Why Bob Dylan's Controversial Nobel Prize Makes Perfect Sense (And Spotlights Incisive Americana At A Crucial Moment)

I'm not really a Bob Dylan fan. He's not my favorite singer-songwriter. That's Joni Mitchell. I've only seen him twice in concert. And I've never met him.

Yet his Nobel Prize for Literature makes perfect sense to me. Why? Because he's clearly the most impactful and influential writer of my lifetime.

More times than I've liked to recall, I have reached for a pithy phrase to sum up a situation only to realize that I was about to recycle a Dylanism.

There's a reason why Dylan is arguably the most quoted writer in the world. (In fact, a quick check of "the Google," as John McCain called it when he ran for president, reveals that Dylan is the most quoted figure in legal and scientific papers. And speechwriters have long relied on Dylan.)

The Nobel committee got it exactly when it cited Dylan for "having created new poetic expressiveness within the great American song tradition."

Bob Dylan playing one of his major anthems, 'Blowin' in the Wind,' in a live 1963 television broadcast.

With those expressions, Dylan absolutely galvanized powerful movements for social justice and peace. And his work has continued to provide incisive commentary on the panorama of the American experience and the inner geography of the human heart.

I understand why some, especially some younger folks with academic backgrounds in conventionally defined English and other literatures, have been more than a bit up in arms about the Dylan selection. No songwriter had previously been selected in a category which has traditionally rewarded novelists and poets who do not work with music. There's also been a remarkable lack of playwrights, not to to mention no screenwriters.

But with a rather different academic grounding -- majors in sociology and history, postgrad in world history and national security studies -- for me expanding the category to include Bob Dylan makes tremendous sense.

And it certainly hasn't bothered the head of the English faculty at Oxford, who calls Dylan "the Tennyson of our times." Barack Obama, too, who awarded Dylan the Medal of Freedom, was also notably enthused.

Dylan is a storyteller in the medium of spoken word (his singing voice is the real reason I'm not a big fan) and song. He's part of a bardic tradition that extends deeply not only into American history and British history before our own but all the way back to Homer.

Now, I wish I could claim credit for having figured out the significance of Bob Dylan all on my own. But the truth is that someone else taught it to me long ago.

That would be a fellow named Jerry Garcia.

By a simple twist of fate, as it were, it turned out that Garcia, a Dylan admirer who would become his good friend, loved to play at a little hole-in-the-wall club called Keystone less than a mile from where I lived in Berkeley student days. He played there all the time.

And even though my early love for the Grateful Dead, who were around a lot where I grew up, had been overtaken by my enthusiasm for the Eagles (which rather amused Garcia, who nonetheless averred "Hey, they can play"), I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to see the legendary guitarist up close and personal on a regular basis.

Just another late '70s night at Keystone Berkeley with Jerry Garcia, two blocks from the university campus, playing yet another Bob Dylan song. In this case, the gorgeously poignant love story 'Simple Twist of Fate.' When I told Garcia I hadn't realized there were so many guitar solos in Bob Dylan songs, he replied: "Hey, I have to add something besides my Sinatra-like vocal mastery."

Jerry Garcia did not disappoint. Instead, the icon of the counter-culture -- who was very smart and funny and enjoyed conversation almost as much as he loved to play music -- provided an invaluable education in the breadth and dynamism of American music. Performing with a very different set of musicians in his "bar band" side project, which at times included Elvis Presley's drummer and the Rolling Stones' keyboardist, Garcia, a great compartmentalizer, played very little Grateful Dead music. Instead, he played blues, jazz, rock and roll, reggae, country and western, bluegrass, and folk music. And a whole lot of Bob Dylan songs. I mean, Garcia played Dylan every night, usually more than once.

Why so much Dylan? Because he was the best contemporary storyteller.

Dylan came out of the folk music revival in which he plumbed the depths of what music historian Greil Marcus dubbed "the old free/weird America." He was also deeply influenced by the literature and philosophy of the Beats, centered in New York and San Francisco. At first he aspired only to be the greatest interpreter of Woody Guthrie. Then he discovered his own gift for composition.

It was the intellectual challenge posed by Dylan's work that turned a little band called the Beatles to much greater introspection in their songwriting.

Dylan invented folk rock, with LA's Byrds flying to the top of the charts with their high harmony interpretations of Dylan songs, giving subsequent rise to the greatness of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, all too briefly California's replacement for the departed Beatles.

In fact, Dylan spurred the creation of the entire singer/songwriter phenomenon, along with largely defining what we today call Americana music.

Dylan's work, new and old, continues to reverberate in the world of today. In fact, even more so now than at various other points in the past half-century.

While Dylan's story-telling has timeless relevance in personal as well as public realms, it's especially noteworthy that his Nobel Prize comes in a political moment which is especially "Dylanesque."

As Garcia noted, and as the writer himself has said in interviews, Dylan's view is that our political world is largely Machiavellian. The struggle for power, and the excess and compromise pursued, is paramount. And success, far more than substance, is extolled in our society.

What could be more timely in this most benighted of political campaigns, our choice between a problematic Hillary Clinton, a preposterous Donald Trump, and the appealing yet dangerous irrelevancy of alternative parties?

It's a most valuable perspective going forward in this decayed political era, a time in which preserving the habitability of the planet and promoting inquiry and exploration for a better time may be the most realistic keystone imperatives.

What does Dylan say about this honor coming in this time?

Predictably, given his penchant for struggling against the prophetic role his work suggests, he has said nothing. At least not directly.

It's not as though prose holds any challenge for Dylan. His memoir, 'Chronicles, Volume One,' is highly evocative, brilliantly written. When his good friend Garcia died, Dylan hailed him as "the very spirit personified of whatever is Muddy River country at its core and screams up into the spheres."

But Dylan did provide a large clue to his feelings Friday night with his encore at the massive Desert Trip festival outside Palm Springs, California. (Speaking of which, where was Santana? A topic for another time.)

For the first time in more than three years, Bob Dylan played 'Like A Rolling Stone.' The Friday night encore for the new Nobel laureate at the massive Desert Trip festival in the Southern California desert.

For the first time in years, Dylan played the song Rolling Stone named as the greatest rock song of all time. Here's how it ends:

"Ahh, princess on a steeple and all the pretty people
They're all drinking, thinking that they've got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can't refuse

"When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal

"How does it feel, ah, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone."

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