I was at the house of a college friend in Kowdiar, Thiruvananthapuram, when the Time magazine was delivered to his doorstep. I saw a picture of Bob Dylan on the cover. He had just been named entertainer of the century. It was January 2000. The moment remained etched in my mind. I resolved to learn more about the singer-songwriter. I had already heard so much about him at Madras Christian College, Chennai, where I was studying that year.
Soon, I had a tape of Dylan on me. It was one of those so-called noisy, bootlegged records taped in 1966 and released in 1998. Thus began my life as a self-taught understudy of an artist, who has now been given the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” in the words of the Swedish Academy.
Dylan is the first major songwriter to have won the award for Literature since it was instituted in 1901. He shot into the commercial music scene, by playing at bars and pubs in the Greenwich Village in New York as a wiry 20-year-old. The choice of the award for Dylan is unconventional as it has not been given for a body of literary work -- novels, plays, poems or short stories.
In the early 1960s, Dylan became famous for protest songs such as “Blowin in the wind”, ‘The times, they are changin’ and the anti-war piece “Masters of war”. But he would soon abandon his ‘roots’.
At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he played with an electric band, shocking his audience and, in a later show, prompting cries of ‘Judas’. In the same year, Dylan would also perform “Just like a rolling stone” which redefined rock music.
Dylan’s songs became increasingly ambiguous and his voice gravelly and harsh. Songs like “Mr Tambourine man” seemed to originate from the drug trips of the singer. Dylan also wrote quite a few songs on love gone wrong like “Tangled up in blue” and “Simple twist of fate”. In fact, he is an acknowledged master of this sub-genre.
Right from the beginning, his songs were played by other bands -- The Byrds, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Animals, Jeff Buckley, and Jerry Garcia Band. Some of these songs were chartbusters, often pipping Dylan himself to the post. The musician’s life, times and work were put under the microscope. Several biographies were also published.
Dylan is the first American to have been given the award since Toni Morrison in 1993.
Long before he got the Grammys, Oscar, Golden Globe, Pulitzer and the US Presidential Medal For Freedom, Dylan was an immensely popular artist, having sold over 100 million albums. Albums like “Blonde on blonde” and “Highway 61 revisited” made in the 1960s have cemented his position among the rock greats.
Dylan has also bought out his memoirs “Chronicles: Vol 1”, which revealed in the musician’s own words, his early life in New York and his struggle to make it in the big bad world of rock music. Dylan is also a scriptwriter, painter and sculptor. He has appeared in many films including “Renaldo and Clara”, which he directed.
While on the “Never Ending Tour”, which began in 1988, Dylan’s rendition of his songs changed on each show. He teased out different meaning every time, the drawl never quite the same at any point.
French authors like Arthur Rimbaud have been a big influence on Dylan. He was also part of the movement ignited by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. His words were pictorial, refrains incisive and rhythms electrifying.
Dylan was also a great storyteller. “Hurricane” and “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll” are exemplary pieces in which Dylan uses his extraordinary skills to tell the real stories of people on the wrong end of the law.
On Thursday, after announcing the prize, Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said the decision was not a difficult one and hoped that the news would be received with joy. She compared Dylan with Homer and Sappho.
Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, USA, and received his first guitar at age 14. He played in school bands and in college assumed the name Bob Dylan after poet Dylan Thomas.
Dylan has had an on-again, off-again relationship with religion. Though he was born a Jew, he would became a ‘born again’ Christian in the late 1970s. However, Dylan has denied his involvement with religion at any major level.
Dylan was married twice and had five children. The birth of one of his children, born to backup singer Carolyn Dennis, whom he married, was kept a secret until the publication of his biography, “Down the Highway”.
Most of the albums in the Dylan canon were recorded in single takes. Not much overdubbing was ever done. He also kept rewriting his songs in the studio and often confounded accompanying musicians by expecting them to play along. Even the landmark album of the 1970s, “Blood on the tracks” was produced in this fashion, with guitarists and drummers accompanying him with no clue as to what the next note might be.
In recent years, Dylan has been courted by everybody. In 2009, he appeared in a Pepsi ad and went on to collect several Grammys. His image is becoming commercialised by the day, with the iTunes store bringing out an entire collection of Dylan songs.
It may not be incorrect to say that with the Nobel, Dylan has gone on to cap his career with the highest of honours. This will also, hopefully, turn the attention of a new generation of rock audience to his songs.