January 19, 2020

On Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

It was 1975. I was lying in my tiny basement bedroom of our tiny home in St. Louis Park, Minn., snuggled beneath the covers, snow and bitter cold outside, listening to KQRS — the only progressive rock station on the dial. Who was this person they were speaking about with mystical, magical, spiritual reverence? It was Bob Dylan and his 1975 “Planet Waves” tour — his first real tour since hibernating for years after a motorcycle accident. 

The next day, I made it to Musicland to buy my first Dylan album, “Blonde on Blonde.” I came home, put it on the console turntable, lowered the needle into the grooved vinyl and was mesmerized. I suddenly did not feel so all alone; “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (one song for an entire side of an album) — genius. 

The tiniest detail had the greatest impact on me listening to that album. It was the way Dylan sang the word “garage” in “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” He pronounced garage like all Minnesotans — one syllable: g’rage. He was one of us. The greatest ever was one of us. A skinny Jewfroed kid from Minnesota — he was one of us. And if he could get out of Minnesota and make it in the big city with his words — his mind-blowing words of truth constructed in ways no one had ever built lyrics before — then there was hope for the rest of us geeky, word-obsessed, skinny, Jewfroed kids who wanted to escape the stultifying conformity and cold that was Minnesota. 

Dylan was permission granted to break the rules of writing. Songs did not have to rhyme or be 2 1/2 minutes, or be anything other than the inspiration that sprang from your mind, your heart, the headlines or your soul. Dylan was permission granted to borrow with abandon, sneer, whine, whisper, bark in a voice that was beautiful because it was yours and because those who could, would understand. Dylan was truth in the Torah that had something to say about God telling Abraham to kill me a son, and the gates of Eden, a white dove sleeping in the sand, and the harsh, deeply spiritual and simple fact that we are not God because we all “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and that “With God on Our Side,” a lot of us are still hypocrites. Is there a greater encapsulation of a parent’s bittersweet emotions at a bar or bat mitzvah than “Forever Young”? Is there a more Jobian dystopia than “Everything Is Broken”? Is there a better Kaddish than “God Knows” or “Every Grain of Sand”? 

The New York Times ran an op-ed piece with the headline “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten a Nobel.” The basic premise was that in awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to a musician, the committee was depriving a “real” writer of the prize. In other words, Dylan deserves recognition and reward, but only as a musician. This discriminates against Dylan because he is great at three things rather than just one — writing music, playing music and writing lyrics that, as the Nobel selection committee put it, “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” 

Is he a great writer? Ask Sir Christopher Ricks, who while I was at Oxford in my early 20s, delivered a stunning lecture there about Dylan’s line endings and poetry that confirmed intellectually what I felt at 15 in my basement emotionally. In reaction to Dylan’s Nobel, announced on Oct. 13, Ricks wrote: “I’d not have written a book about Dylan, to stand alongside books on Milton and Keats, Tennyson and T.S. Eliot, if I didn’t think Dylan a genius of and with language.” 

As complicated, at times inexplicable and deeply flawed as Dylan may be, he has been a spiritual voice and creative example for me, guiding me to be more creative myself, more prayerful, more particular, more universal, more Jewish and more human. Bobby Zimmerman blazed a path for me out of my tiny Minnesota basement. 

The reflected glory that came from being where Bob Dylan was from, knowing his aunt, or his cousin, or his camp counselor from Camp Herzl, where you, too, had gone years later, or knowing that “Positively 4th Street” was a street that ran right down the middle of the University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown and that you, too, had walked it, or knowing that “Highway 61” was the same highway you, too, had driven on with your dad — that reflected glory meant more to another skinny, Jewish kid from Minnesota who later became a rabbi than I can possibly explain. 

Best of all, Bob Dylan set an example for me to care more about truth telling and less about what people will think of me as a result. That powerful, wildly creative voice of truth, that poignant voice of truth, that man who is one of us, but more so deserves the Nobel Prize. For we are a people who cherish words, words that uplift, words that challenge, words that bring us deeply into ourselves and one another. That is prayer. That is greatness. That is Dylan. 

RABBI STEVEN LEDER is senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.