May 24, 2021

“Genius is a terrible word, a word they think will make me like them,” said Bob Dylan in 1966. Fifty years later, the Swedish Academy discovered that he had not revised his position on fulsome acclaim. When Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he didn’t acknowledge the honour for two weeks, and then refused to attend the ceremony, reducing the Swedish Academy to the plaintive status of autograph-hunters waiting by the stage door.

He finally sent the committee a pre-recorded lecture just before the deadline, perhaps only because otherwise he would have had to forfeit the prize money. “I think it’s fair to say that his reaction so far has been rude and arrogant,” grumbled one academy member that October. “He is who he is.”

He is who he is. Bob will be Bob. For Dylan’s admirers, his freewheeling attitude to social niceties is not just part of the package but positive proof of his brilliance. The New York Times described his cold-shouldering of the Nobel as “a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like”, which would be news to the likes of Toni Morrison, Harold Pinter and Seamus Heaney. All simpering sell-outs, presumably.

As Dylan turns 80 today, other writers will tell you how he single-handedly redrew the parameters of song-writing by giving rock’n’roll the lyrical ambition of poetry, etcetera, and they will be right. As an artist he is untouchable. But I don’t want to add to the mountain of praise that he finds such an awful burden. While I’m a great admirer of Dylan, I could never call myself a fan because I know what he thinks of fans and I’m not into unrequited love.

I saw him headline Hyde Park in 2019, which one Dylan veteran assured me was an unusually convivial affair because the great man was seen to smile occasionally and didn’t turn his back on the audience. Joan Baez has said that he looks on stage “as though he’d rather be in a dark parlour, playing chess; perhaps in a sense he is”.

Dylan’s fans are practised in lowering the bar. A crowd-pleasing set of beloved hits? Grow up. A hello, goodbye or thanks-for-coming? Dream on. He is the only artist I know of who routinely disfigures the melodies of his classic songs, often beyond recognition. At Hyde Park, my friend said that he was hoping to hear Make You Feel My Love and I had to inform him that Dylan had already played it. During the chorus of Like a Rolling Stone, the crowd staged a joyful mutiny by singing the standard tune regardless of what Dylan was doing on stage, but I sensed no resentment in it.

We all knew what we were signing up for and I had a good time. But I do marvel at his motivations. He must know that on any given night he could trigger an explosion of love with just a few words and a familiar melody, but he never does. He leaves it all on the table.

In interviews, too, Dylan is a master of not giving people what they want. Paul McCartney and Bono will melt the ice and pretend they’re having a friendly chat between equals. But Dylan, by all accounts, is very happy to impress on you that he is Bob Dylan and you are not.

David Hepworth wrote about a typically frosty 1985 encounter: “One of his great strengths is that he gives the impression of genuinely not caring what you or anybody else thinks of him. This must be a natural reaction to having spent most of your life surrounded by people who are desperate to please you.”

But I think that’s too kind. If it were natural, then every superstar would behave like that. Leonard Cohen — no less complex, no less great — was the perfect gentlemen in old age. Bruce Springsteen’s charm is legendary. One can always be decent.

It’s said that Dylan is extremely shy and awkward around strangers but he can be a cold fish with his peers, too. I once heard an anecdote about a rock star who met Dylan for dinner in an English pub with their respective girlfriends and spent almost the entire evening eating in silence. Driving home, the rock star’s girlfriend assumed it had been a mortifying disaster until he said cheerfully, “Well, I thought Bob was on great form.”

I’ve never heard anyone say he was surprisingly nice and down-to-earth, nor envied anyone who has met him. Digging around for evidence of kindness, I found Cerys Matthews once said that a thoughtful call from Dylan had helped rescue her from drug addiction, but I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice.

Dylan’s personal unpleasantness has been remarkably consistent. As a hungry up-and-comer in the New York folk scene, he was a manipulative schemer who sought out people who could help him, only to discard them once they had fulfilled their purpose. According to folksinger Ian Tyson, who met him in 1961, “Dylan was a little obnoxious jerk in many ways.”

Once he became the scene’s unrivalled star, he had licence to be a bully. “He started using bayonets on people,” said the sister of his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. “He’d find their vulnerable spots, and just demolish them.” According to Baez, another mistreated girlfriend, “he was rarely tender, and seldom reached out to anticipate another’s needs.”

It’s hard, therefore, to put his rudeness down to the intolerable pressure of being worshipped as the voice of his generation. He was cruellest to those who were nice to him. In Don’t Look Back, DA Pennebaker’s classic documentary of his 1965 UK tour, Dylan’s murderous disdain cuts down Baez, Donovan and any journalist who crosses his path. “What a jerk Bob Dylan was in 1965,” wrote Roger Ebert when the film was reissued in 1998. “What an immature, self-important, inflated, cruel, shallow little creature, lacking in empathy and contemptuous of anyone who was not himself or his lackey.”

Of course, there are plenty of people who watch Don’t Look Back and see the ultimate incorruptible renegade sticking it to the phonies who would waste his time and dilute his art. Around this time, Dylan’s personal unpleasantness became intertwined with his artistic integrity. Brilliant artists were expected to be jerks, or at least their jerkishness was not held against them. Sarcastic John was cooler than genial Paul. The Rolling Stones were positively demonic.

Dylan came of age in a period coloured by existentialism, when an untameable, solitary outlaw was the thing to be. Being difficult meant that you refused to conform to the norms of a corrupt society — and a sense of humour, even when it’s weaponised, goes a long way. (Peter Grant, 1973: “Hi Bob, I manage Led Zeppelin.” Dylan: “Hey man, I don’t come to you with my problems.”)

Perhaps, while songwriting is the core of Dylan’s genius, rudeness is his superpower. A more people-pleasing character would not have been able to break the hearts of the folk community that had nurtured him by going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and turning his back on protest songs, nor write songs as groundbreakingly ruthless as “Masters of War” and “Positively 4th Street”.

His musical contemporaries, like his wives and girlfriends, discovered that his obsession with personal freedom outweighed any sense of commitment or loyalty, and the rest of us, safely outside his blast radius, got some phenomenal music out of it. To thine ownself be true — and fuck everyone else.

I find it impossible to imagine a new artist getting away with behaving like this. It may seem paradoxical now that public discourse feels so much nastier, but celebrity culture is far nicer than it used to be. Today’s stars are expected to join James Corden in Carpool Karaoke, cheerfully read out abusive tweets on Jimmy Kimmel, play well with others on Graham Norton’s sofa and generally impress on the public that they are gracious, collegiate souls who owe everything to their fans.

After a celebrity dies, the anecdotes that go viral are usually tales of selfless generosity and self-deprecating good humour, while the classic “troubled genius” gets increasingly short shrift. Consider the recent canonisation of Dolly Parton, once a figure of fun, now an avatar of decency who funds literacy programmes and vaccine research. Kanye West is perhaps pop’s last jerk-genius and he doesn’t get half as much leeway as Dylan.

I hope I don’t sound moralistic. In this current period of reckoning with the bad behaviour of artists, being simply rude feels like a minor offence. But nor do I understand the masochistic compulsion to make excuses for the man and interpret his failings as an index of ethical purity.

I am trying to state what seems to me to be an obvious fact, which is that we will never again see a star on this scale who gives so little and is so widely admired for it. By making it abundantly clear that he doesn’t need any of us — not journalists, not fans, not peers — Dylan remains unknowable and unbound in a way that I suspect some modern celebrities secretly envy. That is a unique kind of power, albeit faintly inhuman.

So happy birthday Bob, you magnificent jerk. I’m sorry I called you a genius back there but, in my defence, I don’t want to make you like me. You are who you are.

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