It’s an historic moment. It’s the first time a songwriter has won the prize, and, as expected, there has been a counterblast in the form of high-pitched, orotund murmur-beef from both the literary conservatives, as well as one Irvine Welsh who said ”I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Here’s a contrast: while writers like Irvine Welsh publish one astounding masterpiece and end up peddling the same formula (in his case: what I would call the ‘post-post-punk-modernist-seamy-druggy-arty-shocking’ post-80’s acclaimed literature cliché) half-successfully and to consistent, mild enthusiastic acclaim, Bob Dylan has created albums that have been regarded as among the greatest works of popular music, but most importantly, awful albums that have elicited headline remarks such as Greil Marcus’ blunt, gunshot ‘What is this shit?‘. Ironically it is this inherent inconsistency and flaw in Bob Dylan’s work that has made him as vital, exciting and genuine today as he has been for the last fifty years.
However, this comparison could be redundant, as everyone should accept that there is an essential difference between writers and songwriters; the poem and the song, the novel and the album. I choose to end with the truest piece of writing ever published about rock ‘n’ roll and popular music in general from (guess it) Mr. Robert Christgau: ”I love rock and roll because, unlike literature, it’s not caught in the cerebral, self-referential, and ultimately defeatist cul-de-sac of highbrow modernism. Physical and popular, it points the way out of (or at least waves at) a cultural dilemma in which only prodigious feats of deep feeling can achieve the political and economic equality the world depends on.” If ever there were a Nobel Prize for Music, it is by this ending criteria that it should be judged. Maybe this is what Bob deserves.
''Makes some men crazy and then they act like fools
Makes some men crazy, and then they start to drool
It's a crass and raucous crackass place
It's a plague upon the the human race
It's a terrible illness, it's a terrible case
And it's usually permanent when it takes place''
- Little Feat
There’s a unique sensation that really loud, evil rock ‘n’ roll gives you. I believe the truly great rock ‘n’ roll will give you something similar to a shot of adrenaline that almost tips you over the edge; an ignition of something in your body that is joyously primal, and ignorant and far away from the stiff science of your brain, or a sweaty, glorious ‘f*ck off’ to anything and everything. Here’s the first of three records in a series that give me that release and them some: The New York Dolls’ 1973 debut album.
This kind of music, unlike how many romantic journalists make it out to be, was not some virtuous reaction to ‘classic rock’s excesses’ (see the life and times of Iggy Pop for proof). It was a reaction to their beloved rock ‘n’ roll culture becoming the ownership of California softies like Jackson Browne and the Eagles (see Barney Hoskyns’ book ‘Hotel California for the dirt). In other words: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll had gone from being the ideology of angsty youths to being the secretive excesses of the 30-something year-olds who wrote ‘You Make Loving Fun’. The New York Dolls were not ‘punk’, because punk is primarily political: England’s punk revolution was not sparked by disgust at Fleetwood Mac, but by The Winter of Discontent, unemployment levels, Margaret Thatcher, and so on. This album is rock music but played with the levels of speed and energy normally expected of punk. That don’t make it proto-punk, though.
I imagine these Manhattan brats were actually reasonably intellectual once the lipstick was off (lead singer David Johansen later formed a lounge jazz/calypso band…). That doesn’t matter: In performance, they take sleaze to levels the Stones had bad trips about. Acting like Jerry Lee Lewis is one thing, but dressing up as Jerry Lee Lewis’ most perverted nightmare is pure rock ‘n’ roll in its most wicked, urban form, and I love it.
Next time: The Clash’s 1977 debut cracker. Here’s a taster: