“Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.”
– Bob Dylan
For over 50 years, the works of American musician and songwriter Bob Dylan have been an intriguing subject of casual discussion – and further, scholarly research – since the release of his eponymous debut in 1962.
His compelling and often influential lyrics were frequently attributed to reflecting societal issues of the times, most notably with songs such as ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, which became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s. Combining his raw, gnarled vocals with songs constructed primarily around hardships, romance, religion, family, politics, law and oppression, Dylan rose swiftly to fame early in his musical career, and has since been recognised for being in continual artistic evolution throughout various phases of his life.
With his sixth studio release, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan was catapulted into rock and roll history. Despite unprecedented controversy after his transition from acoustic folk to electric rock, the album exceeded all expectations and is still often regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Such was its impact, the album likely played a substantial role in Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, which – like Highway 61 Revisited itself – was again surrounded with contentious debate.
DYLAN THEN & NOW
“There is nothing so stable as change.”
There is little doubt that Dylan’s greatest, if not most notorious, stylistic change throughout his distinguished career was the transition of musical genre; ‘going electric’ in 1965.
Now, with a career that has spanned well over half a century, noting such change as Dylan’s only form of evolution is not only unjust, but also ill-informed. Dylan has continually been experimenting with reinvention throughout his lengthy career – though granted such seems a statement could seem more apt when speaking of the late David Bowie. Unlike Bowie, whose transformation largely centred around his extravagant appearances and personalities, Dylan’s reinvigoration came most notably through lyrical innovation.
Such changes, however, proved not to be so seamless for Dylan, and by the early 70s, his output was being challenged as “varied and unpredictable”. Dylan had not toured live for a number of years after being involved in a serious motorcycle accident in 1966, in which it’s believed he broke several vertebrae in his neck. His studio releases since had received mixed to unfavourable reviews by critics, and his extended periods of hibernation away from the public eye forced a sharp decline in his widespread popularity.
Despite the numerous, comparatively lesser successes Dylan received post 60s, which included hits such as ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, ‘Forever Young’ and ‘Everything Is Broken’, most of his works only provided a faint reminder of the once fabled young poet, who now often seemed to be struggling with his identity and lacking in inspiration, and sometimes in desire.
Desperate for revitalisation, Dylan continued to explore different styles and forms of music, including the release of two contemporary gospel albums, a string of collaborations and performances with other notable artists, and even tried his hand directing, with his 1975 film Renaldo and Clara, each of which were met with varying levels of success.
It wasn’t until Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out Of Mind (his 30th) that it seemed a new Bob Dylan had been reborn, or at least, re-emerged, after being stranded in the mire of his own legend for so long. This reconstructed Dylan, now a seasoned, world-weary traveller, began to develop its own persona over the course of his subsequent releases; as the ageing, weathered song writer turned his lyrical attention to his own impending thoughts of mortality. Dylan even achieved consecutive Number 1 selling albums in 2006 and 2009 with Modern Times and Together Through Life respectively, his first since Desire back in 1976.
A recent, fascinating study, published by Konrad Czechowski, Dave Miranda and John Sylvestre of the University of Ottawa, attempted to perform a complex, linguistic analysis of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and the progression they had undergone from 1962 to 2012. In short, the intricate examination concluded that “his songwriting mostly increased in terms of cognitive complexity and religious content”, which appears to contend with Dylan’s progression as a lyricist and his recent reinvention.
HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED – HOW IT’S STAYED RELEVANT
“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.”
Sandwiched between the akin classics, Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and Blonde On Blonde (1966), Highway 61 Revisited remains among the most highly acclaimed and iconic of Dylan’s works to date. The album enforced his recent transition from acoustic to electric music, following in the footsteps of Bringing It All Back Home, which had only been issued five months prior. Once again, the recording sessions utilised a full backing band on all but one of the album’s tracks; which was significant, considering Dylan’s first four releases had only included solo, acoustic songs.
The album is also renowned for spawning one of Dylan’s most famous, revolutionary and influential compositions, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which at over six minutes long, was reluctantly released as a single by Dylan’s label.
Last year, Highway 61 Revisited celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and is now often celebrated as quite literally changing the landscape of rock and roll forever. Like many artists of the time, Dylan too had been heavily influenced by the likes of The Beatles and Stones, yet in many regards, Highway 61 Revisited was also a pioneer in itself. Conjuring an abundance of poetic imagery in verse throughout, the album was one of the first to be encapsulated within a single narrative, or at least a cohesive ‘universe’, as Dylan embarks down a road of adventure and adversity, made endurable by “the beautiful strangers” he encounters with along the way.
An article published last year in Rolling Stone by Rob Sheffield described the album as “magnificently bleak company for staying up and brooding all night,” relating Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ lyric “I been up all night, leanin’ on the windowsill” to the album itself; a window into the world created by Dylan its listeners have been peering into for the past five decades.
THE NOBEL PRIZE – WHY HE DESERVED IT
“Having these colossal accolades and titles, they get in the way.”
In October 2016, it was announced that Bob Dylan had received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, making him the first songwriter to have been awarded the prestigious prize in that category. For every delighted response that praised the distinguished recognition that had been bestowed upon Dylan, there was an equal and opposite reaction, which began to stir much debate.
Many of the arguments against Dylan’s laureate seemed to stem from whether songwriting – more specifically, lyric writing – should even be quantified as notable literary works.
If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for literature then I think @StephenKing should get elected to the Rock N' Roll hall of fame.
— Jason Pinter (@jasonpinter) October 13, 2016
To add further controversy, Dylan himself is still yet to even acknowledge his achievement, his silence causing him to be labelled “rude and arrogant” by a member of the Swedish Academy that presents the award, while mention of the Nobel Prize has since been removed from Dylan’s official website.
Following her announcement of Dylan’s remarkable achievement, Professor Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, was asked if the Academy had “widened the horizon” of the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It may look that way,” she admitted, before comparing Dylan to ancient poetic authors Homer and Sappho. “They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed often together with instruments, and it’s the same with Bob Dylan,” she explained, “he is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition”.
Regardless of how anyone chooses to view Dylan’s latest accomplishment, which itself ends a long-running joke of the Nobel Prize, which had Dylan being continually nominated without success, his contribution and influence on music over his 54 year career is unquestionable. Though he may shy away from the opinionated spotlight of the public, quite clearly Bob Dylan is incredibly deserving of such an honourable recognition, which seems long overdue.
Update: A few days earlier, Dylan finally broke his silence and called the Swedish Academy to accept the award. He told the Academy that “the news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless” and “I appreciate the honour so much”.