Rudy was a native of Hibbing, Bob Dylan’s hometown. We sought to contact Dylan to see if he would perform at an event to raise money for Iron Range food shelves (at which Gov. Perpich would appear). The concept was to draw attention to the economic problems the Range faced, and, of course, to underscore the commitment of Gov. Perpich to restoring the economic health of his home region. It was difficult to contact Dylan, but we were finally given the name of an agent known to us only as “Susan.” My assistant on this project was a young lawyer, Ted Grindal. He finally contacted “Susan,” and reported back to me that “Bob did not do causes.” He really wasn’t where it’s at.
The Nobel committee’s announcement was met with some rather vitriolic criticism. It reminded me of what might have happened had Les Paul and Mary Ford appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Dylan went electric. One of the critics, novelist Irvine Welsh, suggested it was a nostalgic award “wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”—apparently unaware that many baby boomers who prize Bob Dylan are women. A hard rain’s gonna fall.
Another non-impressed non-Nobel laureate, writer Gary Shteyngart (Who? Precisely.) suggested the committee chose Dylan because reading books is hard. I don’t know about Gary, but most people have mastered the art of reading by age 10. Try making all your couplets rhyme with a meter that accommodates an American guitar and harmonica.
But to Americans, and especially Americans from the North Country, Bob Dylan is the archetypical American: entrepreneurial, original, anti-authoritarian and hard-working. May your hands always be busy, Bob Dylan. And may the Nobel Prize committee stay forever young.
Vance K. Opperman
For Times A-Changin’
Vance K. Opperman (email@example.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.