The first article I ever had published in a national magazine was a little essay about poetry in rock lyrics. I wrote it for a college course on magazine journalism and submitted it to a now-defunct publication called Music Journal, inspired by an English teacher who felt that Bob Dylan and the Beatles were producing some of the more interesting poetry of the day. Dr. Potter intoned “I read the news today, oh boy” (from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”) as if it were a line from “The Wasteland.”
Here we are some 45 years later and the world has finally caught up. Bob Dylan—an artist I’ve idolized since high school—last week won the Nobel Prize for literature. As Dylan himself might say, “I see the turning of the page / Curtain rising on a new age” (from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”).
The announcement got me playing the Dylan classics again. I have so many albums. Back in the day, I would ardently await each new release and earnestly discuss the content with my friends, arguing over the meaning. I have many titles in multiple formats, from vinyl to MP3.
The language is inspired—the poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan and even toured with Dylan for a time—and the rhyme schemes complex (I never tire of parsing the intricate rhythms of “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” an early song Dylan wrote for Joan Baez and never recorded himself). And then there are the stories.
Dylan can wrap a complete novella, with a beginning, a middle and an end, into the form factor of a popular song. Take “Hurricane” (written with Jacques Levy), the real-life story of the New Jersey boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who was jailed for murders he did not commit. It’s practically a work of journalism.
“Black Diamond Bay” tells of a woman trapped on a tropical island that’s about to get walloped by a volcano in the musical equivalent of a comic disaster movie. “Blind Willie McTell” takes us to the Old South and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” to the Old West.
With “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (recorded when Dylan was part of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup), we are in New Jersey in the company of a pair of small-time crooks (“In Jersey everything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught”). And “Highway 61 Revisited” paints an absurdist landscape filled with wheeler-dealers and schemers of all sorts. I can’t help thinking of Election 2016. “We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun / And have it on Highway 61.”
I recently read a long article in the New Yorker about Leonard Cohen, another rock poet whose career has roughly paralleled Dylan’s. In one telling section, Dylan asks Cohen how long it took him to write his anthem “Hallelujah.” The answer is five years. Cohen then asks how long Dylan spent writing “I and I,” a haunting song from the “Infidels” album. Bob replies, “About 15 minutes.”
How does he do it? It’s a mystery—but one we all can enjoy. Don’t wait another minute. Put on “Desire” or “Blonde on Blonde” and let’s celebrate Bob.