In 2001, Martin Amis, Rick Moody and other authors and artists gathered in New York to honor a peer they regarded as a giant of the times.
They compared him to Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Arthur Rimbaud. They called him a bard, a shaman and a master of “art as revenge.”
That man was Bob Dylan.
Had he lived in England, he’d be Sir Bob Dylan, maybe even Lord. Scholarly books have compared him to Dante and Keats; admirers lobby for him to get the Nobel Prize. At a 1997 Kennedy Center ceremony, where fellow honorees included dancer Edward Villela and opera star Jessye Norman, President Clinton thanked Dylan for a “lifetime of stirring the conscience of the nation.”
Now, Dylan has been knighted by the nation’s book reviewers. His memoir, “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” was among the finalists announced last weekend by the National Book Critics Circle, which has given awards to such writers as John Updike and Philip Roth. Dylan’s competitors this year include Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespearean scholar and author of the best-selling “Will in the World”; and historian Ron Chernow, cited for “Alexander Hamilton.”
“Bob Dylan is unfairly talented. I’ve written a lot of books and after reading Dylan’s book, I realized I would never write a book that good,” says critic Greil Marcus, a former NBCC finalist whose Dylan book, “Like a Rolling Stone,” comes out this spring.
“I expected a big, oversized book with lots of pictures and memorabilia. Instead, here is this modest object, with no illustrations. It’s not very long. Its tone is humble. It’s literate. This is a real book, written out of an immersion in literature.”
In “Chronicles,” Dylan not only celebrates the influence of Woody Guthrie and other musicians, but states that he recorded an entire album, which he does not identify, based on some stories by Chekhov. Elsewhere he praises Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke and others as “visionaries, revolutionaries.”
Contradictions in terms
Before Dylan, rock stars and literary writers were considered contradictions in terms, the pure division of mind and body. Even Dylan was mocked by Updike for looking “three months on the far side of a haircut” at a concert in the early 1960s.
But by the late ’60s, English teachers were reciting the lyrics of Dylan, the Beatles and Paul Simon with the kind of reverence usually shown for John Donne. Meanwhile, rock stars became more self-conscious (and pretentious) and literary, from the “rock theater” of the Doors to the “rock opera” of The Who’s “Tommy.”
“For people of that time, some of the rock lyrics were more important to us and occupied us more than reading the great poets, even those of us who went on to study those poets,” said T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose many books include “Water Music” and “World’s End.”
Musicians were becoming authors — the Doors’ Jim Morrison wrote poetry and Dylan issued a surreal work of verse, “Tarantula” — and authors were writing about musicians. An Elvis-like character was featured in Harlan Ellison’s “Spider Kiss”; Don DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street” concerned a rock star’s attempted escape from fame.
As more fans came of age, rock novels proliferated, including Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments,” Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” and Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” Dylan inspired a key character in Scott Spencer’s “The Rich Man’s Table.”
Boyle, who included a Michael Jackson-like character in “A Friend of the Earth,” wanted to use some lines from the Doors at the start of his 2003 novel about a hippie commune, “Drop City.” He worked out a deal that allowed him to use the lyrics for free by contributing liner notes to a Doors anthology.
Not only have writers taken to rock as a subject, some have tried making music themselves. Rushdie collaborated on songs with U2’s Bono and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon has worked with Warren Zevon. A CD compilation released last year by Soft Skull Press, a Brooklyn-based publisher, featured lyrics by Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood and Paul Auster, and music by the band One Ring Zero.
“Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s a single one of us who didn’t want to be a rock star when we grew up,” Boyle said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, literary attempts keep coming from rockers: poetry by Jewel and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan; children’s books by Madonna; science fiction from Ray Davies; horror writing from Greg Kihn; short stories by Graham Parker, David Byrne and Eric Burdon.
As surely as Dylan helped persuade songwriters to move beyond the three-minute single, they now strive to rise above the rock star screed. When Simon & Schuster, Dylan’s publisher, announced a two-book deal last spring with Elvis Costello, it proudly stated that the English rocker had “resisted the rewards for writing a traditionally scurrilous and scandalous biographical memoir.”
His first book, currently untitled, will be a “series of intimate narrative chapters taking their cue from the styles, themes and characters found in a number of Costello’s lyrics.”
The second book, more in the spirit of a three-minute single, was billed as a “work of comic philosophy” called “How to Play the Guitar, Sing Loudly and Impress Girls ... or Boys.”