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Paul Morley on Bob Dylan. Part Two.

As this is a site that mostly celebrates improvised music, I was especially pleased to read Paul Morley’s appreciation of this aspect of Bob Dylan’s muse.

“…in the end, improvisation was a big part of how Dylan wrote and recorded songs” (page 37). Regarding ‘Talking World War 3 Blues’ (on Freewheelin’), the jazz critic Nat Hentoff observed that the song was “…half-improvised…the simpler a form, the more revealing it is of the essence of the performer…there is no place to hide in the talking blues”. Made in 1962, this comment is, of course, a precursor of the 'simple complexity’ of rap. Dylan’s singing/talking on Freewheelin’ is a perfect example of how supple and flexible his folk vocalese had become by the time of his second, almost entirely self-composed, album.

Bob Dylan has managed to wrong foot his soi disant 'dedicated fan base’ since 1964 or thereabouts. Let’s see, there was (leaving aside his ongoing live re-imagining of his 'classics’, which had discombobulated so many of the former):

1965: Pissing off the 'folkies’ by re-strapping on an electric guitar for the first side of Bringing It All Back Home. Apres this, le deluge of Highway 61 Revisited and Blond On Blonde.

1968: Alienating the 'psychedelic crew’ by birthing 'Americana’ on John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes. The 1969 Isle of Wight Festival gig caused further cognitive dissonance for 'Dylanologists’, the most celebrated of which was the very early “famous for being famous” non-celebrity, A.J. Weberman (current status not known, presumed utterly irrelevant). These were indeed the idiot daze.

1970: “What is this shit?” bemoans the sacred (or merely just scared?) Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus, appraising, in the most snotty way, one of the most (retrospectively, it must be said) celebrated-but-'misunderstood’ albums in rock history, Self Portrait. Marcus later had cause to make a grovelling re-appraisal in his notes to The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (but between grated teeth, as I read it).

1978: The 'Born Again Period’ caused much trouser-soiling in the post-punk critical establishment. You really couldn’t make up how furious the tragically hip were about Bob’s essential 'lapse’ into non-ironic fervour. “Nobody expected the Born Again Inquisition!!”

2009: The Xmas album, Christmas in the Heart. “What is this shit” 2.0?

2016: The 'Crooner Period", of American standards, WITS 3.0? (The greatest example of “taking a chance with love” of all, given how much of a pummelling his voice has always has?) Shadows of the Night emerged as a 'punk’ triumph of intent-over-restriction. From the punkiest of 'em all, the loser who “couldn’t sing” or even play his harmonica? Just as punk eventually acknowledged its forebears? Even Sid Vicious had the nous to pay homage to Frank Sinatra, however wonky was his eventual timeless crypto-tribute, My Way?

An iconoclastic spree indeed. Even more than Miles, Bob Dylan has continually invited, and risked ridicule, from his self-identified 'liberal’ base. The 'Born Again Period’ proved him to be essentially far more brave than his 'Electric Period’, in terms of how high were the horses that 1970s critics mounted in defense of their precious shibboleths of 'freedom’ (i.e. the freedom to completely reinforce their sixties Weltanschauungen?). Paul Morley completely gets this, and he puts forward the cases for Tarantula, Dylan’s 'novel’, not finally issued until 1972 (at a time when any Dylan material was food for his public, from what I remember), and his live spoken poem, 'Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie’ (contained within the first Bootleg album set). Both of these 'products’ have several pages devoted to them in Morley’s book (inappropriately, it could be argued, i.e. consisting of one largely forgotten novella and a short poem), and both could be seen as metonymies for the artist’s whole career, micro-communications that themselves 'contain multitudes’. Oblique observations like these do make Morley’s book well worth reading. (Any book which prioritises relatively minor works is bound to attract critical and public opprobrium, but hey...).

But this is, surely, somewhat of an exceptional artist…


Final part to follow...

Paul Morley on Bob Dylan: Part One.

“This isn’t, though, just a biography of Dylan, it is also about a man whom Morley clearly regards as a major cultural force: Paul Morley”.

These are indeed wise and perceptive words from just one review of the writer and cultural force’s new book on Bob Dylan, an unusual meeting of two very different wordsmiths and taste-makers, which I have just finished, and that I can recommend. Sort of. It’s called You Lose Yourself, You Reappear: Bob Dylan and the Voices of a Lifetime, and its basic shtick is that Dylan’s shapeshifting voice has been an important definer of his massively influential career. It’s also been, along with his harmonica playing, a feature of his work that has regularly garnered much criticism of the “he can’t sing” school. (Just like Derek Bailey “can’t play guitar”.)

Paul Morley has also garnered plenty of criticism of the “he can’t write” variety, ever since he emerged in the late 1970s pages of the New Musical Express (NME), alongside another ‘postmodern’/'cultural studies’ semi-icon, Ian Penman. Both have been lambasted for deliberate obscurity, excessive self-consciousness and self-referentiality (and uber-referentiality in general). Morley, in particular, wears his style on his sleeve, with his use of lists (to prove how clever and how big his record collection is, some say) and his pile-ups of repetitive allusions. It is impossible to ignore the sheer imbroglio of the writer’s style here, in contra-distinction to more established NME writers, of the time, who tended to unobtrusively 'disappear’ in their texts, such as the two Pauls, Du Noyer and Rambali, Max Bell and Charles Shaar Murray, to name but four 'proper journalists’. (Doesn’t it all seem such a long time ago, though?)

Dylan’s latest masterpiece, Rough and Rowdy Ways (RRW) released at the height of Lockdown 1.0, justifiably gets a lot of attention in the book, just as his first eponymous album of 1962 also does, the alpha and omega of his massive discography. “I Contain Multitudes” is the opening track of RRW, and Morley observes that “one voice is for the ordinary, the genius has many voices”, a Trumpian reflection that pretty much sums the book up. Like another artist who “can’t sing”, Tom Waits (“why don’t critics say the same things about Tom Waits?”, Dylan complains on page 87), Bob D. has accepted and welcomed the unavoidable changes in his voice over time, allowing it to" move with the times" (page 76). Morley’s attempts to make Dylan the vox version of Lon Chaney’s 'Man of 1000 faces’ doesn’t really do it for me, however,with the singer presented as an ultimately unknowable and inscrutable polymorph (as in the film I’m Not There?), with the simile of his 'voices’ as Russian dolls, one inside another, informing and reflecting one another.

Arguably, only Miles Davis, dead at 65 years of age, can equal Dylan in terms of his continually surprising and, most significantly, at the same time upsetting his fan base: “I have to change, it’s like a curse”, MD is supposed to have said. Such is the weight of genius, I suppose? Miles helped to kick start at least five jazz sub-genres, and Dylan, at 80 years of age, can be said to have been equivalently disruptive and prophetic over 60 years of (mostly) continuous innovation.


To be continued…

At Last Some Live Music! The London Improvisers Orchestra.

I’m looking at the cover of a London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) recording made exactly 20 years ago, Freedom of the City 2001. A ‘true’ big band, it consisted of 39 (!) contributing improvisers. Reflecting our more straightened times, the LIO that I saw at Iklectik on Sunday night consisted of just nine members. (Steve Beresford is the sole member of both iterations.) It was, of course, wonderful to be attending a live music event, and I was hence somewhat disappointed to count only nine audience members in total, i.e. one for each member of the group up front. (It was somehow satisfying to note that there were 3 female members in both the band and the audience.) It should also be noted that the venue had only put out around sixteen chairs in total, so it wasn’t as if the potential numbers would ever have presented a management problem for the staff. At £6.50 a ticket, it was almost a return to a Little Theater Club dynamic of the late 60s, a tiny audience (no audience on some occasions, I have heard) and tiny profit (if any) for venue and musicians. I must admit to finding it mind-boggling that there were so few people willing to shell out a few quid for an evening of challenging and varied music, but hey ho, that’s improv, I guess. Perhaps they were exhausted by the footie and Love Island?

We had two sets, the first starting with a collectively improvised piece, moving on to an interpretation of a graphic score by Caroline Kraebel ('Missing’), a quartet improvisation and finally a 'conduction’ led by Steve Beresford. In the second, we had vibraphonist Jackie Walduck’s slightly chaotic (not her fault!) '2 Noughts Equals 1.4’, another small (5 in all) group improv, and, to conclude, flautist Rowland Sutherland’s 'Attachment’. With only a few minor reservations, inevitable in the world of the freely composed, the time flew by, and I was impressed by the octet of musicians who I had been previously unfamiliar with (I do hope that I have got their names right): Sutherland himself, baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts (unfortunately slightly hesitant at times, I felt), trumpeter Dawid Fredryk (who, at one point, produced a Harmon mute, and began channelling Miles Davis), melodica player and announcer Douglas Benford (admittedly an unusual instrument, and one that generally tends to fail to gain traction in this sort of environment), cellist Khabat Abbas, violin/violist Ivor Kallin, the impressive percussionist Ansuman Biswas (who reminded me of Miles’ 1972 band member Badal Ray, who can be seen in a celebrated photo on the sleeve of Dark Magus), Jackie Walduck (whose instrument uncannily resembled an ironing board, a conceit that would have well suited the old Feminist Improvising Group of days of yore), and Steve Beresford himself, on piano and grey eminence. (I was particularly taken with Steve’s conduction piece; he always seems to conjure up some stardust when using this format, and musicians clearly respond in kind to his many creative prompts and articulations.)

Sorely missing live music, I would have been happy with almost anything, tbh, but I was generally enthralled by the performances on offer here, from a group of young improvisers obviously on differing stages of their own musical 'journeys’. Hopefully, I’m off to see guitarist N. O. Moore, in trio with reeds player Sue Lynch next Friday at the Hundred Years Gallery (HYG) in east London, but can anyone please tell me: how do venues and/or musicians make any money by charging £5 at the door (as HYG seem to be doing)? “Don’t give up your day jobs” was never more apposite when looking at the undervalued (and perhaps even self-undervaluing?) world of UK free improvisation? There will probably be continuing tough times ahead for this still marginalised music, and I, for one, will be offering up £10 at that particular door for the chance to attend the event. This gesture of mine (which is all it is) seems only fair, and I can only hope that others will bear in mind how lucky we are to be hearing this music for such a ludicrously cheap price? There is and will be a paucity of visiting European and American improvisers for the foreseeable future, so let’s make the most of our homegrown talent.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seed: Bogus Pomp?

“Tall, always wearing a suit, saturnine in countenance, having enjoyed prolonged narcotics use and making no secret of this ("utopiate!”), and cultivating a nostalgie de la boue image of the boho ‘outsider’ “

I could be talking about William S. Burroughs here, of course, or even one of his most self-conscious disciples, Will Self ('Hampstead Garden Suburb Gothic’ in his case, perhaps?), but on this occasion it’s Nick Cave, who has been far from taking time off during lockdown, releasing his Ally Pally solo performance of last year, Idiot Prayer, and also a new studio album, called, with typical reticence, Carnage, by Cave and his regular multi-instrumentalist confrere Warren Ellis. This duo has been manifesting for some time, what with them collaborating on several film soundtracks, and on the (brief, now discontinued?) side project Grinderman. (I could never work out if the latter was a gentle self-parody of Cave’s sometimes ambiguous sexual amorality, such as that alluded to on his version of Stagger Lee.)

Is this the way things will be from now on - Nick Cave and his Bad Seed?

I usually buy every non-soundtrack studio album that Cave releases, and count myself an avid fan, but it wasn’t always this way: I failed to 'get’ the first four Bad Seeds albums (having previously loved The Birthday Party to death). I found the 'Southern Gothic’/'Tupulo Elvis’ shtick annoying and mannered in the extreme, having earlier felt exactly the same about Tom Waits, at least until the latter’s dual triumphs of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. However, I experienced a Damascene conversion on hearing Cave’s 1988 Tender Prey, and particularly enjoyed (Murder Ballads excepting, with Bob Dylan’s Death Is Not the End very clearly the standout track) Cave’s subsequent 'run’, up to, and, especially, 1997’s 'all-killer, no-filler’ The Boatman’s Call (his greatest, and certainly most consistent, work?) After the latter, he took some sort of sabbatical, and, since the disappointingly weak No More Shall We Part (2001) and Noctorama (2003), his work has been infuriatingly uneven. (I’ve always thought that Mick Harvey’s departure in 2010 contributed to the ever-increasing diminution in quality of the Cave output.)

Of course, the death of Cave’s teenage son, Arthur, in 2015, occasioned an unimaginable caesura, and Cave hence seemed incapable, or unwilling, to write songs that have any pace beyond the funereal. It thus seems unlikely that we will hear the likes of The Mercy Seat or Let Love In again. While this might seem entirely appropriate given the circumstances, and latter day tracks like Lavender Fields, Waiting For You and Bright Horses remain luminescent, moving and beautiful, the album trio of Skeleton Tree, Ghosteen and now Carnage present a static caravan of gloom, 'lightened’ by an overall sense of an aching, painful yearning for some kind of transcendence.

Sadly (only for me, that is, perhaps), some of my earlier doubts about the Cave project have re-emerged with Carnage. "It’s OK” is all I can really say, and I very much doubt if I will be listening it much in a few month’s time. The fourth track, White Elephant, seems, for me, to be a synecdoche for the whole album. Firstly, I am 'completely over’ Cave’s use of guns and gynocidal grande guignol in his lyrics, a trope which hugely put me off Murder Ballads, which I found ludicrously and humourlessly overblown, utterly tasteless and musically uninteresting, a (man)nerd shlock for hopeless hipsters. The power of this particular Bad Seeds iteration seemed to totally protect Cave from it’s sheer bad faith, with full credit to his great band. (Cave’s trope of his “his little pen knife…plugged her through and through”, on Henry Lee however, was a teeny weeny bit of a give away as to somewhat Trumpian underlying anxieties ?)

For one, I find the sound of a prosperous middle-class white man in his mid-60s singing “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face if you think of coming round here… I will shoot you in the face if you so much as look at me”, faintly preposterous and definitely “not a good look”. Cave merely sounds a bit mad and/or irritable here, as opposed to 'bad’ or even 'dangerous to have a morning coffee in Brighton Marina with". There are far too many reminders of Murder Ballads here for me, with the latter’s utterly asinine O'Malley’s Bar as the prime witness for the summing up of the prosecution. (I’m well aware that 'anger’ is one of stages of the Kubler-Ross grief framework, but really?) Many will find this Carnage version of Cave no doubt somehow 'authentic’, as they may do with such modish lyrics as “a protester kneel(ing) on the neck of a statue, the statue says I can’t breath…”. For me, though, they strain credibility and sound rather desperate for contemporary relevance and resonance.

I became especially exasperated by the 'gospel choir’ of the coda to the fourth track, White Elephant (in the room?). Now, Cave can do choirs, as he proved with the likes of O Children on 2004’s The Lyre of Orpheus (again, a maddeningly inconsistent album), but White Elephant is purely an exercise in sheer bombast, and, it is, yes, bathetic (and fundamentally unnecessary, in terms of the album’s overall affect/effect). 'Mannered’ just about sums it up, I’m afraid, and Frank Zappa’s phrase 'bogus pomp’ immediately presented itself to me, like an unwanted mind fart. I’ve always, even on Cave’s greatest recordings, thought that swearing and shooting women in the face are neither big nor cool gestures, evidence perhaps that I have an excessive and intrusively 'woke’ superego? Or maybe that Nick Cave still has, and still has, a problem with aggressive gun fantasies involving the women?

Listening to Bob Dylan’s genuinely transcendent latest work (prompted by Paul Morley’s new book, which I intend to look at next), I realised that the notion of shooting people can be addressed in a genuinely ambiguous (not postmodern) and thoughtful way. Similarly, conflicts with women don’t have to be resolved by whipping out double barrelled penis substitutes, and seemingly luxuriating in feeble 'pen knife’ hostility.

I look forward to Nick Cave moving on and upwards. If not, then I’m afraid that “I’m out”, as the Dragon’s Den say.

The Architectonics of The Fall. Part the Second.

Mark Fishers article (pp. 151-169), Memorex for the Kraken, in Excavate! is at the centre of the book, literally and metaphorically, even down to its M.E. Smith - like title. Fisher, rather helpfully, manages to subvert his own arguments, by opining that:

“…(Smith’s) notes and press releases (i.e. his ‘para-texts’) were no more intelligible than the songs that they were supposed to explain”.

You could say the same about Sun Ra’s poetry or Anthony Braxton’s paratextual song 'titles’. I love further Fisher comments such as:

“…goblets of linguistic detritus, direct from the unmediated unconscious, unfiltered by any sort of reflexive subjectivity”.

The same has been said about dada poetry, Burroughs’s 'cut ups’ and other plethora of spoken word avantism. It’s very tongue-tripping diction, but what did Smith make of this sort of “academic thingy”? To her eternal credit, Brix Smith seemed to 'earth’ Smith somehow. with her “subliminal pop-harmony choruses”. Michael Bracewell was left with his fanciful imaginings of “bad nights in a working man’s club in Wakefield” or “vituperative Manchester lorry drivers”. This is rather absurd, like Oscar Wilde pontificating and fantasising about Emile Zola’s chosen subject matter, but has gifted Fall-watchers with various 'classist’ misattributions ever since. (Bracewell’s chapter in his This Is England essays is Exhibit A in this regard). The middle class press continued to regard the 'working class’ in retro-powered awe, as seen in the Oasis 'controversy’ (with Blur presented somehow as 'inauthentic’) of the mid-90s, with the Gallagher brothers presenting themselves as the ultimate 'anti-woke’ warriors, despite their moving, as quick as their eyebrows allowed them, down to London. (’Join the Capital’?) M.E. Smith predated their shtick by 15 years. But at least he knew his place. Unlike the aspirational Burnage twins, he barely moved away from his place of birth, Prestwich, for any length of time, apart from a brief time in Edinburgh (celebrated in the great Edinburgh Man, one of Smith’s most straightforward and directly honest tracks).

Both Michael Bracewell and Mark Fisher equate The Fall with “great art” (“the ability to provoke and doubt, simultaneously”, an utterly
unnecessary equivalence if there ever was one.) Smith’s incoherence ultimately rendered the group as aesthetically flawed; they were 'merely’ a great rock band, in the final analysis. “Whenever I say something, I often think the opposite as true as well”: this is a comment of the pub smart arse, not a great artist, and Smith’s lyrics are ultimately autodidactically incoherent (no offense here meant for either quality). It is possible, nay probable, that Smith became so arrogant because the “Southern white middle-class crap” put him on the pedestal of working class iconoclasm, a position that the Prestwich (i)mage undoubtedly reinforced and condoned.

So, Excavate! is not really a multi-faceted history of The Fall that I’d like. It over-focuses on the 'early days’, it downplays the role of female participants, it exaggerates certain literary influences and ignores the precipitous decline of the 'later years’. But, in the end, if you are a Fall fan, you will find much within these pages to enjoy. As ever with The Fall, there is much, much more to tell, but this blog format demands some brevity.

The ultimate Fall book still awaits us!! “M.R. James be born, be born…Sludge Hai Choi”!!

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.