Things have changed: How Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature

(Getty Images)
WP

Bob Dylan never stops surprising. In a shock announcement Thursday in Stockholm, the giant of American music was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” in a career that's now spanned 55 years and counting. And in those 55 years, Dylan has subverted expectations at every turn, this time being awarded what's perhaps the most prestigious prize on the globe for his decades of lyrical poetry, from the protest songs of his youth to the Shakespearean verse inspired by Thomas, Eliot and Rimbaud to the haunting, foreboding, wisdom in his late-career work. He's a writer in every sense of the word. He just happens to play guitar, keyboard and harmonica too.

When he was a nobody from Minnesota who'd arrived on the New York scene playing Woody Guthrie covers, nobody thought Bob Dylan would become the voice of his generation. And when he did become that voice nobody thought he'd intentionally shun it to play thin, wild, mercury music on electric guitar fueled by exorbitant amounts of speed. And when that shift caused the Beatles and Beach Boys to change their sound, nobody expected Dylan to go into semi-retirement, leave behind the sixties and playing live, retreat to Woodstock (but not playing Woodstock) and search for a new American sound via old American music. Most of all though, when Dylan became a 1980s has-been, never quite the embarrassment of Jefferson Airplane but closer than most think, nobody thought he'd release two of his greatest albums in 1997 and 2001, still be touring at age 75 and be revered as the music pioneer and champion he is and always was. But a Nobel Prize? This is pushing it, even for the ever-enigmatic Bob Dylan.

He'll continue to perform (he earned raves at “Oldchella” last weekend playing with The Stones and Paul McCartney and will do it again on Friday) and to write and to make music and then play it in college arenas for 9,000 people who aren't quite sure why they're their other than knowing they want to be in the presence of greatness. Most important, he'll write and do so not to have a reason to tour but because he's a musician and that's what musicians do. Mick and Keith can play the stadiums. Dylan has to paint another masterpiece.

Like all awards, the Nobel Prize is a political, agenda-driven honor that, in this case, went to one of the most famous musicians in the history of the world instead of Haruki Murakami, the surrealist Japanese author of Kafka on the Shore. (Dylan's win is spilling slightly more ink around the world.) Remember, this is an organization that awarded Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize when he'd been in office less than nine months. It's as shallow an award as the rest of them. And there will be a huge debate in the world of intelligentsia (thankfully I will be exempt) on whether Dylan is literature. Of course he is. He's not the world's most famous musician because of the guitar fills on Desolation Row. He's of literature the same way Vin Scully is of baseball. You don't need to play to be.

I don't know what Dylan thinks about the Prize and nobody will ever really know. Even if he gives an interview it'll be with an all-knowing wink of an eye. If his reaction to other major honors he's won – Grammys, Oscars, Pulitzers, Halls of Fames, Kennedy Center Honors, Presidential Medals of Freedom and surely a picture on the wall of his dry cleaner in Malibu – are any indication, Dylan will be genuinely touched by the award, more than most would think the cold, distant, reticent musician ever would be. It's the honor of being recognized, not the trophy it comes with. (After the Oscars, Dylan brought the Academy Award on stage with him, placing it on an amp without fanfare, as if to say, “he's another prop from a lifetime filled with them.” I wonder if the Nobel will get similar honors.) Dylan isn't one to seek out awards but he knows it's an honor when one is bestowed. And this is the enigma of Dylan. He shrouds himself in such secrecy (even the greatest Dylanologists aren't sure who he's been married to) that he comes off like a recluse, yet he willingly steps onto stage 100 times a year to play reworked arrangements of classic songs that half the audience don't recognize until he gets to the part where he says “how does it feel?”

In that way, Dylan seems most like an idea of how a rock star should age. But he's actually just a guy. A caustically funny, brilliant guy, but a guy none the less. Mystery and enigma make not a hermit. He's a history buff. His memoirs – Chronicles: Volume One –  are the greatest ever written by a musician (and on the short list for greatest ever). His work is on par with the world's greatest writers – don't listen to the haters. It's a blend of poetry, protest, fiction, non-fiction and song, using folk, jazz, rock, rockabilly, spoken word and everything and anything else you can think of.

He's no saint nor has he ever tried to be – one listen to the ultimate break-up album, Blood on the Tracks, will show you that. Dylan isn't above going all MJ on people and settling grievances publicly. He's talked about how his grandkids got him to listen to Britney Spears. He shuns politics. He abhors the Sixties. He may or may not believe he's the transfiguration of the original Hell's Angel, a guy named Bobby Zimmerman. (Dylan's real name is Robert Zimmerman.) He's indefinable.There's no category to put him in. You know how they say smart people have forgotten more than we'll ever know? That's not the case with Dylan. He never forgets anything.

For years, the dirt of gossip and dust of rumors have swirled around the possibility of Dylan winning the literature prize, all of which were accompanied by a “yeah, but.” Yeah, but he's a musician really, not a poet. Yeah, but how are you going to give one to an American (for the first time in 23 years) and not have it be Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates or Don DeLillo? Yeah, but he's not a “writer.” Yeah, but remember that record he did with The Grateful Dead? Dylan's name was a tool to get people to care about Nobel Prize announcements they never would have considered before. He was 50/1 to win at the major British book Ladbrokes this year, well outside the top 10 and facing his longest odds in years. His win was a slow train coming.

But it's deserved. Dylan is now in year 28 of his Never-Ending Tour, the one that's taken him more than one million miles to more than 800 cities and 2,500 shows. For most of that time, Dylan would come on stage with a tongue-in-cheek introduction that covered the highs, lows and new highs of his career, all from a steady, comforting disembodied voice from off-stage. Most nights, it went something like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jesus, who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.”

They won't bring back the intro when Dylan takes the stage on Friday night, but if they did, the Nobel Prize would be just another line in the bio – the one for the greatest musician who's ever lived … and a damn fine writer too.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)