When I heard that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature [which will be presented in absentia this coming Saturday], I felt a visceral anger. I was certain that it was really his music that was being honoured by the prize, not his lyrics. I googled his songs, looked to discover something new. My anger grew. His wisdom was a sham. Phrases that sounded profound in the midst of a song were meaningless once extracted from his music. There was much made of moonlight, nights, roads, women. Sound, fury.
I have spent much of my life wondering if people who enjoyed music could hear something that I couldn’t. Presumably something good. Avid listeners – the whole sorry lot of them – appeared to be transported by music, sent starry-eyed. They droned on about it, explored and recreated it, celebrated nuances to which I was entirely deaf. They couldn’t live without music; it was like breathing. Hating music was like hating animals or celebrations or happiness, I was told. I was told, again and again, that it couldn’t be true; I only had to hear this one great band, this one great song, and then I’d just get it.
I tried. I went to gigs. I stood in a dark crowd watching on a far stage a guitar solo trundle interminably onwards. Now and then I would chance upon a song that didn’t entirely grate. Even rarer, a piece of music seemed beautiful, and I’d play it repeatedly, late on into the night, and keep it near all day, humming the melody. I had no desire to find any more of it though. Most music was just noise. Inexplicably revered by everyone – noise without end.
Prickly Vladimir Nabokov gave a great description of one of his pet hates: 'inflicted music’, he growled. (Actually, he protested specifically against 'background music, canned music, piped-in music, portable music’, so perhaps he had more in common with music connoisseurs than plain music-haters.) When I read his complaint I felt a sting of recognition. Music was invasive. You can’t un-hear something, you can’t choose not to listen. When I thought of music, I thought of screaming and marching bands, a malign herd instinct, brash brass instruments, bruising drums.
I preferred silence. Best of all, the exquisite intimacy of shared silence. To be quietly alone with another person, together and apart. What peace, what pleasure.
If not silence, then language, patient and spacious.
Music inflicted itself upon you, but language was a medium of secrets. A story did not give itself up straight away. You had to join hands with a narrator and share the work. Poems and stories made communication into an excavation. You burrowed, and rich rewards awaited – discoveries, revelations.
Language could even make music palatable. Take James Joyce’s description in 'Ulysses' of a character unearthing his dead mother’s dancing cards in a drawer and remembering a dance-hall song and her laughter at the lyrics: 'phantasmal mirth, folded away, musk-perfumed’. You hear the ribald song. You know of his grief. Then there is the rhythm of Don Paterson’s poetry: 'when I stand between the sunlit and the sun / make me glass’, he utters in 'The White Lie', and in 'My Love' he seems to sing, 'O the moon’s a bodhran / a skin gong / torn from the hide of Capricorn’. So language could include sound and song, too. These are just a few fragments that have stayed with me since the day I read them.
Music blared, overbearing, myopic. Language held all the opulent possibility of life itself. I had finally freed myself from the need to 'get’ music, and given it all up as a bad job, and then, the way they say all good things arrive, there it was, all of a sudden – joyful and meaningful – in a time and place I least expected it.
It was an open mic night, on a Monday, in Nice’n’Sleazy – a preening indie bar on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. It was a basement, dimly lit, full of people and tealights. I turned up with no expectations (except that I would largely ignore the noise), invited along by a friend for a drink. I ended up befriending many.
Many a night I would be chatting away to someone and they would then go up on stage and carry out some kind of mad alchemy, producing the most beautiful story from an instrument. I discovered at last the jolt of magic involved in working a tune from an instrument, and even harder, making a tune that could turn people’s heads. I remember a song about skeletons, one ukulele, a husky female duet – voice, instrument, a footstep’s distance, and nothing else. This music felt real. No merchandise, no encore. No standing in a crowded arena waiting for the one familiar song in an album of duds. No noise. Just a familiar face, a new ballad, and a story to be heard.
Once I had learned how to listen, I found what everyone else already knew – that we have a way to speak to each other without words. Some music blares. But other music soars.
Which brings me back to the Nobel Prize. Trapped by my own fury, I quickly gave up denouncing Dylan’s talent and instead concentrated on stripping the Nobel Prize of the respect I had previously afforded it. I tried to sneer at it – this prize beget by the profit from explosives. I was determined to find a way to stop it all from mattering because, really, it mattered a great deal to me. I was strangely, selfishly affronted. It seemed that trite lyrics had been honoured over the life’s work of so many novelists and poets. It seemed a snub that had always been in the making: music (the loud, the extroverted) trumping literature (the quiet, the gentle).
I railed against it. Until someone (who I happened to have met via the open mic night) drew a link for me from Bob Dylan’s lyrics back to his heritage of folk music. Back to the days when music – not print – was the medium that brought stories to people. The idea that stories were linked inextricably with song for so many people in the past, those living in a time or place far away from print and paper – the idea of music as the original carrier of literature – was suggested to me. I had never thought of it, even though I had experienced the very thing myself, in that basement bar. I began to wonder at my own angst over the categorisation of different kinds of communication.
My anger had been, really, an anger about the enviable prominence of music as a form of expression. As if music might obscure all our silent secret stories, our contemplative literature. As if there was not enough reverence in the world to go around. As if music and literature were not a symbiotic pair.
And – for all I shrank from noise – I had to admit that a world without music would be as inhuman as a world without words.
I considered his lyrics. The moon, the women. What I had thought of as trite now seemed only a casualty of timing. All I could hear were dull words I’d heard a thousand times before in one popular song or another. Not the original; not that spark. Not the verve and punch that must have set the hearts of avid listeners quite rightly racing in 1962.
Amy Jardine is a former delegate of the Young Scotland Programme