Earlier this year, Bob Dylan made a quick stop during a tour of Sweden to accept his 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Photos showed that he wore an inconspicuous leather jacket that covered his head as he slipped in and out of his meeting with the Swedish Academy.
And yet Dylan made no public acceptance or speech at the time, leading some Nobel officials to label Dylan’s behavior as “impolite and arrogant.” A lecture is required of all winners within six months of the ceremony date in order to keep their prize money, as stipulated on the Nobel website.
That is until earlier this week when Dylan posted a 30 minute audio lecture on YouTube — six days before the deadline. In typical Dylan fashion its release was unconventional, and in its own way it’s a work of art.
Dylan reflects on his relationship with the music he heard growing up, the first records he ever heard outside of the radio, and relaying a memory of his seeing Buddy Holly perform and look straight at him just three days before he died.
He then pulls the topic towards literature by citing three works that profoundly influenced his songwriting: Homer’s Odyssey, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
The entire half hour is backed by some jazzy piano from Alan Pasqua as Dylan poetically describes the ins and outs of these three literature masterpieces. He throws out characters, themes and quotes of interest in an attempt to articulate what they mean to him on a personal level.
In a way, the entire lecture is an amalgamation of Dylan’s career up to this point. Even his cool-jazz vocal delivery of the lecture calls to mind the Beat writings of Kerouac’s On the Road and the main character Sal’s description of watching jazz musicians like Slim Gaillard perform. That book and the Beat movement that spawned it were major influences on Dylan’s early songwriting.
The piano accompaniment also brings to mind Dylan’s recent foray into lounge music and trilogy of Sinatra cover albums. Like in those records, Dylan’s voice has aged gracefully, and sometimes new insights can be found in the work he covers. His interpretation of these literature classics has helped uncover what Dylan himself found important when writing his lyrics.
The lecture also brings to mind one of Dylan’s own genuine poems, the only live recording of which exists on 1991’s The Bootleg Series: Vol 1-3, entitled “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” That piece, in more abstract imagery than the lecture, though no less potent, showed a man with a profound command of the English language on the verge of writing some of the most radical songs of his career. The Nobel lecture, in turn, attempts to vocalize and summarize the importance of his own career, this time with a hefty command of his own life experiences to back him up.
In the process, Dylan extracts life lessons from the characters of Captain Ahab, Odysseus and Paul Bäumer. He also negates the Dylanphiles who pore over his every lyric for hidden meaning:
I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means… I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.
In his own words, he just wants it to sound good. And Dylan has rarely sounded more self-aware and engaging than he has here.
Check out the lecture in its entirety above.