Stuff About Music
by Dave Edwards
An ongoing work (hence a certain structural randomness), making particular reference to the singer/songwriter genre, the work of some of its leading practitioners, and my own deeply biased aesthetic preferences.
The Doors are as good a starting point as any. They were popular when I was at high school (the mid 90s), still are for all I know. Their music serves best as a signpost pointing deeper into history and religious experience. They would have to be the band who most explicitly articulate the image of rock music as Dionysian orgy. While a lot of their songs are cringe-worthy (and/or ripped off from William Blake) there are some goodies - I love the couplet "I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer / The future's uncertain and the end is always near". Great response to the coming apocalypse (Francis Coppola cross-reference but I'll save the film writing for another piece). It could be self-referentiality ie "The End" is always on the stereo (The Doors are by no means above this kind of behaviour - "Mr Mojo Risin" is an anagram for "Jim Morrison", though as Mark E. Smith who I'll come to soon says, "the only reason you know this is that it was well documented"). “The End” describes the end of a relationship as universal heat death - “no safety or surprise, the end”. Most of their first three albums were written on a beach during a six-month burst of creativity before the band were formed. Hard to say if Jim Morrison could have sustained a long-term writing & music career, but he got fat and died so the point is moot. They do serve as a starting point for an exploration of shamanism, the occult, and artists such as William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Rimbaud, Joseph Campbell etc. The idea of rock music offering intellectual as well as physical and emotional stimulation is a vitally important one. The idea of dying in a bathtub at age 27 doesn't appeal though. Personally I was more influenced by Bob Dylan, and his idea that "I always thought that one balladeer with a guitar could blow an army off the stage if he knew what he was doing".
Bob Dylan’s mid 60s work is more about carving out a personality for himself than re-enacting old (very old) gestures. Somewhat like Oscar Wilde? By his fourth and fifth albums Dylan has mastered and moved beyond not only the protest song but the whole need for classical structure in a song format, which mirrors his move away from the literal to the poetic. He often still needs like smart twists at the end like “the pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handles” - is he talking about the Vandals and Visigoths who sacked the Roman Empire? Or the Poe reference at the end of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, but it’s still a lot subtler than the O’Henry ending of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. On the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home he sings much more like a troubadour than on Highway 61 Revisited or even more so Blonde On Blonde where his arrogance has become self-conscious. “Mr Tambourine Man” is not that far removed from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. On “Gates of Eden” his voice is too determined to believe the moderately preposterous words that it is saying, and thus results in unintentional comedy. Head down into the wind in the face of embarrasment. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” does the same thing better thanks to its musical arrangement and vibe, which matches the words. His previous mastery of political rhetoric through writing dozens of protest songs, many of them excellently crafted, culminates in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, but at the same time his attempts to expand the possibilities of song form are at work, and the resulting long song is minimalist and seems to make an again unintentional point about the repetition of rhetoric. He doesn’t name names the way he did on the “I Shall Be Free” songs, and comes across wanting to be like Jesus speaking in parables (or the maddeningly vague and symbolic Jim Morrison). Mark E. Smith would continue in the early 80s where Dylan left off, pushing the boundaries of song lyrics further, increasing the levels of sophistication and naturalism possible - "the three R's - Repetition repetition repetition".
The Times They Are A-Changin’ skillfully combines the general and specific, allegory and symbolism with particular events. Song structures are complete realisations of the Platonic ideal of what a protest song should be. Part of Dylan’s skill is in thinking about the causes of the events he describes, and he points the finger not at the murderers and small-minded perpetrators of violence, but at those in power who create the social conditions. He could go further by giving information about those in power, naming names of corrupt politicans and businessmen, or by inciting listeners to action but holds back somewhat. Maybe keeping a distance as an observer was necessary for the stylistic and formal experimentation of his subsequent rock albums, which would have necessitated a more inwardly reflective kind of thought to write. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is sometimes seen as a sterner and less enjoyable followup to The Freewheelin Bob Dylan but I prefer to see it as a graduation work, a gifted student proving himself equal to his teachers and preparing to move on. It is more distilled and focussed to prove that he knows what he is doing and that the first two albums weren’t flukes. The explosion of form in his rock music may be ultimately more liberating at least on an individual level than his directly political songs. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” functions, as the second-to-last song, as a mourning for the victim - before “Restless Farewell” turns aside to continue as all bereaved survivors must, with the hope of new life (made explicit in “Hollis Brown” but in a more ambivalent sense). It’s a restless farewell because he is having to explain himself and he’s more interested in moving on. The mode of the album is tragic rather than comic. Death is a prominent theme.
John Wesley Harding was a great step up in terms of Dylan’s age, but on that he sounds way younger than say his Love and Theft voice – younger in the sense of at an earlier stage of artistic evolution, like medieval woodcut (see the cover picture) as opposed to big-band era jazz, which is his other big influence here, bringing a commercial vibe to the raw country sounds. Blood on the Tracks is the other way around. Blood on the Tracks doesn’t fuck around with platitudes the way he did with “Forever Young” from Planet Waves. Dylan’s Achilles Heel is his artistic blind spot in looking at his own muse. This is why he is guilty of bad songs with boring rock dynamics and classical structures and a whining voice over a glossy recording and worst of all crap lyrics. He sometimes doesn’t seem to understand what is good about his own work. He often says in interviews that he doesn’t like to listen to his own albums.
The greatness of a work like “All Along the Watchtower” is confirmed by the evocativeness of the guitar then harmonica intro especially - as evocative as Ennio Morricone, and it has the power of words which few others possess. Dylan sings from the throat, and grain is only detectable in little flecks, which gradually evolve into a nasal whine then a coughing gurgle in later years. The cliffhanger ending is genius. The songs on this album are Dylan in the guise of an actor/narrator or storyteller, rather than directly autobiographical. Needed to step back into the 19th century to tell moral tales, rather than confronting the 20th century head-on as with his mid-60s work. Strummed acoustic guitar is one of the greatest pleasures to be heard in all of music. John Wesley Harding has some of my favourite rock drumming, still rock rather than jazz but with a lazy shuffle, possibly played with brushes rather than sticks, straightforward, but not from the lack of technical resources.
“Love Sick” is an almost anthemic start to Time Out of Mind (note multiple-meanings title). Normally someone saying the streets were dead would mean that the streets are empty of people, but in his case he also means it literally. The album is like a Limbo afterlife, a Romantic journey that somewhere along the line became a plunge into fog.
Time Out of Mind may be the album where, unlike his 80s efforts, he accomplishes the rare feat of making a good album despite having bad lyrics. There the lame-ass rhyming neatly underlines the themes of getting old and not having much to say. A rare case of the “so bad it’s good” theory coming true. By 1997 he had rediscovered the idea that an album should have a meaning and emotional narrative rather than just being a bunch of songs thrown together. It ends in an epic cloud of dissolution with “Highlands” which sounds like “Stuck Inside of Mobile” years later with Alzheimer’s. The major weakness is that too many of the songs say the same thing, giving the impression of being stuck in a mental rut, though this is his whole point. This treatment of the audience is downright aggressive, and listen to that distorted guitar on “Cold Irons Bound” – what if Dylan started listening more to Keiji Haino and Borbetomagus or maybe did an album with Sonic Youth?
Time Out of Mind is ultimately better for its music than its words, but the form matches the content, which is about forgetfulness and the inability to communicate, and manifests more as sadness than frustration. None of the songs are “great Dylan” as such, not quite in the league of “Visions of Johanna”, says the poncey rock critic in me. But it’s honest, a confrontation with his own lack of muse (that is, if we’re willing to ignore the gap between storyteller and story, but since most of us don’t know Bob Dylan personally the songs are all that count). Favourite line “I been to sugar town I shook the sugar down / now I’m tryna get to heaven before they close the door”. I like to think of it as shaking the sugar out of art, because what I like most in music is the dirt and grit, and Dylan was historically the first to make this a key part of his aesthetic.
Neil Young has a lot of ideas about instrumentation that I would agree with, the electric and acoustic guitar contrasts and combinations were a key early music experience for me. Strange thing about his famous extended guitar solos is that for such a massive tone on his later work the playing just washes over you. I find it hard to actually listen directly to the guitar playing, instead it becomes a hypnotic background and before I know it I look at my watch and he’s just coming down from that solo that he started five or six minutes ago.
Clean electric guitar is a bit of a novelty item for me – the basic constituents of music are acoustic guitar strumming and/or electric guitar filth, rounded out with bass and/or drums more often than not. Essential to hear them every so often – music lacking these ingredients is a novelty. Piano and/or sax are nice to have and can do wonderful things also. More so than guitar, they best reward virtuoso playing. Harmonica’s great (Dylan’s abandonment of it after Desire is puzzling and sad, as his harmonica playing is as essential a sound as his voice - perhaps a kind of ritual scarification?). Banjo, organ, or accordion are good additions. Clean electric guitar is one of those textures like violin or trumpet, or woodwinds, or synthetic sounds, which can be great but I wouldn’t want to be listening to them all the time. Lyrics are only welcome if good – better to have instrumental music than bad lyrics. Even though having a vocalist is an important sound colour, each with unique textures and grains worth studying, the fact that they have to be given words worth singing or saying can be either a limitation or a stimulating challenge, depending which way you approach it. Perhaps the difficulty of getting an equivalent amount of complexity and dexterity into wordplay to that involved in a sax solo in jazz accounts for the lack of singing there. Rock remains the best musical medium for narrative, and the storytelling aspect of Dylan’s life and music are one of the fascinating things about him. Rock’s ability to accommodate elements from other genres is useful to say the least. A good rock album takes the form of an impressionistic and emotional narrative, an arc of emotions exploring the highs and lows of a given state of being and taking the listener on a journey from a start to an end.
What I listen for in a vocalist is eccentricity. There must be a sign in their voice that they perceive the world from a unique angle unknown to the rest of us. Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart are probably my picks for Greatest American Rock Vocalist. Each has a voice of absolute eccentricity. Jimi Hendrix the most benevolent. Mark E. Smith is obviously the finest the United Kingdom can offer (outside of the Upper Classes, which bring us Monty Python and so on). Not much on offer from Australia, which is one of the great mysteries of the world. Australia’s current greatest rock group the Dirty Three play instrumentals exclusively. Early Nick Cave is the obvious standout, though his too-frequent putting on of an American accent is deeply frustrating. Cave's music, like Bruce Russell's, is "music about music".
Bob Dylan’s voice on Love and Theft has the scars of dark experiences in its past, but is now currently content. A recovering alcoholic, fighting against tiredness. “If ya don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars” he might have put it in a more grand romantic phase. Humour in “they got Charles Darwin trapped out on Highway 5” comes from the European element intruding into Dylan’s Americana backdrops. The judge and the high sheriff are cartoon creations, Southern Good Ol’ Boys, and the comedy is multi-layered, Darwin redefining the idea of God creating the Earth - and then finding himself caught up against the closed fundamentalist minds of the Southerners.
The American mind is essentially alien to me, its notions of heroism and coolness are quite its own inventions. Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic refers to coolness as a mask, and traces its historical origins. The English tradition is more an expression of (in "high" culture) or commentary on (in "low" culture) a certain coldness and austerity. The American tradition attempts to topple this. But what is weird about Americanism is the fact that it does actually believe itself, even if this means believing blatant lies. Dylan’s band on this album has a way fatter bass-sound than his earlier albums, except maybe the luxuriance of Blonde on Blonde or Live 1966. The band sound maybe a bit too glowing to be real, the album has none of the dirt of those great lo-fi recordings.
“I had them once though I suppose to go along with all the ringdancing Christmas carols on all the Christmas eves” is great in the little rhythmic virtuosity involved in squeezing the words into the line, like in jazz or hip-hop. Couples this with the notion of dreams or hopes.
Interesting link between country picking and minimalism. John Fahey is the master of folk-hypnosis, every bit as good as Lee Scratch Perry in that respect, but the banjo on “High Water” attempts the same kind of thing. Sounds like a harmonica in there towards the end, but the song was begging for a proper Dylan solo.
The harmonica gets its power precisely for being a small-but-loud-for-its-size instrument. It is similar to distorted guitar, organ, saxophone, accordion, whistling, and blowtorch all at once.
Heavy rock music is designed to assert itself more on the environment than lighter kinds. Which is not to say that massive distortion guitar thrash cannot be used as pleasant background music.
Electronic music has a glossiness about it, the synthetic sounds are like eating sugary food compared to the sound of acoustic instruments. Voices or “real” instruments are needed to provide the essential contrast. Something to do with complexity of acoustic textures. I find synthesised sounds hard to listen to for long periods. It takes someone of Mark E. Smith’s calibre to know how to play alongside electronic elements, ie dance music. The question is not so much what exciting noise can you make, as can you integrate it into a well-structured performance. Too many bad DJs have no concept of this, though most of the good ones seem to.
Overall the range of ideas - not all of them mine - in The Marion Flow is a strength, preventing it from being a genre exercise even though it does make reference to generic forms, which is perhaps why some people find it hard to understand. Scratched Surface is more of a textbook work or genre re-presentation, which probably makes it more accessible despite its lo-fi recordings and amateurish performance - which itself put it into a genre. It was always intended to be a good first effort, leaving the attempted masterpiece(s) for later.
I disagree with Nick Cave that songs should be simple & easily understandable and try to make direct emotional connection with the listener. I think it is more respectful to the listener’s intelligence - as well as better value for money - to give them something that they have to work on, at least if they want maximum reward. Once you understand something completely there’s no need to listen again, unless as a reminder. Nick Cave could take apart any one of his songs and show you how the interlocking parts fit into a narrative structure. Cave is one significant countercultural figure who is not into William Burroughs and the Beats. Cave sez “all outward motion connects to nothing for each is concerned with their immediate need” and is more into the Bible and of course Elvis Presley, who’s never been a big influence on me. I’m much more into the Jewish intellectual stuff (Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg natch, but also John Zorn, Woody Allen, Noam Chomsky, and Seinfeld had its moments).
I’m much more into associations rather than linear cause-and-effect, intuition more than intention, though I build the connections in a conscious way. But I am more into the general than the specific. James Joyce’s oppositions between day and night-time minds (“and babe I gotta say that it grows darker with the day”) are fascinating, and The Marion Flow’s mind is the night-time one (it even says very blatantly and pretentiously “another Irish wake?”). There is a big overall narrative, which in his case is also circular and in mine is to kind of diffuse or defuse, which was done brilliantly by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow (to namedrop another heavyweight). The sea is used throughout as a metaphor for the collective unconsciousness, hence “turns out later of course that Carl Jung had already been onto it decades earlier”. Probably should have told people that in the liner notes, so that I could call it a "concept album". My theory on death is that you continue to exist but not on a conscious level, just a part of the bigger universe, which is not to say that the narrator dies at the end. “Wakefulness follows a dream dying high” are the last words of the album. Decline is part of the big overall meta-narrative of the singer/songwriter genre. Part of what people find (masochistically) fascinating about Bob Dylan is the shocking contrast between say Empire Burlesque and Blonde On Blonde. The singer/songwriter mythic narrative charts the fall from grace of a once-sharp mind. Nick Cave and Mark Smith, being of a younger generation, are very consciously aware of this.
I love deadpan, and obliqueness of meaning fits perfectly into a deadpan style, to stare into the readers eyes and tell them that Hieronymous Bosch paintings were the primary inspiration behind “The Chicken Dance” and see if they’ll believe you (hmm good film idea). Dare them to believe you. Or even just to yell “Boo!” The big question is does the writer know what he’s doing? Or is it as meaningless to him as it is to us? I would have to answer (defensively/provisionally) that meaning comes with the benefit of hindsight. I routinely discover meanings in my more “semi-automatic” writings months later when rereading it. But does that not just mean that the reader projects meaning onto it? I’d say that if it does it is still well worth having for the pleasure of reading the album’s text and finding the subtext. But I’d also add that a lot of it is pretty well explicable, at least to my author’s “preferred reading”. Just now I worked out that the literal meaning of “fine feathers flow / we all fall down” at the end of “On a Bus” is probably that the narrator (a long-distance bus passenger) falls asleep on his pillow. It also has the added meaning to me personally of referring to a bus trip back home to New Plymouth, though a listener doesn’t have to know that. But I do like using words that are opaque to meaning at first. “The Marion Flow” itself is the whirlpool mystery centre of the album, the closest I’ve yet come to automatic writing, and the one-chord music with the twin guitars playing a half-remembered fragment of melody. A dancey rhythm is present - “Move to the groove or so that I’m reckoned”. At first the meaning is obscured in detail but increasing familiarity reveals the shape. The Marion Flow was consciously designed to be listened to again and again which is why overall I’m probably more interested in albums than live performance, which is only there once (so it has the compensatory advantage of being inherently more intense). A music album is an object that you can relate to and interrogate if you want. You are permitted to share in the narrator’s emotions, or perhaps just what they want you to see. It’s an emotional narrative as much as any novel. You could liken a rock album to a symphony, each part different but relating to the whole, part of a bigger design. The form is less literal and structured than that within a traditional song’s structure, first verse the thesis second verse the antithesis guitar solo headscratch third verse the payoff synthesis (or if lazy they might just repeat the first). The narrative of an album is primarily emotional unless its fairly definitely a concept album in which case themes or storyline may be more prominent.
Classical music is classical music because it is about exalted states of being. It is about ideals, about what should be rather than what is, and for art there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Manicheans believed that evil is an active thing opposed to good. What’s the opposite of a Manichean – a Calvinist? Is that the word? Did Calvinists believe that evil is “merely” the absence of good? This is the point of view that I would probably go along with. Evil is found in sadness and poverty and unfulfilled potential. In mediocrity? Is this then an elitist argument? That would certainly lead to the Classical notion of the Divine Right of Kings, because the Kings were somehow more perfect, closer to God, than the Common Masses. The keeping of the Commoners poor and illiterate would be necessary to maintain the illusion by comparison. So this then is evil? To say that I’m bad but at least you’re worse. The Commoners of course exist in the grip of False Consciousness according to Marx, they are like two-dimensional beings being looked down on from above. Rock music is more about the world as it is rather than the higher religious world or world as it could be. Rock is, as has often been commented, the solid foundation (or at least crust) of the Earth below.
English rock music is still influenced by classical music, whereas American music is influenced by the blues and country & western. Their deepest wellsprings are different. American keyboardists could never play the way The Fall use them. Likewise the English accent is something quite different in rock to American singers – the voice has behind it William Shakespeare & the Monarchy rather than Independence Day & the Civil War. Hence Mark E. Smith’s great battlecry “The Classical! Hey there fuckface!” whereas the American idea of a good line is more like “S’cuse me while I kiss the sky!” (national pride over the space programme) or even “The west is the best… baby”. “Baby” a distinctly American usage of the word? The Beatles used it. The Beatles are much less of an influence on me than Bob Dylan. The Beatles are at their worst when they play models of Tin Pan Alley song forms – Paul McCartney’s faux-American accent on “The Ballad of Rocky Racoon” is pretty excruciating (though I like the hyperventilating harmonica a lot). The Beatles’ lyrics contain a lot of forced or leaden imagery, with occasional gems such as “Norwegian Wood” and “Hey Jude”. The BBC influences them as much as anything. They have too much of a musical sweet tooth, and are prone to sentimentality and mawkishness, which Mark E. Smith’s achievement was to triumphantly overturn. Supposedly the Rolling Stones did this and introduced dirt to the music but they had to imitate American models, whereas The Fall’s triumph is in its very Englishness. Smith is a realist, a working class autodidact, and not afraid to talk metatextual - it is one of his key concerns. Dragnet is all about this, a blueprint analysis of a rock textbook. Equivalent to Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ as a graduate work, demonstrating solid mastery of the basics before the following albums map out new territory. Except that Smith starts by defining his own model, laying out Dragnet as a manifesto. Like Frank Zappa, Mark E. Smith epitomises the ideal of the self-taught iconoclast. The splitting in half of “Winter” on Hex Enduction Hour is a great steamroller gesture, dismissing not only the old song forms but brushing aside a petty obstacle (the side ending) as outmoded, beneath their concern. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” single did the same by taking up both the A and B sides. Jazz players do it, but that's more to do with the lp format being a limitation than a deliberate choice to bust through the forms. An lp is forty to fifty minutes... "We are the Fall"... Hex Enduction Hour it is.
The tone of Hex Enduction Hour is triumphant and swaggering, though by the end of the album “cast the runes against your own soul / roll up for the underpants show / and be humbled in Iceland” is one of Smith’s most literally naked and personal lines. “And This Day” nihilistically refutes it – “every day just no fucking respite”. “The Classical”, I take to be a proud announcement of graduation to the realm of the truly great (in the literal sense) rock bands. “I just left the Hotel Amnesia” describes anamnesis, the loss of forgetfulness, which is one of Philip K. Dick’s big themes. If Dragnet is an undergraduate assignment, Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour are a Master’s Thesis. I don’t think Smith would appreciate the metaphor though. Like Bruce Russell, Smith is “saying something about music as with it. This is the role of intellect in music. Most pop music is not about thinking, but as Lou Reed stated, the goal is to stimulate the brain as well as the body and emotions. When Patti Smith talks about “three chord rock & roll and the power of the Word” she means “the Word” in the Biblical sense. Mark Smith also has an affinity with Frank Zappa, in that the big message of both is to educate yourself and think for yourself (and in a secular sense), whereas Reed can be condescending (and overestimating) about his own literacy and Patti Smith is too much of a missionary (I prefer Diamanda Galas if we're going to discuss female singer/songwriters as a separate topic). Mark Smith says what is on his mind and doesn’t mince words, and best of all he does not talk down to the listener. “I’ve never felt better in my life” says that he knows he is working at the top of his form, and is making his bid for greatness. Smith draws an analogy between the ideas of “Classic” as in classic rock album and “Classical” as in classical art. “Classic rock” (as a genre rather than a value judgement) does often depend on standardised forms like the twelve bar blues or verse-chorus-verse structure. Smith knows the forms and states them and moves on as needed. “Jawbone and the Air Rifle” is a short story in the form of a song, just to show that Smith can do it. But he is so confident in his lyrics that he allows them to be buried so that the listener has to actively make an effort to follow them. This is the opposite of burying lyrics in the mix to make them unimportant or to try and hide their badness. Musicians talk about extended techniques in the sense of using new and unconventional ways of playing their instruments, but the term can also applied to songwriting or composition in terms of structure, expanding it and getting away from the three-minute verse-chorus-verse model. Americans would probably find The Fall cold sounding, but it took an English rock genius to reach those levels of superiority to all other music, which brings us to Nick Cave's dictum that the great rock band must be the greatest in the world on a good night. The Fall don’t have good and bad nights listening to an album as with say Neil Young or Jimi Hendrix, who can both sound mawkish on a bad night, with The Fall you have nights where you come to them and nights where you don’t. The English can’t play harmonica, but then the Americans can’t do Brass Band.
The howling noise in the “Deer Park” section of “Fortress/Deer Park” is perhaps meant to echo the Hammond organ in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone?” The songs share a similar structure from here, but the harsher post-punk techniques of The Fall give it an updated sound which is not necessarily better or worse. It makes up in aggression what it loses in richness of tone. Its mocking quality is just a tad more vicious…
…To be continued…