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.