In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.
Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.
It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)
As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.
(Lucie McNeill photo)
He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all. The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.
People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.
A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.
Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:
And if my thought dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.
Song to Woody. He Was a Friend of Mine. Who Killed Davey Moore?
John Brown. Lay Down Your Weary Tune. Blowin’ in the Wind.
Girl from the North Country. Masters of War. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Farewell, Angelina. Tomorrow Is a Long Time.
The Times They Are A-Changin’. The Ballad of Hollis Brown. When the Ship Comes In.
Boots of Spanish Leather. With God on Our Side. One Too Many Mornings.
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Chimes of Freedom. It Ain’t Me Babe.
To Ramona. My Back Pages. Subterranean Homesick Blues. She Belongs to Me.
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Maggie’s Farm.
Love Minus Zero/No Limit. Mr. Tambourine Man. It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Gates of Eden. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.
Like a Rolling Stone. Queen Jane Approximately. Ballad of a Thin Man.
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Desolation Row. Visions of Johanna.
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. I Shall Be Released. All Along the Watchtower.
I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. I Threw It All Away.
Day of the Locusts. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. Forever Young.
On a Night Like This. Simple Twist of Fate. Shelter From the Storm.
If You See Her, Say Hello. Tangled Up in Blue.
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Hurricane. Romance in Durango.
Black Diamond Bay. Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).
Gotta Serve Somebody. Slow Train. I Believe in You. Every Grain of Sand.
Angelina. Blind Willie McTell. I and I. Jokerman. Licence to Kill.
When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky. Dark Eyes. Political World.
Everything is Broken. Man in the Long Black Coat. Most of the Time (bootleg version).
What Was It You Wanted? Series of Dreams. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven. Highlands.
Not Dark Yet. Cold Irons Bound. Mississippi (first bootleg version).
High Water (for Charley Paton). Things Have Changed. Nettie Moore.
Workingman’s Blues #2. The Levee’s Gonna Break. Ain’t Talkin’.
Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity. Red River Shore. Huck’s Tune.
Tell Ol’ Bill. ‘Cross the Green Mountain. It’s All Good. Titanic.