I was watching The Walking Dead Sunday night when a small makeshift choir in a small makeshift town started singing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
This, I said to myself, is why Bob Dylan, who wrote “Don’t Think Twice,” won the Nobel Prize for literature.
And why he deserved to win it.
Why exactly? Because he writes brilliantly in a universal language. Whether we’re talking about an international tour for human rights or a zombie apocalypse, Dylan has written something remarkably perceptive.
The big stuff, he’s been covering for years.
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see
And the little stuff, too.
Most people don’t do what they believe in
They just do what’s most convenient and then they repent.
Now, by a happy coincidence, we have a new one-stop reference where all of us can read almost all of him. Simon & Schuster has just published an updated compilation of Dylan’s songs, titled The Lyrics: 1961-2012.
It costs $60 and runs 679 pages. Dylan has written a lot of songs.
Not every one is on the level of “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Mississippi.” A scary number of them are really good, and even the lesser works almost all have a line or two that most of us writers couldn’t create if we wrote 24/7 from cradle to grave.
At his arguable peak, over 18 months in the mid-1960s, Dylan wrote Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. That’s three records where pretty much every song is like the finale of the Fourth of July fireworks, explosions of sound and color that leave you gasping for air and plumb out of adjectives.
I write this as a fan who almost wore out his first copies of all three of those albums. But Dylan isn’t one of those artists whose work only circulates among the choir.
“Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changing” became anthems in the ’60s and phrases that still blow in the wind today. “Chimes of Freedom” became the theme for a human rights tour a quarter century after it was written. Sadly, it could also have been written yesterday.
On the less ideological side, Dylan has licensed songs for commercials: “Love Sick” for Victoria’s Secret (above), “Forever Young” for Pepsi, that kind of thing.
One assumes, to the extent one can assume anything about Dylan, that his motivations included money and “Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.”
Perhaps the larger point, though, is that companies like Victoria’s Secret, Pepsi, Apple, Cadillac and others — like the writers of TV shows from The Sopranos to Mad Men — recognize Dylan and his music as a way to get a good kind of attention from millions of viewers, even the ones who can’t sing every verse of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
That’s something I thought I could do until the first edition of Dylan’s lyrics was published back around 1986. That edition, like the new one, includes a pesky extra verse he didn’t include on the recorded version.
I’ll learn it. I’ll learn a lot of other verses, too. Dylan’s coffee-table book of lyrics sits next to my coffee-table books of lyrics by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and the Gershwins.
Of that whole bunch, I think Ira Gershwin – and, okay, Porter – most closely share Dylan’s wit and style, alongside his abiding love for and faith in the pure sound of words.
When Blonde On Blonde was released, I remember a friend saying he was disappointed with “I Want You,” because he thought Dylan was playing with words, not chasing ideas.
I don’t agree, but even if I did, I’d say play all day.
I also would suggest that Dylan’s subsequent half-century of work, from “Sign on the Cross,” “Shelter From the Storm” and “Hurricane” to “Brownsville Girl,” “Not Dark Yet” and “Mississippi,” dispels any notion that Dylan got bored with ideas.
As you read through the book, as with any good writer’s work, themes recur. Lost time is not found again a couple of decades later becomes More frailer than the flowers / These precious hours.
You’d know what a drag it is to see you becomes So many things we can never undo / I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too.
What presumably clinched it for the Nobel folks, besides the fact they quietly share some of Dylan’s contrarian instincts, is that Dylan’s words have embedded themselves so deeply in world culture.
French presidents quote him as easily as American presidents quote him. He sells out shows from Norway to Japan, where fans not only have to know English, but English as sung by a man whose stage enunciation over the years has not always been, uh, crystal clear.
Some critics argue that Dylan isn’t a writer, he’s a songwriter, and music has certainly been the engine that drove most of the Dylan train.
But the words have always been the reason to ride that train, and there’s hardly a community anywhere – the land of sad, the land of joy, the land of injustice, the land of romance, the land of loss, the land of hope – that Dylan hasn’t captured.
The Lyrics: 1961-2012 shows exactly why no one should think twice about that Nobel prize.
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