Saturday, December 31, 2011


This is the time of year I am blessed with a little time to read, so I've been plowing through Greil Marcus's Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 and a bit of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I'm about to start John Hodgman's That Is All. While reading each of those things, two passages in particular caught my eye.

With Marcus, the early stuff is really hit or miss, but starting in the 90s everything is magical. He elucidates late Dylan as well as anyone, and he has the strongest handle on Harry Smith that I know of, which is his true strength. The part of the book that really stuck out for me, though, was from a book review of a memoir by the Clash's least important member, Vince White. Marcus quotes the following passage from White:

"...a bus wasn't a bus. It was an obscene red metal object that moved down the street carrying blank faces that had come from nowhere and were going absolutely nowhere."

Of course, he's talking about buses -- literal buses. What he insists on, though, is that the bus, no matter how real it is, is really just a sign, and it signifies all sorts of things -- nostalgia, pollution, and a whole bag of other shit, but mostly social stratification. What this passage reminds me of is perhaps Ezra Pound's most famous poem, "In A Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet black bough.

The faces, moving so fast though the subway station, have features he can't make out in the dim light. They become, then, less-than-human once robbed of their individual identity. They are anonymous, with nothing to differentiate one from the other. Their life is that of the drone. White, most likely unintentionally, just gave the best interpretation of Pound that I've ever read.

The other bit I noticed when reading was in Whitman's "Song of Myself," section 20. Whitman has a greaty line that says "I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones." This is very similar in diction and content, and somewhat similar in syntax, to the like "I'm looking for that sweet fat that sticks to your ribs" in Dylan's "Cry Awhile" on "Love and Theft."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Christmas In the Heart

Christmas In the Heart (2009)

When the news hit the street that Dylan would be releasing a Christmas album, most people thought it would be a joke. There were all sorts of rumors, including a rumor that persisted a little while afterwards that Dylan had actually written an album of Christmas originals but shelved them after not liking how they turned out. Despite people’s misgivings, and judging from online message boards many Dylan fans refuse to even listen to this album, sales went well. This topped the Christmas chart for several week. That is good, as all proceeds in perpetuity go to Feed America, Crisis UK, or the World Food Programme, depending on which country it is bought in. Also, the music is great. Dylan looks back to the golden age of Christmas music for inspiration, taking his lead from the original recordings of many of the iconic Christmas songs of the 40s and 50s, such as Dean Martin’s “Christmas Blues,” the Andrews Sisters’ “Christmas Island,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” on which he shuns “hang a star upon the highest bough” for the original “we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” He balances these with traditional carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Adeste Fidelis” (which he sings in Latin), and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”

In many ways, Dylan’s singing is better on this album than it has been in years, but I suspect that may be because the melodies to these songs are so deeply ingrained. Also, the musicianship is superb. David Hidalgo is back again, and joined this time by R&B guitarist Phil Upchurch, who has worked with jazz cats like Cannonball Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie, funk legends like Curtis Mayfield and Michael Jackson, to blues people like B. B. King and John Lee Hooker and doo-wop groups like The Dells and The Spaniels. All in all, a fine performance. The heavenly-sounding chorale is composed of a mix of singers, and includes the Ditty Bops, a great, underrated feminist folk-pop duo.

Best song: Here Comes Santa Claus – This was originally a Gene Autry song, and the steel guitar on Dylan’s version gives flourishes of the singing cowboy. What makes this song work, though, is what Dylan does right before the song ends. The last verse includes the lines “Peace on earth will come to all / if we just follow the light. / Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” The last two lines are repeated thrice at the end of the song. The chorus sings the first line and then Dylan responds with the second, and adds a biting, sardonic tone to each word. The first three lines are about God, about the spirit of giving and about love. The last line is about greed and self-centeredness. By emphasizing these last two lines, the notion that we should thank Jesus for a bounty of gifts we truly buy ourselves, Dylan mocks them. The trade-off of vocals emphasizes this in two ways. First of all, there is the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness. The chorus epitomizes commonly held notions of what defines beautiful singing. Perfect pitch, perfect harmonies – they can’t be beat. Dylan’s ragged growl, even on songs where he tries to turn it into a sweet croon, does not. This suggests that the first line, belief in Jesus, is a beautiful thing, and that the second, the commercialization of Christmas, is ugly, and Dylan’s voice, which becomes particularly hard-edged on these last lines, seems to bear out this suggestion. The other dichotomy emphasized here is that between construction and reality. The chorus is constructed. Even if they are not edited with some sort of software or studio trickery, they have been selected to create this ideal meld, and certainly take after take has been taken to get the exact sound desired. Dylan, on the other hand, is raw and ragged; he hasn’t been modified, or at least if he has he does not sound it. The artificiality associated with the sound of the chorus suggests that, at least in society, the message of Jesus rings hollow. Those who proselytize it don’t live it. Instead, the focus is placed on people’s very real desire for material objects, an obsession which is represented by Santa. The end result is that people in general tend to value the hollow as beautiful while their true desires are ugly. The ugliness of these desires, and the attraction to the hollowness, undermines the song’s upbeat demeanor. I don’t think Dylan is out to denigrate the song or the holiday, but I do feel as though the song, at least in my experience with it, sets up this powerful tension that suggests our own consumption is killing our faith by degrees.

Worst song: The First Noel – Around 2:09 the voice just falls apart. Dylan doesn’t have much to begin with nowadays, and too many Christmas songs have a range that just doesn’t work for him.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Together Through Life

Together Through Life (2009)

Oliver Dahan, who directed the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, which Dylan is purportedly a fan of, asked Dylan to write the score for My Own Love Song, a roadtrip drama with Renee Zellweger and Lawrence Fishburne. Dylan wrote up a song called “Life Is Hard” and, en route to recording it, met up with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, who he enlisted for help to write the lyrics to the rest of the tracks. Dylan and Hunter had previously worked together for two songs on Down In the Groove. When they left the studios, not only had Dylan recorded two or three songs with vocals for the film, as well as several instrumental tracks, but also recorded a whole album of new material, almost all of it co-written with Hunter.

Together Through Life is alright if you don’t take it too seriously, and don’t expect anything too heady. After the last several Dylan albums, which were filled with deep meditation, this mostly breezy jaunt is only meant to be fun. It isn’t meant to be shallow I don’t think, though it is, but once you accept that you can find some things to like. “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” was one of two songs previewed before the album’s release, and from the title people expected a comment on the state of the nation, and much has been made of lines about walking with the priest and “the fourth part of the day” already being gone. This is the deepest song on the album probably, but I think its just a love song, and one with a nice feel to it. “If You Ever Go To Houston” is a fine extension of “Wanted Man,” a song Dylan wrote for Johnny Cash and never recorded himself. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” includes the most effective use of horns in a Dylan song and “Forgetful Heart” is richly ominous, even if it leaves you wanting for more. Also, the playing is fine throughout, featuring David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) on accordion and Mike Campbell (of the Heartbreakers) on guitar.

Best song: Shake, Shake Mama – Based on a Mance Lipscomb song of the same name, Dylan took the verse about Judge Simpson out of Canterbury Tales. In addition to the tightest groove in any Dylan 12-bar blues, this song also features several hilarious blues couplets.

Worst song: Life Is Hard – The lyric is nearly just a list of clichés, the melody is tired, and Dylan shouldn’t even be attempting to hit those high notes.

Live version: Forgetful Heart – On the record, you can imagine this song working well life, and it does. The record has a more pronounced presence of the bass, while the live version makes more use of the violin, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, previously of BR-549.

Rhymes: this/exist (“My Wife’s Hometown”); forevermore/door (“Forgetful Heart”); spark/dark (“Jolene”); stuff/rough (“Shake, Shake Mama”); east/priest; James Joyce/voice (“I Feel A Change Comin’ On”)

Images: “boulevards of broken cars” (“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”); “your gun-belt tight;” “a restless fever burnin’ in my brain” (“If You Ever Go To Houston”); “a curtained gloom” (“This Dream of You”); “cop cars blinking” (“It’s All Good”)

Axioms: “hell’s my wife’s hometown” (“My Wife’s Hometown”); “if you want to live easy, baby pack your clothes with mine;” “dreams never did work for me anyway, even when they did come true;” “I got the blood of the land in my voice” (“I Feel a Change Comin’ On”); “a teacup of water is enough to drown” (“It’s All Good”)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Modern Times

Modern Times (2006)

In the grand cultural quilt that makes up “Love and Theft,” Dylan had several favorite sources he drew from – Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the canon of corny jokes and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza probably produced at least three dozen lines for the album when added together. Dylan used a similar technique on Modern Times, and again had favorite sources – the works of poet laureate of the Confederacy Henry Timrod and the letters of Henry Rollins among them. The Bible was also more used on Modern Times than on “Love and Theft. The difference mostly lies in the extent to which he uses pastiche.

The best songs on this album, which takes its name from a Charlie Chaplin film, are better than anything on “Love and Theft,” but the album as a whole isn’t. The most interesting songs are the three slower songs on the last half of the album – “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Nettie Moore” and “Ain’t Talkin’.” These songs take cultural reference points – a Merle Haggard song, an old folk tune, and a conflation of the Garden of Eden with Revelation – and do something new with them. The melodies seem to be original. Some of the other interesting songs use Biblical allusion to great effect. “Thunder On the Mountain” is named for the passage where Moses is given the law, and several allusions to Exodus appear in this song, but so does Alicia Keys, and the whole thing is plastered against a great rockabilly beat. I’m also fond of “Spirit On the Water.” The melody sounds stolen, but I can’t say from where. It opens by describing the spirit as “the darkness on the face of the deep,” which also opens Genesis. It is a love song to this spirit, but a strained love song, and the spirit is God. The speaker in the song is Cain (“I can’t go back to paradise no more; I killed a man back there.”). This opens up several possibilities.

There are a couple songs based on other songs that manage to be at least a bit original, and then there are the three irredeemable sins of the album – “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Someday Baby,” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” Dylan stole these songs from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes and Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie. Dylan copied these songs musically – often to the keys, the arrangements, and even the solos – and his band performs them wonderfully, but they aren’t his (even though he is listed as author). A few lyrics are changed here and there – especially in “Someday Baby” (though the lyrics in the refrain remain the same) – but they are mostly the same as well. In “Love and Theft,” Dylan was also stealing melodies and song titles, but he was mixing them in interesting ways that were surprising and that created juxtaposition. He wasn’t writing, necessarily, but he was creating something new. In these songs he isn’t, and that is where this album’s weaknesses lie. I can go back and listen to my original recordings and be just as pleased, probably more so, than by listening to these covers that are soured by being called originals.

Best song: Nettie Moore – In the fantastic Bob Dylan In America, Sean Wilentz explains how this song work: Dylan is writing in couplets, pairing a line taken from an old American folk tune, then pairing it with a line of contemporary parlance. This means we get great lines like “Lost John sitting on a railroad track…. something’s out of whack.” The song’s title, and part of the refrain, is adapted by the antewar social song “Gentle Nettie Moore.” The rest follows along in the pattern Wilentz describes, and to great effect.

Worst song: Someday Baby – I actually dislike “When the Levee’s Gonna Break” a bit more, but this song pales in comparison to what it could have been. I think Dylan realizes that, which is probably why it is the only song from Modern Times he has yet to play live. Still, the song has proven popular despite my misgivings. Based on its appearance in an iTunes commercial, the song briefly climbed to #95 on the Hot 100 Singles, Dylan’s first appearance on that chart since 1985.

Best outtake: Someday Baby – This outtake was one of the great revelations on Tell Tale Signs, the anthology of 1989-2006 odds’n’ends that Columbia put out in 2008. It is a unique melody, almost certainly Dylan’s, and has many different lyrics that are superior to what ended up on the album. If Dylan had released this and done similar things with the album’s other copied songs, it would have been a much stronger album indeed.

Live Version: Thunder On the Mountain – Dylan was right to give this song to rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. It is a great party tune that is rollicking and unruly with a tight groove. It is an easy crowd please with the crunchy guitars, which probably explains why it has been the most performed, and best performed, song from Modern Times.

Rhymes: bitches/orphanages (“Thunder On the Mountain”); horse/forced; dime/crime; clung/tongue (2-4 from “Workingman’s Blues #2”); berserk/paperwork (“Nettie Moore”)

Images: “I’m sweating blood” (“Spirit On the Water”); “got my mind tied up in knots” (“Someday Baby”); “a greasy trail” (“Nettie Moore”); “the wounded flowers were dangling from the vine” “a toothache in my heel” (4-5 from “Ain’t Talkin’”)

Axioms: “I’m gonna raise me an army of some tough sons of bitches; I’m recruitin’ my army from the orphanages;” “I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows” (“Thunder On the Mountain”); “the buying power of the proletariat’s gone down” (“Workingman’s Blues #2”); “something’s out of whack;” “they say whiskey’ll kill you, but I don’t think it will” (“Nettie Moore”); “I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned” (“Ain’t Talkin’”)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dylan Album Project: "Love and Theft"

“Love and Theft” (2001)

In one of the interviews Dylan gave around the time of this album’s release, he was asked which other album of his it most reminded him on, and he answered Greatest Hits. It is easy to see why, though “Love and Theft” is richer not only in scope and unity, as most albums are when compared to compilations, but also in variety and sound. This album moves from rockabilly to swing to country to blues to hard rock to pre-war pop. It has it all, and it pulls it from different sources.

The album’s title is a key to its creation. For the most part, the lyrics are appropriated – from knock-knock jokes, from poetry, from Japanese gangster novels – without attribution. The album’s titled is borrowed from a book by Eric Lott on blackface minstrelsy. Lott’s thesis is that white men want the black man’s mythologized penis, and so the act of blackface is a way for them to try to steal what they love about blacks, and that this underlying Freudian desire is really just a symbol for whites making white culture by stealing and then “sanitizing” black culture. I don’t think “Love and Theft” is as interested in race, but it does hinge on the idea of stealing what one loves in order to make something new out of it.

This album was released on 9/11. It was the height of the Napster/Bear Share/whatever other file sharing service was the flavor of the week movement, and I’d had the album for three or four days by the time the twin towers got hit. I think I was singing “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” to myself as I strolled into my first class of the day and saw what was happening on the TV. Immediately, once that connection is made, it is easy to read the album as prophetic – “sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down” – as well as the sadly inevitable responses of the United States – “my captain he’s decorated, he’s well schooled and he’s skilled; he’s not sentimental at all, don’t bother him how many of his pals have been killed” and, perhaps more tellingly, “I’m here to create the new imperial empire.” Maybe he was capturing the zeitgeist before it was there, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. As concepts, love and theft act as opposites. Usually, if one thieves something they covet it, because true love never takes, but what Dylan is stealing doesn’t take away from the original source, and may deepen it by associating it with other sources.

This returns me to the album’s title, and its significance. The first time I heard these songs, I heard them on different days. I heard “Po Boy” first, and it seemed (and still seems) strange. It was, I believe, an authorized posting. Then there was a promotional forty-five with “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” backed with “Bye and Bye,” so those came early too. I got two or three songs a day. When I got them all, I sequenced it and I remember being taken aback by the strong amount of juxtaposition. At first, I saw it as alphabetical. In “Lonesome Day Blues,” Dylan sings “I wish my mother was still alive.” His mother had died in 2000. Then in “Floater,” the next song, he sings “I’m in love with my second cousin,” which is among the most off-putting lines in the history of popular music, though maybe one of the truest in the sense that it represents a kind of truth; it certainly isn’t autobiographical since nothing here is. It is, though, an autobiography of American culture; a recasting of what we’ve produced and what we’ve stolen.

The more one listens to “Love and Theft,” the more one realizes how much of it is borrowed. In those first days, I listened to “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” a lot. It was featured in a television commercial starring Ricky Jay as a poker dealer. Of course the titled was a reference to Alice In Wonderland, and a few years later, on a bootleg of Elvis Presley performing on the Louisiana Hayride in 1954, I discovered it was also the title of another song. It’s a song about sibling rivalry, and about fratricide. It is no wonder they are “living in the land of Nod,” where Cain went after slaying Abel. The first time through the song, the opening of the second verse has them “taking a streetcar named Desire.” A few lines later, Tweedle Dum says “his master’s voice is calling me,” perhaps trying into the Biblical reference of Nod, but certainly coming not out of the Bible but from a record on the RCA Victor label. A small terrier obediently sits next to an old gramophone, the horn pointed in his face. Beneath the picture, the caption reads “his master’s voice.” A verse or so later, “I got love for you honey, and its all in vain” makes better use of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” than Dylan’s 1978 disaster “Is Your Love In Vain?,” and surprises by using “and” where “but would seem more appropriate; this slight avoidance of cliché is what Michael Gray refers to as “minimizing the badness.” A couple months later, the music was found to be lifted from Johnnie & Jack Anglin’s “Uncle John’s Bongos.” It is my contention that every line, every song title, every melody is borrowed from somewhere. The album is then a cultural quilt. It is the work, quite literally, of everyman. Every month or so, I uncover another allusion. I don’t think there is a method to it, necessarily, or that it is fully constructed, but it doesn’t need to be. It is conceptually courageous enough that even if parts are a mismashed Frankenstein of sources, the whole transcends that as a statement of what is.

Of course, my love for this album may be dependent on it being the first Dylan album release that was in itself an event for me. It may be that I like the concept so much I’m able to forgive what is truly a crappy album. I don’t think so, though, and the amount of people who love this album, many of them loving it more than their predecessor, bear me out. My experience is also that everyone who loves this album has a different favorite song on it, which may be what makes it most like a greatest hits album.

Best song: Floater (Too Much to Ask) – A very strange song, almost Victorian, but it encapsulates so much of what makes “Love and Theft” great. It feels like a string of non sequitirs, but it creates its own world. It blends humor with sorrow, family with solitude, privilege with luck, and of course it conflates high and low culture. Shakespeare shows up all over this album with various songs containing references to at least five of his plays – Othello, Hamlet, Measure by Measure, As You Like It and, in this song, Romeo and Juliet. Instead of the tragically doomed young lovers, blind to the world beyond them, Dylan casts them as an old married couple, whom senility has allowed to be honest as Romeo tells Juliet her face has suffered with age. Not only does Dylan turn them into low culture – just the butt of a joke about aging – when Juliet tells Romeo “you can’t just shove off if it bothers you so much” it is a more American gesture than anything Maria could have hoped to pull off in West Side Story.

Worst song: Lonesome Day Blues – This probably tends to be the third most popular song on the album, after “High Water” and “Mississippi,” and though lyrically it has some nice twists, including two verses based on parts taken out of Huck Finn and another based on a combination of the Travel Channel’s Great Vacation Homes and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza.

Live version: High Water (For Charlie Patton) – On the album version, this opens with simply the most menacing banjo line ever produced. It drives hard, full of furious jabs. It is my favorite part of the album. In this rendition, it is a wholly different beast. Recorded at Bonnaroo in 2004 rocks as hard as “Honest With Me,” the toughest song on “Love and Theft.

Rhymes: bones/grindstone (“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”); sublime/rhyme (“Mississippi”); happiness/repossessed (“Bye and Bye”); crimson/limbs and (“Moonlight”); blanket/drank it (“Po’ Boy”)

Images: “sky full of fire, pain pouring down” (“Mississippi”); “timber, two-foot-six across, burns with the bark still on” (“Floater (Too Much to Ask)”); “coffins droppin’ in the street like balloons made out of lead” (“High Water (For Charlie Patton)”); “the earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone;” “the trailing moss in mystic glow, the purple blossoms soft as snow” (4-5 from “Moonlight”)

Axioms: “I’m going to teach peace to the conquered; I’m going to tame the proud” (“Lonesome Day Blues”); “my grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth” (“Floater (Too Much To Ask)”); “You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice? Well, I’ll sell ‘em to you at a reduced price” (“Honest With me”); “I’ll die before I turn senile” (“Cry Awhile”); “I got my back to the Son cause the light is too intense” (“Sugar Baby”)