Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pop Muzak

[That's Bob Dylan jamming with Larry Campbell at Irving Plaza in 1997. That year Bob was hospitalized for heart problems related to a typically Mid Western condition that arises from breathing too much dust. So is this a before or after shot?]

I'm reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles and came across this spectacular quote on pop music:

"Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way."

That makes me think of my own music, which I've been fashioning lately on Garage Band and Fruityloops under the name Two Eyes Meet Redux. Most of it is about something--love, death, war, my old, insane roommates. But if Dylan heard my tunes, he'd probably think them indulgent and largely vacant. If someone else told me that, I'd brush it off, maybe gloat a little. But to read any comment from Bob Dylan on my music would likely just be flattering.

Enough of that, though. I have a bit of information that probably set Lang's Livejournal on fire: the eminent music historian Greil Marcus is teaching a lecture called Old, Weird America at the New School. On the first day of class, Greil told us that Bob Dylan will be a whisper in our ears throughout the semester.

The other day, after discussing how murder ballads usually take place on the banks of the Ohio river, Greil related to us the first time he had seen Bob Dylan perform. (Evidently this is something he's written about, but I'll indulge you anyway.)

The year was 1963 and he goes to see Joan Baez--an artist "more specter than body," he says--play a concert on a round stage, which rotates for every artist to evoke an equality among performers.

Bob Dylan steps up to some other guy's stage. He looks covered in dust. "You couldn't tell anything about him," Greil says. But you want to know who he is. With his gnarling, twisting howl of a voice, Bob plays a song called "With God on Our Side," which starts out, "Oh my name it is nothing/My age it means less."

Bob tells the history of America through war: the slaughter of the Indians, the Spanish-American war, the Civil War, the First World War, then finally the Cold War. This was a story, Greil says, the audience knew well--at least, if they learned under America's public education system. Looking at the lyrics, his story is true even today. Just look at the verse on World War I:

"Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side."

I was an International Baccalaureate student and even by senior year of high school, my classmates and I wondered what the whole Great War was about. Franz Ferdinand, right? Ottoman what?

All of these wars, Bob sings, are waged with the blessing of God. Yet, each line is infused with just an "edge of doubt," Greil says. Bob caps it all with, "If God's on our side / He'll stop the next war." These were disillusioning years, indeed. In a few verses, Greil says, Bob was "confirming your identity, and he was taking it away."

After the show, Greil walks up to Bob, who is squatting on the dirt ground and trying to light a cigarette. "Wow," Greil says. "You were terrific."

"Nah, I was shit," Bob mutters. "I was shit."

Dumbstruck, Greil turns and walks away.

Bob was 22. "To an 18 year old like me," Greil says, "that was someone who was very, very old."

Thinking back, Greil suggests that Bob Dylan is a specter, too--as thrilling an iconic image as it is disappointing. "Dylan has refused to give people what they paid for." Let's just say he's complicated. Greil describes Bob's first show after a long bout of hiding, on a 1979 tour. "It was like watching someone who had been frozen." Horrible. A zombie performance. At the beginning and end of each song, Dylan's followers from the Church make bizarre shrieking sounds. There is no encore, little applause.

But after the show, Greil catches Bob playing a pretty little melody on a piano in the theater, over and over again. People file back inside, then Bob goes into a heartfelt rendition of "Pressing On." Jesus Christ revives Bob Dylan. Dylan's faith offers a unique groove, of its own aura. Greil says he lacks a certain sensibility to fully appreciate such music.

I'm in the 1980s section of Chronicles. Strangely enough, he got his picture taken at Jerusalem while wearing a skull-cap, but he hasn't mentioned Jesus Christ.

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