“There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” — Annie Lennox
For a few weeks this past summer people kept asking me what I thought about Kevin Durant deciding to leave Oklahoma City to come to California and play for the Golden State Warriors, and lately people keep asking me what I think about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that the basketball season has officially begun, the Kevin Durant question has resurfaced, and yesterday two more people asked me what I thought about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize.
I learned a long time ago that a fan’s love of a musician or band or athlete or sports franchise is a form of religious fervor, and I don’t mess with religious fervor. So I dodged the Dylan question by saying tangential things like, “Isn’t it odd they don’t award the Nobel Prize posthumously?” or “They gave Bob a Pulitzer, too.” To the Kevin Durant question, I answered, “The guy can shoot,” and “What a handle, huh?”
But I’ll tell you in the privacy of this article that my initial reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was to recall when I was nineteen and driving through Hibbing, Minnesota on a hot muggy summer day, the mosquitoes ferocious, and I thought, ‘I know why Bob moved to California.’
The country I come from is called the Midwest. I was taught and brought up there, the laws to abide, that the land that I live in has God on its side.
My favorite Bob Dylan song is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ I know he’s written hundreds of songs since, but that’s still my favorite. I resonate with every syllable and I love Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version as much as Bob’s, though my favorite rendition is a slow bitter blues take by Eric Clapton recorded at some Dylan celebration twenty years ago. Tore my heart out.
That said, I know almost nothing about Dylan’s music after 1969, and I’m sure Bob would be okay with that, the Bob who wrote ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’
Over the intervening decades, several men have tried to convince me of Dylan’s ongoing genius. They insisted I listen to Bob’s later albums, with them watching me listen. And these experiences were always torture for me, though I never said so to my torturers because I don’t mess with religious fervor. I try to avoid it, but when I can’t, I feign reverent somnolence.
“There seem to be two causes of the deterioration of the arts: wealth and poverty.” — Plato
Also over the last several years, several people have sent me links to advertisements Bob Dylan made for IBM, Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, and Chrysler. Some people sent me those commercials because they were outraged Dylan would sell out like that, though they didn’t say what he was selling out. And some people sent me the ads because they thought everything Bob did was fabulous. I did not watch those ads until I started writing this article, and now that I have watched them, I wish I hadn’t.
As for Kevin Durant choosing to leave Oklahoma City and move to California, I’m sure he made that choice for the same reason Bob Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan and moved from Hibbing to Malibu—in hope of having a more enjoyable life.
“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” — Charles Olson
Now that’s an interesting and noble-sounding idea, but pragmatically nonsensical. It reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon dozens of people sent me before I managed to publish my first novel. Snoopy is sitting at his typewriter on top of his doghouse writing a letter to a publisher. “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you will just have to come get it.”
Snoopy is elucidating every artist’s dream—to be recognized and rewarded for our creations simply because we created them. But the truth is, our ships can’t come in, so to speak, unless we send our ships out. Artists must take their wares to market or no one will ever know about them. And to succeed in a big way as a musician or artist or writer in America, the artist must convince those who control the avenues of distribution and exposure to give them access to large audiences; and once initial access has been gained, the artist must continue to convince those in power to give them such access.
Though they work in different sectors of the entertainment industry, Kevin Durant and Bob Dylan are both savvy business people adept at sustaining and improving the value of their brands. Kevin Durant’s salary for playing basketball is twenty to thirty million dollars a year, but the Kevin Durant brand makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from shoe sales and jersey sales and endorsements and advertisements. And the same is true of Bob Dylan. Making a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler was good for his brand, and so is winning the Nobel Prize.
“Though he played so sweet and high, they knew he had never been on their TV so they passed his music by.” — Joni Mitchell
When I was thirteen I bought Harry Belafonte’s new album Midnight Special. On that album, a young guy named Bob Dylan plays a harmonica solo. Midnight Special came out right before Dylan released his first album, and Bob’s harmonica playing on Harry’s album is reputedly Bob’s first official professional recording.
Until that Belafonte album was stolen from me in 1980, whenever I found a fervent Dylan fan had made his or her way into my house, I would bring out the Belafonte, lower the needle on Bob’s solo, and watch the true believer listen in reverent awe.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com)