Music

TY BURR | Commentary

Bob Dylan isn’t literature. He’s better.

Bob Dylan performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
David Gahr
Bob Dylan performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.

The bridge at midnight trembles. The country doctor rambles.

When we meet again/introduced as friends/please don’t let on that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world.

Is it fair to call what Bob Dylan does “literature”? Or does it do the man a disservice to call him anything other than a songwriter, and arguably the greatest of our time?

This sounds like a moot point, a splitting of Boomerologist hairs. And, yes, both your dad and your strenuously hip seventh-grade English teacher are ecstatic at the news that the bard of Hibbing has been named recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. Why now? Well, why not? Everyone seems happy about this except for fans of Philip Roth, who’s 83 and not getting any younger.

I’m happy, too, to be honest, since Dylan has meant many, many things to me over the years. I can put thumbtacks in my personal timeline where everything seemed to stop while that mooncow voice whispered or sneered or insinuated or threw judgments down from the mountaintop.

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Hearing “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” on the radio at the age of 9 and wondering why everybody must get stoned.

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Listening to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as a teenager and burning my fingers on every single line.

Alone at 2 a.m. in a post-college New York apartment looking in the mirror of “Visions of Johanna,” a song that may be the secret pinnacle of his art.

Thinking the man had nothing left in him by the mid-1990s and then finding “Dignity.”

Listening to “Cold Irons Bound” during a late-night drive with two sleeping toddlers in the back and feeling that I was peering over the edge of an abyss.

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Watching one of those children 16 years later as she discovered “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and her jaw hit the floor.

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums/Should I leave them by the gate?

But here’s the thing: Dylan’s poetry needs Dylan’s voice to fully and wholly work. You can put it on the page and call it “lit-tra-chure” and sometimes it’ll come through. The selections strewn throughout this article are lines from the canon that have been among the most resonant to me over the years — your list would doubtless be different — and you’re absolutely forgiven if they don’t speak to you in this context.

Because they’re not meant to speak. They’re meant to be sung. The line from “Sad-Eyed Lady” above makes no conventional sense and that’s fine: Dylan’s lyrics are written to evoke, not explain. But if you’ve never heard the song — if you can’t hear in your head the incantation of those phrases as they pile up over 11 minutes and 22 seconds of aural fugue state — the words are going to lie much flatter than they should. And despite a handful of cover versions that equal or surpass the originals (Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Van Morrison’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” insert your choice here), it’s Dylan’s voice you need to be hearing.

She never stumbles/she’s got no place to fall.

Bob Dylan, left, and Robbie Robertson, guitarist for Dylan's backing band "The Band," performed at Madison Square Garden in New York, Jan 30, 1974.
Larry Morris/The New York Times
Bob Dylan, left, and Robbie Robertson, guitarist for Dylan's backing band "The Band," performed at Madison Square Garden in New York, Jan 30, 1974.

It’s not only Dylan’s voice, thoughit’s his entire sound-world. The line above comes from “She Belongs to Me,” one of the most beautiful love songs penned by a man better known for his kiss-off tunes; its power depends on the gentle, circular chiming of Bruce Langhorne’s electric guitar. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” has some pretty good lines ricocheting inside it (”I didn’t realize how young you were”) but the song’s almost unbearable intensity comes from the crashing of Paul Griffin’s piano and the implacable calm of Al Kooper’s organ. The legend of Dylan is inextricable from the “thin wild mercury sound” he carried around in his head until we all heard it, too.

It balances on your head the way a mattress balances on a bottle of wine/your leopard-skin pillbox hat.

The need to sanctify Dylan as something other than a pop singer — as belonging to the high plane of international prizes rather than the low funk of where people live — always comes at a price. Yet it’s understandable. The man put midcentury popular culture through a paradigm shift by showing that a pop song could be more than “Tell your Ma, tell your Pa/Our Love’s a-gonna grow, ooh-wah, ooh-wah.”

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A pop song could be protest or personal or poetry. It could be comedy — Dylan’s terrific sense of humor, as evidenced in the fragment above, has always gone underacknowledged. It could seem to have no meaning at all and still be carried into your long-term memory banks on the power of that ungainly, seductive voice.

Many musicians looked at what Dylan was doing in the 1960s and said, “Right, I’m a poet now, too.” Some of them were even right: Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro. Most just didn’t have the chops. You could argue (and I bet Dylan would agree with you) that the pungent simplicity of Chuck Berry (“He could play a guitar just like ringing a bell”) or the Brill Building songwriters (“When this old world starts getting me down/And people are just too much for me to face/(Up on the roof)”), the Gershwins (“It’s very clear/Our love is here to stay/Not for a year/But ever and a day”) and blues great Robert Johnson (“Won’t you come on in my kitchen/’Cause it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors”), were already literature. And they didn’t need to hear it from the Nobel committee. Although that probably would have been nice.

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

The news of Dylan’s award, announced early on Thursday, came as a welcome and only slightly weird respite from the ongoing meltdown of America’s body politic. Old fogeys and young hipsters rallied on Facebook and traded favorite Zimmy lyrics. The young and the callow protected themselves with snark. (“Yeah, the guy from the Victoria’s Secret ad” ran the subhead at online magazine The Awl.)

It was noted that Dylan is the first American to win this award since Toni Morrison in 1993 and that only 14 women have won in 115 years (“oh the times they ain’t a changing” tweeted one wry onlooker). It was also noted that as the recipient of 11 Grammys, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Pulitzer, and now a Nobel, Dylan is a GrOPuNoGG, which only sounds like a Donald Trump drinking game. The news launched a thousand Dylan playlists on Spotify and either prompted you to make yet another mix CD for your kids or to get one from your dad.

What it didn’t do was convince anyone that the man in question wasn’t already an artist of the highest order, however you chose to categorize it. Once, it’s true, many of us tried to defend Dylan by taking what he did off the turntable and calling it literature. We were so much older then. We’re younger than that now.

In this May 22, 1966, file photo, Bob Dylan gestured during a news conference in Paris, France.
Pierre Godot/Associated Press
In this May 22, 1966, file photo, Bob Dylan gestured during a news conference in Paris, France.

Ty Burr can be reached at tyburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.