‘Much of the Village,’ wrote New York Times critic, Robert Shelton, of the emergence in September, 1961, of Bob Dylan, ‘reacted with jealousy, contempt and ridicule.’ Shelton, however, was not one of the baying, reactionary herd. In an article of no more than a few hundred words he foresaw what so many others then and since have failed or refused to recognize.
Looking like ‘a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik’ and wearing clothes that ‘may need a bit of tailoring’, Dylan, then just 20 years old, was already creating the kind of impression that is indelible, imperishable. ‘Mr Dylan,’ added Shelton, ‘is both comedian and tragedian. Like a vaudeville actor of the rural circuit, he offers a variety of droll musical monologues: “Talking Bear Mountain” lampoons the over-crowding of an excursion boat, “Talking New York” satirizes his troubles in gaining recognition and “Talking Havah Nagilah” burlesques the folk-music craze and singer himself.’ The review concluded with the observation that ‘it matters less where he had been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.’
Shelton’s prophetic piece came to mind when news broke last month of Dylan’s award of this year’s Nobel Laureateship in Literature. While the usual begrudgers condemned his so-called inability to sing and refused to acknowledge that song lyrics may without music have separate lives as poems, I couldn’t help but think of another man who arrived in a big city from the boondocks and created a storm. William Shakespeare, born and bred in Stratford, materialized in London as if from thin air some time in the 1580s. Like Dylan, the reception he received from his peers and rivals was less than flattering. One, the playwright Robert Greene, described him as ‘an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’, adding, he ‘is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you…in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.’ Ironically, Greene is best remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for his anti-Shakespeare barbs.
Bob Dylan is our age’s Shakespeare. I have a long-standing habit of putting together lines from both of them – even more so since Dylan’s en-Nobelment – and marvelling at how well they fit.
‘Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright:/ The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’
Like Shakespeare, Dylan writes words to be uttered aloud, in public, in front of audiences disinclined to sit in silence. What Dryden said of Shakespeare – ‘he is always great’ – is equally true of Dylan. But do not take my word for it. Among his many admirers was the now lamented Leonard Cohen who, in the days when I covered the Glasgow music scene and had easy access backstage at the Apollo Theatre, I met on a couple of occasions. On the first, we chatted about the process of writing and recording songs, and I asked Cohen to place Dylan in the pantheon. ‘The master – I sit at his feet,’ he said. Some time later at the same venue I had the opportunity to talk to him again. ‘Dylan’s body of work is broad musically but what is not apparent to many people is how deep he goes. He takes truths from the ages and refashions them for our, often darker, era.’ To judge by recent interviews, Cohen’s opinion – and eloquence – had not changed one iota. Learning of the award of the Nobel, he said it was ‘like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain’.
Shakespeare – as his fans know – is one of the many inhabitants of Dylan’s lyrical metropolis, as are Romeo, Ophelia, Othello, Desdemona and, obliquely, King Lear. (His song, ‘Tears of Rage’, for example, has been likened to Lear’s soliloquy on the blasted heath in Shakespeare’s tragedy, while ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ is a direct borrowing). All are cited in Dylan’s early, astonishing outpouring of song. Some thirty years on, in his 1997 album, he evoked in ’Time Out of Mind’ Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet:
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
Mercutio, leading Romeo on a midnight ramble through Vernona, imagines Queen Mab, ‘the fairies’ midwife’, as she drives her carriage across the sleeping world and through the minds of dreamers to witness their fantastic visions of love and war or the banalities of everyday life. Was Shakespeare here describing his own muse, and is Dylan doing likewise, with a wink to his Elizabethan predecessor? Whether or not ’Time Out of Mind’ is a conscious lift, it is a reminder of another inescapable similarity between Shakespeare and Dylan, namely their sponge-like ability to absorb, wittingly or otherwise, dramatic potential and poetic inspiration from a wide range of sources. In Chronicles, his first volume of autobiography, Dylan describes the eclecticism of his reading and his eagerness to learn more. Once, he recalls, he sought out Robert Graves, with whose book The White Goddess he was impressed. On a brisk walk round London’s Paddington Square, the conversation turned to Balzac, of whom Dylan was a perceptive devotee. ‘Balzac,’ he wrote, ‘was pretty funny. His philosophy is plain and simple, says basically that pure materialism is a recipe for madness. The only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be in superstition. Everything is subject to analysis. Horde your energy. That’s the secret of life. You can learn a lot from Mr. B.’
Such omnivorousness, such shameless appropriation, was also a Shakespearian trait. Shakespeare borrowed extensively from his contemporary, Raphael Holinshed, author of Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which was the basis for his Histories as well as Macbeth and King Lear. The works of Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney were also ripe for plunder, as were Plutarch’s and Chaucer’s. Like Dylan, Shakespeare wrote quickly and, unlike Dylan, often to order. Both men’s output was phenomenal; on average Shakespeare wrote a play every nine months, often while also performing on stage with his company of players, the King’s Men. Dylan was similarly fecund and a compelling image, captured in DA Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary, Don’t Look Back, is of Dylan frenetically clattering out lyrics on his typewriter in breaks between concerts, a phenomenon also described by Robbie Robertson of The Band in his new memoir, Testimony.
Perhaps this almost manic creativity was fuelled in both Shakespeare and Dylan by the intuition that they lived at decisive historical junctures. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, England – soon to be united with Scotland – established its first American colony. The British Empire had its toehold on another continent and the English language – and Shakespeare’s masterpieces – crossed the ocean with it. Dylan’s youth, meanwhile, coincided with the emergence of the USA as the world’s preeminent superpower , with a cultural empire that included the movies and popular music, both expressed in English, by then a truly global language.
For Dylan, though, sound was as critical as meaning. Music came to him via America’s many specialist radio stations to which he listened as a teenager in Duluth, Minnesota. As he demonstrated when DJ-ing on his Theme Radio Hour, which ran for more than a hundred episodes, Dylan’s taste is admirably eclectic, covering the scale of the American songbook. His knowledge of and affection for all genres is remarkable, allowing him to move seemingly effortlessly from folk to rock, gospel to country and western, blues to jazz and even, as we have seen of late, embracing Sinatra standards. Who, when he was writing the likes of ‘Rainy Day Women’ and ‘Leopard-Skin-Pill-Box Hat’, could have foreseen that?
Moreover, Dylan’s emergence came at a time when the technology was changing, allowing artists such as himself who were constricted by what could be put on a 45 rpm record to produce long playing albums which could accommodate a song like ‘Desolation Row’, which, on the 1965 album ’Highway 61 Revisited’, took up more than eleven minutes. Such epics allowed Dylan to explore themes that had animated Shakespeare: thwarted love, jealousy, the viciousness of war, the loneliness of power and – pace Dante, whose Inferno he read in those formative days in Greenwich Village, and the aforementioned Balzac – the divine, human comedy. Indeed, Dylan reshaped the form of popular music so radically that he could fuse the Scottish ballad ‘Lord Randall’ and the ‘Book of Revelation’ to deliver, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’.
To date, Dylan has produced an estimated 522 songs, a prodigious output by any standard. Of course, not all of them are of the highest quality. Shakespeare, who was at least as productive, was similarly inconsistent. But, as his contemporary, Ben Jonson, said of him, he redeemed his vices with virtues: ‘There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.’ It is a mark of geniuses that they are ever ahead of public taste, defying expectations, flouting rules and challenging norms. Artists such as Shakespeare and Dylan don’t look back, they’re always moving forward.
Coincidentally, Robert Shelton and I both worked for the Sunday Standard, and we sat together when Dylan played Earl’s Court in 1981. Before the show we chatted about his appetite for reinvention. Shelton referred to Shakespeare’s capacity to be rediscovered anew by each generation – forever young, you might say. He added: ‘Dylan also keeps re-imagining himself and the world. What’s fascinating is how the world keep turning out the way he imagined it.’ An hour later Dylan sang ‘Maggie’s Farm’, the song that had got him booed off the stage by outraged traditionalists when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. The reaction of the Earl’s Court audience was ecstatic because of another new and wrenching context. A woman prime minister, also called Maggie, happened then to be imposing her doctrine on an increasingly disunited kingdom. ‘It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor,’ Dylan rasped. The crowd roared its approval. ‘See what I mean,’ said Shelton.