Spare Parts: Christmas in the Heart, Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

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When I woke up this morning and checked my phone, I had four texts, three emails, two IMs and a flurry of Facebook and Twitter notifications. Now, I’m not that important a person. Something was up.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

I’m damn happy for the guy, though I imagine he’s sort of brushing the whole thing off. The world’s accolades never appealed much to Bob, as he articulated in his 2014 interview with Morley Safer. “That’s just today,” he said about his song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” being named by Rolling Stone the number-one song of all time. “It’ll change tomorrow.”

My friend Matt said, “The poets are SALTY” about Dylan winning over a traditional poet. Apparently Dylan’s lyrical stylings challenge their definition of literature. But “literature” transcends the genres taught in MFA programs—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama. And the Nobel Prize in Literature simply honors “the most outstanding work [of literature] in an ideal direction.”

Bob Dylan writes, he sings, he makes music. He reaches into the past and heaves it forward with his steady commitment to both revivifying musical modes and exposing the human condition. As I’ve said over and over, no one has influenced my own writing, my own thinking more. I can’t fathom a more worthy recipient.

My friend and professor, Richard Hoffman, former chair of Pen New England where he established the Song Lyrics Award, defends the Nobel Committee’s choice well. He posted the powerful words he wrote when Pen New England honored Randy Newman and Kris Kristofferson in 2014. Those words:

“The human voice was the first musical instrument. Long before—many centuries before!—we were able to articulate our thoughts, we expressed our love, our terror, our sorrow, and our joy by singing. … [W]hether or not songwriting is sufficiently literary or whether songs ought to be considered literature is a puny and preposterous question. Every other literary genre is a tributary of that great river.”

Puny and preposterous. I love this sentiment. It is only our own moment in time that would challenge the notion of lyrics as literature. We’ve crystallized our notions of literature into precious genres that proclaim their own preeminence. But doesn’t drama move, too, to the music within? Don’t poems sing? Doesn’t fiction thump a beat?

This news comes amid my ruminations on the three cover albums Dylan has released in the past five years. One is a holiday album: Christmas in the Heart. Dylan seems mighty brave to cast beloved, sacred songs like “Winter Wonderland,” “Silver Bells,” and “O’Come All Ye Faithful” through his salty growl. The fifteen songs on this album are enough to scare the kiddies into good behavior for when Santa comes down the chimney.

The other two are Sinatra covers. You heard me right. Sinatra covers. Our rock and roll shakespeare, our American lyrical bard, was never hailed for his golden harmonies. But Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels give him the opportunity to flex his two-time Grammy-winning voice. He recreates the rat pack in a comitragical milieu of love and yearning, loss and despair. I can’t help but think he’s maintained his humor through the years. And he’s still challenging everyone’s notions of art, and voice, and what counts as “good” and “worthy” and “valuable.”

Now that I’ve heard and written about every studio album (and then some), I’m still processing my thoughts for a final conclusion. But right now I know one thing for certain: Don’t turn your back on Bob, don’t count him out. He’s got more surprises than we’ve got sleeves.

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