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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I'd like to say how very much I enjoyed Portland Maine - my couple of hours in the city in general and my evening event in particular. The people who came were very warm, generous and chatty with me - and, almost uniquely, the tech person was completely ready for the soundcheck - on time and with all the equipment working perfectly. So thank you James, and Tom too.

But especially I'd like to thank the Hardings... and to ask if they would please either e-mail me privately or else contact me by posting a comment in response to this (which I can read in private without publishing), letting me have their e-mail address.

(Not only did they give me a present at the end of the event, but they even gave me one to give to Freddie James Hodgson! This is a first. His mother was delighted. "Ooh, so he has fans already," she said.)

I have no thoughts on the new album yet. Lots of new comments have come in (to this blog) since I last had access to a computer, and I've just published them somewhere below, and one Dylan devotee of many many years has sent me a ferocious but private dismissal of it (and of Dylan live), but I'm waiting a while yet to comment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having heard the new record my first instinct was hear it again. The voice? What would Picasso do with a box of broken crayons. Is the Parthenon still beautiful as a crumbling ruin? Is it possible the evidence of decay only make it more beautiful? Hunter as a straight man...why not. Candide had his Pangloss.
Pat Ford

6:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why do dismissals have to be ferocious? why dismiss anything? the new album's fine. we don't need any dismissals. what we need is intelligent, imaginative eposition that can reveal the good in what we have. that does a service. dismissals you can keep.
r lodge

5:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. This is off topic, but I could not find your email address.

I really enjoyed the verison of Like a Rolling stone you spoke about and played on the record BBC "lyrics of Bob Dylan" show.

Could you tell me what concert it was from.

I checked my copy of your book, and it wasn't the one you reference there, Prague 3/13/95.



4:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Notes towards some helpful comments:

It little profits that an idle king …

Here’s a collection dominated by thoughts both like and unlike those of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. That poem was written by a grief-stricken young man, imagining the end. Dylan takes the position there explored and twists it with the wisdom of real age, so that it is not now adventure on the seas, but the comforts of love that are amount to some sort of purpose for life.

This is also an album suffused with references to ideas we might associate with King Lear, Kafka and Beckett – i.e. an album like Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. Like those albums, this is another adventure in the strange land of traditional American music, given a modernist reworking. In this respect, Theme Time Radio is a the key – here are Dylan’s country blues songs; here are Dylan’s forties ballads; here are Dylan’s forgotten oddities. And friendship – the theme of the episode given away free with this record – is another element in the mix.

Following Modern Times’ experiment in cut up and pile up – lyrics just rumbling on and on in odd, enchanting, but sometime unsatisfyingly arbitrary ways – here is Dylan’s most coherent album ever, and here are songs that are rounded and finished in simple immediacy. Unpretentious, beguiling, seemingly empty of profundity, this collection is more listenable than many, will stand more repeat listens and should lead to more cover versions than many an album by Dylan. It hangs together more than may be apparent to sciolistic journos, strung out on cocaine or self-regard. Let us not review it, but explain it.

‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’ is urban, edgy, attention-grabbing, rumbling. It raises issues about being and nothingness that have long been a concern of Dylan’s and lead us to Shakespeare’s rigorous testing of such notions in King Lear. Here we have an LA scene – the rich man surveys the city from his huge window. He feels alienated and frigthened. This might be all there is. Better stay indoors, in case of economic meltdown or pandemic. Like most of the songs, there is reference to night-time – and these are lonely nights. Here it’s midnight – the end is nigh. The reference to “throne” is the first ‘Ulysses’ clue. The ship in the harbour is virtually a quotation. The narrator here, however, drives about the city and sees others like himself, lost behind glass – fragile, brittle, fearful. Dare he set out beyond here? Tennyson’s hero wants to go “beyond the utmost bound of human thought”. Dylan’s just wants to be touched – nearness and distance become themes of the album also. Dylan fears that there is nowhere to go, nothing to say, nothing beyond this sad state. What kind of ritual does he envisage by asking that his beloved lay her hand on his head? Mother me? Bless me? Select me? Mark me out? Finally, there may be nothing to do and nothing to say. That’s art says Beckett:”The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Dylan’s been reading James Joyce – maybe Beckett too.

The “evening” setting is there again in ‘Life is Hard’ – a feature that most of the songs share with ‘Ulysses’. Here the winds are “still” – another repeated word on the album, as in Beckett’s final words Stirrings Still? or like Ulysses’ “still hearth” that must be sailed away from? – unlike the blowy evening that sees Ulysses sails puff. Dylan’s going nowhere. Because he is failing to dare to adventure? Or because he rejects Ulysses’ delusions that the cosy hearth is some kind of death? The days here are “barren” like the crags of Ulysses’ homeland. But they are barren because of the absence of the “aged wife”. Dylan claims to “know” something here, but knowledge is questioned elsewhere on the album, so the certainty may be self-deluding, as may many of Ulysses’s assertions. The “sun” itself is constantly mentioned in these songs; here, like the setting for ‘Ulysses’ it is sinking low – endings, failure, death? The contrast between that which is “so far away” and the hope that someone might be “near me” is delineated here. The “old school yard” represents the memories that bother the songs consistently. Ulysses saw “life piled on life” – Dylan thinks life is hard, but he has something other than the empty ocean as an alternative. Maybe he’s fooling himself. You need “strength to fight the outside world” – you might become a seedy solipsist. Or you might form meaningful relationships and begin to live. Both the first songs feature the word “boulevard” – these are sunset songs; go to the LA guys pool tomorrow and check that he hasn’t drowned there – like Ulysses washed down in gulfs.

Next we have assertion – comic, but nonetheless arresting. A strange thing this marriage lark – it’s a kind of hell, but it gives you strength. The voice here is touched with pride as well as despair. A woman may curse you, but she also gives you strength. He’s sitting in the sun now – it may not be setting just yet. How those repetitions of “home town” rumble – like distant thunder, like grumbling discontent, like satisfied sleepy comfort. Like ‘Ulysses’ this song seems at odds with itself – suggesting incompatible thoughts, perfectly. Just listen: my wife’s a devil, so watch what you do to me, or she’ll do for you! Or is it: it’s hell being married to this crazy force of evil – I’m more cursed than the Lady of Shallot, more damned than Faust. The instinct to retreat, and “roll down the shutters” takes us back to the first song’s lonely, fearful scenario. But we have to “keep on walking” too, or is that the threatening others who have keep going, nothing to see here? The singer laughs. Laughter can come back to haunt you. And that gypsy curse – what happens when it “comes upon you”? Tennyson knew, didn’t Professor Ricks?

Song four is a driving song. We have got somewhere – down south, where the album’s sound has been living from note one. Here’s a cowboy movie about what you can “know” and what you ought to “know” and what you can never “know”. It’s wise alright – the singer gives us advice, but it’s negative in tone – watch what you do. “Prayer” is another motif played with here. Sinners pray, but am I more sinned against than sinning? How do Lucy, Nancy and Marianne feel about being named but not visited? Like much of the album, we are in familiar Dylan territory – Girl from the North, is now South; if you see her say hello, becomes if you say her tell her to pray – but it’s all in straitened circumstances – Beckett again, who wrote the same book over and over, in ever decreasing spirals until it almost became nothing. This song ends brilliantly: funny, odd, touching. Mr Policeman – who calls anybody that? The Magnolia Hotel is parallax view of Blind Willie Mctell – love is blind, and Gloucester too. It’s an old lament – let me find my girl. But the cop can be his “pal” if he helps. There is a movie here, waiting for the Cohen brothers to make it. Friends and neighbours matter – the next best thing to love, anyhow.

When I first heard ‘Forgetful Heart’ I liked how it sounded, but I also thought it was a pretty average retread of the already average ‘Can’t Wait’. When I thought about what the song actually does, I thought differently. Key themes here, for a start: memory, prayer, shadows, laughter, life piled on life. Forgetful not “hungry heart” – memories start no fires for Dylan. Maybe this is Nancy’s reply to the last song. One of Dylan’s greatest lines here – one of those lines that seems like nothing, or seems like you’ve heard it before somewhere, but in context, works like quicksilver – “We loved with all the love that life can give”. An how he sings it: hopeful bounce, painful longing, driven awareness. Life is for love, but love brings pain. Then there’s the end, which makes the somewhat ordinary progress of the song worth the wait: surely he’s listening to the sound of rain at night, no that was “pain”. OK, nice, grim twist. Then we get the punch line: Kafka’s parable hero, who waits all his life at the door, is told finally that he never would have been admitted, whatever he did. Dylan’s hero has come to doubt if there even was a door at all. Frank is the key, but there’s no do to unlock. Dreams in ‘Life is Hard’ were “locked and barred”. Dreams are central to this collection. But in this nightmare, there is no hope of unlocking happiness. Memory is matter of betrayal here. It fails.

‘Jolene’ gives us more “sun” to consider – sun records from the fifties? the sun that ‘Sugar Baby’ told us about? ‘Ulysses’’ setting sun? The husband of the hellish wife’s sun that he sits in – and burns? Dead men rise here, like Ulysses’ fellow sailors, whom Tennyson revivifies, in spite of the fact that Homer killed them all off? Our hero is the king here. The idle king? Furious dimisser would be quick to call him that, wouldn’t they? Well they “think they know”, but mostly they’re “all wrong”. Dylan’s on top of the world when he’s with the woman he loves. He’s been listening to his own advice – got his hands in his pockets, like the Huston guy recommended. Why can’t you fight someone who has his back to a hill? Not his back to the sun, notice. You need strength to fight life, someone once said. The hill of beans might amount to something. And the sparky eyes of Jolene light a fire that is more fun than Ulysses’ “still hearth”. Oh, but he’s still sleeping by a door, so maybe this is more hope than satifisfaction: if Jolene says yes, he’ll be king, but when will she? And fathers don’t always help, as Romeo would tell you. Shakespeare always hovers in the shadows of these songs, until the very end of the collection, when he steps up to the plate. Old man Will collaborated later in life too, we might recall.

The heart of the matter comes in song 7. We are sure south of the border now. Great opening: “this nowhere café”. Fascinating thoughts – he wonders why he fears the dawn. Like ‘Ulysses’ whose dull brain seems to retard him? Day and night, sun and dark: the axis of the album. And “dreams”, of course, which keep us going, but – yeah, in order to dream … Not so much Ulysses, here perhaps, as Davy Crockett ready to make his last stanza, or a young hothead from Durango? Blindness is the matter here, again. Who can fail to be haunted by Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear? And let’s not forget the Christian plea for faith – “but I’m a little to blind to see”, always sung with such feeling. He wants to look away but can’t. Does he want to believe or not? He can’t be sure. When he sings “Look away”, for a split second, he seems to be about to launch into ‘Shenendoah’ – song of American history, song of a failing album, not rescued by a “pal” who’s around again. The “star from heaven” needs a second look – another word borrowed from ‘Ulysses’ by the way. And some sort of “delight in battle” here, as he’ll “defend this place with [his] dying breath”. Ulysses is near death, but rejects the idea that to “breathe” is life. And Beckett’s shortest play: Breath. Beautiful centre-piece this song: there are those shadows on the wall; they seem to “know”. That confidence in knowledge is gone. Whose in the shadows? Are they Plato’s illusions on the cave wall. Or the Lady of Shallot’s sickening shadows. Something is coming on, I’d guess. The singer’s tears are gone; maybe he should have put them in bottle afterall. Forgetful hearts can forget both joy and pain. “All I know …” What? What do you know? Did you ever but “slenderly know [your]self” like Lear? You know – dreams, hopes, or empty, insubstantial substitutes for life?

By contrast, we have a dance number, which seems as empty as any pop song could be. But here again, we have “sun” and “still” – those key arguments for this record. And the lover shakes like what? “A ship going out to sea”. Of course, she does. Is it adventure on the seas or home with your “mama”. Women, like bootleggers, have “stuff”, but they “know” it. Here we have another exhortation to prayer; here we have night but also a seemingly unthreatening “break of day”. This is a song of nearness, where others showed things being “far away”. There are warnings: go home the shortest way. A man should not be old before he is wise, says Lear’s fool. Go home and be with your wife, that’s the wisdom that Gilgamesh learns after years of travel. Maybe the language of this album is “a little too rough” – maybe it’s meant to be.

Next song sounds anything but rough. Beautiful little song: this gives us the illusion of hope, tempered by the sense that the end is so very nigh. It’s evening alright, but a change is coming and it sounds comforting, a relief. A third song, then, to with ‘The Times …’ and “Things Have …’? A post-Obama optimistic embrace of change? Something like that, but with smart, sharp little warnings that shake our certainty, mama. The biblical “fourth part of the day” gives us thoughts of apocalypse, Bergman’s ruined landscape, the “nothing” that lies beyond the gates of the mansion in song one. “Life is for love” is a slogan to deny Ulysses with. Unambiguous, yes? Oh, the sweetness of: “If you wanna live easy, baby, pack your clothes with mine” – give it to me, I’ll keep with mine. But, like Ulysses’ hopes of further adventures on the sea, this vision is in the future. Is there time for it happen? Is it too late? Dreams were the only comfort two songs back. Now they “never did work”. Is that an ultimate admission of failure? Or is it a dismissal of unreal dreams – those non-existant realms beyond the bounds of thought – in favour of real love? What are we to make of “whorish” in the midst of this? The woman can start a fire – set that cold hearth alight? or take us to hell and make us live there? Boy, life is hard.

Finally, we get Chaucerian irony – it’s all good says the narrator as he delineates the perfect awfulness of his pilgrims. Dylan plays the same multi-layered game. Hence the laughter on the album: I’m not serious, but then again, maybe I am, but in a more profound way than you can imagine. Like ‘Ulysses’ revisiting his triumphs, Dylan pays attention to his own meandering adventures on this album, reconsidering his earlier songs. We get ‘Idiot Wind’ here at that start, but with ironic acceptance – “talk about me if you must”. This is ‘Slow Train’ too – and here is a similar litany of evil, but without the preaching, without the answers, but also without the youthful bitterness of the arrogant voice that spits ‘It’s Alright Ma’. Still, watch out: see those “wives leaving their husbands”. He advised Mama to go home the shortest way, or maybe just hope she would. Here, wives leave the party and “never get home”. Ulysses made it back eventually, but what if Penelope was not there waiting for him? And, Tennyson’s Ulysses better watch out too – you might drown. Wise old Dylan knows it only takes a cup of water, so what would you risk the sea for? It’s what folks say that’s the problem – they say it’s good; I say it’s good. That don’t make it good. And finally, out of the shadows comes Shakespeare. Dylan plucks his beard – it’s the attack on Gloucester all over again. What follows? The narrator is “rolling” in someone else’s “place” – as usurper of Ulysses’ bed? A Shakespearean creator accepting that he has nothing left to say? It’s all good, but is that good enough? He’s been reading Shakespeare, Beckett, his own songs, Tennyson and, of course, that other Ulysses – Joyce. And how does Joyce end? The hero returns and “YES” he can start again. Maybe it is all good, after all.

We have been together with Dylan through some much of life, and here we are again, standing side by side. Stay with your wife, might be the moral of the tale, stay with your pal. Don’t listen to Tennyson, read Joyce and rejoice. If this is not great work, then what is?

r lodge

8:21 pm  
Anonymous said...


8:50 pm  
Anonymous Bev said...

Based on first few listens, it's a good little minor album. Each time I hear it, I start off a bit nonplussed, mainly because the weaker tracks musically seem to be the earlier ones. While I like them, tracks 2 & 3 feel a bit 'plodding' & surely shouldn't be next to each other so near the start? Whereas, at the moment tracks 9 & 10 are my favourites at the moment.

8:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine album from Bob. My comment is that Bob seems to be fond of using song titles that are the same as or very similar to other songs by other people. We've had his Merle Haggard re-run('Working man blues')and here we have 'Jolene'(nuff said) and 'If you ever go to Houston.' Micky Newberry sang 'If you ever get to Houston'. Of course these lines originate from 'Midnight Special' by Leadbelly.
Cheers, Brian O'Connell

7:26 pm  

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