Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Thomas: Why Bob Dylan Matters

October 10, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
(Dey Street, 2017)
368 p.

Book publishers know their business, and no doubt the title of this book will succeed in drawing readers. It worked for me, and it is apropos: certainly the author believes that Bob Dylan does matter. But a more informative title might have been Dylan and Greco-Roman Poetry, or even Intertextuality as a Literary Device in the Works of Bob Dylan. But books bearing such titles might remain on the shelf, unread, and that would be a shame.

The principal argument of the book is that Dylan’s penchant for drawing on traditional songs in his own songs — a practice well established and recognized as part of his art — has expanded, especially in the last two decades, to an engagement with the poets of classical antiquity, and especially with Ovid, Virgil, and Homer. It’s a startling claim on first blush, perhaps, but Thomas makes a convincing case, and he knows whereof he speaks: he is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard, an accomplished Virgilian, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. (In a fit of distraction, I wondered if, given his interest in popular music, he might prefer to be George Martin Penny Lane Professor?)

The evidence comes from the last three collections of original songs: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012). This in itself makes the book interesting and valuable; it is the only book on Dylan of which I am aware (though, admittedly, there are many that have escaped my notice) that focuses principally on this period.

Thomas first suspected that Dylan might be taking an interest in the classics when he heard “Lonesome Day Blues”, from “Love and Theft”, in which one of the stanzas is:

“I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud”

which reminded him of a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Virgil writes:

“Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare the defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
(Aeneid, Bk VI)

It can’t be a coincidence, and it was intriguing enough that he began listening to the new songs with ears open to further allusions to classical poetry. These efforts were bountifully rewarded with Modern Times. By his estimation, the songs on that record make over 30 references to the exile poems of Ovid. And on the most recent record, Tempest, Thomas finds numerous references to passages in Homer’s Odyssey woven into the fabric of the songs. The same record has a song, “Early Roman Kings”, that leans toward making an interest in antiquity overt.

Given this evidence, a few questions arise. One, perhaps, is a doubt: is it possible that, on the principle that one wielding a hammer sees nails, a classics professor might hear echoes of antique poets that are not really there? If there were but one or two examples, this doubt might be worth entertaining, but having reviewed the evidence Thomas provides, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that Dylan is actually doing this.

Indeed, among the most interesting aspects of the book is Thomas’ further argument that this interest in antiquity is not new for Dylan. The evidence extends beyond the texts of his songs. For instance, we learn that back in Hibbing, MN, when young Dylan was still Robert Zimmermann, he was a member of his school’s Latin Club, and in 1963, on his first trip to Europe to play for the BBC, he afterwards took a flight to Rome, where he stayed for a few days, plausible evidence that he had a special interest in the city. There is even an early, unofficial song called “Goin’ Back to Rome” (in which, winsomely, Dylan contrives to rhyme “Colosseum” with “always see ’em”).

There is not much evidence from Dylan’s early and middle career that he was thinking of things Greek or Roman. We have “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which is set in Rome, and Thomas informs us that in draft “Changing of the Guards” has a stanza that seems to have Virgil’s famous fourth Eclogue in mind, but beyond that the pickings are slim.

Yet, consistent with the book’s overall thesis, the evidence picks up since 2000. Dylan has chosen Rome as the site for a number of major press conferences in these years and, even more interesting, the playlists for his concerts in the city have differed radically from those he played in other cities. There does seem to be something special about the place for him. The image on the cover of Tempest is of a statue of Minerva; this same statue is on stage with Dylan on his recent tours. In interviews he has hinted that his most recent work might be rooted further back in history than the folk traditions of American music that everyone associates with him, making references to “the ten hundreds”, or times when “people had only one name”. As always with Dylan, his interviews are elliptical performances, very much part of a cat-and-mouse game with the reporters and fans, and hard to interpret, but it is plausible, at least, that he might be dropping clues for those who have ears to hear.

The bigger question is: why is he doing this? The first part of an answer has to be that, in a sense, this is nothing new for him. His songs have always been in conversation with the folk tradition, with the blues, and with the Bible; fragments of old songs have been worked into his own songs from the beginning. This is an act of creative appropriation of the tradition. We don’t think of his songs as pastiches because he has made these sources his own, and his own artistic voice can be heard through them. A good recent example is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, which, as Thomas makes clear, is a veritable tapestry of references to Woody Guthrie songs and old folk songs collected by Alan Lomax, yet the result is a powerfully unified original song. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In these songs, Dylan steals.

So, granted that he has an established history of creatively stealing from other sources, why has he begun to steal from the Greco-Roman poets? Here, I think, any answer has to be tentative. Perhaps, as Thomas argues, the exile poems of Ovid that pervade the songs on Modern Times appeal to Dylan because he feels himself to be in exile in the world, cut off by his celebrity and his itinerant life from normal relationships and a home. Likewise, perhaps the Odyssey is important to him because he, too, travels the world with nowhere to rest. Perhaps. Or perhaps it is simply that, having spent his life writing verse and song, he has felt an attraction to returning to the original sources of the poetic tradition within which he has worked. In any case, I find it heartening to think that Dylan is grappling with the legacy of these poets, absorbing and transmuting them through his own distinctive artistic pursuits.

I have said that Thomas is a distinguished classicist, and evidently he is also an avid Dylanologist. The great danger to such enthusiasts, that uncritical acclaim I call Dylanitis, is occasionally in evidence, as when he describes Dylan’s widely panned film Masked and Anonymous as “hugely underrated”. But, on the other hand, people who don’t love Dylan don’t write books about him, so we simply keep a few grains of salt on hand, and take one when, for instance, we read that Dylan compares with Eliot in his genius for appropriating the Western tradition.

There is plenty of backward and forward in the book’s argument, which is not presented as neatly as I’ve tried to make it here, and not all of the book’s contents are straightforwardly related to its thesis. At times Thomas pursues a particular line of inquiry at a length beyond what would be perfectly judicious by classical standards. At a few points the book’s argument seems to circle back on itself, with the same evidence coming up again. The result is a book that feels a bit of a jumble, but a jumble of good things. There is a fascinating section, for instance, on the wonderful song “Highlands”, which is obviously in conversation with Robert Burns, but also, Thomas argues, with Dylan’s own “Tangled Up in Blue”. There is an excellent analysis of Dylan’s “autobiography” Chronicles, Vol.1, which, following Clinton Heylin, Thomas considers to be a cunningly constructed blend of truth and fiction, and there is a very good discussion of Dylan’s Nobel speech (which, given the attention it pays to Odysseus, could also be marshalled as evidence of Dylan’s interest in the classics).

When I picked up the book I thought I would simply glance through it, but once I began reading I became interested in the argument, and was happy to read the whole thing. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it has convinced me to listen again to the most recent albums, which, with the exception of Time Out of Mind, I have not loved. I approach them now with fresh ears.

*

For an envoi, here is the song that sparked this line of thinking: “Lonesome Day Blues”.

Meanwhile, elsewhere

October 26, 2017

A few recent items that might be of wider interest:

  • The next volume in Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” is scheduled for a November issue. Trouble No More, the thirteenth volume in the series, will treat Dylan’s “Gospel period” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Gospel records are not among my favourites, but there is likely to be some good, previously unreleased material in this set. In fact, we know there is, because we can listen to “Making a Liar Out of Me”, which is pretty fabulous by just about any measure.
  • David Bentley Hart has had, I think, 4 books published in the past year. There were three collections of essays on various subjects, and his translation of the New Testament appeared this week. I am indifferent to the Bible translation; I’m sure it will be interesting, and controversial (on account of the “pitilessly literal” course he set himself), but another Bible translation is likely to just sink beneath the flood of Bible translations. I’d prefer to have fewer translations than more, and this project strikes me as an unfortunate distraction for a man whose talents are so prodigious. Anyway, all that aside, there was a nice essay by Brad East at the LA Review of Books about his recent essay collections, and I highly recommend it. Hart also delivered a good lecture at Fordham on the topic “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies”, very much worth hearing.
  • At City Journal, Heather Mac Donald takes a critical look at the idea of “unconscious bias”. A good and instructive read.
  • Following up on the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2017, which was for the discovery, a few years ago, of a black hole collision using gravitational waves, the same technique has now been used to discover a collision of neutron stars. Physicists were able to identify the direction from which the space-time ripples were coming with sufficient precision for optical telescopes to turn and see the electromagnetic radiation from the collision as well. Amazing. This happened in August, but I was on holiday and missed it.
  • Everybody knows that Stradivarius made the best violins, right? Right? A group of French and American researchers asked several renowned violin soloists to blind-test modern violins against old Italian instruments, including a few by Stradivarius. The result: they could not reliably distinguish the old from the new, and they generally preferred the sound of the new.  Adding insult to injury, a follow-up study of audience perceptions found that they, too, could not reliably tell the difference between old and new, but generally preferred the newer instruments. How to fittingly bid farewell to the beloved myth of the Stradivari? Here is the Tokyo String Quartet, all playing Stradivari instruments, performing Barber’s sad Adagio:

Way over yonder

June 16, 2017

A few interesting items I’ve stumbled upon in the last few weeks:

  • When Mother Teresa was canonized last year, I missed this superb reflection on her life by Fr George Rutler, who knew her personally. “The canonization of Teresa of Calcutta gives the kind of satisfaction that comes from having your mother declared Mother of the Year.” It’s a quite beautiful tribute to her and her significance for the rest of us.
  • Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture finally appeared, and it’s well worth a listen (or, if you must, a read). Fr Schall has interesting things to say about it, both for better and worse, although I think he underestimates the degree to which Dylan’s body of work has a transcendent dimension.
  • Speaking of Dylan, one of the best things I’ve read about him since he won the Nobel last year is this essay by Carl Eric Scott, published in Modern Age. Scott selects “To Ramona” as one of Dylan’s most underrated songs, a judgement with which I heartily agree.
  • At City Journal, John Tierney writes about something we don’t hear much about: the left-wing war on science.
  • Ben Blatt has written a book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, in which he subjects famous works of literature to statistical analyses. It prompted one of the most enjoyable scathing reviews that I’ve seen in a long while, from Matthew Walther: “Never, I think, has a purported piece of “literary criticism” been so disconnected from literature and non-suggestive of all the things that might, and very frequently do, induce people to read.” The review was so withering that I actually got the book, just to see how bad it was. It’s tremendously bad.
  • In the midst of a stew of troubles, Anthony Esolen wrote a graceful critique of illiberal habits of education. It was an elegant farewell note to Providence College.
  • And finally, from New Criterion, a very interesting biographical essay about Fr Reginald Foster, an American priest who was for many years the Vatican’s chief Latinist.

For an envoi, here is Bob Dylan singing “To Ramona”, live in Manchester in 1965:

Dylan wins the Nobel Prize

October 13, 2016

I am delighted by the news today that Bob Dylan, my long-time pop-music pole star, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead of entering into speculations about whether a tune-smith really deserves to be so honoured, let’s enjoy the moment. Many happy returns!

**

I’ve written a lot about Dylan over the years. A list of posts should pop up if this link is clicked.

The wind began to howl

August 8, 2016

Here is an informative exploration of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which is surely one of his greatest songs:

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)

Pop music odyssey: the finale

April 20, 2016

At long last, about two years and 235 albums after it began, my pop music odyssey has come to an end. Rejoice!

This leg of the journey was the longest, covering the years from 2000-2016, and it consisted of 13 albums by Neil Young, 10 by Van Morrison, 6 each by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and 4 by Leonard Cohen.

During the 2000s (the actual 2000s, not this rehearsal of them) my interests had migrated away from popular music toward classical, and in consequence many of the records I’ve been listening to over these past few months have been new to me. There have been some really nice discoveries, Tom Waits’ Real Gone especially.

Having said that, it is also fair to say that the level of inspiration among my chosen few has been ebbing away during these years. There were few outright bad records, but there were quite an armful of mediocre ones, and it has been rather difficult to come up with a list of ten favourite albums.

Nonetheless, a tradition is a tradition, so let me propose the following list, arranged more or less in descending order:

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012)
Tom Waits – Orphans (2006)
Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (2008)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (2006)

Ten New Songs I consider to be one of Leonard Cohen’s best records, and maybe the only downright masterpiece on this list. Sonically it is quite spectacular, especially by his rather lacklustre standards, and the songwriting is consistently excellent. Van Morrison’s Down the Road is uneven, but it has a few real corkers on it and I love to put it on. Orphans was a 3-disc set of unreleased songs, fragments, and experiments, and it too is uneven, but gloriously so. Waits had all these songs lying around, and he went back into the studio to record them all afresh in his late, Cerberusian style, so there is a sonic consistency throughout even though the songs were written over the course of decades. It’s fun to try to guess which period each dates from. Dylan’s records in this period have been critically lauded, but for me they lean too much on the blues, and I’ve put them onto the list more or less in order to fill it up. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

**

It’s easier to come up with a list of ten favourite songs, and even to put them in rough descending order:

Dylan — “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times)
Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs)
Morrison — “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” (Down the Road)
Cohen — “Come Healing” (Old Ideas)
Waits — “Down There By The Train” (Orphans)
Cohen — “You Got Me Singing” (Popular Problems)
Morrison — “Once a Day” (Pay the Devil)
Waits — “Alice” (Alice)
Cohen — “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs)
Dylan — “Cross the Green Mountain” (Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan’s lawyers prevent me linking to his songs, which is a pity.

**

Odyssey MVP

At the outset I assumed that the MVP would be Bob Dylan. He’s my pop music pole star, and I built the odyssey around his music. But, here at the finish line, I’m inclined to give the palm to Van Morrison. He never reached the colossal heights that Dylan reached in the mid-1960s, but, then again, neither did anybody else, including Dylan over the subsequent decades. And Van Morrison never really had a bad patch; he’s been consistently good-to-great for decades.

And, by the phonebook test (“Who would you most want to hear sing the phonebook?”), it’s Van Morrison by a country mile.

I hereby name him the Odyssey MVP.

**

As a way of wrapping things up, let me point out a few examples of cross-referencing: instances in which one subject of the odyssey makes reference to another. There weren’t many that I noticed, but there were a few.

  • On A Letter Home, Neil Young covers Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.
  • In the song “Twisted Road” (from Psychedelic Pill) Neil Young sings about hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
  • On “Highlands” (from Time Out of Mind) Bob Dylan sings about “listening to Neil Young” (and everybody shouts at him to “turn it down”).
  • Bob Dylan and Van Morrison recorded a session of duets together.

So it would seem that it’s been mostly Young and Dylan trading cards.

**

This has a been a really rewarding project, and in a sense I’m sad to see it end. In another sense I’m glad, because I’m ready to move on to something else.

I’ve been mulling over a few other possible projects that I might start: Mahler symphonies (again), Schubert lieder (actually, I’m already doing this one), fifteenth-century music, Mozart’s operas, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Any suggestions?

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Favourites of 2015: Popular music

December 29, 2015

This year almost all of my popular music listening was devoted to that on-going pop music odyssey, and I didn’t go out of my way to listen to a lot of new records. In other words, to the extent that there was any good popular music this year, I probably don’t know about it. As such, you might wish to stop reading now.

***

dylan-shadowsIt was a good year to be a Bob Dylan fan. Early in the year he released Shadows in the Night, a disc devoted to covering songs associated with Frank Sinatra. If that seems like an intriguing combination to you, and if you’re keen to transmute a voice of gold into a voice of lead, you’re not alone: it received good reviews. I confess it is not really my thing. Sinatra’s music is a big blind spot for me, and Shadows in the Night hasn’t convinced me to rush to change that. I think of this record as a minor side-project, rather like (though not nearly so loveable as) his Christmas album.

dylan-cuttingNo, the really exciting Dylan record this year was The Bootleg Series, Vol.12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66, a set of studio outtakes from the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Popular music doesn’t get any better than those three records, and exploring these alternate versions and previously unreleased songs has been a thrill. The Cutting Edge has been issued in a 2-disc sampler version, a 6-disc “deluxe” edition (which is the one I have), and, if you can believe it, an 18-disc collector’s edition. Included in the set are a long-rumoured but heretofore unreleased electric version of “Desolation Row”, a full-band version of “Mr Tambourine Man”, a superb acoustic “She Belongs To Me” taken as a gentle andante, and many other delights. One disc is devoted entirely to outtakes of “Like A Rolling Stone”. There are even a few songs (some fragmentary) in this set that I’d never heard before: “Jet Pilot”, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, “California”, “Medicine Sunday”, and “Lunatic Princess”. One of Dylan’s most famous unreleased songs — and, I am tempted to say, one of his best — is “She’s Your Lover Now”, a version of which appeared on the very first Bootleg Series issue back in the 1990s, but on this set we get a handful of other takes, some of them quite different. For years it has been an entertaining parlour game to try to complete the stanza in which the previously-released recording faltered and broke down:

Your mouth used to be so naked,
Your eyes used to be so blue,
Your hurts used to be so nameless,
And your tears used to be so few.
Now your mouth cries wolf
While…

While what?! On The Cutting Edge we finally find out how it ends. And if you’ve ever dreamed about what it would have been like to eavesdrop on Dylan as he first strummed out one of his masterpieces, the very last track in this set, a quarter-hour long, tentative first airing of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, will be a dream come true, as it was for me.

To move from Dylan circa 1966 to anything else is inevitably to make a precipitous decline, but let’s look around and see what else came my way this year.

sufjan-carrie-lowellSufjan Stevens returned with Carrie & Lowell. After pulling out all the musical stops on his previous record, The Age of Adz, here he retreats to a quiet, dark corner to pluck out a collection of intimate songs about memory, family, and death — the record was written, I believe, following the death of his mother. It is a difficult record, thematically, though sprinkled with moments of grace here and there, and all that pain is transmuted into a quiet beauty by the simple arrangements and gentle melodies. When I first heard the record I did find it disappointing, not because of the spare sound (which I generally prefer to something more ambitious), but because the songs sounded too much alike. On further acquaintance, however, I withdraw this objection, and the record has been growing on me. And if I want to cleanse my pallet at record’s end with something more jovial, I can always take a ride on the “Christmas Unicorn”.

**

fullbright-songsIt is fitting that John Fullbright’s sophomore record (from 2014) is called, simply, Songs; he is a young songwriter of considerable gifts. Blessed with a nicely-rounded baritone, an instinct for good melodies, and enough heartbreak and melancholy to satisfy even the most exacting critic, he comes across as a genuine artistic force to be reckoned with. Most of these songs, influenced variously by the blues and the classic American songbook, are on the quiet side, with acoustic guitars and pianos in the foreground, though a few tracks do get the full band treatment. There is an intensity and a modesty — nothing too flashy — about his songwriting that I admire, and I’m going to be keeping an eye on him in the future.

**

The biggest disappointment of my year was unquestionably Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind. The first disappointment was that there was to be a third Mumford & Sons record at all; as much as I’d enjoyed their previous work — and I had — it was, and is, my view that Mumford would do better if he disinherited his Sons. Nonetheless, if there must be a third record, I was keen to hear it. I bought it. I listened to it, once, and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it again for the next six months. Nearly all that had made them distinctive and interesting was thrown overboard in favour of amped-up stadium rock of the kind you can hear any hour of any day on your local Bland FM station. I could hardly believe my ears. What possessed them to do this, I don’t know — though I $uppo$e I can think of $ome po$$ible rea$on$. Late in the year I have returned to Wilder Mind to give it another chance, and I will say that it’s not quite as bad as I had initially thought. There are some catchy tunes, and a couple of the songs I rather like (“The Wolf” and “Only Love”, principally). But there’s no denying that it’s still a big disappointment.

**

adams-1989Perhaps the oddest release of the year was Ryan Adams’ 1989, a track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. He says he became interested in what it would sound like if Nebraska-era Springsteen were to sing Swift’s songs, and so he decided to find out himself — and a very creditable imitation he does too. Now, I am one of those who think that Nebraska-era Springsteen could sing any old dreck and it would sound pretty terrific, and Adams’ 1989 vindicates me to a considerable extent. Some of the songs succeed better than others, naturally. In any case, Adams is one of those singers whom you can’t help but respect: he’s been toiling away in the indie rock world for years now, famously prolific, but never hitting the big time. I can only imagine that this little project, in addition to being an interesting experiment, will do wonders for his bottom line, and I hope so.

**

Children’s Music: Let me put in a good word for Justin Roberts, who has a respectable stack of children’s records under his belt, but whom we just discovered this year. It was his Pop Fly record that we found first, after I heard it described as “the Sgt Pepper of children’s albums”. We all enjoyed it tremendously. From there we got Jungle Gym, and then Meltdown!, and with each new record my appreciation of his talents has grown. roberts-pop-flyHe writes songs that the kids can relate to: songs about field trips, having a broken arm, getting lost in a store, playing in a treehouse, playing baseball, crossing the street, having an imaginary friend, going to bed, liking trucks, riding a bike, getting a new baby sister, having a birthday, and that sort of thing. He has a wonderful way with words too; if your typical pop music songsmith was half as witty the world would be a better place. What really sets him apart, however, is the quality of his music: the melodies are catchy and the arrangements are often impressively intricate. It’s rare to hear this level of craftsmanship from a children’s entertainer. So: Justin Roberts, thank you for a good year; our van singing would not be the same without you.

**

Other good records I heard: Josh Garrels, Home; Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks; Andrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn; David Ramirez, Fables; The Innocence Mission, Hello, I Feel The Same; Robby Hecht, Robby Hecht.

Songs, Both Ear-Worms and Things More Substantial: Sinead O’Connor: “Take Me To Church”; Tim McGraw: “Losin’ You”; John Fullbright: “All That You Know”; Lee Ann Womack: “Chances Are”; Justin Roberts, “Fruit Jar”; Robby Hecht, “The Sea and the Shore”; The Collection, “Scala Naturae”; Ashley Monroe, “Has Anybody Ever Told You”; Jason Isbell, “Flagship”, Josh Garrels, “At The Table”.

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 Amazon.com. 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: