The Many Sides of Bob Dylan: A Nobel Laureate in Six Songs

The shape-shifting Nobel laureate embodies the contradictions within the American dream—and his many phases and stages show why he deserves the prestigious prize.


Funny thing about Bob Dylan, the newest Nobel laureate in literature: He’s been a master of self-invention for more than 50 years, creating personae, wearing them like masks, and then discarding them as soon as they grew too familiar. And yet, I suspect many readers might associate him with one of the shortest phases of his career, the time from 1963 to ’65 when he wrote his most famous “protest songs,” like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin.’”

Those songs are iconic, of course—but they’re just a sliver of Dylan’s literary output. So, in honor of his new Nobel, this hard-core Dylanophile wants to share with you a song or two from each of his many incarnations. Because you deserve to know.

1. Protest Singer (1963-65)

After an initial solo album in which the young Dylan was just finding his voice (i.e., reinventing himself from the middle-class Robert Zimmerman into a pseudo-hobo Woody Guthrie), Dylan put out two acoustic albums that forever changed popular music. Folk music had long been political (Guthrie) but Dylan’s poetry took it to a new level. Consider the acidic lyrics of “Masters of War” (1963), which set the military-industrial complex to rhyme:

You fasten the triggersFor the others to fireThen you set back and watchWhen the death count gets higherYou hide in your mansionAs young people’s bloodFlows out of their bodiesAnd is buried in the mud

This wasn’t peacenik, anti-war stuff. With its minor key and uncompromising final lines (“And I hope that you die/And your death’ll come soon/ I will follow your casket/ In the pale afternoon...”) this was a previously unknown hybrid of caustic political commentary and punk rock, which itself wouldn’t be invented for another decade or so.

Oh, and in the meantime, Dylan was writing some of the best love songs in the genre, like “Girl From the North Country,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”

See also: “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “With God on Our Side.”

2. Electric Troubadour (1965-67)

Probably the high-watermark of Dylan’s career came after he plugged in his guitar (“Judas!” one fan shouted during a concert) and exploded American poetry, combining Beat aesthetics, psychedelic imagery, collage techniques (Dylan would cut out phrases from magazines and then paste them together), and social satire, all with an unprecedented musical sound that married Americana, rock ’n’ roll, and Dylan’s previous phase.

Truthfully, I have no idea where to even begin here, so I’ll just go with my personal favorite, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”:

Disillusioned words like bullets barkAs human gods aim for their markMake everything from toy guns that sparkTo flesh-colored Christs that glow in the darkIt’s easy to see without looking too farThat not much is really sacredWhile preachers preach of evil fatesTeachers teach that knowledge waitsCan lead to hundred-dollar platesGoodness hides behind its gatesBut even the president of the United StatesSometimes must have to stand naked

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You can see the evolution here. While Dylan’s folk fans thought he was selling out, actually Dylan was lodging a stronger, deeper critique of American hypocrisy. Religion is commodified; the educational system is a sham; and yet, Dylan wonders, everyone has to stand naked sometime. Oh, and there are 15 of these verses—I’ve just quoted two. Well, OK, three:

For them that must obey authorityThat they do not respect in any degreeWho despise their jobs, their destiniesSpeak jealously of them that are freeCultivate their flowers to beNothing more than something they invest in

There had never been broadsides against American conformity and self-righteousness like this. And popular music had never had lyrical sophistication of this type; wit, to be sure, but “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 trying”? No. And there are a dozen songs like this. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” captures, in word-salad format, life in an encroaching police state. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a kiss-off song like none before or since.

Oh, and in the meantime, Dylan was again writing some of the best love songs in the genre, like “Visions of Johanna,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

See also: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Gates of Eden,” “Desolation Row,” “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

3. Country Prophet (1967-74)

And then Dylan crashed his motorcycle in 1967, and almost died. A few years ago, he referred to the experience as a “transfiguration.” Whatever that means, it’s true that the poetic brilliance of the early career would never really reappear. There would be brilliant songs, but, as Dylan admitted on the recent Martin Scorsese documentary about him (No Direction Home), the specific muse that inspired “It’s Alright Ma” would not return.

Ironically, this was also Dylan’s period of greatest fame. He wasn’t a big star early on; it was the release of his Greatest Hits album in 1967, and the mainstream success of the stoner anthem “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (“Everybody must get stoned!”), that really put him on the mainstream map. Just in time for him to recoil from the attention, leave the city for Woodstock, and turn his back on fame.

But along with some of the worst music of his career (“Self-Portrait,” 1970), this period produced some gems—including many songs recorded with The Band in ’67 but not released until years later. For this period, I’ll go with “All Along the Watchtower,” with its opaque, Biblical imagery:

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no reliefBusinessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earthNone of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke.“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a jokeBut you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fateSo let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

Now the exploitation and superficiality of mainstream America is the object not of Dylan’s hipster scorn, but of an apocalyptic parable of holy fools and righteous thieves—the kind of imagery that Dylan’s later work would explore more fully. Arguably, the “joker” here is the older Dylan himself, whining about exploitation, and the thief’s rejoinder re-contextualizes the earlier critique into the religious frames that would become more prominent as time went on.

Oh, and in the meantime—did I mention this before?—Dylan was writing some of the best love songs in the genre, like “Lay Lady Lay”, “If Not For You,” and “The Man in Me.”

See also: “Forever Young,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “I Shall Be Released.”

4. Rock Star (1975-88)

In 1975, Dylan was almost 10 years past his prime—and then he released the best album of his career, Blood on the Tracks. Written and recorded amid a painful divorce, Blood on the Tracks is proof that heartbreak makes great art—just as many of the albums that followed were the opposite. After becoming famous once again—a 1976 song, “Hurricane,” even marked a return to protest songwriting—Dylan got addicted to drugs, found Jesus, left Jesus, and put out a lot of swill. If you wanted to, it would be easy to find some crappy lyrics from the Eighties to undermine the Nobel Prize.

But let’s not do that. Dylan’s broken-heart songs are so much better. Like “Simple Twist of Fate”:

He woke up, the room was bareHe didn’t see her anywhereHe told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wideFelt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relateBrought on by a simple twist of fate

Or “Shelter from the Storm”:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hailPoisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trailHunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Or “Tangled Up in Blue,” which shifts perspective several times during the song to tell a “tangled” version of Dylan’s marriage and dissolution:

I lived with them on Montague StreetIn a basement down the stairsThere was music in the cafés at nightAnd revolution in the airThen he started into dealing with slavesAnd something inside of him diedShe had to sell everything she ownedAnd froze up insideAnd when finally the bottom fell outI became withdrawnThe only thing I knew how to doWas to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flewTangled up in blue

This time, Dylan was in his moment; the confessional singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s was in full swing, and Dylan’s emotional album resonated with the times. There would be other hits, but never the same alchemy of emotion and time.

See also: “You’re a Big Girl Now,” “If You See Her Say Hello,” “Hurricane,” “Jokerman,” “Sylvio,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Blind Willie McTell.”

5. Rebirth (1989-99)

As Dylan wrote in his elliptical memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, he was washed up in the 1980s, no longer a commercial success, and no longer putting out good work. Then something happened. A brilliant 1989 album, Oh Mercy; some career retrospectives; and two albums of American folk songs, with just Dylan and his guitar and harmonica. All that culminated in the Grammy-winning comeback album, Time Out of Mind (1997). Once again, just as Dylan seemed to be out of it, he was back at the top of his game.

Only, he was again an entirely new person – this time old, craggy, cynical, and world-weary, as in “Not Dark Yet”:

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all dayIt’s too hot to sleep, time is running awayFeel like my soul has turned into steelI’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t healThere’s not even room enough to be anywhereIt’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…I was born here and I’ll die here against my willI know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing stillEvery nerve in my body is so vacant and numbI can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away fromDon’t even hear a murmur of a prayerIt’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

This was tough stuff, and a return to form. Unlike many Sixties rockers, Dylan sang about getting old, about broken dreams. His return to roots music pointed the way for many of his contemporaries to forsake trying to sound ‘current’ and to instead make music that would stand the test of time.

Weirdly, by the way, Dylan also managed to write several beautiful love songs, like “To Make You Feel My Love” (covered by Adele, Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, and who knows who else) and “Most of the Time.” Go figure.

See also: “Things Have Changed,” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Love Sick,” “Cold Irons Bound,” “Everything is Broken.”

6. On the Road Again (2000-Present)

The most recent incarnation of Dylan has been the traveling journeyman/ charlatan who sings roots music, snarls dark lyrics that make “All Along the Watchtower” sound like a Disney tune, hosts an old-school radio show, and turns up in some unusual places, like ads for Chrysler and Victoria’s Secret. There has been a ton of excellent music in this period (along with a few misses), evoking scenes like a bar-room brawl at a border-town dive, a washed-up singer in a smoky lounge, and the scenes of violence in his latter-day music videos.

I think the ethos of this period is best summed up in the 2001 song “Summer Days”:

Summer days, summer nights are goneSummer days and the summer nights are goneI know a place where there’s still somethin’ going onI got a house on a hill, I got hogs all out in the mudI got a house on a hill, I got hogs out lying in the mudGot a long-haired woman, she got royal Indian bloodEverybody get ready—lift your glasses and singEverybody get ready to lift your glasses and singWell, I’m standin’ on the table, I’m proposing a toast to the KingWell I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac carThe girls all say, “You’re a worn-out star”My pockets are loaded and I’m spending every dimeHow can you say you love someone else when you know it’s me all the time?

In late Dylan, music is the key to immortality, even though the summer days are long gone. Dylan’s many quotations from classic American roots music (that song is from an album aptly titled Love and Theft) join the aging poet to a tradition that preceded him and hopefully will outlive him as well. More of the symbols are stock (does Dylan really have hogs lying out in the mud somewhere? I doubt it), but that’s the point. The best songs of this period—the apocalyptic “High Water,” for example—return Dylan to where he was in his first phase, updating and transforming American traditional music. Except in these latter-day songs, Dylan is a grizzled old prophet who’s already been to hell and back.

See also: High Water (for Charley Patton), Narrow Way, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, When the Deal Goes Down, Ain’t Talkin’.

Dylan, like Johnny Cash and only a handful of others, simultaneously embodies the American dream and the harsh wake-up call that comes after it. He is a preacher but also a sinner; a poet but also a pitchman; authentic all-American but also invented persona. Dylan is a contemporary Don Quixote, at once besotted by the promise of America and yet also undermining it.

Dylan thus deserves the Nobel Prize, not just for “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” as the Nobel committee aptly described his work, but also for embodying the contradictions within it. It’s almost as if Dylan’s life and work has fulfilled a prophetic verse he wrote over thirty years ago, in the song “Desolation Row,” which can well serve as a description of his own life as quintessential American poet:

Einstein, disguised as Robin HoodWith his memories in a trunkPassed this way an hour agoWith his friend, a jealous monkHe looked so immaculately frightfulAs he bummed a cigaretteThen he went off sniffing drainpipesAnd reciting the alphabetNow you would not think to look at himBut he was famous long agoFor playing the electric violinOn Desolation Row