Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mazel Tov, Bob!

Harold Keller, 1963, The Four Seasons. I can't believe I found this picture, which I literally remember seeing, this or its twin in a sequence of interrelated paintings beginning with a representational image of women standing in a subway car, when it was new.
My first experience of the music of Bob Dylan was connected with politics, in a fun way, at the end of August 1964, in Saratoga Springs, NY:

It was a moment of profound historical inconsequence, or maybe not, when the New York State Conservative Party, founded just two years earlier in protest against the liberalism of the state's Republicans, made its first electoral démarche, naming its own Senate candidate in opposition to the incumbent senator Kenneth Keating to run against Robert F. Kennedy. They had meant to nominate Mrs. Clare Booth Luce, the author and diplomat, but she withdrew at the last minute, leaving them stuck with the comparative literature professor Henry Paolucci, the closest they could come to actual political anonymity. (They did better the following year when their candidate for mayor of New York, William F. Buckley, Jr., finished third with 13.4% of the vote, and much better in the US Senate election of 1970, when they scored their only electoral victory with Buckley's brother James.)

One of those Skidmore professors, though, was an abstract expressionist painter called Harold Keller, a friend of my dad's, and one of those wet kids was your correspondent. It was my first protest march. We'd spent the night at Mr. and Mrs. Keller's apartment, where I remember elaborate plaster moldings around the high ceilings—Mr. Keller said the place had been a brothel in Saratoga's glory days as a glitzy resort—and listened to one of the strangest record albums I'd ever heard, by a young folk musician who couldn't sing and almost never interpreted a traditional repertoire but performed only his own songs, with lyrics lit by an incomprehensible prophetic fire. It was The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, of course, and the song that ate into my teenage brain was "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall".

I later learned, obviously, that he could sing, just not in a way I was accustomed to hearing, and was in fact a great and unique musician. And that the lyrics, on the other hand, could descend without warning into bathos or complete senselessness, though I guess you could say the same thing about Byron or Apollinaire.

It's a long time since he was a central presence in my own musical or literary life, too; he's cut some 20 albums I've hardly even heard since the last one I was overwhelmed by (Blood on the Tracks, 1975). And yet I feel so gratified, personally, that he has been recognized by the Swedish Academy for having "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" and thus earned the highest distinction of literary merit the world affords. And a completely valid choice. It's made me a little giddy.

TWBB at LGM comments,
Giving Bob Dylan the Novel Prize for Literature is literally peak boomerism.
Hey, I resemble that remark! Then again, Lee Smith at the Weekly Standard is peak something:
Bob Dylan is folk singer, not a poet.
The precise (I might even say Kristolline) wrongness of that assessment—Dylan is no more a folk singer than Virgil was a Balkan guslar or Hans Christian Andersen an old nursemaid, his art so self-conscious and monomaniacal as to be the exact opposite of folk in spite of its pervasive appropriation of folk elements, which explains both what's great about his and what's terrible—is almost its own reason why the prize is justified.

Beautiful, beautiful <a href="">remarks from Edroso</a> may be clarifying for some of you.

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