Monday, February 27, 2023


Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, an ironic designation if only because Dylan wasn’t a man of books, but rather a songwriter. The gist of the argument for the musician being awarded the prize was that his lyrics, in a brief span of time, evolved from clever imitations of the folk and blues artists he admired and imitated to become a rich libretto for his age. Surrealist nightmares, black humor, rhapsodic tone poems, acute observations of ingrained varieties of bad faith revealed in personal lives and in the political sphere, songs like “Like a Rolling Stone,” “I Want You,” and “Positively 4th Street” brought a new, serious poetry to the jukebox, leading the way for a generation of other songwriters. It was a common sight in nearly any graduate student’s apartment that Dylan discs like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde cozily nestled next to the typically dog-eared paperbacks of Pound’s Cantos, One Dimensional Man or a coffee table book about Max Ernst or Diane Arbus.

As the songwriter’s lyrics became darker, more mystical, expressively abstract, the deeper the appreciation of the baffling brilliance of his work became—and soon enough the serious vanguard of modern American poetry—Ginsberg, McClure et al., counted the man from Hibbing as one of their own, a sage who could see beyond the flat appearance of the material world and provide glimpses of what’s behind the veil. Dylan née Zimmerman had a run of genius, the length of which wholly depended on how dedicated one is to the continuity of the songwriter’s brilliance. My interest is more about his earlier career, 1962 (Bob Dylan) through 1969 (Nashville Skyline). In my quizzical estimation, his work has been inconsistent since that time, occasionally animated with outbreaks of energy and verbal intensity (Blood on the Tracks). But Dylan zealots are a bright and well-read part of the listening population, and those who found worth, insight, and inspiration from albums from Street Legal or Empire Burlesque (two random selections from the years I call “the Great In-Between”) defend the later work with energy, solid thinking, and good writing. That’s the Dylan whose work and reputation provokes an alarming amount of cogitation. 

An endless variety of books have been published about Dylan and his songwriting in the six decades since the release of his first album, some purely for pop music fans, others gossipy, and many that are a kind of interpretative analysis that approach the inscrutability of the maestro’s best stanzas. But Dylan, again, is a songwriter, not a writer of books in the main. His catalog of songs abounds with much of the most original, penetrating, and innovative lyrics of the 20th century, and many achieve the status of High Art, genuine and compelling poetry. “Visions of Johanna,” “Desolation Row,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Memphis Blues Again.” “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and the full version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” reveal a man in love with the varieties of idioms available to him; he loved language enough to ignore the formalities in front of him and merge the styles he loved in the simple melodies he often borrowed from others. He could rhyme, and his couplets were adroit and left you saying “oh, wow” as he finished each verse. This virtuosity didn’t carry over to books, as the pair he’s written up to now wind up head scratchers at best.

Tarantula, an experimental prose poetry collection Dylan wrote between 1965 and 1966, wasn’t intended for publication, but its existence became an underground legend, and bootleg editions began to circulate. Tarantula was finally printed in 1971. The book wasn’t a coherent thesis but rather reflected Dylan’s method and influences, which characterized his most baroque and lyrics, similar in style to the “cut up” technique fashioned by William Burroughs in his novels Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys: a major transgression against grammar and punctuation and notions of continuity, rough-hewn character sketches, in jokes, odd conflations of vernaculars that constitute Dylan’s most hallucinogenic writing. It remains a head scratcher even for the most faithful of his flock, although there are some rather striking and evocative tributes to a woman named Aretha, most likely Aretha Franklin. This lane-changing collection of idiomatic invention and deconstruction is, if nothing else, an odd and sometimes exhilarating landmark in on the Dylan bookshelf.

Dylan’s next book Chronicles Volume One, published in 2004, is said to have started as the author’s attempts to write liner notes for his then-forthcoming reissues of Bob Dylan, New Morning, and Oh Mercy. The project grew larger and became what is described as part one of a three-part memoir. While fascinating to read the usually opaque lyricist convene in readable prose, his recollections are limited to some worthy remarks about the making of his first album and then protracted memories of the relatively obscure New Morning and Oh Mercy. Chronicles spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list and was generally well reviewed, though there was disappointment in the matters he chose to talk about and not discuss. Worse, there were rumblings that Dylan had fabricated much of what he did bother to disclose. Clinton Heylin, a thorough Dylan biographer, who has published eight books on the singer in the last 30 years, has been quoted as saying that while he enjoyed reading Dylan’s book as a work of imaginative literature but that “… almost everything in the Oh Mercy section of Chronicles is a work of fiction…”

So, we arrive at Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. It’s a handsome, oversized tome that has Dylan bringing us a stream of brief essays that discuss an odd, seemingly random set of 66 songs that were popular throughout American history. As expected, the songs are a confounding selection of tunes, as he opts not to opine or analyze the landmark music of the last century or so but instead goes for a good many tunes that are painfully obscure and not necessarily worth dwelling on at length. From 2006 to 2009, the singer had Theme Time Radio Hour, a weekly, one hour satellite podcast where each program’s playlist centered around a theme instead of a specific genre. The song choices were unusual in large part—the odd, the quirky, the gorgeous, and the amazingly bucolic varieties of American music played to whatever the mood of the week was, the music on each program peppered with Dylan’s offhand remarks, jokes, anecdotes, historical trivia, and brief biographies of the musicians. The Philosophy of Modern Music appears to take the same strategy and avoids a traceable thesis through the essays where Dylan chats about the songs he’s chosen for elucidation. A fascinating assortment, including songs by the Eagles ("Wichie Woman"), Rosemary Clooney (“Come on a My House”), Johnny Taylor (“Cheaper to Keep Her”), Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”), Cher (“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”), and other songs of far-reaching style, attitude, and subject that are, truthfully, perfectly fine, and often brilliant classics but that have little obvious connection apart from the Nobel Prize winner selected for a book.

The book is hailed in promotion materials as a masterclass in songwriting and refers to the essays, while being nominally about music, as being “meditations and reflections on the human condition.” “Essays” is perhaps too generous a term to describe what Dylan has written for these songs, as their lengths and depth of thought don’t particularly rise above an average blog post. What’s revealed is that Dylan is not really the philosophical sort to take apart concepts and deal with them critically in archly specialized language, and that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature based on his prose. Anyone desiring weighty and eloquent clarity on the purpose of existence will find the book wanting, but for those who consider Dylan to be a gifted artist with interesting things to say about some musical landmarks that got and kept his attention, The Philosophy of Modern Song is an intriguing, frequently surprising set of remarks and musings from one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic figures. The individual pieces are remarkably poetic and literate on their terms. What connects this wide swath of tunes is Dylan’s skill at putting himself in the narrative at hand rather than analyze the melody and lyrics for subtler inclinations and nuance or hypothesize how a hymn offers a critique of social relations; Dylan imagines cinematic scenarios, sees archetypes of modern myth negotiating their respective terrains, and finds the souls of errant knight of endless variation questing for a greater glory with what gifts or curses that mark their lives.

The lyricist hasn’t the prose polish of John Updike or James Baldwin, but his language is vivid, colorful, and skillfully emphatic as he delineates the dilemmas and joys each song undertakes to describe in a short expression. A theme does emerge as he runs through a host of the music, the notion of perseverance and persistence even in the face of hardship, heartbreak, and the cold inevitability of a certain fate. A random selection of the essays brings this. Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” has a strong feeling of a classic movie western as Dylan writes of the narrator—a lone cowboy at a border town to meet a challenge he cannot forestall, emphasizes the weight of loneliness of the gunslinger, an existence where every joy is fleeting, and the shadow of death lurks in every unlit corner. “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” was a 1971 hit for Cher, a torrid bit of fanciful exploitation that was considered to be a cardboard pathos at best, but Dylan thought deeper on the matter and found resonance. It stretches credulity, but his insistence on this song makes for reading you can’t draw away from. He uses the pronoun “you” in writing about the title’s tawdry trio, the intended effect being to imagine yourself as a member of this wandering community, the only home being the wagon that carries you at the outskirts of every town. He lays it own a little too thick by essay’s end, with his penchant for stringing three or more adjectives together when one would have been just as effective, but he does what he sets out to do to give you a strong impression of what life at the edge of society would be like. To that end, it reminded me of my time as a carnival worker, going from town to town up the coast, selling chances to win dusty stuffed animals to townies who obviously held the orange shirted show folk in contempt. It was a rush of memory, a chill in the bones, and an adventure I consider myself lucky to eventually walk away from.

These are songs of perseverance and persistence are again short testimonials that crop up on the radio, in movie soundtracks and music videos of individuals of many origins, backgrounds, and varying degrees of stress, who are determined to stand their ground lest the final remains of what is truly theirs vanishes in self-loathing rituals of compromise and surrender. That seems what has found in 66 songs, wildly disparate in era, style, and sentiment; it’s the one tangible thread I’ve found. He is at his best when he gives vent to the full range of ironies contained in the Who’s 1965 proto punk rock anthem “My Generation,” with its famous line “I hope I die before I get old…” The singer and songwriter who brought us the line, Roger Daltry and Peter Townsend are neither dead and are, in fact, old reflects on the arrogance of youth. The stuttering youth of the song is barely articulate and has no idea of what he wants to do, has no idea about why he’s angry and impatient, and is happy to simply be that way. It’s a grand and immature f**k you of self-assertion, a declaration that shocked and inspired a generation of kids to think that things will get better when they take over after the last wicked adult dies. But Dylan writes that you’re in a wheelchair being pushed around to the places you need to get to—doctor’s offices, the bathroom, the community meal hall; your mind is alert, but the body fails in subtle and significant ways every day. You’re eerily close to whatever dying day will award you, and you hear noise and brash men having their own good clamorous time in the thrall of their youth. You’re annoyed, you’re sleepy, you fall asleep. Dylan’s writing is particularly effective in this essay that should have aged well. At 81, I suppose Bob Dylan hear what the lyrics declaim and vividly recalls being the speedy, in-your-face Dada King, who rarely missed a chance to confound and confront the Old Squares who didn’t get it, a character in full sympathy with the romantic tragedy of a genius poet’s early demise. But his musing takes him to the next thought, which is that he’s far older than he might have expected, his memories are fuller, richer, more far-reaching than he thinks he has any right to, and the songs he’s paid attention to aren’t merely audio postcards of long-ago places but rather a means to remain connected; he intends to live fully and well and on his terms, in his words. Meandering and off the wall and syntactically awkward as it is at times, The Philosophy of Modern Song is wonderful glimpse into how this perennial mystery man thinks.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

 You Can't Go Home Again--Chet Baker

Trumpet player Baker has a cool, lyrical, muted style that bears an incidental resemblance to that of Miles Davis from his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain period, and on You Can't Go Home Again, applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could, Freddie Hubbard (Liquid Love style) included. While notable, the taciturn qualities that Baker and Davis share--a constructive use of silence and spacing between phrases, a whispering quality of tone, the absence of vibrato--Baker's improvisations have their particular character. The music is generally lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white faced, mass market commodity), but Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of a superb group of sidemen, including drummer Tony Williams, saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, along with other famous names like Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson, The group playing is infectious and allows for several sparkling moments, particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and, Brecker. The lyricism here is terribly handled, without the goo of sentimentality: Baker's power seems to come from a deeper, emotionally richer resource source, a source that creates spontaneous melodies that, all said and done, requires repeated listening. The nuances here are sublime.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

COSTELLO AND BACHARACH: it should have worked, but it didn't


1998's Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted from Memory was a project that should have worked, but tragically did not. It seemed like a sure thing, two pop music masters in a team up that ought to have been magic. Instead, the enterprise got stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning, engine roaring uselessly. There is an insistence on medium ballads or funeral march ballads, sadder-than-dead fish torch songs. There is merit to a good number of them, as Bacharach is the Beethoven of ageless heartache, but the melancholy turns into a stupefying torpor. It had been remarked on point that Bacharach found his perfect vocalist in Dionne Warwick, a singer with range, timing, and tone who could seamlessly negotiate the deceptively tricky turn -arounds in his  melodies. 

Not so with Costello, who overestimates his native skills to extend his vocal skills. He continually tries to hit the high notes at seemingly the same moment in each song, with his pitch being the equal of having a live magpie taped to your face. It's a horrible, piercing experience before long, and the rationale that it's a brave thing he's doing by using his limited apparatus for the lofty points on the sheet music won't cut ice. Plainly, he's trying too hard.  Bacharach, I recall, wrote a good number of spry up-tempo songs as well, and had a sense of humor. Perhaps he felt he needed to get serious now that he was getting some serious attention from critics because the acclaimed Costello deigned to work with him. The album is dour, gloomy, utterly depressed eventually; it would have been best if they canned half the songs here and released only the truly memorable work. It would have been better if they remembered to bring their sense of humor to the sessions when they recorded this thing. The lack of more spritely paced songs--remember that Bacharach among other virtues had a genius for tempos and alterations of time signatures and keys-- and Costello's inadequate vocal range overwhelmed the bright spots with a sad, impressionistic murk. The main problem for many were the vocals--typical of the user reviews of Painted from Memory on Amazon's listing was that Bacharach was in excellent form, but EC dragged the material down. Perhaps someone can present us new versions of the best material with other singers who would be a better fit for the challenges the songs present.

Costello obviously wants to be a master of all styles of music because he loves, seemingly, every style that's ever been invented. His problem is that he nearly always seems eager to out do or improve on established genres, rather than truly adapt the motifs to his strengths as a songwriter. His output starting in the late eighties with Mighty Like a Rose became distressingly erratic. "Inconsistent" is too polite a word. He did sporadically bounce back with a strong release and solid songs, but his wild swerves to projects that turned out to be perfect messes--The Juliet Letters, The Delivery Man, Mighty Like a Rose, Kojak Variety--resulted in my lowering his stature in my personal canon of all-time greats. Once I thought he was the greatest rock poet, but I took that crown away from him and handed it over to Tom Waits, who had a brilliant career start to finish, all killer, no filler.

Thursday, February 9, 2023


Bop, Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, and Drugs by Martin Torgott, (Da Capo Press) 

It is a rather large subject, but author Martin Torgott soft-pedals his main thesis: that drugs were an essential ingredient in the creation of the world. Instead of weighing his subject with burdensome clichés, Bop Apocalypse at its best provides is an anecdotal history. A narrative that jumps through time, cutting between jazz musicians and beat writers, in a series of essays and recollections that seek the precise moment when the artists were introduced to drugs. 

Fans of a continuous timeline will find this book to be frustrating, as Torgoff prefers to present his history and argument in a cinematic style, with jump cuts, flashbacks, and fast-forward. He attempts an impressionistic approach to how particular events are linked to creating the mythos that brought about hip culture. It’s a fractured, frustrating, but fascinating narrative. Early in the book, Torgoff covers the details about the federal criminalization of marijuana, an action initiated by Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Needing a visible symbol of the threat to convince the country of the menace drugs posed, they portrayed African-American jazz musicians as deviants, criminals, and moral reprobates due to drug use. These were the perverts aiming to sully American innocence and lure youth into lives of moral degradation. Later, emerging white writers of the Post War Era discovered the same chemicals, many of whom indulged in them as a means of coping with the crushing conformity of the Eisenhower 1950s. Drugs were seen as a way to free poets and painters and playwrights from their inhibitions, allowing them to create bold new work in their place. Anslinger is revealed as the unwitting creator of the modern idea of hip, the aesthetic, the pose, the manner of being that artists have assumed for decades–the idea of artist as outsider, as outlaw, as iconoclast. The American avant-garde now had a hook to hang its bulky coat on.

Readers familiar with Beat aesthetics–their emphasis on spontaneity, improvisation, a Zen mindfulness free of distortion and subterfuge– will be relieved as Turnoff goes lightly on the usual apologies made on the Beats behalf.  Bop Apocalypse works best when the stories are about central personalities in the period at crucial moments in their lives. One of the highlights of the book is the wealth of telling detail, such as those of writer Terry Southern when he discovered pot as a kid, which grew wild on his cousin.

Miles Davis, Hubert Huncke, John Coltrane, Mezz Mezzrow, Billie Holliday, William Burroughs, Lester Young, and others have their tales told, some details well-known and others likely apocryphal, the scenes from their lives revealing a similar scenario, their respective introduction to pot, heroin, and amphetamines as a means of coping with their marginalized existence and of forcing their wits and instincts to the edge. What is obvious through the book is Torgoff’s premise of drugs being critical to the creation of art at the end of the chapter on Jack Kerouac, making the claim that the greatness many have given to Kerouac’s body of work would have remained unwritten had he not taken up the tea habit. As Kerouac remarks, “I need Miss Green to write; can’t whip up interest in anything otherwise.” For myself, I’ve always found Kerouac’s fiction and poetry problematic at best, a writer who often mistook breathlessness for beauty, Torgoff’s association of being stoned with quality sounds more than a little day dreamy, likening the author’s body of work as that which would be considered to be “…likened to Proust’s, Melville’s and Shakespeare’s.”

This brings to mind something I’d read years ago in a Downbeat magazine interview with jazz guitar virtuoso Joe Pass, talking about his drug addiction and eventually getting clean. The interviewer asked if he thought he was actually better and more imaginative when he was high. Pass offered a cautious answer all the same–that while he couldn’t say he definitely played better, he certainly thought he was playing brilliantly while he was high. I kept this in mind while reading this otherwise engaging and well-researched book, and remain convinced that the gift to create music or to write poetry are aspects of a personality that exist separately from drug use. That someone can produce chorus after chorus of hard bop jazz a la Parker or compose a monumental poetic masterwork, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, has more to do with the talent that’s already in place, not because the drugs aided these artists to their particular style of genius. Torgoff does us the favor, though, of presenting the polemic evenhandedly, although there are times when hyperbole gets the best of him. Raising Kerouac’s literary value to Shakespeare and Proust is an example, as is an incident related in a section about Charlie Parker. An intriguing chapter overall, with the sort of telling details of clubs, cities, characters of interest on the risks they took to pursue an art form on the outskirts of what was considered the American mainstream, Torgoff relates the tale of jazz producer and promoter Norman Granz and his organization of a series of concerts billed as “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in Los Angeles, in 1946. At this period in his brief life, Parker’s behavior was erratic due to the complications of his heroin habit. Parker had barely managed to make it to the West Coast from New York. He quickly disappeared–looking to score drugs in a city where he had no connections–and arrived late for the concert, which had already started. Torgoff writes:

“…having found what he was looking for, he showed up 28 choruses into ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and stepped on the stage to play a chorus that brought the music to a whole new level and the audience to its feet, then he stayed on to play alongside Lester Young on ‘Oh Lady Be Good’ …Bird’s choruses astounded musicians and jazz fans everywhere. Everything he played that night would become part of the basic syntax of jazz…”

This is the kind of overpraise even the most ardent admirer winces at, as curious readers are given soft-shouldered platitudes and proclamations instead of colorful, clear, and precise explanations of what the artist is up to, an idea of the tradition that a musician is breaking away from and how he’s creating new music based on the traditions he’s learned from. This is a gift of jazz critic Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddens, vividly highlighting artistry and contribution over sensationalism, a subtler approach that Turnoff does not take on. Worse for Bop Apocalypse is the not-so-subtle idea that the artists who matter–the artists who break tradition, create new forms, innovators whose avant-garde experiments command respect and influences generations many decades after they’re deceased–have to be chemically deranged to have that latent genius become activated and find its fullest and fatal expression. It should be noted that not everyone covered died tragically or fell prey to the foul clutches of permanent addiction–as the biographies of Coltrane, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ginsberg, and Burroughs attest–but Bop Apocalypse provides a constant suggestion that it’s not enough for committed artists to engage their craft to the best of their ability, but that in doing so one must knowingly risk their lives to achieve a genius level of expression the merely sober among us cannot. Torgoff’s underlying premise crystallizes much of what is afoul with the contemporary notion of romanticism, that the kind of lethal idealization of the drug-related deaths of writers and musicians creates an allure that is seductive and wrongheaded. It is, on the face of it, irrational to consider an early and preventable death of an inspired creator as confirmation of their genius. 

Torgoff, though, brings a wealth of research to the subject and, despite the periodic wallowing in cliches and unexamined proclamations, creates an entertaining mosaic through an electric period of American history. What the book lacks in supportable thesis or in establishing how these artists actually influence each other’s work is made up for by Targoff’s storytelling skills. Imagine this as a film by Robert Altman at his best, a diffuse but alluring tour of the rich details of an aspect of our legacy we must continue to engage. One does wish, though, that the author avoided the unintended irony of writing about artists who changed the way we think about the world with old ideas that merely reinforce our worst habits of mind.

Martin Torgoff’s gifts as a storyteller are superb when he remains with the tale; he is cinematic in his ability to set up a scene and follow the action through. It’s unfortunate that his stories, one after the other, are too often hobbled by his pet theory, an idea that cannot be made compelling regardless of how many times it gets repeated.