And may you stay forever young—Bob Dylan
Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan recently published a book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. The categories that the Nobel committee presents awards in are physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, peace, and literature. Seems that Alfred Nobel, in addition to being a chemist and engineer, was a frustrated writer, which explains the literature category in his bequest to fund the prizes that carry his name and the medal with his likeness. Economics had not been one of his categories. It was added in 1968, 67 years late, thanks to funding by Sveriges Riksbank, or the central bank of Sweden.
There are several missing categories, like engineering, math. . .and music. Dylan received his Nobel in literature in 2016. In 2015 the recipient was Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist who was born in Ukraine and lives in Belarus; in her work she has criticized the regimes in the then-Soviet Union and Belarus. In 2017 the recipient was Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, raised in the U.K.; the novelist received the prize because, according to the committee, his work “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Dylan? “[F]or having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The Philosophy of Modern Song is not Dylan’s first book. There were Tarantula, a book of poetry, in 1993 and Chronicles: Volume One, a book of personal reflections, in 2004. There have also been a number of books carrying his name, whether children’s books that illustrators have adapted his lyrics in, or collections of his lyrics.
The Philosophy of Modern Song has become controversial of late not because of, well, the philosophy, but because publisher Simon & Schuster offered 900 limited-edition versions of the book that were said to be hand-autographed by Dylan. The signed versions of the $45.00 book were marked up to $599. Turns out that Dylan didn’t sign them. Which brings to mind that existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was named the 1964 Nobel recipient in literature in 1964. Being the good philosopher of existence that he was, he didn’t accept the prize.*
Simon & Schuster fessed up and is refunding the monies to those who paid.
Dylan certainly doesn’t need to get money to pay back whatever advance the publisher gave him for the book. In 2020 he sold his songwriting rights to Universal Music for $300-million. Last year he sold his recorded music catalog to Sony Music Entertainment for from $150-million to $200-million. (Oddly, although the deal closed in July 2021 it wasn’t officially announced until January 2022. Was someone worried the check wouldn’t clear?)
While on the subject of Dylan autographs, the Associated Press reported on November 19, 2022, the same period as the autopen issue, that a collection of 42 handwritten letters from between 1957 and 1959 to one Barbara Ann Hewitt were purchased by the Livariria Lello bookshop in Porto, Portugal. The letters, running to 150 pages, were written and signed by Bob Zimmerman. He didn’t legally change his name until 1962.
According to the AP, “The young musician. . .expresses his affection for Hewitt, invites her to a Buddy Holly show, includes little fragments of poetry, and talks about the sorts of things that generations of high school students have been concerned about, such as cars, clothes and music.”
In the missives the 16- to 18-year-old mentions the notions of changing his name (check!) and selling a million records (check! more than 125-million times). Who among us could claim to fulfill our high school dreams the way that Dylan has?
One thing occurs to me. Were my high school inamorata to release letters that I had written to her, would my feeling in the present be something other than cringing embarrassment? While it is easy to dismiss this by saying, “Dylan is, among other things, a Nobel Prize winner, and you’re no Dylan,” go back to that “car, clothes and music.” He was then (and in most quotidian regards, now) a regular guy. One imagines that those “little fragments of poetry” probably aren’t the stuff of Shelley or Keats. He probably still thinks of Barbara Ann Hewitt every now and then.
In 1961 Dylan began dating then-17-year-old Suze Rotolo, who is the girl he is arm-in-arm with on the cover of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second album. His self-titled first album was released in 1962. The artist and guitar are on the cover.
The distance between Hewitt and Rotolo, at least chronologically, isn’t that long.
In 1965 Dylan appears with another woman on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, Sally Grossman, the wife of his manager. For all of his subsequent albums there are only two other women, one on Oh Mercy (1989) and the other on Christmas in the Heart (2009); both are illustrations, the first by an artist named Trotsky and the second by Coco Shinomiya.
Clearly young girlfriends had an effect on Dylan in a way that young loves have for the rest of us.
But then we’re not Bob Dylan.
* Which brings to mind the graffiti:
“To be is to do”—Socrates. “To do is to be”—Sartre. “Do be do be do”–Sinatra