Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Chronic Dylan // Visit to Beirut // Patty cake
harder and harder to find time to write on here, i'm sorry to say. that inertia thing can be deadly. but here i am and i hope you are still here too...
certain artists are like poles of gravity for me. after i add someone to my pantheon, they're sort of always there, like i'll get really, really into them for a short period and just binge and then maybe abandon them for awhile, but i know i'll be back. you can't exhaust folks like John Fahey, Andrew Hill, Booker Little.
i don't really know how i ended up back on my 8000th or so Bob Dylan kick. i think it had something to do with the Paul Simon kick, which got me thinking about the real all-time-greats who transcended genre and reached millions. this led to a brief detour into Electric Miles land (a place i have to visit every so often to remind myself what the future sounds like) and a visit with Joni Mitchell (checked out "Court and Spark," which i'd never really reckoned with, and found it to rule completely).
i started digging into "Time Out of Mind," which i'd had in my collection forever, but which had never really made too much sense to me. this time it hit me right; i love the atmosphere, the stylized brooding that Lanois helped him achieve. i've noticed that the Dylan stuff over the past few years contains a shit ton of throwaway lyrics (i always laugh when i hear him croak, "The air burns" on "I Can't Wait"), but i really admire the songwriting. it's funny how even though Dylan seems to have basically lost the ability to sing melodically, his songs seem more tuneful and lushly melodic than ever. i'm thinking of something like "Not Dark Yet," which is just a gorgeous tune any way you slice it and should become a modern standard in my opinion.
so i was listening to that and then i started noticing Dylan's "Chronicles" memoir on my shelf. Laal and i had finished "Franny and Zooey" (a tiny miracle of a book) and were going to move on to E.L. Doctorow's "The Book of Daniel" (which i'd had forever and feel i should check out), but the Dylan kept calling on me. sorry if this is too much info, but whenever it came time to select bathroom reading, i'd always pick up "Chronicles," and whenever i had a free moment to read, i'd always yearn for that even though i was supposed to be on the Doctorow trail.
but after like a day, i knew i wasn't going to be able to hold off, so i asked Laal if she'd be cool trading up, and she was. so now i'm back into "Chronicles," and i'm thinking to myself that yeah, maybe this is one of my favorite books ever, and perhaps very easily my favorite music book.
i devoured the thing when it first came out, but i have a really really bad memory for books. which can be kind of a cool thing b/c if i reread a book i love it's like i get the joy of rediscovering it. (extra points to DFSBP readers who caught the allusion to Journey's "Faithfully" in that last sentence.) but this one is a goddamn motherfucker, i tell you.
how can i express this... it's basically like this: Bob Dylan is obviously a fearsome literary talent. we all knew that. he's also famously charismatic, witty, cryptic, etc. in short, a fascinating legend/all time great with a huge command of how to use words effectively. but, and this is the real kicker for me with this book, did anyone ever think that he'd just come right out and reveal so much about himself and his process in such a gloriously straightforward (yet wonderfully eccentric) and accessible way?
if you've seen "Don't Look Back," you know that Dylan has 8 million ways of deflecting practical questions about his life and his process--not to mention basically ridiculing anyone unsavvy enough to ask. (and indeed in the opening section of "Chronicles," he tells about falsifying his life story when he's being interviewed for his label bio.) i guess the big question is why did he decide to come out and talk so plainly? the world owes his editor/publisher a huge, huge debt, b/c this is "portrait of the artist as a young man" memoir of the highest, most insightful order.
now i'm only 100 pages into this second encounter with the book, but i find it like murderously insightful. it's like being near a constantly humming electric current or something. as Dylan says at one point, it's a narrative of his "mind [being] on fire." sure it's a romantic and somewhat hackneyed story, him coming from the Midwest to NYC to become a star. but his drive is so insatiable and his process and perspective so unusual that it's as if this story has never been told before.
overall, you get this sense of intense research, like Dylan put himself on this merciless regimen of feeding his brain all this stuff which he'd draw upon later. there's a passage where he's just gushing over his friend's library, where he read Thucydides, Byron, Albertus Magnus, etc., and i'm not sure if i've ever read such a beautiful meditation on the joys of reading. Dylan confronts these texts head on. he's awed by many of them, but he's not afraid to discard ones he finds useless. of Magnus, he says, "[He] seemed like a guy who couldn't sleep, writing this stuff late at night, clothes stuck to his clammy body" (which could double as a pretty much spot-on description of my blogging).
there's also a really amazing and telling dis of "On the Road." he talks about how that book was basically his bible when he set out from home, but that now "that character Moriarty seemed out of place, purposeless--seemed like a character who inspired idiocy." damn, talk about changing of the guard (i'll get that later...). along those lines, he says of the advent of atonal music and abstract painting that "I would look at all this stuff for what it was worth and not one cent more."
this is just a wondrous portrayal of a discerning lust for knowledge. he learns a ton of folksongs, but he's also just about heading over to the public library to audidactify himself. he's obsessed with history, fixating especially on the Civil War; he insinuates that that period holds the key to unlocking how to be an American artist. here's a really great expression of this fascination with the past:
"The madly complicated modern world was something i took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn't seduced by it. What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line. All this was current, played out and in the open. This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on."
(isn't that use of "played out" above kind of weird? obviously he doesn't mean it in the sense of passe, but more like the opposite.)
but the upshot of all this is that Dylan portrays himself as a kind of information squirrel: "I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later."
anyone who's ever heard "Desolation Row" knows that this is so not bullshit. He was drawing on a real trove when he wrote songs like that and this is a painstaking document of how he stocked it. Fucking invaluable to anyone who is serious about the process of constructing art.
that quote above re: how Dylan was more engaged with the past than w/ the present (not to mention the ones expressing wariness re: certain texts and movements) is evidence that a lot of this is a statement of staunch against-the-grain-ness. Dylan discusses his classic break with the folk movement and compares it to Miles Davis's break with jazz. if you've read Miles's memoir, it's impossible not to see the constant parallels with "Chronicles." basically in these two tomes, you're dealing with volumes one and two of what it means to be an American musician.
what i mean by this is folks who came out of a very particular idiom, learned its ins and outs, mastered it, revolutionized it and ultimately, transcended it completely and were vilified by the idiom even as they were embraced as citizens of the world. as is driven home by these tomes, Dylan and Davis's careers are remarkably parallel, right down to each's various artistic dead-ends and sound critical drubbings for "straying from the course."
anyway, "Chronicles" is essential. i challenge you to name another narrative on the production of art that's this lucid, insightful and truthfully, useful.
speaking of artistic dead-ends and critical drubbings, there's this huge long period of Dylan output (namely the '70s and '80s) that's basically dismissed, ridiculed and ignored. people always smirk and cite "the Christian years" and talk about how great "Blood on the Tracks" and the tune "Hurricane" are and then sort of move on. for some reason now he's back in critical favor and can do no wrong, though i find a lot of "Modern Times" to be pleasant and charming, but also kind of tedious and boring.
basically what i'm saying is that there a ton of Dylan albums *they* don't want you to know about. a lot of the stuff from these years is weird as hell (you "Big Lebowski" fans can attest to that; "The Man in Me," anyone?) and some of it is right crappy, but some of it can blow you away and can seem even more urgent than the classics. like this gem here, from "Street-Legal," released in 1978:
Changing of the Guard
dig the insistent beat and infectious, complex melody. there is a ton of heart in this one and a fair amount of acid. one thing that '70s Dylan can give you that the earlier stuff doesn't always have is this real intense, almost rueful bitterness. think of "Idiot Wind" or the version of "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" from "The Last Waltz." this one isn't as scathing as those, but it has a similar sense of sort of singing through the driving rain.
and this one from "Planet Waves"
Going, Going, Gone
well this is just a goddamn devastating ballad, would be very comfy on "Blood on the Tracks," methinks. another one that really should be a modern standard. he's playing with the Band here (hail), so look out for Robbie's blistering obbligato.
and thank you to Laal for taking me to see Beirut at Bowery on Monday. woulda never done that on my own (i'm stubbornly and pointlessly allergic to buzz bands) and i woulda been dumb, b/c this band is really something. poignant, moving and exuberant. the kind of music that can really transport you. i can't imagine anyone leaving that concert unhappy. Zach Condon's got a great voice and the songs are really beautiful, but what really makes the band is this remarkable mini-orchestra of talented young players he's got. they make a seriously joyful noise (like Nino Rota meets the Smiths or something?). i've seen a million bands step off the stage and play a few numbers amid the crowd, but when Beirut did it at the end of the show, it was like a revelation, like a serious "music's gonna make everything ok vibe." dunno if i'm that keen on hearing the record, but i'd recommend the live show to anyone w/ a pulse. some viddy of the Sunday night NYC show is here, and the lovefest vibe is definitely captured.
opening act Final Fantasy ripped rather hard too. just a dude w/ a violin, but he stacked up these crazy loops and so he was basically singing over a whole string orchestra. very virtuosic and impressive stuff, which reminded me how classically informed shredding is becoming more and more the norm in indie rock. (think of Joanna Newsom.)
also L and i have been continuing our "docs about crazy people doing fucked-up shit" viewing series and the consensus is that you must see "Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst." it's incredibly fucked up and endlessly morally convoluted true-life tales like these that make me never want to waste time on a fiction film ever again. this movie features a goddamn brutal juxtaposition of Patty sort of walking away from the whole incident like some starlet, while her Symbionese Liberation Army brethren are left with lifelong scars, not to mention death or serious jail time. shocking, baffling and quintessentially American happenings, for sure. check out the part where she disses and ditches her fiance via satellite; can't think of a darker, colder scenario.