Monday, October 16, 2006

Approaching Bob Dylan's Modern Times

Since its Irish release on August 25, I’ve been listening to Modern Times in all sorts of situations; on the house stereo, in the car, walking in the countryside, even in a hospital bed recovering from surgery, and I’m sorry to have to say that apart from two great moments….

But before I go any further, let me tell you where I’m coming from. Though I suspect that my family might call me something else, I would describe myself simply as a big Bob Dylan fan, . I have all the official albums, hundreds of bootlegs, scores of books, fanzines and DVDs. I go to as many of his concerts as I possibly can; I am familiar with many of his musical antecedents; I know a fair bit about his family origins, and hardly a day goes by but I think of some aspect of his life or work. But one affliction I hope I don’t suffer from is blind devotion. Unlike many Dylanologists (How I dislike that word, but at least it beats Bobcats and Dylanophiles, not to mention a species I’ve actually been addressed as – Hi Bobaroo! – but thankfully never encountered in the flesh) for whom everything Dylan does is absolutely perfect, I am the first to admit that no artist is flawless, and that sometimes – too often on recent albums – Bob Dylan most definitely has shown the proverbial feet of clay.

My involvement with Dylan’s music goes back a long time. I have a vivid memory of being perched on the dinner table – my folk-club stool – pretending not to watch myself in the kitchen mirror as I murder Blowin’ in the Wind. I can see my sunburst Egmond (bought the previous Christmas for one pound, seventeen and six); I can feel the strings an inch above the fretboard, my D, G and A painfully prised from Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day. When I’d finally mastered the three-chord-trick, I remember daydreaming about all the songs I was going to write – JD’s Dream, Talkin’ Coote Street Blues, The Lonesome Life of Bridgie Farrell – but, thankfully, none of them – as James Joyce said about a story he had once tried to write – ever got “any forrader than the title”.

Over the next few years I immersed myself in Irish and English traditional music. In college, I played mostly Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon – the ladies weren’t too impressed by The Verdant Braes of Skreen – but, with a clarity that is luminous, I can recall one Major Dylan Moment when B. P. Fallon, an Irish DJ later half-famous for appearing on Top of the Pops with John Lennon, played the just-released Nashville Skyline from start to finish; a few of us huddled around the transistor, horrified by the voice crooning through the static; our reaction presaging Greil Marcus’ notorious response to a later Dylan album: What is this shit?

Blood on the Tracks reignited my interest – I remember staying up late to work out the open tuning; the small-hours silence broken by my brand-new Yamaha FG180 – but when he found Jesus in the late 1970’s I abandoned Bob Dylan again. The slick production on Slow Train Coming really turned me off but, as I discovered many years later when the Internet introduced me to the vast new world of bootlegs, the live performance of those religious songs inspired some of his all-time greatest singing. Although I liked bits and pieces from the 1980’s – I and I and Most of the Time remain firm favourites – it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that I really got back into Dylan – the Internet played a large part in this – and, with the zeal of the ‘re-converted’, I listened to everything, attended as many live concerts as I could; read more esoteric stuff than was good for anyone’s health…

So, why have I given you this potted history of my adventures in the realms of Dylanology? Primarily because I love writing about anything to do with music but, on a more subliminal level, I suspect that it has something to do with establishing my credentials as an informed fan, someone who’s entitled and qualified to be as critical as he feels.

From the earliest days of his career in Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan has ‘borrowed’ from other songs and performers. Song to Woody, his first major composition, for instance, uses the melody of Woody Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre – which, in turn, derives from the old ballad One Morning in May – and its most striking line about the men “That come with the dust and are gone with the wind” echoes the plight of Guthrie’s migrants in his Pastures of Plenty: “We come with the dust and we go with the wind.” No doubt, the young Dylan intended his song as a sincere tribute – On his arrival in New York, he described himself as a “Woody Guthrie jukebox”. Liam Clancy, for reasons not unrelated perhaps to one of the themes of this essay, said he was like blotting paper – and I would accept it as such and say no more, were it not for the huge amount of similar appropriations throughout his long career. A few random examples: Blowin’ in the Wind adapts the melody of the old slave song No More Auction Block (Dylan’s rendition of which, incidentally, at the Gaslight Café in New York in October 1962 is, to my ears, one of his most moving live performances); Farewell is closely related of the well-known Leaving Of Liverpool; Restless Farewell and With God On Our Side use the tunes of The Parting Glass and The Patriot Game respectively, while I Pity The Poor Emigrant and I Dreamed I saw St Augustine do the same with Come All Ye Tramps and Hawkers and Joe Hill. And I haven’t even mentioned the myriad of blues phrases that have found their way – or been dragged – into countless Dylan songs. I might have no problem with any of this if he simply acknowledged these ‘borrowings’, but no, each of the above examples – plus many, many more – are, according to his official website, copyright Bob Dylan.

Such borrowings, inspirations, thefts, appropriations or whatever you want to call them are usually defended by Those Who Idolise Bob (TWIB) by (a) calling them 'allusions' (b) referring to 'the folk process' (c) Quoting T. S. Eliot. Let’s examine each of these. (a) There is a world of difference between allusion and downright pilfering. The former is an implied or indirect reference. For example, the yellow dressing-gown worn by Buck Mulligan in the opening lines of Joyce's Ulysses – a veritable cornucopia of allusion – alludes to the portrayal of Judas in Christian Symbolism, thereby reinforcing our impression of Stephen Dedalus' opinion of Mulligan. That's an allusion. Another definition of which might be: A word or phrase that amplifies what actually appears on the pages, a verbal incendiary device, if you like, that explodes in your head with a hundred possibilities. But there is nothing allusive about changing a word or line or two in someone else's work and calling it your own.

(Before I go any further, I think I should say something about my already apparent obsession with James Joyce, and also the reference to TWIB above. The two constants, the presiding deities, so to speak, in my cultural life are Bob Dylan and James Joyce, and, most days, something to do with one or the other comes into my head without knocking. Get a life, clear your head, I hear you snigger and maybe you’re right.)

As if it were an article of faith, TWIB steadfastly maintain that Bob Dylan is capable of doing no wrong. Think Papal infallibility for Catholics. Apart from such extreme opinions, TWIB are also capable of behaviour that might be considered unusual. I have met various members of the tribe who listen to absolutely nothing except Bob Dylan’s music; I know someone who has a huge library of books about Dylan and has never opened a page of any of them. I know someone else who has a roomful of bootlegs, but has never listened to the original Blood on the Tracks and has no desire to. Instead, the experience is being saved for some Profound Moment, some Grand Epiphany when, no doubt, the mystery of life, which came first, the chicken or the egg, how much is the doggy in the window, will all be revealed.

Anyway, back to (b) above. For almost a century now, in the so-called developed world, there has been no such thing as 'the folk process'. Before the introduction of mechanical recording, and subsequent means of mass communication, such a process, based on oral composition, oral transmission and the fallibility of human memory, did obviously exist, but this is no longer the case. If we accept that the sine qua non of ‘the folk process’ is oral composition and transmission, then, in terms of composition, Bob Dylan never was a folk artist. It’s as simple as that. He may, of course, pace our coffee-house friend in Talkin’ New York, have been a folk singer, but that’s another day’s work.

T.S Eliot’s comment – in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism – that immature poets imitate; mature poets steal, is often trotted out by TWIB as a justification for Dylan’s ‘borrowings’. But what isn’t so freely broadcast is that, in the same paragraph, Eliot also says that “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.” To my mind, it is that final clause that is applicable to much of Dylan’s recent work.

The liner notes of the archly-titled “Love and Theft” album of 2001 proclaim that all songs are written by Bob Dylan. Needless to say, there is absolutely no acknowledgement of the disparate sources he has plundered to write these songs. For example, the very first notes you’ll hear are a direct lift from Uncle John’s Bongos by country duo Johnnie and Jack from 1961. And so it goes, right through the album…. As diligent research by fans all over the world has revealed, there seems to be no end to Dylan’s borrowings, inspirations, thefts, appropriations or whatever you want to call them. Scraps of blues lyrics and folksongs, the entire melody of a Billie Holiday song, nursery rhymes, the violin riff and melody from a romantic ballad recorded by Bing Crosby and others in the 1930’s; hackneyed jokes; lines from various novels and, most unexpectedly, extensive and, needless to say, uncredited ‘borrowings’ from Confessions of a Yakuza by the Japanese author, Junichi Saga, all became grist to his voracious mill. Earlier on, I referred to my own symptoms. On “Love and Theft” Bob Dylan seems to be suffering from an acute dose of a Textually Transmitted Disease (TTD), a malady that comes dangerously close to plagiarism.

A few extra words on the subject of plagiarism might not be out of place here. We would all love our heroes to create ab nihilo in the burning forge of genius etc. etc., but that's simply not the way it works. When it comes to his sources, Dylan is as much of a magpie as, say, that man Joyce again (who ransacked everything and anything from Aesop to Zarathustra), but, for me, the problem is that he is so lazy with his pilfering. Unlike Joyce, who transmutes what he pilfers into something new and wonderful on the page, Dylan imports his spoils wholesale and seems content to leave them there with little or no connection to anything else in the same song. This wasn’t such an issue in his earlier work, but that’s something I’ll return to in my comments on Nettie Moore below.

But, but… – and this is a massive ‘but’ – in live performance he takes the recorded blueprints by the scruff of the neck and, by dint of miraculous phrasing, outrageous inflection, in short, sheer vocal genius, twists and turns, cajoles and forces them into vibrant, sinuous, mesmeric works of art. To coin a cliché: The stage is to Dylan as the page was to Joyce and it is on stage that, I believe, his true greatness lies. And having said that, I still wish to God he wouldn't steal so much. I think that the practice diminishes his art and I fear that historians, particularly those who have never heard recordings of his live performances – I’ve just had a sudden flash of a Nobel Prize Committee gathered around a table, confronted by mounds of bootleg recordings – will consign him to the lower ranks of artistic achievement. But, then again, why should we worry about posterity when, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, it has never done anything for us?

Given Dylan’s love of old music (as his radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, abundantly illustrates), it comes as no great shock to find that the title Modern Times is deeply ironic and there’s not a genre here less that half-a-century old. In fact, I won’t be at all surprised if your first reaction is ‘Where have I hear that bit before?’ And if you have more than a nodding acquaintance with the blues and the history of popular music, you probably have heard much of Modern Times before. There’s been a lot of Internet talk about how it and “Love and Theft” represent some sort of repository of American musical culture; how brilliantly Dylan has drawn on the sentimental melodies he heard as a child and, later on, blues pulsing up from stations south of Minnesota, and presented us with a fond tribute to his musical forbears. Listening to some Dylan apologists, you’d be forgiven for forming the impression that “Love and Theft” and Modern Times are more sacred, historical artifacts than living, breathing works of art to be enjoyed, loved, disliked, talked about and argued over. Of course it’s good that Bob Dylan recognises where he has come from – something he’s known from way back, incidentally, and doesn’t need to prove to anyone – but that, per se, is no reason why any album by him, or anyone else for that matter, should be glorified. Take Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, for instance. Of course, it’s of Monumental Significance, Seminal Importance, Incalculable Influence etc., etc., etc., but if it didn’t portray such a vast range of human behaviour; the joys, the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to (Allusion or Theft? Discuss.) and if we, in turn, weren’t moved and changed by the listening experience, it would, so to speak, have no business stirring outside the doors of the Smithsonian.

Before I get off my soapbox, I’ll mention something else that irks me about TWIB. Too often I have found that if you express anything less that utter admiration for an album, you will be told (a) that “you just don’t get it” (b) you haven’t listened to it enough, that it’s a grower, give it more time…. If you reply that, on the contrary, you’ve been living with it for months, you’ll be told (c) Whoa, give it break for a while, you’ll really love it when you come back.. So, poor doubting Thomas just can’t win. Which raises a subsidiary question I’ve always found interesting: How many times must a fan lend an ear till he knows that an album is great? (It’s alright, Ma, it’s only an allusion). Seriously though, at what stage does familiarity breed mere familiarity, a sort of cosy recognition that is easily mistaken for liking, even loving a song? Is it possible to hold a definitive opinion of any work of art? In spite of all my pronouncements here, I don’t think it is. Do I contradict myself? With apologies to Walt Whitman, very well then I contradict myself. And, having got all that off my chest, let’s, at last, turn our attention to Modern Times.

Things get off to a flying start with Thunder on the Mountain. There’s nothing remotely original about its 12-bar rockabilly structure and melodic echoes of Johnny B. Goode, but Dylan’s vocals are absolutely outstanding. The savage indignation in the way he attacks

“Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams.”

never fails to move me and provides the first of the album’s Great Moments. This song is one of the very few that doesn’t outstay its welcome and its dozen verses – apart from a baffling reference to Alicia Keys – contain some great writing. Consider, for instance, this arresting blend of the sinister and amusing.

“Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches/I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages.”

The first time I heard that, the beginnings of a smile were swept away by memories of news reports from Burma, Sri Lanka or Uganda: every time I’ve played it since, I see those young shoulders weighed down by bandoliers, the defiant stares unable to kill the childhood in their eyes.

Next up is Spirit on the Water, a woefully protracted piece (twenty quatrains!) which, despite its biblical opening and subsequent blues borrowings, is a middle-of-the-road ditty in which romantic Bob finds twenty ways of saying “I’m wild about you, gal.” The lyrics are exactly what you’d expect from this genre, but even his heartfelt vocals – listen to the resignation he brings to the eighth verse – can do nothing for lines like

I been in a brawl/ Now I’m feeling the wall
I’m going away, baby/I won’t be back till fall.

Did Bob Dylan really write that? One redeeming feature though: if you stick around, you’ll eventually reach a lovely coda for harmonica and guitar.

It’s with the next track Rollin’ and Tumblin’ that all my tidy opinions, all my logical conclusions are blown right out the window and I’m simply overwhelmed by what I’m hearing. Again, there’s nothing original here: the melody and the opening lines have been around since, as my mother used to say, Oul’ God’s time. Hambone Willie Newbern recorded it in 1929, and it has subsequently been pressed into action by Muddy Waters, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead and Captain Beefheart, to name but a handful. The liner notes say ‘All songs by Bob Dylan’ but only the lyric here is really his. And, for once, I don’t care. I just don’t care. I love the stinging guitar intro, what sounds like a pizzicato fiddle but is probably guitar chords, and some great lyrics:

“The night is filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom.
I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumbling tombs.”

From the mouth of anyone else, these lines would be no more than gothic histrionics, but into them Dylan distills a veritable universe of mortality and loss. And it is his magisterial growl that presides over the track. Listen, for instance, to the self-loathing in the last word of verse seven, or the terror he evokes with the last four words of the next verse. Or, best of all, the way his voice soars into the very opening words of the song. This is Bob Dylan singing like only Bob Dylan can, and the shivers up my spine let me know that this is the album’s second Great Moment. Hearing singing as good as this sometimes fills me with dread at how short is our time on earth…. My brain tells me that, at nearly six minutes, the whole shebang is far is too long, but, again, I don’t care, and it is the one song on Modern Times I can’t wait to hear live. Why do I like this one so much and not others? I have no idea. As Van Morrison testified all those years ago on Summertime in England, “It ain’t why, why, why. It just is.…”

Then, from these sublime heights we fall headlong into When the Deal Goes Down, a beautifully-sung mishmash of Victorian poeticisms and well-meaning platitudes on the transience of life. (It is actually enhanced by the evocative video, one of the very few instances I can recall where a song is thus improved, and the reason is obvious: the pictures distract from the words.) By the way, those of you who enjoy spotting arcane correspondences in Dylan’s music might like to compare the drumbeat that starts Like A Rolling Stone with its more anaemic counterpart here.

Shortly after the album’s release, an American disc jockey, Scott Warmuth, googled the lyrics and found that its romantic references to frail flowers, precious hours, moonlight, visions in the skies etc. weren’t written by Dylan at all, but lifted more or less wholesale from various poems by Henry Timrod (1828-1867), a Charleston native who currently joins Dylan in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. But I’d wager that Mr Timrod would turn in his grave if he knew that his words had ended up alongside some of the other lines here. Consider, for instance:

The moon gives light and it shines by night


Well, I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes.

Again, I ask you, did Bob Dylan really write that?

Despite the great singing – listen, particularly, to the dismissive emphasis he places on that nothing in line five – Someday Baby is an inconsequential piece of work, nine verses crying out for a middle-eight and a fiddle or mandolin solo instead of the run-of the mill guitars. Inspired, I have been informed, by Muddy Waters’ Trouble No More, this track comes across like J.J. Cale in one of his less somnolent moments but, after a few listens, its copy-and-paste guitar figure is guaranteed to lull anybody straight into the arms of Morpheus.

Workingman's Blues #2 is already a particular favourite of many Dylan fans, but I find its mixture of anthemic love song, rural and urban imagery, blues references, and incongruous political observation somewhat less than convincing. And, again, its mention of ‘a lover’s breath’ and ‘a temporary death’ are straight from Mr Timrod. But it’s not all bad news: I love the evocative “Starlight by the edge of the creek” and the pathos he brings to something as simple as

Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking
That you have forgotten me.

Beyond the Horizon is a gush of sentimentality that blatantly rips off the melody of the well-known Red Sails in the Sunset. If Hallmark ever runs out of soppy sentiments, this song will prove to be its saviour. The shadow of Timrod is again discernible in the second half of this quatrain:

My wretched heart’s pounding
I felt an angel’s kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss

but did Dylan himself really resort to “an angel’s kiss” and, elsewhere in the song, such threadbare clichés as “I’ll build my world around you?” and “I’ve got more than a lifetime to live loving you.” If so, how the mighty have fallen.

Nettie Moore – part of whose chorus is taken directly from a nineteenth-century song with the same title – is ostensibly an elegiac love song, but what is “Well, the world of research has gone berserk/Too much paperwork” doing in the middle of it? Or what’s the story with the judge? On a similar note, has anyone figured out what the narrator being “hit from behind” has to do with anything else in Ain’t Talking? Non-sequiturs, have, of course, always figured prominently in Dylan’s work, but the difference is that, unlike the earlier surreal flashes that detonated whole series of images in your head, here they are such damp squibs that even Dylan’s singing can’t ignite them.

Musically, this could have been the most interesting track – That G major chord in the second line gives a refreshing jolt to each verse, but when you hear it for the tenth or twelfth time, it soon loses its impact – but much of its potency has disappeared before we get anywhere near the end of its almost seven minutes. At the risk of being burned as a heretic by the Torquemadas of the Dylan world, can I dare suggest that this would be a far better song if he had scrapped half the choruses and verses 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Yes, I know there’ll be very little left, but, to paraphrase a line from another Dylan song, the fibreglass would be disposed of and only the gems remain.

Typically, Dylan claims complete credit for The Levee’s Gonna Break but, despite its mostly new lyric, it still owes a substantial debt to When the Levee Breaks recorded by Memphis Minnie Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife Memphis Minnie in 1929. Led Zeppelin fans will also be familiar with an epic version of the song (which, I might note, does share credits with the original writers) but Dylan’s is a repetitious 16-verse saga that might get us jivin’ in the aisles at concerts, but as a listening experience, really tested my endurance.

And so we come to the final track. Ain’t Talking is nine minutes long but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s as near as it gets to being any sort of epic. The lyrics, which embrace bits and pieces from dozens of other songs – including, incidentally, Wild Mountain Thyme which Dylan massacred at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival – range from the interesting

I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road

To the apparently trite

Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’.
Eatin’ hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town

Despite the subtle mix of acoustic and electric guitars, the music is mainly a two-chord construction that seems to go on forever and the Picardy third which finally brings things to a close is as welcome as the flowers in May. Honest to God, this should have been edited with a chainsaw.

And there you have it. Today, October 16, 2006, – Who knows how I’ll feel in a year’s time? – Modern Times is tediously protracted, derivative, melodically flat, and for the most part, lyrically banal. The arrangements are equally unimaginative and played by musicians (the guitarists especially) who seldom rise above the sort of stuff you'd expect from any competent covers band. But as someone rightly pointed out to me, this is not necessarily their fault. What they are playing obviously pleases their boss because, as is well known, Dylan is merciless when disposing of band members who, for whatever reason, fail to meet with his approval.

It is the singing that provides the album's only consistent redeeming feature because, for the most part, Modern Times is an easy-listening, middle-of-the road, blues-by-numbers collection which, if it wasn't by Bob Dylan, I would never have given a third or fourth listen. And maybe it’s those precise traits that account for the album’s popularity. It is Dylan's first Number 1 in the US since 1976 – he is, incidentally, the oldest living person ever to have an album enter the Billboard charts at the highest position – and has been a huge hit all around the world. It has been equally well-received by the critics (One website that monitors reviews gives the album’s approval rating at nearly 90 per cent), so what do I know? All I do know for certain is that, most of the time, Modern Times does not move me at all. I also know that, more than forty years ago, Dylan wrote that he not busy being born is busy dying. In terms of the creativity evident on Modern Times, I can’t stop that phrase from ringing in my head.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Most days I walk through a wooded area on the outskirts of our town. Recently I've noticed a new phenomenon; small groups of foreign nationals, eyes fixed to the ground between the trees, filling Dunnes Stores and Lidl bags with toadstools. I've no idea what they'll do with them. If they're for gastronomic purposes all I can say is bon appetit; if they have other uses, is this any different than what we natives do with alcohol?