Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Pop music odyssey: the 1990s

October 27, 2015

It’s time for another checkpoint on my pop music odyssey. It has taken quite a few months for me to navigate this stretch, but here I am, safe and sound. This portion of the odyssey has included 12 records from Van Morrison, 8 from Neil Young, 6 from Bob Dylan, 5 from Tom Waits, 3 from Mark Heard, and just 1 (but a good one!) from Leonard Cohen. I also threw in a sampling of 3 records by Nick Cave (Let Love In, Murder Ballads, and The Boatman’s Call).

By the end of the 1990s, my companions on this pop music odyssey were getting on in years: Dylan was in his late 50s, Van Morrison and Neil Young were both 55, Tom Waits had reached 50, and Leonard Cohen was in his mid-60s. One might think that their creativity and ambition would be in decline, rock and roll being a young man’s game, and in some cases that expectation is born out. But all of them released at least one pretty great album in the 1990s, and a few of them were doing work at least as good as what had come before.

In fact, the music these men made in the 1990s is particularly close to my heart. I myself was 15 years old in 1990, and it was during this decade that I discovered each of these singers for the first time. The years 1991-92, in particular, are a kind of golden dream in my personal history of music appreciation: it was in those years that Van Morrison made Hymns to the Silence, Mark Heard made Second Hand, Tom Waits made Bone Machine and Leonard Cohen made The Future, and beyond the borders of this odyssey they were the years of great records from U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Lyle Lovett, Sting, Crowded House, and Pearl Jam. For me all of these records have an aura of wonder around them. I know their nooks and crannies. I honestly can’t say if they are as good as I think they are; I can only hear them with my 17-year old ears, and they sound pretty darn terrific.


Not that there wasn’t some dross in the mix. Dylan launched his first LP of the decade with a contender for his very worst song (viz. “Wiggle Wiggle”), and his subsequent two records, on which he sang folk standards, were critically well-received but have never done anything for me. It seemed possible that Oh Mercy, in 1989, was to be his last hurrah. But then in 1997 he released Time Out of Mind, which is to my mind his best record since Blood on the Tracks, and, as it turned out, a record which inaugurated a bona fide late-career renaissance that continues, arguably, to this very day. In any case, I’ve loved Time Out of Mind since I first heard Dylan croak out the first line of “Love Sick”: I’m walking through streets that are dead. We understand implicitly that it was his voice that killed everything. Daniel Lanois, for all that he has been criticized for making all the records he produced sound the same, at least managed to get Dylan to record songs with arrangements and texture, something that was too often missing from the blunt-force approach to production that he used through much of the 1970s and 1980s. And “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” rank with the very best of the Dylan songbook.


Neil Young had ended the 1980s on a high note, with Freedom, and he opened the new decade with the same raucous noise (only more so). Later in the decade he would team up with Pearl Jam on some blistering rock and roll records. But my favourite records of the decade are the quiet ones: Harvest Moon in 1992 and Sleeps with Angels in 1994, the later being the mildest mannered Crazy Horse album on record, and one of the high points in Young’s discography, a record of rough-hewn beauty, even if it lacks any particularly great individual songs. As is often the case with Young, the sound is more entrancing than the substance.


The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
And then lay down, stone cold,
In forgotten fields.

Well, I doubt that one of the best poets would write about mouths laying down, but, still, these lines of his come to mind when I think about Mark Heard, who passed away suddenly in 1992, and who was, I’ll wager, the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. As I said last time, he made three truly outstanding records in the early 1990s, of which the second, called Second Hand, is his masterpiece, and one of my all-time favourite albums. It’s a sort of miracle and a sort of tragedy that an album this intimate and desperate and honest found its way into the world through the “contemporary Christian music” portal; a miracle because the piety of the record, though very real, is not expressed in comfortable or comforting ways, and a tragedy because it didn’t find the audience it deserved. The music is stripped down to a few acoustic instruments, and Heard’s ragged tenor was never captured in better form. Indispensable.


Leonard Cohen released only one record in the 1990s: The Future. Despite its hokey instrumentation — it sounds as though it was made with one of those $50 electronic keyboards from Radio Shack — it contains some of his most ambitious songwriting, and he is in glorious sepultural voice. It is fair to say, I think, that it is the most political record he has made, for it contains two epic songs on broadly political and cultural themes (“The Future” and “Democracy”), and though I am normally averse to politics in song I don’t tire of these ones. “Closing Time”, his bouncy apocalyptic number, was a pretty big hit, and I have a very distinct memory of hearing these lines on the radio: “So we struggle and we stagger / Down the snakes and up the ladders / To the tower where the blessed hours chime”. Not much to look at when set down on paper, I suppose, but to my inexperienced teenaged ears, those lines convinced me that popular song could, in the right hands, aspire to be something like art. I don’t remember if I was already listening to Dylan and Waits at that point, but my encounter with Leonard Cohen’s The Future certainly catalyzed my interest in the craft of songwriting.


If I’m not mistaken, Hymns to the Silence was the first Van Morrison record that I really got to know. I can still remember reading the review, by Brian Quincy Newcomb, and thinking that I needed to find a way to hear it. It was not at all a bad entry point into Van’s music. The gauzy veil that had hung over much of his music in the 1980s was blown away on this record; everything was crisp and clear, and he was firing on most cylinders. Of course, being a sprawling double album it does have its share of sub-standard material, but they are the exception not the rule, and there are a handful of outstanding numbers. There is even a flute on a few tracks. (It is strange but true that Van Morrison only puts a flute on his very best songs; this is a fool-proof crutch for critics.) And the record contains my favourite rendition of a hymn by a pop music singer: he sings “Be Thou My Vision”.


It has been said that Tom Waits writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. The two have never worked together to better effect than on Bone Machine, the record that I consider to be his masterpiece. The grand weepers, in “Who Are You?” and “Whistle Down the Wind”, are luxurious, and the grim reapers, in “Black Wings” and “Earth Died Screaming” and “Murder in the Red Barn” (and others! There are a lot of grim reapers on this record.), have never been more deliciously grim. And in “A Little Rain” he managed to combine the two kinds of song into one. It’s a terrific, terrific record — but too scary for the kids. (Still not as scary as Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.)


Favourite cover songs: Van Morrison singing Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Hymns to the Silence); Dylan covering Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (Good As I Been To You).


Scariest song I’ve ever heard: Nick Cave’s “Song of Joy” (Murder Ballads)


It is easy to come up with a list of ten favourite records for this decade. In rough descending order, I choose as follows:

Mark Heard — Second Hand (1991)
Tom Waits — Bone Machine (1992)
Bob Dylan — Time Out of Mind (1997)
Van Morrison — Hymns to the Silence (1991)
Leonard Cohen — The Future (1992)
Mark Heard — Dry Bones Dance (1990)
Neil Young — Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Mark Heard — Satellite Sky (1992)
Van Morrison — Enlightenment (1990)
Neil Young — Harvest Moon (1992)

The bottom five on that list are good, solid records, but the first five are knock-outs.


As for a list of ten favourite songs, it’s not at all easy to settle, and that because of an abundance of riches. My initial short list had 35 songs, so whittling it down to 10 has been no laughing matter. Nonetheless, here we are:

Van Morrison — “Avalon of the Heart” (Enlightenment)
Bob Dylan — “Not Dark Yet” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Satellite Sky)
Mark Heard — “Look Over Your Shoulder” (Second Hand)
Tom Waits — “A Little Rain” (Bone Machine)
Bob Dylan — “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Lonely Moon” (Second Hand)
Van Morrison — “Take Me Back” (Hymns to the Silence)
Leonard Cohen — “The Future” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Worry Too Much” (Second Hand)

Oh, this is too cruel. Here are another ten:

Van Morrison — “Real Real Gone” (Enlightenment)
Tom Waits — “Whistle Down the Wind” (Bone Machine)
Van Morrison — “I Need Your Kind of Loving” (Hymns to the Silence)
Mark Heard — “Orphans of God” (Satellite Sky)
Bob Dylan — “Highlands” (Time Out of Mind)
Van Morrison — “High Summer” (Back on Top)
Van Morrison — “Hymns to the Silence” (Hymns to the Silence)
Tom Waits — “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine)
Mark Heard — “Nod Over Coffee” (Second Hand)
Leonard Cohen — “Closing Time” (The Future)

There; that’s better. But then there are these songs too:

Van Morrison — “Rough God Goes Riding” (The Healing Game)
Tom Waits — “Black Wings” (Bone Machine)
Leonard Cohen — “Waiting for the Miracle” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “House of Broken Dreams” (Dry Bones Dance)
Tom Waits — “House Where Nobody Lives” (Mule Variations)
Van Morrison — “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (The Healing Game)
Neil Young — “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon)
Leonard Cohen — “Democracy” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Dry Bones Dance” (Dry Bones Dance)
Van Morrison — “Carrying a Torch” (Hymns to the Silence)

Yes. Here is a YouTube playlist of all these songs.


What was the worst of this portion of the odyssey? I can’t say for sure just how bad it is because I’ve never been able to listen to it through, but I’m going to go with Van Morrison’s “In the Days before Rock ‘n Roll” (Enlightenment). I think I’m going to be sick. The worst album has got to be Dylan’s Under the Red Sky (or, under the red sky, if you care about typographical niceties).


I’ve not decided yet if I’ll take the remaining 15 years of the odyssey in one bite or two. Until next time…

All about Bob

October 9, 2015

Chronicles, Vol.1dylan-chronicles
Bob Dylan
(Simon & Schuster, 2004)
293 p.

Revolution in the Air
The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-73
Clinton Heylin
(Chicago Press, 2009)
496 p.

Still on the Road
The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006
Clinton Heylin
(Chicago Review, 2010)
544 p.

As a supplement to my ongoing pop music odyssey, which, if I recall correctly, is focused around the discography of Bob Dylan, I thought that I would dig out this first (and, so far, only) volume of his autobiography. I’d meant to read it years ago, but somehow never got to it. Well, I enjoyed it thoroughly, needless to say. I would enjoy reading Bob Dylan’s laundry receipts, and the book is a good deal better than that.

A peculiarity is that the story he tells skips over the two periods in his career which have attracted the most attention: those years in the mid-1960s when he made that string of brilliant records from Freewheelin’ up through John Wesley Harding, and his Gospel period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he tossed out his songbook and, for a time, sang only about Jesus. Of this latter period we hear nary a peep in the book, and the former period is alluded to only in a passing reference to his later songwriting difficulties (“I couldn’t get to those kinds of songs … To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough.”).

Instead, Dylan writes about growing up in Minnesota, his early days in New York City prior to his first record contract, his personal and professional challenges in the early 1970s, and the recording sessions for Oh Mercy in the late 1980s. It’s a strange selection that must have raised a few eyebrows at the publisher’s house. If one wanted to write about Dylan while studiously avoiding writing about Dylan, one could hardly do better.

Still, the book manages to be quite fascinating on its own terms. I learned, for instance, how he got from his real name to his stage name: Robert Zimmermann -> Robert Allen (from his middle name) -> Robert Allyn -> Robert Dylan (after Dylan Thomas) -> Bobby Dylan -> Bob Dylan. And while of course I knew the importance of Woody Guthrie during his early years, I did not know that the great bluesman Robert Johnson was also a decisive influence — that is, assuming that such claims are actually true; with Dylan, one is never quite certain that the narrative is free and clear of bluff.

Among the most interesting sections of the book, for me, are those which relate the troubles that beset him in the early 70s: a kind of artistic impasse, writer’s block, and the plague of fame. He confirms what I have long maintained: that casting him as the “voice of the generation” leading the cultural revolution in the 1960s was a misapprehension of his true character and ambitions. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” he writes. “I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.” And, sounding just a bit like the sage despite himself: “Privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.”

He then goes on to claim that his four or five subsequent records — widely regarded as including some of his worst music — were a calculated effort to throw off the mantle that he had been made to bear. It’s worth quoting him at length on this point:

My house was being battered, ravens constantly croaking ill omens at our door. What kind of alchemy, I wondered, could create a perfume that would make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent and apathetic? I wanted to get some. I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots. Liberty for myself and my loved ones had to be secured. I had no time to kill and I didn’t like what was being thrown at me. This main meal of garbage had to be mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.

I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little. Coming back I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and housebroken. The music press didn’t know what to make of it. I used a different voice, too. People scratched their heads. I started a rumor with my record company that I would be quitting music and going to college, the Rhode Island School of Design–which eventually leaked out to the columnists. “He won’t last a month,” some people said. Journalists began asking in print, “Whatever happened to the old him?” They could go to hell, too. Stories were printed about me trying to find myself, that I was on some eternal search, that I was suffering some kind of internal torment. It all sounded good to me. I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too. I missed out on Woodstock–just wasn’t there. Altamont–sympathy for the devil–missed that, too. Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories–critics thought it was autobiographical–that was fine.

The references here are to Nashville Skyline (“a country-western record”), Self-Portrait (“whatever stuck”), and New Morning (“everything that didn’t stick”). The last remark, which can only be an allusion to Blood on the Tracks, I take to be one of the more brazen examples of bluff within these pages.


Alongside Chronicles, the Dylan thread of my pop music odyssey has been much enriched by Clinton Heylin’s two hefty volumes about his songs. All of them, you understand, all 600-odd. Heylin, who has written one of the more well-regarded biographies of Dylan (unread by me) and is, I gather, among the more sensible and sober of the (generally slightly mad) Dylanologists, here devotes a page or two (or ten) to every song Dylan is known to have written. I’ve consulted it over and over again as my odyssey has progressed, and I’ve not been disappointed.

Heylin is not much interested in interpreting the songs, and although (given how much time he devotes to his subject) he must be a rather fervent admirer of Dylan, his tone is generally flat and factual: he tells us when and where the songs were recorded, when they were first performed live, sometimes discusses alternate takes or alternate lyrics, discusses the circumstances in which the song was written, and gives an overview of how it has fared in his live sets over the decades. I found the books consistently interesting. (I was genuinely surprised to see the middling reader reviews at Only after reading a few did I realized that jealous nit-picking is evidently a common pastime among your die-hard Dylan enthusiasts. There may be some factual errors in the books, but not enough to allay my enjoyment.) One of the unexpected things I learned from the books is that a large number of Dylan’s songs were not performed live for years, sometimes decades, after they were first recorded and released.

I will say that Heylin seems to grow more intemperate as he nears the end of his survey. It is clear that he dislikes Daniel Lanois’ involvement in Dylan’s record-making (on both Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, which to my mind are his two best records of the past 30 years), and he seems to really dislike Love and Theft. It’s fine to dislike the records, of course, but are they really so much worse than the dross Dylan dribbled out through much of the 1970s and 1980s? Not to my mind. But every man, Heylin included, has his ups and downs, and a little distemper cannot overshadow what is a fine achievement. I’m grateful to have these volumes on my shelf.

Dylan aficionados will have picked up on the fact that the titles of Heylin’s books are taken from phrases in “Tangled Up in Blue”. If, as I fondly hope, Dylan has a long life and dozens of albums still ahead of him, future volumes in this series might well include A Different Point of View: Songs of Bob Dylan, or In the Spotlight so Clear: Songs of Bob Dylan, or perhaps Heading for Another Joint: Songs of Bob Dylan, and even, I suppose, someday, Something Inside of Him Died: Songs of Bob Dylan.

As an envoi, let’s hear a song that I didn’t know about until reading Heylin’s books. This is “Caribbean Wind”, from the Shot of Love sessions. It’s a fantastic song:

Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.

Pop music odyssey: the 1970s

December 11, 2014


Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.


When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.

If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.

But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.

And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.

It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.


Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.


In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.

Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.

I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.


Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:

Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)


Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)

Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.

Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.


There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!


And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.

But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.

Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.


Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.


What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.


A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.


This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.


Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.


And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.

Last piece of gum, Jamaican rum, etc.

March 22, 2014

The comment thread to a recent post brought to my attention Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest rock albums. In the Top 10 one finds both the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and (much the better of the two!) Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Reading through the blurbs about each album, I was surprised to learn that there is a connection between John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” and Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” (which appear, respectively, on the two records in question). Since one of the aims of my pop music odyssey is to explore influences between the singers and songwriters I am following, this seems a good case study.

There are contradictory reports about the direction of influence. Some say that Dylan wrote “Fourth Time Around,” played it for the Beatles, and that Lennon subsequently wrote “Norwegian Wood” as a kind of homage, trying to incorporate aspects of Dylan’s songwriting style. Others say that Lennon wrote “Norwegian Wood” first and that Dylan, hearing it as attempt to ape his style — nobody denies that Lennon wrote it with Dylan very much in mind — wrote “Fourth Time Around” as a rejoinder and, possibly, as a rebuke. Lennon was allegedly left shaken by the final lines of the song (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”), which he took, rightly or wrongly, as directed at him.

Although I don’t know that I’ve had made the connection between these two songs without reading about the background, there are similarities. One of the striking things about “Norwegian Wood,” for instance, is that its meaning is unusually opaque — unusually for the Beatles, that is, who had made their fame on straightforward love songs. Dylan, on the other hand, was the master of opacity at this point in his career, and “Fourth Time Around” is a fine example of his craft. In both songs, despite the occluding surrealism and the missing details, I think we can descry a lovers’ quarrel — much milder in the case of “Norwegian Wood,” but still hinted at (“this bird has flown”). The melodies are even similar, each with a lilting motif that turns back on itself. Dylan’s melody actually seems to move in a circle, fittingly given the title of the song.

Anyway, let’s listen to both songs. Which do you prefer?


Dylan’s studio recordings are hard to find on YouTube; this version of “Fourth Time Around” is from a 1966 concert in London.

Favourites of 2012: Film

December 27, 2012

I didn’t go often to the cinema in 2012, but I did manage to see quite a few films at home. I’ve divided the films below into those which were new — either in theater or on DVD — in 2012, and those which were older but which I saw for the first time this year.

I have said before that I am a film-going dullard, with little innate feel for the medium and a poor acquaintance with its history. This year I made a concerted effort to overcome some of this ignorance by watching a number of “classics”. I saw films by great directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Orsen Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown). I watched classic film noir (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep), classic western (The Searchers), classic romance (Roman Holiday), classic musical (Singin’ in the Rain), and classic horror (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting). I watched adaptations of Shakespeare spanning nearly 80 years of cinema, from the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream up through Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III to Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus. I staged for myself a Woody Allen mini-festival, watching in sequence a sampling of his more highly-regarded films (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris). I saw quirky little films by auteurs (Brian Linklater’s Bernie and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) and massive blockbusters by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and whoever-the-perpetrator-was (The Avengers).

Sad to say, my affinity for films with broadly classic status continued to have low valence. With a few exceptions, noted below, the famous pictures in the list above mostly failed to resonate strongly with me. Naturally I am willing to accept that this is due to my own insensibility. (Although I will say that how anyone could think The Searchers one of the greatest films is beyond my powers of imagination to grasp.)

Unquestionably my favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I saw again on DVD. Since this was also my favourite film of 2011, I will not belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to last year’s list. Next to that magnificent achievement (the film, not my list) the films I am about to discuss appear wan and pale. But if one can forget about Malick for a while, colour begins to seep back into them and they can be enjoyed on their own terms.

To the business at hand!

Recent Films

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterMidnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

I did not have any clear idea of what to expect from Woody Allen’s film about Paris in the 1920s. I knew that it starred Owen Wilson in a lead role, which would normally have led me to give it a wide berth, but the reviews were strong and the film sounded appealing. I had seen only one other of Allen’s films prior to this one — it was Annie Hall — and that many years ago, so even my sense of what a Woody Allen picture is like was hazy. In some sense, that may have been an advantage, for I now see that Midnight in Paris is a fairly atypical Allen film, and in a good way.

It is atypical in that it is genuinely light-hearted, and willing to risk a sense of nostalgic wonder without letting Allen’s besetting vice — hair-trigger self-consciousness — get in the way. It is true that the film eventually comes around to seeing itself as a kind of psychoanalytic-therapy-by-fantasy, but even this is done in such a winsome manner — thanks, in so small degree, to a surprisingly endearing performance by Wilson — that it does not spoil the fun.

The basic premise of the story is that Wilson, a struggling writer on a visit to Paris with his fiancée and her family, is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place that he has always considered “golden”, and where he meets many of his cultural idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. (The Wikipedia page gives a nice run-down of the famous real-life figures who are portrayed on screen. I had hoped for a glimpse of Stravinsky, but I was disappointed. Probably they were unable to find anyone ugly enough to play him convincingly.) He is so enraptured by this experience that he is tempted to remain in the past, but reflection on this temptation leads to his learning a Very Valuable Lesson.

I suppose one could see the film as a kind of progressive’s catechism about the evils of “living in the past”, but it did not play that way to me. The nostalgia, ostensibly denounced in the end, was too sincerely conveyed to be entirely effaced, and even the denunciation was handled with a winking ineptitude that softened the blow. I came away from the film with a spring in my step.

Take_Shelter_posterTake Shelter
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

This is a quiet and spare little film that plays like a realistic domestic drama but turns out to be a fable, or something. The story charts the struggles of a young family in rural America as their husband/father descends slowly into madness, prey to delusions and paranoia and troubled by ominous dreams. It is played unsensationally, and is all the more frightening for it. How would you manage if the one you loved began making poor judgements that gradually imperiled the family’s livelihood and safety? At what point would you realize that something was seriously wrong? How would you broach the subject with him or her? How would this behaviour, and these fears, affect relationships within the family? These questions are all raised by the script, and made compelling by superb performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The third main presence in the film, uncredited, is the sky above the family farm. The film’s range is admittedly limited, more or less striking a sustained note of brooding tension, but it is remarkably effective given its slim means. See it with friends and family and you will be arguing about the film’s ending until well into the night.

The official trailer for the film gives too much away, so here is another, made by a YouTuber named Peter Gergis:


Older Films

double-indemnityDouble Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)

After many more or less failed attempts to learn to appreciate older films (“older” here meaning, say, more than fifty years old), I decided this year to try a different tack: genre films. I hoped that the familiar conventional elements of such films might pave the way for me to some extent. I believe this strategy has worked; at least, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Double Indemnity is considered a classic example of film noir, and with good reason. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was co-written by Billy Wilder and none other than Raymond Chandler. The dialogue is as hard-bitten as one could hope for, and the cinematography, rendered (obviously) in atmospheric black and white, is a perfect match for the story.

It is a crime drama, but the drama derives not from suspense as to who committed the crime — we are told this in the opening scene — nor even as to how the crime was carried out — though it is true that much of the plot is involved with unfolding the (rather implausible) details. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film for his “Great Movies” series, in the end the film’s fascination turns on the character and motives of the two central figures (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck). What do they see in one another? Are they in love, or is one using the other? Why is each willing to trust the other? (Does each trust the other?) What do they really want? And are we, as the audience, expected to sympathize with them, or is the film a dark comedy in which we watch, with a certain satisfaction, as the foolish pave their own path to destruction? You tell me.

This was not the only Billy Wilder film I watched this year. The Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot has a strong reputation, but I much preferred Double Indemnity.

roman-holiday-posterRoman Holiday
(William Wyler, 1953)

What a wonderful surprise! Here we have a charming romance with a winsome lead couple (in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), a spectacular backdrop (Rome, of course, and gloriously so), an intriguing premise, and a bittersweet finish that wrings the heart. Hepburn plays a modern-day princess who, fed up with endless days of official protocols and rigorous scheduling, escapes from her handlers to enjoy an incognito day of adventure in Rome. It is impossible to imagine a modern film observing the decorum and achieving the dignity of this romantic fantasy. The film floats on an air of sweet fun, pointing up at every turn the blessings of the simple life, and it avoids a conventional “Hollywood ending” in favour of a tough-minded, but very right, example of love and sacrifice. Hepburn is marvellous; I hadn’t seen her on screen before, but I am now compiling a list of her other films for future viewing. Would I have liked Roman Holiday as much if it had been filmed in another city? I don’t have to answer that.

the-innocentsThe Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)

It was Martin Scorcese’s praise of this film that attracted me. I have no liking for graphic horror, but this promised to be a quiet, oblique affair with an undercurrent of supernatural tension. The story is about two children who return home from boarding school to take up their studies under a new governess on a large, remote English estate. The children are strange, eerie, and the governess is slowly drawn into a frightening mystery. The film is unusually unsettling, not for anything explicit, for for subtle touches that accumulate. The young girl, in particular, made my hair stand on end: something about her eyes and her voice. To be honest, I had reached a point in the film where, too frightened to continue, I was going to turn it off, when one of the characters spoke a name that I recognized: “Peter Quint”. Relief washed over me: I realized I was watching an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Fortified with new courage — not because James’ story is not scary, but because I knew I was on terrain I had trodden before without lasting damage — I was able to see it through. It’s a good film, with an uncanny atmosphere, recommended to those with a taste for such things.

match-pointMatch Point
(Woody Allen, 2005)

One doesn’t expect a thriller from Woody Allen, and this film, about which I knew nothing prior to watching apart from the general acclaim it had garnered, took me by surprise. It is about a middle-class tennis instructor in London who, by a series of fortunate events, marries into a wealthy family. He then commits an act that imperils both his marriage and his new social status, and to protect himself he goes on to commit even worse acts, desperately trying to keep the consequences at bay. The general set-up is similar in many respects to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (which I watched later), but in my opinion Match Point is much the better of the two.

I admire the film’s ability to make gripping drama out of very ordinary materials. Early in the film four characters meet together for coffee, a meeting such as might happen thousands of times on any given day in a large city. Yet it is from the dynamics of those relationships, and nothing more, that the whole drama of the story unfolds. I also admire the film’s portrayal of the snowball effect of decisions and actions; one evil act contains within it the seed of all that follows, and the effort to cut off that growth only makes things worse and worse. Finally, the plotting of Match Point is superb: the structure, with all of its considerable intricacies and cunning diversions, fits together like clockwork. Allen deserved his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Many commentators on the film have remarked on its cynical ending, and, it is true, one could read it as deeply pessimistic. It is probably intended to be read that way. Nonetheless I think it leaves enough unspoken to permit a more ambiguous interpretation. It is the sort of film for which one’s final interpretation rests to a great extent on how one interprets a facial expression in the closing frames. Quite apart from anything else, I cannot help but admire the craftsmanship of any film that can bring things to such a fine point.


Other films I enjoyed, but not so much as to write about them here:
  • Recent: Argo (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), Drive (2011), Moneyball (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
  • Older: The Way (2010), Ponyo (2008), The Ninth Day (2004), The Thin Red Line (1998), Annie Hall (1977), The Song of Bernadette (1943)


Finally, I’d like to say a few words about two excellent music-related “movies” that I saw this year.

ballet-russesStravinsky and the Ballets Russes records live performances of two of Stravinsky’s early ballets, The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, and The Rite of Spring, from 1913. In this modern production from the St. Petersburg Mariisnky Theatre, they have tried to reproduce the choreography and costumes of the famous original productions in Paris. Now, I am not one to sit contentedly through a ballet, but I found these productions fascinating from start to finish. The Firebird, Stravinsky’s first major commission, comes across as a startlingly beautiful work; it is far easier to appreciate the music’s frequent changes in texture and tempi when one sees the accompanying dances, which (and I can hardly believe I am saying this) are really splendid. The Rite of Spring is another beast altogether. One of the surprising things Richard Taruskin said in his discussion of this piece and its famous premiere in the Oxford History of Western Music is that the riot which accompanied the first performance may well have been in response to the choreography rather than (as is usually supposed) the music. Seeing this performance convinced me that he may well be right: the dancing is crude, formless, chaotic, replacing elegance for violence at every opportunity. It is easy to see why lovers of ballet, which until then had been a genre nearly entirely insulated from the incursions of modernism, would have taken offense. I won’t say that I liked it, but it was very interesting to see, and if you love Stravinsky I would say this is probably essential viewing.

Bob Dylan - The Other Side Of The Mirror  [2007]-frontSecond is The Other Side of the Mirror, which documents Bob Dylan’s famous Newport Folk Festival concerts in 1963, 1964, and 1965. The footage is offered largely without commentary, so this is simply an opportunity to hear and see Dylan during what was perhaps the most artistically fertile period of his life. It is frankly astounding to consider how much he changed in those few years, morphing from the earnest strummer of folk tunes in 1963 to the enigmatic bard of 1965. We also see more of the infamous 1965 electric set than was shown in Scorcese’s No Direction Home (if memory serves). Warmly recommended to those who love Bob Dylan.


Anything I missed? As always, comments are welcome.

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)


Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:


Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22”, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993’s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.


Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

Mama, You Been On My Mind

March 2, 2012

I was all set to write a little something about Dylan’s “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, a song he first recorded during the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions in 1964, but which wasn’t released until the first volume of the Bootleg Series came out in the 1990s. I have no idea why he left it off the record in the first place — he had a sly way of doing that even with songs that rank with his finest work (think “Blind Willie McTell”). It’s a song that didn’t much impress me at first, but my admiration has increased over the years. Today, I would actually take it over almost any of the songs that he did put on that record; “To Ramona” is the exception. It’s a wonderfully complex song about a failed romance, one of those miracles of compression in which Dylan managed to put a world of thought and feeling into a few minutes of popular song.

So anyway, the point of this post was going to be to say that this is a great song, much underrated, and deserving of wider exposure. Then I started looking for a performance of the song on YouTube, and I discovered that it has been covered by luminaries like Joan Baez, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Jack Johnson, and Jeff Buckley, to name just a few. In other words, it’s not all that neglected after all. I’m happy, I really am.

Moreover, Dylan’s own version of the song is not available online, so far as I can tell. (His lawyers have eagle eyes.) But I can’t get away without playing at least one version, so here is my favourite of the covers that I have heard: Jack Johnson’s laid back but groovy account, which comes from the I’m Not There soundtrack. He does something nice with the song toward the end, having it blend into a recitation of a portion of Dylan’s poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”; unfortunately this clip doesn’t include that part. Nonetheless, the strength of the song comes through pretty well here.

Septagenarian Bob

May 24, 2011

Mr. Bob Dylan celebrates his seventieth birthday today. In some respects this is hard to believe — we all remember that young man singing about his girl from the north country, and it comes as a shock to think what time, all of a sudden, has done to him — but in another sense Dylan is coming into his own as he ages, for he has always been an old man in his music, as old as the hills.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bob. May you have many more years.

Original versions of Dylan’s songs are hard to find on sites like YouTube, but here is John Doe covering “Pressing On”, which is from the Saved record.


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