An essay by Philip Matthews in response to the publication of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize lecture.
I keep hearing about allegedly weird Joaquin Phoenix interviews that don’t really seem that weird at all. Internet news alerts say we need to talk about that Joaquin Phoenix interview or they might put out some quick Buzzfeed summary of the 12 strangest things Phoenix said, illustrated with Simpsons memes or GIFs. Then you go there, following the link, and instead of weird, you see someone – a really great actor – struggling with the pointless task of explaining something intuitive or trying to hold a piece of himself back from the world’s relentless hunger. Maybe he’s trying to dodge a question with a throwaway line or a quip or maybe he’s being too honest when he says he really doesn’t know what to say about whatever the thing was they asked him.
So far the Phoenix interviews have run in the Village Voice and Interview, with the latter conducted by Will Ferrell. There may be others by now. Because I’ve been thinking about Bob Dylan a lot, Phoenix’s approach – no, it’s not an “approach”; it’s his personality – has been reminding me of Dylan and his famous “Why ask me what it means? I’m just a song and dance man” evasiveness. When Phoenix went deliberately weird, in a mockumentary called I’m Still Here, it was actually fairly excruciating and much less expressive, moving or complicated than performances in films like Her, The Master, Walk the Line and Mary Magdalene (it was inevitable: Phoenix as Jesus). But the title at least seemed to relate to Dylan’s song ‘I’m Not There’ and Todd Haynes’ wonderful Dylan film of the same name, a film about disappearances and impersonations. In it, Dylan is an actor played by actors, taking on different names at different times. Apparently Dylan likes the movie.
But mostly Dylan doesn’t offer much. No, he offers what he wants to offer, but doesn’t just show up everywhere. Interviews have mostly been carefully managed performances since the 1960s. The latest, posted at his website last March, is an 8000-word Q and A with writer Bill Flanagan, that coincided with Dylan’s third album of old standards, a triple album called Triplicate. Each of the three discs is 32 minutes long, Flanagan says. “Sure, it’s the number of completion,” Dylan remarks. “It’s a lucky number, and it’s symbolic of light.” It also has some relation to how long a vinyl record should be, even if Triplicate was being consumed on CDs or as downloads, because it is part of his antiquarian thing (more on that later).
There is some biographical detail in the interview, when Flanagan asks Dylan about World War II, which the songs conjure up for him. One long quote is reminiscent of the brief childhood passages in Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume One, from 2004. To Flanagan, Dylan says: “I was born in Duluth – industrial town, ship yards, ore docks, grain elevators, mainline train yards, switching yards. It’s on the banks of Lake Superior, built on granite rock. Lot of foghorns, sailors, loggers, storms, blizzards. My mom says there were food shortages, food rationing, hardly any gas, electricity cutting off – everything metal in your house you gave to the war effort. It was a dark place, even in the light of day – curfews, gloomy, lonely, all that sort of stuff – we lived there till I was about five, till the end of the war.”
In Chronicles, Dylan says it like this: “What I recall mostly about Duluth are the slate gray skies and the mysterious foghorns, violent storms that always seemed to be coming straight at you and merciless howling winds off the big black mysterious lake with treacherous ten-foot waves. People said that having to go out onto the deep water was like a death sentence. Most of Duluth was on a slant. Nothing is level there. The town is built on the side of a steep hill, and you’re always either hiking up or down.”
There are quotable lines all through the Flanagan interview, such as this: “In my 20s and 30s I hadn’t been anywhere. Since then I’ve been all over the world, I’ve seen oracles and wishing wells.” Or this, when he talks about the 1950s: “I had been bailed out of the past and had broke free, I wasn’t going to go back to that other place with button down shirts and crewcuts for anyone or anything.”
When it isn’t concerned with the nuts and bolts of the songs, of the various ways to sing them, the interview darts back to Dylan’s childhood, back to northern Minnesota’s freezing winters and summers full of mosquitoes. One subject doesn’t come up at all though and it seemed glaring at the time. Flanagan and Dylan don’t say a single word about the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.
If your memory serves you well, you will know that Dylan got that prize for songs that, according to a speech delivered in Stockholm in December 2016 by Professor Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy, made “much of the bookish poetry in our world [feel] anaemic”. The “routine song lyrics his colleagues continued to write” seemed like “old-fashioned gunpowder following the invention of dynamite”. Within a few years, “people stopped comparing him to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams and turned instead to Blake, Rimbaud, Whitman, Shakespeare”. But it was “not to sing of eternities, but to speak of what was happening around us. As if the oracle of Delphi were reading the evening news.”
The rest is history. Nothing in Engdahl’s account of the explosive oracle of Duluth takes us past 1966. This is the protest singer or the angel-headed hipster. There is nothing about the slumps, the occasional 1970s high point (Blood on the Tracks), the born-again Christian phase that turned off all the people who compared him to Rimbaud and Shakespeare and is only now being reappraised. There is nothing at all about the late, brilliant third phase of Dylanism that started with Time Out of Mind in 1997, but was anticipated by two albums of folk and blues covers, World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You, and shows no sign of easing up, even though the singer is now 76.
Dylan has been honest about the slumps. One of the most memorable passages in Chronicles describes how low he felt, how washed-up, in the 1980s, touring his old hits with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty – and he was grateful for their support but he knew he wasn’t delivering anymore. “I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck … a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows.” But the point of the story is that he worked hard at finding a new way of doing things, and he came back, somehow.
Anyway, Dylan wasn’t in Stockholm to hear all that lavish praise from Engdahl. “My guess is that he just couldn’t see himself in that august room; it wasn’t his thing,” writes New Zealand-born Dylan scholar and Harvard classics professor Richard F Thomas in his 2017 book Why Dylan Matters. Patti Smith was there instead to sing ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. She seemed intensely nervous, stumbling in the second verse and starting again, but that only added to the gravity of the situation (Thomas quotes Dylanologist David Gaines: “The Swedish Minister of Culture, a striking woman in a red dress, cried throughout the song”). Smith wrote about it in the New Yorker: “On the morning of the Nobel ceremony, I awoke with some anxiety. It was pouring rain and continued to rain heavily.” In his book, Thomas wondered how a song written in 1962 – that seemed so redolent of 60s nuclear terror, mushroom clouds, duck and cover – could still speak to 2016, and he found that lines about people “whose hands are all empty” could say something about inequality, or maybe “pellets of poison” could speak about toxic politics or despoiled environments. And there are still prisons, there are still executioners.
In a short statement, Dylan had said the award left him speechless. In another rare interview, with Edna Gunderson in the Telegraph in the UK, timed to run with an exhibition of paintings by Dylan in London, he said, “it’s hard to believe”. He said more about his paintings than about whether his songs qualify as literature. Sure, some songs “definitely are Homeric in value”, he acknowledged, naming ‘Blind Willie McTell’, ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘Joey’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Hurricane’. As for what they might mean, though, “I’ll let other people decide … The academics, they ought to know. I’m not really qualified. I don’t have any opinion.”
He expanded a little in the banquet speech that followed Patti Smith’s performance, read by the US Ambassador to Sweden in Dylan’s not atypical absence. Are his songs literature? Well, he said, that’s not a question he ever asked himself. Shakespeare probably didn’t sit around wondering if Hamlet was literature, either. Instead, he would have thought about the mundane or practical details: “Is the financing in place? Are there enough good seats for my patrons? Where am I going to get a human skull?”
There was still more to do, more that had to be said. The Swedish Academy set a deadline for Dylan’s Nobel Lecture; he beat it by just five days. You can listen to him deliver the lecture over some lounge-act piano accompaniment on YouTube or you can read it in a very slim volume, which is a nice souvenir. The lecture is only 4000 words long – half the length of his chat with Bill Flanagan. But it is a fascinating act of mythmaking and self-invention that almost acts like an extra chapter of the Chronicles.
The story starts with Buddy Holly. He saw him play live. There is almost a religious sense to the moment; Holly was just a few feet away when he looked the young Dylan straight in the eye “and transmitted something”. It gave Dylan the chills. Holly died in a plane crash just a day or two later. Then there is another religious moment, the appearance of another prophet: “Somebody handed me a Lead Belly record.” Who did? Somebody he’d never met before.
Do you believe this stuff? It doesn’t matter. The Lead Belly record had the song ‘Cotton Fields’ on it and for Dylan it was “like I’d been walking in darkness and all of a sudden the darkness was illuminated”. You hear the folk language and you connect to the old stories as though they happened yesterday, as though you were there – “you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek”.
Again, all this reminds me of another vivid moment in Chronicles, when the young Dylan is inventing himself in New York City. He is learning to write songs and so he goes looking for things to write about. He heads to the reading room of the New York Public Library and consults the microfilms of old newspapers, reading up on the years between 1855 and 1865. There is slavery and war, religion and riots, figures like Lincoln, “a lot of epic, bearded characters, exalted men who are not necessarily good”. He crams in as much from those newspapers as he can: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected … The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
There is a lot in the idea that the songs he was writing were already old songs. He has only been truly topical a couple of times. First, when he was reading the evening news in the early 60s (nuclear fear, civil rights) and again during the born-again Christian period. When you listen to Slow Train Coming from 1979 or hear the more expressive live versions of his Christian songs on Trouble No More – the Bootleg Series Vol 13/1979-1981, you hear the terrified United States of the late 1970s. You hear oil shocks, ruined inner cities, drug addicts and hookers in need of salvation, threats of war in the Middle East. Dylan’s friend Allen Ginsberg, who didn’t really warm to the version of religion Dylan was pushing, noticed this too, according to a story in Clinton Heylin’s new history of the gospel years, Trouble in Mind. No one else was writing songs about Henry Kissinger, Ginsberg said. “I think the implication was that Kissinger was in the service of the Devil,” Ginsberg explained. “Not that I believe in the Devil, but it was nice to hear Dylan being so outspoken.”
Heylin’s book is also good on the strange bravery involved in Dylan going out before wasted rock crowds in cities like San Francisco and doing sets made up entirely of new, Christian songs. Between songs, he preached. Just as the folk purists proved intolerant when he went electric, so the rock and roll fans were intolerant when he turned Christian (you want rock, go and see Kiss, he told them). In an unusual way, Dylan’s Christian albums now seem like Dylan at most vulnerable and open. He might be able to say that Blood on the Tracks was really based on Chekhov stories not his own marriage, and some of us may even believe it, but he can never say the Christian records are anything other than expressions of deeply held faith. There was no more pretending, no more wearing of masks.
There is a school of thought that says Dylan never stopped being religious, both Jewish and Christian, but just dialled it back in public. Of course entire books have been devoted to parsing Dylan’s lyrics and interviews to support that argument. You can also make a case, as Richard F Thomas does, that his work has become increasingly absorbed in the Graeco-Roman classics to the point where, on his last album of originals, 2012’s Tempest, he has finally taken on the role of Odysseus. The two views are not incompatible.
Tempest is fully in a world of the deep, lost past, as was an earlier masterpiece, John Wesley Harding. The best word for this is “antiquarian”. The 14 minute long title track narrates the sinking of the Titanic – not in a boggy creek but in a grey sea that feels like the icy waves seen from Duluth, dark even in the light of the day. It is a matter of fact account with occasional breaks into something metaphysical (“In the dark illumination / He remembered bygone years / He read the Book of Revelation / And he filled his cup with tears”) and more clues for the Christian close readers (“The veil was torn asunder / ‘Tween the hours of twelve and one”). In the song ‘Narrow Way’ we hear that “Ever since the British burned the White House down / There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town”, which puts the song’s events in about 1814. There are a lot of trains in these songs, too, a lot of blood, dread and violence, but there is also bitter and dark humour, especially in ‘Early Roman Kings’, a blues song about a gang of thugs who sound like The Sopranos. ‘Roll on John’ is clearly a tribute to John Lennon, but in the skin of an old ballad. Even relatively recent events or characters are dragged back into the past in these antiquarian homesick blues.
Dylan scatters clues and he’s cryptic, he makes everyone turn paranoid. Everybody who sets even one foot on the long road of Dylanology knows where it can end up. David Kinney’s book The Dylanologists is a surprisingly level-headed account of how deep and nutty Dylan obsessions can go, with the pioneering A J Weberman held up as a kind of warning. Weberman invented “garbology” during his work on the Dylan corpus – it really involved going through Dylan’s garbage. He phoned Dylan up and recorded the conversation (like everything, it’s on YouTube now). Weberman thought Dylan had sold out his radical principles; soon, his Rock Liberation Front was putting the same accusation to stadium dwellers like Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney. But as Kinney explains, the terminus of Weberman’s over-reading of Dylan lyrics came when Weberman concluded that Dylan was secretly a racist during his protest years because – get this – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ actually advocated lynching. Lynching was the answer to the civil rights question and the bodies will blow in the wind, which is what Weberman finally discovered Dylan meant. It is revealed in a short book called Bob Dylan: Holocaust Denying Scum. I don’t recommend anyone reading it.
But you don’t need to be Weberman to know which way the wind blows. Dylan encourages paranoia and no one has written better songs about it (‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, naturally). Even serious English professors like Christopher Ricks can write unreadable books – see Dylan’s Visions of Sin – when faced with Dylan lyrics. Richard F Thomas skirts around the edges of that trap but he never quite falls in. (Another good thing about Thomas: he teaches an undergraduate course in Dylan at Harvard and always devotes the first class to a screening of I’m Not There.)
Dylan treats the Nobel Lecture as though it was a high school assignment of some kind. Here is the set question for the exam: how are your songs literature? Internet sleuths who claimed Dylan lifted some of his material about Moby-Dick from notes published for students are missing the point as usual, not only because borrowing is what Dylan and his tradition have always done, but because he might even be making a joke about the way he has been made to sit down and write an essay. As far as borrowing goes, though, he tackled that spectacularly in another memorable interview, for Rolling Stone in 2012, when Tempest was released. When asked about his use of material by otherwise obscure 19th century poet Henry Timrod, Dylan’s answer was pretty magnificent:
“As far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
Case closed. In the Nobel Lecture, Dylan picks three books that have influenced him. Only three? In Chronicles, he soaked up entire libraries. Moby-Dick is the first one. He gives a quick plot summary and then writes: “Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”
The second is All Quiet on the Western Front, an anti-war book so powerful he never had to read another. The third is, no surprise, The Odyssey. And just like Richard F Thomas says, this is him. What happens to Odysseus in the book? This is how Dylan puts it: “He changes identities. He’s exhausted. He falls asleep, and he’s woken up by the sound of laughter. He tells his story to strangers. He’s been gone twenty years. He was carried off somewhere and left there. Drugs have been dropped into his wine. It’s been a hard road to travel.”
See the parallels? He explains: “In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies.”
To say the Nobel Lecture leaves you wanting more is an understatement. He talks about only three books but there could have been hundreds, thousands. “I believe in the Book of Revelation,” he said in that Rolling Stone interview in 2012. “I believe in disclosure, you know? There’s truth in all books. In some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more. You can’t go through life without reading some kind of book.” But why should he tell us more? Why shouldn’t there be things we can never know? When I get to the end of this short book, I’m reminded – I know it’s Biblical, but this is Dylan – of the last, almost throwaway sentences of the Gospel of John. It goes like this: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
The Nobel Lecture by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, $22.99) is available at Unity Books.