Michael Chabon had long been mystified by that Bob Dylan lyric about "midnight's broken toe."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, the keynote speaker Wednesday at the annual induction ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was explaining his undiminished passion for rock music and confiding that he had become obsessed by the opening line to Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom."
"Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toe."
The answer was both simple and embarrassing; Dylan was singing about "midnight's broken toll," not toe.
"How many hours I had devoted to (the idea) ... that midnight had toes, and that one of them, the big one, had been broken," Chabon said.
Rock 'n roll was officially welcomed by the 115-year-old academy, an "honor society" proud to call itself elite and home to some of the country's leading writers, composers, architects, painters and sculptors. On Wednesday, Dylan was inducted as an honorary member, becoming the first rock star to join an academy that includes E.L. Doctorow, Chuck Close and John Ashbery.
Chabon, giving an address delivered in previous years by Robert Frost and E.M. Forster among others, titled his speech "Rock 'n' Roll," a title and concept he swears he thought of before learning that Dylan had been elected. To laughter, applause and a few frowns, he shifted from tributes to such "exuberant" poets as Frank O'Hara to boyish pleasure over passages from Dylan, Dire Straits, the Ramones and the Doors.
"Song lyrics have arguably mattered more to me" than writers of prose and poetry, said Chabon, whose latest novel, "Telegraph Avenue," is set in part at a record store. "Song lyrics are part of my literary firmware, programmed permanently into my 'read only' memory."
It was an unusual setting to hear Chabon —or anyone — recite the Ramones' punk chant, "Beat on the brat, with a baseball bat, oh yeah." The ceremony was held in the pillared, high-ceilinged auditorium at the academy's beaux arts complex in upper Manhattan. Chabon, who turns 50 this month, was voted in last year and returned Wednesday to give the keynote talk, known as the Blashfield Address.
The academy welcomed three new members to its core group of 250 — author Ward Just and artists Terry Winters and Richard Tuttle. A wide range of prizes were handed out, with recipients ranging from novelist Jennifer Egan to NPR host Ira Glass.
Mixing high culture and pop culture, Chabon's speech revived an argument that Dylan helped start decades ago: Are rock lyrics "poetry"? Are rock musicians "artists"? He answered both "yes" and "no." Remembering an anthology of rock lyrics his poetry professor gave him 30 years ago, he acknowledged that even treasured lines from the Beatles flattened on the page, "looking plucked and forlorn, like Foghorn Leghorn after a brush with the Tasmanian Devil."
But the wrong questions were being asked, he added. If rock lyrics were not poetry, they were "writing," real writing, with "tropes and devices," ''rhetorical strategies," ''allusions and imagery."
"The question of whether or not Dylan's lyrics are poetry feels irrelevant," Chabon said. "Dylan's lyrics are writing, and his writing has influenced my own writing as much, if not more, than any poet apart from O'Hara and Edgar (Allan) Poe."
Dylan thought enough of the academy to accept entry. But anticipation — wishful thinking — that he might turn up ended early in the two-hour ceremony. Dylan has been touring, architect and academy president Henry N. Cobb announced, and sent his regrets. Dylan really did send them, in a statement thanking the academy and adding that he looked "forward to meeting all of you, sometime soon."
Dylan wasn't there, but a performer of comparable acclaim not only attended, but took on extra duties: Meryl Streep. When Stephen Sondheim was unable to attend and present awards for musical theater, the Oscar-winning actress stepped in. Streep, elected as an honorary member in 2011, later handed a "distinguished service" prize to dancer Edward Villella, who was greeted not only with applause, but with shouts and whistles — as if he were a rock star.