Yea! Heavy: Dylan & The Nobel
I’m elated. This scruff who I’ve been “reading” since I was a kid, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sure, it’s not a radical choice, nor is it controversial. Awarding Dylan the prize was the safest option in this year of #Trump2016. Another American white male from the boomer generation rises to the top at the expense of women and people of colour everywhere. And what about that moniker, “literature”? That too is a hoary old coot, a cudgel wielded by corpse evangelists who preach the lie that life is black and white. After all is read and sung, one person’s tweet is another’s text.
I’d heard of him growing up, but I first listened when I was thirteen. My intro was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Soon after, I bent a coat hanger into a harmonica holder and never looked back. I couldn’t take “Blowin’ In the Wind”. It seemed too pure for real life. To this day the song feels conveniently ambiguous, a timid screed that fears to point any fingers. I went for “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” and “Masters of War.” After that it was all about Arthur Rimbaud, the Beats and “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall”, “Chimes of Freedom”, and “Desolation Row”. By the time I saw the great D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Dont Look Back (no apostrophe!), I was thrilled Dylan had been called an “anarchist.” He was the first punk. I’d found my lodestone, my north star.
As a fan, you soon learn that you’re just like all the rest in the demographic: white, suburban, angsty males with literary proclivities. I was raised by my mother in a single-parent home when eighties Bob was competing with Duran Duran and Bon Jovi. We were proudly working class. My mum was even the president of her clerical union and the music of the Weavers was more common than Sinatra on her turntable. Our town was White Rock, an affluent, conservative suburb south of Vancouver, and I rarely fit in. I acted out my discomfort, dabbled in assorted vices, played guitar, and did my best to piss off anyone who tried to exert any authority over me. I once told my high school principal that I didn’t care what anyone thought – I was going to run away from home and cut lawns for a living. It was all a grand joke, this attempt to discipline me. Dylan knew, and his art reinforced my own attitude.
As I matured, I grew out of adolescent angst. I still listened though, and what I was hearing was the sound of history and the necessity of making it live in the present: “Boots of Spanish Leather”, “Dark Eyes”, “Blind Willie McTell.” By the time I read Marx, I was aware Capital wasn’t simply an archaic tome on nineteenth century political economy – the question of value is always relevant. Aesthetics and functionality are inseparable. I realized the challenge is to make this stuff usable in my life here and now. Dylan revealed what capital tries very hard to conceal: the revolutionary potential of an individual act.
Dylan’s material affect has too often been co-opted by the “aspirational intelligentsia” who claim his songs to be “spiritual” or “visionary”, as if his example was to aspire to, rather than appropriate. Capital requires dead objects to achieve its ends. Dylan’s mercurial persona is the antithesis of this logic. His undying faith in spontaneity explodes the contradiction at the heart of capital. “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Thanks to Bob Dylan, I know which side I’m on.