Thursday, July 7, 2011

STL #101: No Dylanologist II

A month or so ago, I posted "No Dylanologist I" in honor of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday. The title was a syntactic inversion that actually sounded good in the draft version, but came out as clumsy as a song writer groping for a rhyme.  What it means is that I have not pursued Dylan as a subject with anything like the assiduity of some of his most dedicated amateur or academic aficionados. Nevertheless, I did just finish a book about his album Highway 61 Revisited, which as it happens is not the first book about him or his work that I've read, so I suppose I know something about his music. Given that he also figured in many of Ellen Willis's essays in the collection Out of the Vinyl Deeps that I also recently finished, I thought I might come back to Dylan as lens to talk about music writing, rather than dig any deeper into his music as such. So it looks like I'm no Dylanologist, again.

I hedged on whether to say "music writing" or "writing about music" above. The whole activity is fraught, from the name onward. "Music writing," because of its very laxity, is more encompassing than "writing about music." Much music writing is not necessarily about music, but about the production of or personalities behind the music, or of the cultural or social contexts of the music. Writing about music as such can fall into several traps. Think of an axis with two poles,  descriptive and interpretive. Now imagine a perpendicular axis ranging from technical or impressionistic. Technical description or interpretation of music is beyond my capabilities to write or to fully understand. I'm stuck in the camp of pure impressionism--the subjective response to the music, to what it makes me feel or think of. This is the heart of criticism, but can lead to writing that is murky at best and solipsistic at worst.

With popular music, especially in the case of a songwriter like Dylan, there's a further split between talking about music or talking about lyrics. With some technical prowess, one might talk about the relationship of words and music, but in the case of Dylan the words have always been paramount. (The lyrics have been published without music on several occasions.) I number myself among ham-handed lyrical exegete of song lyrics, that often resort to gobbling quotations into the vague engines of interpretive prose. Here's a snippet from Mark Polizzotti''s Highway 61 Revisited stays away from the worst of this, though he does have a penchant for lyrical allusion--more than one ending is called as  a "restless farewell." Polizzotti's short book on Highway 61 Revisited is in the attractive 33 1/3 series. Each book in this series pays tribute a classic album in one way or another. A variety of approaches are used, including fictional, descriptive reporting, and subjective impressionism. Polizzotti's book is largely descriptive of immediate context of the music's production and of the music itself (doing a nice job with the latter). As mentioned, he does some lyrical interpretation, mostly in identifying who the various songs may have been addressed to. In doing so, he makes Dylan's songs all seem like diatribes, like complaints against sundry individuals. That's true to an extent, but misses some of the songs' richness.

With popular music, you're probably better of working with context--how the work of the artist positions itself within a subculture, say, or how the culture at large reads it. The organization of Ellen Willis's gives us some guidance here: after an opening section of straightforward aesthetic criticism, there's a section on the context of fandom, one on the sixties, one of feminism, one called "The Navigator" that includes economic and geographic perspectives, and one that engages social class. Not that this was planned; this book collects columns from the 60s and 70s responding to what was actually going on in the world of pop music at the time.  Willis, the first pop music critic of The New Yorker, wrote about a now fairly predictable swath of classic rock through early punk--Dylan, Velvets, CCR, Janis Joplin, New York Dolls. She was the first to notice Dylan's manipulation of his own persona--the artist providing context for himself.  Between Polizzotti and especially Willis, I've come to understand Dylan much more as a man of his times, responding to his audience's responses to him as much as anything. That's not just self-obsession, since it invokes an underlying struggling for self-determination that was reaching a new high pitch in the 60s.

Good music writing is out there. I always read the current pop critic in The New Yorker, Sasha Frere Jones, and I read Matthew Perpetua's great Fluxblog on a regular basis too. There's still a lot of bad music writing too, but you can find that on your own. Since I'm not liable to be on the subject of writing about Dylan again anytime soon, I thought I might mention a couple of other titles worth looking at. First, there's Greil Marcus's Old Weird America. This, in Marcus's rhapsodic prose, traces the lineage between Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and The Basement Tapes. Anyone interested in Dylan should also read his memoirs, Chronicles. The first section, on the early sixties, is especially interesting for thinking about his folk period in a beat context.

Friday, July 1, 2011

STL #100: Objects of Fascination and Agents of Revelation

It has taken 8 years to complete 100 posts; that's only a little more than a post a month. With my rededication to daily writing, I hope that I can return a bit closer to my weekly rate. In any case, I have decided to mark the occasion by writing in my favorite form: the list. Following is a varied list of things, mostly works of art but a few ideas or lifestyle accoutrements,  I've become familiar with during the life span of STL.  Some of these things I've written about, but most I haven't. The most significant thing I've noticed in compiling this list is that the books are all of my own choosing: I haven't been assigned a reading list this whole time. This list might be seen as a memoir of the last 8 years of my life, but then again that might be pushing it. I'll add a bit more commentary after the list.

  1. Absu, "Ye Uttuku Spells"
  2. Belgian ales
  3. Charles Olson, Maximus Poems
  4. William Gaddis, The Recognitions
  5. Jack Green's Fire the Bastards
  6. Kill Bill
  7. Graham Greene, The Comedians
  8. Guy Davenport, Tatlin!
  9. Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity
  10. Reality-based politics
  11. Jens Lekman, “A Postcard to Nina”
  12. Eddie Campbell, How to be an Artist
  13. "Lying In Bed On A Summer Morning," by Carl Rakosi
  14. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
  15. Deep Red
  16. Halloween
  17. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  18. Millennium Actress
  19. Lost in Translation
  20. Etre et Avoir
  21. The Sopranos
  22. The Wire
  23. William Bronk
  24. Watchmen, reluctantly
  25. Seven Soldiers of Victory
  26. Hendrick’s Gin
  27. In the American Tree
  28. Cy Twombly, Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor)
  29. Bread crumb eggs
  30. George Simenon
  31. Django Reinhardt
  32. Freaks and Geeks
  33. My So-Called Life
  34. Carson, NOX
  35. Lee Ann Brown, Polyverse
  36. Fiery Furnaces, Rehearsing My Choir
  37. Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel
  38. Something Said
  39. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, Out of Season
  40. Joanna Newsom, Milk Eyed Mender
  41. Sleater Kinney, One Beat
  42. His Dark Materials
  43. Battle Royale
  44. John Cheever's Collected Short Stories
  45. American Elf
  46. Black Riders
  47. Robert Duncan, "Opening of the Field"
  48. Gilbert Godfery in The Aristocrats [2005]
  49. Goodbye Dragon Inn
  50. Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41
  51. Team America
  52. The singularity
  53. Tender Buttons
  54. The Pound Era
  55. Three Places in New England
  56. Alban Berg, Violin Concerto
  57. Matt Fraction, Casanova
  58. The New American Poetry 1945-1960
  59. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday
  60. Immortal All Shall Fall
  61. Deathspell Omega Chaining the Katcheon
  62. Wardruna
  63. Girl Talk, All Night
  64. Lair of the Minotaur, "Let's Kill These Motherfuckers"
  65. Dope throne
  66. Modern Life Is War “D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S.”
  67. Mountain Goats “This Year”
  68. Benji Hughes Love Extreme
  69. Heartless Bastards, The Mountain
  70. Opeth, Blackwater Park
  71. Josephine Foster, Hazel Eyes I Will Follow
  72. Cat Power The Greatest
  73. No Thanks! Anthology
  74. Haydn, Symphony 88
  75. Robyn “Be Mine”
  76. Spoon “Back to the Life"
  77. Arcade Fire, Funeral
  78. Dirty Weekend 
  79. Old Boy
  80. The Rothko Chapel
  81. “Appalachian Spring”
  82. Audition
  83. Enter the Void
  84. Y The Last Man
  85. Marcel Dzama
  86. Battlestar Galactica
  87. John Porcellino, King Cat
  88. Can These Bones Live?
  89. Wicker Man
  90. Blow Up
  91. King Lear (Russian film)
  92. Mozart, Symphony 40
  93. Brandenberg Concertos
  94. Garth Merenghi's Dark Place
  95. The Grey Album
  96. Community
  97. Song of Ice and Fire
  98. Siraccha and Earl Grey Ice Cream
  99. O Paon
A few explanations are in order. With the exception of a few pieces of classical music, everything on this list is from the second half of the twentieth century or later. That is where my interests drive me, but as I was drawing up the list I made a conscious decision to make it this way to relieve me of the obligation to include things because I felt I should. Tom Jones, some Shakespeare plays, Milton, and other things I read for the first time in the last eight years might otherwise be on here. I felt that by keeping them off would cut away pretense and help me perhaps discover more of my true inclinations.  

Each work of art on this list was chosen because it keeps drawing me back in one way or another, offering more each time I revisit it. Some of the films (namely, Audition and Enter the Void) keep their claim on my psyche, but I doubt I will ever summon up the resolve to watch them again. What the works offer is different is each case: the goofy comedy of Garth Marenghi sounds different chords than Ed Dahlberg's jeremiad Can These Bones Live?. Dahlberg I'm sure would be mortified to be keeping company with much of this list--I notice that I trend lowbrow in much of my tastes. Looking over the list, I don't feel I can make any grand pronouncements, nor do I even understand why I include half a dozen foodstuffs and only two works of visual art. As with everything I write, this turns up more questions. Here's to the next 100 opportunities to figure out the answers.

(In case you are interested, here's a census of the list: 35 items can be classified as music, 18 as movies, 9 as poetry, 9 as fiction (therefore 18 as literature), 7 as comics, 7 as TV, 5 as criticism, 4 as comestibles, 3 as visual art, and two as concepts. The music breaks down as follows: 7 as metal, 6 as classical (including modern), 6 as folk (I can't bring myself to type "freak folk," but everything in this category is moody and eccentric, and with mostly acoustic instruments), 6 pop, 6 rock, 2 jazz, and 2 dj mashups.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Are You Being Meta?" A Sketch Toward Community

All I've been watching lately is the two seasons of Community. I love it more than any show I've discovered in a while, and we've been watching it in big batches--all the first season in a weekend, the second as fast as we could while still going to our jobs, and now we're working through it a second time, but just doing a few a night. I hadn't thought to write about it at first. It so compulsively watchable that it seems like a confection. Perfectly delightful, but no real substance. Not that I want to be the one who always explains what things mean (and is wrong about it half the time), but I think there's more to Community than a brilliant series of TV and movie homages. I think that the fairly regular but seemingly glib gestures toward "community," that the crazy study group must somehow become a family, actually indicates the significant substance of the show.

The show obviously appeals to pop culture aficionados. Spotting the references would be an obvious drinking game, and any research into the show would soon lead you to a site like TV Tropes. The existence of such a show proves that we've reached mass teleliteracy, just as technological changes starts to drain television audiences away. But despite episodes that ape My Dinner with Andre, Goodfellas, The Right Stuff, Bass and Rankin Claymation, and many other sources, Community is more than a parade of parodies. Instead, this shared imaginarium is a tool for the focal character, Abed, to understand the world. We, whether we admit it or not, are a lot like Abed. The savvy audience knows, with the characters on the show, that we don't want the telegenic leads Jeff and Britta to be together, because we've see Ross and Rachel and we've seen Sam and Diane. Instead of avoiding the romance, the show seems at war with it. They "hooked up" at the end of the first season, but the show explicitly disfavors this relationship in the first episode of the next season, declaring its attention for more stand alone shows, like Paintball. Abed wants to make life conform to TV. He tells Jeff, on one of his more despicable days,  that "TV makes sense. It has logic, structure, rules. And likable leading men... We have you." It's the inclusion of imperfect matches with its sources that show us that TV can and does help us understand the world. Even as the televisual fires die down, we still gather around them, to listen to stories together, to puzzle out the world together, and to become community.

Shirley, a blessedly non-sophisticated character, at one point asks Abed, with complete sincerity, "Are you being meta?" We get the sense that she only knows the word from having to understand her new friend's odd approach. The answer is always yes, but not only yes. In Community, we're being meta, but we're also being human.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

STL #98: An Assay Into the Nature of the Fantastic

I haven't written an academic article in some time. In fact, I have on occasion wondered if I'll ever write one again. But I've had for some time in my mind a theory that would best be explored in such a setting (if it's not too banal).  My theory is as follows: "Science fiction and fantasy" is an umbrella term that yokes together two large genre groups that are radically different politically. Science fiction is inherently politically progressive while fantasy is by nature reactionary. This theory of mine obviously has two propositions, one about science fiction and one about fantasy, so in actuality would be best explored in two separate articles. I thought I might use this space to start to articulate my thoughts on the fantasy half  of the equation, in recognition of my recent reading.

My current obsession is George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, but I'm not ready to write about Martin's work yet. I tore through Game of Thrones and am a few hundred pages into the second book, A Clash of Kings. Being only 1,000 pages in to the yet-to-be-completed series, I can't actually make a judgement. I have the better part three fat paperbacks yet to read, not to mention a new hardcover of equivalent length and at least one unwritten volume. Among the many virtues I've found so far, though, is the political intrigue of the apparent dissolution of a kingdom. The characters, fantastic yet utterly believable, act as the participants of any court of any era might. The plot and storytelling is handled well in what I've read so far. Martin, a former television story editor, balance many strands and character viewpoints. We see the action from the shifting perspectives of a small number of key characters,  each, in the fashion of the classic screenplay, with desires and obstacles. As a result, he balances a number of character strands.  In Game of Thrones, the endings to these strands were thrilling. Because of the multi-volume format, each ending had to conclude the character's arc and start them out on a new one. Each marked a sudden but suddenly inevitable turn in character development. The first of the four endings was a pleasant surprise, the second a grand gesture. In response to the third, I pumped my fist in the air (an unusual maneuver to make while reading). As I read the fourth and final ending, I had a mild epileptic fit. On finishing the novel, I did a shamanic dance on one foot.

But back to my basic theory, that sf is inherently progressive and fantasy is reactionary. I'll begin by saying that I don't intend any value judgement.  Though in my personal politics I am a progressive and feel stern antipathy to reactionary politics, as a reader I rather prefer the fantasy genre (being quite taken with Martin, for instance. I may be somewhat old-fashioned in the belief that one can separate aesthetic response from political facts (and, for what it's worth, I fancied myself a scholar of Pound's work some years back.) For another disclaimer,  I do not think my theory will describe the whole terrain in absolute terms. Some science fiction writers no doubt have been personally conservative and set out to write pronouncedly conservative books. Robert A. Heinlein comes to mind.  The reverse is no doubt true too. Rather, I mean to argue that each genre has developed a set of qualities that tend toward one political pole or the other. Science fiction is predicated on change: a story is not considered to be science fiction unless its world can be differentiated from our own. Fantasy postulates worlds without change: Elric of Melnibone is the 976th of the name. Change that does occur is either the coming of evil or a reversion to an older order; vide Return of the King.  Science fiction strives to explain change in lifestyle and technological development, sometimes to its detriment. Fantasy is under the obligation to explain nothing, having the option to mystify power into magic. Power is thereby festishized in a familiar fascistic manner. Finally, and I'm on shakier ground here, fantasy may tend to be racially essentialist in a way that sf is not. Alien races if sf can be symbols of humanity manifesting itself in myriad forms. First contact fiction generally ends with new understandings or accommodation of newness. The traditional races in fantasy realms (elves, dwarves, orcs) have essential natures that are less than the (often implicitly white) human race. This last point is problematic, because it compares shoddy examples of one camp with sophisticated examples of the other. One could select examples to make the opposite point.  If I don't think of some structural reason for this difference, I may cut it.

This brings me to the question of texts. In fantasy, I must at least address Tolkein's  foundational text and I will be thinking about this as reading Martin. While something like Norman's Gor series is a sitting target, Tolkein, which can be read as an anti-Nazi book is not a ready candidate for a fascist text, nor is Martin on the surface of it. Reading Martin, I do not feel myself to be in the company of a Tea Party zealot or even necessarily a Republican. (Nor is he patently liberal or progressive.) After finishing Martin, I hope to read further in the field to see if my theory will bear out. Then I'll return to sf, specifically the progressive novels of the 60's and 70's that inspired my theory in the first place.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

STL #97: No Dylanologist I

I feel the need to note another huge gap in posting. Since I've again determined to begin a daily writing habit on my birthday last, I should resume a regular schedule on my lead up to STL #100.

Looking at a few of the many "10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs" lists that appeared in recognition of the old man's 70th birthday, it is easy to discern the rules that govern them. You need one from early on, during his pure folk-singer incarnation; one from his Born Again or later, wizened minstrel, days; one or two from the decade prior to that (his first inward turn from John Wesley Harding through Blood on the Tracks (technically Street Legal)); and the lion's share from his major creative period from Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, including one that wasn't on an album (but may have shown up later on The Basement Tapes). In the broadest terms, then, you can think of his career in three stages, each stage lasting longer than the last: the folk period, the major period, and the late period. While the arc of his career is fascinating, especially his penchant for recreating himself contrary to his audience's expectations or desires, I don't particularly respond to either his folk days or his long bizarre descent. If his major period was wiped away, I don't think I'd pay much attention at all to the young singer or the older one.

My list, then, is as follows (in chronological order):

1. "Like a Rolling Stone":  I'm not including this because it's his most important song, defining and shaping a generation, but because of its complex structure and richness of meaning. I'm not crazy about his word collage explosions that really came to fore on Bringing It All Back Home. Like so many of those songs, it's hard to say exactly what this means, but that doesn't mean it means nothing. But beyond the words, this song's sound lets us know that it's creating a zeitgeist.
2. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"- My favorite first line, perhaps of any song ever: "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter-time too." It makes me eager to listen to the song everytime. Who's in Juarez, why are they there? Why is the fact of it being Easter time a complicating factor? The sense of the words evoke both a detailed personal story but also the sweep of a mythic one. The  sound of it alone states that this is a song that will have beautiful language, but the narcotic liquids (ells and arrs)  and long vowels of the first half of line are snapped awake by the sudden tees and short vowels of the second half tell us it won't be an insipid beauty.
3."One of Us Must Know"--I went into Blonde on Blonde for "Stuck Inside of Mobile..." and "Visions" but came out with this song. Dylan has so many songs that it's easy to forget or overlook one that didn't particularly shake things up, like this. I include it on this list as a marker of the provisionality of any list like this. While #1 and #6 will always be on my list, the whole 10 could take many different forms.
4. "Visions of Johanna"-- Maybe the most obscure song lyrically on this list.
5. "Lay Lady Lay"--Maybe the most straightforward song lyrically on this list
6. "Tangled Up In Blue"-- My favorite Dylan song and one of my all time favorites. No Dylanologist I, but there must be a ton of exegesis on this one. Every time I listen to it I hear something a little bit different-I just realized this time how the directions invoked in the go from heading back east to the memory of coming west and then going north and drifting south to New Orleans. Quite honestly, I could compose a top ten only of songs from Blood on the Tracks and Desire. "Idiot Wind," "Shelter From the Storm," "Sara," almost every song on either album. The other one on Blood on the Tracks that really gets me though is
7. "If You See Her Say Hello"-- Pretty much each song is the embodiment of the same open sound, the same lost-love theme, and the same swirling through time.  "Sun down, yellow moon/ I replay the past" might be a simplified statement of the album's theme, and this song has a beautiful and simple arrangement and one of his finest, most emotive vocal performances.
8. "Hurricane"--So the last song, chronologically, is actually the most like his early work. It's nothing if not a protest song. It's the long story of an injustice that ends with a call to action ("This is the story of the Hurricane/It won't be over until they clear his name"--which they did.) Again, I could pick other songs from Desire, but this first song captures the sound of the album and a number of images ("Ruben sits like Buddha in his ten foot cell") remain burned in my brain. Like its predecessor, Desire has a unified sound, but where Blood on the Tracks is like a novel or a set of finely wrought interlocking stories, Desire is an anthology of pulp fiction genre stories: crime, the boxer, the gangster, adventure in a foreign land, romance.

The final two that I am throwing in are songs of BD sung by others:
9. "I Shall Be Released" as performed by The Band.  I can't say definitively that this is his first real gospel song. But listening to it now, it's no surprise that he'd later identify himself as born again.
10. "Si Tu Dois Partir" (aka "If You've Got To Go, Go Now") as performed by Fairport Convention. This is a good one to go out on, methinks, if for now other reason than the simple lyric has been translated to French and the folk rock idiom transposed into a cajun reel. It reminds us that Dylan was a musician, not a poet. One thing he did was write a lot of great rock songs, not all of which changed the world.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year

Since I don't have my calendar to write these things down yet, I'm scratching down a few notes on what I've been up to so far this year. By "up to," I only mean reading, watching, and cooking.

On Saturday the first, I started reading Tom Jones. I'm on a schedule of 85 pages a day which will get me done by the tenth. So far I'm enjoying it quite a bit. The rules of the road haven't been set yet, so Fielding will sometimes address us directly, sometimes tell us what will happen later, sometimes tell us what someone is thinking and will sometimes deliberately and flagrantly withhold information. He's not afraid of coincidence or long speeches or chapter long asides thumbing his nose at his perceived critics. I passed on the chance to see Black Swan at the theater, instead watching The Kids Are Alright. I made some split pea soup and then we went to a party. When we got home, we watched some of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle Swing Time.

We finished Swing Time on Sunday afternoon. I read another chunk of Tom Jones and made some risotto style barley with citrus and arugula. In the evening, we watched three episodes of Breaking Bad, which we found quite addictive.

Today, Monday the 3rd, I went in to the office to start getting things together for Spring semester. I had lunch with my colleague Mike at a big and okay Chinese buffet. I rather dithered away the afternoon buying some music (Jack Rose, Beach House, Sharon Van Etten). Now I'm off to write a thank you note or two for Xmas presents.

Tomorrow, I'm going to do some work on class, hopefully buy a calendar and check out some brewing supplies, and do another big chunk of reading.