On June 9, 1970, during one of the lowest points of his career, Bob Dylan was the recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Music at the venerable Princeton University. Having just turned 30 two weeks before (and just about to release his all-time worst album, Self Portrait), Dylan rolled up at Nassau Hall in a 1968 Buick Electra, flanked by his wife Sara, David Crosby, and Ben Salzman, his music publisher's husband.
By all accounts, Dylan was a nervous wreck. As David Crosby later recalled, “When we arrived at Princeton they took us straight into a little room and Bob was asked to wear a cap and gown. He refused outright. They said, 'We won't give you a degree if you don't wear this.' Dylan said, 'Fine, I didn't ask for it in the first place.'”
Although they finally convinced him to wear the gown, Dylan still refused to don the cap, opting instead, like the rest of the 1,200 graduates, to toss on a white armband which bore a peace symbol and the number 70, designating the graduating class. Besides Dylan, nine others were receiving honorary degrees that day, including the liberal columnist Walter Lippman, and Coretta Scott King.
The Big Moment
When Dylan's name was called, University President Robert F. Goheen introduced him with a short speech that read, “Paradoxically, though he is known to millions, he shuns publicity and organizations, preferring the solidarity of his family and isolation from the world. Although he is approaching the perilous age of 30, his music remains the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America.”
Despite reports that he smiled when the president mentioned his “perilous age of 30,” according to Dylan in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, the speech made him cringe.
“Oh sweet Jesus!” wrote Dylan. “It was like a jolt. I shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless. The disturbed conscience of Young America! There it was again. I couldn't believe it! Tricked once more. The speaker could have said many things. He could have emphasized a few things about my music. When he said to the crowd that I preferred isolation from the world, it was like he told them I preferred being in an iron tomb with my food shoved in on a tray.”
The Rolling Stone Report
“Yes, it's true, Bob Dylan accepted an honorary degree from Princeton University, but first-hand observers say he was very nervous and hesitant about the whole thing and seemed 'appropriately out of place' during the ceremonies.” So began a Rolling Stone article that lampooned the event. The article went on, “A source at Princeton said Dylan had called after he'd been notified that he was to receive the honor, 'to find out just what kind of degree it was.'”
According to the story, Dylan would not speak directly with any staff or students, and all questions or requests—even something as simple as a glass of water—had to be relayed through either his wife or Crosby. “At one point a number of photographers and reporters began asking questions and taking photos, and he stomped out of the Faculty Room. 'I don't like it. They're asking questions,' he told his wife in the hall.”
The story continued: “All during the ceremony, Dave Crosby was licking a half-orange and looking greatly amused. When asked what he was doing with Dylan, Crosby laughed: 'I was standing by the New Jersey Turnpike, looking for America, and Bob saw a freak and stopped to pick me up.'”
Dr. Bob: After the Fact
Soon after receiving the degree, Dylan would write about the event in his new song, "Day of the Locusts" (purchase/download), which would appear on his new release New Morning (compare prices), an album critics hailed as Dylan's big return to form.
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.
"I was glad to get the degree, though. I could use it," Dylan continued in his memoir 34 years later. "The very look and touch and scent of it spelled respectability and had something of the spirit of the universe in it. After whispering and mumbling my way through the ceremony, I was handed the scroll. We piled back into the big Buick and drove away. It had been a strange day. 'Bunch of dickheads on auto-stroke,' Crosby said."
On June 23, 2004, a much worldlier, wiser Dylan would gladly receive yet another honorary Doctorate of Music, this time from Scotland's University of St. Andrews. “It seems appropriate,” Neil Corcoran stated during the award speech, “that his second such degree should come from Scotland's oldest university, since Scottish border ballads and folk songs have been the inspiration for some of his melodies, and his great song 'Highlands' is an elaborate riff, or descant, on Robert Burns.”
Pretty thin reasoning, one reckons, but awards of any variety are one of the things that fuels Dylan's inspiration these days. A little more grease for the wheels certainly can't hurt, Scottish or otherwise.