An artist who remains himself
16 October 2009
For the past 12 years, Bob Dylan has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. As the list of his achievements has grown longer, so have the reasons why he will never win it. He is a musician, he is American, he hates awards ceremonies and now, with an album of festive favourites called Christmas in the Heart, he has definitively blown his chances. If there is one thing which the earnest, thin-lipped committee-members in Stockholm distrust above all, it is a sense of humour.
Extraordinarily, there are still a few people unable to appreciate the wonder of Dylan. They are deaf to the music he has written and fail to appreciate the startling, effortless originality of his lyrics and prose. Some associate him with unfashionable movements of the past – hippies, protest, the great folk scare of the 1960s. Others make the usual dreary complaints about his voice.
So it has been with the Christmas CD, a charity project which will bring warmth, individuality and wit to the season which needs it most. Dylan’s version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” may not feature on many people’s desert island lists but it is hard to believe that anyone could listen to his mad, joyous Tex-Mex version of “Must Be Santa” without feeling better about the world.
Even those allergic to his work must surely now admit that the case for Dylan goes beyond his music. In his own peculiar, perverse way, he has survived extraordinary pressures to offer a sort of unfolding lesson on how to live a full and fulfilled artistic life.
He has shown that talent is nothing without work. For over 50 years, he has been writing and composing with a wild extravagant energy, performing on what has been called “the never-ending tour”. In his spare time, he has written a brilliant memoir and has presented the ground-breaking Theme Time radio series.
He has never been trapped by the past. The title of the 1967 documentary about his tour of London, Don’t Look Back, has proved to be prescient. Unlike almost any other celebrity in his late sixties, Dylan has never rested on past achievements.
He knows that only the second-rate enjoy the trappings of fame. To others, his refusal to play the apparently harmless games of public life – the chat-shows, the film premieres, the photo shoots – may seem like arrogance but, from an early age, Dylan has recognised that the public want something back in return for the gift of celebrity.
With every decade, he has broken down barriers. The overt protest songs of his youth were merely the start of a life of subversion. Thanks to an instinctive bloody-mindedness, he has embraced precisely the music, the religious faith, the business deal which is most likely to wrong-foot those believe that they know him.
In doing so, he has shown that, in music, there are no rules of cool. His radio shows have helped revive all sorts of genres – unfashionable, politically incorrect – which were in danger of being forgotten.
His has not been a comfortable life, and he may not be a particularly nice man. Yet there is a sort of glorious integrity to someone so absurdly gifted, so lauded, who can remain so stubbornly himself. We are truly lucky to be around the same time as Bob Dylan.