Man walks into a column, no.47: Dylan

For me to say ‘I love Bob Dylan’ seems as nonsensical as saying ‘I talk too much’ or ‘I like books’: so obvious as to be redundant. But as I’ve blogged about before, putting the experience of listening to Bob into words – listening to anyone, in fact – seems like a fruitless task anyway. Writing about music is like etching about sex: the medium does not match the act.

And so it was with some considerable pleasure and no little surprise that I read novelist Edward Docx‘ article in Prospect magazine which somehow, miraculously, managed to capture the experience pretty darn well. I’d like to think this is the exception that proves my ‘rule’. In general the writing about Dylan (acres and acres of the stuff) is turgid, pseudo-scholarly and pretentious.

Like Mr Docx (what a great name, and not even a nom de plume) and most other Dylan fans, I discovered the music of the Weirdest Wilbury in my early teens. There was and still is something utterly other about the Sound of Dylan and it’s that, rather than the subject of his lyrics or the anger in his voice (neither of which are consistent features anyway) that mark his out as revolutionary protest music. Perfect for a teenager, basically.

Anyhow, reflecting the fact that I am no Docx or Dylan, best to give column space over to a much better writer. And as a bonus (also a nod to the fact that I’ve been woefully poor in supplying YouTuneage recently on this blog) here’s a video of a live performance that I feel reflects the experience of Dylan in full flow. Consider it an early Christmas present.

(For those poor souls who have somehow missed the chance to see Bob and crew – he does 100 dates a year for chrissakes – the Dylan that Docx is describing is that weird new beast ‘Old Man Dylan’, several regenerations on from the ‘Preacher Dylan’ shown in the video.)

The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing. I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.

What does Saint-Saëns’s opinion about The Swan tell us?

I bought a hard-to-find hardback copy of the composer Saint-Saëns’s biography as a present to my PhD supervisor. Although I didn’t know who Saint-Saëns was then, and only do so now because my wife knows her stuff when it comes to classical music, a little story I heard about him has stuck in my mind.

Apparently, Saint-Saëns hated “The Swan” – one of the most recognisable parts of one, if not the most famous, of his compositions: The Carnival of the Animals. It goes like this:

Saint-Saëns’s hatred of the piece stems from its popularity: he detested the fact that what he considered to be so simple a piece was so popular with the public.

This set me to thinking about elitism, populism and perceptions of these from the different standpoints they represent. There’s a parallel to be drawn between the purveyors of policy and the practitioners of politics, too.

The thing is, I’m not quite sure what it is yet. But I know that Saint-Saëns’s views resonated for some reason.

If anyone cares to enlighten me, therefore, please do…

Man walks into a column, no.29: Change

If as recently as two months ago someone had told me that I would never again own a song or an album I would have been perplexed, concerned and disbelieving. But with a step change in technology – I’m talking here of course about Spotify – this bizarre personal shift looks almost certain to have happened, and I have no reason to think I’ll ever go back to the old model of ‘owning music’. I believe this gives us a metaphor for effective public service reform in times of shrinking resources. Wait, don’t go! Let me try and explain.

Anyone who has maintained even scant attention on policy, research and commentary about the reform agenda in recent months and years will know that a new orthodoxy has emerged; one might even call it a dogma. Instead of focusing on rearranging and improving existing services, everyone agrees that one should start with the needs, wants, aspirations and experiences of service users and build new services around them. In so doing, it is said, duplication and inefficiency is eliminated.

The problem is that before you even get to the ‘devil in the detail’ point (how best to actually undertake this redesign? is there really any evidence that such an approach is more efficient? is this kind of model at all realistic in light of the ingrained professional cultures and vested interests in the public sector?) there’s the political dimension. Whether it’s libraries, hospitals or play parks, change is usually too bitter a pill for local communities and the politicians who represent them to swallow if change means closing a service that people value.

And, frankly, who can blame them? No matter how convincingly someone conveys the benefits of a new service, change is uncomfortable and intimidating, and especially so when the service in question is not only well loved, but absolutely fundamental to a person’s or a family’s life.

This is where the Spotify Metaphor comes in. To give you the background: I have been an eager aficionado of popular music since my early teenage years, beginning really when the family home was burgled and the insurance money allowed me to replace my Pet Shop Boys (and much worse) with Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. I amassed an enormous stash of CDs, compiled mix-tapes and then mini-discs (remember those?), and converted to MP3 as soon as I went to Warwick to study for a masters and discovered that the intranet allowed me free access to everyone else’s music collections.

But crucially, even with this latest transition – and more recently with the move to iTunes – I still owned everything I listened to, or if I hadn’t bought a song I possessed it in the sense I could copy at will, transfer from machine to machine etc. In the spirit of adventure I tried things like Last.fm only to find them wanting: they simply didn’t have the full functionality that I required.

When I started to see ads for Spotify and heard friends talking about it I naturally thought it was another botched job, and for some time I remained content to stick to what I knew. If I had been told my iTunes account would be disabled tomorrow in favour of Spotify, I would’ve howled in outrage, like the residents campaigning against the closure of a local library.

Then – and this is the crucial part – I actually tried it. I was able to see and feel, with my own eyes and ears, that not only did it provide the full functionality of iTunes (and indeed integrated with it), but it was actually better. Much, much better: you could listen to pretty much anything you wanted to, whenever you wanted to; pausing, skipping and replaying as much as you liked. Brand new releases piled up in my playlists like the stacks of CDs in my adolescent bedroom. In this context paying a tenner a month for the privilege of listening on my iPhone felt like a no-brainer: cheaper than forking out £7.99 several times over for the ‘ownership’ of various albums.

This is not a love letter to Spotify. My point is that no amount of cajoling or persuasion will get service users over the natural resistance to change if they can’t experience the benefits of a redesigned service themselves (and after all, we know most politicians are liars, as I’ve blogged before: why trust them?). It’s a version of the ‘if you build it, they will come’ argument. We may hate change, but it’s amazing how quickly and radically we do change if we find something better than we had before.

YouTune no.38: Ron Sexsmith

I was turned on to the blazing talent of Canadian singer songwriter Ron Sexsmith earlier this week when finally getting round to watching the Love Shines documentary screened on BBC4 a little while ago (there’s a trailer for it on YouTube here).

The central theme of the doc is that Ron is popular music’s chronic underachiever; initially you find yourself wondering just how fair a statement this is of someone who counts Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and King of the Producers Daniel Lanois amongst his fans. But then you start to listen to the music properly and you realise that – as Costello himself puts it – Sexsmith is the most wonderfully tuneful melodist since McCartney. Seriously: this man should have a house built of gold discs. It’s worth watching the documentary simply to see the transition between the hesitant way in which Ron first demos his song ideas to his producer to the masterful finished product.

Having raised your expectations I’ll leave you to discover this six string poet yourself, as I’m only just beginning to do. This is a beautiful live performance of Late Bloomer from his most recent album Long Player Late Bloomer. My other early favourite is from his very first LP, a track called Lebanon, Tennessee – a classic example of a song that evokes longing for a simpler place, simpler pleasures (there’s a decent live version here, albeit with the very start cut off).

YouTune no.37: It’s A Shame About Ray

Classic nineties American college rock today (for a change): The Lemonheads and It’s A Shame About Ray from the 1992 album of the same name. For some reason I’ve always loved the line ‘I’ve never been too good with names, but I remember faces’. And the video features Johnny Depp!

There’s a cracking live version from the David Letterman show here, but who let the bald dude with the comb-over into the band of handsome rockers? Must be the producer.

I couldn’t swear to it, but I think this was on a cassette tape (remember those?) compiled for me by my now wife, when she was still going out with my then best friend. Scandal! The truth, as always, is far less interesting, but that kind of stuff is best kept away from the blog and in the diary. Except I no longer keep one. Doh! Have a lovely, sunny weekend.

YouTune no.36: Babies

If ever there was a song without need of a music video, it’s Babies, by Pulp. But tradition dictates that a link is supplied, and here it is; you’re better off listening with your eyes closed. I love the way the other official video knowingly refers to this, with captions prefacing ‘narrative’, ‘setting’ and so on.

I actually, honestly think this is one of the best songs written, in the last three decades at least. And I can’t think of a tune that propels as this does: it escalates and builds and sustains and never seems to fall off. Rarely will you find a better exemplar of the simple, precise art of pop.

YouTune no.35: Feel Good Hit Of The Summer

This week’s YouTune brings back heady memories of my first year at university. I was in charge of ‘bar entertainment’ (y’know, quizzes and stuff) and used this role – a sinecure position if ever there was one – as an opportunity to mercilessly inflict my musical tastes upon others. Much like YouTune, really.

So, with a shitty CD player hooked up to a substantial PA system, I systematically cleared the bar, week after week. But I was happy. And this, from Queens of the Stone Age’s second album Rated R, was a permanent fixture. I think as well as simply loving the noise, I fantasised that maybe, one day, I’d be let into the secret club of cool kids who indulged in nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol (cocaine, even), and that playing a cool song might be my passport. Needless to say, this never happened.

So much for the official music video: if you really want to rock out with your cock out, check this live version, which is brutal. And sweary. And features a half-naked man with a goatee doing the most terrifying ‘backing vocals’ ever known in the civilised world.

YouTune no.34: Rocket from the Crypt

I have a tendency in making my YouTune picks to apply what one might call a ‘vanity filter’. In what kind of light will this song show me? That of music scholar? Arch lover of self-knowing kitsch? Unabashed stadium rock aficionado? Twat? But then occasionally, rarely, an unfiltered ray of pure tunefulness shines through. After all: this series is all about the tunes. So without further framing, please lean in and enjoy… da-da-DA… da-da-DA… dada-dada-dada-DA…

This was released at the height of what music historians almost certainly won’t call the Age of CD, when bands would release two or, as in this case, three discs – three! – in order to squeeze every penny out of shellsuit wearing teenagers in Swindon. This may be a great song but it’s not one that lends itself particularly well to alternative interpretations by the same musicians… On the plus side each disc did have a picture of a different wild beast, see for example.

YouTune no.33: Couldn’t Call It Unexpected

YouTune was started by Rich way back in July 2008 (those halcyon days of not yet impending doom) with the stated purpose of providing links to ‘music videos of songs both well known and little heard’ accompanied by ‘occasional commentary’. Or, as it quickly became and Rich noted at the time: ‘my reminiscences of music that meant a lot to me as a teenage boy’.

There’s a teenage boy within all of us, readers, and this week’s humble offering is from someone who meant as much as anyone to Pimply Phil: the man with the massive lungs and the marmite voice, Elvis Costello.

The thing about teenage music tastes is they’re obsessional: having discovered Costello, I literally listened to nothing else for months: learning all the lyrics and impressing myself and no girls at all with how advanced and sophisticated my audio urges had become.

And Elvis Costello’s music is sophisticated. It’s adult. It’s modulated. It forces itself upon you rather than inviting you in. And most of the songs are about sex, or at least sound like they’re about sex. What more could a young man want?

So I hope you enjoy this as much as I did: a superlative live performance of my favourite Costello song, Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4.

Man walks into a column, no.9: Music

Writing about music is like etching about sex: ultimately pointless; you always wind up wanting to do the real thing. Only the very bestest of writers can capture a little of the experience of listening to a song, and even then: best to just hit play.

Most album reviews, for instance, take this form: [establish historical precedent for new release e.g. how long it’s been since band member X left band] + [situate ‘in the now’ by reminding reader of: band’s recent stunning live form/frontman’s memorable quote in interview/decision to record this in a woodshed in the Appalachians] + [compare and contrast sound of album to previous albums by same band] + [compare and contrast to other artists, weaving in references to obscure musical back-alleys to demonstrate reviewer’s impeccable credentials] + [end with smug pay-off e.g. ‘this could be X’s year’, ‘best sampled with a bottle of whisky’, ‘still enough spark to start the occasional fire’].

This heavy reliance on connections, similarities, departures and revivals makes it very hard to enjoy an album review to the full if you’re not familiar with the hinterland the reviewer’s describing (it’s also what makes the music magazine the natural haven for men of a certain age with trainspotterish tendencies: it’s like a big ol’ dot-to-dot puzzle).

Book or film reviews, on the other hand, are able to meaningfully convey some of the substance of the thing itself. Is it a question of the number of points of reference? Compare reviewing films and reviewing music. With a film you’re able to talk about the script, dialogue, cinematography, acting, effects, editing, score, lighting, costumes, sets… all of which are absolutely integral to the film itself. But with a piece of music – even a whole album – you only have the lyrics, melody, rhythm and players before you find yourself moving beyond constituent parts to linkages.

There are admirable exceptions which prove the rule: take for example this great track-by-track review of the new REM album, Collapse Into Now, which – for me – succeeds in conveying more of the light and shade, the texture, the granularity of the music itself. But how frequently do music journos have the space for a blow-by-blow account of a new release? And even with the space to go into this level of detail, making a case for why a new album is good or not suffers – more than cinema or literature – from the ‘well I don’t feel that way’ response. Again, because music has fewer easily identifiable constituent parts upon which to base an argument.

Writing about musicians and the process of music-making is much easier, and reading about the people and events of musicworld is often fascinating, especially if, as in my case, there’s as much chance of you becoming Sean Connery as there is of you becoming a musician.

But whilst it’s intriguing to read about the forces that shaped a musician’s life or experiences, they’re rarely any better placed to convey the music itself; worse, often. Take the interview with PJ Harvey that appeared in this month’s MOJO (not, as far as I can see, online). An exceptionally articulate person, but her description of 2000’s Songs From The City, Stories From The Sea was simply ‘…it was honest to the moment, in that I was feeling very exuberant […] It was a very vibrant time. Very exciting. And the music’s bursting with it’.

This is not to be disrespectful to Harvey or to anyone else. It’s just that conveying music without simply sitting someone in front of the speakers is hard. And having a meaningful conversation about music that goes beyond ‘I like this’, ‘I liked that more’, ‘this is great’ is even harder.