I’ve been a Dylan fan for most my life, and so I was delighted to learn that this year’s Nobel Committee conferred on him the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first time a musician has received the prestigious award. He has been the sweet singer of (North) America for over 50 years, the troubadour beneath our window for three generations, who has managed to both stay true to some indescribable personal essence and yet re-invent himself a dozen times. And then there’s that voice – sinewy, reedy, throaty, cracking, pleading, warning, and inescapably unmistakably his own. You can never hear Dylan and think he’s someone else. Though his songs have been covered, often brilliantly, by multiple artists, from the Beatles to The Band, from Glen Campbell to Pearl Jam, from Clapton to Cash to Cher to Sting to Adele to Hendrix, and a hundred others besides, no one ever does it quite like the bard himself.
But now that the door’s been opened for musicians to receive the Nobel, I’m stumping (what with my massive influence with the committee) for another musician to be considered: Paul Simon. His reign is equal to Dylan’s (Dylan – as a recording artist – debuted in 1962, Simon, along with Art Garfunkel, in 1964). They both, Dylan and Simon, have spent half a century dissecting, documenting, critiquing, and celebrating American culture. They both continue to write music that breaks new ground. They both bring to their craft a poetic sensibility of extraordinary evocativeness. Simon adds to this an exotic musical eclecticism: he has looted virtually every culture’s musical storehouse – calypso, soca, zouk, polka, rumba, conga, mambo, Cajun, blues, bluegrass, soul, rock, folk, lullaby, and on and on – and fused it into something all his own.
As a lyricist, Simon has a knack for metaphor, often taking a commonplace idea and spinning it into something universal, transcendent, metaphysical. Consider 1986’s hit Graceland, which begins as the story of a roadtrip he takes with his 9-year-old son to Elvis’s home in Memphis but ends as a prayer expressing the universal yearning for heaven:
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
in Memphis Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland.
Poor boys and pilgrims and families
and we’re all going to Graceland.
And I maybe obliged to defend
every love, every ending,
or maybe there’s no obligation now.
Maybe I’ve reason to believe
we all will be received in Graceland.
Or consider his newest hit, Wristband. It starts as a personal complaint about being turned back from a club in which he himself is playing the music:
Wristband, my man,
You’ve got to have a wristband,
And if you don’t have a wristband
You don’t get through the door.
But it moves from there into a prophetic warning about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots:
The riots started slowly
with the homeless and the lowly
and they spread into the heartland
towns that never get a wristband
kids that can’t afford the cool brand
whose anger is a shorthand
for you’ll never a get a wristband
and if you don’t have a wristband
you can’t get through the door.
And this from a man who just turned, last week, 75.
For 50 years Simon, like Dylan, has been our balladeer, our troubadour, our minstrel. He has given voice, often accompanied by infectious hooks and beats and rhythms, to our heartaches and myopia, our longings and our losses, our bigotries, our absurdities, our fears, our hopes, our moments of greatness. Listening to him is often for me a more spiritual experience than listening to worship music or sermons. It confirms hunches, evokes old grudges I thought I’d long ago dealt with, imparts wisdom for things I find bewildering, awakens hunger for things unseen. It faces me with myself, both rebuking me and welcoming me. I want to stop beating myself up, and yet I want to stop making excuses for why I am the way I am. His music makes me want to live better than I do, which is to say, more honestly and faithfully and generously.
Consider this my memo to the Nobel Committee: I think all that deserves a prize.