It’s Saturday night, late October, and I’ve shaved my face clean. In my bedroom, Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” seeps from a speaker as I slide into my tightest slacks, slate and tapered. Feel like my soul has turned into steel / I still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal. I pluck my frilliest button-down shirt—dark blue and speckled with tiny white diamonds—from my closet and slip it on, flaring open the sleeves and leaving the neckline low. I pull on long socks and step into my gray-suede shoes, slick and pointy. In the bathroom I use my roommate’s hair gel to prop up my shaggy hair while “Cold Irons Bound” rolls through the hallway. God I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist / It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist. Back in my room, I punch up the volume so the hang-dog rhythm and bent guitar notes of “Things Have Changed” fill every cranny. People are crazy and times are strange / I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range / I used to care but / Things have changed. My cheeks smooth, my hair wild, my threads retro-hip, I drape my new harmonica holder, outfitted with a C, around my neck. Gonna get lowdown, gonna fly high / All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie. Shading my eyes behind imitation wayfarer sunglasses, I face the full-length mirror.
I am Bob Dylan.
I’d been listening to Bob Dylan all day, immersing myself in a playlist including the best tracks from each of his 36 studio albums. The playlist, to my subjective ear, represented a comprehensive view of the best of Dylan’s career. I’d intended to listen to the 110 songs, totaling nearly nine hours, all at once, in chronological order, as a capstone to the months-long listening project I’d concluded on the day Dylan won the Nobel Prize. I would listen and remember my history, recent and lifelong; listen and reflect on what I’d come to know; listen and think about my initial hypothesis: that the best way to understand Dylan was to start at the beginning and march through time. Listening to this playlist was my final experiment; the feeling was bittersweet. These songs had come to be like friends. Poring through them, a way of life.
The morning began with “Talkin’ New York” and “Song for Woody,” selections from Dylan’s first, eponymous album. I played them aloud from a Bluetooth speaker as I rubbed my eyes and flipped on the coffee maker. Those first tracks—artifacts of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s and early 60s—gave way to a preponderance of protest anthems on Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are a-Changin’. Cat purring in my lap, I sipped my morning coffee and popped open my laptop to catch up on the latest news about whether Dylan would accept the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The excitement that followed the Nobel Prize announcement on October 13 had ended in anticlimax. He hadn’t said a word about it—hadn’t said a word about anything—during the show he played in the California desert, opening for The Rolling Stones on the night of the announcement. In the coming days it came out that the Nobel committee couldn’t get ahold of him. Per Westberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature 2016, said on Swedish TV that Dylan was “rude and arrogant” for not returning their phone calls.
“I think his manners suck,” Dylan’s folk comrade Joan Baez told an interviewer a few days later, “and his words deserve the Nobel Prize.”
Would Bob really ghost on the Swedish Academy? I’d understood him to be cantankerous and aloof, his anti-establishment thinking clear on tracks like “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Maggie’s Farm”—tracks which, as they rolled through my playlist, also marked Dylan’s electric shift. But now he wasn’t only snubbing the American anti-war, pro-equality folk scene. The world was watching. My excitement for Bob, his fans, and his nation that needed some good news amid the most inflammatory presidential election in its modern history was tempered only by my concern that he would be a jerk about the whole thing.
On the day of the announcement, Dylan’s official Twitter page gestured toward the award with a retweet, but nothing more. Days later, his website briefly featured a “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” banner. The banner was quickly taken down, which Westberg called, “hardly surprising. He seems to be a very grumpy and reluctant man.”
With Dylan’s voice and history seeming then to pulse through my cells, I felt like I could guess at his motives. I began to imagine that, in these times, notoriously skeptical of prizes and honors and the earth-bound institutions that award them, Dylan was a hard man to work for. I imagined his handlers would love nothing more than to shout hallelujah from the rooftops, but that Bob himself didn’t want to talk about it. “You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy,” he sings in “Masters of War,” a song he performed after winning his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. When he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, he neither smiled nor removed his sunglasses when Barack Obama draped the medal around his neck. Dylan simply patted the president on the arm and returned to his seat. I thought about Dylan’s spirituality, expressed through his music—his belief that we live in a world of shadows and corruption. And I considered how Dylan believed he was conduit for songs that floated in the air. All he did was pluck and record them. The songs, not the artist—not to mention The Savior—deserved recognition. Though millions worldwide disagreed, Dylan didn’t regard himself as a genius. Just some mortal who got lucky.
At least, that’s what I could gather. A lack of communication usually leads to misunderstanding, and after two week’s time, folks began to assume—and some even hope—Dylan would refuse the award. “He doesn’t seem like the type to understand that by refusing this award it makes him seem super arrogant,” Alec mentioned in a text. What Alec and I wanted most, though, was to see Dylan accept, to hear him make one of those cryptic Dylan speeches we could call each other to parse for meaning and bias.
Social media, meanwhile, had been ablaze with opinions about whether Dylan’s songwriting should count as “literature.” His lyrics don’t stand on their own as poetry, many claimed, and granting the award to a pop musician was another nail in the coffin of book culture. Besides, why recognize another old white guy when the privilege deficit is already so enormous?
Others reminded us that songs preexisted writing, that ancient poetry was always meant to be sung. Music flows through our bones, and songwriters forward and influence our collective body of writing as well as anyone.
I had friends on both sides—writers and music fans alike. And while I was thrilled about the announcement, I too felt ambivalent about designating Dylan’s material “literature.” Arguments for inclusivity within, or exclusion from, artistic categories are never definitive. To be sure, the generic boundaries of art, music, and literature are elastic, pliable, porous, as this award proved. Taking these debates into account, I now approached Dylan’s oeuvre now with yet another lens. On top of tracking how each album built from the last, and how his work influenced my own personality and taste, I looked back on his work while asking the question, Is it literature?
He’d written two actual books. I’d tried to read this first, a lyrical novel, Tarantula, when I was a teenager, but it was filled with so many free-associations I couldn’t follow. I’d read his memoir, Chronicles Volume I, in the previous months, and it was excellent. But still, those writings alone didn’t give much support for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan’s first seven albums, though, which cycled through my Bluetooth speaker that late October, absolutely transcended music. They involved formal poetry, at times strictly rhymed and metered and others sprawling and illusory. They articulated a social consciousness that gave way to confessions of deep personal yearning and isolation. They combined folk art and surrealism in a way that bridged low and high-brow expressions. All of this innovation, too, occurred under the duress of disenfranchisement from the folk establishment and the untenable spotlight of fame. Though it took fifty years to land, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in the first six years of his recording career.
As tempting as it was, I couldn’t sit around the apartment all day listening to Dylan and surfing the web. The sun was shining, leaves turning, temperature in that ideal light-sweater-and-jeans range. Besides, I had a physical therapy appointment to get to for a pinched nerve in my neck. I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected those months crouched over on the train punching my Dylan insights into the notes app on my phone had at least contributed to the tingling sensation running periodically down my left arm. Amid what Dylan once called those “thin … mercury” tunes from Blonde on Blonde—”Visions of Johanna,” “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman”—I scarfed down a sandwich for lunch and made for the train.
The B-line runs in front of my apartment, down the middle of Commonwealth Ave, a busy, six-lane thoroughfare. I stood there with a few other college-aged Bostonians waiting for the train with traffic whizzing behind us, their fumes mingling with the nippy breeze. The sun felt good on my face as the eleven-minute “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” tumbled into my ears. Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes / Now, where outside the house of my Arabian drums… No, that wasn’t right. I might wear an outsized Arabian drum? That wasn’t it either. I never did know what Dylan was saying in that refrain. The train pulled up and I grabbed a seat, looked it up on my phone.
“My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums / Should I leave them by your gate? / Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”
Which all made a lot more sense. And with 8 minutes of the song remaining, I dove in, sinking myself into those capacious warehouse spaces opened by Dylan’s vocals. The song came alive, fell into place, even if the images only hinted, stopped short of fully giving over their meaning. I still had so much in learn, so much to try and understand about each album, each track, each lyric. It’s no wonder I reached for contextual help from history and biography. When I loved something I wanted to know its essence, how it worked, what machinations brought it into being.
To ride the train engrossed in Dylan was now a familiar pose, old hat. Through the spare, arcane folk years of John Wesley Harding, the clopping country sounds of Nashville Skyline, the couple bright spots of Self Portrait we bumbled down toward Boston University, picking up a cohort of college kids, high school students thrilled for the weekend, and young professionals on an early Friday afternoon. The stops came slowly, my appointment time grew near, and by the time I detrained I was already ten minutes late, while the breeze blew crisp and the Charles River rippled brightly between brick college buildings. I called and cancelled and headed toward the water.
Unexpectedly, Boston University had become central to my investigations. Four months earlier Christopher Ricks, whose name was now showing up in every third Dylan article hailing him as a “genius,” had welcomed me into his office, served me tea, and in so many words called me foolish for having such a strong reaction to a disagreement of taste. Alec had called Blood on the Tracks “hokum filler”—and so what? Wasn’t Alec entitled to an opinion? I didn’t know it at the time, but Ricks deconstructing my motives was just the first step toward realizing this Dylan project had less to do with a hypothesis and more to do with my own life history. I needed to get a handle on Dylan’s catalogue in order to get a handle on the Dylan acolyte within me.
But more than Ricks, Boston University’s Gottlieb Archives held a Bob Dylan collection I sifted through and found, beyond the concert posters and bootleg recordings tracing his entire career, an enigmatic collector who called himself Soul Garlic. According to a handout I found in just one of fifteen boxes of Dylan-related stuff, Soul Garlic’s collection spanned his whole life, eventually spilling from his basement space into the upstairs and, eventually, into the archives. ” “Why Bob Dylan? I listen to his music almost all the time,” Soul Garlic wrote. “He’s the man. The world’s coolest Jew. Maybe I am hoping that something will rub off on this dull boring certified public accountant.” Soul Garlic and I weren’t so different, I supposed—despite that he was a Jewish accountant and I was a waspy English teacher—in that we both sought a comprehensive view of Dylan, aware that our favorite artist’s je ne sais quoi had rubbed off on us—or at least that we’d wanted it to.
What’s more, for a few weeks in September, I dated a poet, Elaine, from the BU MFA program. It happened that we both were among six readers sharing our work with a small audience one night in the basement of the Brookline Booksmith. I liked the pantoum she read and told her so afterward. Though she grew up in Los Angeles, her father’s family came from Hibbing, Minnesota—Bobby Zimmerman’s hometown—and they knew Bob Dylan’s first wife, Sara. Elaine’s graduate assistantship at BU had her helping out with a new course on Bob Dylan, not taught by Ricks, but in conversation with him. Now she was dating a guy listening to every Dylan track in chronological order. She often said she didn’t believe in coincidences. I always said I did. It didn’t work out between us.
These contemplations evaporated, however, when I reached the esplanade just as “New Morning” sprang on, and once again I was enlivened by that utterly optimistic song, practically skipping with the snare beats as Dylan crooned, “This must be the day when all of my dreams come true / So happy just to be alive / Underneath this sky of blue / On this new morning … With you.” The rising organ, the energized guitar, and Dylan himself howling out “new morning” again and again for the outro had become my go-to spirit lifter, and here it came again in time with Dylan’s catalogue, and in time to propel me forward.
Crew boats rowed up and down the Charles; pedestrians wove through the riverside park and swarmed on the bridges; New Morning gave way to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid to Planet Waves. Up through Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood I walked while “Tangled Up in Blue”—the song Alec had questioned if it was a song at all—sent me rambling. She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century. Was Dylan hinting at something here, proclaiming he’d been passed some poetic flame? The lyrics, sung with force, certainly sounded literary.
A few tracks later I stopped into a music store near Berklee College of Music, there amid the hectic intersection of the Green Line, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Massachusetts Avenue. “I’m looking for your cheapest harmonica holder and C harmonica,” I told the young guy behind the counter, his hair shaggy on top and shaved on the sides.
He grinned wide while he retrieved the products and asked, “You busking today?”
I smiled. “Nah man. I’m putting together a Bob Dylan costume.”
Compiling the best few tracks from every Dylan album effectively papered over any hint of unevenness or decline from 1961 through 1980. Even while Dylan’s output sometimes experienced growing pains as he evolved from fresh-faced folkie to folk-rocker, cryptic Western outlaw to gleaming rock star, the best of his material always reached the highest registers of music. I contemplated this smoothness as I walked down the well-heeled shopping district of Newberry Street, hiked through the Public Gardens swelling with amblers, and trekked across the grassy Boston Common. The crisp air, the sinking sun, the rollicking music doubled and deepened my memory, like mirrors turned on each other. I thought about my lifelong interactions with the songs; I recalled traipsing around Boston as I studied them in the previous months; and I heard them now in a new order, resituated within the present playlist.
Even his gospel phase, beginning on the lip of rush hour with Slow Train Coming, started with a flourish, the funky grooves of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” plus the title track, animating the subway caverns as I turned toward home. But stacked amid the rush-hour mob groping for a handle and jostling with the rocking train, my playlist began to falter. The title track from Saved, high-kicking evangelism, was the first hitch and, despite streaks of excellence in the 80s, we hit some potholes headed due west from downtown with Shot of Love, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and even some of Dylan’s work with the Traveling Wilburys. These moments, wheezing with Dylan’s mid-life vocals and half-hearted compositions, put special stress on my hypothesis. Could I draw on the lineage of Dylan albums these songs grew from to enjoy them more fully? Could I trace the development of an artist in the musical and lyrical phrasings? If anything, all I could salvage from the off-kilter “Clean Cut Kid,” or “Congratulations,” a track which seems to gasp for air like a fish on land, was the knowledge that Dylan reacted with antagonism to the synthesized sounds of the 80s. Though I was tempted to skip over these tracks, because of the knowledge I’d gained I was more willing to give Dylan a pass for the difficulties he faced and, eventually, overcame.
By all accounts, Dylan staged a resurgence in the late 90s, long after fans and critics had put his best days behind him. And here’s where, in the smoky haunts of Time Out of Mind, and in the scratchy lilting vocals of Love and Theft, and in the throaty growls of Tempest, understanding the evolution of Dylan’s voice helps in comprehending its late-stage power.
So as those hardened, wizened tracks from the several most recent albums played while I put on my costume, I wondered again, is listening to Dylan’s catalogue in chronological order the best way to appreciate it?
In a word, Yes. Of course. But didn’t I know that from the start? What I didn’t realize, however, was that the power of that initial hypothesis was to introduce other questions, questions with more more depth and complexity.
Is author’s biography fair game for critics? More than Kooper and Ricks expressed doubt and dissent over my importing context into my reading of Dylan’s work. Again, strict answers are tough to come by, and tougher to defend. There are songs that work without context, such as the closed-form package of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which, beyond its moment of composition, contains the timeless power to speak to all times of progress, strife, and change. There are others, such as “Going Going Gone” which comes alive when considering Dylan’s reclusion from the spotlight of his late-60s fame, and “You’re a Big Girl Now” which makes a lot more sense through the lens of Dylan’s marital separation. Much of the art of criticism is knowing when to apply those biographical and historical insights, and when to treat art as a discreet entity apart from its creator altogether. Considering the cult of personality surrounding Bob Dylan, and his penchant for reinvention in response to his life, times, and reception, I still contend exploring the context around his songs only aids in understanding and enjoyment.
Is Dylan’s work literature? I contend it’s difficult to prove that it’s not. He laid down folk tales in their original form of expression. His original work paired folk phrasings with surrealistic poetry, presenting the world with a hybrid language of sound and sense that influenced underground and mainstream cultures alike. If, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, literature is invention; and if cultural theorist Michel Foucault is correct that invention is what distinguishes an author from a writer; then Dylan is more than a songwriter. He is an inventor, an author of literature.
The question remains, however, Is my own life, my own orientation to art and authority, really so affected by Bob Dylan? That might be the hardest question of all. Its variables—my selfhood, my essence—seem exponentially more slippery and vague than art and art criticism. Did I form to Dylan or did he suit me? Is the Dylan that sixteen-year-old kid in Mr. Etling’s history class heard the same Dylan I listen to through my smartphone? The sounds are the same. The listener never is.
The chronology—the albums, the years, the memories—folds in on itself. Nothing is where you left it. Or, as Dylan says, “There is nothing so stable as change.”
The Halloween party features Ghostbusters and transvestite fortune tellers, Gilligan and Gandalf and a samurai warrior. The dozens of party goes rival the grotesque cast of characters from “Desolation Row.” Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers. Around the classmate’s house in Newton hang spider webs. Blood streaks across the walls. Ghouls and goblins lean from the closets. I find myself in a crowd on the front porch sipping hunch-punch with a 1970s Bill Clinton, his beard shaggy, his hair long, his threads retro.
“Gee Bob,” Bill says, his voice deep, soft, and vaguely southern. “I really like those tunes you been playing.”
“Well thanks, Bill,” I respond. Dylan’s distinctive voice isn’t hard to mimic: press your vocal chords up and back and talk through your nose. This imitation is one of the universal pleasures shared by all Dylan fans. “But I gotta say. I don’t trust no politicians no how no way.”
A friend dressed as a rock-and-roll groupie stumbles out of the front door and points to my harmonica. “Play a song, Bob Dylan.”
I smirk and blow a C. Once upon a time you dressed so fine… Before long the whole porch is singing. How does it feel? / To be on your own / No direction home / A complete unknown / Like a rolling stone.
To their hoots and howls I launch into a harmonica solo.
I can’t avoid it.
I am Bob Dylan.