“Don’t think twice it’s alright,” Bob Dylan says in the lyrics of the first song of his I ever heard, way back when we were both much older. We’re younger than that now, aren’t we Bob?
The first thing I want to say, my old friend, is congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is about time, and well-deserved for all the reasons I mentioned in my weekly column this past Saturday; and more, much more.
The second thing is, hey, Bob if you take a notion to move to Canada after the upcoming election down there, or if you just want to get away for some peace and quiet in beautiful, natural surroundings, I hereby send you this invitation to spend some time at Cathedral Drive Farm in Hope Ness. Let me know, or just show up. My welcome mat is always out.
I expect to have running water in a month or two; there’s a room upstairs that should suit you just fine; and there’s plenty to do around the place to help you take your mind off the cares of the world. (It’s looked to me in recent years like you’ve got quite a weight on your soul.)
So c’mon up. I’ll bake you some home-made bread. We’ll share a bottle of not-so-expensive wine and take it easy. So we will.
But getting back to that line I quoted above – many’s the time I’ve sung, and said that, and more lyrics from that song by way of personal consolation. So thanks for that.
Anyway, here with a few changes is what I said about you winning the Nobel prize:
Somebody in a certain newsroom must have been a seriously insightful Bob Dylan fan to have come up with that line to put in the headline of a Google News item about the surprising news early Thursday morning this week that Dylan had been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Surprising” indeed, because the now 75-year-old troubadour is after all best known as a singer-songwriter of long-standing; from the early 1960s in fact, as I know from personal experience and appreciation.
But that line, originally written for a love-gone-wrong song, seems appropriate now, as plenty of sceptics and cynics are piling on, saying in so many words that it’s a mockery of the Nobel, literature award, and not deserved when so many great writers and poets might have been considered.
But to them I say, don’t think twice, it’s alright.
So what if Dylan’s poetry was set to music? Once long ago, it most often was. So in Dylan’s own time has much of Leonard Cohen’s best poetry. And who would cast doubts if Cohen had won the Nobel prize? Listen to the lyrics of his arguably best-known and loved song, Hallelujah, and many others, and I dare you to say they’re not poetry. Indeed, now that the Nobel committee has re-discovered the great tradition of poetry-in-song, Cohen should be next if there’s any justice.
I confess I haven’t listened to much Dylan in recent years. That’s an interesting admission now that I think of it because, like many of my generation (pre-boomer) I lived and breathed Bob Dylan for a lot of years after he arrived on the scene in no uncertain terms during the heyday of the Folksong era in the early 1960s.
He wasn’t the only one: The late, great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, was right up there too. Gould’s first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations gave me endless hours of enjoyment and consolation in quiet solitude and reflection.
But Dylan was more of a . . . well, “community” is the word that comes to mind, as in community experience, from my buddies and I listening to his early LPs in a room on the second floor of a Spadina Road rooming house, to a packed live performance at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall, to what I now often refer to as the Global Village.
I can still see the then-quite young Dylan standing alone at a single microphone on the Massey Hall stage. He spoke rather shyly, even a little hesitantly, as he strummed a bit on his acoustic guitar. But when he sang those great, early songs, like Blowin’ in the Wind, I daresay his voice and words reached every corner of the hall, and into every heart and mind:
“Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
. . . The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowing’ in the wind.”
Dylan spoke for a generation. Sensing there was bound to be more of the same, words that shed a brilliant, fresh light on our world, my buddies and I waited excitedly for the release of every new album. In my mind’s eye I can still see my old friend Roger running down the Spadina sidewalk, waving the just-released, Another Side of Bob Dylan. He must have called out something too, along the lines of, “I’ve got it,” because Volker and I were watching him out the window.
We were not disappointed. We had come to trust Bob Dylan’s poetic view of the world: it was a sharp knife cutting through to the truth. And our trust was confirmed again.
That 1964 album was one of his last in which Dylan performed solo with acoustic guitar. There were signs his style and attitudes were evolving, as in the song, My Back Pages, with its refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
I’m not sure, to be honest, if it was a song on that album, but certain lines used to hit home more than others and often still come to mind, like, “little boy blue . . . He’s sure got a lot of gall, to be so useless and all, muttering small talk at the wall, while I’m in the hall.”
And this one, that used to get a wry laugh out of Roger and I, who both worked at the Chrysler National Parks Depot at the time, “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”
And finally, this line that often ruefully comes to my mind now and needs no further explanation, “old men with broken teeth, stranded without love.”
I wasn’t offended when, at the Woodstock Festival, the electrified, folk-rock Dylan appeared to a chorus of boos. Well, yes I was, but not by him.
But somewhere in the mid-1970s my many early Dylan albums started to gather dust on a shelf. I’m not even sure where they might be now, maybe in a second-hand store with other collectibles.
But, in spirit, I certainly regard Bob Dylan as a brother. He is part of who I am personally, and certainly a major influence in the artistic, musical culture and social consciousness of the world in which we live; and we are a better world because of him.
In recent years, when I’ve seen photos or videos of the man, he looks anything but happy. I wonder about that, about the stress and strain of one thing or another, and life’s disappointments.
There’s a lot that can get a man down; and certainly a lot that’s happened in the world, and happening now, for that matter, that could get us all down.
That certainly includes we members of the boomer generation who once upon a time had so much hope in the idea that the world of the here-and-now, the world of flesh and blood, and dreams, as well as spirit, could be changed for the better.
I don’t know if it applies in that sphere anymore. I fear not. But nevertheless I’m tempted to say, by way of consolation to this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, don’t think twice, it’s alright, Bob.
You once said, “I’m a poet, I know it, I hope I don’t blow it.”
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in October, 2016