Bob Dylan skips Nobel Prize ceremony, cites Shakespeare in acceptance statement
For Bob Dylan, the nagging question of whether his songs qualify as literature was settled for good Saturday at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm — and his presence was not required to make the case.
As the always-slippery folk singer forewarned, he was not there to receive the 2016 prize in literature, but he sent a warm, humble statement accepting the honour, which was read by Azita Raji, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, at an evening banquet in Stockholm.
Invoking William Shakespeare, whom Dylan imagined to have been too consumed with practical matters — “How should this be staged?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” — to bother with whether what he was doing was literature. Dylan wrote: “I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’ ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’ ‘Is this song in the right key?’ Some things never change, even in 400 years.
“Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’” Dylan, 75, concluded. “So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”
Earlier in the day, the Swedish Academy defended its nontraditional selection of a musician — and a seemingly uninterested one, at that — for the literary honour.
In a speech in front of about 1,500 guests, including the Swedish royal family, Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, called Dylan “a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.
“If people in the literary world groan,” Engdahl added, “one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing.”
Engdahl’s speech was followed by a fittingly imperfect Patti Smith, who delivered an estimable Dylan impression on his 1963 song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” but also proved his inimitable nature, flubbing a lyric and halting the performance midway through. “I’m sorry,” she said before resuming. “I’m so nervous.” Still, some in the audience could be seen crying as she finished the song accompanied by a string section.
At the same time, Dylan, who cited only “pre-existing commitments” when he finally declined the Nobel invitation, was being spoken about in near-mythical terms outside of Stockholm, as well.
Exactly where the singer was Saturday during the Scandinavian festivities — which included an evening banquet, with its traditional parade of desserts, after the afternoon white-tie award ceremony — remained a mystery. He was not where he can most reliably be found these days — onstage — as his most recent batch of tour dates ended before Thanksgiving.
But even with no public appearances scheduled, Dylan was also a spectral presence around his other, more private, known haunts. Neighbors at properties across the country that are registered in Dylan’s name or that of his management company described a local legend who was hard to pin down and rarely, if ever, seen — somewhere between Thomas Pynchon and Sasquatch.
Locals, however, described the folk legend as a phantom-like presence who had been seen intermittently in recent years.
On Saturday morning during the Nobel ceremony, the home where Dylan is thought to live received visitors, including a white pickup truck advertising plumbing services. Two SUVs also gained entrance beyond the prominent “No Trespassing” sign and security cameras, but a voice on the intercom denied Dylan was inside.
Still, Dylan has not yet entirely ducked the Swedish Academy. To receive the award, which comes with 8 million Swedish krona ($870,000), Nobel laureates are required to give a lecture on their subject within six months of Saturday’s ceremonies, and though the academy said it had nothing on the books yet, there was hope.
“There is a chance that Bob Dylan will be performing in Stockholm next year, possibly in the spring,” the academy said in a statement, “in which case he will have a perfect opportunity to deliver his lecture. We will post more information as soon as we have it.”