I was in my sisters place, attending to appa and trying to keep amma from fretting when Bull sent me a text. “Just heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel for literature. For once someone whose works I am rather acquainted with”. At first I thought it was just one of those hoaxes that sweep the internet from time to time, but this time, with everybody from the Guardian to the NYT weighing in, it obviously wasn’t.
There was a time when I had what was arguably the best room in college. 296, Ram Bhavan was the last room in the “new wing facing sky”, overlooking the Birla Museum and its mucky pond where fat koi fish, mottled silver and orange swam in its murky depths. In front of me were the lawns, the grass trimmed and the hedges manicured. And from the balcony seat, you could see the most spectacular sunsets over the arid hardpan that lay beyond the campus walls.
One evening, there was a storm. Have you seen it rain in the desert? It’s spectacular. It went on for a long while, shading dusk into night, and angry streaks of lightning would shatter the darkness. I sat there in my armchair, in the dim yellow of a 60 watt corridor lightbulb, while Desolation Row played in my room. I was wrapped in the warm cocoon of a bottle of phens. I had my packet of Charms cigarettes, and I had a brilliant light-and-dark show. And in that setting, I’d see the parade of grotesqueries in the song. Cinderella, her hands in her back pockets “Bette Davis style”, Ophelia, an old maid at 27, sepia tinted postcards of hanged men, a hand painting passports brown. Einstein in green rags, playing a violin. A leather cup on a back alley quack’s desk, where a nurse snaps on rubber gloves before she shuffles a pack of dog-eared cards, all saying the same thing. A song that was both a heap of broken images, as well as scraps of moving pictures of broken people. Even now, if I close my eyes and think back, I can see them all, like something seen through a grimy window, a group of famous marionettes going through the same set of motions for eternity.
There must have been a lot of division about awarding Dylan the Nobel – I’m pretty certain I saw a lot of headlines about how it was deserved or undeserved, often running side by side. I didn’t read any of them. Also since I quit Facebook, I don’t know what my friends are saying – or which clips of which songs were posted.
My own feelings are mixed. There’s the world of Nobel Laureates. And there’s the world of Bob Dylan. Separate worlds until now. The former, at least to me, was essentially a conservative institution, with the standards and choices of a group of Harold Bloom clones. Dylan – the quintessential Dylan, the Dylan of those 640 days between Another Side of Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde - was the opposite of that world. But that’s a thought that doesn’t stand up to closer examination. What was revolutionary for the US in the 60s – or in India in the 80s is dated and archaic to a world that’s grown up with touchstones like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. For someone who was born in the 1990s, how is Dylan different from Paul Anka or Jim Reeves or any one of those dinosaurs of “Western music”?
For some of us, the answer is, well, obviously, if you’ve listened to Dylan, the difference is obvious. But listening to Dylan isn’t the same for the iTunes playlist era. Of course you can line up Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume X on your iPhone and listen to everything from Like a Rolling Stone to When the Deal Goes Down or the latest thing from Dylan does Sinatra, but that’s hardly the same thing as that segue from Ballad in Plain D to It Ain’t Me, Babe in Another Side of Bob Dylan or that amazing B-side of Bringing it All Back Home (Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and It's All Over Now, Baby Blue). And when you listen to it when you still are struggling to figure out who the fuck you are and what the fuck you’re doing in this fucked up world, it leaves an impression.
A large part of listening to old music is nostalgia, of course. With songs of love and songs of youth, it’s pretty much a guaranteed return trip. But not so with Dylan. A large part of it is the timelessness of it. It’s alright ma remains as scathing a commentary in 2016 as it did in 1964. When the ship comes in may have been written as a response to a snooty hotel clerk, but works so well as a prayer of hope and defeat of adversity as well as “Fuck you, naysayers” comment.
If that two year period was the kind of thing that any artiste would kill for, just remember that Blood on the Tracks came almost a decade later. And if later albums weren’t always great, remember that Shot of Love had Every Grain of Sand, Oh Mercy had Shooting Star, Time out of Mind had Not Dark Yet, Love and Theft had Mississippi and – well - all of Love and Theft.
So now, I’ve seen enough people (internet commenters, so take that as you will) diss Dylan. “Can’t sing”. “Overrated”. “Sexist/Misogynist”. “White male”. And yes. He sang for Miss Universe contests and shilled for Victoria’s Secret underwear. But he also came out on stage to accept his Grammy, twitching and fidgeting, and said “My dad, he was a very simple man and he didn’t leave me a lot. But what he told me was….” (A very long pause as Dylan looks at the award, the way a tramp may examine something shiny found in the garbage, wondering how much he could hock it for).. “He said son…”. Pause again. “He said so many things”. And he followed it up with a raging Masters of War, while the first Gulf War (the “good” Gulf war) raged on in Iraq and Kuwait. He’d make speeches about the plight of American farmers during Live Aid, completely pissing off Bob Geldof.
He just didn’t give a shit.
Then, there’s Ballad of a Thin Man. It’s a song I hate. It may have been written about a specific person in a specific set of circumstances, but I’ve always felt it was about me, that I was Mr Jones – that something was happening around me, but I didn’t know what, despite my wide reading, that despite trying so hard, I still didn’t understand.
And when a song can make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, it means that the songs words have power.
And isn’t literature all about words with power?