Tag Archives: James Joyce

Literature in Music: “Venus in Furs”

 

Over a primitive drumbeat, alternate tuned guitars, and John Cale’s screeching viola Lou Reed weaves a tale of sexually and a submissive servant named Severin.  Even 40 plus years since its debut, The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” remains one of the most shocking songs from a band known for pushing musical and lyrical boundaries. It’s so explicit in its detail to sadomasochism that it’s hard not to wonder if Reed actually participated in some of these acts.

In actuality, the character of Severin was directly inspired by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Venus in Furs. Published in 1870 Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is equally disturbing as the song.  The narrator dreams of a conversation with Venus (wearing furs) about love. Looking to break his lust, the narrator seeks his friend Severin for advice.  Severin, in turn reads him Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.

In this story, Severin von Kusiemsk is in love with a woman named Wanda.  When Severin requests to be her sex-slave, Wanda at first laughs at him. She eventually changes her mind. Later, Wanda beats Severin and brings in three women whose slaves he will also become. At the end of the book, Severin becomes jealous by Wanda’s new lover, Alexis Papadopolis, and becomes disenchanted with his sex-slave status.  He then laments that “she can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.”

Venus in Furs tale of perversion proved to be a source of inspiration for novelist James Joyce in his novel, Ulysses. In the Circe Chapter, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus stumble into a Dublin brothel.  During a mock trial for his perversions, one character recounts Bloom referring to her as a “Venus in furs” among other accusations. During a lengthy erotic hallucination Bloom is feminized and becomes dominated and tormented by the brothel’s madam. Bloom’s hallucinations are induced by a guilty conscience and also an erotic fulfillment.

Both Severin and Bloom realize these desires can quickly escalate into darker territory and eventually attempt to atone their sins.  Severin ends up leaving Wanda while Bloom rectifies several situations including payment to the prostitutes for a lamp which Stephen had broken earlier.

For The Velvet Underground, there is no sense of remorse for these acts. The moves slowly, but quickens which only adds to its creepiness. “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years.” Reed sings several times, as if he is at his breaking point. Reed’s confession and the scratching guitars that close the song confirm a person can only take so much.

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Songs About America: “Coney Island Baby” – Lou Reed

 

Bono once claimed that Lou Reed was the James Joyce of New York City.  While that might be a bit of hyperbole the former Velvet Underground leader is synonymous with New York City.

Breaking musical and social barriers, Reed showed the dark under belly of the city. Much like Joyce did with Dublin in Ulysses.  Theirs was the version of a city that not everyone got to see, or even cared to acknowledge.  But like it or not, they captured the spirit of their surroundings in descriptive detail.

Reed’s songs were with drugs and sexual deviants.  Sometimes the characters did both activities at the same time.  If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough for the late 60s, crowd there was the music.  The Velvets provided a mountain of noise and attack that has rarely been equaled.  By the time Reed went solo in the early 70s, the music was toned down slightly, perhaps in an attempt to invite a wider audience into the party.  “Take a walk on the wide side,” He encouraged the listeners. There will be things that will blow your mind, but craziness never sounded so fun.

So it must have come as a shock to hear Reed take off his mask, and reflect with a rare sense of sincerity with 1976’s Coney Island Baby.

The song itself tells the story of Reed’s teenage years in Long Island.  The song sums up teenage confusion.  Which is the right path?  Is it Acceptance by peers or following one’s own path?  It’s clear which road Reed ultimately took, but “Coney Island Baby” makes it’s clear that, at least initially the choice wasn’t easy.

His admission of “wanting to play football for the coach” makes this clear.  For many, football is the ultimate form of acceptance in high school.  Not many things are more American than Football.  It’s a sport filled with acceptance, popularity, and brotherhood.   It’s a far cry from commands to “taste the whip”.

The song begins slowly with tasteful guitars and Reed’s soft voice.  Even if you don’t believe the story about Reed wanting to play football, it’s very affective.  As the song moves along, the dream of being on a team is shattered – “All your two-bit friends have gone and ripped you off,” He laments. “They’re talking behind your back.”

The song reaches its emotional climax mid-way through.  A group of singers appear in the background, offering a heartfelt harmony as Reed announces, “the glory of love, might see you through.”

Coney Island Baby is the type of song Lou Reed could write. There’s a sense of youthful innocence lost, and the trials of growing up.  It’s full of heartbreak and hope.  Ultimately this life isn’t meant for Reed. When he describes the city “as something like a circus or a sewer”, you know he’s found his true calling.

“Coney Island Baby” isn’t strictly about America.  But is an American tale.  The line between acceptance and self-worth can sometimes be blurred.  And for many in the 1960s, New York was one of the few places were those who were not considered to be “normal” could find like-minded individuals.  Like those who came to New York from oppression overseas, New York offered a sense of security and possibility to those who chose to follow a different path than the mainstream.  After struggling through his teenage years, it would be Lou Reed would bring this world into the mainstream.

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Happy Bloomsday

Today is June 16th, otherwise known as Blomsday, the day on which James Joyce’ masterpiece Ulysses is set.  As such, I’d thought I’d re-post my essay on Bob Dylan and James Joyce for those new readers who may not have checked it out originally.  

 

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 Blondewas 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 ofPortrait, 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 Tapesin 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.”

 

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Songs For St. Patrick’s Day

Van Morrison – Cyprus Avenue

A centerpiece of Morrison’s landmark Astral Weeks album, Cyprus Avenue finds Morrison wandering Belfast, remembering his past and his life as child.  Only a singer like Morrison could sing about tongue tied, and actually sing in a stutter, and make it sound transcendent and beautiful. The album version unfolds like an Impressionistic painting put to music.  The more you listen to it, the deeper you get into Morrison’s soul and psyche.  The live version found on “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” completely transforms the song into a mixture of soul, jazz, revealing that if Morrison ever played on song ever live, he would still be a phenomenal performer.

The Waterboys – “The Stolen Child”

Technically, The Waterboys are Scottish, but this closing song on Fisherman’s Blues includes lyrics taken from the Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”.  Over a collage of piano and flute, Tomás Mac Eoin delivers the poem in spoken word, while Waterboys singer Mike Scott gives a haunting background vocal.  I used to listen to this song on my headphones on repeat when I was hung-over and had some pretty bizarre dreams as a result.

The Pogues – “Poor Paddy”

Shane MacGowan has written many great songs about Ireland and Irish identity, and they’ve also covered numerous traditional Irish folk songs.  Their cover of “Poor Paddy” is particularly spirited.  At the time of Red Roses For Me release, The Pogues were ushering in a new form of music with their mix of punk and traditional folk-music.  “Poor Paddy” shows that The Pogues were cemented in the past, never forgetting the struggles of the working class and their own national identity.  It also shows that in the process they were creating their own version of what it meant to be Irish by adding a new spin on old themes.

Stiff Little Fingers – “Alternative Ulster”

Ireland’s answer to The Clash – Stiff Little Fingers hailed from Belfast and like The Clash, many of their songs dealt with weighty topics including the troubles in Northern Ireland.   Case in point, their 1978 single “Alternative Ulster” was a rallying cry against the war-torn area of Ulster.  “Is this the kind of place you wanna live? Is this were you wanna be? Is this the only life we’re gonna have?” Singer Jake Burns demands over a wall of buzz-saw guitars.

Kate Bush – “The Sensual World”

Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World” draws its inspiration from Molly Bloom’s famous internal monologue at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Originally, Bush decided to take some of the actual passages from the book, but was refused by the Joyce estate, so she wrote original lyrics inspired by the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Bloomsday

In honor of the greatest novel of the 20th century and the day it took place, I’m devoting this post to Ulysses.  It took me three different attempts to finish, as it is a colossus of a book. Each time I got a little bit further, before I finally ended up finishing it due to a bet.   I won’t give a detailed analysis of it, but the the thing that struck me about Ulysses was how simple its plot was.  The fact that its plot revolves around Leopold Bloom’s journey around Dublin on a voyage of self-discovery, takes nothing away from the novel. The prose if full of beauty, and surprises, and being Joyce deconstructing the way sentences could be put together.  Ulyssess is already cluttered enough with its allusions to the Odyssey, the English language, inside jokes, and of course Catholicism.

If there were ever a book that felt like an album it would be Ulysses. Each section feels completely different, yet they all seen to be sewn together as one, and make the book work as a whole.  And like many good albums have done, it shattered the premonitions of what art could do, and also caused its fair share of controversy.  Someone once told me that Joyce constructed Ulysses with so many secrets that scholars and readers would be discussing it for centuries to come.  I find that to not only be true, but also fascinating.    Every artist wants to be remembered for their work and achieve longevity, but to constantly find something new in a work almost a century later is true artistic immortality.

Also check out my post on James Joyce and Bob Dylan.

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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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