Why Bob Dylan Matters

Drew Corridore ponders a post Trump world laid bare in the lyrics of the Nobel Laureate.

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FAR between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing . . .

Chimes of Freedom by Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel laureate for literature . . .

. . . and a more worthy recipient of the prestigious award I cannot imagine, despite the opprobrium of a number of sooky word snobs.

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The venerable and recently passed Leonard Cohen quipped: “Giving Dylan the Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” A back handed compliment? Leonard (who, for our beloved millennials, was quite famous) has always been somewhat opaque. Unfortunately for those of us who absolutely love his poetry he is also somewhat dead. It will take me a very long time to try to reconcile November 2016.

Kurt Vonnegut – who has authored some of my best-loved books – called Bob Dylan “the worst poet alive”.

Kurt has obviously never read my poetry . . . nor that of Kanye West.

As Dylan’s words echo down many decades – as fresh and prescient as the day he penned them – I am simultaneously conflicted and content. Bewildered and buoyant. The positive side of this confusing calculus is that, after a period of absence, I’m once again on The Yak. Great to talk to you again. The band’s back together, the beer fridge is fully stocked . . . play that funky music white boy.

Bob Dylan, amongst select others, is a machinist of my moral compass (except, of course, when the wheels fell off and he foisted upon us an evangelical muse).

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I turned my back for five minutes (to grapple with life’s ever changing circumstances) . . . and upon turning around again the Philippines is led by a murderous maniac in the form of Rodrigo Duterte (who appears to be getting on famously with Jokowi, which is a bit of a worry); loutish clown Boris Johnson is the British foreign secretary; the Malaysian government is eerily reminiscent of the shady characters in a filmic trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. And no matter how much I stick my fingers in my ears and sing lah lah lah, lah lah, lah, I cannot shut out the tyrannical tirades of a gilded guttersnipe who hails from New York City and was recently elected as the United States’ 45th president.

I wish fervently that the times, they are a-changin’ – as Bob suggested they might in his song of the same name, in a world hurtling towards a perplexing precipice – but they quickly stay the same.

It’s not Bob Dylan’s fault we’re probably buggered in all sorts of ways. He gave us the words (mantras?) to counter the vainglorious verses that are uttered in the forums of wealth and power . . . and repeated without repudiation in mischievous and misguided media manipulations.

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This, I think, was the point the members of the Swedish Academy were making. He is the ninth person to be awarded the literature gong for poetry since Alfred Nobel’s foundation was set up in 1900. Let’s get over the whole “giving the literature award to a musician” thing . . . Bob is barely a musician, as anyone who is familiar with about six guitar chords knows. His performances have, however, been backed up by many fabulous players.

Some sorry scribes have equated Dylan’s Nobel Prize to an author receiving a Grammy award. I look forward to The Satanic Verses when it is reiterated as a rock opera – that might just take care of my insomnia.

Let’s have a look at a couple of well-known Nobel laureates’ works – W.B. Yeats (1923 medal) and T.S. Eliot (1948 medal):

That crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,

Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where,
Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,
Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare
A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing
Heroically lost, heroically found . . .

– William Butler Yeats, A Crazed Girl

Very . . . um . . . early 20th century with regard to his depiction of women (too much kneeling at the foot of patriarchy?) Not to mention his confusion of tense.

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Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

– Thomas Stearns Eliot, Ash Wednesday

A post-WWII existential dirge . . .

Okay then, Bob Dylan released One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below) in 1976:

Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight, your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie
But I don’t sense affection
No gratitude or love
Your loyalty is not to me
But to the stars above . . .

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Your daddy he’s an outlaw
And a wanderer by trade
He’ll teach you how to pick and choose
And how to throw the blade
He oversees his kingdom
So no stranger does intrude
His voice it trembles as he calls out
For another plate of food

Bang! We know exactly with whom we are dealing. We see the traits the daughter has inherited from the father. We see her strength and his vulnerability. And we can feel the tension rendered in 96 words.

Friends, you be the judge. Was the Nobel committee on the right track?

In Dylan’s exquisitely painful characterisations of Quinn the Eskimo, Drunken Ira Hayes, and Hurricane (Rubin Carter) we become witnesses to the plight of those who are rendered powerless by conceited conservatism and its Big Brother bigotry.

The very bigotry and unreconstructed bastardry fondled (in a sickly fascinating way) by the gilded guttersnipe and regurgitated over the angry faces of a cohort of Americans – who have never had the ticker to interrogate the nonsense of The Book of Genesis – gathered together in a compact of catastrophic ignorance.

A lot of us were listening, Bob, back in the day, skinning up the odd herbal cigarette and tuning our guitars. Gathering together in groups, unafraid (because of you) that our vocal chops were wobbly at best. Telling our harmonica-playing friends we were all meeting at Star-Fire and Moonbeam’s place when we were really headed over to Camomile Tea Pot’s tree house. A good time was had by all.

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What you should have been doing though, Bob, is extensive touring gigs throughout the US Bible Belt, not preaching to a happy choir of stoners.

With backing vocals provided by your good self, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte Marie and the whole gang we pretended to understand the turgid revelations in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (give Robert Pirsig a Grammy), we tripped the light fantastic with Carlos Castaneda, some of us attempted to fathom what Karl Marx (who was posthumously awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for economics) was on about. We loved trees and animals; we wore berets and hated the very idea of war – for my part because I saw what it did to my father and Uncle Bill.

We grew up with a brittle certainty that we walked the path of righteousness.

Morally certain, also, are those who have spun in the orbit of demagogue author Ayn Rand and her ilk – those who see the world in terms of “winners” and “losers”. Their certainty is less brittle than ours because, more often than not, they claim permission from, and the protection of, the God of Genesis and, often, by dint of genealogy rather than getting their hands dirty they spend a good deal of their lives playing the spoons . . . silver spoons. They swapped conspiratorial glances and sniggers in days gone by as they listened to All Along the Watchtower. They have little time, and no empathy for, people born with darker pigments. They assume poverty is a form of weakness.

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Their ghettos are formal and grand.

This year we have witnessed two people who live in such ghettos engage in a Faustian experiment with American democracy – one a deeply flawed individual who, nevertheless, would have been eminently qualified to negotiate the toxic vagaries of the US governmental system. The other has been described by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post as a person who operates with, “ . . . a materialistic, Nietzschean ethic – an ethic of dominance and revenge in which power and success are worshiped and the weak are treated with contempt and cruelty”.

In short, the kind of “ethic” described so grandiloquently by Ayn Rand whose demented jottings about Atlas shrugging are so appropriately ignored by the Swedish Acadamy.

Hillary and the gilded guttersnipe have revealed the fragility of certainty in those of us who signed up with the social justice movement and sang along with Bob Dylan et al all those years ago. Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of “hope”. The defeatists amongst us – whose belief in the concept might have been abandoned – need to re-gather and start listening to poetry and music again. We need to embrace our younger sisters and brothers who, by dint of the Great Osmosis, have inherited responsibility for subverting the dominant paradigm.

Perhaps, it must be said, not quite in the same way as it has been subverted by Donald Trump and his supporters.

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This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode!

Thanks again Bob . . .

There is a strong imperative for us to reject the populist twerkers whose fame games distract and distance millions from an understanding that their lives are more important than the charlatans whose very existences can be summed up in two words: click bait.

How’s this one . . . Rodrigo Detertes – the aforementioned Philippines president, notorious not only for extrajudicial killings of untried drug users and dealers (see also, poor people) but also a vulgarian who has peppered his public utterings with expletives aimed at personages of world renown – has vowed to stop swearing after God “spoke” to him on a plane trip home from Japan in late October. According to this porcine president God said (while most other passengers slumbered, apparently): “If you don’t stop (swearing) I’ll bring this plane down now”.

Fucking hell!

So let me get this straight . . . no worries about murdering people in their hundreds, if not thousands, but because Detertes has a potty mouth, God is down with committing a couple of hundred extrajudicial killings Himself.

Given His staggering alleged history though, I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised . . . or, in a more rational mode, we could come to the conclusion that Detertes is simply full of shit, delusional, and dangerous.

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The current Australian government concocts policy designed, ideologically and illogically, to penalise those who are most vulnerable in that society, and poisons the public purview (without interrogation by increasingly mindless media) of powerless people – whether they be unwitting victims of “disruptive” technologies or the detritus of far-flung wars.

We might turn to Bob Dylan’s Masters of War for some clarification:

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins . . .

Albert Einstein (another Nobel Prize recipient) said: “The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”

“Trickle-down” economics for instance – the ultimate disingenuous insanity that assumes a minimalist taxation regime at the top end of town will provide magnificent employment opportunities for those who don’t have access to untold wealth, and an alleged antidote for the egregious mundanity of “lesser” mortals.

Or the fossil fuel industrialists (and their political patsies), whose venomous vilification of renewable energy visionaries, debase progressive policy outcomes in favour of muppets mired in moribund myopia.

The people of some of the smaller Pacific island nations are drowning, not waving, folks!

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To quote myself . . . without recourse to the blessing of Kurt Vonnegut or, indeed, Bob Dylan (published in fuller form in a previous Yak):

Fear keeps you here / militates meretriciously in movement of mind and body / in private places you are wont to visit / in your timidity / in your lack of tolerance / in your totalitarian tripping of the switches that terminate lives, dreams, desires

Frissions of static concocted to line silk purses: the mirrored sows’ ears of sojourns never undertaken because we, too, are static

We are too static . . . while statisticians reveal us in all our vainglory

In all our laziness . . .

The brittle certainty of the social justice movement might be down but it’s not out. Witness the commitment of those who put themselves in harm’s way in the cause of Médecins Sans Frontières. Witness the innate goodness of the John Fawcett Foundation (Yayasan Kemanusiaan Indonesia) on Bali.

There are many who deserve the plaudits of the Swedish Academy and recognition in the wider world. And few of them are favoured by millions of likes on Facebook and endless retweets on Twitter.

Bob Dylan – after a period of recalcitrance – finally acknowledged the acclaim offered to him by the Swedish Academy. As he should, lest we regard him merely as a performance pariah; an artist with his head firmly placed up his own fundament.

In an interview with UK newspaper The Telegraph he was asked if he would accept the award:

“Absolutely,” Mr. Dylan said. “If it’s at all possible.”

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According to The New York Times: “In the interview, his first in almost two years, Mr. Dylan is described as being surprised but pleased by the honor. ‘It’s hard to believe,’ he said. His reaction upon being told that he had won: ‘Amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?’

“In typical fashion, he . . . resisted giving much endorsement to interpretations of his work — even those by the Swedish Academy, which, in announcing Mr. Dylan’s prize on Oct. 13, likened his songs to the poems of Homer and Sappho.

“I suppose so, in some way,” Mr. Dylan said of that comparison. Some of his songs, including Ballad of Hollis Brown, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Hurricane and ‘some others’, he said, ‘definitely are Homeric in value’.”

Dude, we love you in so many ways. But in so many others you are a bit of a wanker. Let not our brittle certainty lay in glittering shards on trampled earth because of your disdain for anything you might regard as “establishment”. And don’t show up, if that’s how it’s going to be.

And to you, dear reader: If you agree that current trending means we’re headed in a dystopian direction we might, perhaps, consider outsourcing policy approvals, not to our elected or unelected representatives but to the Swedish Academy, The International Court of Justice, or even the UN that, in and of themselves (however imperfectly), seem to grasp how things can work in a world where the driving force for all is fairness, equity, access, rational inquiry and careful conservation of dignity and integrity.

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