Hail King Bob, Noble of literature

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Bob Dylan (photo: YouTube)

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953 was awarded to Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values". This month the award went to Bob Dylan for much the same reason.

Something's happening here and you don't know what it is ... do you Mr Jones ...


Hail King Bob, Noble of literature.

For more than 50 years Bob Dylan has played the soundtrack to my life.

It began as I hunched over a portable record player that was shaped like, and in the garish colours of, a Barbie doll suitcase with speakers in the lid. Mesmerised, I listened "in naked wonder" to tracks from The Freewheeling Bob Dylan – his second album.

The photo on the cover sleeve was Dylan walking arm in arm with his girlfriend, Suzie Rotolo, down a snow-covered New York street a block away from where they shared an apartment.

Tracks such as “Blowin’ in the wind”, “Masters of war”, “Don't think twice”, “It’s all right” and “Talking World War III blues – I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours" – were nothing like I had ever heard.

I was totally hooked. Elsewhere my friends were twisting and shouting to the Beatles, or imagining they were riding in a “Little Deuce Coupé” singing “Ba Ba Ba Babra Anne” with the Beach Boys. So I thought, well: "You go your way and I'll go mine” (Blonde on Blonde).

And now, well into my 60s, I remain addicted: "Shadows are falling and I've been here all day/ it's not dark yet but it’s getting there (“Not dark yet. Time out of mind”).

I own close to 60 Bob Dylan CD's – all the official releases and most of the Bootlegs – I have a full shelf of books about Dylan, including several biographies, one autobiography, commentaries and a virtually impenetrable literary criticism of his work by Christopher Ricks, professor of humanities at Boston University and former professor of English at the universities of Boston and Cambridge.

Pride of the collection is a fascinating, loving and very gentle biography of his early years by Rotolo herself, titled A Freewheelin Time – the claim of Rotola’s awakening Dylan's political consciousness finally ratified.

Dylanologists is what they label people who "follow" Dylan, according to David Kinney, author of The Dylanologists, in which he writes, "Bob Dylan is the most influential songwriter of our time and after half a century he remains a cultural, touchstone and enigma of endless fascination."

My journey to Dylan began in the late 50's  with a LP by jazz drummer Gene Krupa, a standup "gramophone" and a wannabe "Beatnik" cousin Gavin Stewart.  

Gavin played the double bass in a Jazz trio,  he was cool and hip and I wanted to be like him. 

He led me to the "Beats" stream-of-consciousness writer and reluctant heir to James Joyce, Jack Kerouac (On the road), beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – who opened City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco – and Neal Cassidy, their sometime lover driver, muse.

Irreverent, brooding, hip and happening they deconstructed everything in sight over bottomless bottles of alcohol and cups of coffee burning the midnight oil in coffee bars in San Francisco, New York's Greenwich Village and Berkley, reading Blake and discussing Arthur Rimbaud – theirs a season in creative heaven inspired by Rimbaud's Season in Hell.

And this emerges the fertile ground for much of Dylan's inspiration - if you listen closely - the hip like a locomotive (it takes a lot to laugh but it takes a train to cry - Highway 61 revisited) in through the landscape Woody Gutherie's Dustbowl.

Meanwhile from the dry dustbowl of Woody Gutheie's  "this land is your land this land is my land" Dylan "bound for glory" blew into town,  and headed straight for Grenwhich Village, armed with his guitar and a harmonica in a neckbrace.

There  he embraced the Beats and their thinking to the degree that he and Allen Ginsburg became close friends.

In 1978 an interview with Playboy writer Ron Rosenbaum, Dylan said: “I am interested in all aspects of life. Revelations and realizations. Lucid thought that can be translated into songs, analogies, and new information. I am better at it now. I haven't come to the place that Rimbaud came to when he decided to stop writing and run guns in Africa.”

And I was thinking of Dylan when I visited City Lights at the turn of the century to buy a copy of HOWL, Ginsberg's poetical rant at the American consumer machine.

In the late 1960's Dylan jumped out of the window of the bookshop to escape a crush of fans. X marks the paving stone where he landed. And I stood there looking up at the window: "Hey, come crawl out your window/ Use your hands and legs it won't ruin you” (“Please crawl out your window", The Cutting Edge Bootleg, Vol 1 65–6).

Today I imagine Bob Dylan in Washington Square, New York, standing bold but humbled on the shoulders of those pioneering entrepreneurs of the written word and adventurers of spirit, leaders whom I have stood there gazing reciting: "Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll/ We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing/ As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds/ Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing” (Chimes of Freedom – Another Side of Bob Dylan).

Hardly a day goes by that I do not summon the muse of Dylan to comment on an event or occurrence, or call upon a Dylan riposte to counter one remark or another. On South Africa, thanks to the Zuptas: "The pumps don’t work ‘cause the vandals stole the handles."

For lost love: “She turned around to look at me/ As I was walkin' away/ I heard her say over my shoulder/ We'll meet again some day/ On the avenue” (“Tangled up in blue” from Blood on the Tracks).

Hiking: “You're a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds,/ Manipulator of crowds, you're a dream twister” (Jokerman, “Infidels”).

That's it if you follow the world according to Dylan, a wandering minstrel with his guitar, harmonica and nasal voice – whose commentaries on the "human condition", for that's what his songs are, have won him a Nobel Prize.

His most recent CD, titled Fallen Angels – a follow-up to 2015's Shadows in the Night – is a continuation of the grunts and croaks he vents over songs that Sinatra, Dean Martin and like-minded Brylcreemed lounge lizard crooners made hits.

Asked why he was doing "covers", Dylan replied, “I am ‘uncovering’ them.”

And uncovering songs – folk songs, gospel songs, worker songs and songs that talk of and to "lost generations" – the outsiders defined by Camus and Colin Wilson – is what Bob has always done.

Little did he guess, when as Robert Zimmerman he left home, the "iron hills" of Duluth, Minnesota, that he would create what the Nobel committee cited as "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition".

This is what US President Barak Obama had to say after a recent Dylan performance at the White House:

Here’s what I love about Dylan: he was exactly what you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsals. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up for that. He came in and played “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage – I’m sitting right in the front row – comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it – then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.

* News just in is that no one it seems able to contact Bob for comment about his win, in spite of their "knock, knock, knocking on (Heaven’s) door".

Why bother. After all, he sang about winning prizes in “Day of the locusts”: "There was little to say, there was no conversation as I stepped to the stage to pick up my degree” (“New Morning”).

In fact, all Bob Dylan ever wants to say is in the songs ... all we have to do is listen – which is exactly what the Nobel committee, to their credit, has done. As for the rest, it is just "blowing in the wind".

But then again, as far as Dylan is concerned:

I'm looking up into the sapphire tinted skies
I'm well dressed, waiting on the last train
Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
Any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose
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.

               (“Things have changed”, Modern Times, 2006)

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  • Influences at the best of times are hard to pin down but the genealogy that relates Dylan to the Beats is I think correct. Dylan confirms the connection when he endorses Jack Kerouac's On The Road, saying: "It changed my life like it changed everyone else's". The award to Bob Dylan of the Nobel Prize for Literature reflects upon the milieu that Holtzhausen highlights, from which Kerouac emerges as an influential author, one of many never to win the Nobel Prize. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/one-book-ode-road-neil-rusch?trk=mp-author-card

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