Monthly Archives: March 2010

A Portrait of Bob Dylan as the Artist – Dylan and James Joyce

 

Imagine today, if a young rock and roll artist emerged on the scene, writing dozens of songs capturing the zeitgeist. Other popular artists cover his songs, and his lyrics are studied like a pop-culture Bible.  Influential poets and thinkers, even called the “spokesman of a generation”, embrace him. In the process, he changes not only popular music but also the cultural landscape at a mere 24 years old.  Imagine this same artist, at the height of his popularity, turns his back on his audience picking up a new musical direction.  Viewed as a traitor to the scene, his new guise also redefining, becoming a standard by which everything else that follows is measured.  Except this no fictional rock and roll artist.  This is Bob Dylan’s influence and power in the mid 1960’s. 

    No singular artist in the latter half of the 20th century has redefined the popular musical world as much as Bob Dylan. It is often argued Dylan is a true artist because of his achievements and not just one in the rock and roll medium.  But what does being a true artist mean, and how does this apply to Dylan?  The answer might be found in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel,  A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. In Portrait, Joyce tackles artistic integrity through the protagonist Stephen Dedalus.  Throughout the novel, Joyce presents several forms, which must be followed in order for a person to truly become an artist.  Using Joyce’s outline and Stephen Dedalus as a model, the argument for Bob Dylan being seen as a true artist is even more evident.  

    Portrait follows the life of Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of Joyce) an ambitious young artist conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his artistic visions.  At the end of the novel, he discovers the only way to be an artist is to completely abandon the familiar, leaving Dublin for Paris.  As the novel progresses, Joyce’s words become more complex paralleling Stephen’s own revelation.  When Bob Dylan started his career, his lyrics, music, and persona moved in a similar fashion to Stephen’s.  When Dylan first arrived on the scene, he began as a protest-singe.  When he grew tired of “finger-pointing” (as he called it), he abandoned folk for rock and roll, again creating a standard by which almost other rock and roll is measured. Just as the world caught up to Dylan, he disappeared from the pubic eye, and created some of his best music while no one was watching. Dylan, like Stephen realized you must abandon the familiar and follow your own artistic visions.   

    In Portrait, Joyce (through Stephen) presents three forms outlining the progression of the artist.  The first form is the lyrical form “wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relationship to himself.”  In the epical form the “artist prolongs and broods himself as the center of an epical event…the narrative is no longer personal.”  The third and final form is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life.”  

    Dylan’s lyrical stage begins with his early albums and protest songs. Even early on, Dylan had major ambitions.  He wanted to emulate his hero, Woody Guthrie.  Much like Guthrie defined the post-depression era with his songs, Dylan captured the spirit of the early 1960’s with songs such as Blowing in The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and Masters of War. Dylan sang these songs in the first person, essential to the lyrical stage. Yet at the same time, these songs connected with the masses because they reflected the turbulence that many felt during the early 1960’s.  These songs and others brought Dylan national attention; earning him the infamous label “the spokesman of a generation.”

    Except Dylan wasn’t just interested in protest.  Much like Stephen feel hinged by Catholicism, Dylan felt similar to protest. Numerous artists were covering his songs, and soon many people were copying his style with less impressive results.  As everyone was waiting for Dylan to make the next profound statement, he had no interest in doing so. In 1964, less than a year after The Times They Are A-Changing, he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, a collection of songs hardly touching on protest.  Another Side presents Dylan as funny (Motorpsycho Nightmare), heartwarming (To Ramona) and even scathing (I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)) – themes barely present on his previous three albums. Following the trends of rock groups like the Beatles, Dylan went even further with his next album Bringing It All Back Home – an ambitious album featuring two sides of music split between rock music and acoustic songs.  

With Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had no intention on turning back, and writing more protest songs to appease his growing fan-base who worshipped his every single word.  With this stroke of genius, he had now reached the epical stage of the artist.  Joyce says the epical stage is reached when the  artist no longer presents himself in the first person and becomes part of an event.  Whereas Dylan’s early songs were mostly song from the first-person to reflect a greater truth, Dylan himself was barely present.  Even when he was, it was a fictionalized version of himself – as Joyce suggests, less personal.  

    Influenced by a combination of surrealism, drugs, and Beat poetry, Dylan’s lyrics reached a new sophistication and height.      Much like Joyce’s own Ulysses weaves in and out of character’s sub consciousness, narrative, and third person, Dylan was pursuing a similar path.  His songs became filled with literary, Biblical and historical figures doing bizarre acts, and taking part if bizarre situations.  And Dylan also put himself in the middle of all this craziness – the center of “epical event”. No more is this clear than Desolation Row off Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan’s first full rock album).  Desolation Row’s minutes follows characters such as Ophelia, Casanova, and TS Elliot who appear damned on a fictional placed called Desolation Row. Dylan himself does not appear until the last verse, where it is revealed he is on Desolation Row as well.  

    Dylan’s fictional self was no limited to his music, either.  Early in his career, he had been warm and funny in interviews – and most of all appeared sincere. Now, he traded his “every-man” image for that of a cynical hipster.  Constantly under the influence of many drugs, Dylan began answering interviews in a vague and mysterious manner and could sometimes be antagonistic.  When Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966, “the spokesman of a generation” was nowhere to be seen. The music was louder and wilder, the lyrics even more abstract  – but never lacking intelligence. Just as he did with modern folk music, Dylan was changing the rules for rock music.   

   Dylan’s retreat from the public eye leads to third and final form.  Joyce suggests it is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life”. Just as Stephen leaves Ireland and goes to Paris for his artistic integrity at the end of Portrait, Dylan created some of his most celebrated music while no one was looking. Taking cues from Americana, he recorded dozens of songs in his New York home with The Hawks (who would later become the known as The Band) at his home in Woodstock, New York. Freer, funnier than anything Dylan had previously recorded these songs with no pretense. More than anything, these sessions showed Dylan truly comfortable in his own skin. Never meant for official release, these sessions became bootlegged for years – eventually released as The Basement Tapes in 1975.

 When Stephen reappears in Ulysses, he is wiser and much more intelligent.  Yet, he lacks self-confidence even at one point dismissing his own ideas near the end of the novel.  Dylan too faced a similar problem after his mid 1960’s peak.  He had a hard time living up to being “Bob Dylan” -releasing almost unlistenable albums including the critically panned Self Portait.  Almost ten years after Highway 61, Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, which is generally considered another highpoint of his career.  In the past 10 years, he has enjoyed a renaissance – he has released four critically acclaimed albums and artists constantly cover his songs in concert. Dylan never stayed in the same place twice, and like Stephen discovered you “gotta keep on keeping on.”

 – Matt Satterfield, 2009.  

(I wrote this last year as a final project for my Graduate Portfolio and put a lot of time into this, so please give me credit if you link to it.)

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Visions of Johanna

I couldn’t believe it today when the radio at Starbucks was playing Visions of Johanna.  It’s not a song that should be played in the background.  More so than any other song I can think of, it requires attentive listening.  With its surrealistic lyrics, it means so much, and nothing at the same time.  

Visions of Johanna is not just one of Bob Dylan’s crowning achievements, it’s also one the best songs to be written and sung by anyone.   To those who know me, I constantly speak of Desolation Row as my all-time favorite Dylan song.  Desolation Row is  song is drenched in literary allusions where famous characters are doing absurd things and stuck on Desolation Row, it’s not until the last verse that the narrator reveals himself to be on Desolation Row as well.  But in Visions of Johanna, Dylan himself is stuck in this surreal world, haunted by the visions of Johanna and “all that remains.”

Unlike a lot of Dylan songs during this period, Johanna is not a kiss-off to a lover.  In fact, he’s obsessed with Johanna and it’s  driving him mad and wandering around a world where he seems strung out and drugged up.  He seems lost, but still wants to go out on a bender, even if its driving him mad, and hearing “the heat pipes just cough”, while also entangled with a woman named Louise, who he doesn’t seem interested in.

Eventually he ends up in a museum, but the museum is not a place of peace.  In fact, the art starts talking back to Dylan and taunting him – pushing and pulling him in different directions.  He sings that “infinity goes up on trial” leading us to believe he believes in nothing at this particular moment – except Johanna.  He feels solitude with Mona Lisa’s dour smile and figures she “musta had the highway blues”.  And if you have any doubt, “you can tell by the way she smiles”. 

At this point he either hallucinates (or sees another painting) jelly-faced women who all sneeze at the same time.  There are many lines in Visions of Johanna that are memorable, but perhaps none more than “hear the woman with the mustache say ‘jeez i can’t feel my knees'”.  It’s so weird, bizarre and yet – that must have been how Dylan felt at the time.  With the constant touring, and the backlash of going electric, he must have at one point felt like he legs got chopped off beneath him, leaving him wondering what exactly he was going to do next.  

At the end of the song, he’s been so drained that “these visions of Johanna are all that remain”.  There’s nothing left of him, or anything at that point.  His obsessiveness has nearly killed him, it seems.   And sometimes after listening to Visions of Johanna, I’m emotionally drained as well – it’s kept me up past the dawn.  

Check out the acoustic version from 1966:

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Active Rock Compilation

This has got to be one of the worst rock collections I’ve ever seen.  I didn’t even know that “active rock” was a category until I saw this little gem earlier.  What does it even mean?  Judging by the list of bands and artists here, I’ve deduced that it mostly means bands who write songs only like Nirvana (soft verse/loud chorus).  With a few exceptions, of course.  

I find this type of music to be the worst form of popular music.  It’s so soul-less, bland, and uninteresting.  (For you fans of The West Wing – I just said “three things that mean the same thing.”)   I’m glad that they put Live on this compilation, because between them and Bush they’re kind of the front-runners of this post-grunge recipe for songs inspiring the likes of Nickleback, Staind, Papa Roach, and Daughtry.  And unfortunately it’s still been alive for some 15 years after both Sixteen Stone, and Throwing Copper. Not for nothing, but Chris Daughtry even played “Ring of Fire” by way of Live’s cover version on American Idol a few years back.  Who knew they would be so influential?

Even the producers of the compilation must realize this, as Live and Bush each have two songs represented.  The third disc is where things really dry up, as they start taking songs from Counting Crows and Sublime.  (Which no matter how I particularly feel about either band they certainly don’t belong on this compilation.)  

Of course then again, as I looked at the track-list, I seriously thought I was looking at a DC101 song-list.

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Awesome Video of Elvis Costello Performing “Shabby Doll” 1983

Not much to update today, but here’s a fantastic video of Elvis Costello performing “Shabby Doll” from Imperial Bedroom in 1983:

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American Idiot Musical

Just like my earlier post about Bono and the Edge writing the music for the Spiderman Musical (Turn Off The Dark) I’m not too keen on the idea of an American Idiot musical.  Does anyone remember the Tommy movie?  One of the worst things to happen to rock music.  I have nothing against Broadway musicals, but rock and Broadway does not mix well – they’re entirely two different mediums.  Rock music is meant to be performed in front an audience by musicians, not by a cast.  It loses the spontaneous element that makes rock and roll exciting.  In a Broadway show there are no stage-dives, no ad-libbing or connection with the audience.  

As great as American Idiot was, its power relied on the actual songs and not the narrative.  Each individual songs summed up a moment in time and the best (“Jesus of Suburbia”, “Holiday”, “Extraordinary Girl”) expressed the rage and anger many of us felt in the early 2000s.  I have serious doubt that those feelings will be transferred onto a Broadway stage.  

Most of the really good concept albums (Ziggy Stardust, Srgt Pepper, The Who Sell Out, etc) lose their plot half-way along the way.  This is something that I feel bought down Green Day’s follow-up 21st Century Breakdown. There was too much emphasis on a narrative, and not nearly as much on the actual songs.  The “big songs” sounded bloated, and the punky songs had no lasting quality of those on American Idiot.    

On one hand, I am happy that an anti-Bush album has gone mainstream, but it still feels kind of shallow.

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RIP Jim Marshall

Legendary rock photographer Jim Marshall died last night.  In tribute, here are some of my favorite pictures of his.

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M.I.A. Producer Talks New Album

Like a lot of people, I’m excited for M.I.A.’s follow-up to Kala.   I don’t think since Bob Marley has their been a music star thats been representative of the third world.  (If I’m wrong about that, let me know.)  MTV News sat down with producer Diplo who’s been working on the album with M.I.A.  Diplo describes the album as thus: “All kinds of different sounds. We did, like, a punk thing. … It’s weird.”  

I’m sure the album will be interesting, and probably pretty good – but this “preview” sounds exactly like M.I.A.’s previous works.  I’m not judging M.I.A.’s music here, but either Diplo is being coy (possibly) or doesn’t have any other words to describe the music that is being made.  M.I.A. weird, really?  That’s all you got to say?   

Because “Paper Planes” blew up and became a massive hit, it sounds somewhat normal now.  But the rest of Kala is full of strange sounds – combined with third-world influences, and samples by The Pixies and The Clash (“Where is My Mind” and “Straight to Hell” respectively).  The rest of the album isn’t nearly as catchy as “Paper Planes” and to me that’s part of its appeal.  M.I.A. made a fantastic album on her own terms.  Knowing her, the follow-up will be good, but calling M.I.A. “weird” just seems superfluous to me.

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