Monday, 15 December 2008

Killer Opening Songs (Bob Dylan - Blowing in the Wind)

Open letter to Ms Germaine Greer from Killer Opening Songs:

Dear Germaine,

For a long time now I have followed your writing avidly, especially your regular column in The Guardian newspaper every other Monday. Your insight into arts and literature is fascinating and thought-provoking. Your book '
The Female Eunuch' is currently sitting on my bookshelf and it won't be long before it and I become a temporary item, wandering around the streets of London arm in arm, metaphorically speaking. I even felt sorry for you the other night when you cameoed on 'Have I Got News For You', the BBC's flagship political satire programme, because of the rough time, I believe, you were given by your (male) counterparts.

As a critic, you speak your mind and you do it, usually, in a coherent and intelligent way. That's why I was so surprised to find your recent feature on Bob Dylan so lackadaisical and ill-informed.

Please, note that I am not questioning your right to like or dislike Bob's music. What I am bringing to the fore, rather, is the futility of the arguments you used in order to back up your theory.

First one in line has to be your certainty (or belief) that Dylan 'thought that rhyme equalled reason'. I disagree on all counts. The example you give, 'Visions of Johanna' is a chronicle in musical form, rather than an attempt to pair up words that rhyme. How's this for an intro?

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?/We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it/And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it/Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off/Just Louise and her lover so entwined/And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.

Secondly, it seems to me that your aversion to Bob's music stems rather from the fact that he kept his fans 'waiting at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969 for three hours, from 9 o'clock till midnight, before he would sing a word'. Notice the use of the possessive pronoun 'his'. You were not amongst those fans, so this is really 'animus by proxy'.

You also aver that Dylan's texts cannot be considered verse, not even doggerel. You then go on to assert that his prose makes no sense. But then you compare him to Morrissey, he of The Smiths, towards the end of your article. To me that's a contradiction. Although, I am not a The Smiths person, even I cannot fail to notice the long tradition of good story-telling that both Dylan and Morrissey draw from. How else to explain the obvious and in-your-face pessimism underpinning 'Heaven Knows I am Miserable Now'?

What she asked of me at the end of the day/Caligula would have blushed/"You've been in the house too long" she said/And I (naturally) fled. By the way, does it make any sense, Germaine?

You then compare Dylan to that stalwart of the Romantic period, William Blake. Just to be on the safe side, Ms Greer, Blake's works were at first considered to be the works of a madman. It was only years after he died that his poetry and painting acquired the high status they rightly deserved. Dylan, too, suffered misunderstanding when he began his career on account of his early compositions. Not everyone 'got' him. I have no idea why you had to dig out Blake's 'The Sick Rose' from his 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' to put one over the American troubadour. Your analysis of the fragment quoted is flawless, but it adds nothing new to your argument because one is verse and the other one is a song (Visions of Johanna). As to the difference between lyrics and words, which seems to me to be you main gripe, the online dictionary I normally default to, defines a lyric as having the form and musical quality of a song, and esp. the character of a songlike outpouring of the poet's own thoughts and feelings, as distinguished from epic and dramatic poetry. So, song, first, lyric after. And therein lies the importance of both poet and troubadour. Their works are usually short, romantic (broadly speaking) and, if possible, humorous. Pope knew it, so did Shakespeare. Facetiousness is present throughout Dylan's oeuvre, as well as in other modern poets/singer-songwriters' work. Listen to Ursula Rucker and you will hear sarcasm mixed with pain. This is not poetry/music for the faint-hearted. Listen to Dylan's 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' and the line 'But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked' provokes both mirth and pensiveness.

Further on in your feature you attempt to explain the differences between a singer-songwriter and a poet's creative process by pointing out how the former 'transforms his words in the way he writes the music and the way he sings his song' whereas the latter encapsulates this whole process in silence. What a lot of balderdash! To partially quote you, Ms Greer, 'fustian of this ilk' is what makes my blood boil. Poets also carry a musical voice inside. They might not use it in the same way a singer-songwriter does, but, believe you me, their poems have an innate musicality.

Lastly, these are your very own words in regards to the difference between lyrics and words of a song: 'The other aspect of a lyric is its mystery. A lyric does not explain itself, nor does it tell a story, except by implication(...)When Morrissey sings a Morrissey song, he knows exactly what colour every part of every word is meant to be(...)the music catapults the repetition towards us like a javelin. The music does what the words alone cannot do. To present the words without the music is to emasculate them.

No.

You can still present the words without the music sometimes and they would still be considered lyrics. Two examples come to mind and both of them include repetition as a means to provoke a reaction in the listener. One is '
The Mercy Seat' by Nick Cave which includes the lines: 'They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath at my hind/They are sick breath gathering at my hind' (notice that 'gathering' in the last line, a clever, little device from Nick, playing a mind game on the listener). The other example is Maya Angelou's anthemic poem 'Still I Rise' which contains the following verses: 'You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise(...)Just like moons and like suns/With the certainty of tides/Just like hopes springing high/Still I'll rise.

As for Bob Dylan, the American poet, singer-songwriter who is visiting the Killer Opening Songs lounge this week, I think it would be more fitting to allow his most powerful and inspiring K.O.S. ever to do the talk for him. And believe me, Germaine, there're no hard feelings from me to you whatsoever. Enjoy.






For earlier editions of Killer Opening Songs click on any of the links below

Killer Opening Songs (D'Angelo's Brown Sugar)
Killer Opening Songs (Sinéad O'Connor's 'Fire on Babylon')
Killer Opening Songs (Queen's Mustapha)
Killer Opening Songs (Caetano Veloso-Haiti)
Killer Opening Songs (David Bowie - Unwashed and S...
Killer Opening Songs (Massive Attack - Safe From H...
Killer Opening Songs (Bob Brozman)
Killer Opening Songs (Vanessa da Mata - Vermelho)
Killer Opening Songs (The Beatles-Help!)
Killer Opening Songs (Souad Massi-Raoui)
Killer Opening Songs (Habib Koité - Batoumambé)
Killer Opening Songs (Mary Black - No Frontiers)
Killer Opening Songs (Chico Buarque & Milton Nasci...
Killer Opening Songs (David Gilmour - Shine On You...
Killer Opening Songs (Ernesto Lecuona - 'La Compar...
Killer Opening Songs (Chopin 'Fantaisie-Impromptu ...
Killer Opening Songs (He Loves Me by Jill Scott)
Killer Opening Songs (Tracy Chapman - Talkin' 'bout A Revolution)
Killer Opening Songs (Patti Smith - Gloria)
Killer Opening Song (Silvio Rodriguez - Canción del Elegido)
Killer Opening Songs (Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit)
Killer Opening Songs (Fela Kuti and Jethro Tull - Jam Session)

Copyright 2008

22 comments:

  1. while i have only surface information on bob dylan and likely couldn't come to a sensible conclusion about his work, i think did a great job in refuting the article.

    i especially appreciate what you have to say about here assessment on the difference between song writers and poets, cause i find that to be true as well.

    your part about lyrics without music and the reference to the addition of "gathering" in the last line of nick cave's song: superb.

    i've noticed this same technique in songs or poems and always think it's pretty clever and effective.

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  2. Recently had the good fortune to see Bob Dylan live in concert here in Mexico City a few months ago.. very impressive... what is hot in London right now ther as I arrive in a few days for Xmas..

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  3. Thanks, fly and Catherine for your kind comments.

    Fly, the line between verse and song is getting more and more blurred per minute. Which just adds another dimension to art in general.

    Catherine, I am not a 'hot right now' person. I tend to like music that challenges my intellect and right now with X Factor et al enjoying a good ride my inner self is once more ensconced in the safety and good quality of old tunes.

    Greetings from London.

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  4. Growing up in the early 70's with Dylan fan parents...'Blowin in the Wind' was a constant song in our house. We knew (and still know) all the lyrics.

    I've always thought of Dylan's work as borderline genius.

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  5. Thanks, diva. Although I knew of Dylan's work, it was only in my first year in uni that I really got into his music through one of my classmates. I found him challenging and engaging.

    Greetings from London.

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  6. Oh Cuban how you make me laugh. I embrace you on this

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  7. How can anyone dislike Bob Dylan? There is poetry in his lyrics. We have that album too. I remembering singing Blowing in the Wind as a child of the 70s. That old clip is a classic and fun to watch.

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  8. Thanks, Sarah. I think that Germaine allowed her judgment to be influenced by her taste in music.

    Greetings from London.

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  9. I remember my uncle playing Bob Dylan on the record player when I was a little girl. I used to know many of his songs by heart.

    I have to thank you for such sweet memories today. ; )

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  10. Thanks, Christina, you're very welcome.

    Greetings from London.

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  11. Qué tal, Cuban!
    De Bob Dylan sólo tengo recuerdos de los "Colorama" que ponían en Cuba... le he perdido la pista pero, tu post, interesantísimo!
    Liebe Grüße,
    AB

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  12. Liebe Grube, Agu. Vielen Dank.

    Saludos desde Londres.

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  13. Not like Dylan? Blasphemy! ;)

    Thanks for sharing this my brother and this beautiful song which means so much,

    Blessings, M

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  14. Thanks, Maithri, for you kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

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  15. hay, mate!
    you can download the 3 picapicas in pdf format already.
    the links at the top of http://miami-picapica.blogspot.com

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  16. Hermano, music like art is so subjective but in this case the lady has got it all wrong...no way. Your rebuttal is excellent.

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  17. Thank you all. Yoli,, you're bang on, all art is subjective, except, crappy commercial art.

    Asere, ese clip estuvo excelente, bro, excelente.

    Garri, voy pa' alla en cuanto pueda.

    Greetings from London.

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  18. Much as I admire Ms Greer, that article annoyed me too. The use of the word 'creep' in the title kind of stunted the argument before it had begun.

    He's a poet. And I know it:-)

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  19. We have discussed a few times the question of the artist and his/her art.
    Maybe this can explain the feelings of Ms Greer. Maybe she doesn't like the artist and it makes her miss the art.

    I don't know Dylan personally, but from what I have read and heard, he is not considered a very nice person. To me it doesn't matter. His music (lyrics included) is well above him as a person.
    Nice selection again.
    Saludos,
    Al Godar

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  20. Thank you both for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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