It’s doubtful whether Stockholm is exactly heaven in December. But the obscure artist who moved an entire global generation when he sang of “Knockin’ on heaven’s door” – and who almost 20 years ago declared with mischievous sobriety that he was just “Trying to get to heaven before they close the door” – didn’t bother finding out.
The absence of Bob Dylan from Saturday’s Nobel Prize ceremony, at which he would have been a focal point, was a bitter disappointment – and not just to the organizing committee. It also left a bad taste in the mouths of the fans, admirers and followers of the Admor from Minnesota. The great light was found for a moment to be merely a shooting star, as per the lyrics of one of his greatest songs, from the album “Oh Mercy” in 1989.
The reason wasn’t the contempt for the Nobel Prize, but the way he did it. After all, this prize was a total honor. The decision over who deserves to receive the prize in a nonscientific field like literature is always subjective, and expanding the pool to include a poet whose texts are set to music like Dylan could be interpreted as a mixture of romance and PR. The unhappy winner could have simply said he refused to accept the prize, with or without a valid reason (and he was never one who bothered providing explanations). That was part of his power and charm.
No one would have complained if he had chosen to forgo the honor. It’s hard to imagine him delivering an address in his field of expertise (part of the winner’s obligations) and then putting on a tuxedo to attend the ball in the Royal Palace. At best it could have provided inspiration for a new song.
But instead, Dylan chose to play hide-and-seek with the prize committee and half the world waiting for him to speak, and exploited the committee’s weakness by claiming the prize (and its accompanying $1.1 million cash award) without bothering to collect it. He took the money and ran even before he made it to the scene of the crime – a trick suited to one of the characters in his adventurous road anthems, like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Idiot Wind.”
Dylan is far from being a fool, but he is certainly antipathetic. His underlying misanthropy is an open secret to his acquaintances and fans. In his personal life, according to numerous testimonies and interviews, his mystery and charisma covered for him. In his art, meanwhile, we were compensated with his unending reservoirs of talent, wisdom and sensitivity. His live performances – always without a modicum of communication with the audience or a word of thanks to his loyal musicians – were where the genius and sourness met.
It turns out we’re talking about a “common man” who simply cannot say thank you. He fired G.E. Smith, his devoted lead guitarist and music director during his endless series of appearances during the late ’80s, without blinking an eye when the latter asked for a small pay raise. At the time, Smith was making $5,000 a month, while Dylan’s monthly take was estimated at a million bucks.
His absence from Stockholm is just further proof of something that doesn’t need to be proven. Because of an unfortunate decision, what could have been a nice birthday present for having reached 75 turned into an angry spectacle by a grouchy old man. At least the explanation he gave to the committee was dipped in his typical, biting humor: “Preexisting commitments,” which actually sounds like it could be the title of Dylan’s next album.