Saturday, July 29, 2017
That Nobel Prize, That Nobel Speech
I don't think I reacted too much, publicly, when I heard the news last October that the Nobel Prize for Literature had gone to Bob Dylan. (Link to New York Times account of the announcement.)
To say I was ambivalent is both accurate and an understatement.
I've loved Dylan since the git-go. When he first emerged on the scene in the 1960s, I was still whanging away at my guitar with dreams of joining the Kingston Trio and others in the folk music pantheon--dreams about as realistic as those I'd had, only a couple of years earlier, about being the catcher for the Cleveland Indians.
And I remained a fan of his for a long, long, long time. Joyce and I, in fact, early in our marriage (the Big Day was December 20, 1969), saw Dylan perform at the Cleveland Public Hall; he was acoustic the first half, electric the second. Scandal!
In 1973, two of my obsessions merged: Bob Dylan and Billy the Kid. That was the year the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid came out--with music by Bob Dylan (including the hit "Knockin' on Heaven's Door")--and Dylan also had a small part in this Sam Peckinpah film. (Link to film trailer.)
Although I haven't listened to much popular music in recent years (okay, decades)--other than what I hear in the air at coffee shops and elsewhere--I still greatly admire Dylan and what he did for music in my generation--and the next couple, too!
But ... a Nobel Prize for Literature?
When the news came out, people took sides on Facebook--dear friends on all sides of the issue. I generally stayed quiet, though I have to say that I was stunned by that Nobel decision: Musicians have all kinds of awards (Grammys, etc.)--and now popular songwriters are going to be eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well?
It just seemed odd to me that, say, Joyce Carol Oates (I think she deserves the Prize--hasn't won it), labors in a much different vineyard--and in a much different way--with much different tools. Etc. But I guess I didn't feel motivated enough to get involved publicly in the debate. Though Joyce and I talked about it quite a bit.
Then, not long ago, the text of Dylan's Nobel Lecture became available online. I bookmarked it--but didn't do anything for quite a while.
Then, the other day, I downloaded and printed and read it. (Link to the Nobel Lecture.)
And--to be honest--I thought it really was pretty ordinary stuff--or worse. Although I did like the early paragraphs (about his musical influences as he was growing up--Buddy Holly a major one), he then launched into the major part of his speech, which dealt with the influences on him of some major literary works: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey.
And from here on ... I thought it read like a weak undergraduate essay by someone trying to impress a prof. I just didn't buy it.
I'm not saying I don't think Dylan read those books--or that they didn't have an influence on him; I'm just saying that he didn't write about any of it very well--or very uniquely. It was, well, just ordinary stuff--kind of like a feeble lyric he would have tossed after he tried it out.
He should have written a song cycle. Should have gone to his strength.
I should say that I've read all three of those books--Moby-Dick (multiple times--I taught some Melville), The Odyssey (multiple times--I taught it for two years at Western Reserve Academy), All Quiet on the Western Front (just once--in high school--study hall--bored by study hall, not the novel).
And I can't say that Bob Dylan, the Nobel Laureate, said anything remotely unusual about any of the three. Nothing remotely arresting.
Anyway, perhaps I'm sounding snooty now (elitist!), but I guess that's not all that bad a thing: is it? The Nobel Prize--in any category--is supposed to go to someone who's the elite of the elite.
In popular music, that's Bob Dylan, no question at all; in literature, it's someone else.