Word of Bob Dylan’s selection as winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature takes me back to a small apartment in West Berlin in October 1966, almost exactly fifty years ago.
Along with my dear friend and host brother, Reinhard, I had taken a double decker bus that skirted the Berlin Wall and then turned down Bundesallee, near where President Kennedy, then dead for three years, had declared “Ich Bin Ein Berliner.” Heading toward Reinhard’s apartment, we walked past the bombed out building next door, untouched in the two decades since the final days of World War Two.
We were sixteen years old and I was bleary-eyed. There was no drinking age in Berlin as far as I could tell and we had downed a beer or two. Reinhard spoke non-stop, though, more used to alcohol than I was.
We snuck past his parents’ and sister’s bedrooms and huddled in the penumbra of streetlights and curtains along the French windows. He pulled out his worn copy of a vinyl record album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, released in 1963.
“I don’t understand the letter,” Reinhard said. “Help me with the letter.” He meant the lyrics.
So there, before dawn, we listened to Blowin’ in the Wind, and I stopped to listen to and think about the words of all of Bob Dylan’s songs for the first time. I realized then and forever after that one could make the mistake of listening to a song as a song without truly hearing:
With Reinhard’s encouragement, I realized that Dylan was demanding that we go further.
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Reinhard, whose fine English needed help in understanding nuance, asked me to confirm what he heard in the lyrics. Me with my very imperfect German, I was happy to stick with English and work on it with him.
What does it mean, or what do you think it means? Reinhard asked me: “The answer is blowing in the wind.” Then and now, the feeling of the words, the juxtaposition of the words became clear: life is sublime and deeply serious. I was almost a man, and a man now, but let’s substitute man with the word “human” or “person.” We have a responsibility to live lives of honor and compassion for others and to seek peace (the white dove).
We were living through the days of the Vietnam War, and we could hear the protest in that song, ever so subtly, appealing to humanity, to our role in the world. And the words so fleeting, in flight, in the air.
Reinhard is long gone from this life, but I owe him that time in the shadow and light. Since then, I can always return to that place of my youth, and go back to a dream about the world and how it could be and center in on my feelings about love and morality.
Dylan’s words have inspired thoughts of peace for the half a century since then. The Nobel committee has a sublime way of linking its choices to the moment in which we live. Did the committee consider this time and place across the water in America, where Bob Dylan sent out that anthem to the world among his many other songs, many others, reminding us of decency and justice? I think it took the opportunity to do just that.
So thanks to them at the Nobel Committee for pointing us back to Bob Dylan, and many thanks to you, Bob.