[sixties-l] The new talkin World War III blues (fwd)

From: sixties@lists.village.virginia.edu
Date: Mon Oct 08 2001 - 19:45:33 EDT

  • Next message: sixties@lists.village.virginia.edu: "[sixties-l] Anti-war actions...continued (6) (fwd)"

    ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    Date: Mon, 08 Oct 2001 13:33:01 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The new talkin World War III blues

    The new talkin' World War III blues


    On Bob Dylan's new "Love and Theft," the topical and the timeless merge
    with maniacal intensity.

    By Ellen Willis

    Oct. 8, 2001 | Somewhere around the fourth or fifth time I listened to Bob
    Dylan's new album, "Love and Theft"after I'd finished being distracted by
    all the musical influences and had begun paying attention to the voice and
    hearing some of the words, a 30-year-old memory surfaced: In the middle of
    an LSD trip I had begun to worry that my identity was dissolving or flying
    apart, and as a test I decided to sign my name. I was relieved to see that
    my signature was exactly the same as usual. And then it occurred to me how
    silly my worry had been. The truth was, I realized, that my "signature" was
    so tenacious it would be quite difficult, perhaps impossible, to get rid of
    even if I wanted to. After all, how many people (I would become one of them
    not long afterward) spent years in psychotherapy trying to change their
    signatures just a little bit?
     From the earliest years of his career Bob Dylan has had a passionate
    impulse to obliterate his
    personal identity. That passion has, at various times, been reflected in
    his biographical mythmaking, his allergic reaction to his celebrity, his
    flirtations with religion, his compulsion to confound the expectations of
    his audience by constantly transforming his persona. (In the process he has
    often denied that the previous incarnation ever existed: Who, me?
    Political? A folksinger? A poet? An outlaw?) And ever since "John Wesley
    Harding"his dramatic 1967 switch to acoustic "folk songs" that sound more
    like comments on "the folk song"much of his work has been defined by an
    apparent desire to unload the baggage of his own experience
    and become a vessel, channeling American Music.
    Of course, the counterimpulses have also been strong: Dylan has an
    indelible signature, not to mention an indelible ego. The essential
    tensions in his music have never been about electric versus acoustic but
    about personal and idiosyncratic versus collective and generic; topical and
    profane versus primordial and sacred;
    transcendence as excess versus transcendence as purgation; "Blonde on
    Blonde" versus "John Wesley Harding"; "Blood on the Tracks" versus "Time
    Out of Mind."
    I've always had reservations about Dylan's post-"JWH" attempts to get out
    of his skin, from the homage to country and western of "Nashville Skyline"
    to the cult of impersonality in the perversely named "Self Portrait" and
    his hermetic ^A'90s renditions of old folk songs better left to
    ethnographers. In "Time Out of Mind"an album I found virtually unlistenable
    at the time it came out to near-universal acclaim four years ago and have
    only now, and grudgingly, come to admire, it struck me that the
    self-abnegating impulse had doubled back on itself and become a
    particularly unpalatable form of megalomania, wherein the listener is
    buttonholed and forced to become a surrogate for the singer's elusive lover
    or muse.
    "Love and Theft" takes up the quest for anonymity in a quite different way,
    or so it seems at first. It is mostly pleasant to listen to, yet its
    self-conscious, let's-give-them-a-tour-of-the-genres schtick is annoying:
    The first time Dylan did this, in 1970 on "New Morning," there was arguably
    a real need to nudge parochial rock and folk fans to stretch themselves and
    listen to other Americas; here it merely feels like an invitation to
    critics to parade their musical erudition. Sifting through this album's
    combinations and permutations of blues, country, honky-tonk, swing, r&b,
    Tin Pan Alley pop, soul, was that a Chuck Berry riff?, etc., etc. is
    certainly a fun game, but the best kind of eclecticism (of which Dylan's
    corpus is replete with examples) is still the kind that doesn't call
    attention to itself, that instead creates a whole greater than its parts.
    Still, as I said, the game is only temporarily distracting. Soon individual
    songs begin to break from their generic moorings like Avalon rising out of
    the mist: the plangent "Mississippi"; the ominous "High Water," punctuated
    by background rumbles and crashes; "Sugar Baby," with its funereal echoes
    of "Old Man River" and the traditional "Look Down, Look Down that Lonesome
    Road." Then Dylan's voice hits me, not pleasant at
    all. It's beyond raspy, it's laryngitic, maybe consumptive, it sounds some
    of the time like it's coming from a great distance, through a wind tunnel
    or something, it's fuzzy. Stuck in the vinyl era, I keep wanting to brush
    away the lint from an imaginary phonograph needle. It's as impersonal as
    static or the coughing in a hospital ward, except that every now and then
    there's an echt-Dylan phrase or inflection to remind us of that signature,
    scrawled like graffiti into musical concrete.
    I take another look at the CD cover: the front has Dylan unadorned,
    vulnerable, looking hardly different, faint mustache, lined face, bags
    under the eyes notwithstanding, from his pictures in the '60s; flip the
    album over and you get some kind of Mexican bandito, whose mustache, along
    with white hat and quarter-smile, serves as a disguise. Dylan is hardly
    there at all.
    But it's the lyrics, finally, that make "Love and Theft" what it is, an
    album in which the individual and the generic, the topical and the
    timeless, merge with maniacal intensity: "New Morning" crossed with "Time
    Out of Mind," juiced by turns with opium and speed. Talk about prophetic:
    "Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick/ Happiness comes
    suddenly and leaves just as quick/ Any minute of the day the bubble could
    burst ...." And: "I'm stranded in the city that never sleeps ... / Some
    things are too terrible to be true ... / The sun in the city leavin' at
    9:45/ I'm having a hard time believing some people were ever alive." And:
    "Oh who
    knows who the bell tolls for, love/ It tolls for you and me" (that one
    rolling with the jaunty beat of the New Morning-ish "Moonlight"). And:
    "High water rising, shacks are slidin' down/ Folks lose their possessions,
    folks are leaving town .... / Things are breakin' up out there/ High water
    everywhere." And: "George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian and the
    Jew/ You can't open up your mind, boys, to any conceivable point of view/
    They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5/ Judge says to the
    high sheriff, I want him dead or alive."
    If Dylan manages to predict the next day's news by once again tapping into
    the language of millennial apocalypse, he also captures contemporary anomie
    (his own, ours) by inventing a narrator -- or narrators, it's hard to tell
    who descends into the hell, or purgatory, or limbo, of America's mysterious
    rural past, which seems to be located mainly in the south.
    Contemplating the "earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone," "goin'
    where the wild roses grow," following the southern star, crossing rivers,
    staying in Mississippi a day too long, staying with his not-real Aunt
    Sally, dreaming of Rose's bed, proposing to marry his second cousin, our
    hero (or is it heroes?) (or anti-hero/heroes?) walks the line between love
    and battle, not that there's much of a difference. Between "Don't reach out
    for me, she said/ Can't you see I'm drowning too?" and "Sugar baby get on
    down the road, you ain't got no brains nohow/ You went years without me,
    might as well keep goin' now" falls a manifesto of sorts: "I'm not sorry
    for nothing I've done/ I'm glad I fight, I only wish we'd won." By the end,
    the topical is slowly submerged as the timeless closes over our heads.
    It's seductive stuff, at moments as compelling as anything Dylan has ever
    done. And yet I find myself resisting. Something is missing, as it was in
    "Time Out of Mind": the irony Dylan once used to undercut his romanticism
    and his I-am-America self-importance, and not least to befuddle the
    audience that had taken his latest posture too literally. Since you can't
    get away from yourself, not really, at some point you have to come to terms
    with that or become delusional.
    In post-Sept. 11 America, the inescapably topical is also enveloped in
    history and myth. In the gap where the towers used to be rise many ghosts:
    of our Cold War alliance with the Afghan mujahedin, the Gulf War, the fatwa
    against Salman Rushdie, the Iranian hostage crisis, Vietnam, the
    Israeli-Arab War of ^A'67, World War II, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, World War
    I, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and beyond, back before the New
    World, the New Eden, was envisioned. The American imagination will be
    taxed with demands for unquestioning unity and generic patriotism, will be
    burdened or inspired by our sense of loss and defiance, identification and
    separateness, new tensions between individual and collective. And irony
    (which in some quarters has been prematurely pronounced dead) will be very,
    very important. The Dylan line that suits does not appear on this album.
    Better to go back to the beginning, to "Talking World War III Blues" with
    its teasing ode to mutual paranoia: "I'll let you be in my dream, if I can
    be in yours." Like the Woody Guthrie songs that were its inspiration, it
    shamelessly appropriates traditional form for contemporary purpose, and its
    coda is "I said that!" with the accent on the "I." You can't get any more
    mythically American than that.
    About the writer
    Ellen Willis, one-time Village Voice senior editor and New Yorker pop-music
    critic, is a journalism professor at New York University. She has written
    several books, including "Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock
    and Roll."

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon Oct 08 2001 - 20:03:54 EDT