“All I can do is be me, whoever that is.”
Bob Dylan is all over the international media again since winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature, and the coverage has been (once again) a love-hate smörgåsbord.
In its first reporting of the award, The Telegraph sharpened its pickaxe and managed to dig up a half-dozen people with their own Nobel axes to grind who provided predictably bitter and caustic responses about how inappropriate it was to bestow this accolade on Bob Dylan. Then it followed up with a self-congratulatory (“World exclusive”…!!!) article that interspersed factual information about Dylan’s life and work with sly and snide asides that subtly rebuked him for being of independent mind.
On the love side, in a well-balanced contextual op-ed piece (The Meaning of Bob Dylan’s Silence) in the New York Times, Adam Kirsch provided a cogent explanation as to Dylan’s world-view and mindset. However a day or so later, another writer in the same newspaper (NY Times) dissected the second Telegraph article and, in doing so, slipped in a knife of innuendo: “We finally have an answer.” and: “…After a Two-Week Silence” essentially chiding Dylan for failing to genuflect upon demand and to deadline.
This dichotomy and divergence of opinion regarding Dylan should perhaps not be too surprising because the media is not a monolith. It is a cross-section of humanity; a living and breathing amalgam comprised of millions of writers and editors, each one with (ostensibly) a unique point of view. So, this being the case, rarely do they all come together with a universality of outlook, on anything. But many journalists have been piling on Dylan since day one.
Bob Dylan exploded into the music scene in the early 1960s. I first heard him on AM radio in 1964 and was witness first hand to much of the media-generated antipathy that surrounded him in the decades to follow, some of which is now surfacing again.
Videos comprised of film clips taken during that period have been appearing on YouTube for some time now. (Dylan, of course, was around long before there was ever a YouTube and, arguably, even before there was such a thing (as we know it now) as a pixel.) But more of the early clips have popped up there since the Nobel award was announced.
If one takes the time to go through a few of them, the seeds of the friction that continues to exist today between Dylan and the media can be found in many of those old interviews. Some are almost painful to watch.
The legions of Dylan’s young fans and followers in the 1960s have arguably been partially responsible for the obsessive media coverage he received. Many of them then were almost messianic in their ardour and unction. They publicly elevated him to godlike status and projected hidden meanings into his song lyrics. This deification naturally attracted media attention (Auberon Waugh’s “chattering classes”) and set the tone early for Dylan’s deconstruction.
So, since the beginning of his rise to fame as an entertainer, for all the good press he has received, many other journalists and pundits have attempted to define, mold, pigeonhole and shame Bob Dylan. They have harried, harassed and harangued him at every opportunity with the peevish demand that he humble himself and explain his music through them to the multitudes. Dylan, to his credit, has steadfastly refused to lay himself completely bare to them. He will not allow himself to be pigeonholed. His position is that he plays the music and his audience takes from it what they want.
In addition to this media enmity established early on, as Dylan’s social capital rose, the “tall poppy syndrome” kicked in. The more successful he became the more determined they were to cut him down to size. It didn’t work. Dylan often acted as if he didn’t need them. He remained elusive. He wouldn’t return calls. He eschewed interviews. That just fed the frenzy. In the minds of media he became a ‘mysterious figure’ [my quotes] and therefore a challenge to be unmasked, uncovered, exposed and suitably humbled.
Dylan moved to a home in upstate New York in 1966 and almost disappeared from public view for a number of years, after a motorcycle accident. This retreat from the music mainstream to a quiet rural setting (in the vein of a J.D. Salinger who moved to New Hampshire from Manhattan after becoming a successful novelist, rarely gave interviews and was reported by the New York Times as being “reclusive” and “…almost equally famous for having elevated privacy to an art form.”) did not spare him from increased media scrutiny about his personal life.
The 1966 motorcycle accident was a singular event, a mishap. No other vehicle or person was involved and no one except Dylan was injured, however the circumstances of what supposedly happened were sliced, diced and second-guessed by journalists for years after the fact. Almost forty years later a 2004 article in American Heritage (The Bob Dylan Motorcycle-Crash Mystery) hinted (“Rumors have long circulated that he was recovering from a heroin addiction.”) that the accident could have been tied to drug use.
Regardless of how others might view him, Bob Dylan is firmly on record as seeing himself as a singer, songwriter and musician. In a filmed interview in 1965 (and look this one up on YouTube if you want some insight into the expectations of both fans and media at that time) he appears to be struggling with the callow inanity of many of the questions. It is almost as if he can’t believe what he is hearing. Nevertheless he dutifully answers them, even though what he says is not what his audience wants to hear. He gives them (what looks like) lighthearted honesty. They are looking for profundity.
In response to a question: “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or as a poet?” he says with an impish grin, “Well, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, you know.”, and breaks up the audience. But they continue to bear down on him looking for something Dylan can’t or won’t give them and you can see the misunderstanding and disappointment magnifying in the room as he just continues to be Dylan regardless of who they would have him be and what pedestal they would place him on.
In a more comfortable interview later in life (2005) with Ed Bradley on the current affairs television show 60 Minutes, he spoke about his early experiences as a performer, and of the expectations of others during those early years: “You feel like an imposter when someone thinks you’re something, and you’re not.” and: “It was like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story. You’re just not that person everybody thinks you are although they call you that all the time.”
In the recent complimentary New York Times op-ed, Adam Kirsch compared the meaning of a Dylan song lyric to a public statement made by the French philosopher, novelist and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre who also won the Nobel Prize for literature but declined the honour. Kirsch suggested that they both meant the same thing.
“Mr. Dylan was talking to an imaginary lover, Sartre to an actual Swedish Academy, but the message was similar: If you love me for what I am, don’t make me be what I am not.”
Is Bob Dylan deserving of the Nobel Prize for literature? Without a doubt. He is many things: singer, songwriter, poet, musician, genius, enigma and his body of work speaks for itself. For those in the media who would seek to discredit him because he doesn’t kowtow to them, best get over it. He is just Dylan being Dylan. I say bravo to that, and congratulations. REG
Links for additional information:
Official website: http://bobdylan.com/