After not getting nearly as much sleep as I needed last night, the first thing I saw when I woke up was an alert on my cell phone that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize. I was surprised, enlivened, filled with happiness and a sense of the possible. This was in stark contrast to almost everything I see in front of us today with the on-going trauma of Trumpism.
Of course, not everyone will feel just this way or this way at all. I’m a fan and more than a fan. Dylan’s music has woven its way through the story of my own life, through childhood immersion through parents and parents’ friends to obsession as a teenager and young adult to periods of slacked attention and then renewed and deepened connection in my forties when I realized that an entirely new phase of Dylan’s music had emerged in the decade and more since I’d fallen out of touch.
Here’s one nugget that I like. It’s Barack Obama being interviewed in Rolling Stone talking about Dylan’s performance at the White House in February 2010 where he performed a recognizable but re-candenced version of the Times They Are A Changin’.
Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. 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 to 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.
These are both important people to me. This is how I’d prefer both of them be.
I don’t have a lot of time for songs like ‘Times’, though this was a refreshing version – not because they aren’t great but because they’re too great. Or to put it differently, their fame and renown have run them through so many times as to beat out of them any sense of newness and mystery, at least for me.
That he not busy being born is busy dying
This morning I was thinking of lesser known songs from what is considered one of his more fallow periods …
They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way
Or just this …
Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me
Or in a different vein …
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?
I have always thought the three albums Dylan released under the sway of Christianity are some of his most underrated, least explored, simply because for many of his listeners they’re just too inaccessible and alien.
Then there’s the late rebirth …
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing
Dylan’s lyrics are often surreal and alien, oracular and arresting. Yet his music is deeply American, mining musical traditions that emerge up out of soil and for the most part only half appear in the elite understanding of the American past. This is the America I know: a Jewish kid from the frozen northern borderlands of United States making music in, building from the traditions of Southern blacks and Southern whites. Trumpism has deep American roots as well. We can’t write it out of who we are. But this other America is the one I know, aspire to be some minor part of.
I don’t have any particular thoughts on the Nobel other than that it is the Nobel and it just amounts to a kind of affirmation. On any other day this is all I would be thinking about. But today or yesterday and probably tomorrow, it grounds me in who I am and what kind of America I want to be part of.