Friday, August 18, 2006

White Bicycles. Making Music in the 1960's

They say that if you can remember the 1960's you weren’t there at all. Joe Boyd, famed producer and general man-about-music, definitely was there and, on the evidence of this fascinating book, his memory is perfectly intact. If, like me, you first got into music in the Sixties, White Bicycles will bring back stuff you’ve forgotten for years. (You'll also smile with satisfaction as you recognise the allusion in the book's title.) If you’re much younger, you’ll be captivated by how vividly it evokes the sights and sounds of that seminal decade.

Blues… Folk… Psychedelia... Pink Floyd at UFO (which, every night bar Fridays, was the Blarney Club run by an affable Paddy)... the Incredible String Band and their bad luck at Woodstock... Nick Drake… Fairport Convention… Bob Dylan (the account of Newport 1965 is the best I’ve ever read)… They’ve all come into Boyd’s orbit and are brilliantly brought to life here. Elswhere, he is scathing about digital recording; South African racism and white liberals; the narrow-mindedness of the Jazz scene and, in one the most striking passages, inspired by a bland performance by Aretha Franklin, he castigates those artists and their fans who settle for “self-congratulatory affection” where “the music is caught in the middle, lifeless and predictable”. The final chapter is a compelling comparison of the Sixties and our world today, and the book ends with an elegiac coda which fuses the intensely personal and the zeitgeist.

Two Films

We watched two films this week which, by coincidence, dealt with the dynamics of family life; in particular the emotional fallout from divorce. And that’s about the only thing they had in common. The Squid and the Whale is a well-intentioned, but simplistic moral tale marred by a predictable screenplay and one-dimensional characters. I couldn’t escape the feeling that what we were watching was a mere transcription of the director's own life with none of the magic, the je ne sais quoi that elevates the mundane into something special. In complete contrast, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a moving, multifaceted experience with complex, unpredictable people (though one of the sons does come close to your common-or-garden angsty teen), and an unexpected, but totally plausible narrative. Alongside Transamerica, this is the best film I've seen this year, followed by Breakfast on Pluto, Brokeback Mountain, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Music on the Move

Since my retirement, I’ve been indulging my twin passions, music and walking. The former has been a huge part of my life since the halcyon days of Radio Luxembourg; the latter is a recent activity, prompted by (a) my wife’s hints that maybe I wasn’t the golden Adonis she fell for thirty years ago (b) the simple, selfish fact that if I didn’t get some exercise, the heart might also start complaining (c) the acquisition of a dog, a Yorkshire terrier named Ziggy (no, he doesn’t play guitar) who demands a daily romp in the countryside.

I was never a walker; in fact, the only exercise I got was strolling around the classroom. And all my interests were sedentary as well. But it’s amazing how quickly things can change and now I’m as surprised by my new love of walking as I am by how quickly I seem to have forgotten all the years I spent teaching. The MP3 player, of course, allows me to combine my passions and this has led to some interesting discoveries.

I often think about how the environment affects my response to the music I’m listening to; also, the influence of music on how I perceive my surroundings. It goes without saying, I suppose, that there is a huge difference between how the same piece of music sounds in urban and rural environments. Furthermore, it’s amazing how the same music can sound brilliant on a dull day but ordinary enough in the sunshine and vice versa. If there’s a logic to all of this, so far it has eluded me. And I suppose that’s one of the reasons I love music so much; my favourite pieces have a protean quality that, depending on mood, time and space, can mean a hundred different things, transport me to a hundred different places (“Music is another planet”, according to the French writer, Alphonse Daudet) while, at the same time – and here’s the paradox – they exude a familiarity, a comfort that I respond to. And whether we like to admit it or not, we all – from the most doctrinaire avant-gardener to those of us who warble in the shower – need and love to be comforted.

Music on the move also creates a symbiotic audio/visual experience which has confounded some notions I’d more or less taken for granted. Contrary to all my expectations, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony sounded redundant in the meadows of Togher, while the ominous drums and blaring brass of Shostakovich were brilliant in the wide-open spaces of Cúil na Móna bog. Other memorable if unlikely combinations were Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo and a snowy morning in Emo Wood; the sun splitting the trees along the Watery Lane, Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall apocalyptic in my ears. Vic Chesnutt’s Is the Actor Happy? and anything by Howlin’ Wolf or Johnny Moynihan sounded great everywhere, but I still haven’t found anywhere that makes the latest albums by The Streets or The Futureheads sound anything other than the shuffle of tired minds over the same old ground.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Up Up And Away

I'm due to have gallstones removed in September. The other day, in the supermarket carpark, I met an acquaintance and we got talking about our respective health. I told him about my impending operation. His response? "The first cousin's daughter, only a young wan, had that keyhole surgery and it nearly blew her up. They filled her with some sort of gas to make room for the instruments and, I swear to God, she went up like a balloon... right up to the shoulders. She was like the Michelin Man...."

Thanks Joe (name changed to protect the guilty).

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Books of the Year So Far

Shade. Neil Jordan
The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Dave Van Ronk
The Kite Runner. Khaled Hosseini
The Canal Bridge. Tom Phelan
Notes From A Coma. Mike McCormack
We Need To Talk About Kevin. Lionel Shriver

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Dylan no poet

I see that Bob Dylan is included in the new Oxford Book of American Poetry. I am ambivalent about this: I am always delighted when his work is exposed to a new audience, but I don't believe that Dylan is a poet. He is a songwriter and singer whose lyrics, for the most part, lie dormant on the page until his voice breathes, sneers, howls, rasps life into them.

Above most other singer/songwriters, Dylan is praised for being a poet and criticised for his vocal shortcomings. In a recent programme on Irish radio, for instance, one fan declared that his hero was "the greatest poet since Shakespeare" but who "unfortunately hasn't a great voice". I dislike the constant comparisons to poets and poetry because they imply an acceptance that poetry is a superior art; one to which all serious songwriters should aspire. Why should they? The same applies to prose and film: Why should they be praised for being 'poetic'. Even architecture and sport. How often do we hear that old warhorse 'poetry in motion' paraded into action? (The Victorian critic Walter Pater, incidentally, maintained that all art aspires towards the condition of music. Now, there's a man after my own heart.) If I hear another "Well, I don't really like Bob Dylan, but his songs are so poetic", I swear I'll... I'll think of something.

In 2003, Christopher Ricks, Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, published Dylan's Visions of Sin, a massive tome whose analysis to my mind, is based on a single spurious premise: Dylan's lyrics are worthy of academic scrutiny because they compare favourably with poetry, that comparing them to poetry confers some sort of artistic validation. Remember the old Keats versus Dylan nonsense? Bob Dylan needs no such validation.

It goes without saying that Dylan is enormously influential as a lyricist but I believe that it as a singer of his own songs that makes him truly great. He has, quite simply, re-defined the notion of what makes a singer great. Technical excellence, bel canto beauty, an ability to sing and maintain a unit-shifting smile: Dylan has none of these. But what he has is a protean, expressive way of singing that conveys a huge gamut of emotions and, apologies to the ghost of Johnny Cash, conjures up forty shades of nuance. When on form, his singing, the way he hits a line, a word, a single syllable even, goes straight to my soul. I don't think of the lyric he's singing, much less its meaning. All I feel is that shiver up the spine, that involuntary shudder, that rush of emotion that connects me with something I find difficult to explain.... All I know is that I am freed of the tyranny of meaning, the tyranny of time and place, the tyranny of myself, and taken somewhere else....

Having said all that, I sometimes enjoy reading his lyrics because I am one of the lucky people who have heard all his albums, hundreds of bootlegs and numerous live performances. And, above all else, it is this last valuable experience that I am able to bring to the printed word. I can read, say, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue and my memory, as it were, provides the soundtrack. And the more performances I have heard, the more enriching I find the reading experience. Today I might be struck by the anger I have heard in that lyric; tomorrow the resignation, another day the compassion....

You can argue, of course, that, in the long run, it doesn't matter a damn what we call Bob Dylan; that all I'm doing here is quibbling over nomenclature. But I think it does matter. Calling him a poet narrows his achievement and consigns him to a minority-interest corner of the arts; a niche that may enjoy greater status than songwriting but one that, to my ears, achieves very little of the resonance, the sheer extraordinary power that great singing can produce.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mine's Bigger Than Yours

Picture this: A bright spring morning, three pensioners on a bench in the Market Square comparing the size of their MP3 players....

Until the start of 2006, I usually bought about seventy CD's a year. There were artists whose albums I'd buy automatically; Dylan, Bowie, Dan Bern, Richard Thompson, Frank Zappa, Tom Verlaine to name a handful; others I'd get because I'd read an interesting - not necessarily good - review. Some were bought because they were panned by reviewers whose tastes I knew and generally disliked; some were recommended by people whose judgment I trusted; others I bought because I liked a particular genre, string quartets, say, or pre-war blues. So far this year, I've bought the grand total of five CD's, but I've heard more new music than in the previous twelve months.

I now download most of my music from emusic. I use this site for two reasons: It's great value ($9.99 for 40 tracks each month) and it has loads of stuff I've never heard before. If you're looking for the big, poptastic names that festoon the charts, this is not the site for you; but if you are adventurous, and have the time (and you do need time) to listen to the endless samples, you'll find yourself embarking on an odyssey that could bring you from homely, old-time favourites, through blues, classical, rock and world music, to the furthest reaches of avant-garde jazz. Through emusic I have discovered such great, disparate artists as The Mountain Goats (expect a longer epistle on this subject some time in the future), Extra Golden, The National, Califone, Field Music, Phosphorescent....

You're right.... I was one of those pensioners.