Dylan in Switzerland

By Bob Houghtaling

I have been a Bob Dylan fan since his ‘Folk’ days. Over time he has gone through many permutations, oftentimes confounding fans, critics and officials of the Nobel Prize.

Some love Mr. Zimmerman for his lyrics, political stances, Civil Rights Advocacy and rebellious nature. They often site his involvement with seminal cultural events like Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, merging Folk and Rock music, advocating for a Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, etc., etc..

Those who are critical of Dylan poke fun at his voice, esoteric lyrics and dismissive attitude. These individuals claim that his concerts are unpredictable and that the Beatles, Stones and others have sold more records.

To a large extent Bob Dylan embraces all of the above. For me, in addition to his music, I admire that he allows his muse to take him to far off places. In short, Dylan’s ability to change direction and not get locked into yesterday is fascinating. There are very few (if any) concerts where you will hear him perform a medley of his greatest hits. In fact, out of nowhere he will go Country, Gospel, Rock n’ Roll, Folk and the Great American Song Book. While the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, The Who and other 60’s bands perform oldies tours, Dylan refuses to play the role of ‘has been’. It is sometimes awkward and untidy, but it is also brave, creative and evolving.

We will have to see if Dylan will actually show up for the Nobel Prize ceremony. His silence and, then, ambiguity has led to much speculation. In many ways, does it really matter? Will his winning an award make him any better or worse? Will an award bestowed upon him by Nobel Officials define more than 55 years of work? He is who he is. The Nobel is nice. The Nobel is icing on the cake. The Nobel, at this time, is overrated in its importance. Also, let us keep in mind that Dylan is a controversial choice for some. He is addicted to creating and that is his true legacy.

I am sure there is a price to be paid for those who chose such paths. Time away from family, critics taking shots at your work, self-doubt and the ups and downs of public opinion come immediately to mind. Most settle for fitting in with the safety of popularity. People like Dylan are agents of change who are a combination driven, genius and crazy. They are Picasso, Van Gogh, Mozart, Billie Holiday and the like. Often misunderstood, the inspiration they channel sometimes stretches beyond their own comprehension.

 In a world that gives us American Idol and The Voice, it is often difficult to separate posing from talent. Scripted and marketed, might wind up being popular, but I often wonder if Janice Joplin, Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan would have survived a round on such shows. Things change - it’s neither good or bad, they just do. That’s what is so great about Dylan. Staying put in the past contradicts reality.

Whatever one might think of Bob Dylan he certainly is an interesting character. Time Magazine listed him as one of the top 100 influential figures of the 20th Century. The fact that he is still being talked about today is worthy of note. Dylan is more then just the sum of his parts. His voice resonates beyond the nasal and gravelly. His voice also represents an unbridled art that relies little on popularity. We will spend years trying to figure the old troubadour out, when it really was so simple after all. Go Bob.

Bob Houghtaling (no relation to Bob Dylan) is the director of the East Greenwich, RI Drug Program and the president of the East Greenwich Academy Foundation. He podcasts regularly at Mulling It Over