It was almost inevitable that there would be chorus of – not even rhyming – moaning from the guardians of high culture when Bob Dylan was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Bad enough that Bob’s a “pop star”, even worse that he’s actually been part of the soundtrack of our lives and our very consciousness for decades.
By contrast, who can forget the huge impact of Orhan Pamuk, Imre Kertész or Herta Müller have had on the popular consciousness? Yes, they are all former recent winners in case you’re wondering.
Geography and politics seem to have as much to do with the awards of late as any literary significance, not that we plebs are capable of judging such lofty matters, of course.
It would be possible to fill an entire 800-word column with just the titles of some of Bob’s better-known songs, before we start dipping into the actual lyrics. But it’s not just his phenomenal – and continuing! – productivity that is frankly astounding, it’s the quality and impact of his work that marks him out.
Much will be made of his “protest” songs over the next few days, no doubt, but that was only the precocious tip of what has proved to be a complex, compendious, sometimes baffling, but always intriguing body of work.
It’s worth putting Bob’s impact in historical context to get his measure. Not only did he write the celebrated anthems from the 1960s that actually sparked some people into political action – suck on that, Dario Fo – but he had a huge impact on his peers, too.
Bob famously turned the Beatles on to the joys of smoking pot and profoundly influenced the quality and ambition of their music in the process. It’s worth remembering that when the Beatles released Help (pure pop) in 1965, Bob made Bringing it All Back Home, which included Mr Tambourine Man and It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – both epics by the standards of the time - amongst others.
In the same year Highway 61 was released with Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row and Ballad of Thin Man. Even the titles were and are astounding. One of the first singles I ever bought – unbelievably at this distance, before I was even a teenager – was Positively 4th Street, which still seems mysterious and exotic – rather like Bob himself, in fact.
I shall refrain from endlessly listing Bob’s greatest hits, but it wasn’t just the ‘60s and the likes of Blonde on Blonde – a double album no less – that merits this award. The 1960s was a purple patch like no other, though.
Yet some of his best albums – Blood on the Tracks, for example (good title, Bob) – actually came later. Even in his dotage he’s still knocking out some good ones – Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, to name only two.
The point about Bob is that for some of us he’s part of our intellectual furniture. The world would be a slightly different place without him, and not just subjectively. It’s not just because certain phrases and even ways of thinking about things have become part of the consciousness of many people of my generation, but he provided a genuine voice for many of the things that were and are important.
The fact that Bob’s increasingly and rightly preoccupied with his own demise – “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” – is really rather wonderful, too, I think. Bob’s been assisting me to navigate some of life’s more challenging passages for over half a century – it would be a shame if he stopped now. You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go, Bob.
Does he deserve the Noble Prize? My bloody oath! He’s the only bona fide genius pop music has ever produced.
At a time when everyone from sports stars to cooks get described as “geniuses” Bob’s a reminder of what they actually look like. It’s just really lucky for us that he decided to channel it into such an accessible and literate form. If all of this isn’t meritorious, it’s hard to know what is.
Now that the Nobel committee has at least temporarily abandoned political correctness, let’s hope they give one to Philip Roth before he dies. He’s a Yank and a man, but that shouldn’t necessarily be held against him.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia