The Expansive Writing of Bob Dylan

Lately I have been trying to discern what in particular gives Dylan’s writing a unique power. Entire books have been written on the topic, entire semesters have been taught.  I am not going to solve the conundrum here. 

However, as someone that has spent more time than is healthy studying song lyrics, there is something I notice time and time again.  Dylan has not only been prolific for most of his career, but his words also often gain power through sheer volume.  I am a huge fan of Morrissey.  Although he has written expansive songs like The Queen is Dead, he often writes couplets that are powerful statements in and of themselves.  Leonard Cohen, someone by whose own admission is not prolific, yet is closer to Dylan in style, spends a lot of time finely crafting certain lines. 

If you take many Dylan couplets, although with his huge catalog he has written brilliant couplets as well, they are not always powerful in and of themselves.  But by the time you get to the 7th couplet in 4th verse of a Dylan song (hypothetically), Dylan songs are often astounding for the sheer amount of language he packs in them, they begin to take on a cumulative poetic power. 

Where some writers get their power from cutting back until what lies before them is a finally crafted sculpture, Dylan almost seems to stand out of the way and let his subconscious pour forth.  Line after line, image after image, floats past until the amount of imagery leaves the listener overwhelmed and breathless. 

Sure, that is not all he is doing.  There is a difference in power between Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Springsteen’s similar wordy Blinded by the Light.  (I love Dylan and Springsteen, but I would be lying if I said the latter contained the poetic force of the former.)  Dylan performs alchemy.   He does get that missing piece of the puzzle that many others cannot find no matter how talented they are. 

This is not to say that Dylan cannot write shorter more traditional songs.   He can of course.  Again this is also not to say that Dylan cannot write great one liners and couplets, as he has done that as well.  There are also many other elements at play to make a song powerful.  However, I think,  if you are interested in what Dylan does, this is a good facet of his writing to examine. 

February Declarations, New Albums, and a New Coat of Paint On My Blog

One of the reasons that I started this blog, despite obviously loving the written word, was the far less noble pursuit of earning a living.  The music business, tougher than ever, had me casting about for an alternative income stream.  Luckily, I am one of those musicians that earns almost enough to survive on.  Thankfully, enough of you have also tuned in that I am getting close to generating some revenue from my work here.  In order to do this I have to make some structural changes.  When I started this blog I didn’t know that it was much easier to earn through wordpress.org than it is through wordpress.com.  In fact I knew nothing about the technical and structural side of blogging.  I just followed all of the advice columns that said I should write as much as possible if I wanted to get traffic to my site.

So I am currently transferring this blog over to wordpress.org and making some much needed changes to the overall structure as well.  I have no idea how long this will take me.  I am hoping it is a seamless transition, but I have no idea what I’m in for.  The process has already begun.  If you notice any hiccups, that is the reason behind it.

Although there may be changes to the structure and look of this blog, I plan to keep writing in the same style that I always do.  I have an uneasy relationship with advertising.  While I acknowledge its place in the modern world, so much of modern advertising makes me ill.  I am hoping that my own compass, and the fact that I predominately earn my living as a musician, will keep me honest.  No one wants to buy the records of a sellout with nothing to say, or at least I don’t.  (Come to think about it, a lot of people want to buy records by musicians that are sellouts with nothing to say!  Fuck!!!)

I do believe that musicians, artists, writers, should earn a living from their work.  This whole streaming thing troubles me, because it does not yet seem that it pays anyone anything that they can survive on.  But hey, y’all got a blog out of it.  I might not have ever started this blog had the economics of the music business been different.  I really enjoy working on this though.  Even if the economics changed, I don’t think I would stop now, for any reason.  There is a lot more I want to add about how economics, and people’s support for the arts, directly effects the kind of art that we see.  I am late to start packing for tour right now and that will have to wait for a later date.

I just got a copy of the new Shinyribs record that I play bass on.  Mr. Russell even gracefully allowed me to coauthor one song, which I am extremely excited about.  The record, which has long been in the works for sometime, should be out soon.  As soon as I have a finite date, I will make it known.  The Ted Hawkins tribute record I played on, that I have previously mentioned, is supposed to be out later this year.

I also hope to record a solo record this year.  I don’t like New Year’s resolutions.  A February declaration seems fitting somehow, as February seems like no one’s idea of a time to begin anew.  Why can’t it be?  My goal by the end of the year is to have three records in various stages of completion and to have this blog newly formatted and running clean.

Anyway, I’m off to Louisiana for a tour, as soon as I can stuff enough random things in a suitcase to feel like I tried.  Over and out…

Winter Song by Nico

Winter Song by Nico.  Most of the people I know, from Texas to Pennsylvania and beyond, are in a deep freeze.  The period between New Years and spring is the hardest part of the year as far as I’m concerned.  Even the great Hunter Thompson could not survive this season as he titled his suicide letter, “Football Season is Over.”  I’ve never really taken to winter, either to its sports or its color scheme.  However, there is a strange and dark poetry, a certain kind of magic, that winter can bestow, that I would be a fool to deny.  This song, from Nico’s timeless Chelsea Girl album, is a prime example:

Winter Song

The snow on your eyelids that curtsy with age
Is freezing the stares on tyranny’s wings.
The bitter is hard and the warmth of your skin
Is diseased with familiar caresses.

Withdrawing from splendor and royal decay
Among all the triumphs and jaded awards
The angry and blazing circus of sun
Blasphemes as the crown prince arises.

You cannot beget all the sins that you owe
To the people of paradise magic
Pretend to answer passion and form
With foreign rationalizations.

Primroses are the jewels that lurk
Among masks of pleasure that flicker with doubt
Embraces of fame that’s simultaneously fear
To advance and demand to be recognized.

The river shall flow through hollow green faces
Of caricature’s resentment etched out of the tongues.
Both reluctant princess asleep before birth
The classical sensitive failures.

The worshipping wicked cling to the dark of your heart
Lying there and wait with your angels
Moan and ravish from dawn to dusk
The avaricious young lovers.

In My Secret Life, Leonard Cohen, and Songwriting

In My Secret Life by Leonard Cohen.

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

I saw you this mornin’
You were movin’ so fast
Cant seem to loosen my grip
On the past

And I miss you so much
Theres no one in sight
And were still makin’ love

In my secret life
In my secret life

I smile when Im angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by

But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And Id die for the truth

In my secret life
In my secret life

Hold on, hold on, my brother
My sister, hold on tight
I finally got my orders
Ill be marching through the mornin’
Marchin’ through the night
Movin ‘cross the borders of my secret life

Looked through the paper
Makes you want to cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinkin’
That its either black or white
Thank God its not that simple
In my secret life

I bite my lip
I buy what Im told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old

But Im always alone
And my heart is like ice
And its crowded and cold

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

This song has always meant a great deal to me.  The lyrics as usual, for Leonard Cohen, are masterful.  If you take a line or a couplet out of the song, there are a couple good ones, but they are fairly simple.  However, the way he builds imagery throughout the track means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Also those last verse lines leave the song with a sense that the narrator hasn’t resolved any his conflicts, other than to possibly live with his contradictions:

But I’m always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it’s crowded and cold

In my secret life

One will notice that a lot of great songwriters leave one with a sense of mystery, they leave things unresolved.  This allows a song to keep going, even once you are done listening.  It starts the imaginative process, but doesn’t fill in every blank, making the song yours as much as theirs.  It becomes something you can take out into your life with you.  Now there is a difference between performing that trick, and just being vague to the point of meaningless.  The best writers know how to give you enough to pull you in, but leave enough space for the imagination of the listener so that a song will register on a personal level.

New Brian Wilson Video

I’m a huge Brian Wilson and Beach Boys fan.  He has a new album, No Pier Pressure, coming out this year and above is a video for the first song released from it, The Right Time.  I’ve only heard it once, on computer headphones, so I don’t want to say too much.  Those gorgeous Brian Wilson harmonies are present, with the bridge especially moving.  It’s great to see Al Jardine and David Marks, two Beach Boys, taking part.  I couldn’t help but smile watching it.  Hopefully some of you will feel the same.

New Blur Album to be Released and Thoughts On Think Tank

Blur just announced that they will be putting out their first album in years.  Above is one of the new songs.  The album is called The Magic Whip and will be released on 4/27.  Early reports say that it was recorded in and influenced by Hong Kong.  I’ve always found Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, to be an interesting figure in pop music.  Even his missteps have a sense of adventure to them.

I’m not one that comes to Blur with any kind of nostalgic factor.  I didn’t really get into them until their last album Think Tank and went backwards from there.  Maybe its just because I discovered it first, but Think Tank remains my favorite Blur album and one of my favorite works that Albarn has been involved in.  Although it isn’t as sprawling, it has a try anything adventurousness similar to Sandinista! era Clash.  It was recorded in Morocco and features all kinds of interesting polyrhythms and textures.  However, experiments rarely interest me for long unless they have been taken somewhere that an emotional connection is possible.  And what makes Think Tank rise above its “pop stars go to Africa” origins, is the simple fact that through most of the record they craft first rate melodies and incorporate these new textures in a way that seems like a natural progression of their work.  Some of the best melodies of Albarn’s career are on this record, and he has always had an interesting way with melody.

I haven’t heard the new single enough to come down upon it either way, but I know that when the new album drops, that I will be onboard.  Albarn is one of those rare musicians whose personality is strong enough to carry a recognizable identity into new sonic terrain.