Bob Dylan review: A few words in defense of Nobel laureate revisiting 'Highway 61' while moving on

Ed Masley
The Republic |
Bob Dylan sings while displayed on one of the large outdoor screens at Desert Trip, October 7, 2016.

One doesn’t normally associate Bob Dylan with scathing reviews of his artistry.

But that’s before a man I’ve often called the poet laureate of post-Chuck Berry rock and roll was saddled with a Nobel Prize in Literature. The news broke Thursday, touching off an avalanche of negativity directed at a laureate whose greatest crime, as far as I can tell, is having revolutionized the art of the popular song.

"You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say," wrote the critic at Slate. "And if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan."

The New York Times opinion page responded with an essay headlined “Why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have gotten a Nobel,” taking exception to Dylan receiving “an honor that elevates him into the company of T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison and Samuel Beckett.”

Dylan may be great, the Times allowed. “But he’s no writer.”

He’s no writer.

The man who wrote the words to “Like a Rolling Stone.” To “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” To the entirety of “Blonde on Blonde,” this country’s most poetic contribution to the history of rock and roll.

And now, apparently, that same Bob Dylan is no writer.


He transformed the culture - with words

Because he won a Nobel Prize for Literature. And that award has never gone to a musician – or a man of words whose chosen field of creative expression is merely the writing of songs.

He is, as Salman Rushdie framed the argument in Dylan’s favor, “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.” And by taking that tradition to popular culture, his work, in turn, inspired and continues to inspire many of the greatest minds in rock and roll to do better.

He transformed the culture. With words.

Some are questioning whether this laureate’s lyrics can stand on their own without music (which they can). But the real question here should be whether they have to (which they don’t).

My initial response to all this anti-Dylan vitriol was to reflexively defend his words as poetry. But I may have been missing the point. When I posted a favorite old video on Facebook under the heading, “Open call for anyone who's written better poetry than this to forward it along,” an author friend, Max Shenk, responded:

“I could find you MANY ‘better’ poems, but THIS IS NOT A POEM!!!! Its text could be read as poetry, but it's a pop song. And do we all understand that this distinction is EXACTLY why Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize? He doesn't pretend to be a poet writing poetry. He's a songwriter with an amazing verbal facility who transformed the genre he decided to work in and therefore redefined literature. To compare him to poets and his work to poetry, frankly, devalues what he's accomplished.”

Did he need a Nobel Prize to prove that? No.

Rock and roll has only gotten so respectable

Could some deserving author have used the profile boost the Nobel Prize entails to draw attention to something we could fit more comfortably inside the box we’ve labeled literature? Yes.

But the idea that Dylan’s collected works are somehow undeserving of this honor is, frankly, insulting. And the notion that it’s all downhill from here, that the next Great American Novel will be overlooked while Sweden pins a medal on the works of Billy Joel or Katy Perry? That’s just silly.

It’s been 50 years since “Blonde on Blonde.” That’s 50 years it took for the most universally respected lyricist of the rock-and-roll era to earn this distinction. I don’t think there’s any clear or present danger of the Nobel Prize in Literature reinventing itself as a more exclusive branch of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Getting back to the Times’ complaint, though, that this Nobel Prize had elevated Dylan “into the company of T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison and Samuel Beckett.” To anyone who’s spent time with his music, he’s been in that company for decades.

But there is one clearly unintended side effect of the cultural-elitist side of the backlash that’s greeted this honor. It’s proven that rock and roll has only gotten so respectable. We're still not welcome at the grown-ups table. Still not fit to be considered high art. Still the unwanted bastard of 20th Century culture.

Even after all this time, it's only rock 'n roll. And I like that.

Bob Dylan

Sunday's show in Phoenix: What more could you ask for?

Anyone hoping for insights into how the Nobel Prize award or the subsequent backlash are sitting with Dylan would have been hard pressed to find an answer in the concert he performed at Comerica Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 16. Nothing was revealed. In fact, he didn’t speak at all. He acknowledged the fans at the end of the night with a tilt of his head as he stood at the front of the stage with his bandmates. But the only words that left his mouth all night were in the songs. And what more could you ask for, really?

Dylan and his bandmates set the tone with an ominous “Things Have Changed,” the song for which he won an Oscar. “People are crazy and times are strange,” he sang. “I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range. I used to care, but things have changed.”

If the chorus is Dylan once again rejecting the “voice of a generation” crown he never wanted, it didn’t stop him from starting the encore with a topical, still timely “Blowin’ in the Wind.” And he started the encore with “Masters of War” when I saw him at Desert Trip just nine days earlier.

Like the Desert Trip shows, his Phoenix concert featured more of Dylan’s early classics than the string of concerts he did earlier this year, which put the focus squarely on the Sinatra-friendly standards he recorded on his two most recent albums, “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels.”

After “Things Have Changed,” he reached back to the very early ’60s for a song whose title line he summed up in the sleeve notes to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” as “a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better:" “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” And he followed that one with the heavy R&B groove of the title track to “Highway 61 Revisited” and a suitably mournful read on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

He pulled out of the ‘60s with a track from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” “High Water (for Charley Patton),” titling the mike stand like a crooner as he managed to sing about a 1927 flood and life in the 21st century in the same weary breath (“It’s tough out there / High water everywhere”).

MORE: Get the Things to Do app | Latest concert announcements | Top concerts this week in Phoenix | Best Bob Dylan albums of all time

Classics, from his to the standards

“I Could Have Told You,” a song that’s been recorded by Sinatra, Dinah Washington and Mel Torme, to name a few, was the night’s first standard, Dylan holding rich, full-bodied notes in a much stronger vocal performance than he managed on his own material, as though he felt the songs he didn’t write were more deserving of that kind of effort.

Dylan returned to the blues side of his catalog with “Early Roman Kings,” the first of four songs from “Tempest,” his latest album of original material, following through with a suitably shadowy treatment of the ‘90s classic “Love Sick” from an album hailed on impact and in hindsight as a clear return to form, “Time Out of Mind.”

The unmistakable strum of acoustic guitar set the tone for a version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that was otherwise a very different song than the treatment he captured on “Blood on the Tracks.” But nothing was lost in translation, and it included a spirited Dylan harmonica solo that drew rapturous applause.

The singer and the five musicians backing him swaggered through “Lonesome Day Blues,” Dylan phrasing the final line – “You gonna need my help, sweetheart / You can’t make love all by yourself” – for maximum impact. Then, they shifted gears into a soulful, understated “Make You Feel My Love,” Dylan infusing the lyrics with vulnerability.

A sinister swing through “Pay in Blood” was followed by another ‘60s classic, “Desolation Row,” which may have been the highlight of a set that ended with two “Tempest” songs, “Soon After Midnight” and “Long and Wasted Years.”

And then, without a word, they left the stage. As much as “Long and Wasted Years” would have to qualify of one of Sunday’s best performances, it didn’t feel much like the ending to a Dylan concert, not like “Ballad of a Thin Man” nine days earlier at Desert Trip.

'Why try to change me now?'

They returned for a two-song encore, Dylan investing the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” with fiery conviction as he and bandmates made excellent use of dynamics to draw particular attention to key lines that couldn’t feel more timely. “Yes, and how many years can some people exist,” he demanded, “before they’re allowed to be free?” “Yes, and how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?”

There are those who would question the phrasing of that and other Dylan classics, the way he rushes through the lyrics in his weather-beaten rasp through that blown speaker of a voice and leaves a blank space where the words should be. There are those who would question the set list (“Where was ‘Like a Rolling Stone?”). Some would question the fact that he declined to say a word or play guitar. There are probably people who still can’t get over the fact that Dylan went electric.

And I’m pretty sure he meant to answer those concerns and more with someone else’s lyrics when he brought the concert to a close with a tender track he cut for “Shadows in the Night" - “Why Try to Change Me Now.”

“Why can't I be more conventional?” Dylan sang. “People talk, people stare, so I try / But that's not for me, 'cause I can't see my kind of crazy world go passing me by / So, let people wonder, let 'em laugh, let 'em frown / You know I'll love you till the moon's upside down / Don't you remember I was always your clown? / Why try to change me now?”

And that answer, my friend, is that you couldn’t if you tried.

MORE: Get the Things to Do app | What to know if you go | Talking 'bout the generations of fans who went | Day 2 review: Neil Young goofs on Trump, McCartney hits the classics | Review: The Rolling Stones proved time still on their side at Desert Trip Music Festival Day 1 with Bob Dylan


  1. Things Have Changed
  2. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  3. Highway 61 Revisited
  4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
  5. High Water (For Charley Patton)
  6. I Could Have Told You (Frank Sinatra cover)
  7. Early Roman Kings
  8. Love Sick
  9. Tangled Up in Blue
  10. Lonesome Day Blues
  11. Make You Feel My Love
  12. Pay in Blood
  13. Desolation Row
  14. Soon After Midnight
  15. Long and Wasted Years


  1. Blowin’ in the Wind
  2. Why Try to Change Me Now    

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