El Cid

August 11, 2015

El Cid
Anonymous
Translated from the Spanish by Burton Raffel
(Penguin Classics, 2009) [c.1200]
284 p.

The Cid was an important figure in the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century. He was a gallant warrior around whom men rallied and about whom legends sprang up. This famous account of his life was written about a hundred years after his death, and it is generally considered to be one of the early masterpieces of Spanish literature.

The poem survives only in damaged manuscripts, so that it is incomplete as it stands. Most notably, there is a significant chunk missing from the beginning, and the ending is also lost. The poem we have opens in media res with the Cid — or, as he is usually called in the poem, my Cid — being exiled from Castile. Turning his lemons to lemonade, he takes the opportunity to make a name for himself in the wide world. The principal arc of the poem’s narrative concerns his roaming forays against Muslim towns, his eventual assault upon and triumph over the great coastal city of Valencia, and his defence of the same against Islamic efforts to dislodge him. Once established, he marries his daughters to some noblemen — who turn out to be strikingly ignoble in their treatment of their wives. The last act of the poem is concerned with the Cid’s revenge upon his scoundrel sons-in-law.

Naturally there is a good deal of military glory on display in the poem, and precious little cross-cultural toleration. In light of recent clashes between the Islamic world and the West, it certainly makes for interesting reading. The poem is unapologetic about the Cid’s ambitions to drive the Muslims out of Spain, but neither does it paint the conflict in the clear black and white that one might expect: Islamic warriors are honoured by the poet if they act bravely and nobly, and Christians — like the aforementioned scoundrel sons-in-law — are denounced if they merit it. But, still, when we read that

Bishop Don Jeronimo, as good a priest as could be,
Swung weapons with both hands: when he’d finished fighting
He could no longer count the Moors he had killed.

we might justifiably wish for a little more peace, love, and understanding.

I don’t want to come across as facetious. There is actually quite a lot of nuance in the text, and a considerable amount of tenderness to balance the violence. On one level the entire poem is a kind of domestic drama in which the Cid is only trying to secure good marriages for his daughters — a kind of cross between Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice. It is jarring to modern sensibilities, but arguably that is part of its appeal.

The truth is that of the major works of medieval literature that I have read — admittedly more or less limited to Chaucer, Dante, Chretien de Troyes, and Beowulf — El Cid is the one I have enjoyed the least. Its political incorrectness was not part of the problem for me — quite the opposite, if anything (I am sorry to say). The translation may be part of the issue, although I admire Raffel’s translations of Chretien de Troyes. Somehow the poem never really came to life for me. The Cid himself seemed a distant figure, dashing and brave, but thin. I worry that the poem’s fame is due more to its mere survival of the ravages of time than to its intrinsic merits. But one should not be overhasty with such judgments, especially when reading in translation.

Incidentally, the word “Cid” is a gloss on the Arabic “sayyid”, meaning, in context, something like “lord”.


Thomas Mann

August 10, 2015

I may not be blogging much here lately, but today I’ve submitted a short piece on Thomas Mann to the 52 Authors series at Light on Dark Water. I’ve been enjoying this series all year, and it’s nice to be able to be part of it. You can find it here.

thomasmann-w500


An Englishman and an American in Rome

June 25, 2015

Attentive readers will have noted that things have been rather quiet around here of late. This is due, mostly, to the fact that the duties of fatherhood have finally completed their encroachment upon what I used to call my “free time,” and occasions for reading and writing (and, for that matter, arithmetic) have become harder to find. I am actually enjoying at present a few months of paternity leave from the office, and I had thought that I would be able to arrange matters so as to open up some time for writing, but thus far it has not proved so.

But we did find time, last month, to holiday for a few weeks in Italy, spending our time mostly in the Eternal City (with one side jaunt to the hill country and Assisi). While there, I was reading (in addition to a wonderful guide book first published in 1903) a few Roman travel memoirs, especially those of Charles Dickens (in Pictures from Italy) and Henry James (in Italian Hours).

Now Dickens, for all his merits, seems to have been tone deaf to Catholicism, and although he has many approving things to say about Rome and the Romans, he can find little kind to say about the Catholic side of Rome. Of his first visit to St. Peter’s, for instance, he says:

Immediately on going out next day, we hurried off to St. Peter’s. It looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach. The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns, and its gushing fountains—so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful—nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it: in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith’s shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime. And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing. I had a much greater sense of mystery and wonder, in the Cathedral of San Mark at Venice.

If you read carefully, you’ll have noted that Dickens describes the church as “distinctly and decidedly small,” which can only be stubbornness on his part, for it is the obvious opposite of the truth, and the impression of the entrance to the subterranean tomb of St. Peter as being “a very lavish pantomime” sound to me like a Protestant gentleman’s determination not to like the place. And his opinion failed to improve on further acquaintance:

The effect of the Cathedral on my mind, on that second visit, was exactly what it was at first, and what it remains after many visits. It is not religiously impressive or affecting. It is an immense edifice, with no one point for the mind to rest upon; and it tires itself with wandering round and round. The very purpose of the place, is not expressed in anything you see there, unless you examine its details—and all examination of details is incompatible with the place itself. It might be a Pantheon, or a Senate House, or a great architectural trophy, having no other object than an architectural triumph. There is a black statue of St. Peter, to be sure, under a red canopy; which is larger than life and which is constantly having its great toe kissed by good Catholics. You cannot help seeing that: it is so very prominent and popular. But it does not heighten the effect of the temple, as a work of art; and it is not expressive—to me at least—of its high purpose.

Never mind the technical detail that St. Peter’s is not a cathedral. The “one point for the mind to rest upon” at St. Peter’s is hard to miss: it is the tomb of St. Peter under the altar under the splendid baldacchino of Bernini. It is hard to believe that he visited the church twice and didn’t notice it. Especially in a space which is so distinctly and decidedly small.

But his point about the impression of the church being a somewhat diffuse one has an element of truth in it. One can wander up and down inside it without constantly having the focal point in view. Henry James picks up on this quality, but in a more approving mood than Dickens, when he writes:

You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves your measure itself poor. You never let the ponderous leather curtain bang down behind you—your weak lift of a scant edge of whose padded vastness resembles the liberty taken in folding back the parchment corner of some mighty folio page—without feeling all former visits to have been but missed attempts at apprehension and the actual to achieve your first real possession.

I note with interest, and some envy, that in James’ day (writing in 1873) one could enter St. Peter’s by mounting the steps and pulling aside a leather curtain. It is a long way from the interminable lines and security checks that a modern visitor must bear. (The old paradox of tourism: I’m so pleased to be here, but what’s with all these other people also being here?) But James continues, elaborating on the same theme:

Much of the constituted beauty resides in the fact that it is all general beauty, that you are appealed to by no specific details, or that these at least, practically never importunate, are as taken for granted as the lieutenants and captains are taken for granted in a great standing army—among whom indeed individual aspects may figure here the rather shifting range of decorative dignity in which details, when observed, often prove poor (though never not massive and substantially precious) and sometimes prove ridiculous. The sculptures, with the sole exception of Michael Angelo’s ineffable “Pieta,” which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel—this indeed to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced—are either bad or indifferent; and the universal incrustation of marble, though sumptuous enough, has a less brilliant effect than much later work of the same sort, that for instance of St. Paul’s without the Walls. The supreme beauty is the splendidly sustained simplicity of the whole. The thing represents a prodigious imagination extraordinarily strained, yet strained, at its happiest pitch, without breaking. Its happiest pitch I say, because this is the only creation of its strenuous author in presence of which you are in presence of serenity.

That note of serenity is a true one: James may have been largely deaf to the specifically religious side of Catholicism, but his ear (as it were) for sensibility and aesthetics was exquisite, and he hits just the right note, I think, when he later writes that “St. Peter’s speaks less of aspiration than of full and convenient assurance.”

Anyway, it was a great trip, a many splendoured thing, full of glories. I’ll be living off it, I am sure, for years to come.


Books for children: history, folk-tale, and legend

May 13, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve read several good books for children on historical and legendary subjects, and I pass on a few notes:

crossbowsCrossbows & Crucifixes
Henry Garnett
(Sophia Institute, 2008) [1962]
187 p.

Originally published in the early 1960s as A Trumpet Sounds, this book tells the story of Nicholas Thorpe, a fifteen-year old Catholic boy in Elizabethan England who joins the underground effort to provide safe passage and hiding places for priests. Set mostly in rural locations, it follows Nicholas’ introduction to the recusant communities and his growing identification with their aims. It is a nicely imagined story that lets a good deal of real history in around the edges. The story does meander a little, and the book as a whole would have been stronger if it had a more clearly defined structure. Still, it’s a good story that introduces a young (age 10?) reader to a group of brave people struggling to save the good that they have known. Incidentally, I think the author’s name must be a pseudonym.

kingsley-heroesThe Heroes
Greek Fairy Tales for my Children
Charles Kingsley
(William Clowes, 1932) [1856]
200 p.

Charles Kingsley is most well-known today for his (rather strange, I am told) book The Water-Babies, but I have enjoyed this realization of three classic Greek tales: the story of Perseus, focusing on his quest to slay Medusa; the story of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece; and the life of Theseus, including the account of his adventure with Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Kingsley tells the stories with a certain archness that I found distracting only at first. I like that he emphasizes the courage, virtue, and greatness of his heroes; there is no trace of a reflexive egalitarianism here. He lets his heroes be heroes. Naturally there is a considerable amount of violence in these stories; Kingsley doesn’t underline it, but he doesn’t avoid it either. The elevated tone of the prose might make it challenging for an inexperienced reader. The prologue and epilogue are unequivocally Christian, despite the pagan origins of the tales sandwiched between. I’m happy to have read it, and will encourage my children to read it when the time comes. I found this old copy at a second-hand booksale.

perrault-fairy-talesFairy Tales
Charles Perrault
(Dover, 1969) [1697]
117 p.

A superb collection of fairy tales, including those about Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tom Thumb, and Puss in Boots — but not for children, not young children anyway. Often violent, with feints at incest and cannibalism, they are a bridge too far for this father. But considered as stories for more mature readers, they are excellent. Classics are classics for a reason.

canton-saintsA Child’s Book of Saints
William Canton
(St. Augustine Academy, 2013) [1898]
268 p.

This is a find. It was apparently out of print until St. Augustine Academy Press brought it back a few years ago in a high-quality reproduction of the original 1898 printing. Canton has written a series of elegant stories about saints, drawing heavily but not exclusively on legendary material. Although I have not checked it, I expect that some of these stories are from The Golden Legend or similar sources, but others (“The King Orgulous”) sound as though they could be part of the same folk-tale tradition that the Brothers Grimm explored.

Almost without exception they are superb little stories, with a gentle spirit and an eye for grace and beauty. Even if they are not stories about actual people, they are imaginative explorations of the allure of goodness, and that is no small thing. My enthusiasm is dampened only by the affected antiquarian tone that seeps in here and there. It is there, I know, to elevate the stories into a realm beyond the ordinary, and normally I appreciate that, but Canton’s ear is not perfect, and the prose sometimes sounds overripe. That aside, I intend to read these stories to my kids when they’re a little older.

sutcliff-arthurianThe Sword and the Circle
The Light Beyond the Forest
The Road to Camlann
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Puffin, 1994) [1979-81]
272 + 144 + 144 p.

This marvellous trilogy covers the full span of Arthurian lore, from the rise of Uther Pendragon and Merlin to the death of Arthur and final collapse of the company of the Knights of the Round Table. The stories are drawn mostly from Malory’s Arthurian corpus, with the addition of a few tales such as those of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult. The first volume tells of the formation of the Knights of the Round Table and their adventures in the first flowerings of their chivalric enterprise. The second volume is about the quest for the Holy Grail, and the way in which the quest began to fragment the company of knights. In the final volume the fault lines widen and war breaks out between Arthur and Lancelot, leading to the final end of Arthur’s reign.

I have nothing but good things to say. I have read a fair bit in the Arthurian tradition, from Malory to Tennyson, but I’ve not enjoyed anything more than I enjoyed this. The books are billed as being for children, and, it is true, they would be suitable for children, but there is nothing in them to deter an adult’s enjoyment as well. For the first time I feel that I have a good understanding of the overall shape of the Arthurian stories; rather than just being a conglomeration of tales, they follow an arc. Sutcliff’s writing is rich and often striking, bringing out memorable details and pausing to dwell on moments that Malory, for instance, passes over quickly. She follows her sources closely, but brings something of the novelist’s art to her rendering. The language respects the intelligence of the reader.

As in the medieval sources, there is a strong Catholic undercurrent in these stories. I was glad that Sutcliff didn’t strip it out. Did you know that in later life, after his career as the flower of Christian chivalry had run its course, Lancelot became a priest? I didn’t.


This and that

May 7, 2015

A few quick notes about items of interest:

Wolf Hall: I mentioned before that a television mini-series dramatizing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is being broadcast. I myself haven’t seen any of it, but I have noticed a fair bit of commentary. When I read the book I complained about the slanted characterization of St Thomas More. At medievalists.net, Nancy Bilyeau unpacks the historical accuracies — or lack thereof — of the adaptation. Spoilers abound. (Hat-tip: Supremacy and Survival)

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Chesterton: An appreciative essay on GKC from an unexpected source: The Atlantic. James Parker writes with a certain cheeky abandon, but with what strikes me as a good understanding of the man:

Chesterton was a journalist; he was a metaphysician. He was a reactionary; he was a radical. He was a modernist, acutely alive to the rupture in consciousness that produced Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”; he was an anti-modernist (he hated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”). He was a parochial Englishman and a post-Victorian gasbag; he was a mystic wedded to eternity. All of these cheerfully contradictory things are true, and none of them would matter in the slightest were it not for the final, resolving fact that he was a genius.

Parker doesn’t try to hide the fact that Chesterton’s prose is something of an acquired taste, but then that is true of many good things in life:

His prose, if you don’t like it, is an unnerving zigzag between flippancy and bombast—and somewhere behind that, even more unnerving, is the intimation that these might be two sides of the same thing. If you do like it, it’s supremely entertaining, the stately outlines of an older, heavier rhetoric punctually convulsed by what he once called (in reference to the Book of Job) “earthquake irony.” He fulminates wittily; he cracks jokes like thunder. His message, a steady illumination beaming and clanging through every lens and facet of his creativity, was really very straightforward: get on your knees, modern man, and praise God.

It’s a funny and enjoyable essay, and I’d like to know more about this James Parker.

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TS Eliot: Speaking of Eliot, the 52 Authors series continues at Light on Dark Water, and the most recent entry, written by Maclin Horton, is on his poetry. Don’t neglect to read the long comment by Cailleachbhan as well. Meanwhile, at the University Bookman, Martin Lockerd reviews a volume of Eliot’s correspondence, and at The Hudson Review William H. Pritchard reviews a collection of his early prose. So many books, so little time.


Great moments in opera: L’Orfeo

May 6, 2015

A dozen or so operas have been written on the tale of Orpheus and Euridice, including Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, sometimes said to be the first opera. But Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, our subject for today, is better known, and justly beloved. It had its premiere in 1607, and so stands very close to the first flowerings of the operatic art.

In common usage the term “renaissance music” usually evokes the polyphonic music of Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, but it is a conspicuously poor usage, for that music, with all its resplendent wonders, is deeply rooted in and in continuity with medieval musical traditions stretching back to the 12th century. If the Renaissance is to be identified with a rebirth, and especially a rebirth drawn from Greek and Roman sources, then there is little of the Renaissance about polyphony.

But there is a Renaissance music nonetheless; we call it opera. The Venetian musicians who created it did it quite explicitly in an effort to revive the musical effects — if not the music itself, which was lost beyond recovery — described in Greco-Roman literary sources. They aimed for a form of heightened, expressive speech, and indeed this is one of the first things to strike a modern listener to these early operas. The Baroque bifurcation of opera into alternating recitative and arias had yet to happen; in Monteverdi’s day it was, more or less, all recitative: a declamatory style, respecting the rhythms of speech, with the music intended to heighten the rhetorical power of the words.

To get a feeling for what I mean, let’s hear some of it. The clips below are all taken from a splendid DVD production led by Jordi Savall. Here is the opening instrumental toccata, a brilliant flourish that sets a stately tone for what follows (listen to the first 2 minutes or so):

This is followed by a prologue in which the spirit of music — Orpheus’ muse, of course — sets the stage:

Singing with my golden Lyre, I like
To charm, now and then, mortal ears,
And in such a fashion that I make their souls aspire more
For the resounding harmony of the lyre of Heaven.

Hence desire spurs me to tell you of ORFEO:
Of ORFEO who tamed wild beasts with his song
And made Hades answer his prayers,
To the immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon

Early in Act II Orfeo sings Vi ricorda, ò bosch’ombrosi (Do you remember, O shady groves), in which he tells of his love for Euridice, who has turned all his sorrow into joy. This is one of the most tuneful sections of the opera; the clip has English subtitles:

But this happy scene is not to last. No sooner has Orfeo proclaimed his joy than a messenger arrives bearing ill tidings: Euridice, walking in a flowery meadow, was bitten suddenly by a snake:

Then we all, appalled and sorrowed,
Gathered around her, trying to call back
The spirits that grew faint in her,
With fresh water and with powerful charms,
But to no avail, ah alas,
For she opened her failing eyes a little,
And calling you, ORFEO,
After a deep sigh,
She died in these arms; and I was left,
My heart filled with pity and horror.

This is a long clip, but a wonderful one for the way in which it illustrates all the strengths of Monteverdi’s art: its sensitive word-setting, its emotional power, its smooth integration of solos and choruses, and its musical beauty. It starts with the entry of the messenger and continues to the end of Act II. English subtitles included:

We all know what happens next: Orfeo descends into the underworld to retrieve Euridice, but, turning back to look at her just as he leads her out, thereby loses her forever. The tragic ending is brightened, or spoiled, according to taste, in Monteverdi’s version, for as Orfeo laments Apollo descends and upbraids him for his tears, offering to take him to heaven. The offer once accepted, they ascend, and a final chorus sings a joyful song:

So goes one who does not retreat
At the call of the eternal light,
So he obtains grace in heaven
Who down here has braved Hell
And he who sows in sorrow
Reaps the fruit of all grace.

I don’t know the opera well enough to have a strong view on whether this finale mars what is, in my imagination, an inherently tragic story that ought to have the courage of its convictions. But I do know that L’Orfeo is a landmark in the history of Western music, and that time spent getting to know it cannot be wasted.


Easter Sunday, 2015

April 4, 2015

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter to one and all!


A poem for Elizabeth

April 1, 2015

Lines written to a young girl
born before April Fool’s Day

When March went out a lion or a lamb,
And you came in, a lamb or lioness
(For which you were, when in the cot or pram,
I do not know although I partly guess),
They gave you that strong name, with other mercies,
Especially no doubt to suit my verses.

My verses, which were then, as you are, young,
More numerous than now and even worse,
But then were things less glorious to be sung,
And several things more damnable to curse;
And so in rhymes I now find crude and scrappy,
I kicked the pessimists to make them happy.

Thank Heaven you missed, and men need tell you not,
What tosh was talked when you were very small,
When Decadence, which is the French for Rot,
Turned life to an irreverent funeral.
The leaden night of that long peace is dead
And we have seen the daybreak, very red.

England, unbroken of the evil kings,
Whose line is breaking in the breaking snow,
Open your ways to large and laughing things
And the young peace be with you where you go,
And far on that new spire, new sprung in space,
St. Michael of the morning give you grace.

The Spring is with us, whose new-made election
Leaps in the beeches that baptised our Field,
Walks in the woods the ways of resurrection
In a new world washed in the wind and healed;
Young as your ancient name, more strong than death,
Strength of the House of God, Elizabeth.

— G.K. Chesterton, March 1916.

 (Cross-posted at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)


Psalm

March 24, 2015

There are certain passages of Scripture that have become permanently associated with a particular piece of music. I cannot hear the phrase “For unto us a child is born” without hearing Handel’s music dancing beneath it.

The Psalm at today’s Mass is another example. Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee”. I can never hear it without hearing Purcell’s poignant 8-part setting:


Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

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Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

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In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

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Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

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Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

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The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

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Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

**

Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

**

Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

**

The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

**

I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

**

As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

**

I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

**

Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

**

What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

**

Next time: the 1990s.


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