I was born during wartime, and during the first decade of Bob Dylan’s long career. Later that same month, the Tet Offensive began — a major turning point in the Vietnam War. After Tet, the Americans who had been “on the fence” realized that the USA was not going to win that war, and these fence-sitters added their voices to the loud anti-war message already being voiced from the late 1960s counterculture. We took several more years to extricate ourselves from that war, and those years were my formative years.
Early in life, I developed a fascination with the decade of my 1968 birth. The first related thing I studied, in detail, was the music and history of the Beatles. Beatles’ music led me to books about that band, and this added to my reading vocabulary, although, in some cases, my speaking vocabulary lagged behind. This happened with Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, who pops up in many written accounts of the Beatles’ career. In my early teens, I had read many things about a musician with a name that looks like it should be pronounced “Die-lan,” and I had also heard talk about a person with a last name pronounced like that of the actor Matt Dillon. It’s funny now, but I was absolutely mortified when I first realized I had been mispronouncing Dylan’s name, and confusing him with Dillon, the actor. Determined not to repeat such a mistake, I broadened my studies of the counterculture, and educated myself about the real Bob Dylan.
Later, as a senior in high school, I encountered the work of Dylan in another context, when I took AP English. The song lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” were in our literature textbook. Via YouTube, here is Dylan himself presenting those same lyrics.
I graduated from high school in 1985. Because I read this song, presented as a poem, before actually hearing it, I was prepared to think of Dylan’s work as literature, and not merely as popular music from an earlier decade. When the Nobel Committee selected Dylan for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, I was both unsurprised, and pleased. Many have criticized this Nobel selection, but it makes perfect sense. The counterculture of the 1960s has a body of literature, and I’ve read quite a bit of it, such as books by Ken Kesey, John Lennon, and Abbie Hoffman, as well as many other writers. This period of astounding creativity produced a unique body of literature, and the time has definitely come to recognize the best of that literature with a Nobel Prize. I know of no one associated with the counterculture who deserves it more than Dylan.
Back in the pre-Google era, of course, we had to go to considerable trouble to get music — much more so than the few clicks of a mouse it takes today. The reason the Beatles came first, for me, is simply that Beatles albums were among the purchases previously made by my parents. Dylan’s music was not among this collection of records. The Dylan album I had read the most about was Highway 61 Revisited, and that led to a funny conversation with an old friend of mine — a guy named Max. Max was perhaps ten years older than me, and was a music aficionado who prized himself on his knowledge of all things Dylanesque. The first time some friends and I listened to music at Max’s house, I asked him to play Highway 61 Revisited, but that particular record was not in Max’s large music collection. Here’s the title track of that album.
You can now buy every track of this album, as a collection of .mp3 files, for a mere $5 on Amazon, but that was not the case back then.
Max ended up going to the local record store (as we called them in the 1980s), and telling the store owner (another old friend) that an 18-year-old kid had asked him to play Highway 61 Revisited, leaving him embarrassed that he didn’t have the requested music available already. The shop owner set him up with a copy, and I (finally!) got to hear it shortly thereafter, for the first time.
Since then, I’ve seen Dylan perform live twice, and I have many friends who are as into Dylan, or more so, than I am. Today, if I post a Facebook status that asks why “the pump don’t work,” one of my friends will answer — “‘Cuz the vandals took the handles” — within mere minutes.
Dylan’s career took many twists and turns, especially during the controversial period when he had been “born again,” as it was put, and he simply refused to perform or record any music which did not express his religious ideas. Many Dylan fans won’t even listen to his music from this period, but I like all the Dylan songs I’ve ever heard. This is my favorite of the songs from that period: “Gotta Serve Somebody.” One need not have any particular religious belief to appreciate a good song.
Dylan himself may not be interested in his Nobel Prize, any more than he knows that I appreciate his work. These things do not affect the fact that he deserves the Nobel, as well as my gratitude. Robert Zimmerman: thank you.