Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits album cover detail. pic:R.T.
By Rosalie Tirella
Bob Dylan was conning the world when he gave his Nobel prize acceptance speech to the jewelry rattlers to read at their fancy Nobel banquet a few days ago. The blase speech, following his no-show appearance, was just another way for Dylan to extricate himself from the situation. To minimize it – no, make that pulverize it. In a very polite way.
But writing a real speech, going to Sweden to accept the award and to sing one of his mind-blowing songs outa his mind-blowing catalog could have been a terrific opportunity for Dylan – and America! A chance for Dylan, with the whole world lending him its ears, to make a BIG STATEMENT about art, about the world today. Everyone would be listening.
I and millions of others – Baby Boomers and 1960s political beat poet types – have been listening to Bob for decades! Mining every smooth or rough lyric for their diamonds. We’ve unearthed: God, peace, rage, longing, love, yearning, love again and again – the bitter and sweet, the carnal and the other worldly – the loner, the outlaw, the preacher, the young man, the old man … barley fields, the ocean, the North Country, “men with broken teeth, stranded…”
It’s all there. The world. The human experience. In Dylan’s songs. In his lyrics…especially from the 1960s and 1970s.
In Sweden, if he had been there, Dylan could have spoken again – on war and peace in a terrorist-bomb-laced world, on refugees today, or on black kids killed by white murderers and how BLACK LIVES MATTER. He could have ripped Donald Trump and Brexit and all the other soul-destroying fascists. He could have sung about the other ISIS! But he chickened out!
Dylan’s Nobel speech. Did he even write it? Did he shop it out to some pr flak who promised to genuflect to the academy – maybe asking Dylan to write the middle section, the guts of the gutless thing?
Faulkner gave his Nobel speech. He delivered it in person, alcoholic or no alcoholic, and it was gangbusters! It was beautifully written and about the dawning of the nuclear age and what that meant for humanity. I still remember the first time I read it – in a textbook for my AP English class at Burncoat High School. Students are still reading and discussing that Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Hemingway was at the end of his line – struggled with that heavy rifle butt before putting the firearm’s mouth into his and pulling the trigger. He did this in Idaho shortly after giving his beautiful Nobel speech – he made it to Sweden all right and gave a speech that is still found in all the textbooks and prefaces to his short story collections …a speech that is poetic, haunting, image-holding …and not all that long! Papa at his best!
Dylan’s Nobel speech was short and sweet and focused on the nuts and bolts of being a musician, on tour. It was also: forgettable, clunky sounding, written in the most prosaic way, as if spoken into a microphone. How could Dylan be so … un-Dylanesque? When as just a kid he changed his last name from Zimmerman to a poet’s name, Dylan Thomas? How could his Nobel speech be so uncomplicated, when Dylan has so many head games going on and visions driving him to almost madness? How could he sound so NOT cutting (check out his mid-1960s speech to the new American CLU) when, in fact, by not showing up to get the award, he was being just that – shouting FUCK YOU to all your stupid awards?!!
The real, in-the-moment, beautiful Patti Smith (who’s always been in love with the always illusive Dylan) saved the day for her friend, for America. A formidable artist in her own right, Smith sang Dylan’s 1960s tour of graveyard America via an innocent child, “A HARD RAIN’S GONNA FALL.” She sang it so beautifully. With genuine emotion. She put herself out there – as an artist, as a human being. Totally vulnerable. Totally herself.
Dylan couldn’t do that.
Dylan, in his songs, through the WORDS in his songs, has shown us he has never been … ordinary, a just-the-facts kinda guy. Because the facts change, or were never really there to begin with, and you’re just left in a room “where the heat pipes just cough” to recall the affair or an America you thought you knew.
This past Sunday Dylan made no attempt to write anything like that, something for all ages – something that would turn the medal-encrusted and ribbon-bedecked Nobel podium to ashes. Perhaps, Dylan was intimidated by the past “competition.” Perhaps, he’s just too old (mid-70s). Can you imagine if he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was 29, when his genius flame burned strongest? Or even if he’d been awarded the prize during his look-death-straight-in-the-puss TIME OUT OF MIND phase of the 1990s. He might have come up with something really interesting then.
But not this time. Dylan wrote about being a regular guy musician, as if his eyes have been on the highway or his ears on the sound check or the wiring of the mics since day 1! Yes, but…
…then why, when he first came to New York City, when his genius exploded right through his finger tips to the typewriter keys – did he hang out with the poets, write and rewrite and rewrite his song lyrics – on a typewriter? And keep all copies?! Say he decided to stick with the song writing career after he realized he could write his novels, his poetry through songs? Through music. A break through for Dylan at an early age. An epiphany we can all be thankful for!
I know I am!
I know the academy, snubbed and crapped on, STILL is!
Poetry, the BIBLE, SHAKESPEARE, carnival barkers, street jive, folk music that goes back to the stuff about roses growing through skulls…it’s all there in the hundreds of Dylan songs, in his gorgeous, gorgeous albums.
You should check a few out this Christmas … “offer your hand, (he)’ll grab you by the arm”!
Love you, Bob! Congrats on your Nobel Prize for Literature! WOW.