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But You Know They're Just Gonna Have to Wait: Bob Dylan, "Long Distance Operator"

Seoul, South Korea, October 23rd

Where I am now, in a downtown hotel in Seoul seven and a half thousand miles from Stockholm, people are talking about the Nobel Prize in Literature.  There were a variety of just-concluded literary conferences in Seoul this week, including one on the writings of Nobel laureate W.B. Yeats.  When Per Wästberg, 82, a member since 1997 of the Swedish Academy allegedly called Bob Dylan "arrogant" and "impolite" for not having taken a phone call informing him of his Nobel, and for not having acknowledged the prize otherwise, it made headlines here, as everywhere. 

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
Anita Ekberg
Sophia Loren”
(Put ’em all in the same room with Ernest Borgnine!)

What Wästberg actually said, on Swedish public television, as reported first by The Guardian, is far more nuanced.  "Impolite and arrogant" was the headline.  Wästberg, a prominent journalist and newspaper editor as well as a poet and novelist, is smoother with words than this.  "One can say that it is impolite and arrogant" is his exact quotation, according to Rolling Stone.  "One can say" — not "I say he is."  However, it's surely a criticism of Dylan, and one that will surely make him even less inclined to speak to anyone about it.

Other members of the Academy seem less fussed.  Dylan clearly knows he's gotten the prize, and the Academy has spoken to people close to him about it.  Sara Danius, the Academy's permanent secretary, said, “Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough[.]”  She has also been philosophical about Dylan's accepting the prize in person, which he may or may not do — it's hardly unprecedented for a winner to be notified by proxy, and to have someone else collect the award for them, anyway (see, notably, Samuel Beckett).  “If he doesn’t want to come, he won’t come. It will be a big party in any case and the honour belongs to him,” Danius concluded.

A pay phone was ringing
It just about blew my mind
When I picked it up and said hello
This foot came through the line

One wonders exactly who is hot under collar about not being able to speak to Dylan directly.  The Nobel Prize is given as a recognition to an individual, not to make them come to you to say thank you, or anything else.  And Bob Dylan is notable for a long career of subverting expectations, and not doing what anyone expects him to do — in part this award to him is based upon that spirit.

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway

He evidently has a longtime fan in at least one member of the Academy, the poet and playwright Kristina Lugn.  In a 2006 interview, after her election to the Academy, she said, "I'm very fond of Bob Dylan, he's awesome, but I do not think he will get the prize."  She quickly corrected herself:  "I should probably say 'No komnmentarer' (laughs again)."  In an interview just after Dylan was awarded the prize, Lugn spoke at some length about having contacts to reach Dylan, and a phone number that their office manager should try.  

Long-distance operator
I hear this phone call is on the house
Cain’t ya hear me cryin’?
Hm, hm, hm

The whole non-story is past silly, now.  Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.  There's been no suggestion of any kind that he will decline it, and, by the way, he's currently free in December.  Dylan spends most months on the road, touring and performing, but never December.  His concert tours end around Thanksgiving — only rarely do they spill into the last month of the year at all, as they did at New York's Beacon Theatre in 2014.  Will he spend the month with family and loved ones, enjoying the holidays?  or will he put on a white tie and tails and come to Stockholm?  It's entirely up to him, as Danius says.  Things got weirder overnight, as the Nobel Foundation addressed the issue of the $900,000 that comes with the prize.  Reuters reports that as a condition of receiving the prize money, "Dylan must give a lecture on a subject 'relevant to the work for which the prize has been awarded' no later than 6 months after Dec. 10, the anniversary of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel's death.  'That is what we ask for in return,' said Jonna Petterson, spokeswoman for the Nobel Foundation, adding Dylan could also opt to give a concert instead of a lecture. 'Yes, we are trying to find an arrangement that suits the laureate (Dylan).'  The lecture need not be delivered in Stockholm."  

Ev’rybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher
Ev’rybody wants to be my friend
But nobody wants to get higher
Long-distance operator
I believe I’m stranglin’ on this telephone wire

As David Remnick wisely advised in The New Yorker when Dylan received the prize, let's celebrate it, instead of wondering what Dylan's going to do and when he's going to do it.  Have not the pages of history over the past fifty-five years taught us that's an idle, indeed futile, pursuit?  Here.  Enjoy "Telephone," Episode 22 of Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour (2006), and feel free to close-read his humorous radio-DJ persona for any clues you'd like to find as to what Bob Dylan himself might, or might not, think about the intrusive "hey!" of a ringing telephone.