Bob Dylan is a great writer and a bad singer
The literary community is seizing up in frazzled hysterics over Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.
"Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist ... but Mr. Dylan's writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer," The New York Times wailed in an op-ed on the singer-songwriter's surprise win.
But in fact, it's easy to separate Dylan's words from the music they're set to. Strip away the music. It's easy. And you'll see that Dylan is a great writer — one of the greatest of our time.
Let's remember that Bob Dylan is not particularly great at performing music, at least in the traditional sense. Dylan isn't, and never was, a good singer. He isn't even a passable singer. David Bowie famously described Dylan's distinctive, creaky warble as "sand and glue," and Dylan himself admitted last year, "Critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a frog." Dylan's voice has gotten noticeably worse over the years too, making his 21st century concerts nearly unbearable: "On a good day, he sounds like a chain-smoking bluesman celebrating his 100th birthday. On a bad day, he sounds like a bullfrog gargling broken glass," Vanity Fair's Mike Hogan eloquently complained.
Then there is the harmonica he insists on bellowing into. "Is Bob Dylan the worst harmonica-player in music?" a recent Reddit thread sought to answer. ("He is definitely not the best harmonica player," a commenter conceded).
So what makes Dylan great? His songwriting, of course. And his ballads are best when presented as poetry — or when someone else is singing them.
Take, for example, the White Stripes' bluesy cover of "One More Cup of Coffee," which stays loyal to the original but gets the much-needed upgrade of Jack White's voice:
Jeff Buckley could sing a grocery shopping list and bring tears to your eyes, but when he does Dylan he's unstoppable: "They say ev'rything can be replaced/Yet ev'ry distance is not near/So I remember ev'ry face/Of ev'ry man who put me here." (Buckley also covers "Just Like A Woman").
Even Guns N' Roses (Guns N' Roses!) manages to make something out of Dylan's writing.
Alright, you might be saying. But don't all of the aforementioned covers make liberal use of Dylan's arrangements? Isn't that part of what makes him great? Yes — but the songs can also be ripped apart and remain brilliant thanks only to the constant of his words. Take "All Along the Watchtower," which Jimi Hendrix famously blows open into a gorgeous rock anthem:
In Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' cover of "Wanted Man," Cave's voice, as well as the brilliant percussional tension of the rearrangement, convince you he actually is a wanted man (and not a bullfrog).
PJ Harvey's "Highway 61 Revisited" similarly rips apart Dylan's boppy original, making its lyrics read in an entirely new and sinister way —
Oh, God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God said, "No" Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin', you better run"
Well, Abe said, "Where d'you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61"
But you don't need the music at all to appreciate Dylan's words. Tellingly, Simon & Schuster had planned a release of Dylan's lyrics in the form of a book before he even won the Nobel (its publication date has, of course, been moved up since the win). Dylan's writing fills 960 pages and weighs 13 pounds. That is quite a body of work.
Academia is already catching up:
Writing for the aptly named Highbrow Magazine in 2012, Benjamin Wright cites the cultural critic Ellen Willis' theory that Dylan's operating principle is taken from the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud: "Je est un autre." "I am another." Dylan is constantly playing hide-and-seek with his own image, his own legend, the expectations he himself has set. It's an emphatically literary way to approach writing and life. The poet William Butler Yeats espoused a "Doctrine of the Mask," whereby a poem should project the opposite of the poet's personality. The work is better that way, he believed, and he was probably right. [Vanity Fair]
The words to Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'" were first published in a college literary magazine. "Desolation Row" is included in the 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry, and "Mr. Tambourine Man" got the distinction of being "literature" in the tenth edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature, Quartz points out.
"Writing for the page and not for the ear" is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of human storytelling, following a seismic shift after the invention of the printing press, as David Yaffe, a humanities professor at Syracuse University, explained. And only "since the sheet-music era of the 19th century and the beginning of the recording era of the 20th, we've had this idea that these songs are meant for popular consumption, and aren't literature."
It's time to change that, and the Nobel committee should be commended for being brave enough to blaze this trail. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest writers of our time — and you don't have to listen to one of his records to agree.