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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: March 6, 2017

Dylan fans (this one included) compete in poetry slam with his lyrics on Thursday night

Written by: Bob Keyes
This July 22, 2012, file photo shows U.S. singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing onstage at "Les Vieilles Charrues" Festival in Carhaix, western France. Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, announced Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Photo/David Vincent

This July 22, 2012, file photo shows U.S. singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing onstage at “Les Vieilles Charrues” Festival in Carhaix, western France. Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, announced Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Photo/David Vincent

DATE CHANGE: Due to the blizzard, the new date on this event in Thursday, Mar. 16

A lot of people sighed in disbelief when Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize for literature, though I wasn’t one of them.

Others thought that awarding a prize for excellence in literature to a songwriter, even one as poetic as Dylan, violated the spirit of the award. And besides, it’s not like Dylan needed another honor to prove his excellence. He’d already won just about every other noteworthy prize in the arts.

But he won, and people are just going to have to deal with it.

On Tuesday, the Chocolate Church in Bath hosts a Celebrity Bob Dylan Poetry Slam, in recognition of his Nobel. It’s a fundraiser for the Chocolate Church, as it celebrates its 40th season, which is 15 years less than Dylan has been writing songs.

Dylan in 1965 Photo by Associated Press

Dylan in 1965
Photo by Associated Press

“No singing, no music. Just creative interpretation of your favorite lyrics of Bob Dylan,” said Jennifer DeChant, the arts center’s executive director. “It seemed like a fun, cabin fever-relief kind of thing to do, with the understanding that Dylan was a reluctant award recipient.”

Indeed, Dylan didn’t acknowledge the Nobel for several days, and after indicating he would accept the award in person, he changed his mind and stayed home.

DeChant has lined up 15 presenters, and each will get five minutes to perform. It’s a competitive event, with judges who award points for style, interpretation and performance.

I said yes when DeChant asked if I would participate, though I must have missed the part where she said there was judging involved. But I’m a big Dylan fan and was among those who thought the Nobel prize was appropriate. Dylan has been writing poetry in many forms since the 1960s, and his earliest roots as a songwriter dip into the beat generation.

He’s obviously explored many creative outlets with his writing, including hundreds of songs in many styles, one tortured novel and a brilliant memoir. His most successful songs are tied together by his storytelling, his sense of timing and the lyrical density of his language. His best songs viscerally take you from one place to another.

Tuesday night, I am going to attempt to read “Brownsville Girl,” from his 1986 album “Knocked Out Loaded.” Dylan co-wrote it with the playwright Sam Shepard, and it feels like a short story. The recorded version is more than 11 minutes long. I’m going to try to trim it down to less than five minutes without dropping any lyrics by skipping a few choruses.

In my opinion, it’s one of Dylan’s greatest lyrical achievements, in the same story-song category as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” It’s a wistful West Texas love story, full of heat, dust and fast cars driven with abandon. Among its shady characters is Gregory Peck. It’s a rolling narrative, with an unfixed time frame that mingles memory with remorse.

It has several of my favorite Dylan lines:

“Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass, but sometimes you just find yourself over the line.”

“Strange how people who suffer together have closer connections than people who are most content.”

“You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent.”

The 1980s were challenging years for Dylan. The whole MTV thing passed him by, and he was growing uncomfortable with modern recording technology. He was an analog guy in an increasingly digital world, and his songs and records were inconsistent.

Among the inconsistencies were moments of brilliance, and “Brownsville Girl” is one of those moments. Curiously, he’s only played the song live once – and that was just a sketch.

Come to the Chocolate Church on Tuesday, and you’ll hear the whole thing.

Celebrity Bob Dylan Poetry Slam

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Mar. 16
WHERE: Chocolate Church Arts Center, 804 Washington St., Bath
TICKETS & INFO: $15; chocolatechurcharts.org or 442-8455.

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