Showing posts with label Bob Dylan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bob Dylan. Show all posts

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Murder Most Foul

Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan

When a major talent turns in work which is disappointing or substandard or just plain ridiculous, some people respond with undisguised glee. The false idol has shown is true colours. The admired writing was a con trick: we now see him for what he truly is.

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, more than one person murmured “wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup” and stroked their beards, as if they had successfully spotted what everyone else had missed. But no-one sensible expects an artist to always write in the same idiom, or at the same artistic pitch. Take You Riding In My Car, Car does not refute This Land Is My Land. It is not especially funny that a man who is very good at writing tunes should write the kinds of tunes he has been asked to write: the Frog Chorus this week and Liverpool Oratorio the next.

But it does hurts when a man does the very thing you love him for and does it badly.

Bob Dylan moved on from protest songs and folk music somewhere around 1968. If you are still sad about that, then by all means find a dark corner somewhere and shout “Judas” to yourself. His subsequent career has been full of stream of consciousness and free association. There are songs which are long sequences of disconnected imagery; songs which play with language; songs where the sounds of the words take over completely from any possible meaning.

I read an interesting discussion recently by some admirers of Mark Rothko [check this]: one of the abstract artists who covered canvasses with blocks of colour. They spoke of going to art galleries and spending hours staring at a single painting; of wishing they had the thousands of pounds it would cost to have an original on their own wall so they could look at it all day. I understood, for the first time that this kind of art works differently from other kinds of abstract and non representative art. You don’t look at it and admire it. You stare at it and get lost in it.

This is very much what I was describing when I said that Visions of Johanna contained everything that there is to know about everything. Of course I can’t tell you where the museum was or why infinity was being put on trial there. But the song triggers a psycho-spiritual response.

Of course, Dylan can be silly. A song called Angelina describes a woman who dances to the music of a concertina, and who the singer will seek out in either Jerusalem or Argentina. By the time she is been observed in an arena while a judge is issuing a subpoena, you start to think that maybe Bob is slightly taking the piss. But perhaps this is just how he writes; this doodling with sound and meaning. The goddess with the body of a woman well endowed and the body of a hyena comes from the same place as the woman with the cowboy mouth and the warehouse eyes. The sublime and the ridiculous are never that far apart.

Dylan was once asked what his songs were about, and he replied that some of them were about three minutes, some of them were about five minutes, and that he was working on some which were about eight or nine minutes. Murder Most Foul is about twenty minutes. Dylan clearly regards length and repetition as a sign of high seriousness. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall is a list of mythological images: a room full of men with their hammers a bleeding; a young woman who gave him a rainbow. They don’t have anything to do with each other; but they sum up Dylan’s apocalyptic frame of mind in October 1962. The great Desolation Row does the same kind of thing: it’s a sequence of vivid images of fairy tale and legendary characters, mixed up and in the wrong context. They don’t interact or connect in any way; but cumulatively they create a powerful sense of hopelessness and, well, desolation. The late, remarkable Highlands doesn’t even get as far as surrealism: it’s a stream of consciousness, an account of trivia set to a washed out rhythm. The game seems to be to see how long it is possible to stretch nothing out for:

I’m in Boston town in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Or maybe I do but I'm just really not sure
Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her
Well it must be a holiday, there's nobody around
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs

Murder Most Foul is ingeniously long. It is full of surreal dream imagery and playful use of language. It hovers on the border between the silly and serious. It cumulatively builds up a mood. And it is clearly about a subject — the murder of John F. Kennedy — which had a profound effect on everyone of Dylan’s generation. So why does it fall so very flat as a song?

It has no structure; no narrative; no sense that the imagery is building towards a climax or indeed a point. It doesn’t tell the story of November 22 1963 and its aftermath. Kennedy is shot in the first stanza. We are told several more times that he was shot. There are a series of increasingly vague and cryptic declarations about the event.

They day they shot him someone said to me, Son
the age of the anti-Christ has only just begun

The second half of the song is a list of 50 song titles, with no obvious connection to the matter at hand.

play Another One Bites the dust
play The Old Rugged Cross and In God we trust

As Bob spends the last eight minutes running through a dream play list for Theme Time Radio Hour, even the most devoted fans must be crying “please, please, make it stop.”

Seven months before the death of J.F.K Bob Dylan famously delivered a beat-style eulogy to a still-living American icon. Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie is delivered very quickly, in a naive sounding monotone, as if Young Bob is blurting out someone else’s text. You have scarcely heard one breathless image before he goes on to the next one.

and your sky cries water and your drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashing and the thunder's a-crashin'
And the windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops a-shakin'...

If Murder Most Foul had been delivered at this pace, it might have been an altogether less agonising experience. Read quickly off the page, some of the stanzas have a compelling, hallucinogenic weirdness. But Bob has chosen to chant it, slowly, in a kind of plainsong, with a piano, a drum, and sometimes a fiddle providing a mournful but melody free background. This isn’t a young man saying “I wrote a poem? Will you indulge me while I read it?” It is an old man presenting a song which, after nearly twenty minutes, doesn’t seem to have got started. And we have plenty of time to attend to each painfully slow couplet; each obvious comment; each irrelevant image.

Dylan’s singing has always tended towards the whiney; and for the last 25 years his live act has involved bizarre vocal and melodic reinventions of famous songs. Audiences are several lines into “howwwwww manyroadsmusta MAN. walkdown” before they spot what he’s singing. The tendency to deliver the lines of Murder Most Foul as a drawl give the impression (unintentional, I am sure) that he is not taking the song quite seriously. “Murder most foul (as in the best it is)” is a quote from Hamlet, but its such a cliche that it seems to trivialise the material — as if it were the title of a penny dreadful or whodunnit. Particularly when it is drawn out as “murreder moooooooooost fow-el.”

There is some merit in describing a horrible event in brutal, frank terms. But this song fetishises Kennedy’s body, with a particular emphasis on head wounds, while at the same time drifting into trivial language. We recoil, not from what was done, but from the callous way it is being described.

“they blew off his head while he was still in the car”

“the day they blew out the brains of the king”

“they mutilated his body they took out his brain”

Oh for that writer who 50 years ago wrote (of the murder of Emmet Tell) “they tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat.”

A poem built on strong AA BB end rhymes always risks turning into doggerel. We expect the rhyme; we predict the rhyme; and if the rhyming words resonate with different pitches of emotion, the effect is often unintentionally comic. Goodness gracious don’t you know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo.

Ride the Pink Horse down that Long, Lonesome Road
Stand there and wait for his head to explode

It is supposed to be shocking, but there is something childish, almost Pythonesque about the use of the word “explode” in that context. Too often, we feel that the rhyme is driving the sense: that the second part of a couplet is pure nonsense to get us to the rhyme word.

Wolfman oh wolfman oh wolfman howl,
Rub a dub dub this is murder most foul.

The wolfman has come from nowhere to set up the fowl/howl rhyme: the nursery jingle is there because Bob has four syllables to get rid of. Surely if you want to get the word “howl” into a poem about JFK you should be looking at Alan Ginsberg or King Lear?

Play it for the Reverend, play it for the Pastor
Play it for the dog that’s got no master.

The dog that’s got no master has nothing to do with the case. It’s hard not to think of William McGonogal; or more specifically with those deeply felt obituaries you get in local papers. (“how you died was really rotten / but you will never be forgotten”)

The poem is driven by these aural and semantic associations, not by any kind of logic. Lee Harvey Oswald famously claimed to be “a patsy” — a scapegoat, someone who has been forced to take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit. And Patsy Kline was a famous country singer who died six months before Kennedy. But the line:

I’m just a patsy like Patsy Kline
I never shot anyone from in front or behind

literally has no meaning. An arbitrary association between two words has occurred to the writer, and he has dropped it into the song without doing anything with it.

Poetry is allowed to make connections between different words. That’s one of the things poems do. But either the reader has to say “I never saw that connection before, but now I do” or else the writer has to say “let me cleverly show you how thistles are like Vikings or how frost is like an invading army.” “Have you ever noticed that the slang term for victim is also a girl’s name?” hardly qualifies as an idea.

Something could possibly have been done with the fact that the road the motorcade was on when the shot was fired was called “Elm Street”. (I didn’t know that. Did you know that?) But presented as the punch line of a forced rhyming couplet, it simply evokes a groan:

In the red light district like a cop on the beat
Living through a Nightmare on Elm Street.

Alan Moore quotes Dylan extensively in Watchmen; Dylan songs are used to open and close the movie adaptation of the graphic novel. Alan Moore believes that writing and ritual magic are about forging connections: and that once a writer has said that two things are connected, they are — and this may change the meaning of both of them. Watchmen is, of course, driven by endless segues — where a small object or word or colour in scene A is also present in scene B. Perhaps Dylan thinks he is performing an incantation of that kind.

Bob Dylan is neither writing factually about President Kennedy, as he was about Joey Gallo or Rubin Carter. But neither does he transform him into symbolic figure, as he arguably does with John Lennon. We hear that he was shot, and that he was shot in a car; and we hear a huge swirl of bitter emotional imagery, suggesting that on the one hand his death was fated and preordained, but that on the other, it was the result of some kind of miscarriage of justice or betrayal. The historical Kennedy was killed by an individual assassin: Dylan keeps talking about a non-specific “they” who did the deed. There is already a fair body of exegesis by Dylanologists who are keen to claim that Bob support the Kennedy conspiracy theory of their choice.

On his last album, Dylan presented the sinking of the Titanic as a metaphor about the end of the world: the ship is somehow a microcosm of the apocalypse. Good or bad, that is an idea. Murder Most Foul seems to contain no idea. Kennedy was killed by non specific dark forces; everyone was sad; and every pop record before or since was in some respect mourning him. Desolation Row and Hard Rain give shape to a mood. Murder Most Foul conveys nothing but burned out ennui.

I know, of course, what the response to this piece will be. A few people will say that until I have a Nobel Prize For Literature I have no right to sit in judgement over the great Robert Zimmerman. And others will point out that there are lines in Dylan’s more highly regarded works that are guilty of the same sins as the lines I quote here.

So I should restate my thesis. I hate this song because I love Bob Dylan. It is painful to listen to because the very same devices and techniques which Dylan has used elsewhere to great effect fall flat and misfire. Murder Most Foul is not merely a bad song by Bob Dylan: it is a bad Bob Dylan song.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order.

I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

I'll know my song well before I start singing

Bob Dylan
Cardiff Arena
Oct 13 2011

Everything you've heard is wrong. Literally, everything. Any rulebooks you have lying around. Tear them up.

A lot of people (including me) have, over the years, talked a lot of rot about The Almighty Bob's current performance style. (And by "current" we mean "what he's been doing for the last 20 years".) You know the jokes. Sits with back to audience. Growls though the songs. Can't hear the words. Third verse of Blowin' in the Wind before we worked out what he was singing

None of its true. None of it. Not. One. Word.

I can't think of the last time I saw a performer who was so obviously having fun on the stage. This is a man of 70 who has performed on five out of the last seven nights. He doesn't need the money: the only possible reason for being on stage is that he likes it. That's why you are never going to hear a greatest hits set: he keeps himself fresh by playing a different selection of songs each night and – as explained at some length in Chronicles – by deconstructing the songs, using a system of rhythmic improvisation which allows him to re-invent them in each performance.

Reviews of Dylan gigs tend to bifurcate; a smattering saying that this is the best they've ever heard Bob sing; a thundering consensus that he's an old has-been and should hang up his guitar; a hint of anger that he's 70 rather than 17.

Well there's an explanation for that, isn't there?

The Cardiff arena was a standing venue; we arrived at 5.30 and made straight for the front when the doors opened; a mere 2 hours investment of time resulted in a position not more than 20 feet from a the stage. We could see ever detail of Bob's performance.

And its an astonishingly nuanced, detailed, joyous performance. I hadn't realised what a small man he is. What incredibly spindly legs he has. The band are in sharp grey suits with hats. The guitarist almost seems to be emulating the clothes of his Bobness, like a hassidic Jew. Bob is in a crumpled suit; with a white mafiosi hat. Before long sweat is pouring off the rim. It's like he's saying that he's just some hobo who seems to have wandered up onto the stage and is going to sing us some songs. He does Leopardskin Pillbox Hat standing at the keyboard, but after only one number, he comes to the front and does the mighty Shooting Star in front of the mic and stays there for the next half-dozen songs. He even dances a little; a sort of delicate mincing wiggle. The audience applauds him when he stand up; when he starts playing the harmonica. They applaud him when he gets his cable tangled in the mic stand.

He still pulls the words of the songs apart and puts them back together again in an off putting way. (Remembers how, on Theme Time, he could sometimes lose himself in the pronunciation of very long words, particularly place names. His whole acts is like that.) He still does that thing where whole lines and stanzas vanish into staccato rhythm: "Some! Bod! Y! Said! From! The! By! Bul! He'd! Quote!.....there was dussssssssst on the maaaaaaann in the loonnnnnnng black cloak?" With a tentative, questioning rise on the last word, as he grins at the audience, big wide eyes flashing from underneath the hat brim, as if he'd just delivered the punch line of a good joke. It's in those elongated vowels that he sounds most like Dylan. The dark goth-noir atmosphere of Man in the Long Black Cloak gets lost in the performance, but the poetry (it really is poetry) still speaks.

And yeah, maybe it's jarring if you haven't heard it before. Hard Rain (official greatest song ever written by a human being, from a short list of half a dozen) is initially unrecognisable, not because you can't hear the words – I swear I heard every word, even of the songs I frankly didn't know like High Water – but because the Dalek-style delivery is so weird that I found myself thinking "hmm.....don't know this there a Dylan song which involves asking questions to a blue-eyed boy?" But it forces you to attend to every word, to follow him through the labyrinth of imagery as if you've never heard it before. There's a sense of release and climax when we finally get to "and-I'll-KNOW-my-song-WELL-before-I-start-singingggggg".

I'll know my song well.... There is applause. He does. We do.

It would have been too absurd for him to talk in between the songs. I really can't conceive of him saying "Hello Cardiff. Thank you for turning out tonight. Here's a song from my latest album." But it's just such a plain lie to say that he doesn't connect with the audience. Every smile, wink, grin, tip of the hat – every time he taps he left hand on his thigh in rhythm with his harp, every time he continues to beat out a rhythm on the keyboard with one hand while half dancing with his spare leg – makes a connection. There's an elation here that makes me feel he's happier than he's ever been; that the addled gravelly bluesman dancing his way through old numbers is the person he's always wanted to be. There's a deliberately rough edged tin pan alley feel to the band; as if he wants us to feel that we're sitting in on a jam session or knocking back the Jack Daniels at an informal hootenanny. He's more comfortable with the newer songs, certainly: there's detail and nuance in Trying To Get To Heaven Before They Close the Door and Things Have Changed which rather slips away when he gets back to the keyboard for the Highway 61 Revisited. 

Bristol's foremost citizen folk journalist wondered if there was an irony in that wink – a sense that he's been told we want to hear those old songs, so he's humouring us, putting them in quotation marks? I wondered if  the whole slightly mannered body language saying "You want me to be a performing monkey, and I tell you what – I'm happy being a performing monkey." Is this a legend who simply refuses to be an icon?

Did we catch him on an exceptionally good day? Bob did a full length set – he noticed that the young lady had a brand new leopard skin pill box hat at 9PM and didn't finish wondering how it felt to be on your own with no direction home until well after 10.30. Which makes me wonder where the idea of the Mark Knopfler support set came from? I wonder if His Bobness doubts his ability to do a full set every night, and is doing a double-handed tour so that the audience aren't short changed if he has an off day? Has he got some system of resting his voice between gigs so that he's been cured of the  "How mmmm mmm mmmm man mmmm down" syndrome? Or was the sound mix simply better in Cardiff than it was when I heard him in Sheffield a couple of years back? There were a couple of numbers (Summer Nights, in particular) where the band went into a completely over the top freak out mode but Bob's voice never seemed to disappear into that improvised back yard racket?

Or has it actually always been like this? Have those of us lucky enough to get somewhere near the front always felt that we've made a connection with a vibrant, fun and instantly likable rock and roll personality – but anyone further back felt they'd heard some quite interesting reworkings of mostly obscure Dylan songs? (Anyone who doesn't know his catalogue inside out is going to be lost, of course.) Which makes his insistence that there can't be any screens seems all the more perverse. Assuming that the never ending tour is never going to end, one almost wishes he could give up on stadia and limit himself to smaller venues, however much harder it might become to get tickets.

Is this tour, or some tour, being filmed as a documentary? I overwhelming feel that this Dylan, the live Dylan, the showman Dylan who uses his voice as a musical instrument, one component in what is a actually a consummate piece of musical theater is the real Dylan, the one Robert Zimmerman has always wanted to be, and it needs to be preserved for posterity.

Noble prize for literature, indeed.

Monday, October 03, 2011

I Lied

"It seems very pretty", said Alice when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!...Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate--"  

A "man" is an adult human male. The word "man" is still sometimes used to mean "human being", although some people think it shouldn't be.

A "bar" is a place which sells alcoholic drinks. In English English, "bar" is to "pub" as "boat" is to "ship": you can put a bar in a pub but you can't put a pub in a bar. In American English "bar" is more likely to refer to the whole establishment, not just the counter where the drinks are served. (This discrepancy also applies to other facilities, incidentally. If you ask an Englishman "Where is the toilet?" he will probably reply "Upstairs, first on the left." If you ask the same question to an American, he is more likely to reply "In the bathroom; where else would it be?")

To "go" is a verb denoting movement from one place to another. At one time it meant "walk": Lear's fool says that when everything is in the proper order "going will be done with feet". At another time, the normal word for walk was "wend" as in "The Plowman homeward wends his weary way". For some reason the different tenses of the words got mixed so you say "I go" in the present tense but "I went" in the past tense.

So: there is nothing at all hard about defining the words "man" "bar" and "go".

But put them together in the sentence "A man goes into a bar...." and they cease to have anything to do with a human male walking into an establishment licensed for the sale of intoxicating drinks. If I say "a man goes into a bar..." I am saying "Please don't pay any attention to the logic or plausibility of the story I'm about to tell you: please don't ask me whether it's at all likely that barmen really have genies in magic bottles or whether health and safety officers would allow you on to premises where food is sold if you really did have a duck on your head." In fact, "man goes into a bar" means "I am about to point out a possible ambiguity in the English language which may not have occurred to you before", or, in short, "I am about to tell you a joke".

The really clever puns are the ones which exploit a genuine ambiguity in language, or at least a double meaning that could occur in real life. It will be remembered that when Oscar Wilde boasted that he could think of a joke about any subject, someone proposed "The Queen". Quick as a flash, Oscar replied "The Queen is not a subject." That's quite a complicated wordplay, because the two senses of the word "subject" – a citizen of a monarchy and a topic for conversation – are distantly related; and because the two meanings of Oscar's sentence both make perfect sense in context: the joke is that he's used the same words to give two different reasons for not telling a joke. C.S Lewis's joke about the vicar who goes to the local girls' school drama society's production of A Midsummer Nights Dream and finds himself saying "Well, I've never seen a female Bottom before!" is much less clever, but it is based on a mistake that someone could just possibly make in real life. On the other hand, there's no linguistic or semantic significance behind the fact that "I'm afraid not" sounds like "I'm a frayed knot": it's pure linguistic coincidence, and it's pretty hard to imagine that it could ever give rise to a misunderstanding. But the similarity of sound somehow becomes funny -- but not very funny -- if you embed it in a story about how three pieces of string went into a bar and ordered a drink. [*] We laugh at the pun just because it is a pun: it wouldn't occur to us to say "A peice of string went into a bar? What kind of gibberish is that? How could a piece of string possibly consume alcohol, since they have no mouths? Can they become intoxicated? Do they use the gentlemen's toilet or the lady's one? Is there a ghetto in the town where all the pieces of string live, or are these recent immigrants from piece-of-string land?" It's almost like, once we've spotted that two phrases sound the same, we create a story-shaped collection of words around them. The moment I noticed that the phrase "Piece of cod" sounded a little like "Peace of God" then the picture of a rather confused little vicar in a chip shop jumped into my head. I just couldn't stop it.

Admittedly, some people do insist on taking this kind of non-story literally. "Suppose you and I were in a restaurant..." you say, hoping to illustrate a point about good manners, or safe food handling, or English consumer law. "But why would I be in a restaurant with you?" they reply "I hardly know you. And anyway, I'm a vegan and you're not, I don't think we'd like the same kind of food. And on my salary, how can I afford to eat out?" I really wish they wouldn't.

Some people, possibly the same people, are also confused by the whole idea of fantasy. They think that "fantasy" really means "mistake": that you read Watership Down because you were under the impression that rabbits really do have human personalities, and once they have set you straight on this point, you won't need to read the book any longer. "But Japan didn't win the second world war," they point out, calmly, "And phone boxes can't travel through time and sapce. And we shouldn't teach children about Cinderella, because they idea that a pumpkin could spontaneously evolve into something complex like a coach goes against the whole idea of natural selection." (In fairness there are other other people who are equally confused by the whole idea of there being books which are not fantasy. "But there really are lots of poor people living miserable lives in dingy bedsits" they say "So why on earth would anyone want to make up a story about one of them?")

Curiously, the anti-fantasy brigade think it is perfectly okay for mainstream writers to steal fantasy elements and use them as plot devices. Shakespeare writes mostly about things which don't exist -- magic islands, ghosts, witches, wizards, fairies, identical twins, the divine right of kings, true love -- but that doesn't mean he's not a realistic writer, okay?  And it is quite permissable for whichever Bronte it was to use thought transferance as feeble deus ex machina at the end of Jane Eyre.

Some of those people who don't get fantasy, oddly, admire the works of Richard Wagner. Some of them believe, correctly, that Parsifal is the best thing that Wagner, and therefore anybody, ever wrote, but also believe, wrongly, that you can detatch the musical form from the mythological and philosphical content and still be left with a great work. Parsifal, they say, isn't really about retrieving the holy spear from the wizard Klingsor in order to heal the wounded grail king -- it and it certainly isn't about Buddhist ideas of renunciation and attatchment, whatever the libretto might say. It isn't actually about anything at all: it's a sublime and sophisticated collection of musical notes, which follow an internal pattern and logic. Close your eyes, ignore the actors in suits of armour and the surtitles, and just listen to noie. The phrase "tone poem" turns up a good deal. 

I understand that some music really does works like this. I get that Mr Beethoven's symphonies aren't about anything, except the way in which you can go "dit-dit-dit-DAH" slowly, twice; and then quickly three times; and then quickly three times again; and slowly slowly twice, and carry on that like for an a hour and a half. And very pretty it is too. The big deep "dit-dit-dit-DAH" at the beginning makes us feel sad; and the great big "dah-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah-di-dah" at the end makes us feel happy. But asking "what are we happy about" would be like asking where the man in the pub found the duck that he had on its head . The music isn't about anything apart from the music. It may not be a coincidence that the opera which lends itself best to this approach is the one I like least. Tristan and Isolde is, it seems, at least as much about whether it is possible to avoid resolving a chord for five hours as about whether anyone could really be stupid enough to order "love potion" when what they really wanted was "poison".

Last year, when we were young, we talked about Mr Bob Dylan, and wondered whether it was a mistake to read the lyrics of his songs as coherent narratives, or even as coherent language. We agreed that there was very little point in wondering in what sense the lady in question was "jelly-faced", where she had lost her knees, and what might be done to help her find them again. We decided that a line like "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" probably derived its emotional effect from sound and rhythm, and that no amount of looking up the words "ghost" and "electricty" in the dictionary, let alone the close questioning of Bob Dylan, would allow the words to have a meaning in the way that "I am sitting in the cafe drinking coffee and typing" arguably have a meaning. We went so far as to speculate that the song is really chanting words: "ghost... electrictiy... howls... bones....face" and all the little words like "the" and "of" are just there to glue it together into something which looks a bit like a sentence, but actually, isn't. We decided, in short that a Dylan lyric is more like a Beethoven symphony than a Wagner opera.

Are all poems and songs like that? The question "who were these two ladies, Johanna and Louise, and why was Bob thinking of one while cuddling the other" is literally meaningless, like "what did the piece of string do after it had left the bar". But surely, if we asked "Who was the artistic lady with the interfering sister who Bob had the romantic tiff with" then all the Dylanologists would reply "Suzie Rotolo". I think that we can all agree that there exists such a lady, that Bob did date her for a while, and the song Ballad in Plain D was written after this love affair had come to an end. (I believe that Bob even said later that it had been a little caddish of him to have written a poem about a break up and put it in the public domain.)

But I am not sure how far this takes us. I don't think that the point of Ballad in Plain D is that it convery inforamtion -- information which we could equally well get out of a biography or a gossip column. I care as much about Dylan's love life as I do about the love life of any other elderly gentleman who I have never met. But I do like the song; quite a lot, actually. I grant that it is less abstract that "Visions of Johanna", but I don't think that I would get much further analyzing "with unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip a magnficent mantlipiece though its heart being chipped" than "the one with the moustaches says "jeez, I can't find my knees'." I think that the point of those kinds of lines is that they are cryptic and ambiguous, and that it is the puzzle-like quality of the lines, not any solution that we may come up with, which gives them their affect. I concede that the song has a narrative like form, but at the end, I think that our feelings are very much like Alice's: "Well, somebody left someone over something -- that's clear, at any rate." I think that the opening line "I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze" mean "This is the first line of a romantic folk-song" in the same way that "Twas brilling, brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wove wabe" means "this is is the first line of an epic poem" and "Man goes into a bar" means "This is the first line of a joke". I don't think that any discussion of the etymolgy of "toves", or whether Bob was specially attracted to sun-tanned women, and whether fawns are in fact well-known for being innocent, or whether pieces of strings can get into bars without having legs can possibly make the line mean anything else. I think that the line about the mantlepiece sounds like the sort of thing an angsty self-important lover might say in a song, without telling us anything about mantlepieces. I think that the point of the closing lines: 

My friends in the prison the ask unto me
How good, how good does it feel to free
And I answer them most mysteriously
Are birds free of the chains of the skyway

mean "this is the last line of a romantic folksong." They mean "I want you to feel that I feel the same kind of maudlin, self-important self pity as the anonymous singer who wrote:"

My friends friends they ask unto me

How many strawberries grow in the salt sea
And I answer them with a tear in my eye

How many ships sail in the forest?


They mean "I am the sort of man who is so up himself that he quotes old English ballads when describing actual breakups."

The last time I said all this, a dissenting voice said that it was all very well to do this kind of thing to lyric poems and romantic ballads, but it didn't work nearly as well with, say, Star Wars because Stars Wars is, well, a story. 

But I'm not quite sure....

[*] "I suppose you are also a piece of string" said the barman. "No" replied the piece of string "I'm afraid not."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

12: The Return (III)

III: Mercury

I don't really think that Bob Dylan lyrics are impervious to analysis.

I think that Visions of Johanna works as a lyric because Dylan has chosen to put particular words next to other words. Those words – their sounds, their meanings, the way other writers have used them – affect the listener in particular ways. If he had chosen different words, the words would effect us differently.

I don't think that you can decode the songs and say what they mean. I don't think that Bob set out to tell a naturalistic story about how he was once in bed with a prostitute named Louise but was all the time thinking about a former girlfriend named Johanna, but decided, for some reason, to present the story in the form of a riddle. I don't think that Mr T.S Eliot wrote a story about a bank clerk who felt depressed after the First World War and / or the Quest for the Holy Grail and decided, for some reason, to present the story in the form of a cryptic crossword clue. (It is at least arguable that Mr Don Mclean did set out to write about the history of American pop music since 1959 but chose to present it under a series of oblique symbols, which is why Visions of Johanna is a work of genius and American Pie is a quite good pop song.)

I think that Dylan's poetry is driven by sound, not meaning; and by association of images; not logical or narrative structure.

I think that the only possible answer to the question "Why can't the jelly-faced woman find her knees?" is "Because freeze rhymes with knees."

I think that this is a very risky strategy for a lyricist to adopt. We can just about see why Bob's girlfriend Angelina made him want to listen to the music of the concertina and that she looks like a goddess with the head of a hyena, but when she turns out to be the most beautiful woman between here and Argentina and Judges start issuing subpoenas, we are inclined to think that a certain amount of the piss is being taken. (Which may have been why Dylan didn't release "Angelina", of course.)

I think that it is very hard to write convincing gibberish. Dylan comes up with lines like "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" which appear to make sense, but don't. If you or I tried it, we would write "Skin yourself alive, learn to speak Arapaho / Climb inside a dog, and behead an Eskimo" which makes the wrong kind of sense and is therefore funny, but not very

I do not think that any logical process connects "Outside the museum, infinity goes up on trial" with "Voices echo: this is what salvation must be like after a while" and "Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles". I do think that the strong rhymes make us look for, and therefore find, the non-existent connections. 

I think, but only tentatively, that the words ghost, electricity, howls, bones, face are best thought of as an unconnected series of images and sounds, and the words "the" "in" and "of" are there to lull us into thinking that they must make some kind of sense.

I don't think that if we attend to them in the right spirit, possibly under the influence of Freud or illegal substances, we will be able to discern the secret language of Dylan's imagery, in which "Johanna = Buddy Holly", "Louise = Your Mum" and "Country Music = The Oedipus Complex."

I think that as soon as our mind is confronted with a sequence of words, images or sentences, it starts to look for connections between them, tries to find a way for them to mean something, tries, as 'puter geeks would say, to "parse" them.

I think that lyrics of this kind drive a wedge between words and the meanings of words. 

I think that lyrics of this kind put us in a state of mind where we feel that words don't just mean one thing, but lots of things. When Bob tells us that "Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule" we find that we can't make the words attach themselves to anything so they flap around in our heads until they find something to latch on to. 

I think that this induces a state of mind in which all sorts of interesting idea and emotions which Bob himself didn't and couldn't know about, leap into our head. 

I think this is probably what Mr William Wordsworth meant about the vernal brook

I think that once we have spotted that this is how Visions of Johanna and I Am the Walrus Work, it becomes scarily possible that this is how Moby Dick and Rom: Spaceknight and The House at Pooh Corner work, as well. And Star Wars. Especially Star Wars. 

Mr C.S. Lewis thought that it was silly to pretend Hamlet was a real person, and then try to explain is behaviour realistically. He thought it made more sense to look at the actual words which Shakespeare gave the actor to speak, and to consider how those words generate a particular kind of ambiguity whereby everybody who reads Hamlet creates their own Hamlet in their heads but truly believes that he found that Hamlet, and only that Hamlet, in the poem.

If the doors of perception were opened every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

The question to ask about a poem is not "what does it mean" but "how does it mean"? I said that.


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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you've made will never buy back your soul.

Bob Dylan 'Masters of War'

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TEENAGER (armed with MP3 phone): What do you fink of this song?

ME: Oooo, if it isn't Bob Dylan, I probably wont like it.

TEENAGER: Bob who?

ME: Oh, come on, you must have heard of Bob Dylan...

TEENAGER: Is he from the 80s?

ME: A bit before that, actually.

TEENAGER: Before the 80s....!!?? But you can't be that old!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Well. That was much the best movie in which Lady Galadriel pretends to be Bob Dylan that I've seen this week.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nice Things (4)

1: Wagner, Gotterdamerung, Act III Scene 2 "Brunnhilde, heilige Braut"/funeral march

2: Wagner, Die Walkure, Act III Scene 1 "Fort denn eile, nach Osten gerwandt..."

3: Bob Dylan,"When the Ship Comes In."

4: Lennon-McCartney "I Am the Walrus."

5: Woody Guthrie: "Grand Coulee Dam"

6: Loesser, "Luck Be A Lady"

7: Boublil/Schoenbeg "Javert's Suicide"

8: Mike Batt "Remember You're a Womble."

Record: Wagner, Gotterdamerung

Book: The Silmarillion

Luxury: Teapot, tea, kettle, cow. Tea making facilities

Thursday, April 19, 2007