As a teenager in the late 1990s, I learned a hard truth about music: Your album collection couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be taken seriously without a copy of Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits. That’s why I went to the Tower Records on 4th Avenue in New York City one afternoon in ninth grade to cop the album, with its maroon cover and purple CD. Of all the records in Petty’s discography it’s by far his best selling, a perfect record for road trips, cookouts, and everything in between.
Throughout his career, Petty’s songs cut to the core of human emotion. His catalogue expressed an everyman bent, one that was shared by anyone who came in contact with his music, which was everyone. Petty and his Heartbreakers were a classic rock mainstay from the moment the first album dropped in 1976. His singles ran the gamut from love to heartbreak, depression to longing. “American Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “You Got Lucky,” “Free Fallin‘,” these were songs meant to be sung off pitch and in unison. How else could you know the classics if you didn’t own the one album that had them all?
Book-Twitter is deeply divided over the news that Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. It seems as if half the lit world is affronted that a folk singer has been acknowledged in the same category as literary greats like Rudyard Kipling, Pearl S. Buck, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, while the other is thrilled that lyrics to the songs that reflected and affected social change in the second half of the twentieth century are being recognized as poetry.
In a prescient post on Jezebel last month, Catherine Nichols wrote about how, in reading Chronicles, Dylan’s 2005 memoir, she came to see the musician her father had introduced her to as a true literary artist, and to answer the question she’d been holding in her mind: “What’s so good about him?”
As a writer, Dylan layers in triplicate: there are the things that happen, the loopy ways he imagines them and the art that informs his imagination all concurrently, which is a literary technique I would love to learn myself. The book Peter Pan does this layering, but it’s sorted out clearly in time: Barrie narrates the event first, then re-situates it in Wendy’s family dynamics, then explores it in Wendy’s mind, through art and imagination (that’s Neverland). Dylan writes all these dimensions at once. The human touch begins in this constant rendering of art and subjectivity behind the words.
Where does musical genius come from? A more reasonable question to ask might be: where did Bob Dylan come from? To find out, music writer Greil Marcus visited Hibbing High School in northern Minnesota, the school where Dylan graduated, and whose legend centers around the school’s striking architecture, lavish decoration and creative influence. Originally printed in 2007 in the journal Daedalus, Marcus’ essay appears in his book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. We share it online here through The New School’s Riggio Honors Program.
Climbing the enclosed stairway that followed the expanse of outdoor steps, we saw not a hint of graffiti, not a sign of deterioration in the intricate colored tile designs on the walls and the ceilings, in the curving woodwork. We gazed up at old-fashioned but still majestic murals depicting the history of Minnesota, with bold trappers surrounded by submissive Indians, huge trees and roaming animals, the forest and the emerging towns. It was strange, the pristine condition of the place. It spoke not for emptiness, for Hibbing High as a version of Pompeii High—though the school, with a capacity of over 2,000, was down to 600 students, up from four hundred only a few years before—and, somehow, you knew the state of the building didn’t speak for discipline. You could sense self-respect, passed down over the years.
We followed the empty corridors in search of the legendary auditorium. A custodian let us in, and told us the stories. Seating for 1,800, and stained glass everywhere, even in the form of blazing candles on the fire box. In large, gilded paintings in the back, the muses waited; they smiled over the proscenium arch, too, over a stage that, in imitation of thousands of years of ancestors, had the weight of immortality hammered into its boards. “No wonder he turned into Bob Dylan,” said a visitor the next day, when the bus tour stopped at the school, speaking of the talent show Dylan played here with his high-school band the Golden Chords. Anybody on that stage could see kingdoms waiting.
The sensitivity of male egos, the demands of motherhood, and the general disdain for female ambition made loneliness the likely lot of the chick singer. For the young, female rock-and-roll fan, the arm of a male musician might have seemed more welcoming. Girlfriends and wives appeared as fairy-tale heroines who held royal sway in the courts of their rock-star loves. Even groupies—at least “the concubine elite,” to use Des Barres’s term—lived a preteen dream, consummating their crushes nightly while avoiding the emotional and physical perils of being married to, say, Keith Moon.
—Alexandra Molotkow writing in The Believer about the contributions, sacrifices and struggles of the women who loved rock and roll’s leading men, from Cynthia Lennon to Marianne Faithfull, and the sexual politics of popular music.
The Protestant work ethic here was very familiar to me. Johannes hadn’t had it, and probably not Magnus either; they had been cheerful men with more dreams than they had will to realize them, at least my grandfather. My mother’s mother had the work ethic, and she had passed it on to my mother, who had just retired, and who missed her job in the same way, as she put it, a cow misses its pen.
That, too, is something I have inherited. I can’t be unoccupied, I can’t take a vacation, I can’t relax; even reading a book, which is actually part of my job, makes me feel guilty. It’s not work, it’s enjoyment. At the same time, and this is obvious, what lies behind this need to be occupied is not just a moral sensibility; working all the time is also a way to simplify life, to parry its demands, especially the demand to be happy.
-From Part Two of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s travel narrative through the Midwestern United States for the New York Times Magazine.