Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

I can’t say I’m very invested in the debate about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but I can picture how the deliberations might have played out. The plus side is fairly simple. His songwriting played an enormous role in shaping the sensibilities of a seismic cultural shift in the 1960s and thus (insofar as it was a seismic shift) of cultural trajectories thereafter. I imagine all at the table would also grant that Dylan has proven himself both a great and highly prolific songwriter.

But, respond the naysayers, songwriting is at least as much about instrumentation and melody and musical coordinates as it is about the verbal. Dylan may have had as profound an impact on culture as such previous winners as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, but does the verbal element in the songs, on the page without the music, reach the same level of word-built architecture as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Song of Solomon? Or if one defines “literature” more broadly to include the musical elements, then does the next short list include McCartney/Lennon and a host of other songwriting megastars? Such stars deserve their awards but should a literature award be reserved for more purely literary forms? Or should we just give awards for art in general, avoiding all discrimination of genres?

The arguments that weighed against the choice of Dylan must have been no light load. Perhaps we could say that a purely formalist assessment of the words Dylan has written weigh against the choice. This is not to slight the formal beauty of Dylan’s output (I share the enthusiasm for the early Dylan songs of dubious love, social justice, and the crash of human nature into the historical moment, but for the full artful textures of songs and lyrics, give me Blood on the Tracks), but when measured specifically against other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one might argue that the verbal element on the page in Dylan has not the same stature. But then the historical assessment — the gigantic, multidisciplinary cultural impact – swings back in his favor.

I will leave the pendulum swinging, or if you prefer, suspended in mid-air, to make a curious observation about Dylan’s songs and historical impact. For being such a powerful catalyst for the counter-cultural tide of late 1960s hippiedom and all that came after it, Dylan’s own temperament is not at all “hippie.” If he is a poet, he is a Beat Generation poet, with a little extra 1930s social protest thrown in. Sure, there are threads of idealism, or at least an awareness of the seismic cultural shift (“the times they are a-changing”) in Dylan, but for the most part, any idealism in Dylan remains simmering under the rubble of gritty realism, and tales of hard times in boxcars and back alleys, and a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away (think of “The Idiot Wind’s” chilling response to the woman who misunderstands him, or the all-time masterpiece of schadenfreude, “Like A Rolling Stone,” or even the cynical humor in the love songs). One more easily pictures him among the black-clad poets of North Beach than among the colorful bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. It’s easy to imagine Dylan fidgeting in impatience at the naïve idealism of the flower child generation, although the movers and shakers of that generation, from Jimi Hendrix to the Byrds, were drawing vital energy from Dylan’s repertoire.

The irony of that disconnect between Dylan’s innate cynicism, his street realism, and let’s say it – his crankiness – and the beautiful, flowery idealism he helped spawn, may in fact be one way of explaining his smirk at his own fame, the distemper that always seems to dog the space between him and any award he receives. It’s almost as if he sees his counter-cultural minions – and the award committees honoring him – and he looks skyward and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Or to focus back on the irony of the Nobel Prize itself, he wants that recognition for his art – for the sheer formal beauty and power of the songs – but shakes his head at the fact that the real recognition is coming not for that formal beauty but for the historical impact of his songs, an impact curiously out of sync with the Beat-shaded sensibility in which they were written. I imagine that Dylan gets the irony. Perhaps much more than the award committees do. Can we blame him then, if commingled with genuine gratitude, he brings that quiet Dylan smirk to the ceremony?

See also Led Zeppelin and Dr. Freud 

Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud

If one were to apply the Freudian schema of id, ego, and superego to the rock spectrum of the late 60s and 70s, Led Zeppelin would be an obvious candidate for the id. From the ominous chord progressions of Kashmir to the haunting Robert Plant vocals, Zeppelin’s sonic universe expresses in every nuance the power of the dark drives that animate the human psyche. By contrast, the Beatles symbolize the superego, crystallizing in song after song the ideals and aspirations of their generation. If one had to pick an exemplar of the ego in this schema, offering tales of everyday grit and grind where the rubber meets the road, Bob Dylan would cast fine in that role.

Led Zeppelin lacks both the street cynicism of Dylan and the idealism of the Beatles, but that vacuum is more than filled with the powerful rhythms of the id. Even when Zeppelin ventures into the zone of idealism, the zone of the superego, it is engulfed by the dominant passion of the id. “Going to California,” for example, presumably a paean to that icon of hippie ideals and author of the song “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell, starts out with Jimmy Page’s gentle guitar notes, with Plant’s contemplative tone and lyrical “aching” for the ideal. But Plant cannot survive in these waters, and the vocals pitch from pensive to agonizing quite abruptly in the second stanza, like some irresistible return of the repressed. Plant is self-possessed enough to know he has crafted a song that takes him out of his element, and he cries out to anyone who can hear: “I think I might be sinking … throw me a line.” Zeppelin knows that if they wander too far from the land of the id into the land of sentiment, they will drown. And from that knowledge comes their musical power.

An even more pointed example of the resilience of the id as Zeppelin’s home key is the tortured love song, “Babe I’m Going to Leave You,” from their 1969 debut album. In the sonic universe of some other band, “I’m never, never, never gonna leave you” would be a sweet and soothing line, a meme of unconditional love. In “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” it launches perhaps the most chilling scream in Plant’s ample canon of chilling screams. If this is love, it is love manifest as a tormented addiction. The song ends with a vision of the two lovers walking in the park, but this park seems landscaped and maintained by the Recreation Department of Hell itself. Even Zeppelin’s less conflicted “Whole Lotta Love” remains impossibly distant from the tender love of Lennon/McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere.”

The Beatles, in fact, work the opposite way, starting with a vast array of songs that partly capture and partly create the hippie zeitgeist, with “All You Need Is Love” and “Revolution” as perhaps twin pillars of this thematic layer. When they venture into the subject matter of the id, say via the amoral meaningless violence of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the sonic universe keeps us in the idealized realm. Despite the lyrics, it remains playful, bouncy, rich in sheer aesthetic pleasure. We’re as upbeat about Maxwell’s murderous rampage as we are terrified by Led Zeppelin’s love song. The Beatles weave every dark thread into the visionary tapestry of the superego, and Zeppelin pulls everything back to the id.

A final conclusion of this schema is that the Beatles are the only real “hippie” band of the three. Bob Dylan is pure Beat Generation, as epitomized by the cynical, street-bound, gritty realism of “Tangled Up in Blue.” I suspect he was a little distrustful of hippie idealism, and would be more at home among the black-leathered coffee shop poets of North Beach. Donovan might take the same folk meters and acoustic-harmonica instrumentation as Dylan and transmute it into something like “Catch the Wind,” a beautiful, dreamy soundtrack for the motley-colored flower children of Golden Gate Park. (And Donovan brings a Jungian dimension to our schema, with songs like “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis” rummaging through the collective unconscious for Messianic forces to usher in the Age of Aquarius.) One can even picture solid Beat icons like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg roaming freely among those bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. But not Dylan. He remains a creature of the ego. “When the Levee Breaks” for Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, all hell breaks loose from the depths of the id. “In the Evening,” one of the last songs before John Bonham’s death, echoes the hypnotic quality of Kashmir, dragging the listener into the rhythm of the band’s own compulsions, as the main riff continues to pound in the mind after the song is over. Even in the famous excesses of their touring lifestyle, Led Zeppelin was always something other than hippie, other than Beat, something dark and primal, something to which, for better or for worse, we can all relate.

Songs Cited

Led Zeppelin

Kashmir
YouTube
MP3
Going to California
YouTube
MP3
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
YouTube
MP3
Whole Lotta Love
YouTube
MP3
When the Levee Breaks
YouTube
MP3
In the Evening
YouTube
MP3

Beatles

Here, There, and Everywhere
MP3
All You Need Is Love
MP3
Revolution
MP3
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
MP3

Bob Dylan

Tangled Up in Blue
YouTube
MP3

Joni Mitchell, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Woodstock
YouTube
MP3

Donovan

Catch the Wind
YouTube
MP3
Hurdy-Gurdy Man
YouTube
MP3
Atlantis
YouTube
MP3