The New York Times knows that the Nobel Prizes, like the Pulitzers, can be awarded for political advocacy. So writer Bill Wyman has decided to push for an unconventional pick for the Nobel Literature Prize: hippie favorite Bob Dylan. The headline was "Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Nobel's Door."
Stating the obvious, he admitted “Mr. Dylan is no Solzhenitsyn, but he is a figure who genuinely challenges the established order.” Perhaps the Times should see that intense novels resisting the Soviet Union has a little more gravitas than the shock of outraging folkies by playing an electric guitar. Time for Dylan is running out:
[W]hy isn’t the most vital of the artistic catalysts of those upheavals himself a front-runner for the prize? I’m referring of course to Bob Dylan, a fierce and uncompromising poet whose writing, 50 years on, still crackles with relevance. Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.
I’m not the first to suggest it, but it’s time to take the idea seriously. The Nobel Prize in Literature is not awarded posthumously, and Mr. Dylan, now in his 70s, has battled heart disease. Alfred Nobel’s will decreed that the prize should go to a writer with “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Why hasn’t Bob Dylan received one?
Wyman thinks a songwriter should be considered: “Why discount what has been written because of where it ends up? Those who would use the word ‘pop’ as a cudgel or tool of exclusion do so at their peril. Dickens and Twain, Hugo and Shakespeare and Euripides — all soaked up the acclaim of their day.”
Let’s bet all of those literary greats had a better singing voice than Dylan’s croak. Wyman thinks you should earn Nobel points for upsetting the establishment, like Italian playwright Dario Fo, “whose selection the Roman Catholic Church in particular was amusingly aghast.”
He was surely the first pop artist to tell his audience things it didn't want to hear. In 1963, from the dais at a civil rights dinner, he looked with some contempt at the well-dressed crowd and said, "My friends don't wear suits." The drama surrounding his lurch into electric music is perhaps overstated; "Like a Rolling Stone" was a huge hit. What's really radical about the song is its derisive look at his privileged listeners. Mr. Dylan reveled in the comeuppance he saw on the horizon: "You said you'd never compromise" and now "... you stare into the vacuum of his eyes / And ask him do you want to make a deal?"
Strangely, Wyman then claims that Dylan’s “rejecting his audience’s expectations” is a qualification. This sounds like a fancy way of saying that after his Sixties heyday, Dylan drifted away from anything resembling stardom.
By his own account, Mr. Dylan spent the 1980s in a bit of a fog, but revivified himself in the last years of that decade and went back on the road. Now 25 years into his so-called "Never Ending Tour," Mr. Dylan continues to perform in relatively modest venues with an unprepossessing backing combo, growling out chestnuts from his vast catalog and new songs as well. His recent albums "Time Out of Mind" (1997), "Love and Theft" (2001) and "Modern Times" (2006) all won best album in the annual poll at "The Village Voice" of the nation's rock critics - a remarkable achievement for a 1960s holdover in an era of hip-hop and ever-more-effete rock.
If the academy doesn't recognize Bob Dylan - a bard who embodied the most significant cultural upheaval of the second half of the last century - it will squander its best chance to honor a pop poet. What other songwriter would remotely qualify? Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen? Perhaps. Randy Newman? Chuck D? (In truth, the only other pop artist with work as timeless as Mr. Dylan's is Chuck Berry - but that's an argument for another day.) With his superstar peers either silent or content to collect the big bucks playing ingratiating stadium shows, this artist, iconoclastic and still vital, demands that we take the product of his muse on his own terms, and refuses to go so gently.
Or, we could argue with much less verbiage: outside the bubble of liberal hippies who actually like artists who can sing and not croak, Dylan's relevance has long passed. He is not Twain or Dickens or Shakespeare or Solzhenitsyn. He may be great if you can remember the musical "Hair," but not if you watch "Glee." Or will there be a special Dylan episode?