Friday, October 19, 2007

December 7, 1997 and August 28, 1963

I'm sure there are other reasons these dates are significant, but I find them interesting because on both days Bob Dylan hung out a bit with Charlton Heston.

Now, not to dive into the deep end of French literary theory but one favorite distinction gleaned from that work was Roland Barthes' notion of the writerly and readerly texts. Put simply, the meaning in readerly texts is fixed and rigid, but in writerly texts the meaning is more fluid, more open. Barthes said "In readerly texts the signifiers march; in writerly texts, they dance." As artists, the difference between Bob and Chuck seems pretty clear.

In 1997, Dylan and Heston were in the group of five artists honored by President Clinton at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1968, both men were also together in Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a quarter of a million men and women marching together for social justice.

The March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations, all of which generally had different approaches and different agendas. The "Big Six" organizers were James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League.

Opposition to the march came from a number of quarters. President Kennedy originally discouraged the march, for fear that it might make the legislature vote against civil rights laws in reaction to a perceived threat. Once it became clear that the march would go on, however, he supported it. While various labor unions supported the march, the AFL-CIO remained neutral.

Outright opposition came from two sides. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, were obviously not in favor of any event supporting racial equality. On the other hand, the march was also condemned by some civil rights activists who felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the "Farce on Washington," and members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.

Nobody was sure how many people would turn up for the demonstration in Washington, D.C. Some traveling from the South were harassed and threatened. But on August 28, 1963, an estimated quarter of a million people—about a quarter of whom were white—marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, in what turned out to be both a protest and a communal celebration. The heavy police presence turned out to be unnecessary, as the march was noted for its civility and peacefulness. The march was extensively covered by the media, with live international television coverage.

The event included musical performances by Marian Anderson; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Josh White. Charlton Heston—representing a contingent of artists, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier–read a speech by James Baldwin.

The two most noteworthy speeches came from John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a younger, more radical group than King's. The original text to his speech had circulated throughout the day and the march leaders were able to convince him to tone down his rhetoric and remove the most inflammatory portions. What he did deliver was still the most explicitly radical speech of the day. He said, in part:

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, "We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and create a great source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us victory." For those who have said, "Be patient and wait!" we must say, "Patience is a dirty and nasty word." We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. King's speech remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. He started with prepared remarks, saying he was there to "cash a check" for "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," while warning fellow protesters not to "allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. But then he departed from his script, shifting into the "I have a dream" theme he'd used on prior occasions, drawing on both "the American dream" and religious themes, speaking of an America where his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He followed this with an exhortation to "let freedom ring" across the nation, and concluded with:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

When I talk about the impact of Bob Dylan upon American culture in the last half century I always include the image of the 23 year-old folksinger on the stage in the shadow of the Washington Monument performing as, in effect, the warm up act for Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech.

Dylan sang his greatest protest song, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," about the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When he sang this song it was less than three months since that killing. In the film of the scene the camera pans the faces of the crowd and people appear to be listening intently to Dylan's words. The song is unique in the literature of protest music because it does not rally the troops by attacking the killer. Instead, it asks the listener to consider larger questions:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

You can see the rest of the lyrics and hear the melody here; the song is from Dylan's third and most explicitly "protest song" album, The Times They Are A-Changin', which wouldn't be released until the winter of 1963, which means that the crowd in Washington was hearing it for the first time.

But the song and performance that never fails to make all the hair on my neck stand at attention is immediately before that. "When the Ship Comes In" (seen here in a slightly grainy video from the march) uses Biblical imagery to create a sense of justice marching through history, destroying all enemies in its path.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin'.
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

I suppose it's something to do with age. To paraphrase Bob, "I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now." In 2007 none of the TV networks would cover that march; the audience research says people don't want to see "protests" and we would have instead investigative reports on the breaking scandal of Ellen's dog and Britney's inability to follow the instructions that come with panties.

But "When the Ship Comes In," as powerful as it is, makes no sense today. It is as if it's being sung in a dying language, one with only one or two living speakers. A language that somehow no longer fits the world it once described.

Aw.... I hate to be a buzzkill, but the question does occur to me whether it really makes any difference if Rudy or Hillary is wearing the Captain's costume as the last little bit of the deck rail disappears beneath the frigid waves of the North Atlantic.

* The section above on the March on Washington borrows heavily from the Wikipedia entry.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Live Music and the Novelty Effect

“The concert is a polite form of self induced torture.” - Henry Miller

For the longest time one of the attractions of seeing Bob Dylan in concert has been the opportunity to hear him stretch his most recognizable songs into new, and sometimes nearly unrecognizable, arrangements. Unlike most of his peers, Dylan’s refusal to treat his songs as if they were sacred texts, for which radical reinterpretation would border on blasphemy, began as something commendable. In his lengthy career as a live performer, however, these reinterpretations have gradually turned to parody.

Dylan’s early performing career was as a solo acoustic “folk” performer. His first four albums (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, and Another Side of Bob Dylan) are, with the exception of Freewheelin’s “Corrina, Corrina,” entirely solo acoustic. His live performances during the same period were made up of mostly straight readings of the album songs. At times you can hear some of the more “protest” (read: self-righteous) oriented songs, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” for example, begin to take on sacred song characteristics.

1965 of course marks the single most famous insertion of a plug into an electrical outlet in pop music history and triggered the burst of creativity that produced three brilliant albums Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde (a run of creative energy that remained unequaled until the 1998-2007 arrival of Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times).

Almost immediately Dylan began to use the massive influx of energy the new rock 'n' roll arrangements afforded him to open up and, in some cases, explode the meaning of his acoustic material (listen to 1966 live recordings of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” in particular). In these performances Dylan, it seems to me, plays with the ecstasy of electric music, the excess of volume, the simple joys of noise.

But 1966 is the end of the second Dylan, the “electric Dylan” (who followed the debut “Woody” Dylan) and the beginning of the “Recluse” Dylan. Following a (1) serious or (2) trivial motorcycle accident, Dylan retreats and, with the exception of the odd sighting (Isle of Wight, Concert for Bangladesh, Johnny Cash TV Show) Dylan withdrew from live performance, choosing to make unusual and unexpected music (The Basement Tapes, Self Portrait) designed to rip down the “Voice of His Generation” banner by frustrating every expectation.

When Dylan took the stage again in 1974 with The Band on a record-breaking cross country tour he once again returned to altering the arrangements of his material. This time, however, was a bit different. I saw that tour in Philadelphia and I remember that there was an opening set by Dylan and The Band, a set by The Band, a solo acoustic set by Dylan, and a closing set by Dylan and The Band. Oddly, I also remember a small line of protestors outside The Spectrum (where 3 shows had sold out) picketing the concert because ticket prices had been raised. I had my ticket stub for years after that show and I remember the ticket was $7.50.

But I digress….

This time it wasn’t his acoustic material being reshaped by an electric band (like it had been in 1965 and 1966). This time the material from his electric albums was redone. In part, the new arrangements were designed to take advantage of his backing band, but some of the revisions resulted in a radical alteration of the song’s meaning; the most explicit example is the 1974 live version “Lay, Lady, Lay.”

The original version is on the 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s sudden turn to country music, which was at that time, competing with Big Band and Show Tunes for “most unhip” music, ever. In hindsight, Nashville Skyline was an extension of the brilliant John Wesley Harding, but both albums were decidedly ahead of the learning curve of the late 1960s. While there is clearly an ongoing and important conversation regarding just what it means, Nashville Skyline (and JWH especially when read as Dylan’s answer record to Sgt. Pepper) was a clear return to “traditional American family values.” A short time later the rest of us would wake up after the acid had worn off, at ten in the nmorning the day-glo paisley wouldn’t look as good on the mailbox, and somebody still had to do the laundry and the dishes and change the litter box. Maybe the best explanation is the one offered by Leonard Cohen’s Zen teacher (whose name escapes me at the moment) who said, “You can’t live in God’s world too long; there are no restaurants or toilets.”

But I digress….

On Nashville Skyline “Lay, Lady, Lay” had seemed a very tender song, almost as if the singer were saying “You look tired. Here, lay across my big brass bed for a bit. It’s comfy; you take a nap and, when you wake up, I’ll make us some tea.” Backed by Robbie Robertson’s biting guitar fills the song was suddenly eroticized. “Get on the bed; here, slip these handcuffs on….”

The following year Dylan cobbled together his Rolling Thunder Review and took to the road for big chunks of 1975 and 1976. The traveling gypsy caravan character of the tour made the loud and, at times, almost unrecognizable arrangements of his classic material seem natural; like just what a traveling gypsy caravan might do. On You Tube you can find performances for songs like his duet with Joan Baez on “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” or his reworking of “Idiot Wind” or “Shelter From the Storm” off 1975’s Blood On the Tracks that seem to both wipe away whatever meaning the songs had, but have so much fun doing it that it isn’t immediately noticeable.

Not so for 1978.

If you look in the links section and click on Expecting Rain and then click on “Discussions” and then click on “Rare Recordings” you’ll find an indexed archive of a huge array of downloadable live Dylan ranging from the very early 1960s right on through to last week. If you’re interested in hearing any of the performances referenced in this blog you will almost certainly find them there. Border Beneath the Sun is a 2 disc set from a 1978 performance in Paris that most people think is superior to the official live album, Bob Dylan at Budokan, recorded at the start of the tour in Japan. For the first time Dylan puts together a full show band, complete with horns and female backup singers and presents a “Greatest Hits” program in which all the songs are reworked into what has always struck me as a Neil Diamond-meets-Elton-John-at-Graceland form. Here’s one example from Nashville in December 1978 of “Changing of the Guard” and some samples from a number of songs from London in June 1978.

From this point on the story takes some strange turns and most of those are easy to watch for yourself thanks to the miracle that is You Tube. Just search under “Dylan 1982” “Dylan 1983” and so on. Here’s what you’ll find.

Dylan’s reworking of songs is no longer offering a new arrangement as much as it is simply a rather thudding blues-based chanting of lyrics in an idiosyncratic-for-idiosyncrasy’s sake manner that renders the original song on the terms of little more than novelty.

I wish pianist Glenn Gould were still alive and I could arrange a meeting between him and Dylan to talk about live performance. At the height of his popularity Gould walked away from live performing. In one recorded interview, Gould tells a very interesting story about a particular piece of music he had developed an affection for on a European tour. He played it at almost ever concert, if not part of the program then as an encore. At the end of the tour he went into the studio and recorded the piece. When he played it back he was shocked. “It was perhaps the single worst thing I had ever played.” he said. The piece, in the interaction between the artist and audience, had become a caricature of itself; it had been rendered at best a novelty, at worst, grotesque.

In case you were wondering, my attitude toward Dylan is not a matter of being trapped in the past. I think his last two albums have been equal to the best of his entire career. But I find I agree more and more with Gould who said, “A record is a concert without halls and a museum whose curator is the owner.”