It was the first year of my English literature degree, and I had earnestly proposed to my seminar leader that I write my summative essay on Bob Dylan’s lyrics to A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. I was not a little upset when the slightly bemused professor replied that I could not write an analysis of a pop song.
A year earlier I had performed the same song word-perfect, if not note-perfect, to a somewhat tepid reception at my school talent show. What lunatic aspiration possessed me, I cannot tell, I guess I had enough foolish faith in the words that I thought they might transcend the many inadequacies of my performance.
“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.”
I found Bob Dylan, so to speak, in the dithering eventide of my youth. Not fancying to be caught up in the burgeoning Pop Idol illiteracy of my peers, nor the conceited Oxbridge intellectualism my grammar school was wantonly beginning to contract for, I had begun to look for someone else’s thoughts I might sequester as my own. I sunk into the wide, treacherous ocean of books; in my earnest juvenile pretensions leafing listlessly through large collected works of Kerouac, Keats and Rimbaud, and the records of a certain folk/rock/pop musician; The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Desire, Blood On The Tracks etc.
The writers I was drawn to were pennants of vernal isolation, which for me stood far from, nay, above the compressive grasp of academia. As far as I was concerned, if I ventured to dissect the poetry then I would lose all interest in the poet, then I wouldn’t want to be Bob Dylan anymore.
“When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me.”
I looked at the record covers, I watched him in films; in No Direction Home he was willowy, ethereal, as captivating as those imponderable verses he penned with his guitar. I said have your academia, your institutions, your city fathers! I went to gigs and saw the rock stars promenade sentimentale upon the wooden stage of the concert hall and joyously felt the sweaty embrace of grown men who would never confess to reading a single line of poetry or criticism.
there’s a perpetual depth of ideas to plough from his work
Is Bob Dylan’s music literature? To those already familiar with his work it is an utterly banal question. I could rattle on about the lyric’s legitimacy to such a claim, I could extract snippets of close reading from the essay I insisted on writing in spite of my seminar leader’s specious apprehensions. Emerging from the crepuscule of my stubbornly profound teenage years and trying to find some place for my juvenile obsessions amidst the profundity of a literature degree, I find that comparing pop lyrics with poetry and prose is no greater a problem than comparing the Modernists with Renaissance theatre, Romantics with Medieval verse. Have it like this: any great novelists’ attempt at lyricism would be as bewildering as Dylan’s own misguided attempt at a novel, Tarantula.
“A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the case with which music, the most non-material of the arts to-day, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art.”
The right words with the right melody; the lyrics may be as simplistic as a tactless slogan, or as complex as Dylan’s dreamlike landscapes, the ability of lyrics when fitted to music to express the inner life of the listener is a profound experience unparalleled in any other art form. This is why, in spite of the fact that his lyrics quite blatantly are literature, Dylan seems to many to be so doubtfully distinct amongst the previous recipients of the Nobel Prize. As with the greatest writers, there’s a perpetual depth of ideas to plough from his work, but you don’t have to work at what he’s communicating, you understand it as soon as the Muse begins to sing.
“But who will be next?” those usurped fore holders of good taste cry uproariously from the seats of Pandemonium. Does this pave the way of our high gabled library halls for the likes of Jim Morrison? Sid Vicious? Rap?!
Bob Dylan stands so supremely beyond the achievements of any other music lyricist. And yet, given that through the past ten years or so the Nobel Prize seems to have been decided predominantly on the recipient’s literary merit, as opposed to their cultural influence and public acclaim, it seems possible that someday other musical bards may come to be contenders for the coveted award.
“Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?”
Only this year I saw Dylan performing his peculiar renditions of Sinatra standards at the Royal Albert Hall. I was pretty close to the stage, and I had the uncanny feeling he caught my eye, or I caught his, at one point in the show. Such is the span of Robert Zimmerman’s work that all of us music people have felt a connection with something he’s written. Perhaps that’s why we all felt some little elation at the intellectual sphere finally recognising his achievements, not that we needed their recognition anyway.