So, as you may have already heard, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature today. This may or may not be interesting news to you, depending on a few things, but one big factor is age. If you are around my age, you probably have one of only a few possible relationships to his music:
- You have an older relative who is an absolute Dylan diehard who has taken every opportunity throughout your life to shove his music down your throat, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. You have probably, at some point, after sighing deeply and rolling your eyes, said the sentence, “Yes, Uncle Joe, I know Nashville Skyline is his true underrated masterpiece, but this is Thanksgiving, and I really just want to have some pie and watch the Packers beat the Lions.” To you I say, I hope your pie was pecan, I would bet the Lions lost by 40 that year, and while your Uncle Joe is a little pushy, he’s not wrong, and you should give Dylan more of a chance, and I will hopefully convince you of that below.
- You don’t really listen to Dylan, but you’re aware of him and his music in a general sense, and you know that you’re supposed to say he was good and important and influential when having conversations about music history, but just don’t really give a shit all that much and are content listening to the things you know you like. To you I say, you’re missing out, but do you. Live your best Dylan-less life. You can stop reading this now if you want, but below I try to explain a bit more why he was so beloved and important.
- You actively dislike him, and think he has a scratchy, nasally voice and all his songs sound like nonsense poems with the same four chords plodding along in the background. To you I say, wow that is harsh. Lighten up, man. I’m empathetic that his voice is a little rough on the ears at first listen, but once you get into him I promise one of his lyrics will suddenly smack you in the face with the realization that it perfectly says something you’ve always kinda thought, but never quite had the words for, and were pretty sure no one else had ever thought, but here you are, listening to Dylan tell it to you better than you ever told it to yourself. You can also stop reading now if you want, but maybe you’ll keep reading if I promise you that I’m not actually going to discuss any specific songs below, but just an interview where he exclusively uses his speaking voice. I would also say, again, lighten up, man.
- You just kinda started listening to him on your own, charted your own unique path through his discography, and have a solid set of his songs you know and love, but are quite aware of – and maybe even humbled and in awe of – the fact that continuing to explore his discography will probably be something you do for the rest of your life, and are the first to admit you have a woefully incomplete understanding of his work. (It me).
The one thing that people my age don’t have, and will never have, is the experience of listening to Dylan’s career as it unfolded, from the 60s to now. Which, unfortunately, is almost definitely the best way to have listened to him, if only because you had so much more time. To freshly start listening to Dylan now, and try to understand his career as it happened, you would have the tall order of listening to 30+ studio albums, hours of bootleg recordings, tens of hours of concert videos and interviews, countless essays from great writers about his music, his memoir, his paintings and sculptures, Martin Scorsese’s 208 minute documentary No Direction Home, and probably a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting or have never even heard of.
The bad thing about being forced into this approach is that you really have no other option. To try to know, like, and appreciate Dylan, you just have to start trying to tackle this massive body of work and digest as much as you can. The good thing about this approach is that you can do it absolutely however the fuck you want. Start with Uncle Joe’s favorite, Nashville Skyline, then jump to another album that has an album title that caught your eye. Start chronologically if you want, and try to trace his evolution for yourself. Make a playlist and cherry pick song titles you recognize and just listen to 10-15 songs for a while. Stay up until 4:00 am watching three and four minute YouTube clips in grainy black and white footage. His career is your oyster. This is the wonderful process of having unlimited access to virtually unlimited music and video content. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of listening to music. Take advantage.
When I started this process, at first I was just listening and reading as much as I could. But eventually, I had a 4:00 am YouTube night. I wanted to watch every Dylan clip that I could find on the internet. There’s a lot of good shit out there that I could write about. There’s the Judas concert, the Time magazine interview, or the one where he just plays with the words on a sign, just to name a few. But my favorite is the one embedded below, which is just an excerpt from No Direction Home (many YouTube clips are just excerpts ripped from No Direction Home), but uses great footage from a press conference in 1965.
He has three exchanges with reporters in this clip probably best explain why I find him so endearing. Here is my transcription:
R: I’d like to know about the cover of your album. I’d like to know the meaning in the photograph with you wearing the Triumph t-shirt.
Dylan: What would you like to know about it?
R: Well, I’d like to know — that’s an equivalent photograph. It means something. It’s got a philosophy in it, and I’d like to know visually what it represents to you, because you’re a part of that.
Dylan: Um, I haven’t really looked at it that much.
R: I’ve thought about it a great deal.
Dylan: It was just taken one day when I was sitting on the steps, you know. I don’t, uh, I don’t really remember anything too much about it.
R: But what about the motorcycle as an image in your songwriting? You seem to like that.
Dylan (lighting a cigarette): Well, we all like motorcycles, to some degree.
R: I do.
Reporter 2: Do you prefer songs with a subtle or obvious message?
Dylan: With a what?
R2: A subtle or obvious message.
Dylan: A message? You mean, like — what song with a message?
R2: Well, like, Eve of Destruction and things like that
Dylan (after a pause): Do I prefer that to what?
R2: I don’t know, but your songs are supposed to have a subtle message
Dylan: A subtle message?
R2: Well, they’re supposed to
(whole room laughs)
Dylan: Where’d you hear that?
R2: In a movie magazine
R3: Mr. Dylan, I know you dislike labels, and probably rightly so, but for those of us who are well over 30, could you perhaps label yourself and tell us what your role is?
Dylan: Well, I sort of label myself as well under 30, and my role is to, you know, just to stay here as long as I can.
Transcribing those words don’t do them justice because he says as much with his tone as he does with his words. In the first exchange, the reporter is asking him to explain the album cover of his recently released (at the time) album, Highway 61 Revisited. On the cover, Dylan is pictured sitting on a stoop, wearing a Triumph motorcycles t-shirt. The reporter asks the question in a way that sounds a lot like he’s really asking “I’m writing a piece on your new album and want to discuss the cover art, but I’m not sure my interpretation is correct. Please give me the definitive answer as to why you wore this shirt on your album cover so that I can be sure I’m not wrong.”
But Dylan deflects the question, because he senses what the reporter is really asking, and disagrees with the very premise of the question. Dylan, quite frankly, is just too smart for this shit. He understands the intentional fallacy and the separation between art and artist and the beauty of subjective interpretation. If he gave a direct answer that was just “The motorcycle symbolizes freedom, which is a recurring theme on the album,” then that reporter would go write an article about how Highway 61 is all about freedom, and he would go and revisit all of the lyrics and explain to his readers how they are about freedom. But in deflecting, Dylan preserves the album as a piece of art that can stand on its own and be interpreted and challenged however the listener wants.
Dylan made things that mattered and people cared about by not trying to do that and instead just making something he wanted to make and letting people decide that it mattered. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, that is still very much relevant to the today’s musical landscape.
The second exchange is a more comic example of the same idea, because the reporter asks a much less specific question in the same vein: “Do you prefer songs with a subtle or obvious message?” This is such a gloriously weird question that I’m so glad was asked at a video recorded conference so that we can preserve it for all time. I will show it to my grandchildren. How did she expect him to answer this question? By expounding at length about the difference between text and subtext, with examples of some of his favorite songs with each subtle and obvious meanings, and conclude by saying that he instills subtle messages in all his songs that only the real fans will get? If taken seriously, that question may require a 2,000 word answer. But again, Dylan sees the question as just a little too opaque, just a little too ridiculous, just a little too assuming.
So he asks her for an example and she cites “Eve of Destruction” (by Barry Mcguire, which also came out in 1965) as a song with a message. Still unsure about what exactly she’s getting at, he asks for a counterexample. At this point, the reporter realizes she’s not even quite sure what she’s asking: “I don’t know, your songs are supposed to have a subtle message.” Dylan repeats her: “A subtle message?” and the now embarrassed reporter replies “Well, they’re supposed to.” The whole room laughs. All Dylan does is repeat her question to her and ask for examples to clarify what she means. But she can’t do it, because even she’s not quite sure what she’s getting at, because it’s a silly question to ask in the first place.
This could partially be just that she was ill-prepared for the press conference, and went in there with one question she hoped he’d answer earnestly. But I also think it’s indicative of just how clueless everyone was with the phenomenon of Dylan in 1965. This is a moment that really aids someone my age trying to understand the totality of his career. Dylan was already famous in 1965 to be sure, but it would’ve been impossible to comprehend the full impact of his career on popular music. Bob Dylan was a name in 1965, but he wasn’t a fully crystallized cultural idea like he is in 2016. People seemed to desperately want to nail down that fully crystallized idea in 1965, and they didn’t quite know how to do it without just asking him to do it for them. When he turned that idea back around on them, and made them really consider what they were asking, they were able to see the absurdity of that request and just laugh. That’s incredible.
The third exchange also asks Dylan to define himself, but is framed in such a way that makes Dylan give a half-decent answer (though certainly not the one the reporter was looking for) instead of just outright deflecting. The question is “Could you perhaps label yourself and tell us what your role is?” which seems like the exact kind of thing Dylan loved not to answer, but it’s prefaced with “I know you dislike labels, and probably rightly so, but for those of us who are well over 30”. The preface allows Dylan to make a joke about the man’s age before giving his most serious answer yet: “My role is to, you know, just to stay here as long as I can.”
He’s not going to just outright take up the mantles people want him to take up. In a 2005 interview shown just after the 1965 press conference (about the 2:30 mark), Dylan says “I had no answers to any of those questions, anymore than any other performer did, really. But, you know, that didn’t stop the press or people, whoever they were, from asking these questions. For some reason the press thought performers had the answers to all these problems in society and you know what can you say to something like that, it’s just absurd.”
History will remember Dylan’s early work as protest music that was broadly used by activists to advocate for civil rights and protest war throughout the 60s. But while it was happening, in the moment in 1965, he refused to acknowledge that that’s exactly what was happening. The press wanted him to own his role as a strong cultural force who had the ability to influence large swaths of young Americans with his music. But, for reasons both artistic and political, he refused. This doesn’t diminish his role in 60s protest movements, but it does allow him to distance himself from the effect his art had and insist that he is just one person who simply wanted to make the things he wanted to make. Those things happened to have political power, but only because his listeners wanted them to and applied them to political causes. He did not create them with the express purpose of political revolution in mind. He created them to put something he liked and cared about into the world. He never wanted any of that. He just wanted to keep making music as long as he could. Or at least, he thinks it’s important that you believe all of those things.
These brief exchanges from 1965 encapsulate something that I find and appreciate in all of his work: he is a master at disguising his intentions. He turns serious questions into jokes and uses jokes to hide his serious answers. Everything he says and does is as poignant and resonant as you think it is, but also allows you to listen to it for the 50th time and then go Oh shit, that’s what he really means, only to then convince yourself Wait no, this is what he really means on your 100th listen. That’s a damn good artist.