Bob Dylan is a highly original, intelligent, accomplished and profound writer, as good as any poet or novelist alive today. Because he happens to be a rock star, people assume he’s not a serious artist – and most rock stars aren’t. But Bob Dylan is and always has been. His albums, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ in 1963 right up to ‘Time Out Of Mind’ at the turn of the millennium, are packed full of the most extraordinary poetry – beautiful songs, subtle and intelligent, that are full of what it is to be alive. In that, he’s like Shakespeare: all of life is in his work.
Most pop singers write about young love even when they’re old men, but Bob Dylan writes about what it is to be a human being. His early albums, including ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (1966), are wonderfully evocative of being young, of being really engaged with the world and meeting people and falling in love and having new experiences. Then, in middle life, he wrote extraordinarily about the process of getting a divorce on ‘Blood On The Tracks’ (1975), he had a mid-life crisis of faith with the religious albums ‘Slow Train Coming’ (1979), and with ‘Time Out Of Mind’ (1997), from his late fifties and into his seventies, he began to write about becoming an old man, how it was to look back and see one’s friends dying and see the past disappearing. Again, Shakespeare does this: his late plays are full of regrets, like The Tempest, while early plays like The Two Gentlemen of Verona are full of sex and falling in love.
Unfortunately, because he’s alive and you can see him in a concert hall almost any time you like, people don’t recognise how great he is. It takes winning the Nobel Prize to remind us that he’s a whole level above The Beatles and Mick Jagger and Led Zeppelin. Probably the closest to him is Leonard Cohen, in that he’s a serious writer and poet who happens to have been in that genre, but there isn’t the breadth or depth or the sheer quantity of work that Dylan has produced. His effect on popular music lyrics was immense, from the release of ‘The Freewheelin’…’, with songs like ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’. From there, The Beatles began writing more like Dylan, trying to produce songs that were more ambitious and serious. The difference is that Dylan was always effortlessly serious, he wasn’t trying. He was serious just because he had a great mind.
Another mark of his talent is that he can be funny as well as serious. Wit and humour is always a good sign because things that are funny are true, and it’s not easy to be funny, especially when you’re being profound at the same time. His songs are stuffed full of quotable lines and wonderful original metaphors but it’s hard to tell if he thinks his work is poetry. He’s not really a great singer, he’s not a great guitar player or harmonica player, he’s really a writer who has sung his own work.
Of course, poems are meant to be read and songs are meant to be sung, but to use another high-flown comparison, Homer sang The Odyssey, and that’s the tradition Dylan is in. His prose work Tarantula (1966) was a disappointment, like liner notes for an album that never came out, rushed out a time when he was distracted and had too much on his plate. But his 2004 autobiography Chronicles: Volume One is superb, by far the best rock autobiography I’ve ever read – and, again, highly poetic.
Regardless of whether it’s right to call them poetry, his songs are highly poetic and highly literary – intricate and subtle and clever and funny and profound and sad: everything you can want writing to be. There’s no one who deserves the Nobel Prize more.
Howard Sounes is the author of Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan (Doubleday).