Share this article

print logo

'He is who he is': Bob Dylan thumbs his nose at Nobel

"Impolite and arrogant."

That's what Per Wastberg of the Swedish Academy's Nobel Prize Committee called Bob Dylan's silence on their decision to give him the Nobel Prize for literature. But then as Wastberg reportedly told one Swedish newspaper "he is who he is."

I'll say.

Which is why I'd add a couple more adjectives to Dylan's behavior in the face of one of the greatest cultural honors that Western Civilization knows how to bestow: delightful and funny.

I'm not a member of the Svenska Akademien, so if Dylan wants to drive them crazy wondering whether he'll accept the prize or not, it's perfectly jake with me. That's karma for ignoring Nabokov, Borges and Calvino -- all of whom would have acknowledged the award even if Nabokov might possibly have done so by razing it to the ground -- and opting instead for a gloriously perverse American singer/songwriter who likes to call himself a "song and dance man."

Anyone who finds that ostentatiously folksy should remember that among Dylan's recent gestures on record is to sing the whole disc of Sinatra and Sinatresque repertoire from the Great American Songbook.

Amateurs in Dylanology, like me, have to consult professional Dylanologists. And they're on record telling us all that all mention of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was expunged from the man's website on Oct. 21.

There wasn't much to begin with. It only existed there at all because the site hawked a book called "The Lyrics 1961-2016" and, in that context, mentioned that he'd just won the Nobel. Not anymore. That's gone, too. The prize founded by the inventor of dynamite doesn't get word one on Dylan's website at the moment. And may never.

What is on his website is one simple and terse statement: "It's for myself and my friends, my stories are sung." In other words, not for fancy shmancy prize givers.

What we all have to remember is that Dylan is so willful, changeable and perverse that anything that's true at this exact second could morph into its exact opposite in the next second.

He's capable of seriously taking up Judaism or Christianity whenever he jolly well feels like it. For that matter, he's also capable of doing a Victoria's Secret commercial. Whenever he's presented with a major establishment gesture of tribute, he's capable of thumbing his nose at it or flipping the bird to it.

Let's get real here so we can "unpack" this as people like to say these days.

It's not as if the Swedish Academy didn't know who this guy is. When you give an award to a man who embodies a particular American song tradition -- the Woody Guthrie tradition -- he's liable to remember at that moment the political radicalism that accompanied his public advent in the world.

It's all in the great American tradition. When William Faulkner was invited to a huge White House dinner for artists and culture heroes, he said "it's a long way to go just for dinner." Woody Allen went to the ballet in a tuxedo and sneakers. When they gave him an Oscar, he was playing neo-Bechet clarinet with his traditional jazz band in Manhattan.

One can well understand Dylan's unease. His brilliance is as well and long-documented as his prickliness and unpredictability. He knows very well that a Nobel to him and not any of the obvious American literary candidates (Oates, Roth, DeLillo) is a deliberately exclusionary gesture on the part of the Swedes.

I think that as exclusionary and insulting as prize gestures go, it's an exciting one.

But if you're Dylan and you've occasionally expressed dismay at how other people praise his lyrics and not his music, you might want to tell the prize folks to take their literary prize and shove it (as fellow song lyricist Johnny Paycheck might have put it in his blunt contribution to American song lyrics).

That's a very tricky subject. A whole large book could be written about it. Dylan has indeed written very beautiful songs. But maintaining an equality of both lyrics and melodies would be a tough sell.

Maybe one of the reasons he wanted to make a record of songs from the Great American Songbook is that he knows full well that the true miracle of someone like Cole Porter is that one man wrote some of the most beautiful and elegant melodies in pop music of his time and, simultaneously, some of the wittiest and most exquisite lyrics ever.

One of the last things anyone is ever likely to mention in this context is money. That's why I'm going to mention it.

A fair amount of dough comes with the Nobel Prize for Literature -- in the million dollar neighborhood, a very nice neighborhood we'll all agree.

There are, no doubt, many past winners whose lives and financial circumstances completely changed winning the prize. When the body of your work is as large Dylan's, one has to assume that the royalties on his songs and his income from concert performances are substantial yearly.

Hollywood people have an old folk expression for that kind of money: blank you money.

My guess is that Dylan has been sitting on a whole lot of such money for decades. He may well keep on using it up to and past Dec. 10, the date of the Nobel Award Ceremony. He may be silent about the prize that long, or longer.

Just look at his website. For the moment, it seems, his professed artistic ethic couldn't be simpler: "It's for myself and my friends, my stories are sung."

You've gotta love it.

 

There are no comments - be the first to comment