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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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Friday, November 27, 2009


After the, er, mixed reception to Christmas in the Heart in comments to this blog, plus the unwarranted assumption that I either do or will hate it (whereas in fact it's still November and so I haven't bought or heard the albm yet), it's a great pleasure to be able to reproduce here a review/think piece - which the best kind of review surely should be - which is not only beautifully written, stimulatingly thoughtful and humane but also essentially positive about Christmas in the Heart. This is Peter Doggett's take on it, first published in the latest issue of ISIS fanzine and now, with the author's permission, reproduced online for the first time here:

by Peter Doggett

“What is this shit?”
(The opening line of Greil Marcus’s review of
Self Portrait, 1970)

The rumour sprouted just after the tale that Dylan would be voicing sat-nav, and sounded just as unlikely. Then it became a fact, and a medley of 30-second snippets on Youtube – a collage of phlegm, schmaltz and bathos that promised to deliver a lethal dose of Yuletide cheer. I began to assemble a mental list of hapless friends and relations who deserved some exotic seasonal delight, imagining a Marcus-like chorus of horror arising across the country.

It arrived in time for a lengthy drive along the coast, and we sniggered and guffawed in all the obvious places. We winced in unison as tunes we’d inhaled as babies sank into a choppy sea of catarrh, each wave of mucus so thick that you could imagine lowering a bottle down between the tonsils and emerging with a green, viscous soup of bronchial pus. We giggled at the sonic gulf between the debris of a lifetime’s addiction to tobacco, and the sparkling-white peppiness of the chorale. “You wouldn’t want this guy behind you in church”, my wife quipped, imagining a coat spattered in stale spit and cigarette perfume.

Second time around, though, the laughter began to feel hollow. It was funny, sure, but not funny enough; and there was something else going on. By the end of the record, we were listening in silence. “He loves Christmas, doesn’t he?”, my wife whispered.

“I could feel that in my bones – that particular yuletide time of the year. On the Iron Range it had been positively Dickensian. Just like the picture books: angels on Christmas trees, horse-drawn sleighs pushing through snowy streets, pine trees glistening with lights, wreaths strung over the downtown stores, Salvation Army band playing on the corner, choirs going from house to house caroling, fireplaces blazing, woolly scarves around your neck, church bells ringing. When December rolled around, everything slowed down, everything got silent and retrospective, snowy white, deep snow. I always thought Christmas was like that for everyone, everywhere. I couldn’t imagine it not being like that forever.”

That’s from
Chronicles, a book I believe about as much as I trust the voice of Modern Times and Together Through Life – which is to say, not much at all. Years ago, my friend Mark Paytress wrote a biography of Marc Bolan, and in his initial draft, he made what seemed to me reprehensible claims about Bolan’s superiority over Dylan. Nonsense, I replied, scribbling across his manuscript. The gist of my argument was that whereas Bolan represented artifice – a conscious shifting of personality and style in a desperate bid for commercial acceptance, from the mock-Donovan of 1965 to the glittery teen idol of 1971 – Dylan’s business was authenticity, rooted in the soul and in the unambiguous honesty of America’s folk traditions, black and white. I bullied him into softening his tone in the final draft. But Modern Times, Together Through Life and Chronicles made me think that I owe Paytress an apology. I still don’t rate Bolan as any kind of artist (though he was a magnificent opportunist, and a halfway decent pop star for about 12 months). But I don’t think that Dylan is a proud beacon of authenticity anymore, either. Maybe he never was.

The problem with certainty is that once it starts to ebb away, it’s difficult to stem the tide. If you believe that the auteur of
Modern Times is faking it, the sense of doubt seeps backwards through Dylan’s career, and you start to remember other moments that felt false – much of Infidels, for one; pieces of Street-Legal; Joey and Mozambique; Buckets of Rain . . . dare I go back any further? The first time I heard Highway 61 Revisited, I was 15 years old, and I couldn’t believe that rock lyrics could be so funny, so daring, peopled with characters who’d stepped out of nightmares and cartoons with vicious W.C. Fields quips dripping from their mouths. Before then, the only Dylan album I’d heard was New Morning, which hadn’t prepared me for the antics of the crazy gang: T.S. Eliot, murderous Abraham, sweet Melinda and the rest.

I remember one time, though, 10 or 20 years ago, when I returned to the record expecting pleasure, and heard another
Highway 61, the Dylan of dissenting voices and disbelievers - a conjurer of hollow wordplay and slick images that added up to a line of zeroes. For a day or two thereafter, it was as if I’d received a decades-early preview of Modern Times: was Dylan really a charlatan all along?

The next time I heard him, I didn’t think so, and I don’t to this day. But remember that the first Dylan we heard – the archetype of the man we’ve stalked ever since – introduced himself as an orphan, a teenage rambler, a recidivist hobo with rambling’, gamblin’ spirit in his blood. That wasn’t true, but we wanted to believe it, the same way as we wanted him to be Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson, Allen Ginsberg and Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald and Little Richard, only with a voice without restraint and the eye that could pierce the soul. It’s that Dylan I hear, still, in my head and on my stereo. But I need to be aware that it’s an invention, a marvellous cultural creation, which touches me in a way Marc Bolan never could but comes from the same school of magic known as Art. As distinct from Life.

Chronicles is Art, and artifice; and as the scholars and detectives are discovering, not all the Art is Dylan’s own creation (which is an increasingly familiar display of his artificiality in the 21st century). The book is often a dazzling recreation of a mysterious past, but not necessarily a truthful one, whatever that means. Because Dylan says he stayed in this Village apartment or walked these New Orleans streets, that doesn’t mean he’s dispensing facts. I think of Chronicles as his finest magic trick, a way of showing you something in such detail that you have to believe it’s true, while it’s merely a comforting illusion.

Yet there are elements of
Chronicles too banal to be invented; they serve no purpose other than the truth (whatever that means). They’re ostensibly the least revealing and most obvious moments of the book, as when Dylan talks about the “freezing winter with a snap and sparkle in the air”; or, indeed, the commonplace evocation of the Christmas spirit I quoted earlier. Anyone could have written those lines; or, at least, there is nothing recognisably Dylanesque about them. They are a collage of cliché, but they ring true because many of us carry those same dreamlike memories from our childhoods, that Christmas in the heart. Mine involve my grandparents’ house in Bristol: the lights on the tree are reflecting sparks of fire onto the glistening, slippery wrapping paper at their base, tinsel and paper chains slither along the picture rail, and the morrow will bring presents and television and pudding and cake and unbroken happiness. I know that some of the presents will be disappointing; I’ll be called upon to dry some dishes; and at some point my father will lose his temper and the spirit of Christmas will decay. But that’s the memory I choose to keep alive, and the one I’d love to recreate for my own family this December. Their memories will be different: Playstation and Toy Story, maybe, replacing my Morecambe and Wise. Different dreams, same illusion, carried forward into the December of our lives.

“I couldn’t imagine it not being like that forever”, Dylan wrote, and
Christmas in the Heart is an attempt to make it so. Like the kids entrusted with the duty of keeping Peter Pan and Wendy alive with blind faith, we have to accept Dylan’s “forever” with uncynical cheer. This is not a record by the creator (or charlatan) of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks or "Love And Theft", to name just four miraculous feats of artifice from the Artist who chooses to be known by that assumed, inauthentic name. It’s the work of a man who, for once in his life, is prepared to let down his defences and be real – in the confident assumption that his motives will be scrutinised and interpreted with such sand-stirring energy that his path across the desert will be obscured, just the way he always likes it to be.

After their initial shock, several critics have recognised the sonic resemblance between Dylan’s music, with its white-bread choir and rich, decadent sound, and the immaculately recorded, lush, sickly-saccharin sound of the Ray Conniff Orchestra & Singers, the Mitch Miller Orchestra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the other rulers of popular American song in the decade that spawned rock’n’roll. This was the music that Elvis was supposed to have destroyed, but secretly loved; and so did Dylan, not for its musical quality, but for its shocking power to pull the listener back into a vanished, elusive, partly illusory world, a time when time stopped and everything existed in the now. That’s what Christmas represents, in our fantastic dreams, and while it sounds like the King’s College Choir in my head, it sounds like Ray Conniff in Dylan’s. Even the two songs that apparently relate to the world after Elvis – Christmas Blues and Must Be Santa – lack any connection to the milieu of rock, Christmas Blues finally delivering that flawless reproduction of the 1950s that has long been Jack Frost’s dream (and doesn’t that borrowed identity suddenly carry another layer of resonance?), and Must Be Santa delivering a sudden vision of Grandma Zimmerman raising her skirts to Hibbing’s equivalent of Knees Up Mother Brown.

A rare Jew(el) in a predominantly Christian community, whose own commitment to the gospel of Christ remains a private enigma, Bobby Zimmerman was raised to respect the carols that celebrated the authentic or artificial second coming. While the Tin Pan Alley favourites that dominate this album are handled with an appropriate blend of affection and playfulness, there is not a moment on the four carols that hints at disrespect or agnosticism. Like a penitent sinner, he raises his harrowed (and often harrowing) voice to heights he hasn’t attempted in years, every taint of human frailty and mortality exposed to the Creator. This is the sound of devotion, not just to God, in whichever form Dylan chooses to recognise Him, but to experience, and to the bitter certainty of the body crinkling into age and the imminence of death. He sounds old enough to have witnessed The First Noel; frail enough to lend a searing irony to the cacophonous rasp as he croons “how silently” on O Little Town of Bethlehem; sure enough of his wandering faith to cling to the rock of tradition that supports him while melancholy Herald Angels Sing. Some things are too sacred to be sacrificed, it seems.

Dylan is prepared to twist or simply ignore his own melodies of (our) blessed memory; sometimes the words disappear too. When they do, it’s a sign that they don’t mean anything to their creator in that instant. It’s why he can mumble his way through Tangled Up in Blue or Hard Rain on stage, and then give witness to a stray verse or a couplet as if it was “written in my soul”; it signals a connection, however infuriatingly brief. On this album, nothing has lost its meaning; every melody needs to be respected, no matter the cost. It’s what gives the agonising rasp of Do You See What I See its power, his phrasing as exact and perfect as on Desolation Row. He can skip through Here Comes Santa Claus or Christmas Island like the crooner he sometimes dreamed he might become, with a grace and lightness of touch he has rarely applied to his own songs.

Those same qualities – and that same reverence for his material – were apparent on another album that transgressed the lines of rock’n’roll etiquette, and pitched Dylan’s disruptive voice against the smoothest and least aggressive of backgrounds.
Self Portrait outraged everyone, from A.J. Weberman to you, who believed in rock’s role as a statement of generational intent, and in Dylan’s pre-eminent stature in that ill-fated counter-culture. Widely greeted as a gesture of treason and contempt, it has since been explained (away) by Dylan himself as a deliberate effort to avoid responsibility and evade preconceptions, like the hog-nosed snake that plays dead to confuse its predator into buggering off and leaving it alone. (The snake is prone to sabotaging its ploy by immediately turning over again if anyone sets it right-side-up, in the same way that Dylan issued New Morning.)

If I’d heard
Self Portrait in 1970, rather than 1974, I’d probably have shared that sense of bemused betrayal. But for years I concealed a guilty secret: I loved the record. Not every song, to be sure; it struck me that if Dylan had issued one album of slicked-up traditional tunes (Alberta, Days of 49, In Search Of Little Sadie) another of glossy covers (Take A Message To Mary, Blue Moon, Let It Be Me) and a single of Minstrel Boy and Mighty Quinn, then his artistic integrity, at least, might have remained intact. There are too many moments when Dylan sounds unsure of his own intentions. But there are more when he focuses to delicious effect, matching the precision of a Jim Reeves or Willie Nelson on Take A Message To Mary, for example; investing Copper Kettle with a silky intensity that suggests a fireside glow after a trudge through wintry woods; matching Charlie Rich’s soulful purr on Living The Blues; capturing the camaraderie of Nashville’s session elite on Days of 49 and Gotta Travel On. None of it is confrontational, or challenges anything bigger than Dylan’s own reputation, but it’s balm for the troubled soul, music as a cushion not a cudgel, and an accurate self portrait of a boy and man who relished commercial country as much as he did rockabilly or roadhouse rhythm and blues. Self Portrait revealed a love that dared not speak its name, and it found its ideal helpmeet in country producer Bob Johnston, for whom fashioning lush soundscapes that wrapped the body like a warm duvet on a frosty night was second nature.

Nearly forty years on,
Christmas in the Heart is Self Portrait No. 2, as divisive and derided as its predecessor. Now, though, Dylan (or Mr Frost, at least) has finally learned how to make records the way they always sounded in his head. What’s most striking about the sound of this record is its exquisite fidelity of detail, whether that’s the crack of a snare or the legacy of a lifetime’s addiction to rotten wood and smoke. It’s as rich and moist as any figgy pudding, and the Dylan of 1970 could have decorated it with a voice matured in a syrupy concoction of Elvis and Bing. But those days and nuances are long gone. The Dylan voice of 2009 – nakedly exposed across this charmingly slight autobiographical sketch – has soured and then decayed.

So careful and open is the production of this album that the stark contrast between the security of the music and the grating rasp of Dylan’s voice can only have been deliberate. Nowhere is the chasm wider than on that most hackneyed of seasonal ballads, I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Maybe the song once carried the weight of wartime reunion, but it’s long since shed its meaning. Here, though, Dylan’s gruesome vocal suggests not a romantic ending but the grim certainty of a much bleaker conclusion. Weighted with sadness, his performance valiantly attempts to keep his audience’s fantasies alive, “if only in my dreams”, though every death-rattle of his lungs proves him wrong.
Christmas In The Heart is a celebration of those dreams, that doubles as their death-knell. It’s the work of a loving father and grandfather, who knows that his time is beyond his control, but never out of mind. It’s also the most honest record he knows how to make in his declining years. That doesn’t make it a great album, merely an honest one; a second self portrait, as deliberately revealing as the first.

Hearing Frank Sinatra age, and his vocal cords constrict, I always hoped (in vain) that the man who’d already given voice to exuberant youth and contemplative middle age might be capable of one last epic statement: an album that would convey the reality of getting old. Many of us wanted to believe that
Time Out Of Mind was that album. But maybe Dylan is giving us another portrait of old age: a defiant grasping at dreams that he knows he cannot fulfil. In his first public testament of faith, Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, Dylan wrote mockingly about “the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices/That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’”. The chocolate cake voices are here at last, but it’s Dylan’s voice that’s knockin’ and tappin’ at the door, telling us that all things must perish, even in the heart.
© Peter Doggett, 2009.

Peter Doggett’s new book, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles (Bodley Head, £18.99), will enhance anyone’s Christmas, especially if they enjoy lurid tales of music business intrigue and personal grudges.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Michael,

Homer again,

Lovely to see Mr. Doggett's piece get another 'airing'; as I mentioned to you previously, it corresponds closely with my own experience and as you mention it is beautifully written.

PS Hey everybody said I'd hate CITH too, it's a natural reaction to our antipathy to his voice in recent years. And when I heard those damn snippets I thought they were right. Don't take it to heart so much.

PPS, when I first heard about the Xmas album (the night of the (or a) session(s), by a pure fluke because I am not really in the loop any more) I was told not to talk about it some 10 minutes after being given the info. Thankfully the only people I had passed the news on to in that brief interim simply didn't believe me, so no confidences were broken. We laugh about my e-mail now and how it was ignored; well, I do to be more accurate. It's been a funny old year, but then haven't they all?

11:36 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hi Michael,

That's a very interesting review, because he mentions things a lot of us have thought: has Dylan been a fraud all along? Even when the flame was brightest and he was the hippest dude on the planet, in 1965, was he really the country farmer, grass-chewing happy house-husband of 1969, in disguise?

When he was Christian, was he really still Jewish? When he re-became a Jew, was he still paying homage to Jesus?

He never tells, but his music betrays him occasionally, as in Modern Times, which to me comes across as a self-conscious attempt to replicate the thundering success of L&T. And L&T itself was rife with loving thefts, so much so that we could be forgiven for hearing it as an expression of someone else's life, and not the author's. He's been so successful at the artifice aspect of his art, we tend to forget that he's no heart-broken, blind, impoverished, Mississippi brakesman, but he's actually a sophisticated white Jewish man, with a big yacht and massive feck-off mansions.

He's so well-read and so clever that he's cut to the bone of the act of creation, even to the extent of creating a public face which is malleable and readily exchanged for another type of face, another type of character. And maybe Dylan's great gift is the ability to represent "types" so well that we actually mistake him for his own creation.

Like you, I'm holding CITH til December. I don't want to pre-judge it either, nor would I pre-judge your experience of the album. Perhaps, like the master himself, you'll confound expectations, but really, I hope we both enjoy it...

11:15 am  
Anonymous Russell said...

I often wonder if centuries from now scholars will write books (or whatever the medium will be then) arguing that certain albums weren't made by Bob but by the "Earl of Stafford" or such; in the same way that people now seem to want to argue that Shakespeare was somebody else or many different people.Dylan's output has been so extensive and so varied that it certainly seems possible. Whether that makes him fake I don't know. I just think when he believes something he really believes it. A great actor perhaps, but an actor who writes his own lines.

6:57 am  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

I agree with all Michael’s comments about Peter Doggett’s piece: it was indeed beautifully written, stimulatingly thoughtful and humane. There is much in it to engage with, but what it set me thinking about principally was the question of Dylan’s authenticity.

I have never been able to get my head around the view that accords Love and Theft high critical acclaim while asserting that, in comparison, Modern Times and Together Through Life are poor and inauthentic. L & T is consistently funnier, for sure, and much of the humour reminds us of the playful Dylan of the mid sixties. But where, precisely, does one locate the inauthenticity of MT? What makes its lyrics any more or less authentic than what Dylan was writing at the height of his fame? What makes one of Dylan’s personae more or less authentic than another?

Perhaps it is because we think that Dylan’s canon is one large autobiography. Of course, if we did think that Dylan was writing about himself in his lyrics, then the question of authenticity would be easier to resolve. But it is patently not the case: few of his songs are any more about himself than Prufrock is about Eliot or My Last Duchess is about Browning. Dylan’s canon is no more about Dylans’s life than Shakespeare’s 30 + plays are about Shakespeare. [I am not trying to compare Dylan to Shakespeare, by the way – though he does share one incomparable gift with the bard: the ability to transform existing material into new forms and new and subtle meanings.]

And that brings me to the question of Chronicles. I too was disappointed when I first read about the inventions and the plagiarism. But then I thought, when has Dylan ever been prepared to reveal anything about his essence? Why would one expect the jokerman finally to come clean?

One of T.S. Eliot’s contributions to literature was the cult of impersonality. He might well have said of his writing “I’m not there” and he certainly would have understood an artist who wanted to proceed through his career “masked and anonymous”. The various Dylans of the last forty years remind me of Nick Carraway’s description of (the great) Gatsby’s life being “an unbroken series of successful gestures”. Okay, one can argue about ‘successful’ – the success has varied - but it is the long series of gestures, personae, incarnations, masks, etc that have made Dylan’s career endlessly fascinating.

So let’s judge the Dylan of the 2000s by the quality of his music, the expressiveness of his voice, the power of his lyrics, not by the question of authenticity, which is a blind. If this means readjusting, and enjoying Chronicles not as window into Dylan’s soul but as another of his fabulated creations, so be it.

And just for the record (and let’s not forget that Frank is the Key!), I think that Together Through Life offers us a coherent, consistent, warm and well successfully realised persona. This surely is what the personae of Nashville Skyline and New Morning might have aged into in all their gnarled and damaged glory: regretful, fearful, thankful, hopeful…

5:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

However, as someone who was recently upbraided for decrying the lack of “authenticity” while discussing a Dylan song (and praising its presence elsewhere) I would just like to point out that I never have (nor, knowing them as I do have Michael or Peter) refer to it in any way “because we think that Dylan’s canon is one large autobiography”.

For example I find Dylan singing “Waggoner’s lad” at the Beacon “authentic” in a way I do not feel from nearly all of Modern Times. Given his reputation as something of a misogynist I am aware this is quite a claim but it is how I feel and think and it does totally divorce us from the art-destroying sphere of autobiography. Of course it may just be to use Russell’s phraseology that what I am really saying is that I find the acting better in one case than the other. Perhaps, but perhaps when the acting is really “great” it is because it convinces us of something authentic, or reveals something authentic to us. The artifice of art touching some universal truth…ooops authentic/inauthentic art and subjective perceptions/objective truths; I fear the octopus’s tentacles are closing in. Goodnight!


9:20 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Homer, when I started to read your most recent comment and saw that you were addressing yourself to Russell, I assumed you'd be disputing his claim that Dylan is "an actor who writes his own lines." [my emphasis] It's a big subject, I know, but...

10:25 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Homer, I enjoyed reading your distinction between what you would regard as more authentic or less authentic in Dylan’s work, and I absolutely agree that when Dylan is at the top of his game he “reveals something authentic” to us. “The artifice of art touching some universal truth” is spot on (no octopus’s tentacles here!). That Dylan has so often achieved this in performance is what makes him some a powerful artist.

11:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Well, *some* of them are his own ;-) and I wanted to make the Waggoner's Lad cover point....Plus,
as you say a big subject, as is the one I did start to respond to, that I have started an article on that I'll share with you in due course.

Back to authenticity for a moment,
I read some fascinating comments from Leonard Cohen (in a new biography) today on how he sees this from the performer's point of view that I will type up and send on to this part of your blog tomorrow if at all possible.

best wishes, as ever

PS thanks for the kind words, Frank, however it would have read better if I hadn't somehow deleted the opening paragraph - which was particularly nice about your own comments. Hence my opening with "however"

10:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homer at your service: here are the relevant Cohen quotes re authenticity. i came across them in a new biography by Time Footman called "Hallelujah". it contains an excellent appendix on that very song and anothe appendix (I haven't got to it yet, on "Leonard and Robert".


I guess that's some kind of basic view I hold about the thing, that it doesn't really matter what the singer is speaking of, it doesn't really matter what the song is. There's something I listen for in a singer's voice and that's some kind of truth. It may even be truth of deception, it may even be the truth of the scam, the truth of the hustle in the singer's own presentation, but something is coming across that is true, and if that isn't there the song dies. And the singer deserves to die too, and will, in time, die. So the thing that I listen for is that note ofsomething big manifested that is beyond the singer control.


I don't like my recording of it, particularly... I wasn't in charge of my voice. But that also produces a kind of authenticity that some people find worthwhile or amusing or entertaining or even instructive. Just singing it the best you can.

1:38 pm  
Blogger mick said...

Well done, Peter. This is a great review, thanks for putting it online, Michael. It does what few reviews do these days, it listens carefully, and it acknowledges complex and contradictory reactions to the music. Like Peter, I’ve always had a secret love of Self Portrait. Once or twice I’ve tried to argue in print that it was superior to New Morning, and that Ralph Gleason and the whole gang of “we’ve got Dylan back again” critics got it fantastically wrong.

Peter talks about Dylan’s authenticity and tries to probe an unease that seems to have convulsed many senior Dylan critics (including Andrew Muir and Michael Gray) over Dylan’s recent albums, particularly Modern Times. (I think we can all agree that Together Through Life is cheerful waffle, lovely warm music and fairly lazy lyrics.)

Surely there are at least two varieties of authenticity at issue here. There is the authenticity that people like Ewan MacColl respected. The idea that a song was both moving and worth something morally and politically because it arose from the suffering and the experiences of the working people. This is an idea of authenticity that would lead MacColl and his fellow travellers to denounce Dylan at Newport in 1965, and BIABH as the inauthentic voice of a corrupt, commercial pop culture. In Sing Out, MacColl wrote of Dylan’s electric material, “Only a non-critical audience, nourished on the watery pap of pop music could have fallen for such tenth-rate drivel.”

Me and my friends loved Dylan for having the guts to see there was both a political and an aesthetic problem with strumming acoustic guitars and singing progressive sentiments. It didn’t accept chaos. There was a serious disjunction between idealistic middle class college kids with their folk music, and the chaos of modern culture and modern politics where a figure like LBJ did not fit into any obvious category of ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ politics. But he could be marvellously lampooned as the Commander in Chief who shouts, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.”

Then there is the authenticity of art that convinces you that it means something, and that your response to it matters, because it is so powerful. When Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, its weird fragmented imagery and evocation of a collapsing culture were so startling and powerful that young men and women heard it as the expression of the disillusionment of the post World War One generation in Britain and America. (The Voice of a Generation? Huh!) Eliot seems to have felt that the poem arose from his own personal crises, and that it had no wider social or political meaning, so he wrote that the poem had “validated their illusion of being disillusioned”.

Shakespeare’s art is powerful, I would argue King Lear is the greatest play in western literature, but who knows what Shakespeare ‘really’ thought? Many critics have commented on his mask like ability to articulate several different points of view simultaneously. It’s the same with Dylan. He’s great because his songs move us and can convey beauty and terror. Not because he really means it. He convinces you that he really means it through his art.

For me, that’s the fascinating sub-text of Theme Time Radio Hour. Scratch an ‘authentic’ blues or country record and you won’t find the honest toil of the rural proletariat, you’ll find showbiz. Scratch the product of some commercially successful singer such as Frank Sinatra, and you’ll find authenticity.

10:49 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I'd like to thank you ardently for the elegance of your absorbing exposition. A really tremendous contribution.

4:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Mick. Took the words out of my mouth and put a few new ones there as well.

Matthew Z

1:33 pm  

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