'Dylan towers over everyone' – Salman Rushdie, Kate Tempest and more pay tribute to Bob Dylan
Salman Rushdie, Cerys Matthew, Jarvis Cocker, Andrew Motion, Billy Bragg and other artists and writers pick their favourite moments from Dylan’s body of work
Jarvis Cocker: ‘His sense of humour is often overlooked’
I’m very fond of Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – I got into Bobby Bare’s version first (Steve Mackey and I put it on a compilation called The Trip that we put together in 2006). It’s a great break-up song: he’s making light of it, but one or two little digs show that he is actually a bit upset. My favourite verse goes: “I wish there was something you would do or say / To try and make me change my mind and stay / But we never did too much talking anyway /Don’t think twice, it’s all right.” I think Dylan’s sense of humour is often overlooked – when we did a BBC 6Music Sunday Service to mark his birthday a couple of years ago, a lot of the archive clips were hilarious. A great choice by the Nobel committee.
Salman Rushdie: ‘I intend to spend the day playing Mr Tambourine Man’
We live in a time of great lyricist-songwriters – Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits – but Dylan towers over everyone. His words have been an inspiration to me ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school, and I am delighted by his Nobel win. The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that. I intend to spend the day playing Mr Tambourine Man, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Like a Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind, Jokerman, Tangled Up In Blue and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.
Cerys Matthews: ‘He’s never predictable, always on fire’
According to the liner notes on his recent compilation The Cutting Edge, Dylan had been writing a book of prose poetry in the early 1960s. That all changed with Like a Rolling Stone in 1965, when he said he did not need to divide his talents – a song could contain as many ideas as a novel or a poem. And then he proved it possible, over and over again, for decades now, never predictable, always on fire, the most cunning wordsmith and the most cunning magpie. As far as I’m concerned, he has no equal. From tender love songs like Make You Feel My Love, that resonate even with the Snapchat/Instagram generation, to the prophetic A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and everything in between, I’m in awe. I’m delighted about this news.
Andrew Motion: ‘His words are at once extraordinary and inevitable’
This is a wonderful acknowledgement of Dylan’s genius: for 50 and some years he has bent, coaxed, teased and persuaded words into lyric and narrative shapes that are at once extraordinary and inevitable. In the process, he’s managed to become a voice of the world, yet those of us who love his work still feel he is in some sense individually “ours”. Which in turn means we can feel a curiously personal kind of pleasure in this tremendous honouring of him.
Kate Tempest: ‘Let the lyrics speak for themselves’
My favourite Dylan lyrics ... please run as much of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) as you can. Rather than me saying why I like them, I’d rather just leave space to let the lyrics speak for themselves.
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in tryingPointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dyingTemptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Will Self: ‘Hopefully Bob will have the nous to follow Sartre and refuse the award’
Dylan is a great enough artist that his polymorphous talents include literary ones – the lyrics are amazing, although far better nasalled by the man himself than read on the page. The memoirs are not inconsiderable literary works. I have a vexed relationship with popular music – so much so that I barely listen at all for years at a time; but my relation with Dylan’s art has been consistently intense and rewarding. No, my only caveat about the award is that it cheapens Dylan to be associated at all with a prize founded on an explosives and armaments fortune, and more often awarded to a Buggins whose turn it is than a world-class creative artist. Really, it’s a bit like when Sartre was awarded the Nobel – he was primarily a philosopher, and had the nous to refuse it. Hopefully Bob will follow his lead.
Billy Bragg: ‘To hear Mr Tambourine Man was like uncovering a lost parchment’
The last couple of stanzas of Mr Tambourine Man opened my eyes and ears to the idea that music and poetry could exist together: “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time / Far past the frozen leaves / The haunted frightened trees / Out to the windy bench / Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” I heard them when I was 14 and they opened my mind to the possibility of pop being something more than background music. I was a Saturday boy in a record shop at the time, and in my lunch hour I would sit in the listening booth with a sticky bun listening to music – I was into singer-songwriter stuff like Simon & Garfunkel. One day, the guy who ran the shop decided to spin me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits – the original one, with the book on the cover. Mr Tambourine Man blew my mind. Whenever anyone asks me to give an example of poetry – not poetry in music, but poetry, period – I always go back to that. He introduces Blakean imagery into rock music and becomes in one bold step the psychedelic Woody Guthrie, which is how people still think of him. To hear that was like uncovering a lost parchment – it opened so many doors for me at the time as someone who was writing poetry and wanted to be a songwriter.
Emmy the Great: ‘Dylan’s lyrics were a new world, with windows constantly opening’
In my early 20s I had a group of friends I would see every weekend. They used to sing Tangled Up in Blue around a piano, and I used to try and keep up with the lyrics. Whenever we got to the line “written by an Italian poet in the 13th century”, I knew where I was. Dylan’s lyrics were a new world, with windows constantly opening inside it. I keep all his stories with me and they remind me of my own:
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the 13th century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue”
Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top: ‘There’s something in the air that brings Dylan’s words to mind’
There’s something in the air that seems to permeate the atmosphere far and wide which brings a couple of Dylan’s line’s to mind … namely, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.
Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe|
Even you don’t know by now
And it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It’ll never do somehow
But I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
But we never did too much talking anyway
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
Guy Garvey: ‘To finish a song with “I said that” is so cheeky’
My favourite lyric has to be: “Some of the people can be all right part of the time / But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time / I think Abraham Lincoln said that ‘I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours’ / I said that” from Talkin’ World War III Blues. To finish a song with “I said that” is so cheeky and clever and confident and present and full of youthful rancour. It lodged in my heart the first time I heard it. And at that moment so did Bob.
Andrew O’Hagan: ‘Workingman’s Blues #2 has lines as good as anything in American poetry’
The Nobel committee plays a strong game when it comes to subtle political assertion. Seamus Heaney used to call it “the Stockholm intervention”. From their field of candidates, they have a habit of finding the writer whose sublime virtues are most necessary to the times, and essential to the place. Thus, did Czesław Miłosz win the prize in 1980, after years of being banned in Poland, in the same month as the the trade union Solidarity was founded. It wasn’t planned, but it wasn’t a coincidence either. The award to Heaney came, too, at a perfect moment, when his grace and tolerance, sifted over a lifetime of beautiful work and “ethical depth”, was manna to Ireland in 1995. And so, the award to Bob Dylan is a great boon to lovers of fair-minded compassion, fellowship, and common decency, which step forward at the perfect moment to do battle with the egotistical, bigoted, greedy, misogynistic spitefulness of Trump’s America. He’s a lyricist of genius and I’m off to play Workingman’s Blues #2, with lines as good as anything in American poetry:
In the dark I hear the night birds call
I can feel a lover’s breath
I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall
Sleep is like a temporary death.”
Jonas Mekas, film-maker
It was about time! Dylan’s “lyrics” to his songs for decades now, by poets especially, have been considered as great poetry. It’s not only poetry: it’s poetry that reminds us that poetry is not only what’s published in the poetry books. Same as in cinema: some of the most inspiring cinema is outside of the industrial cinema.
Elijah Wald, author of Dylan Goes Electric!
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the people who call Dylan a poet, or call his songs literature, because songs tend to reach far more people, and often touch them more deeply, than poetry or novels. Dylan transformed the role of lyrics in popular music, and it is hard to argue that any writer of the last 50 years, in any form, has been more influential. But millions of people, all around the world, have loved Dylan’s recordings without understanding the words. So I think the honour is deserved, but I hope he brings his band to Stockholm.