Dylan wins rock's first Pulitzer

April 8, 2008

How does it feel to share the limelight with rock legend Bob Dylan?

This year's Pulitzer Prizes in honored two musical innovators who tend to reject categorization: A special citation went to singer-songwriter Dylan, and the annual music award went to composer and Los Angeles native David Lang.

In an interview Monday, Lang enthusiastically mixed metaphors: "You know, I am not fit to touch the hem of his shoes. Bob Dylan is the only artist who's in heavy rotation in my household."

He added, "I told my children I won the Pulitzer, and they were like, 'OK, big deal.' But when I said, 'OK, they gave a special award to Bob Dylan, just like me,' they said, 'Oh, this is really something.' "

The 66-year-old Dylan, who said he was "in disbelief," was cited for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." His award marks the first Pulitzer given to a rock musician.

Lang, 51, co-founder and co-artistic director of the New York music collective Bang on a Can, won his prize for “The Little Match Girl Passion,” which premiered in October at Carnegie Hall in New York.

The piece, Lang said, was born of his personal struggle with the fact that much of classical music is rooted in Christian tradition. "It's a very strange thing for a Jewish composer like me to deal with. The Bach St. Matthew Passion is one of the greatest pieces of all time and one that is not particularly good for the Jews."

Lang said he decided to use the text from the crowd scenes in the Bach piece and, wherever there was a reference to the Crucifixion, substituted a reference to the death of the little match seller from the Hans Christian Andersen tale, who freezes to death on a city street on New Year's Eve.

Lang, who spent his L.A. youth selling records at Tower Records and Wherehouse Records, said he tries to avoid labeling his work, including with the wide-open category "new music."

"My whole life was about records," he said, "and when you go into the record store, you see the world divided -- here's rock 'n' roll, here's jazz, here's opera. I am someone who wakes up in the morning and goes out of his way to make sure that my work does not belong in one of those boxes."

This year's arts awards also included playwright Tracy Letts, a longtime member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, for his critically hailed Broadway tragicomedy about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family, "August: Osage County." New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called it "probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years," adding: "Oh, forget probably. It is."

In literature, Junot Diaz won the prize for fiction for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." The novel, Diaz's first book since his hit short-story collection "Drown" in 1996, concerns the "ghetto nerd" of its title, an awkward teenager who aims to become "the Dominican Tolkien." Profane, street-smart, erudite and at times graphically violent, the novel juxtaposes a personal coming-of-age story in contemporary New Jersey with flashbacks to Dominican history.

Holocaust survivor and UCLA faculty member Saul Friedlander won the general nonfiction award for "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945." UCLA professor emeritus Daniel Walker Howe won for history for "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848." John Matteson won for biography for "Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father."

For the first time in Pulitzer history, two prizes were awarded in poetry, to Robert Hass for "Time and Materials" and Philip Schultz for "Failure." Hass, an English professor at UC Berkeley, is noted for drawing on everyday imagery, often from the California countryside. Schultz, the author of five collections of poetry, including the National Book Award nominee "Like Wings," founded the Writers Studio in 1987.

Times staff writer Scott Timberg contributed to this report.