In May (2012) President Obama awarded The Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, to Bob Dylan. It’s his third, big, White House decoration—President Clinton having named him a Kennedy Center Honoree, and, in 2010, Obama having awarded him the National Medal of Arts. Could the Nobel be next? There’s been some big pushes for it.
In less lofty climes, I can report that my sons are such dedicated Dylanists that the oldest, Rick, has a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan framed on his living-room wall. Another one, Daniel, got five Dylan tickets from friends for his 21st birthday and proceeded to see him five times in 13 days. One of his best friends, Paul, came flying into our basement after the Colorado concert shouting, “I can’t wait ’til that guy dies!” “What?” I asked incredulously. “Because then he’ll be seen for what he really is: the greatest poet of the 20th century!” I named several counter nominees, all of whom Paul pronounced pikers in comparison.
What’s your take on what makes Dylan’s music so great?
For me it’s his uncanny blend of wild humor, sticky pathos, poetry that doesn’t quite make sense—but then again does, aggression and bitterness careening towards tenderness (or vice versa), the surprising melodies, the great hooks…. Then there’s his voice. He’s one of the greatest, most influential American singers, I’ve always thought. At least he’s in the trinity of my favorite singers, the other two being Ray Charles and Billie Holiday. Anyone could go on and on with lists of reasons like this, but allow me just two more points. First, his profound truth and meaning. One day he’ll have to accept that he wasn’t just the “voice of a generation” (something he’s always vehemently denied), but a voice for the whole history of our country itself. But most likely he won’t accept this and just riff on how funny it is for him to be getting all these medals. Ian Duncan, the Chicago Tribune reporter who titled his article (too cleverly) “Wind blows Dylan’s way for Medal of Freedom,” describes him as standing “inscrutable in black sunglasses” during the ceremony. And look at the picture I used for this post (by Jason Reed, Reuters), showing that at one point he stood—inscrutable, indeed—next to basketball coach Pat Summit while a Marine stood guard over his shoulder. It’s too perfect. The sight collisions alone would make a great Dylan song some day.
My second point, also about collisions. I’ve always loved the way the sacred blows into his songs, so that things get suddenly spiritual, even Biblical, and I don’t mean just during his “Christian phase.” There the atmosphere was often so spiritual, except in songs like “Serve Somebody,” I missed the surprise and uplift that occurs when the sacred and profane collide. I mean like the way Abraham and Isaac wind up on Highway 61 somewhere between Clarkdale, Mississippi, and Chicago, or like in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” where he asks a man for help, but “The man says, ‘Get out of here / I’ll tear you limb from limb / I said, ‘You know they refused Jesus too’ / And he said, ‘You’re not him.'” When Moses and the Great I Am suddenly show up in one of my son Daniel’s songs (check out Dan Guzman’s “CBS—Cool Black Sickness“), I know he’s got it as a song writer.
The Dylan article for one of Rolling Stone‘s many guides to rock ‘n’ roll says, “Like everyone else, Dylan sucked in the 80’s,” which I suppose he did, except that my favorite Dylan lyric has long been from an 80’s song, “Tight Connection to My Heart”—a little cheesy, yes, and, yes, from an album that somewhat sucked (Empire Burlesque). Still, this sudden blow up from a seemingly non-sense tangle of poetry and wild humor into spiritual images that lead to a stunning truth and a simple question about love always, always gets me:
There’s no stars tonight and they’re showing no moon
Just a hot-blooded singer singing “Memphis in June”
And outside they’re beating the hell out of a guy in a powder blue wig.
Later he’ll be shot for resisting arrest
I can still hear him crying in the wilderness
What looks large for a distance, up close ain’t never that big.
I never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine
I never could learn to hold you, love, and call you mine.
Has anybody seen my love? Has anybody seen my love?
I don’t know. Has anybody seen my love?
How did John the Baptist get in there? I don’t know. But anybody who’s ever suffered in love knows how exactly right it is to take the wine and blood of communion and switch them around. Nobel Prize? Based on this switch up alone, I’d sign the petition.