Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan's Nobel

It’s as if I’ve been dreading this moment.

Bob Dylan’s name has come up each fall for the last few years. Many of the people I love most dearly and admire most deeply have been rooting for this morning’s Nobel announcement. I haven’t been dwelling on it, or preparing for it. But I’ve had to reconcile myself to the looming obligation: should the announcement come, I will need to explain why I’m against it.

Ok, dread isn’t exactly the right word, or the right emotion. In fact, the announcement triggers mixed emotions. To my sensibilities, hewn in the mill of postwar political and aesthetic Modernism – buoyed by the expansion of civil rights and the interrogation of taken-for-granted values, but chastened by window-dressed American imperialism and the existential pessimism of Watergate – there is no greater art in any medium than the mid-60s daggers that Dylan steered to their deserving targets. Nothing else so thoroughly and simultaneously tests the emotions and the intellect, history and formal invention, the mapping of collective desire to individual expression.

My qualms, then, are not about merit. Nor are they about the specious category error of awards for artistic achievement. They are, in fact, about a different kind of category error. And what compels me to write about Dylan’s Nobel is the urge to distinguish the error that bothers me from one which doesn’t.

It doesn’t bother me that, in naming Dylan the laureate, the committee has taken an expanded view of the category of “literature.” As it happens, I am in the midst of writing a book that argues that the expansion of fields in various media that begins in the 60s and continues in strong form through the 70s (in weaker form to the present day) was initiated in part by the advent and acceptance of rock and roll as an art form worthy of careful consideration. No one forced this issue more than Dylan. Cinema expanded to include blank film and slowly morphing wall-hung emulsions. Sculpture expanded to include bulldozed earth and roomsfull of light. It makes sense that literature expanded too. In 1968, Aram Saroyan published an unopened ream of typing paper as a book.

It’s not that rock and roll constitutes a similar expansion of literature, taken into the body as a new manifestation of its medial concerns. Rather, rock and roll in the 60s forced, not just literature, but all traditional mediums to reconsider their relation to their contemporary cultural conditions. Sculpture in the 60s had to confront the increasingly sculptural environment of postwar commodity culture in which technology and the ubiquity of consumer goods situated the perceiving body in a fortress of three-dimensional objects designed to promulgate desire. Many of these objects were mobile, either portable or ambulatory, not sitting still for the contemplation of the perceiving body, but manically traversing its space and attention. Cars, moving pictures, conveyor belts, shelves of jars, radios, electric toys, neon signs, public address systems, elevators, escalators, lights across the night sky. Dylan assumed the form of this kinetic moment. He was wired and wiry, constantly moving in space and time, constantly forming/deforming/reforming; never the same figure twice. Constantly inconstant. Later, it was not his sound, his syntax, nor his semantics that would influence the trajectory of rock and roll, but this twitchy unwillingness to settle. They followed his lead: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols. The sacred, static, sculptural form was ill-suited to respond to this newly erratic world. But rock and roll made perfect sense. It was both the reflection of restless technological commodity culture, and a tool for subduing its most unnerving features. Minimalism and then Conceptual Art descended from the haute encampments of culture and academia to respond to the new realities of the American 60s. Similarly, but coming from a decidedly different direction, the groundwater of American subculture seeped into the cultural foment of the 60s in the form of rock and roll.

As different as their motivations and methods were, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and rock and roll (along with a host of other new and intermedial forms), destabilized the traditional moorings of the throne of aesthetic power. Similarly and simultaneously, social and political movements threatened (or promised) to deconstruct societal power structures and value systems. From the American war in Vietnam to the near collapse of France’s Fifth Republic, the inevitability of democratic capitalism seemed suddenly in doubt.

In objecting to Dylan’s Nobel, I am not trying to protect literature from infection. On the contrary, I am trying to protect Dylan’s work from the assumptions and impositions that append themselves once it is deemed “literature.” (And let’s face it, no such deeming could be more definitive than this one.) Here’s the rub: to call Dylan a literary artist is to homogenize him. But rock and roll has always been an intensely heterogeneous form. It is theatrical in the traditional sense and also in the way that Michael Fried’s used the term: to disparage Minimalist sculpture for anticipating and being activated by an audience. Rock and roll is a kind of performance art. It is a spectacle. It is graphic design: it’s impossible to imagine rock and roll without concert posters and album covers. It is also industrial design: it’s equally impossible to imagine rock and roll without Fender and Gibson guitars, without Marshall amps and Ludwig drums, without PA systems and lighting rigs. Rock and roll is a technological form, at both the site of production and the site of reception. Rock and roll was new media avant la lettre. And, yes, rock and roll is also literary, not just in its lyrics (which is, no doubt, what the Nobel Committee is rewarding here), but also in the various forms of discourse that rock and roll generates, from liner notes, to press releases, to interviews, to critical journalism. Shit, if it were up to me, Lester Bangs would have gotten the Nobel (but for the fact that his death disqualifies him – maybe Greil Marcus?)

Oh, and wait, rock and roll already functions under the umbrellic shelter of a long-recognized artistic medium. We call it music.

But I’m equally unperturbed by what will happen to music if we call Bob Dylan’s music literature. What I care about is what will happen to Bob Dylan’s music, or his literature, or his… Let’s agree, for the sake of this argument, to just call it his “work.” His work is what I’m worried about. Calling it literature reduces it. And Dylan’s work deserves to be defended from this reduction, even if that yoal has already left the quay. In the 60s he was already “the poet of his generation.” In a 2005 book, conservative literary theorist and Oxford don, Christopher Ricks, laid literary claim to Dylan’s words. And now the Nobel. Yes, that filly’s fled the grange.

Dylan’s voice, not the words it sings, is his most powerful weapon. When others sing his words they almost always lose their charge. The Byrds. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Sonny and Cher. Joan Baez. The Staple Singers. The list goes on. So many cover versions of Dylan songs stumble awkwardly into the ravine of righteous intentions. When these versions work, it is almost always due to something peculiar to the performance, something that sidesteps the burden of the words and the cultural specificity of Dylan’s original. When Dylan sings his own songs, he approaches the task with the insouciant disregard of a pipefitter working in the basement of a man he dislikes. He distorts the structures of the songs with contortionistic gusto, insuring that the material can indeed travel from point A to point B, but without instrumental concerns for efficiency or strain upon the system. His phrasing tortures individual syllables and sounds. 

Tellingly, when his voice is absent, he goes for the harmonica like a petty thug in an alley brawl retrieving the dagger from his ankle sheath. Allen Ginsberg (no Nobel) once described Dylan as a “column of air.” The harmonica is all breath, all air: exhale and inhale. It is the voice without language. Listen to the live ten minute and forty-four second versionof “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the Rites of Spring bootleg.  The harmonica reels out beyond the boundaries of the song, daring something else to land in the space the song has created, to colonize it, to recast it, to reengineer its innards such that its heart is routed directly to its lungs. The song breathes blood. The harmonica begins manically repeating a simple phrase, falling out of time and phasing against the strumming guitar, (beating Steve Reich to the punch by a matter of months), then after a long moaning howl which simultaneously conjures the two great beasts of the Western desolation of Dylan’s myth: the coyote and the locomotive, the harmonica escapes the tether of the chords into a territory that Ornette Coleman might have called harmolodic. At the end of the song, the harmonica and the guitar – without Dylan’s voice, without his words – tear at and torment the song, pulling its skin away from its bones. It sounds for all the world like a one-man-band version of the Velvets’ “Sister Ray.” Music trying to destroy the need for music.

If you call Bob Dylan’s work “literature” you deny it all that (and more besides). Not because literature couldn’t expand to include it, but because, as of the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, it hasn’t. I doubt that the Nobel Prize committee concerned itself with Dylan’s decision to “go electric,” with his choice of musicians over the years, with his harmonica, with his shifting look from vagabond Chaplin to itinerant farmhand to Carnaby Street dandy to mascara’d outlaw bohemian to mustachioed snake oil salesman. I doubt they watched Eat The Document.

We do ourselves and our cultural responses a disservice if we reduce Dylan to literature, just as we would cheat ourselves if we reduced Beckett to a mere comedian. Comedy may be essential to his art, but it's neither the whole nor the heart of it. And, Buster Keaton wasn't just an actor. I listened to a lot of Dylan today, much of the time focused on his rickety, cantilevered voice, much of the time not paying much attention to the words. 

This entry is dedicated to my friend, Steve Jungkeit, and to our time on the bus. 

I plan to write more on this topic, dealing with the logic of something like a Nobel Prize for Literature and how that logic is at odds with Dylan’s relation to tradition. I’ll think about the many singers and songwriters with whom Dylan has collaborated, across time and the divide of death. A Nobel for Robert Johnson? For Woody Guthrie? For Bascom Lamar Lunsford? Or Dock Boggs?