He’s an American master, I said. His work, prior to his mysterious motorcycle accident and subsequent hiatus in 1966, justifies the award alone.
The prize expands the boundaries of literature just like “Like a Rolling Stone” swelled the confines of the rock single. We spent the next twenty minutes talking about his albums and singing lines from our favorite Dylan songs.
I first began to appreciate Dylan when I was 17. Jesse, one of my high school buddies, was my “Dylan friend.” There were plenty of rides in Jesse’s jeep after evenings out, when we played Dylan on the way home.
It became something of a tradition for us to sit in his idling Jeep in my driveway and listen to one more song before calling it a night.
We smoked cigarettes and looked up at the stars as a cassette of “Blonde on Blonde,” or “The Times They Are A-Changin'” played on the tape deck.
Even later on in our twenties, Jesse would come over; we’d drink beer, watch baseball and listen to and talk about Dylan.
Jesse mentioned how Dylan had yet to acknowledge the Nobel Prize, and we both knew it was Bob being Bob and nothing new.
In 2004, St Andrews University in Scotland made Dylan a Doctor of Music for “his outstanding contribution to musical and literary culture.” The new Doc showed up almost an hour into the ceremony and yawned a few times as the speakers at the podium praised him.
When it was over, he left without saying a word of thanks, or goodbye, and ignored the choir, which was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as he left.
In 1970, Princeton University presented Dylan with an honorary doctorate, but the songwriter didn’t want to go to the ceremony. His wife, Sara, and fellow artist David Crosby had to talk him into it.
“When we arrived at Princeton,” Crosby said, “they took us to a little room, and Bob was asked to wear a cap and gown. He refused outright. They said, ‘We won’t give you the degree if you don’t wear this.’ Dylan said, ‘Fine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place.’…Finally we convinced him to wear the cap and gown.”
The afternoon became the inspiration for the cynical “Day of the Locusts,” which later appeared on his New Morning album.
It doesn’t bother me when Dylan doesn’t seem to appreciate an award. It’s all about his songs, not congratulatory speeches, or tweets of acknowledgement.
Dylan has always been first and foremost a writer to me, and it was never his voice or his guitar strumming to which I was drawn; it was his words. And I still find inspiration in those lines.
I love listening to music when I write, but I cannot put on a Dylan record when I’m scribbling; I find myself entranced by his poetry and slowly drift away from my piece.
I photocopy his lyrics and teach them as poems in my English classes. We analyze “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” when we read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Boots of Spanish Leather” when I teach dialogue in Creative Writing.
While my friends fished during the morning in Montauk, I cruised around the salt-swept streets with “Highway 61 Revisited” cranked on my stereo.
I’ve seen Dylan live three times, and though he was past his performing prime, each performance was a treat.
The night of his show with Paul Simon in July 1999 at Jones Beach was as humid as a rainforest, but Bob, looking like a preacher and sounding like a poet, played the whole set in a black suit.
By the time he closed with “Maggie’s Farm,” I was drenched in sweat and didn’t care. When I saw him at a pot-smoke-filled Nassau Coliseum in November 2006, his voice sounded like a wolfman who gargled with glass and it sometimes took me a minute into a song to realize which one it was; but again, I didn’t care.
The first and best time I saw him was when I was at a taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman” in November 1993. This was before the Internet and cell phones, so I didn’t know Bob was the musical guest until Letterman mentioned it in his monologue.
Bob was dressed in a black leather coat with a matching cowboy hat and scarf, and he sang “Forever Young” about twenty feet away from me.
Just like with Hemingway, or Shakespear,e or any other of the masters, I can strongly feel Dylan’s influence at unexpected times. Like when I spent a warm afternoon drinking at the Schuttinger Brewery in Bremen, Germany in 2001 with a convivial Welshman I met at the hostel.
Keith was a retired grammar school principal who was recently divorced and whose brother died that spring. He was backpacking around the continent to clear his head.
We talked over large glass steins until well after the sun set. He loved his countryman Dylan Thomas and could easily rattle off lines of the poet. He was impressed when I told him I used to hang out at Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern, the place where Thomas drank himself, to death, in 1953.
I made sure to remind him that Bob, my poet and my Dylan, also frequented that tavern.
After a late supper of pork chops and potatoes at the Rathaus, I asked Keith if he was up for one more round. He peered at me over his glasses like the schoolmaster he once was and politely declined; he’d had his fill.
He retired to the hostel, but I didn’t want to end my night and walked the darkened streets for a nightcap. A few of the homes I past had windows that were still illuminated.
I stopped in front of one such house, fished out a smoke, and was about to strike a match when I realized someone on the second floor was playing music.
It was Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” I looked up toward the room, which appeared to be lighted only by a nightstand lamp, and saw the white drapes gently wave with a breeze as a voice I heeded since my teens floated down.
A venerable feeling washed over me as I stood there eavesdropping in the shadows with an unlit cigarette between my lips. I felt like I was supposed to listen.
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which closes Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home, is a poignant adieu.
An electric bass backs Dylan’s trademark acoustic guitar and harmonica and his vocals, full of resignation and sadness, paint a picture of a door closing on a relationship.
Dylan has always been tight lipped about Baby Blue’s identity, but one could speculate the song is symbolic of his departure from the folk protest movement to rock. I think the speaker is moving on and was ready for a change in his life.
Things would change for me after my trip to Germany. My leave replacement job in the suburbs would become a tenure tracked teaching position that September.
The great late ’90s Yankees, a fixture of my Octobers from Oneonta State to Brooklyn, would lose their crown and end the dynasty in a bittersweet Fall Classic.
George Harrison would be another hero from my teens to vanish in the haze when he succumbed to cancer in November. And, of course, 9/11 would end the way I looked at the world.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, just like the speaker of Dylan’s song, doors were closing for me, too.
I listened to the rest of the song beneath the window, soaking up as much as I could so I could write about it later. When the track finished, I struck another match, lit my cigarette and went off into the night for a last drink.