Recommended CDs

Monday, 30 March 2009

Whan that April with his shoures soote...thanne longeth folk to buy new Dylan albums!

I was hoping to finish my piece on 'Joey' and post it here (see previous blog), but I am still unwell and can't spend too long on line these days. Thanks for the get well messages, I will respond to every one of them individually when I'm fully recovered.

One of the few things I've been able to do since getting out of hospital is sit up in bed and read. Over the past six weeks I've read lots of Dryden, Pope, Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Arnold, Plath and much more besides. I also ordered a new copy of my Riverside Chaucer, a splendid work of American scholarship that makes it easy to read Chaucer in the original almost as quickly as in a modernized version (and with a good deal more satisfaction). My old paperback version was falling to bits, so I got a lovely hardback one from Amazon at a very reasonable price.

This was before I heard about Dylan supposedly quoting Chaucer in a modern translation on his new album, Together Through Life
(link to the Deluxe Edition). However, it wasn't long before I stumbled across an earlier borrowing from England's greatest comic writer (bar Shakespeare) in The Franklyn's Tale:

Aurelius, with blisful herte anoon,
Answerde thus: "Fy on a thousand pound!
This wyde world, which that men seye is round

Bob quotes the italicised line in Ain't Talkin', of course. (Incidentally, it was well known in the Middle Ages that the earth was round -- the myth that before Christopher Columbus's voyage people believed that the earth was flat entered the popular imagination in the 19th century thanks to Washington Irving's novel about the explorer. Chaucer's tale is set in ancient Britanny and the line adds a touch of realism). That indefatibable sleuth Scott Warmuth has discovered that Bob also lifts another line for the Tell Tale Signs outtake of the same song from The Reeve's Tale.

This (and no doubt the quotations on the new album) are of a piece with Bob's Modern Times quotations: in other words, he is not "intertextualizing" at all, i.e. there appears to be no attempt at an ironic counterpoint or other creative contact with the original. He doesn't expect the listener to make a connection with Chaucer, the Franklyn, or his Tale. He has simply filched the line because it sounds nice. To quote something I wrote about this subject some weeks ago:

When Virgil quotes or adapts lines from the earlier Roman poet Ennius or from Homer, he actually wanted to send his audience to the original text, or rather, he assumes that the original text is familiar to his readers, and part of the pleasure is the mutual act of piety (it is more than just an intellectual tip of the hat) of the contemporary poet and his audience to the older master.

In 18th century literature, there is not only the assumption of a common store of classic learning that the poet shares with his audience, but also, especially in the works of Pope, an identification between the modern and ancient poet, both on a personal and a sociocultural level. Pope's garden retreat in Twickenham becomes Horace's Sabine farm, Johnson's London becomes Juvenal's Rome. It's a two-way exchange: you actually read Horace differently after reading Pope, and Juvenal differently after reading Johnson.

Nor does Dylan's use of cultural reference on Modern Times resemble that of T.S. Eliot, who echoes the lines of so many past texts (not just poets and other writers, but songs and snippets of conversation) to represent them as shards of a decaying culture ("these fragments I have shored against my ruin") in The Wasteland. That is at least somewhat akin to what Dylan is doing, on a much more accessible scale, in Desolation Row. Rather than lifting quotations wholesale like Eliot, he refers by name to well-known fictional characters (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ophelia) and drops them into a completely new, usual ironic contexts. And he adds adds to this mosaic sly allusions to the work of Kafka and Eliot himself (as well as name-checking him), also bringing in a sinister flavour of the American South into these mostly European references with "postcards of the hanging". It's a skilful performance, an artistic tour de force. And Dylan does this again to some extent on "Love and Theft" with his amusing use of the names of Romeo and Juliet and Don Pasquale (from the world of opera), dropping them into modern, ironic contexts (the aged Don Pasquale -- in Donizetti's opera the archetypal old man opposing the happiness of the young lovers -- paying a "2am booty call" is priceless!)

But his use of quotation in Modern Times is different. He doesn't expect his listeners to make a connection to Ovid (if anyone reads Ovid, it's usually the Ars Amatoria -- "the art of love" is actually name-checked by Bob -- or the Metamorphoses, probably the most influential book on English literature after the Bible; not Ovid's self-pitying diatribes from exile on the Black Sea coast). Nor is he identifying himself with Ovid in exile or making a critique of modern culture by collecting its detritus. He's just using some lines he found in one of Ovid's modern translators to eke out his verses. There is no kind of cultural interchange between Dylan and Ovid or his translator at all. (The same can be said of Bob's use of Timrod on the same album, although his use of the Civil War poet in Cross the Green Mountain does seem more apposite). No one would ever suggest that Virgil borrowed from Homer and Ennius because he wasn't able to think up lines of his own, but that does seem to be the case, sadly, with Dylan's borrowings from Ovid on Modern Times.

(Oh, and the routine practice of Shakespeare and his contemporaries of borrowing plots from older literature doesn't really belong in this argument. The nearest equivalent would be something like Ben Jonson lifting whole passages of Tacitus verbatim for dialogue in Sejanus. But Jonson had a definite purpose for this near-plagiarism, whereas Dylan has no apparent reason or need to lift from Ovid.)

After the Franklyn's Tale I read the Nun's Priest's Tale, and while I didn't find any Dylan link (maybe there will be one on the new album), I have to say that this is one of the most delightful of all the tales, and if Dylan read it in his modernized version (link to David Wright's translation for Oxford World Classics, which appears to be the edition Bob is using), he would no doubt have appreciated this "animal song"! Perhaps his attitude to his sources can be summed up in a line from this tale: "Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Dylan Wakes Up and Smells the Coffee in Stockholm

Another night, another NET show, again in Sweden, but a different (larger) venue than Monday's show. As I anticipated, there was no second night for Billy, but Bob whipped out another forgotten song from his mid-seventies back pages, a period that has rarely been revisited during the NET years. This was One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below), which according to the His Bobness database had till then been played only nine times since 1978, mostly in 1990 -- and the most recent performance (Nashville 2007) only counts as half a time really, as Jack White was squawking away on it (it's a difficult song to sing without sounding strained, and Jack sounds...well, strained). Apart from that, until last night, the only coffee Bob has treated us to was the excellent fifth show of his Theme Time Radio Hour.

According to reviews, Bob played this with acoustic guitar, standing centre stage. That must have been a sight for sore eyes indeed, but you can't really hear any acoustic on the recording below. I must say, though, the band is quite tight on this one: as with Billy, this is no half-hearted stab. Unfortunately there are a few lyrical flubs. Still, after the stagnant setlists of recent years, these surprises are very welcome, and let's hope they continue.

While on the subject of Desire songs, I would like to say something about Bob's claim in the second part of his interview with Bill Flanagan on (see page 9) that Jacques Levy wrote all the words to Joey. In short, "I don't believe you, Bob, you're a liar!"

I'm going to hold over my thoughts on this subject until the next blog entry, because I ended up writing much more than I'd intended. For now, here is an mp3 of last night's performance of One More Cup of Coffee, from the taper romeo's excellent recording of the show.

One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below) - Stockholm, Sweden 23-03-09

Once again, if you download, I'd appreciate it if you clicked on one of the Google ads, if you have time.

P.S. Oh the image above? It's the patron saint of the Camargue gypsies in the South of France, whose annual festival is celebrated on May 24th, which happens to also be Bob Dylan's birthday. According to legend, she was the (black) maidservant of one of the three Marys (Lazarus's sister Mary Magdalene; Mary Salome, mother of James; and Mary Jacobe, sister of St. Joseph) who fled Christian persecution in the Holy Land and landed on the South of France near the place now known as Saintes-Maries de la Mer. Dylan claims to have written this song after visiting the King of the Carmargue gypsies during the festival in the saint's honour. Her name? St. Sara.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Bob opens European tour with live debut!

I apologise for the lack of new posts lately; I fell seriously ill in January and have only recently left hospital.

It's nice to see that in my absence there has been quite a lot of activity on the His-Bobness front. Not content with preparing to release a new album, Bob has kicked off a new tour by including that rarity nowadays, a live debut of an old song... And what a left-field choice it is too -- Billy, from the 1973 soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (to be precise, Billy 4).

Unlike a lot of Bob's one-off (and who's to say this is a one-off?) choices, which often amount to no more than gestures, Bob really puts some effort into this. When I heard that he'd performed the song, I thought we'd just get a couple of desultory verses with a few half-remembered lines, but no! We get the whole damn song, every single verse, quite engagingly performed, and with a bit of harp too!

Typical of the old man with a new album in the can -- to treat us instead to a blast from the past! If past form is anything to go by, we will have to wait until the next tour to here live performances from the new album.

Here's the mp3, kindly uploaded to The Watchtower by the user named appleberry. I've taken the liberty of re-uploading it to sendspace, which I think is easily the best of these public upload sites.

Billy 4 -- Stockholm, Sweden 22nd March, 2009

If you download, I would appreciate it if you would take a second or two to click on one of the Google ads -- thanks.