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.
Inspired by a recent post by the Music Enthusiast, (link to his blog here: https://musicenthusiast.net/) I decided to pick out some of my all-time favourite lyrics – some are humorous, some are cynical, some are beautiful, some are pot-induced and all are fantastic. Who says poetry can’t be musical?
Paul Simon: Graceland – Best ever lyric about America?
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war.
Bob Dylan: Tangled Up in Blue – Some sneaky existential relationship metaphors from America’s national bard…
She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
Joni Mitchell: A Case of You – One of the greatest love songs ever written.
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
With your face sketched on it twice.
The Rolling Stones: Rocks Off – How to sum up rock ‘n’ roll in one lyric from the Stones’ ‘fagged out masterpiece’.
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Chasing shadows moonlight mystery.
Headed for the overload,
Splattered on the dirty road,
Kick me like you’ve kicked before,
I can’t even feel the pain no more.
Neil Young: Pocahontas – 1979 Acid Western starring Marlon Brando and Neil Young on a journey through America’s past, present and future. Rolling Stone says ‘Five stars!’.
And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome
and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.
Part of a series where I go through my favourite albums from the 1980s. Maybe this blog is too 60s/70s-centric, so here are the albums that I think do the best to define the aura of that decade; the musical touchstones of the era, if you like: Alternative rock, Indie rock, Jangle pop Post-rock, ‘World music’, and other completely feeble, redundant categories. Here’s Paul Simon’s Graceland:
The origins of this record are wonderfully humble: Paul Simon is listening to a beaten up copied tape of South African ‘Accordion Jive Hits Vol 2’, which piques his curiosity. Showing, naturally, a complete disregard for the ‘Academic Boycott of South Africa‘ during the apartheid era on the glorious basis that it’s all just music anyway (the only universal language), he travels there to record. I suppose if most other western singer-songwriters were asked their reasoning for going to South Africa to record, they’d say something like: ‘I wanted to introduce people to the music of this wonderful culture’. All shrouded in naive western concepts of cultural exoticism. Their lyrics would probably be full of angst about the apartheid (none of their business), acting like a kind of patronising talent agent to the South African musicians, sampling their ‘indigenous musics’, polishing it up and sending it back home to mass popularity. A kind of musical imperialism if you will.
Thank god, then, that Paul Simon comes across like someone utterly bereft of this: no delusions of personal grandeur, nor any obvious literary pretensions. However, he’s confident enough with his own lyrical talent (and rightly so) to write about Elvis Presley’s mansion, talk show hosts, cinematographers, and his (or his characters’) mundance romantic encounters. All of this in an album made of the then-‘exotic’ African sounds. He mythologizes Memphis, Tennessee while his African musicians play music that is distinctly African. Yet it works. Because he’s Paul Simon.
10 Mambazos out of 10
Here are some of the most prophetic lyrics ever written. ‘Staccato signals of constant information’ seems like it’s almost predicting the digital age:
And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
These are the days of miracle and wonder
The Pixies will always win over Nirvana for their complete no-fucks-given attitude to the music industry. Most people think grunge is heavy, therefore it must be dirty and loose (like the Stooges or the Stones). Nirvana proved this wrong, because they were one tight, ‘in the pocket’ band in the studio, and that’s part of why they became commercially successful. The Pixies, on the other hand, are completely manic both in the studio and live, and this is why they were less successful and incidentally (or not) a better rock ‘n’ roll band.
Doolittle, their second record, starts off with a punk bass line, until the band’s fuzzy guitar cacophony breaks out of its cell. Then proceeds some sublime thrashing on top of which Black Francis shouts about a Luis Buñuel art house movie he once saw. If the listener weren’t aware of the high artsy regard the works of Luis Buñuel were held in, he might think ‘slicin’ up eyeballs/ooh ahh ahh oahh” was some violent fantasy from a thrash metal song. They follow in the Lou Reed school of blending avant-garde art with rock ‘n’ roll; poetry with urban dirt; literary modernism with rough guitar, etc. They are cultured wackos then, like the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and various other well-read sleazoids. They’re not snobs, though: bassist Kim Deal joined the band after answering an advert in the Boston Phoenix requesting a bassist who liked both Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary in equal measure. They’re even weirder, though because Black Francis doesn’t peddle the usual sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ambiguity: he prefers to talk about boxcars and other assorted things of brilliant mundanity. I like that.
Anyway, the best moments on Doolittle will make you effervesce in awe of its sheer ragged glory, and flail yourself within an inch of your sanity. Good rock music, then.
7.5 Ethereal Monkeys out of 10
Here’s ‘Here Comes Your Man’, which should answer your the question that I know has been troubling you since I mentioned it: What happens when you mix Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary?…
Johnny Rotten sang over and dominated the Sex Pistols with his political anger, his grand anarchist intentions squashing the fun. What they didn’t get was that rock ‘n’ roll’s primary intention should be to entertain rather than shock, which is secondary in my view. Sometimes it means having a good old moan about career opportunities, (as the Clash do on this seminal debut from 1977: ‘I don’t wanna make tea at the BBC!’) as opposed to referencing Nazi imagery (jackboots and all) which seems both iffy and desperate.
I’ve always admired the Clash because, under the whole ‘punk revolution against classic rock’ and their more political leanings, there lies within them a great respect for the timeless culture of rock ‘n’ roll and its inherently tongue-in-cheek humour. Whereas the Sex Pistols whined about the Berlin Wall with angst, The Clash’s grinning portraits of London’s sleazoids are more reminiscent of Lou Reed’s nonchalant dossiers of New York androgyny, or the Stones’ casual vice. I don’t mean to glamorize any of this, and I intend to stear the f*ck clear of that lifestyle. However; Punk’s disregard for history can be pretty childish, and I get the sense that this band balances both being brash and loud (qualifying them as a punk band) as well as a certain self-deprecation, thus entering them into the pantheon of great rock ‘n’ roll bands. Don’t get me started about Sandinista, though.
9 Protex Blues out of 10
''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:
I don’t usually take part in the trend of mythologising mysterious and troubled troubadours who died young. Heroizing chronically depressed introverted songwriters has almost become a cliché; when you ask the shy, misty-eyed girl at school who her favourite artist is, she’ll almost undoubtedly say ‘Elliott Smith’ or ‘Jeff Buckley’ and make some comment about their self-destructive genius.
Nick Drake, then, seems like the total embodiment of this. But there isn’t a hint of self-pity nor any delusions of grandeur disguised under a sheet of sensitive modesty. When you strip back all the myth and enigmatic photos (above), there is music of unfathomable beauty and a voice like pastoral English wind. Howzat for teenage poetry?
As for the albums (the best being ’71’s Bryter Layter), Drake never put a foot wrong. When he died, he left a small but completely perfect musical legacy, though some of his less interesting demos, cover versions and unreleased material has been procured and released later by industry execs scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Bryter Layter is his lushest, most musical album. It counters the underproduced fatalism of ’72’s Pink Moon with elaborate, flowing string sections and somewhat of a ‘pop sensibility’, if such a thing can be measured in someone like Drake. For a singer-songwriter well-read in Romantic poetry, these songs (and their lyrics) gladly lack any Absinthe grandeur. It also contains Northern Sky, arguably his most extraordinary record.