I awoke to the news that the Nobel Prize for Literature had been won by . . . Bob Dylan. I knew Dylan had been nominated before, but always figured this was in the realm of fantasy, like Wonder Woman being named Miss Universe. Of course we live in a land where Sonny Bono was elected to Congress and Arnold Schwarzenegger served as governor of California. (And I won’t go into current U.S. presidential politics.) So I knew that glamour figures from the entertainment field could come out on top within America’s borders. But Dylan’s elevation to the world’s top literary prize was not determined by any American citizens. The Swedish Nobel committee had their pick of current U.S. literary lights, like (for example) Philip Roth. There had not been a U.S. Nobel laureate since Toni Morrison in 1993. Such important recent writers as John Updike and Edward Albee went to their graves unrecognized.
And, of course, there are great international figures who deserve Nobels: how about a prize for playwright Tom Stoppard? But Dylan’s achievement—the first ever given to a songwriter—says something surprising about the world’s respect for American popular culture. How do I feel about this honor? Actually, I’m not quite sure. As a lover of precise word choices, I’ve never been entirely convinced by Dylan’s use of the English language. Sometimes all those phantasmagoric images in songs like “Desolation Row” seem picturesque rather than meaningful. And you’re not going to get me to coo over lyrics like, “Everybody must get stoned.” But the Nobel folks have cited Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," and I love this recognition for our country’s musical heritage, one that has indeed circled the globe.
Early on, some filmmakers thought Dylan had the makings of an actor. He actually had a featured role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), but it was cut drastically when his acting chops didn’t measure up to his personal charisma. So it’s doubtless a good thing Warren Beatty didn’t follow through on his impulse to cast Dylan as the male lead in Bonnie and Clyde. There was, though, a vivid 1967 D.A. Pennebaker documentary covering Dylan’s debut concert tour of England. The title is Dont Look Back, and even the missing apostrophe hints that the film’s central figure is a rebel, pushing hard against the rules of polite society.
In the film, a surly Dylan makes plain his refusal to be sucked into the starmaker machinery on which the recording industry is based. Whether meeting other musicians backstage or jousting with the press, he seems guarded and occasionally hostile. Determined not to be categorized, Dylan parries every label that journalists try to pin on him. No, he’s not a folksinger. No, he’s not an angry young man.
What many mainstream reviewers of the film missed (aside from the quality of Dylan’s musical output) is key to what attracted the young fans of the Sixties: the fact that Dylan, both offstage and on, so completely negated what their parents would consider appropriate entertainment. His slapdash mode of dress, his laconic on-stage manner, even his droning and nasal voice were affronts to the middle-aged. And Dont Look Back revealed that the defiant stance contained within Dylan’s lyrics was also a part of his behind-the-scenes persona. He was the quintessential rebel, the surly punk who had no use for his elders, the direct descendant of Brando’s Wild One and James Dean’s Jim Stark.
But he’s lasted, and evolved. And is now a Nobel Laureate. Who’da thunk?
David Remmick of the New Yorker offers his own tribute to Dylan.