Bob Dylan’s work is like barbeque or Mexican food—some is better, but it’s all good. It was news last week that he got the Nobel Prize for literature. It hasn’t been news for a long time that he’s a genius. But then, genius is simply brilliance plus output. Then again, he’s a genius among geniuses. I count it as my good fortune to have lived during a time when an artist on the order of William Shakespeare has been belting it out for us.
He’s written timeless gems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” and surreal masterpieces like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and born-again testaments like “Slow Train Coming” and “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody,” along with too many love songs to count. He created one of my favorite sub-genres: his own spooky Mojave stories like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Man in the Long Dark Coat.” And, always, shooting through everything, the blues.
I try not to be amazed at those who don’t respond to his work—there’s no accounting for taste: anyone who attends church learns that when some hate the minister you love. And some need art, even his, more than others do. But there’s something for anyone in Dylan’s phases. You can start anywhere, and work forward and back. But I might suggest Blood on the Tracks. If you demand his prettiest voice, there’s Dylan’s wonderful Nashville Skyline, recorded with Johnny Cash. Critics are fun, though uneven as guides except for maybe Greil Marcus. Most of them utterly missed the beauty, power, and risk of Dylan’s overtly Christian period.
Dylan reportedly still hasn’t acknowledged his Nobel Prize or told the academy he plans to attend the awards ceremony. He’s ornery. And busy, so very busy. Currently on tour as a singer, he’s also a painter who’s recently been featured for his work as a sculptor. According to a September article in the New York Times, he built the iron archway for a $1.3 billion resort casino at Maryland’s MGM National Harbor. As he told us in 1964’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”
Many writers possess a visceral antipathy to politics, or at least to politicians. This may be because of politicians’ storied lack of integrity. But we know the constraints they face in our republic of laws, of soaring ideals, and of humanly selfish interests. Still, we’ve seen recently how shockingly low some can go. Yet what a politician does at her or his best is the same magic trick to which writers aspire. Which is channeling and kindling, through all America’s murk, our core truths flickering in overused platitudes. Those verities reflect historic and still-evolutionary ideals that are still evolving. Yes, America is exceptional. But our past is no guarantee. Hence our latent respect for our politicians who try to affirm and foster the best in us. Or in whom we intuit that, under the right circumstances, they will try.
Even though on that score this presidential contest should be a boring no-brainer, writers have nonetheless ascended right and left—well, mostly on left but some on the right—to great work. Roger Cohen, a former foreign correspondent who writes columns for the New York Times, wrote a stunning news feature back in early September, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” subtitled “Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous. But they’re desperate for change.”
The author of a memoir about his mother, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, Cohen went into the rural mid-South and Appalachia to interview and portray Trump supporters. He talked to a woman in Paris, Kentucky—a burg in horse country, right across the river from Ohio, that you drive through to Lexington—who voted for Obama in 2008 but now supports Trump. She operates a boot shop. Cohen’s interview with her, as with others in these travels, was sensitive and searching.
Although now a columnist, here Cohen was functioning as an “objective” journalist. Which usually means in practice that the writer isn’t free to state his thesis as his own but has explored it, tested it. And here, the notion seems simply an honest question. To ask, on our behalf, How can decent, tax-paying, idealistic Americans vote for a man who is anything but? These folks may trend conservative, but they try to be good—they aspire to macro ethics—yet many have supported Trump, the ultimate micro ethicist.
In the exquisite calculus of mainstream objective journalism, Cohen’s writing so freely and drawing so clearly on his research crossed a line, however mildly he furrowed his brow. Lest readers not recognize his article as containing such cautious, informed opinion—and bending over backwards to be fair—editors met their objective format’s standard with an “Opinion” label.