Bob Dylan: Martyred for the Culture
“There is no worse fate than being subjected to praise. Georg Johannesen spoke about ‘praise competence’. The distinction is redundant, it implies that valuable praise exists, but it doesn’t. and the higher the authority the worse it is”, Karl ove Knausgaard’s fictitious version of himself says to his friend and aspiring writer, Geir, in Vol 2. of his autobiographical novel “My Struggle”.
To be a writer you must read. To be part of literature you must write. Therefore, being part of the literary canon constitutes being well read in the canon, in other words being familiar with the conventions that that respective tradition of work is subject to. Then, presumably, once being familiar with these conventions one can perform within and then above them, but how? This seems very restricting and it is.
When David foster Wallace, an author who wrote probably the quintessential novel of the 90’s with “Infinite Jest” was asked to comment on what exactly is post modernism in a Charlie Rose interview, which is a form of the novel conceived within the 60’s and 70’s, he said “it was the first text that was highly self conscious, self conscious of itself as text, self conscious of the writer as persona, self conscious about the effects that narrative had on readers and the fact that readers probably knew that. It was the first generation of writers that had actually read a lot of criticism”. Before saying that he eventually realized, “the point of being postmodern or being avant garde or whatever, wasn’t to follow in a certain kind of tradition, that all that stuff is B.S. imposed by critics and camp followers afterwards, that what the really great artists do, and it sounds really trite to say it out loud, but what the really great artists do is that they are entirely themselves.”
Bob Dylan is a great artist. He undeniably was a literary force without ever having to make any declarations. He came from a folk tradition, having been heavily inspired by folk artist Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land is Your Land”. Guthrie was a folk singer who cried out against injustice as he circuited the country singing songs about the plight of the working class in a capitalistic society during the Great Depression.
In the midst of the conservative culture of the 50’s being unraveled by the hand of the chaotic 60’s into superstardom sprung Bob Dylan. From the tradition of folk music Dylan seemingly addressed the unrest and injustices occurring throughout the 60’s, which then effectively led to him being called the “voice of a generation”. This is something that for the rest of his career he tried to subvert. Whenever he thought his audience thought this of him, instead of yielding himself to their praise, he would end up going somewhere else. By challenging his audience’s notion of his identity he fought for the integrity of his work. It happened when he first abandoned these folk roots and "went electric", which spawned three albums of almost unequivocal creative expression, between 1965 and 1966 he released, “Bringing it All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”. These albums were mercurial, moody and when their moods exploded they were often disorienting and left one seeking an explanation, none were offered, as the lyrics yield to any concrete interpretation. All three albums hold a place on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest albums list.
In 1967 the summer of love is in full swing, the hippie movement typifying and the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s lonely Heart’s Club Band," an album which in sheer size and scope pushed the boundaries of pop music from within the studio confining their large orchestral arrangements. Meanwhile, Dylan went back to his acoustic guitar on “John Wesley Hardin”. Arrangements constituted bass, drums, keys, and harmonica – sparse. The lyrics too were economical, and yet, were more ambiguous and challenging then ever. Sheer country bumpkin music, but the essence no less searing, as proof by Jimi Hendrix interpretation of the album’s “All Along the Watchtower”.
With Dylan’s career and reputation now solidified his reputation became his musical identity, and with this his work would no longer be questioned on it’s own merits, but instead accepted. No longer driven to musical innovation in order to distinguish a new musical self, he reverted to subverting himself by way of self-sabotage. Proceeding to release albums that largely constituted half baked covers of his own material, or those of others, and making simply mediocre songs.
This period comes to a close when his artistic prowess is sparked and revitalized with the degradation of his own personal life when he became estranged from his wife Sara. 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” is quite simply one of the best break-up records ever made. If one were to make an argument of his liturgical skills one could point to “Simple Twist of Fate” or “Buckets of Rain”, personal favorites I confess.
When in an interview with 60 minutes Dylan was asked why so many viewed him as a “voice of a generation” he responds, “My songs were songs, not sermons”, and then clarifying that, “they must not have heard the songs”. He rejects being viewed as a songwriter, and this is most explicit in his two most recent releases. 2015’s “Shadows in the Night” and this year’s “Fallen Angels”. All the songs on these albums were once made famous by Frank Sinatra. When asked why cover these songs he said “I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter of fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day”.
Bob Dylan, conscious of himself and his legacy, decided to clarify himself with these past two releases. His intentions are clear, he need not ask the listeners to view him as a lyricist here for these are not his lyrics, the words on these last albums he has made his own in the pronouncement of them on the record. He never asked to be viewed as a Singer/Songwriter, but as somebody who sings songs – a professional recording artist.
Whether or not this Nobel Prize is given with merit, well, Bob Dylan is an unrepentant artist, who is often times unrelenting (when one omits his 80’s albums which largely fell victim too if not Dylan’s born again Christian hysteria than too shoddy 80’s production). His vision saw through pop music, folk music and the conventions of traditional music that were at that point being played on the radio. Dylan’s rise gave way to the modern conventions that dictate music, conventions he introduced. Bob Dylan provided a space for artists where, through their vision they are able to achieve mainstream success, you as an artist have poetic license and he granted that to all that followed him. Your songs can be about tambourine men, men who travel lost highways, lost souls, redeemable outlaws, false persecution, social injustice, the unrelenting winds, love lost, doing the wiggle-wiggle, self pity, god or anything – and it could get played on the radio.
What is interesting is Bob Dylan’s attempt in reclaiming his identity because, well, is that possible? For his perception is forever encased in the canon of American culture, that of a traveling troubadour poet who plays on endless tours singing his rhyme ‘til the day he dies. We have taken his vision and thrown it back into his face, the culture accepted him and then took him prisoner. In being the first person to freely set a pen to paper and then to radio, we turned up the dial, championed his words but never listened to them. He serves as somebody who reserved space for the artist within the mainstream, and now it’s understood that the artist must be heard, can be heard, and will be heard, but that doesn’t necessarily relate to enthusiasm upon the public to understand. We exalted him into this position and then casted iron around him. Heralded as modern day poet, a “voice of a generation”, and even a prophet, Bob Dylan thought not. He was just being Bob Dylan, however that so happened to manifest.
Bob Dylan feels as if he has been placed in Amber and with his latest records he attempted to provide a brush of nuance into what has become himself, and with this Nobel Prize, the highest authority on culture and literature, Bob Dylan has been trapped and his work made a caricature of itself, made a mockery of and as a consequence of his being crucified by the cultural hierarchy-reservations have been made on Bob’s behalf for future generations to dine.