Recommended CDs

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Davey Graham, Folk Pioneer, R.I.P.

Folk, Blues, and Beyond is one of those albums that changed the musical direction of a generation and is still cited today by anyone who really aspires to play the acoustic guitar. Most people find him, as I did, as a result of familiarity with the great Bert Jansch. Now I suppose the connection is at one more remove, but Bernard Butler, who worships Jansch, certainly knows him. And I suppose the proto-emo pissings of Neil Drake are where most younger people would have heard the influence of Davey Graham, even if they were unaware of it.

But everyone knows at least one tune of Graham's, Angi, as a result of its being covered by Paul Simon (who changed the spelling to Anji) and many others.

After the 60s Graham basically lost the next 30 years or more of his life to drugs, but he had returned to playing in recent years. A good job was done of issuing some of his old albums at the beginning of this century. They also issued "After Hours", recorded in a student's room at Hull University in 1967 after Graham's performance there the same evening. This is one of my favourite recordings by Graham. That's the sort of setting where you hear real music that no producer has sprinkled with so-called magic dust. Its release was a shot in the arm for anyone who's ever played a "concert" in someone's bedsit or student digs (I've spent some of the most enjoyable musical hours of my life in those settings).

Nowadays aspiring musicians make digital recordings on computers and upload them to MySpace. Graham belonged to that generation of musicians who paid their dues by busking their way around Europe (Ralph McTell is another guy who learned his trade this way, busking in subways or near cinema queues. McTell learned ragtime from a young American who'd studied with the legendary Gary Davies whom McTell met while busking on a freezing cold day on the Left Bank in Paris; you just don't get that sort of experience from the internet).

Graham's travels also took him to India, where he became one of the first British musicians to come under the spell of Ravi Shankar and Indian music generally (see under Harrison, George). Graham was one of the founders of British "folk baroque", which mixed American blues and English folk, renaissance and early classical music, plus what was not then, but is now called "world music." Thus we have lost not merely a fine musician, but a true pioneer.

At least we still have Bert Jansch, who now can quite properly be said to be the finest living British acoustic guitar player, a controversial claim while Graham was alive.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

On Milton's 400th Birtthday

Milton and the Sonnet

The following piece is heavily indebted to the Introduction to A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic Era Revival by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson, available in the UK from (hardback, softback) and highly recommended.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,-
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?
I fondly ask:-But Patience, to prevent

That murmer, soon replies; God doth not need
Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:-
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Milton wrote only 24 sonnets, but they were the last great contribution to the form before it fell into disrepute and neglect until the second half of the 18th century. Johnson dismissed the sonnet form altogether as being unsuited to the English language, and excepted not even Milton's contributions to the genre. Boswell records "a lively saying of Dr Johnson to Miss Hannah More, who had expressed a wonder that the poet who had written Paradise Lost, should write such poor sonnets: ' Milton, madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones'."

To the 18th century, eager for satire, intellect and clarity, the eroticism of the Petrarchan sonnet as adapted to the English language by Surrey, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare (who developed a new form not until much later known as the Shakespearean sonnet) seemed morbid, its courtly tradition seemed quaint and obscure, its habitual tone of resignation unmanly and unsuited to an age of reason and confidence, its "conceited" imagery wilfully obscure and much too clever by half. Johnson's Dictionary defines "sonneteer" as a contemptuous word for a "small poet" and in his Essay on Criticism Pope writes,

What woeful stuff this madrigal would be
In some starv'd hackney sonneteer, or me

And George Steevens was praised by critics for omitting Shakespeare's sonnets from his 1793 edition of the collected works!

And yet Milton had already modernized the sonnet for the new age. He had moved it away from erotic themes, and beyond the purely devotional (such as Donne's immortal Holy Sonnets). His sonnets are either personal (but nonerotic) such as On His Blindness (see above) or Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint) or political such as On the Late Massacre in Piedmont or To the Lord General Cromwell. He created a model for a sonnet free of the burden of the Italian erotic tradition, suitable for public themes and for private themes other than love. While restoring the Petrarchan rhyme scheme in place of the Shakespearean form (indeed, five of his sonnets are in Italian), he abandoned its rhetorical division and made extensive use of enjambement. This can be seen very well in On His Blindness -- Milton uses enjambement not only between individual lines but between quatrains and between the octet and the sestet. The volta or "turn" begins after the second foot of line 8, rather than the beginning of line 9. These metrical innovations gave the sonnet the same taut, stately feel as his blank verse.

Nevertheless, an "18th century sonnet" failed to develop from Milton's innovations. When the sonnet returned to favour in the second half of the 18th century, it did so not as a vehicle for public or personal themes, but as part of the "Cult of Sensibility" and largely in the hands of female poets.

Ironically, it was Wordsworth, the romantic who broke with most of the traditions of post-Restoration poetry, who proclaimed himself the heir of the Miltonian sonnet. He praised Milton for his reforms, noting that they gave the sonnet "the intense unity...of an orbicular body, a sphere, or a dew drop." That master epigrammist Walter Savage Landor summed up Milton's contribution to the sonnet best in The Last Fruit Off An Old Tree (the first lines refer, of course, to Milton's sonnet to Cromwell):

'TWAS not unseemly in the bravest bard Milton
From Paradise and angels to descend,
And crown his country's saviour with a wreath
Above the regal : few his words, but strong,
And sounding through all ages and all climes.
He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand
Of Love, who cried to lose it ; and he gave
The notes to Glory.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

English Sportsmen in "Taking Moral Stand" Shock

In my last blog entry, I hesitated before congratulating the England cricket team for showing solidarity with their Indian counterparts at this terrible moment in India's history. At that stage, as Andrew Miller put it in on cricinfo, the Englishmen (and their admirable South African-born leader) were still one step short of a hero's welcome, having arrived at their training camp in Abu Dhabi, but not having fully committed to taking the plane from Dubai Airport to India for the resumption of their interrupted tour. But now that it has been formally announced that England will tour with their full squad, I can offer my warmest congratulations to every member of the team for standing up to terrorism and with their Indian fellow professionals, the Indian nation, and their touring supporters.

Press reports suggested that chief doubts surrounded two crucial members of the England squad, fast bowler Steve Harmison (who has in the past not required much incentive to quit tours and scurry back to his family in the northeast) and talisman Andrew Flintoff. Surely "Freddie" wouldn't jump ship? Not our Fred, who nobly stepped in on the last tour to India, when Vaughan was injured and stand-in captain Marcus Trescothick suffered the first onset of the stress-related injury that eventually ended his international career. Flintoff had been due to fly back for the birth of his child, but put the needs of the team above his personal concerns, an all too rare gesture in modern sport.

I don't imagine it took too many appeals from Kevin Pietersen to get Flintoff to do the right thing. Steve Harmison may have needed a little more persuasion, and I can imagine both KP and Freddie doing sterling work behind the scenes to get our sometimes reluctant fast bowler, but potential match winner, on board.

To announce that they will be arriving in India with their full squad (apart from the injured Sidebottom and Swann, who may arrive later) clearly raises the prestige of their decision to continue the tour. This makes the first time that a first-choice England team has toured India for many years -- there were players who dropped out in 2002 for "security reasons", when the world was just getting used to the idea that terrorism was no longer something that happened "over there", but a permanent feature of our lives that we must resist, or surrender everything that makes our civilization superior to the Islamo-nihilists bent on destroying it.

I have to say that the BCCI (Board for Control of Cricket in India) doesn't deserve this gesture; its shameless protection of Zimbabwe within the ICC, ignoring the fact that the Zimbabwean Cricket Board is merely an extention of Rubert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, is rife with finanical corruption and political interference, and chooses its team on blatantly racist lines, is a permanent and uneradicable stain on the reputation of cricket; the BCCI has sold its soul in return for Zimbabwe's vote within the ICC that allows India to run that organization as its own private fiefdom. For its role in propping up Mugabe's bloody dictatorship, everlasting shame should descend on the Indian board. Please spare me allegations of hypocrisy: there is no comparison between the MCC's embarrassing procrastination before doing the right thing over the Basil D'Oliveira affair and the BCCI's chronic and ongoing (and very possibly corrupt) opposition to the lancing of the Zimbabwean boil. The British were shamed into taking a stand against apartheid in South African sport; the BCCI have shown themselves to be quite beyond the reach of shame, and to have no interest in anything apart from maximizing their revenue from TV coverage.

But screw the BCCI and its narrow-minded, venal politicos; damn the bastards to hell; this is a gesture of solidarity with the Indian people, made for the good of cricket, the first time in a long time that anyone in the sport has taken a long-term, broad view for the good of the game.

Let's make no mistake too: it's a brave decision, even more than David Gower's decision to continue England's tour of India after Indira Gandhi's assissination in 1984. Then the act of terror and the ensuing unrest were confined to Indian nationals, or at least to non-cricketers: no one believed then that terrorists would lift a hand against the game of cricket, a second religion for Hindus and Muslims alike throughout the subcontinent. The main problem for Gower's team was going into a test match having been unable to practise for nearly two weeks because of a national period of mourning. The major danger to the players then, as Matthew Engel wrote in The Guardian, was incurring sunstroke beside their hotel swimming pool. (Admittedly, the crisis hit nearer home when, on the day before the Test match, Percy Norris, who had recently been appointed British Deputy High Commissioner to India, was murdered half a mile from the team's hotel, days after meeting the team.)

Even then, it took some aggressive persuasian to get some members of the squad to stay. According to Derek Pringle in The Daily Telegraph, team manager Tony Brown threw all their passports on a table and told those who wanted out to take theirs and 'piss off'.

One hopes that, even though there is a much clearer danger to Westernisers after the Bombay attacks, and even cricket may not be immune from the Islamo-nihililsts, such moral blackmail was not required this time. Kevin Pietersen had already shown that he has more subtle powers of persuasion in the summer, when he talked Harmison out of retirement from the one day game and Flintoff into batting at five in that format and six in the test match: excellent decisions that brought England victory in all the remaining fixtures of the summer bar the two that were rained off. It is to be hoped that reluctant members of the squad were persuaded by the force of the arguments rather than implied threats to their careers.

However this was achieved, Pietersen and no doubt others such as the England and Wales Cricket Board's managing director Hugh Morris, deserve enormous credit; and so do the rest of the squad, even those who initially dragged their feet. Because, make no mistake about it, it takes some courage to continue with a mere game after the atrocity that was inflicted on Bombay, where one target was the Taj Mahal hotel, where the team had been staying only days earlier, and where their kit was still awaiting their return, even as gunmen rounded up all the British, American, and Israeli nationals they could find and held them hostage.

However, it is not as though terrorism is something that happens far away to other people any more. In July 2005, terrorists struck in the heart of London right near the beginning of the Ashes tour. If the Australians had gone home then, we would not only have been deprived of one of the great sporting contests of recent history, but the terrorists would also have been emboldened to new atrocities by the success in disrupting the British way of life. What happened instead was a show of defiance by Londoners from all walks of life: on the Sunday after the atrocity, the nation commemorated jointly the anniversaries of VE and VJ day in the capital. As England and Australia began their one-day international at Lord's, the famous ground was buzzed by RAF jets. A million poppies were dropped from the London skies over Buckingham Palace to commemorate those who died in an earlier struggle with a different group of fascists. An anti-monarchist, I was nevertheless proud of our Queen for defying the terrorists and riding through the capital as scheduled in an open coach. As the Daily Record wrote,

Grief for those killed last week merged with painful memories of a city devastated by the blitz 60 years ago. It brought generations together. And the quiet dignity of the day sent a silent - but crystal clear - message to the world. Londoners said: our city will never be beaten.

It is clear that we have a duty to India as a fellow member of the cricketing commonwealth, to stand by it in its hour of need, just as Australia did with us.

In case anyone asks of me: What about you? Why aren't you in India right now? Isn't it easy to demand that other people make these sorts of decisions, which might potentially have tragic consequences for them and their families?

Well, I would be in India right now if I had the money and leisure to follow the England cricket team. ButI do have a little experience in being in a foreign country in the midst of an international crisis: On 30th April, 1986 I was studying in the city of Minsk in what is now the Republic of Belarus, when word got to us via some of the Russian students that there had been some kind of nuclear accident near Kiev.

The following day, we were evacuated from Minsk by order of the British Foreign Office; but none of us wanted to go. We wanted to stay as a gesture of solidarity to our roommates and fellow students. After all, they had nowhere to go. But we were bundled on an overnight train to Moscow, while our Russian friends waved us goodbye from the platform, tears in their eyes. My roommate Sergey was still on board the train, giving me last minute advice about eating more cake (I was terribly thin in those days), and had to jump off the moving train in the nick of time.

I should say that the British Embassy was absolutely useless in this whole affair: they had been unable to find us tickets to Moscow (the following day was May Day and thousands of people were travelling to the capital to take part in the biggest holiday in the Soviet calendar), but eventually our tutor Viktor Viktorovich, who had always managed to get us scarce opera and theatre tickets, came up with the goods. The Embassy got its collective finger out and got us a plane out of Moscow only when it became apparent that otherwise they'd have to allow a bunch of student oinks to stay overnight at the palatial British Embassy itself.

I can still recall our horror and disgust at the sensational headlines that awaited us when we boarded the plane, after hours of delay while we underwent compulsory medical checks by the Soviet authorities on the outskirts of Moscow. "Millions of Red Babies at Risk", "Students Escape Nuclear Hell-Hole..." The Soviet authorities in this pre-glasnost era were secretive, but the British press made up for lack of information with ghoulish and sensational speculation.

I read in The Times the next day that the Soviets had refused to allow our plane to leave Moscow Airport until Soviet sympathizers among the students (our group and another from Kiev) had been able to make propaganda statements. I can safely say that there were no Communist sympathizers in our group. We made a joint statement via the oldest member of our party (a retired subeditor in his sixties) that we didn't want to leave but were being forced to do so, and that we thanked our Russian friends for their hospitality and friendship, and hoped that they were in no present danger. The other group stated something similar. Nor had we been prevented from leaving until such statements were made; a Russian official merely boarded the plane and invited us to do so. A far longer delay was caused by British Airways's requirement that we doff all our clothes and put them into the hold, and wear BA tracksuits to board the train.

There were reporters on the plane from the Daily Mail who had boarded British Airways airbus in Gatwick without a visa in their bid for a scoop. But to our party's credit, we refused to talk to them or feed their desire for sensational headlines.

On arrival in Gatwick, after a rowdy flight in which the British Airways pilot had made the bold decision, which he later regretted, of making all drinks on board, including alcohol, free by way of apology to the passengers who had been waiting for hours on the runway while we underwent our checks and the rest (students + free alchohol + four hour flight is not a pretty mixture), we were met by a scum of journalists (my preferred collective noun for that profession). I pushed angrily past a Daily Express man who wanted me to tell my story.

When I got home, I started smashing up my room in a fit of rage. My parents couldn't understand why I was so angry: why wasn't I happy to have escaped from the potential danger?

Because for more than 48 hours, we had been helpless pawns in an international game, unable to do anything but obey orders. Because we had exposed to the sheer mindlessness of the British tabloid and broadsheet press. But most of all because we had been denied the opportunity to make a moral decision to stay with our friends and continue our studies in the face of unknown peril. At least England's cricketers have been given the opportunity to make this brave decision, and I salute them for it.

Now then. What about announcing a date for the postponed ICC Trophy tournament in Pakistan?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bombay Burns and We Are All Indians Now

A few days ago an unspeakable attack was carried out on one of the world's most heavily populated, culturally and racially diverse, and cosmopolitan cites -- a city that I shall call Bombay rather than "Mumbai", the name it was given in 1996, for aesthetic reasons, though according to Christopher Hitchens, there are excellent political and anti-theist reasons for continuing to call it by its former name as well (I'm not entirely convinced he's right on this subject, but anyway).

The target was the city's most famous cultural landmarks in the first place, and anyone of American, British, or Jewish nationality in the second.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it bears all the hallmarks of Al Qaida's filthy handiwork, and, according to the Indian authorities, there are unmistakable links too to Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

Those who doubt that Al Qaida are waging a nihilistic, cultural, religiously-motivated war against the whole world have to answer why their targets are always symbolic buildings, multi-cultural communities, and cosmopolitan cities. These Islamic nihilists loathe such culturally diverse centres with every evil fibre of their rotten beings. They advocate not only religious exclusivity, but racial and cultural exclusivity also. As Hitchens wrote in Slate magazine:

...what's at stake is the whole concept of a cosmopolitan city open to its own citizens and to the world—a city on the model of Sarajevo or London or Beirut or Manhattan. There is, of course, a reason they attract the ire and loathing of the religious fanatics. To the pure and godly, the very existence of such places is a profanity. In a smaller way, the same is true of the Islamabad Marriott hotel, where I also used to stay. It was a meeting point and crossroads for foreigners. It had a bar where the Pakistani prohibition rules did not apply. Its dining rooms and public spaces featured stylish Asian women who showed their faces. And so it had to be immolated, like any other Sodom or Gomorrah [the Marriott Hotel was bombed in September this year].

That of course was also why the World Trade Center had to be destroyed -- those who point out, correctly, that many of those killed in the WTC on 9/11 were Muslims, as well as Christian and people of other religions and none at all don't always make the connection that this is the very reason why the WTC was so offensive to the Islamic nihilists: it's not that they didn't realize that Muslims were also present in the building: they did not class those persons as true Muslims because they were working alongside the Infidel.

And that's why one of the world's most admired buildings, the Taj Mahal also had to burn:

Just because America has elected a liberal president, and mirabile dictu, one with a brain to boot, does not mean that he won't have to deal with the same problems as Bush contended with so ineptly. Moreover, in the light of some of Obama's campaign trail comments about Pakistan, the involvement of the ISI, if proven, could have serious implications for future U.S. foreign and military policy. In what many portrayed as a major blunder and sign of his lack of experience in foreign affairs, Obama implied that he would be willing to extend the hunt for Al Qaida within Pakistan's borders if that country did not fully cooperate with the war on terror.

He also indicated a willingness to contemplate a surge inside Afghanistan -- quite a volte face for someone who staked so much political capital on his ab initio opposition to the Iraq war. And yet, if his strategy is to withdraw from Iraq while shoring up the allied effort in Afghanistan, he cannot ignore Pakistan, which is effectively the Taleban's hinterland. But such a policy is fraught with danger, in that Pakistan is already notoriously volatile and possesses (like India) nuclear weapons.

One of the earliest indications of Obama's politicals skills will be his handling of the Pakistani issue. Can he bring the Indian and Pakistani presidents together? Can he organize a collective miltiary responce with broad international backing if necessary? It's a real tester for the new President's early days.

In the meantime, all the rest of us can do is offer India our solidarity. In this respect, I am delighted by the news that England are to return to India to play their rescheduled test matches against India, though I won't say too much at this point in case they back down. If it goes ahead, as it should, it would be a clear sign that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Indian people in their hour of need.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Always look on the bright side of life

Ever since I quoted that Edwin Muir poem the other day, the Google ads on this blog have been about nothing else but grief counselling and will making.

So in a bid to dispel the gloom, I hereby offer, courtesy of youtube, Eric Idle's classic song about looking up even when things are looking down. I dedicate it to all those facing hard times due to the world economic downturn. Indeed, our governments have decreed that pessimism is unpatriotic, and we must all feast in the time of plague and above all, spend, spend, spend our way out of recession! So let the Clown spread a little optimism.

In case that doesn't work, here's a version of the song that Idle may have been parodying. Irving Berlin's Let's Face the Music and Dance was written for the film Follow the Fleet in the middle of growing economic depression and the looming spectre of war in Europe. In place of Fred and Ging, here are Strictly Come Dancing's own Anton du Beke and Flavia Caccace, and for double the fun, Vincent Simone and Erin Boag. This was a gloriously cheeky routine, one of my favourite dances by the professionals on my favourite show.

Did you know Anton du Beke's real name is Tony Beak? That certainly brought a smile to my face!

Friday, 28 November 2008

Bob's Big Freeze Left Me Lukewarm at Best

BOB DYLAN'S BIG FREEZE - BBC Radio 2, November 25th 2008 Bob's Big Freeze November 25th 2008 BBC Radio 2, 10.30-11.30pm

From The Times :

Radio Choice
Bob's Big Freeze Chris Campling Bob Harris tells the fascinating story of a significant but largely unknown chapter in the life of that living god, Bob Dylan. In 1962 the newly famous Bobster came to Britain to appear in a BBC TV play called Madhouse On Castle Street. While he was here he stayed with that eminent British folkie, Martin Carthy, who opened Dylan's ears to a whole new way of making music (Don't Think Twice It's Alright, and Bob Dylan's Dream were heavily influenced by his exposure to traditional English folk music). He also had the unequalled joy of living through the famously bitter winter of 1962-63, when Carthy was reduced to chopping up a piano for firewood.

This BBC radio documentary about Bob Dylan's first visit to the United Kingdom in the freezing winter of 1962/3 was OK, but could have been better, especially as this ground has been trod before and fairly recently, also by the BBC (Dylan in the Madhouse, 2005). It was interesting to hear a few different voices from the early 60s British folk scene, although of course Carthy and Davenport were trotted out again (not that I'm complaining, I love Martin in particular).

I also think it could have been a little less sloppy. For instance, when Bob Harris asks "Who knows what a big influence the U.K. folk scene had on Dylan at this time?" (or words to that effect), the song playing behind him is A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, which was written a couple of months before Bob set foot in England. It was left to Carthy to make the point that Dylan was already familiar with English, Scottish, and Irish folk music before he arrived in England. Hard Rain, for instance, is based partly on the Child Ballad, "Lord Randall." However, it was fascinating to hear in this programme that Bob may have also been influenced by another source (I shall elaborate later in an edit to this post). This was one of the few genuinely new (to me, at any rate) pieces of information in Dylan's Big Freeze.

It was also implied that the protest element in Bob's music came from the UK folk scene (especially Scottish folk song, which Davenport told him was all political). Carthy also claims that the anthemic quality of some of the songs Dylan wrote in the next couple of years came from his exposure to the UK scene.

But Bob was already writing political songs -- Death of Emmett Till, Let Me Die in My Footsteps, and Talking John Birch Society Paranoid Blues, for example. The important person here, apart from Bob himself, was his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, who inspired his interest in politics. Plus there is a protest element in some blues (Big Bill Broonzy, for instance, whose "When Will I Get To Be Called A Man?" may have given Bob the idea for one verse of Blowin'). And for anthemic material, Bob could turn to negro spirituals (as he did for Blowin' in the Wind, which was inspired by No More Auction Block, which he probably learned from Odetta). Plus, of course, Bob couldn't help being influenced by the Civil Rights movement in America itself at the time. All of this was surely more influential on Bob's political material than Carthy or Davenport. And that's without even mentioning Woody Guthrie!

It is true, though, that on his return to the States he withdrew the first version of Freewheelin' and replaced four of the songs with what he called "fingerpointing songs", which was probably the result of his British visit. Otherwise the record would probably have been more blues- oriented (its original title was Bob Dylan's Blues). But it already contained Blowin' in the Wind (recorded in July, written months earlier) and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (recorded in December at what was supposed at the time to have been the final session for the album).

There is so much that Bob was absorbing at this time (including Brecht, which is a major influence on The Times, They Are A-Changin'). That's why he's so fascinating, and why programmes like this one, which only focus on one element, miss the point. The first part of Martin Scorsese's brilliant No Direction Home is the best documentary of Bob's early period precisely because it shows what a sponge he was, soaking up a wide range of influences incredibly quickly and using them to produce something new.

Incidentally, it is ironic that Bob left Minnesota because (as he tells us in his interview in No Direction Home) it was "too cold to be different", only to arrive in New York in the middle of "the coldest winter in 17 years." Then when he went to England for the first time, it was our coldest winter since the 18th century!

For those who missed the transmission, I have provided an mp3 below. If you download it, by way of thanks you might like to click on some of the Google Ads, which will help me stay on line.

Bob Dylan's Big Freeze

(Big download, 78MB).

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Snatched from deceiving death/By the articulate breath

I've had this volume of the collected poems of Edwin Muir (1887-1959) for several years now, but for some reason, I have hardly ever dipped into it. Which made it a pleasant surprise to discover the following superb poem today (from a series of meditations on time and eternity in his 1956 collection One Foot in Eden):


They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track
Never never turned back
Into the memoried day.
All is new and near
In the unchanging Here
Of the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same
Never shall pass away.

On the sixth day we came.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Bullingdon Conservatives Trash Talk the UK Economy

An Ipsos Mori opinion poll puts Labour just three points behind the New Tories, which of course makes it a statistical dead heat.

While Gordon Brown, the victim of so much yah-boo derision over the past 12 months, has emerged as virtually the savour of the European economy, the Tories' collection of ex-Etonian hooray-henries has been exposed as weak, opportunistic, and out of their depth. In particular, the reputation of 'Boy' George Osborne will possibly never recover. His attempt to discredit Peter Mandelson over the "Deripaska yacht" affair backfired spectacularly (how silly to try to out-Mandy Mandy in the black arts!), and his latest irresponsible talk about the economy is likely to provoke a run on the pound and will be viewed very dimly in the City (he and his other fellow graduates from Eton's notorious Bullingdon Club have been trash-talking the UK economy in the way they allegedly used to trash restaurants, totally without regard for the consequences for other people, secure in their own unearned wealth).

In short, the dangers of Britain sleepwalking into Bullingdon Conservatism* have somewhat receded. We just need Boris to make a complete chump of himself now; so give it a couple of months tops, then.

*Please feel free to chuck this phrase around liberally. I don't know if it's my own coinage, but I'm trying to give it currency as a counterpart to the long-standing "Bolinger socialist".

Thursday, 13 November 2008

10 Reasons Why Rolf Harris Is Better Than Bob Dylan

1. Two Little Boys. The children's classic that has a strange effect on grown men (and on a certain evil ex-prime minister). The real greatest single ever made!

2. Didgeridoo vs. harmonica -- I mean, which is cooler?
Well, ok, but which is more phallic?

3. Bob can't play the wobble board either.

4. His Rolfness has been backed by all four Beatles on a remake of 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down' sport -- Bob has only ever sung with George and Ringo, separately, and has never sung about kangaroos.

5. The Rolfster has sung on a Kate Bush album.

6. Make that two Kate Bush albums!

7. Rolf can draw. Sorry, Bob, but just because you have an exhibition of your pisspoor paintings nowadays, it doesn't mean they're any good.

8. Jake the Peg -- a more poignant story of an outcast than Hollis Brown?

9. Has Bob Dylan ever performed a cover of the Divynyls 'I Touch Myself' accompanied only by a wobble board? I think not.

10. Bob was the voice of his generation, but Rolf is the voice of every generation.

What's more, that "vocal percussion" thing that Tom Waits does -- Rolf invented that, he did.

The Pet Goat -- the Reviews Deleted by Amazon

News that President-elect Barack Obama has been reading Derek Walcott's Collected Poems 1948-1984 (it's apparently the book he's holding in the picture) reminds me that outgoing President George W. Bush will soon finally have an opportunity to finish reading The Pet Goat, the story (often erroneously referred to as My Pet Goat) in a children's book he spent so much time immersed in on September 11, 2001.

The book prominently sold out, and inspired lots of satirical reviews on, which has since deleted them.

But of course, on the Internet, nothing really disappears
, so here are some of those reviews:

It's out of work and back to school for Dumbfuck!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

I Finally Remembered Who McCain's Attack Bimbo Reminds Me Of....

I've been trying to work out who Sarah Palin reminds me of, and now I've got it!

Anyone remember the Gus Van Sant movie from the mid-nineties, To Die For, about a dim but ruthless weather girl (Nicole Kidman) who has her husband bumped off to further her career?

Its tagline was, as I recall: "All she wanted was a little attention"...!

Friday, 7 November 2008

Return of the Brown Bounce?

Compared to the U.S. presidential election, Labour holding onto a once safe seat in Scotland with a reduced majority is not even on the scale. And yet it may just be the turning point in Gordon Brown's premiership. His stewardship of the economy at this momentous time has won golden praise globally from political leaders across the spectrum. If Labour had lost, as the polls had predicted that they would throughout the campaign and even on polling day, it would have been the end for Brown, and probably Labour too. At last there is the hope of stopping the election of a Tory government that would take us right back to the discredited Thatcherite economics of the 1980s.

Not to mention that Alex Salmond and the SNP are starting to look like a busted flush. Salmond's ridiculous claim that Scotland would have been able to weather the current economic storm alone, comparing it to Norway, is laughable. Norway is one the richest countries in Europe with considerable greater oil reserves than Scotland, and due to sensible economic management it has been largely untouched by the present economic crisis. In fact, Scotland (pop. 5 million, among whom pensioners greatly outnumber schoolchildren) would probably have been more like Iceland. The SNP's claims are pure demagoguery.

Perhaps the election of the most liberal U.S. President since JFK will encourage more progressive policies from Labour, the sort of policies it is rumoured that Gordon Brown would in fact like to pursue.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Tears and Laughter in Romeo and Juliet

I have been re-reading, with much pleasure, Shakespeare's earliest plays. Two Gentlemen of Verona might not be a play-goer's or a reader's favourite, but its themes and even plot elements run through all the later comedies up to Twelfth Night, and the early play can in fact be seen as a comic version of "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet", Arthur Brooke's narrative poem based on the Italian legend (Brooke's poem is used as a source in both Two Gentlemen and Romeo and Juliet).

At the same time, Shakespeare was probably writing his sonnets, with their rumination on Time and Love. Romeo and Juliet makes use of the sonnet form, firstly in the famous prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

but also -- and much more daringly -- within the action itself, in the most "public" part of the action: Capulet's feast, which Romeo (rather reluctantly) and his friends have gate-crashed in disguise (masquers were often welcomed as uninvited guests on such occasions). The headstrong Tybalt has recognized Romeo and is champing at the bit to challenge him to a duel there and then; he is restrained by his angry father, for whom even the presence of a hated Montague isn't worth spoiling his party for. Meanwhile, the guests and the disguised Montagues are enjoying a public dance, from which the love-lorn Romeo (still in love with Rosaline Capulet at this point; a character we never see in the play!) feels excluded by his melancholy ("I have a soul of lead/So stakes me to the ground I cannot move") and he takes little interest in proceedings until he catches sight of Juliet ( ("O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!"), and goes over at the change-over between dances to introduce himself, still in disguise, obviously. At this point, in this most public of scenes, the two lovers enter into their own private world; and Shakespeare uses a sonnet to symbolise this removal of the lovers to an internal sphere into which the world, even at its noisiest, may not intrude:


[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.


Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

They begin another sonnet at once, but this one is interrupted by the nurse; all too brief are the private moments allowed to the lovers in this play.

At the same time, some parts of the play are not so successful. I find Juliet's sudden use of extended legal metaphor (a favourite trope with our poet) when she tells Friar Laurence of her woes in Act 4 scene 1 to be highly unsuitable both for the character and for the situation. Also, when the Capulets learn of Juliet's supposed death (she's taken the friar's potion which makes her appear lifeless for 42 hours, remember), their lamentation borders dangerously on the comic.

What noise is here?
O lamentable day!
What is the matter?
Look, look! O heavy day!
O me, O me! My child, my only life,
Revive, look up, or I will die with thee!
Help, help! Call help.


For shame, bring Juliet forth; her lord is come.
She's dead, deceased, she's dead; alack the day!
Alack the day, she's dead, she's dead, she's dead!
Ha! let me see her: out, alas! she's cold:
Her blood is settled, and her joints are stiff;
Life and these lips have long been separated:
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

O lamentable day!
O woful time!
Death, that hath ta'en her hence to make me wail,
Ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.

Enter FRIAR LAURENCE and PARIS, with Musicians

Come, is the bride ready to go to church?
Ready to go, but never to return.
O son! the night before thy wedding-day
Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies,
Flower as she was, deflowered by him.
Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir;
My daughter he hath wedded: I will die,
And leave him all; life, living, all is Death's.
PARIS Have I thought long to see this morning's face,
And doth it give me such a sight as this?

Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day!
Most miserable hour that e'er time saw
In lasting labour of his pilgrimage!
But one, poor one, one poor and loving child,
But one thing to rejoice and solace in,
And cruel death hath catch'd it from my sight!
O woe! O woful, woful, woful day!
Most lamentable day, most woful day,
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!
Never was seen so black a day as this:
O woful day, O woful day!
Beguiled, divorced, wronged, spited, slain!
Most detestable death, by thee beguil'd,
By cruel cruel thee quite overthrown!
O love! O life! not life, but love in death!

Despised, distressed, hated, martyr'd, kill'd!
Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now
To murder, murder our solemnity?
O child! O child! my soul, and not my child!
Dead art thou! Alack! my child is dead;
And with my child my joys are buried.

How did Shakespeare expect his audience to take this highly artificial scene of extravagant lamenting? First, the audience remembers that the Capulet family has repeatedly rebuked Juliet for (as they supposed) over-doing her mourning of her kinsman Tybalt (slain by Romeo in revenge for the death of Mercutio). In Act 3, scene v, though Tybalt, by the play's chronology, cannot have been dead for more than a few hours, Lady Capulet, advancing the case for Juliet to marry Paris, rebukes her daughter thus:

Evermore weeping for your cousin's death?
What, wilt thou wash him from his grave with tears?
An if thou couldst, thou couldst not make him live;
Therefore, have done: some grief shows much of love;
But much of grief shows still some want of wit.
Not just "want of wit" (i.e. derangement); excessive grief was held to border on heresy, by seeming to impugn the justice of providence, as Claudius reminded Hamlet:

Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.'
Although Claudius is of course disingenuous (since he is the undiscovered murderer of Hamlet's father), his advice is sound from the religious point of view; as is Lady Capulet's more curt advice, albeit showing a want of feeling for her daughter's grief (although she does not know that her grief is for Romeo, her cousin's murderer, rather than for Tybalt himself).

The Capulets extravagant woe over their apparently lifeless daughter lends a retrospective irony to Lady Capulet's earlier advice. This has the effect of distancing the audience from the Capulets' grief; although, since we know that Juliet is not really dead, but only sleeping, we cannot enter into their feelings anyway. Furthermore, well-meant advice that is useless because the giver of it cannot truly enter into the feelings of the person for whom it is intended is a common Shakespearian theme found already in his earliest comedies, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors. However, Shakespeare goes still further than this: the Capulets' over-use of rethorical tropes* (*for the record, as listed by the Oxford Shakespeare they are a) apostrophe: "O lamentable day!"; b) exergasia, repeating the same thought in many figures; c) repetition; d) prosopopeia, the personification of death; e) asyndeton, the omission of conjuctions; f) recurring epizeuxis, the repetition of the same word in close succession) makes one suspect that Shakespeare is sending up the whole tradition of Senecan Tragedy. Indeed, a line of Paris's ("O love! O life! not life, but love in death!") directly recalls a much parodied passage ofThomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy:

O eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears;
O life, no life, but lively form of death;
O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs...

Evidently, a parody of the older play's bombast could be counted on for a laugh even at the end of the century; Kyd's flowery rhetoric is memorably sent up in the Pyrrhus speech in Hamlet. At this point in Romeo and Juliet, however, with the action moving swiftly towards its tragic denouement, this highly stylized scene of artificial lament has struck many directors, audiences, and readers as inappropriate. For once Friar Laurence's sententious rhetoric, reminding Lady Capulet of her own earlier sentiments, in putting an end to this scene of extravagant lamenting is entirely welcome:

Peace, ho, for shame! confusion's cure lives not
In these confusions. Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid; now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid:
Your part in her you could not keep from death,
But heaven keeps his part in eternal life.
The most you sought was her promotion;
For 'twas your heaven she should be advanced:
And weep ye now, seeing she is advanced
Above the clouds, as high as heaven itself?
O, in this love, you love your child so ill,
That you run mad, seeing that she is well:
She's not well married that lives married long;
But she's best married that dies married young.
Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse; and, as the custom is,
In all her best array bear her to church:
For though fond nature bids us an lament,
Yet nature's tears are reason's merriment.
There is a strong suggestion that Shakespeare may have been trying to add "local colour" by sending up the extravagance of Italian lamentation. Under this interpretation, Friar Laurence becomes an honorary Englishman, reasserting the importance of restraining one's emotions and maintaining a "stiff upper-lip"! After this rebuke, Capulet's sad and dignified speech is more genuinely moving than his family's previous weeping and wailing:

All things that we ordained festival,
Turn from their office to black funeral;
Our instruments to melancholy bells,
Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse,
And all things change them to the contrary.

This almost rescues the scene from parody. Directors have frequently gone further by cutting the preceding lamentations; indeed the "bad" quarto of Romeo and Juliet omits several lines, suggesting that even in Shakespeare's day the scene may have been cut. One wonders whether the play's earliest directors, or Shakespeare himself, realized that a scene that was written with the intention of provoking some mirth was destabilizing the tragic resonance of the play as a whole by provoking out-right hilarity among the "groundlings", and consequently reduced the scene significantly in later performances (the "bad" quarto also cuts many of Juliet's legal tropes in the scene discussed earlier). The audience's reception of the scene as originally written may have inspired Shakespeare to write a parody of his entire tragedy and play it purely for laughs as the play acted by the "mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream (which most scholars believe was written shortly after Romeo and Juliet). Theseus and Philostrate may give us an indication, allowing for exaggeration, as to how the lamentation scene in Romeo and Juliet was received by its first audiences:

Reads 'A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.'
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,
Which makes it tedious; for in all the play
There is not one word apt, one player fitted:
And tragical, my noble lord, it is;
For Pyramus therein doth kill himself.
Which, when I saw rehearsed, I must confess,
Made mine eyes water; but more merry tears
The passion of loud laughter never shed.

Not that laughter and death need be kept wholly separate. Earlier in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio (one of Shakespeare's superly drawn minor characters) dies as he has lived: with a merry quip and a pun.

Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.

No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

Some find the pun as excruciating as Tybalt's mortal thrust itself; but it is entirely in character for the jesting Mercutio, who cannot even be "grave" about his own death. Death has the last laugh, however; only he can make Mercutio "grave", by providing him with one. Symbolically, Mercutio's death marks a change in the mood of the play, which up till then had been mostly a comedy; thereafter the tone of the play becomes, on the whole, more grave.

But not entirely, for Shakespeare was aware of how laughter and tears, life and death, are closer to each other in the real world than in the discreet genres insisted on by the neo-classical playwrights, for whom comedy and tragedy must be rigorously separated. Auden captured something of Shakespeare's understanding of life when he wrote, in MuseƩ des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood...

Shakespeare shares the Old Masters' sense of live as a tragicomedy: while Hamlet is immersed in his melancholy, the grave-diggers pun and quip amidst the remains of human existence; while the Capulets are preparing for a feast upstairs, the servants are noisily moving joint-stools and clattering pots and pans below.

The Shakespearean pun has often come in for criticism; but the pun shows in verbal form how easily tragedy and comedy may slide into one another, how closely allied are laughter and tears; as such it is eminently suited to convey Shakespeare's concept of life as tragicomedy. However, this balance between tears and laughter must be handled very acutely by the playwright, and there are signs that Shakespare temporarily lost control of this balance in Act 4, scene iv of Romeo and Juliet.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The wind began to howl... Good luck this time, NOLA

Crash on the levee, water's gonna overflow

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous blog entry about Modern Times is that its worldwide official release day was also the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in Lousiana. Meanwhile, President Bush strummed a guitar [right] in California while New Orleans drowned, a lasting symbol of his presidency.

Perhaps the release date of Modern Times was a coincidence; but on the other hand, it does feature a song entitled The Levee's Gonna Break. This is the album's most transparent "borrowing", the song clearly deriving from When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, which was about the Mississippi Flood of 1927, a calamity that inspired several blues songs. (Incidentally, Memphis Minnie's shout-out to Ma Rainey is the model for Dylan's name-dropping of Alicia Keys in Thunder on the Mountain; but Bob was sampling Memphis Minnie as far back as Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, as the outtake of that song released on Bootleg Series 7: No Direction Home shows.) A youtube user has made a very appropriate video to the Kansas Joe/Memphis Minnie version.

The most famous version of the song is the one by Led Zeppelin on their 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV. Dylan's new version is a curate's egg; it quotes some lines directly from the original, and adds some of his own that might refer to either the 1927 or the 2005 disaster:

Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Some people on the road carrying everything that they own

But other lines are unrelated and could be sampled from a dozen blues songs or improvised randomly in a way reminiscent of 10,000 Men on Under the Red Sky. One line seems to allude sarcastically to the plight of the proletariat (in the manner of Joe Hill's "Pie in the Sky When You Die"), thus harking back to Workingman's Blues #2:

Few more years of hard work, then there'll be a 1,000 years of happiness

But the previous lines incongruously refer to Carl Perkin's rockabilly classic "Put Your Cat Clothes On", cat clothes of course being what hepcats (guys) and kittens (chicks) wear; the juxtaposition with the more formal-sounding "evening dress" is amusing.

Here's a fine live version of Dylan's version of the song, from Chatillon, Italy 18th June this year:
It's noticeable how much stronger the song has become in live performance this year.

(I found a youtube clip of this performance, but it's only one minute long.)

How typical that Dylan's new title for the song should use his own favourite tense, the immediate future ("gonna"), which he uses so much (particularly in the Basement Tapes era) that it might well be called the Bob Dylan tense.

An early song that uses this tense is A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. On his visit to the city in 2003, Bob Dylan performed an inspired version of this anthemic song, almost as though he knew what was in store for the city (so it seems with hindsight, which can make a prophecy out of the slightest coincidence). Here is that performance.

They're trying to wash us away

A more recent song about the 1927 flood became suddenly topical in 2005 because of the inevitable parallels between President Coolidge's racist indifference to the plight of Lousiana flood victims and the criminal negligence of the Bush administration. The original version of Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 is on his 1974 album Good Old Boys, perhaps Newman's masterpiece and an essential album in anybody's record collection. Here is Randy singing it at a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina:

Incidentally, I am relieved, if not surprised, that Randy sticks to his original lyrics and uses the phrase "this poor crackers land." The contemptuous term "crackers" is similar to the more recent "poor white trash", and nails Coolidge's attitude to the flood victims exactly. Other versions of the song, such as Aaron Neville's, for reasons of misguided political correctness substitute a more neutral term ("farmers") that softens the original song's condemnation of Coolidge.

They say prayer has the power to help (Ain't Talkin')

As I write, people are being evacuated from New Orleans in preparation for the landfall of Hurricane Gustav, expected in the early hours of Monday morning. It is sincerely to be hoped that the city rides out this new storm and the levees hold firm this time. Of all the cities in America, New Orleans is the one I'd most like to visit, because of the richness of its musical heritage, the fame of its cuisine, and the celebrated conviviality of its people. Alas, I do not share Dylan's belief in the power of prayer, but my thoughts are with NOLA right now. If I were to frame a prayer, it might be like Lear's in the storm:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

Friday, 29 August 2008

'Modern Times' is two years old today

Bob Dylan's 32nd studio album was released 29th August, 2006. It was greeted with almost universal critical praise, but how does it hold up two years later? And how have the individual songs fared in live performance?

Modern Times was released at the high point of a tide of critical praise that had been rising ever since Bob's brush with death in 1997 reminded critics, many of whom had been bashing Dylan's work since as far back as the release of Renaldo & Clara, that Dylan would not be always there for them to take for granted, and that we ought to celebrate his achievements while we still have him. With the subsequent release of the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind there began a period in which Dylan's critical stock rose so high that nowadays he is in receipt of praise that is almost as undiscriminating as the critical brickbats levelled at him in the eighties and early nineties. One of the few dissenting voices in the general chorus of praise for Modern Times, Alex Petridis in The Guardian, wrote waspishly: "It's hard to hear the music of Modern Times over the inevitable standing ovation and the thuds of middle-aged critics swooning in awe."

Two years later it is even more apparent that Petridis has a point. A solid achievement, Modern Times must be counted a relative disappointment compared to its illustrious predecessor "Love and Theft", Dylan's finest album since Blood on the Tracks and Desire in the mid-seventies. The quality that "Love and Theft" had in abundance was Dionysian energy: so welcome after the ennui and existential angst that had marked all Dylan's work since Infidels. Indeed, this ennervating ennui really begins with Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight on the album just mentioned:

I wish I'd been a doctor
Maybe I'd have save some lives that have been lost
Maybe I'd have done some good in the world
'Stead of burning every bridge I've crossed.

Fine lines, undoubtedly, but a Dylan who looks back, and especially one who looks back with such despair and disappointment, is an unrecognizable shell of the energetic, questing, Dionysian figure of his best work. By contrast on Blood on the Tracks the singer plumbs the depths of despair, but drags from it the Lear-like rage of Idiot Wind and with Buckets of Rain, learns Lear's lesson of Stoic patience also.

This existential ennui came in Dylan's late middle age at the end of a period of great creative achievement from 1974 through 1983, and from there on becomes the dominant note of his work; think of songs like When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky and Dark Eyes on Empire Burlesque and What Good Am I? , What Is It You Wanted?, and Shooting Star on Oh Mercy, in which Bob basically repeats the same mantra over and over: he knows no answers, he has no hope, he lives companionless in a world apart where "life and death are memorized." All these negative feelings reach their peak of artistic expression on Time Out of Mind, which contains what may be the most negative, nihilist line in his entire output:

Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

When I first heard the line I've marked in bold, I found it so upsetting and depressing that it took me a long time to appreciate the real artistic achievement of Time Out of Mind, which is to state in the starkest form yet the existential ennui that had been overpowering Dylan's work since the mid-eighties. In that sense, it performs the same function as did Watching the River Flow, which faced up to the loss of his muse in the midst of his domestic content with its disarming opening line: "What's the matter with me? I don't have much to say." A Dylan who doesn't care, who is indifferent to love and desire, and who relies on negativity to pull him through is not the Dylan who once declared "this music that I’ve always played is a healing kind of music" and who wrote

Desire... never fearful
Finally faithful
It will guide me well
across all bridges
inside all tunnels
never fallin’.

A spiritual sickness hangs over Time Out of Mind from its opening lines, and it is only reinforced by the album's grim focus on physical decay: scars that won't heal, flesh falling off the singer's face, every nerve so vacant and numb. When he sings "But my heart just won't give in", you get the sense that he only wishes it would. Highlands, which does have its moments of humour and relief, nevertheless leaves us with a portrait of the singer as an old man shuffling along the street, talking to himself, and envying the younger people from whose unselfconscious joys and laughter he is forever banished:

I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They're drinking and dancing, wearing bright colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I'd trade places with any of them
In a minute, if I could

So in the 14 years since Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight, Dylan has gone precisely nowhere: still wishing he were living someone else's life, looking back with regret and despair.

The achievement of Time Out of Mind, as heretofore stated, is to state these negative feelings in unpredecentedly stark terms. But the album marks a dead end: he cannot go forward artistically by simply restating over and over these feelings of existential isolation, of negativity and regret.

That is why "Love and Theft" was such a spectacular achievement. It has an energy and vitality not heard in any Dylan song probably since Jokerman and the brilliant, underrated Tell Me in the Infidels sessions. Gone is the companionless, misanthropic singer of Dark Eyes, Not Dark Yet, and Highlands; the singer on this album shows himself still receptive to feelings of love, friendship, and gratitude:

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

(Of course, these lines are from Mississippi, which was written for the Time Out of Mind album; and that album's atmosphere of bleak misanthropy and spiritual ennui would have been considerably relieved by that song's inclusion, as Dylan intended. Unfortunately, he and producer Daniel Lanois could not see eye to eye on the song's production, and so the song was dropped from the album. The original recording of Mississippi is to appear on the forthcoming Bootleg Series collection of outtakes, Tell Tale Signs.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the brilliant jump blues Summer Days, a song that could not have appeared on Time Out of Mind. In contrast to the despairing resignation of Not Dark Yet, which dolefully accepted that "it's not dark yet, but it's getting there", the singer of Summer Days reminds us of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night":

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But rather than raging against the dying of the light, the singer of Summer Days dances against it, leaping on the table to propose a toast to the King, and declaring that though summer days and nights are gone, that doesn't mean that there is no more fun to be had. The Dionysian energy of this singer is more like the Dylan we know of old, one busy being born rather than busy dying.

The energy, high spirits, and perhaps most welcome of all, the humour of "Love and Theft" made it Dylan's finest album for over 20 years. It sparkles with wit, and contains more quotable lines than any album since Street-Legal. It was perhaps too much to hope that Modern Times could equal this standard. But refreshingly, there is no relapse into the doldrums of most of Dylan's post-Infidels output. Most welcome is the extension of Dylan's musical palate beyond his usual reliance on blues and ballad forms, although there are some disappointingly generic blues shuffles on this album also (a couple of which border on musical plagiarism). Not since the underrated Shot of Love has Dylan dipped so much into the rich waters of American popular music. A particular source is pre-rock pop of the twenties to the fifties. Bing Crosby is a particularly strong influence; "When the Deal Goes Down" is musically a chord-by-chord recreation of Bing's "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day" and "Beyond the Horizon" lifts the tune of "Red Sails in the Sunset." Moreover, Bing's version of "Brother, Can you Spare A Dime?" (played by Bob on the Theme Time Radio Hour show "Rich Man, Poor Man") hangs over Workingman Blues #2. How much love and how much theft lies in all these borrowings has been furiously debated.

One of the most pleasing aspects of "Love and Theft" was its cheerful sexuality, as in the artful suggestion of waning potency in Summer Days:

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't goin' down

or this saucy invitation in High Water (for Charley Patton):

Got a cravin' love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard

And best of all, this allusive third-person reference:

Last night 'cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls
It must have been Don Pasquale makin' a two a.m. booty call

Don Pasquale is the eponymous character in Donizetti's opera buffa, based on the commedia dell'arte archetype of the vain and foolish old man who tries to thwart the young heroine's love for the hero by marrying her himself. With a touch of comic genius Dylan has this stock character paying a "2 a.m. booty call"; and the pounding on the walls suggests that this Don Pasquale is no impotent figure of fun, but a virile figure capable of satisfying his younger lover.

By contrast, the sexuality on Modern Times comes over as idle boasting or even slightly creepy, as in the shout out to Alicia Keys in Thunder on the Mountain and in the unpleasantly sexist line "I want some real good woman to do just what I say" in the same song, in which the singer studies Ovid's Art of Love and proclaims "here's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go." Unlike Don Pasquale who is getting on with it, paying his booty call, the singer of Thunder on the Mountain is just beating on his trumpet, or rather blowing his trombone (a rather obvious sexual metaphor).

Compare also the confident strut of Cry A While on "Love and Theft":

Well, there's preachers in the pulpits and babies in the cribs
I'm longin' for that sweet fat that sticks to your ribs
I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey - I'll die before I turn senile

and the same song's earlier line about feeling like a fighting rooster with the much less convincing boast in Spirit on the Water:

You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time

That corny and dated phrase "whoppin' good time" is the antithesis of Don Pasquale's ultra-hip "booty call" and rather deflates the intended boast. Rather than as the still virile aging stud that the singer intends to present himself as, he comes over more like a paunchy dad trying to dance at his daughter's wedding reception.

Dylan does improve this verse considerably in concert by singing the first two lines as questions, with an implied "Oh yeah?!", invariably getting a reaction from the audience. And this viagra-induced boasting is at least an improvement on the indifference to desire manifest on Time Out of Mind.

Another weakness of Modern Times compared to its predecessor is its rather precious and somewhat stilted lyricism that at times borders on Victorian pastiche, especially in the parlour ballad When the Deal Goes Down and Spirit on the Water. This may be due to Dylan's falling under the spell of the Civil War poet Henry Timrod (reflected in several borrowings from the earlier poet's work). Compare the freshness of these lines from Moonlight:

The clouds are turnin' crimson
The leaves fall from the limbs an'
The branches cast their shadows over stone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The boulevards of cypress trees
The masquerades of birds and bees
The petals, pink and white, the wind has blown
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The trailing moss and mystic glow
Purple blossoms soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief
It takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll for, love? It tolls for you and me

where the self-conscious poeticism is relieved by Dylan's familiar tricksy rhyming ("crimson", "limbs an'") and the admixture of nursery rhyme and familiar quotation; with

I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

which undoubtedly have a certain charm, but border on pastiche.

Against this, Modern Times has strengths of his own. It is much better sung than its predecessor (though the musicianship is not of a similarly high standard), and its three best songs are outstanding. The first, Workingman Blues #2, is the closest the album gets to evoking the spirit of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. The
song features some of the strongest, most evocative writing of the album, for instance, in this reminder that all of us, rich or poor, walk in the valley of the shadow of death:

The opening lines seem to have an extra topical relevance as the world's economy goes into recession:

There's an evenin' haze settlin' over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's gettin' shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

However, this is no rewrite of North Country Blues or Hollis Brown. Its narrative element is non-linear and its protagonist's situation more complex; whoever the singer is supposed to be, he is hardly the typical working man. Dylan is unlikely to usurp Springsteen's status as the poet laureate of the blue collar worker. It's a complex song full of strong images, memorable lines, and with a rousing chorus.

Even more impressive is Nettie Moore, one of Dylan's great ballads, and a song that he has invariably interprets powerfully in concert. A notable feature of the song, despite its folk ballad form, is its saturation in the language of the blues. The opening line quotes the old song "Lost John":

Lost John standin' by the railroad track
Waitin' for the freight train to come back

while later lines evoke the famous story of Frankie and Albert. The crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil is also evoked. As with many of Dylan's recent songs, it is difficult to say what this collage of recollected and original lines means, but the song is undoubtedly highly evocative.

And finally, the album's closer Ain't Talkin', a mysterious and somewhat sinister epic that returns us to some extent to the atmosphere of Time Out of Mind. The claim that Modern Times was the final album of a trilogy stemmed from his record label rather than the artist himself; in fact, Dylan has specifically denied it. Nevertheless, this dark tale of a man walking, walking, walking, until he reaches the edge of the world (which he appears to doubt is round as men say) brings us full circle to the earlier album, which opens with the words "I'm walking..." and thereafter uses the image of the singer walking "a thousand miles from home" (or rather a million miles) repeatedly as a symbol of his isolation from society. The song begins with a reminiscence of the story of Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Christ for the gardener of the grounds; but this "mystic" garden is a place of violent menace where "wounded" flowers hang from the vine and the singer is struck from behind. The singer himself threatens to slaughter his enemies if he ever catches them sleeping. He is not alone (which separates him from the isolated figure of TOOM, who seems more of an autobiographical than the mysterious narrator of "Ain't Talkin'), but accompanied by a band of brothers who "share my code", a faith that's long been abandoned, as he walks through a world of hostile infidels and "cities of the plague". The song raises more questions than it answers, and when the narrator steps off the end of the world in the song's final lines, we still have no idea who he is supposed to represent. Several lines in the grim discursive narrative are borrowed from Ovid's self-pitying letters from his exile on the Black Sea, the Tristia, but the story seems closer to Homeric epic than classical elegy. Although it raises more questions than it answers, as a performance it is gripping, full of menace, horror, and intensity.

I leave you with videos of these three songs, each of them a classic of the modern Dylan.

Workingman Blues #2 was a song Bob found difficult to make effective in its first year of live performance. It wasn't until the Australian tour of 2007 that the song really came into its own. It is now a regular concert standout. The following video is identified only as "live 2008"; great sound, though poor video.

Here's a fine Nettie Moore from 2006:

And here's my favourite performance of Ain't Talkin' (Melbourne, Australia 19th August, 2007):