What is the essence of Rock & Roll?
Pissing off your parents?
A violent soundtrack to subvert and bring down the current establishment?
To a geezer like me who’s old enough to remember when MTV actually had music on their… ya know… music channel, it could be any number of those things. I say this as someone who spent his early teens consuming mass quantities of Hair Metal, whose main messages are all about fame, money and everything attached to them.
And, I suppose it is what it is. Those embarrassing years from that time when KISS went disco, to the moment Axl Rose threw a temper tantrum at the beginning of a concert breaking up the band in the process, it was the next, inevitable, logical step that Rock music had to get to in order to survive. Yes, it was abrasive and deafening, and some of it sounded like it was written by a fifteen year old who found the liquor cabinet. Yes, more emphasis was placed on theatricality rather than musicianship. At that particular point in time, in the dark days before Nirvana, that’s what Rock was; obnoxious, easily consumable, and increasingly ridiculous¹.
Sure, it was pretty to look at like a Michael Bay explosion and loud AF, and oh boy, is his guitar AWESOME, and wow Tommy Lee is a full-blown maniac. But aside from that, could we draw a direct line from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain? Are we doing a service to the trailblazers by acknowledging their contemporaries?
The answer is no. Of course not, dummy.
More Neil Young, less Cinderella if you want to pay respect. Rock music is never about straight lines or following rules or repeating what came before. The essence of Rock & Roll is finding that one thing that inspires you, picking it up, making it your own, and leaving it in a different state than when you found it. The origin of the term can be bandied about ad nauseam, but this is the essence of what Rock & Roll means. It means putting your stamp on something, and in doing so, altering the shape and sound of it to inspire others. Like a large object rolling down a hill and causing other things to roll along with it.
Something… like …a rolling stone, perhaps?
Robert Zimmerman knew this more than most. He was influenced by Little Richard when he was younger, but somewhere along the way, he knew that there was something else to it. He knew rock music wasn’t just three chords and a couple of dance steps.
It wasn’t too long before he discovered the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and found a new music hero in Woody Guthrie, whom he would adopt as his mentor. Leaving his middle-class life behind in Duluth, Minnesota, he dropped out of college after one year, hitchhiked to New York City to meet his hero, who by this time was gravely ill. He settled into the Folk Scene in Greenwich Village that was beginning to blossom. He would have plenty of gigs. He started making a name for himself until he was discovered by John Hammond who would sign him with Columbia Records in 1962. At this point, he could have started his career under his own name, but instead, he chose to pay homage to the person who influenced him to go on this journey to begin with and changed his name to Bob Dylan.
You find that one thing that inspires you. You pick it up, make it your own, and leave it different than you found it. For his first three albums, Dylan was the torchbearer for Mr. Guthrie and used his words and passion to fight against war and corruption. He became quite adept at phrasing, at lyrics and poetic imagery. It wasn’t too long that the myth that was created would slowly take over the man. He was no longer this middle-class kid from Minnesota, he was instead created from the pages of a Steinbeck novel. He came from the dust of a sharecropper’s field; a downtrodden troubadour who was born on the open road. The very definition of American Romanticism. Success caught up to him quickly.
By 1965, Bob Dylan had become restless with who he was. He was never one to stay in one place or be satisfied with where he is. He released ‘Bringing It All Back Home.‘ This was significant in that he was starting to step away from the protest material and dip into the personal and abstract, and in doing so, finding his own authentic voice.
…Oh, it also marked the beginning of him ‘going electric’.
‘Highway 61 Revisited‘ came soon after. It was considered a critical darling. A rare specimen that stands the test of time with songs like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. His knack for wordplay and imagery, now instantly recognizable, were miles, years ahead of its time. A pop star was supposed to sing about love and relationships in ways that would be easily digestible for mass consumption, and here comes this guy, seemingly out of nowhere, writing lyrics about the human condition and loss and yearning. He heralded the beginning of the Singer/Songwriter movement. There were a few people who dismissed this album as a complete head-scratcher because no one had heard anything like this before. But those same voices in the same breath lauded it for elevating the artform from its current state.
Whether it was on purpose or not, the awesome trilogy of groundbreaking albums came to its brilliant conclusion the following year with ‘Blonde on Blonde‘. Considered an instant masterpiece and one of the most important albums of all time, it had completely changed the landscape of what songwriting was, into what it could be. It was also the first double album released ever… not much to say about that, just wanted to point that out.
In the months that followed, there was nothing. He had all but vanished from the public eye. Some say it had to do with a motorcycle accident he was involved in near his home in Woodstock, New York. Some say it may have had something to do with the press, and how they kept diving deeper into the myth and poking their nose into things he’d rather not let them see (related: ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’). An increasing drug dependency, marital issues may have been the reasons. Perhaps a salad bar sampling of all of the above. He would still release albums, but he would tour less, and give fewer interviews. In any case, it felt like we were losing his voice.
On October 13th of this year, The Nobel Academy had given their prize in literature to Bob Dylan. The reason given was “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I suppose it was gracious of them to give him this award while he was still alive. But my biggest question is, why now? The source that they were sighting was ‘Blonde on Blonde’, something that was released over 50 years ago?
Why did they wait so long to award this particular poet? There were strong enough contenders who have released works this year? Why not them?
His name had been tossed around for years, but never put into serious contention. He had already won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee in 2008 for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” In 2012, it was the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Maybe the time was right for another literary award? Maybe the time was right to pay proper homage to a man who has influenced generations of poets and songwriters?
The short of it was that Alfred Nobel was a little vague when it came to exact criteria to award writers for literature in his will. Double irony points because the committee notes that it was a poorly written will, and so the requirements are left open to interpretation. Maybe now was a good time to recognize the juggernaut that is the Bob Dylan library.
Not so you’d notice from those critical of the Nobel committee. Citing Karl Ritter from the Associated Press:
Others lamented a lost moment for books.
“An ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies,” wrote “Trainspotting” novelist Irvine Welsh. “I totally get the Nobel committee,” tweeted author Gary Shteyngart. “Reading books is hard.” The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said it was too bad that a “real” writer didn’t get the award.
The sting and the wailing and gnashing of teeth from purists and critics the moment Bob Dylan had the gall of picking up an electric guitar are still present today. It’s less the notion of ‘You can’t please everyone all the time’, and more like they awarded a fraud.
Personally, I’m happy that he won. Upon hearing the news, the first words out of my mouth were, “It’s about damn time”.
Who gives a rat’s ass if he ‘went electric’? Who cares if he isn’t the character you thought he was? A “real” writer? Apparently, he’s never heard ‘Hurricane’ and not have his blood truly boil. Apparently, he’s never dared to unpack the cryptic bombast of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. Apparently, he’s never found solace in the cold comfort of ‘Shelter From the Storm.’
A “real” writer? Does a “real” writer to you have to be dead in order to be real in your opinion? A chi ha scritto questo articolo, credo che non si sa quello che uno scrittore “vero” è stato, se lui si avvicinò e si schiaffeggiato in faccia unta. <rude hand gesture> So, go take your hipster ass somewhere else, because nobody gives a shit what you think a “real” writer is.
Yes, Rock is usually not known for its poet laureates. But then again, there aren’t many Rock musicians who knew there was more to this music than verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus. There aren’t that many Rock musicians (left) who knew that there’s more to this than how many albums you sold or how many appearances you made on television. There aren’t that many Rock musicians that know what the essence of Rock is.
Congratulations, Bob Dylan. It’s about damn time that they recognized your contributions to the world. Thank you for your words and your passion.
Thank you for inspiring me.
¹Possible exceptions are too many to list here…