Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Poignant No More

There are things in modernity that have outlived their useful purpose. Some (like the Gas Guzzlers, Mao Suits, the incandescent light bulb) by circumstance, some (the top-loading washer, the typewriter) by the emergence of better design and technology, whilst others (President Bush, the shadow banking system, stock-brokers, or mortgage brokers) become more-than-redundant due to senescence or worse yet, by willful neglect. A few (say the NYSE) of course will whither from superciliously clinging to the vestiges of past usefulness or glory beyond its sell-by date. And so it was with Bob Dylan, for almost the entirety of his two-hour gig at the Palais des Sportes in Grenoble, that I was unable to shake such thoughts from my head.

It was a combination of happenstance and serendipity that brought me there, to l’Isere in eastern France on that June day, so-aligning our paths, that I felt cornily compelled to pursue this ummm errr destiny to its conclusion. A ticket came easily, despite the apparent scarcity but hours before, as did on-street parking free from the hassles of K&C permits, zealous traffic wardens or other suspect and thoughtless municipal revenue scams. Beer and freshly-made sandwiches (on baguettes) were provided cheaply and with both quality and smiles unlike the Aramark-abuse heaped upon the customer at North American events where everyone is cynically entitled to their pound-o-flesh and where the words “public interest” are oxymoronic at best. As the lights dimmed, my hopes were uncharacteristically high, as touring bikers and hippies were joined by parents in their 50s and 60s accompanied their grown children (and grandchildren!), and for once, I didn’t feel old and out of place as one of my age inevitably does at such gatherings.

Yet as the concert began, I was bugged almost immediately. No, I was not put-off by his band, for he was indeed accompanied by fine and accomplished musicians. Nor was I disappointed that he wasn’t playing guitar, but keyboard of one variety or another. And anyone who’s seen him over the years wouldn’t expect him to croon sweetly, so I wasn’t disappointed by the evolution of his characteristic rasp into a definitive growl. Even expectations about repertoire were non-existent, so the mix of new and old sat perfectly well. What saddened me however, was the apparent contempt his displayed towards his “art”, and so - by extension - his audience with what to this seasoned listener’s ears were nihilistic and mocking interpretative phrasing of lyrics that mangled once-poignant creations. It is galling enough to witness the mercantilist piss-takers and their consumptive co-conspirators destroy (what’s left) of the Bretton Woods system, for flawed as it, it remains the only one we’ve got, and therefore highly poignant for any saver, at least until replaced by something better. But to do see an artist debase and grafitti his own works (that I myself love) is almost more than I could bear.

You see, I have no problems with change, and even admire it for its own sake. Change (in art, at least) is good - even when things are going well for there is virtue in taking one out of one’s comfort zone, or applying one’s talents to new medium. Miles (as I’ve written here before) explained why he stopped playing ballads as:
“…because I liked playing ballads too much….”
And I have no doubts that it would be bloody f*cking boring reproducing the same arrangement of the same song day-in-and-out year-after-year. But there is “good” change and bad change. Constructive change and destructive change. Change that works, and change that doesn’t. 1970s fashion was indeed a change from what preceded it, but its worth remains debatable. But Thursday night’s concert in Grenoble, the change was in my opinion decidedly for the worse. Take a classic such “Tangled Up in Blue” from Blood on the Tracks, or 60s classics “Hard Rain”, ”Blowing in The Wind”. These were poignant works, with meaning imbued by phrasings and their consequential emotion – particularly when read/spoke/sung by the songwriter-lyricist-poet. But to edgier backing rhythms of his band, he was parsing the phrases in the most bizarre fashion – growling them rapidly in ways that decimated the poignancy, emotion, an sensitivity of the original works, leaving me thinking….WTF???! It was, no pun intended, disconcerting, in much the same way as commodity allocations as an asset class are a classical demonstration of a composition fallacy. And like such fallacies of composition cynically mock the system of which they are a product, so too did it seem that Mr Dylan was mocking his fans, taking the piss at those tossing $100 bills his way for the dubious pleasure of two hours of entertainment approaching abuse.

Now Dylan has a long history of disappointing fans, admirers, and just about most people not immediately close. Some - even those personally dissed by Robert Dylan a.k.a. Zimmerman like Joan Baez - explain it away as something which is essential to the artist in him. Apparently, he is less of a creator of art, than a channeler of inspiration that allows him to tap into something almost-divine and verbalize archetypical feelings. This is in contrast to say, Leonard Cohen, who treats composition and songwriting like a 9-to-5 job, and says its bloody hard work. Fine, I can accept that. And they ARE his songs, so he is free to do whatever he wants to with them. Perhaps Ms Baez is correct, and since he hasn’t sweated for these works, he has no attachment to them. And if he has no attachment, perhaps they have no meaning to him, allowing him to shit and piss upon their carcasses. In this view, poignancy is conjured only in the eye of the beholder, and Mr Dylan has made his view clear. Just as the PBoC, BoJ, SNB, and Federal Reserve have made clear theirs.

It is a sign of the times. We are in new and uncharted territory in modernity – composed of one part selfishness, one part-nihilism. So have a drink. Borrow some money. Don’t pay it back. Steal from your neighbor. Pick the public flowers in the park. Fuck everyone. Nothing really matters anyway…right?!?!
The Times They Are A-Changing c1963

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

awesome post!

Anonymous said...

I always thought Dylan had a whiny voice and was too full of himself. Sounds like he hasn't changed much.

Anonymous said...

you should have seen him play for the pope, that was quite weird..

Anonymous said...

was that when he wrote "Man of Peace"? Check out the lyrics on that puppy! Ouch!!

-C-

Chris (i-cjw.com) said...

My mother saw him play at a tiny Liverpool club some time around 1961-62, when he still went by Zimmerman. She rates it one of the most profound moments of her life. As she puts it, this skinny youth with a mop of curly hair, large nose sticking through it and a guitar climbed onto the stage and proceeded to play the most powerful music they'd ever heard.

How sad that the times have changed..

Scott said...

Yeah, Cassie, I concur, terrific post, although I'm somewhat reluctant to make the leap to the fallacy of composition argument vis a vis the commodity specs, the counterargument being perhaps that in, for example, outlawing pension fund indexed buying, you're essentially saying that pensions can hedge core inflation, but not headline. I find that a slippery slope.

Dylan's such a tough one. I was at an engagement party several weeks ago, the son of good friends, all of us of an age to have grown up with Bob, trailing him by 5-10 years, and late at night, back at the hotel, I made the point that the "dictated to by god" phase (I'm listening to Mozart as I type.) was really pretty brief. Sure, The Times They Are a Changing album is full of masterworks, and the sense of genius is there off and on through all the earlier albums, and, less frequently, in the later ones as well. But really, it's Highway 61, Bringin It All Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde where it's all so apparent, and reading about his writing Like a Rolling Stone, there's apparently none of the "il miglior fabbro" that Pound added to the Wasteland. So maybe now he does toss those songs off, regardlessly; there certainly seems to be a dissing of what lots of cherish about them in his performances now. It's funny you bringing up Miles, because really he never changed--although the music he played pushed constantly forward, his solos themselves are like an island of tranquility within the constantly changing ocean of music around them; what he plays on Tutu exists really easily with Kind of Blue. Almost the antithesis of Dylan in that respect. Wonder what Homer sounded like bellowing out the Odyssey in his dotage?

cheers.

Richard said...

I'd guess you didn't see "Masked and Anonymous", Dylan's movie from 2003. I found it utterly incoherent, and interesting only in that way that one looks at a bad accident. You see the man and can't understand how the guy who did those songs could have produced that movie.

David Pearson said...

Interesting and ironic. Check out the New Yorker article on cave paintings. It tells us that archeologists label the time period involved "classical" because the paintings' style/motifs changed little over 32,000 years. By "classical", they mean "people were happy with the state of the world."

So Dylan can't hang on to a "classical" period for longer than two decades. What does that say?

It says he's not happy with the state of the world. Either the times, they are still a' changing, or perhaps,deep down (shudder), they never were.

Adrem said...

Perhaps this is a man who, in truth, once had faith in humanity and is now totally disillusioned. It goes with getting old, especially now.

Charles Butler said...

Note that in the song you quote he is absolutely neutral and noncommital with regards to whether the 'new' times are to be better than the old. He left that judgment up to the music consumer, but the song itself does not distinguish between the arrival of an asteroid and the second coming of the seventh son.

To me, his general demeanour whilst being interviewed gives every indication that he might fit into the 'socialized psycho' model (more akin to Robert Vesco than Dylan Thomas) - converting the folks that fund the 300,000 euros per show he's generally getting on this tour into, ummm, masochists. Leather trumps love any day.

All that aside, he was brilliant during the first fifteen years of his career, but his lyrics die when his phrasing succumbs to the beat. Whose phrasing is identical to the original Dylan's, and with the same effect of rescuing the words from the bondage of rythm, is John Prine.

jam said...

Maybe he just does not like the French. LOL

Anonymous said...

1. The contempt part much resembles that of Marlon Brando in his late stages.

2. Dylan has said he'll never be able to write songs again as good as the early ones. Spent creativity. Tragedy. Pissed off-ness.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article but lacks examples of changed lyrics. This led me to read the entire post, waiting for examples but nothing.

Perhaps his performance and your reaction to it says more about you than him...that you are stuck with what was, unable to get around the bend to see what is. Nostalgia is deadly for an artist but at least you were listening.

Anonymous said...

I have just been listening to some fairly recent live dylan on my way to work in the car...and it was utterly moving. i never heard so much feeling and tenderness in every breathless line. And these in songs that have stood the test of time and transformed themselves along the way. you are just plain wrong..........

Anonymous said...

Maybe he figured the French audience wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

Etz said...

Hey Cas

Where are you?

David Ferreira said...

An excellent post.

Dylan is spot on, I didnt realise how apt his words are for the current situation.

I too write a blog
http://thebullishbear.blogspot.com
I write on world markets, currencies, Indian equities and gold.

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