Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

A lot of protest music has been written over the last eight years: some good, some not so much.  (Neil, you know I love you, but “let’s impeach the President for lying” is just lazy.)  Amidst this, the old standards have also been dragged out for a walk around the blockThe master himself recently endorsed Hopey, a surprising move for a man who disdains movement politics and once dismissed Phil Ochs as “a journalist, not a folk singer,”  (Speaking of Ochs, law students are advised to read his 1968 DNC testimony.  They ain’t makin’ witnesses like that any more.)

Hidden on the greatest album ever, Bob Dylan’s 1965 “Tombstone Blues” lacks the star power of his bigger stuff.  It’s a surrealist pastiche, aimlessly namedropping heroes and outlaws in a directionless, glancing swipe at authority.  It’s also, chewing on the lyrics, a forceful assault on the hucksters and hypocrites inhabiting the America we inherit.  And so, marginally drunk and annotated with apropos linkage (some sections more relevant than others,) Bob Dylan’s (long) Tombstone Blues:

“The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits
At the head of the chamber of commerce

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

The hysterical bride in the penny arcade
Screaming she moans, “I’ve just been made”
Then sends out for the doctor who pulls down the shade
Says, “My advice is to not let the boys in

Now the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside
He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride
“Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride
You will not die, it’s not poison”

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing  a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle

Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns out their camps
With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps
With a fantastic collection of stamps
To win friends and influence his uncle

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in trouble
With the tombstone blues

The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone
Causes Galileo’s math book to get thrown
At Delilah who’s sitting worthlessly alone
But the tears on her cheeks are from laughter

Now I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues

Where Ma Raney and Beethoven once unwrapped their bed roll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.”

If you’ve never actually heard the song, it’s actually bouncy and fun and fantastic; it’s just a coincidence that it so neatly captures our Long National Nightmare 2.0:

And if that didn’t cheer you up, here’s what deserves to be the most overplayed song from now until January 20:

In this post alone you’ve got links for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, Kinky Friedman, and the Rolling Stones.  You know you wouldn’t get this from any other blog.

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As we recently discussed, the Obama team has perfected the zeitgeist campaign.  Some of it is intentional, (the text messages, the basketball,) while the rest (the internet memes) just sorta happens.  Music is another important element of this.  Everyone knows Republicans make poor DJs, and Senator Obama has collected an impressive variety of musical endorsements.

Democrats always pwn music.  Even sad-sack John Kerry had future Senator Bruce Springsteen.  But, as the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt noted today, Springsteen, the Foo Fighters, and Bon Jovi were always the headliners; fans would literally come for the band and leave from the candidate.  Obama is the star, and his campaign has picked perfect music to augment his aura:

“Two songs, however, are used to define the campaign. One is the arrival anthem, that plays Barack Obama onto the stage. It is U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” – with its line “oh you look so beautiful tonight.”

It’s a stunning song, combining a real Phil Spector sound with a crowd-pleasing hook.  They also nailed it on Biden, bringing him out to Springsteen’s “The Rising.”  It may be a little too 9/11, but Springsteen acolyte (and legitimate Reverend) Jeffrey Symykywicz makes the case for why it works, and most importantly it just feels right.

Choosing campaign songs is not as easy as it looks.  Hillary’s people flubbed it with Celine freakin’ Dion, John Edwards’ schtick was Mellencampy, and poor McCain-Palin keeps getting sued.  So back to the other song Hewitt identified as central to the campaign:

“…after his speech, when he lifts the bottle of water to his lips, in comes the heavy beat and then Stevie Wonder’s scream in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

It’s an awesome song from an all-time great American musician – it’s easy to forget that the man’s been on the charts since 1963.

In the key of Stevie, an African-American friend of mine said something worth closing with.  I had been talking about the cultural relevence of Bob Dylan to my family, the kind of people who raise their kids on Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, edited up a “liberation haggadah” for Passover, and distribute “Rise Up Singing” as a graduation gift.  We were driving somewhere discussing this when Stevie comes on his CD player.  My friend turns to me and goes: “What Bob Dylan means to your mother, that’s what Stevie Wonder means to black people.”

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Fail’s epic win

Back in my day, “fail” was a verb.  We also had to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways.  Oh, and the snow leopards…

But these are better times.  “Fail” is now a noun, and a ubiquitous one at thatSlate magazine’s Christopher Beam traces its entry into the online zeitgeist back to a Japanese video game:

“…online commenters suggest it started with a 1998 Neo Geo arcade game called Blazing Star. (References to the fail meme go as far back as 2003.) Of all the game’s obvious draws—among them fast-paced action, disco music, and anime-style cut scenes—its staying power comes from its wonderfully terrible Japanese-to-English translations. If you beat a level, the screen flashes with the words: “You beat it! Your skill is great!” If you lose, you are mocked: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!”

(Anyone whose seen the “All your base” video knows how these memes work.)  The May 2008 launch of Failblog brought the word to new heights — and world events drove it from there.  As Beam explains, web searches for “fail” surged in corrolation with the mortgage collapse and financial crisis.

Beam’s linguistic analysis is here.  One thing he misses though, another element that may help explain the rise of “fail,” is the American taste for degradation.  Look at our culture.  Much of the often-decried sex in the media really isn’t really about the sex itself; same goes for the violence. What is consistent, in reality television, “bum fights“, and the disgusting success of straight-up torture porn at the box office, is the public’s desire to see people in their most pitiful, destitute, “fail”-ish states.  Obviously this is all just conjecture, but I do wonder whether something like “Failblog” would do so well in any another culture.  (Oh and let me add that I enjoy a good “Blind Date” train-wreck as much as the next guy, so I’m not casting stones here…)

And so we leave the summary to Dylan:

“She knows there’s no success like failure; and that failure’s no success at all.”

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Watch your parkin meters

Radio Liberty today reported on demonstrations against Iranian rock star Mohsen Namjoo.  Namjoo, who blends traditional Persian music with rock, jazz, and blues, is under fire for including verses from the Koran in his lyrics.  Religious leaders call it an “insult:”

“When the Koran is being read, everyone should remain silent and listen,” [Islamic scholar Abbas] Mohajerani says. “If there is music playing, then the listener’s attention is largely caught by the music.”

While the Judiciary has, officially, remained silent, complaints from prominent Koranic scholars are increasing.  The Koran Council has already spoken out against him.

Namjoo says that he respects the laws of the Islamic Republic, and denied an interest in living abroad. Interviewed in Europe last year, he stated:

I live in that country, I ‘m committed to the laws, and I don’t want to be seen as an anarchist or a troublemaker.”

The New York Times referred to Namjoo as “Iran’s Bob Dylan,” and it’s a fitting comparison.  He writes poetry on the side and has the look.  When pressed by the Times, he rejected this label: “I’d rather have no adjective in front of the word musician,” Namjoo says. “I’m only a musician. That’s all.”  Sounds familiar.

The original article is here, and Namjoo is here.

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Dylan Rebuttal

To start, the quote “I can’t forgive him for his treatment of women. Everyone forgives him, but I can’t.” was actually meant for Woody Allen. I acknowledge that on the scale of things Allen’s sexism trumps Dylan’s with ease. I do believe that the first is hilarious and the second is a talented writer, but I simply can not help having apprehension about their work due to the sexist elements. Mischa did a good job refuting my here argument and during our 4 hours loitering at Kramer’s. He might have won anyone else over–But my dislike of Bob Dylan stems from an irrational place. So really all I have to say for myself is Fuck Bob Dylan.

Ahem. Have a lovely day.

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Bob Dylan is not sexist music

Had a discussion about this a while ago with the blog’s propriatrix (?)  I’m a huge proponent of Dylan, who I was raised on together with Phil Ochs and Joan Baez.  Mireille says of Dylan: “I can’t forgive him for his treatment of women. Everyone forgives him, but I can’t.”

I’d counter that, short of criminals (paging Roman Polanski,) the artist’s personal life is largely separate from their product. Eliot was a Jew-hater, but he’s a fine poet even if I wouldn’t invite him over for my grandma’s beef brisket.

However, at least one critic offhand has gone beyond the personal and accused Dylan of sexism in the work itself. Richard Goldstein brings it in The Nation:

“Hostility to women is a recurring motif in Dylan’s songs, from “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Idiot Wind.” His love songs, and there are many, bask in feminine submission, as in the ballad on Infidels (1983) that asks, “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” and answers “You know a woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong.”

I’m not going to sit here and defend Infidels on aesthetic merit, (though “Jokerman” has a cool video), but it’s worth noting that the commentators on Songmeanings seem to think “Sweetheart Like You” is actually about Christ and they’re not alone.  Of course, random people on the internet are notoriously unreliable: witness the epic Youtube comment, “”bob dyln sux hes a wannabe jon mayer.”  Not to mention the analysis of Van Morrison’s “Madame George” as being about Morrison’s aunt; a Belfast transvestite; social intolerance; growing up; leaving home; Yeats’ wife; or heroin.  Point is, interpretations are free.

But “Like a Rolling Stone?”  Goldstein’s flat-out wrong.  It’s not about sex, it’s about class — even if it takes a Marxist to notice it.  After that historic rim-shot, how does Dylan open Rolling Stone’s number one song of all time?

“Once upon a time you dressed so fine / Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”

There’s chapter and verse of this pissed-off poor-boy stuff:

“…Nobody ever taught you how to live on the street / And now you’re gonna have to get used to it…,”

“…Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people / Drinkin’ thinkin’ that they got it made / Exchanging all precious gifts and things / You’d better take your diamond ring you’d better pawn it babe.”

The bitterness is driven by rejection and poverty, not misogyny.

“Idiot Wind” makes a better argument, as the lyrics are pretty nasty at face value. But even that comes with a caveat.  After slamming his lover the whole way through, (assuming there isn’t a different target in the lines about the Capitol,) Dylan turns from away from blame in the last verse…

You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.

…and crucially, changes the pronoun from the “You” he’s been using the whole song to “We.” It may not negate the hostility of the thing entirely, but it’s there for a reason.

Some of Dylan’s other stuff, including “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” receives a nice defense here, see pages 64-68.

Goldstein goes on with the condemnation, dropping naughty words for effect:

“What do women think of this shit? We don’t really know, since rock crit (like lit crit) is such a male preserve. But it’s safe to say that Dylan’s current public is skewed toward the (straight) male end of the sexual spectrum.”

Not only is the make-up of the “rock crit” field totally irrelevant, but he has no proof that Dylan’s audience is any more straight male than the audience for rock in general; classic rock in general; folk rock in general; or any relevant genre.  If we want to cite anecdotes, I have a half-dozen women off the top of my head who love Dylan, and a half-dozen straight men who can’t be bothered.  Then there’s the logical leap:

Take Dylan’s trademark elusiveness: The self is masked; nothing is revealed. This stance is a major signifier of machismo in American culture, always has been. Think of all those masked superheroes, or the hard-boiled guys in film noir whose eyes are shown in shadow. Think of Noah’s son, cursed because he saw his father naked. Dylan is steeped in that saga. He’s a keeper of the patriarchal flame.

So: Elusiveness —-> machismo —-> film noir —-> Old Testament —-> “patriarchal flame.

I think I went to grad school with this fool. Actually, I think we all did.  Goldstein wraps with:

I don’t claim that Dylan is determined by machismo–there’s much more to him than that. But I will say that he reaches many men of a certain age and status on precisely these grounds. He digs beneath their ambivalent embrace of sexual equality, the insistence that they acknowledge their interests as a sex, and he proposes that these demands insult the fundamentals. Liberals won’t accept that regressive message when it’s wrapped in conservative politics, as it often is in country music. But because Dylan is as critical of injustice as he is of liberation, he overrides such reservations. And if you take a purely textual approach, it’s possible to forget that his mystique rests substantially on his sexual politics. Dylan is a liberal man’s man.

Same dreck. Even if we concede that Dylan has personal problems with women, it’s a fantastic leap to an “insistence [men] acknowledge their interests as a sex.” There’s certainly no evidence of a political agenda anywhere, even if Bob had some nasty breakups.  Besides which, Dylan isn’t a “liberal man’s man” any more than he’s a liberal’s anything . (“The madness of becoming / What one was never meant to be?“)

Chairman Dylan’s apparant issues with women are rarely if ever about about women. Yes, Dylan has a whole sub-catalogue of “You broke my heart go fuck yourself” material.  Thing is, the central problem to this stuff is rarely if ever the nature of women.  It’s usually about class (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” possibly “Queen Jane Approximately,) or at worst a whiny sort of she-asked-too-much self-pity (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” or that great line “I gave her my heart / But she wanted my soul” from “Don’t Think Twice.”) It’s sex, it’s love, it’s class, but it’s not women qua women.

The best defense of the stuff I can offer is that so much of it can be performed gender-backwards to fantastic effect. Take five minutes of your life (and possibly a cigarette) for this, or check out Nina Simone’s cover of “Just Like a Woman” where she inverts the pronoun to “I”and try to pretend the intent is misogyny.

Defense rests.

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