Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music #2: Haunted By Bob Dylan

Whenever I tell someone that my favorite songwriter is Bob Dylan, the response I usually get is some kind of respectful acknowledgment of his status as a lyricist. And there's no question that Dylan has written some of the most extraordinary lyrics - depending on the period, and on his mood - they're wise and weary, playful and inventive, surreal, enigmatic, sometimes inscrutable. Sometimes they're familiar but then they twist in surprising ways. Rarely are they banal. Rarely are they boring. Even when writing a love song, Dylan finds new language and new ways to express the most familiar feelings of all. So, yes, a great lyricist. Whole books have been written, whole careers launched, with discussion of the lyrics of Bob Dylan. But reading Bob Dylan and listening to Bob Dylan are two completely different experiences. And it's his melodies, vocal phrasing and musical arrangements that lift these masterful words off the page, animating them, haunting them, imbuing them with mystery. Consider the album John Wesley Harding. Recorded in Nashville, just as 1967 was giving in to 1968, just a few months after recording The Basement Tapes, those legendary home recordings that would begin popping up on bootlegs in the late 60s. The Basement Tapes retained much of the surreal imagery of the 1965-66 albums, but without the amphetamine rush, and without the grandeur. The Basement Tapes (recorded with members of what would soon be The Band) came across as looser, playfully laconic. And a year or so after John Wesley Harding, Dylan would be back in Nashville, recording Nashville Skyline. Lovely in its own way, full of country ballads and country honk, "Lay Lady Lay" and "Nashville Skyline Rag." Formal, a very specific style governing the album; lyrically modest, straightforward, voiced by a Dylan no one had really heard before or since. So then: John Wesley Harding, sandwiched between two quite different and unusual projects, sounding like neither. An acoustic album, but surprisingly fast, focused, tight. Urgent drums pushing forward, but not frilly. Acoustic guitar and occasional piano and bass. Harmonica sometimes taking the lead, not just coming in for punctuation. So, an acoustic record, but not folk. Full of muted rock drums, so rock in an unusual way, but not electrified. And despite its Nashville roots, not country. And definitely not "country rock." And through it all, a voice sounding not quite like any other Dylan voice. Clear, every syllable mattering, mysterious, even a bit pinched and restrained. Tight-lipped. The lyrics draw from the old west; there is biblical imagery; there are story-songs, morality tales. Instead of surreal and symbolic, the lyrics are mysterious. Information is withheld. The mystery is in the action, in what the characters are doing. Much is left hanging, including the "why." Again, tight-lipped lyrics delivered in a tight-lipped voice. On some songs: the title track, "As I Went Out One Morning" and "All Along the Watchtower," the urgency is pushed through by rapid bass and drumbeats. Rapid, but quiet. On "All Along the Watchtower," the harmonica is front and centre, setting up the song, in the same way an electric guitar might in a more conventional rock arrangement. This was before Jimi Hendrix re-imagined the song so completely that subsequent live versions by Dylan abandoned the muted mystery of the John Wesley Harding original for a more extroverted electrified expression. Same words, still ominous and potent, but quite different from the more subtle original. On the more subdued tracks: "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" and " I Pity The Poor Immigrant," the hushed beauty of the vocal melody steers the songs. The muted instrumentation and voice cloak the whole experience, obscuring it, letting the meaning hang. "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" is more about structure than melody, packing a great deal of narrative into its economical frame. The instrumentation is deliberately repetitive, and after a while, the hypnotic familiarity of it allows it to almost recede from your attention, letting your mind focus on the story. By the end of it, you feel you've been listening to a novel, a morality tale clocking in at a mere five minutes. One of the best songs on the album, "Drifter's Escape," isn't as long, but it's just as complete. A tiny, enigmatic, short story. Courtroom drama, social satire and what could either be divine intervention or blind luck, depending on your worldview, all rolled into one. John Wesley Harding is not a rollicking, joyous album. The last two songs: "Down Along The Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" are lighter fare, more affable, but that only serves to put the rest of the album in stark contrast. It's a strange, unnerving album, and it leaves you with more questions than answers, and it haunts you long after the final note is played.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music #1: One Man’s Bliss…

There's a scene in Fawlty Towers in which innkeeper Basil Fawlty, played with misanthropic relish by John Cleese, is having a moment to himself in the hotel office - away from his shrill, domineering wife Sybil, away from the pesky guests. For one brief moment, the cacophony of his life is neutralized by the glorious strains of music coming from his tape recorder. For one brief moment, he is at peace.Sybil suddenly busts through his bliss, chiding him for listening to "that racket.""Racket ??!!," Basil responds incredulously. "That's BRAHMS..... Brahms' THIRD racket!"If my favorite music is playing, I'm incapable of listening to it as background noise, and I begin to bristle if others begin chattering over it. If I like the music, it reaches into me in a way that no other art form has ever done. My response is visceral. And if I don't like it, my response is equally visceral and usually involves me recoiling in horror with a mild sense of nausea.This is the first in what I'm hoping will be an occasional column on music. My approach will be the same as the books pieces I write. It will be the musings of an enthusiast. You won't find deep critical thought underpinned by lots of theory. I simply don't have the chops for that. It also won't be an even-handed survey. Though my tastes are fairly broad, and extremely deep in a completist, "I have to have every recording by this band," sort of way, there are still huge gaps. Whole genres and eras that I know nothing about. So, the column will mirror my record collection. It won't be democratic, but it will be honest.I've always worn my musical tastes on my sleeve. Not because I want to force my tastes on others. Not exactly. It's not a power grab. If I like something that much, I genuinely can't believe that others won't have the same response, and I want to share the experience with anyone within earshot. It rarely pans out - tastes being such a personal thing. But when conquered by bliss, you don't think about that. Emotion trumps logic every time.And because emotion trumps logic, it becomes tricky to explain why I like something. If I were schooled in theory I suppose I could expound on the theory underlying a particular song. But let's face it: That's not why I like the song. I like it because of the way the guitar riffs, the way the piano or organ weave in and out and swirl around, the way the drums propel a song forward or slow down to a crawl to rein it in, the way a countermelody magically comes out of an inventive bass line. And the voice. The sound of it, the lilt, the snarl, the phrasing, the catch in the voice as it breathes life into the words. It's the voice that resonates the most with me, and draws me back into a song again and again.How to convey that kind of emotional response is the challenge. When Max approached me with the idea of doing a music column, I responded the same way I did in 2004 when he asked me to write about books. I had a panic attack. I said yes, but I banged my head against the wall wondering what the hell I could possibly write about that would be interesting or amusing or enlightening. Then I stared at my wall of LPs and CDs the way I stared at my bookshelves, and slowly I began to see the possibilities.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

What’s on Bruce Springsteen’s Bookshelves

As we noted yesterday, Carolyn Kellogg has an interesting piece up at Papercuts about Bruce Springsteen and Walker Percy. Carolyn expresses some surprise at finding out that the Boss is an avid reader. To us die-hard fans, however, evidence of Bruce's bookish leanings is legible as far back as the late '70s. There's the song title nicked from Flannery O'Connor ("A Good Man is Hard to Find," from Tracks); the in-concert plug for Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life (on Live 1975-1985); the East of Eden-ish "Highway Patrolman" (from Nebraska); and the long quotation from The Grapes of Wrath in the title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad.For those interested in what else Bruce has been reading, a big photo spread of Springsteen's "writing room" in the current issue of Rolling Stone offers a tantalizing glimpse (Ed. - The photo they've posted is much smaller than the one in the magazine, frustrating attempts at further investigation online). I found myself distracted from the accompanying article, perusing the bookshelves instead, as I tend to do involuntarily when I'm invited into the house of an acquaintance for the first time. In addition to the prerequisites of any writing room - Roget's Thesaurus; The Holy Bible; Bob Dylan's Lyrics - the Springsteen shelves boast an eclectic mix of literary fiction and books on history and music. Here's what I could glean from the spines.Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne PhillipsWhite Noise, by Don DeLilloAmerican Pastoral, by Philip RothThe Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell Cold New World , by William FinneganCountry: The Music and the MusiciansAmerican Moderns, by Christine StansellReal Boys, by William PollackAt the Center of the Storm, by George TenetWhen We Were Good, by Robert S. CantwellJohn Wayne's America, by Garry WillsThe Elegant Universe, by Brian GreeneThe Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. GoldmanFeel Like Going Home, by Peter GuralnickDark Witness, by Ralph WileyGo Cat Go, by Craig MorrisonNew Americans, by Al SantoliOrlando, by Virginia WoolfCurrently, Bruce appears to be reading Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. And he is evidently something of a fan-boy himself; prominently displayed on his coffee table is a book called Greetings from E Street.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Icelandic Charm School

Do you know the band Seabear?It is possible that you do and you do not know it if you've seen the strange and enthralling Michel Gondry movie The Science of Sleep (kind of a cross between The Life Aquatic or Rushmore and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth), which featured Seabear's song "I Sing, I Swim." But the song that had me at hello was "Arms," of which there is a delightful homemade video on YouTube. I dare you not be taken in - by the song itself ("you left your dark horse in the stable"), by Ole saying "banjo" and Inga's rolling of her "r," and by the anonymous little Martha Graham in the background. (It is a desolate soul that doesn't have a nook for Seabear.)
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Grad School Musical

Continuing in the vein of the unwritten parrot dissertation, I share with you another great unwritten (even less written and conceived than Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses): my screenplay about grad school life in the humanities. Well, about grad students in an English department, to be exact, because that's all I know. For the masses of high-school movies and TV shows (10 Things I Hate About You, Bring It On, Get Over It, Heathers, Sugar and Spice, The History Boys, American Pie, Virgin Suicides, My So-Called Life, Dead Poets' Society, School Ties, Freaks and Geeks, Aliens in America, Napoleon Dynamite, Pretty Persuasion, The O.C...), there are fewer about college (The Harvard Man, Legally Blonde, With Honors, Aubergine Espagnol, Rules of Attraction, Undeclared, Love Story, Brideshead Revisited, Old School, The Dreamers, Animal House, Sorority Boys), and virtually none about graduate school. In fact, the only one I can think of is Laurel Canyon, which concerns a grad student (Kate Beckinsale) and her medical resident husband (Christian Bale) once they have left the groves of academe. It's quite good but it deals more with the grad student as a genre of (repressed) person rather than exploring such creatures in their native habitat. The Emma Thompson movie Wit has a few grad school flashbacks and gets more at the tone I'd be going for, but it is hardly a movie about grad school. So, unless I am very much mistaken, the graduate student is a species that has been under-represented in cinema.Thus far in my efforts to amend this cultural oversight, I have, alas, only made up a long-list for the soundtrack. But the beauty of this list is that it can also serve as a primer or litmus test for those contemplating a Ph.D.: Ask yourself, "Do I want this to be the soundtrack of my life?" (Oh, I kid you not.)Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Muddy WatersOxford Comma, Vampire WeekendAsk Me Anything, The Strokes ("I've got nothing to say...")Where Is My Mind?, The PixiesGet Me Away from Here, I'm Dying, Belle & SebastianVenus In Furs, The Velvet Underground ("taste the whip," indeed: What would graduate school be - and who would go - without masochism?) Hate, Cat Power ("But the ones who didn't make it/The ones who couldn't take it/So glad they made it out alive...")Poems, Tricky/Nearly GodGood Things, Sleater-Kinney ("Will it make me sick today?")I Am A Rock, Simon & GarfunkelElephant Gun, Beirut ("If I was young I'd flee this town...")Jack-Ass, BeckOffend In Every Way, The White StripesYou're No Good, Bob DylanCruel, CalexicoThere Is A Light That Never Goes Out, The Smiths (oh, the longing for socialization)Dumb, Nirvana (a heavy-handed choice, however, imposter syndrome is not to be underestimated: "I'm not like them, but I can pretend...")You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl), The White Stripes (lest you think the boys club vibe has been banished from the academy)History Song, The Good, The Bad, and The Queen ("If you don't know it now, then you will do...")Las Cruces Jail, Two Gallants ("...born to fail/Nobody come for to go my bail...")Campus, Vampire Weekend (this not-so-desolating one will be used in some sort of pastoral idyll scene)Furnace Room Lullaby, Neko Case (For the anxiety of influence: "I twisted you under and under to break you, I just couldn't breathe with your throne on my chest")We've Been Had, The WalkmenStop Whispering, Radiohead ("And the feeling is, that there's something wrong/ Cause you can't find the words, and I can't find the song")If I Could Talk I'd Tell You, The LemonheadsHelp Save the Youth of America, Billy BraggTime Bomb, RancidThe Racing Rats, The EditorsThis Job is Killing Me, The WalkmenUnder My Thumb, The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger is your principal adviser; you are "the squirming dog who's just had her day")Shoot You Down, The Stone Roses (advisors again)The Other Way, Weezer (and again)The Boy With The Thorn in His Side, The SmithsA Million Ways, OK Go (ah, klonopin and cruelty!)Closer to Fine, Indigo Girls ("spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper and I was free" ...only four years?)The Greatest, Cat PowerHolland, 1945, Neutral Milk HotelFuzzy, Grant Lee BuffaloLost Cause, BeckSave Me, Aimee MannSound good?
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Pandora Goes Classical

I haven't bought music in years, my interest in seeing live music has waned as well, but I remain obsessed with Pandora, a site where you can create your own radio station and hone it to your precise tastes over time by rating the music you hear.On Pandora, I have a few stations that I curate for myself. Over the last year, I've been spending a lot of time with my jazz station. I've always enjoyed jazz but knew next to nothing about it. However, after several months listening to my jazz station on Pandora, I've become a jazz fan who is at least semi-literate in the genre, able to pick out the name of an artist when I overhear some jazz at a restaurant, for example.Noticing my newfound jazz knowledge, I hoped that a Pandora station might be able to help me with my other musical blind spot (or would that be deaf spot?): classical music. However, I was dismayed to find that Pandora didn't have classical music... That is, they didn't until today. So check back with me in a few months. By then my new classical station (named Soooo Classic, of course) will have made me something of an aficionado.Bonus Link: Alex Ross in The New Yorker: "The Internet may be killing the pop CD, but it's helping classical music."
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Trivia: Musical Books

A very cursory beginning!"Lillubulero," in Lawerence Sterne's Tristram Shandy"La ci darem la mano," from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, in James Joyce's UlyssesThe "Hoffmann Barcarolle" of Jacques Offenbach "played" by Sherlock Holmes on the violin in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Mazarin Stone" (the piece itself comes from Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann", a musical rendering of some of the German Romantic writer, painter, and musical composer E.T.A Hoffmann's tales)Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch becomes "Venus in Furs," by the Velvet UndergroundBeethoven's 5th Symphony features prominently in E.M. Forster's Howard's End (&, on a more scholarly note, Forster's use of "the rainbow bridge" imagery, in the furtherance of the "only connect" theme, is taken from Richard Wagner's Das Reingold, wherein the rainbow bridge appearing at the end conveys the gods to their paradisical new home Walhalla, see John Louis DiGaetani's Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel)The Beggars' Opera by John Gay becomes "Mac the Knife" by Bobby Darrin, et al."Norwegian Wood" by the Beatles becomes Norwegian Wood by Haruki MurakamiE.T.A. Hoffman's The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, the fantastical autobiography of a literate cat interspersed with the autobiography of his musician owner, Kapellmeister Kreisler (a fictionalized self-portrait of Hoffmann, himself a musical composer (as above); Tomcat Murr was the name of Hoffmann's own tabby cat - and performs some katzenmusik himself in the novel)Alexandre Dumas (fils)'s novel La Dame aux Camelias becomes Giuseppi Verdi's opera La TraviataAnd finally - though I come by this disingenuously because I haven't read it - Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho: I hear tell that it's got some very funny discussions of pop music, including the assertion that Genesis was the greatest British band of 80's...