David Michael Miller
This week’s joyous announcement that Bob Dylan has finally been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature confirms what I’ve maintained for a long time: Dylan is the greatest writer in the English language since Shakespeare.
Like Walt Whitman, Bob Dylan contains multitudes. Like Picasso, he changes — and masters — different styles.
He didn’t invent the protest song, but he perfected it, writing some of the most trenchant critiques of American society pop music has ever produced, addressing civil rights, militarism and economic justice in blunt and unmistakably progressive terms.
He twinned Edenic innocence with apocalyptic imagery in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” yearned for the death of the “Masters of War,” decried the racism of “Oxford Town.” He celebrated the “Girl From The North Country,” left a lover with the sad advice, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and revealed that all the answers were just “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
And that was just on one album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released the month he turned 22.
Let that sink in.
Within a year, he had released another epochal album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ — and then turned from finger-pointing folk songs to the surreal symbolism of flashing “Chimes of Freedom” and metaphysical musings in “My Back Pages.”
And then, from March 1965 to May 1966, Dylan embarked on the most extraordinary run any recording artist has ever had.
His first top-ten album, Bringing It All Back Home, gave us the ecstatic “Mr. Tambourine Man” with its exultant declaration that “but for the sky, there are no fences facin’,” and a stanza that has been quoted by NFL Films (for a montage of wide receivers — seriously) and perplexed philosophy majors ever since:
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
That album also featured “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters” “The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles”), and learned that “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (“Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”). It also includes “Gates of Eden” and “Maggie’s Farm,” which President Jimmy Carter said taught him the true relationship between capital and labor.
On his next album, he upped the ante by writing a third anthem for his generation — perversely, “Like A Rolling Stone” is an anthem of alienation which in concert becomes a celebration of community. Recorded shortly after he turned 24, Highway 61 Revisited snarled at the bewildered Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” took us from Juarez to Housing Project Hill in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and paraded a cast of characters straight from Fellini down “Desolation Row.”
How to top that but with the first double album of the rock era, and arguably its greatest, Blonde on Blonde? It’s Bob at his medicated best, with that “thin, wild mercury sound” that he’d long heard in his head, but could only now get down on vinyl. It includes the elegiac and inscrutable 11:23-minute “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and I believe it was his most ambitious and accomplished album from that era.
Dylan had just turned 25 when he released Blonde on Blonde. In the five decades to come — five decades! — he would continue to adapt and invent. We would hear from the relaxed country boy of Nashville Skyline/Self Portrait/New Morning, the hopeful father of Planet Waves, the bitter ex-husband of Blood on the Tracks. A now-and-again Orthodox Jew, Dylan would write some of the best Christian gospel since Thomas Dorsey in another triple-play, and see a series of ups and downs through the 1980s and ’90s before hitting his stride yet again with another remarkable trifecta in 1997-2006 with Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times. Then, in 2009-2012, he created two more great original albums of menacing weirdness, Together Through Life and Tempest.
But really, after the summer of ’66, what was the Swedish academy waiting for?