Don't think twice, Bob -- it's all right
Everyone has an opinion on Bob Dylan being the first songwriter to win the Nobel prize for literature. The organisers explained Dylan was bestowed the honour "as a great poet". At the time of writing, he has yet to respond, a poet unusually lost for words.
Having grown up with Dylan's music in the mid-1960s, I am all for the award. At that time, the only poetry most people of my age were familiar with was obscene graffiti on toilet walls, but they all knew "the pump don't work/'cause the vandals took the handles."
Because he was popular with the masses shouldn't rule him out from receiving the award. Just the opposite, in fact.
I admit my appreciation of Dylan's work is restricted to half-a-dozen brilliant albums in his early years, up to John Wesley Harding in 1967. Since then I've only enjoyed the occasional song, which I suppose makes me a fair-weather fan.
The times they are a-changin'
My introduction to Dylan came in 1963 with the release of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which remains a favourite. I had never heard anything quite like it before. It was certainly a change from Elvis. I recall spending hours listening to the album in our college common room, discussing with other students what it all meant and realising we didn't have much idea.
His music and lyrics raised real concerns about nuclear war and civil rights in the US. It is difficult not to be moved by Masters of War or A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall. Written at the time of the Cuban crisis, the words are just as relevant today as when first recorded. And The Girl From The North Country is simply a beautiful song.
The Beatles were among Dylan's biggest fans. John Lennon, not one to give praise easily, said of Freewheelin': "It was incredibly original and wonderful. For three weeks [while on tour in Paris] we didn't stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.
Some complain about Dylan's dodgy voice. Certainly you wouldn't go to see him perform in an opera, but his distinctive nasal sound fitted perfectly with his early songs. That was all part of the appeal. The songs would have sounded weird if Frank Sinatra sang them.
However, over the years, Dylan's larynx hasn't exactly improved, prompting some entertaining comments from music critics.
One newspaper reviewer in the US said Dylan's voice "sounds like he has been gargling with gravel", while another described it as a "bullfrog holler". A New York Times critic described the voice as "a wry cackle of a codger … a raspy, phlegmy bark". Pavarotti he is not.
In the summer of 1965, I worked outdoors on a large seed farm near my home town of Reading. Among the other temporary workers was a student who was mad keen on acoustic Dylan and was already shell-shocked that on Bringing It All Back Home, released earlier in the year, Dylan had dabbled with electric guitars on Maggie's Farm and the splendid Subterranean Homesick Blues.
We had a transistor radio permanently tuned in to the pirate radio station Radio Caroline, and I'll never forget the student's face when he heard the newly released Like a Rolling Stone for the first time.
I thought it was terrific, but he was absolutely horrified. Every time that song came on in the coming weeks, the Dylan fan would quickly disappear, scurrying into a greenhouse to seek solace with the pansies and petunias.
Dylan at the Dragon
Some months after arriving in Thailand in 1969, I ventured into the Green Dragon bar on New Phetchaburi Road and was pleasantly surprised to find a Thai band called the Apples playing several Dylan songs, including Like A Rolling Stone.
The songs were greeted enthusiastically by the large crowd of US military in the bar on an R&R break from Vietnam. The band's organist and singer, nicknamed Eed, was a huge Dylan fan. A Thammasat University student, Eed told me he would love to sing more Dylan numbers but didn't know the lyrics. There was no internet in those days, so it wasn't long before Eed came over to our house in Makkasan with the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde tucked under his arm.
Eed desperately wanted to perform Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues and Ballad of a Thin Man, so we spent that first afternoon putting Highway 61 on my old record player and playing the songs over and over again in an attempt to decipher the lyrics.
It was a desperately slow process, not helped by Dylan's enunciation, and it was really hard picking up the correct words. Sometimes I just guessed … usually incorrectly.
The fact that I couldn't understand the lyrics anyway didn't help matters.
Skipping reels of rhyme
All the effort proved to be really worth it when a few weeks later I saw the Apples performing these songs to a large crowd of enthusiastic GIs at the Green Dragon.
While they probably preferred Mr Tambourine Man, they also appreciated a Thai band playing Dylan's lesser-known songs. Understandably, Eed hadn't totally mastered the lyrics but gamely battled away. The chorus to Blowin' in the Wind, which begins "the answer my friend", sounded like "the ants are my friend". But it didn't matter. Dylan would have been proud.
Every Dec 10 Nobel prize winners are invited to Stockholm to receive their awards from King Carl XVI Gustaf and give a speech, but the Swedish Academy still does not know if Dylan plans to attend.
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Bangkok Post columnist
A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.
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