Almost lost in the inexcusably bad news about the presidential election is a bit of truly good news: Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in literature. For me, this was a true shock — not because I doubt Dylan’s talent, but because I have not known the Nobel committee to ever give the literature award to anyone who didn’t write books. Yes, I know Dylan has published a memoir, a novel, and even a children’s book, but he is primarily a songwriter, and the poetry he won the Nobel for is almost exclusively song lyrics. This is like a huge departure from typical Nobel awards, and a profound statement about the importance of Dylan’s work on worldwide music.
Being the only songwriter ever to win a Nobel for lyrics is an unexpected achievement.
I must admit I have not always been a fan. I didn’t have anything against Dylan, but his music never appealed to me. That changed a few years ago when I started exploring the music of the 1960s rock band the Byrds, who, like most people, I best knew for the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” a folk-rock rendering third chapter of Ecclesiastes.
While listening to the Byrds’ first album, I was struck by the beauty of the lyrics to “Chimes of Freedom.” My first thought was, this sounds like Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s phrase style and language are so distinctive that even I, the most casual of fans, had a sense of it.
And of course it did, because it was. The song was a cover from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. This should not have been a surprise, since the album I was listening to was entitled Mr. Tambourine Man, which is of course another Dylan cover.
So it turned out that, while Dylan recordings didn’t appeal to me, I liked the songs very much when they were done by other artists. For me, a different performance brought out the quality of the songwriting. As is sometimes true with great art, seeing a work in a new light changes its appeal, remaking it entirely.
So I went back to Dylan. Gave Highway 61 Revisited a revisit, then checked out Blonde on Blonde, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Yes, I had to concede there was something there.
But it didn’t change a basic fact — I prefer Dylan in translation. When someone else performs his songs, to my ear, it usually sounds better. Dylan, God bless him, is a poor singer. While I can appreciate the many who say his vague mumblings that pass for vocals are interesting and give a certain wildness to his music, I still don’t like it. I don’t like mumbling. I like singing: Go figure.
Why shouldn’t I prefer better performance? Would I insist that Bach play his own violin concerto, or Mozart take the role of the Don himself in Don Giovanni? Who said the artist has to be the best renderer of the material?
We all know that Shakespeare was an actor, and probably acted in many of his own plays. And while seeing Shakespeare play Hamlet would probably be an interesting and even illuminating experience, Sir Laurence Olivier would have wiped the floor with him in an act-off. I’ve never seen the Bard on stage, but have seen Sir Laurence on film, and am satisfied that I got the better part of the deal.
And so it is with Dylan. As a musician and singer he has his merits, but the Byrds did it better. I prefer music that is precise and, um, melodic, and Dylan can’t do that. His recordings are good, interesting, and even cast a useful light on his work, but Dylan would benefit from a Laurence Olivier.
He needs to find one. Plenty of great musicians have recorded entire artist catalogs. Some have recorded all of Beethoven’s symphonies, others entire cycles of opera, pianists have done complete sets of concertos, actors have done all the major Shakespeare plays. We need a truly great musician to do the Dylan cycle. To give all that Nobel-winning poetry the platform it deserves, so stuck up elitists like me can appreciate him for all his glory.
It would be fitting to close with a few lines of Bob Dylan. So: The opening stanza of “Chimes of Freedom.” I am especially mesmerized by the third line, “As the majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds,” a bizarre mix of sound and visual imagery. What in the world does “shadows in the sounds” mean? Nuance, perhaps?
Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing