Although my dad has been needling me for years to do more Dylan reviews, this time he didn’t have to ask. Bob Dylan was the obvious choice to break my American Boycott, for three important reasons:
- Many Americans believe he is the greatest poet of his generation, especially the Baby Boomers (though Dylan was born a few months before Pearl Harbor and fails to qualify as a Boomer). His status as a poet is still subject to debate, as demonstrated by the rather defensive argument given by Professor Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy when she announced that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature: “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.” This implies she had already received some blowback from academics outraged by the selection of someone who had the audacity to put lyrics to music. “Poetry is for reading!” I can hear the old farts blubbering. I attribute that reaction to natural memory loss, since the Greek poets had combined words and song over two millennia ago, in the form of lyric poetry.
- Whether you like his work or not, he has had an undeniably powerful influence on the course of popular music by extending its range to include subject matter beyond romance and novelty. More than any other artist, Bob Dylan made lyrics matter, vastly improving the quality of music in multiple genres.
- Finally, Dylan has repeatedly proven himself to be a true blue American by appearing in commercials for Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret and Chrysler.
The Chrysler commercial really hit a nerve. Super Bowl ads invariably attract the greatest number of viewers, but the Pepsi ad was also a Super Bowl ad and didn’t come close to generating the buzz of the Chrysler spot. Methinks the uproar had more to do with the method of delivery than the message. In his first two appearances as a shill, Dylan simply provided the music (doing a “Forever Young” duet with Will.I.Am. for Pepsi; crooning “Love Sick” to Adriana Lima in the Victoria Secret ad). In the Chrysler spot, he narrated the entire two-minute pitch. Because recorded interviews with Bob Dylan are as rare as coherent thoughts from Donald Trump, millions of people watching the commercial had probably never heard him speak. Given that many of those viewers had elevated Dylan to god-like status years before, the impact must have been similar to the shock of the Japanese populace when Emperor Hirohito’s voice crackled over the fragile airwaves to announce the surrender. DYLAN SPEAKS! THE EMPEROR SPEAKS! SILENCE IN THE HOUSE! HEED THE WORDS OF THE EMPEROR!
After one minute of silence accompanied only by the sound of guacamole and chips making contact with teeth and gums, angry viewers wailed in unison: “DYLAN HAS SOLD OUT!” In the morning they woke up to news rags of all stripes screaming “DYLAN SELLS OUT!” A more reasoned analysis by Ruben Navarette unearthed the layers of hypocrisy in Dylan’s core message of American pride: “Let Germany brew your beer,” he says. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” The simple fact that Chrysler had been recently purchased by Fiat pretty much demolished the “Buy American” message. Dylan was certainly guilty of “nostalgic manipulation,” calling up an image of America that died in the 1970s when the bosses of the big automakers ignored the threat of reliable high-mileage cars rolling off the assembly lines in once-defeated and desolate Japan. Dylan defenders could argue that the ad formed a subversive message of support for the guys and gals on the assembly lines screwed by blind management and a dumb trade policy that failed to protect their jobs, but the bottom line is that the cultural icon of the anti-establishment 60s, a man who consistently protested the excesses of capitalism and exposed the system as a massive get-rich-quick scheme open to insiders only, made a nice chunk of change on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday.
So yeah, Dylan is a sellout, but who the fuck in America hasn’t “sold out” at one time or another? Having grown up and lived most of my life in the land of Old Glory, I can personally attest that I cannot recall a single acquaintance who either wasn’t a sellout or who would have gladly sold themselves out if given the opportunity. It’s a matter of degree: some people would sell out their mothers and any shred of decency lingering within their damaged psyches for the big payoff, but the vast majority of us sell out in a more socially-acceptable manner: by giving up our dreams and compromising our values the moment we take a job we don’t really want. Well, shit, you’ve got to pay the rent and put food on the table, right? And once you’ve made that deal with the devil, oh my—look at all the things you can buy now! Have some more credit! Consume, consume, consume! I’ve been there, you’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Americans are wired to try to make a buck—it’s part of the cultural DNA. In taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity, Dylan’s behavior was in perfect alignment with the values and priorities of the vast majority of Americans, giving his status as a true American poet even greater credibility. Dylan spent most of his peak years attacking and satirizing the system, but he also understood that he had to live within that system, and like everyone else, played the angles to the best of his ability. Just because he chose to exploit the opportunities provided by fame doesn’t make his social commentary and observations on the state of the human race any less meaningful.
Sorry, but sellouts have no right to call anyone else a sellout, so give poor Bob a break here. He’s only one guy, and one guy can’t change the world. Much of his early work was geared towards trying to motivate his Baby Boomer listeners to get up off their asses and make the world a better place. And that effort did yield demonstrable progress in many areas (until the Boomers got scared and voted in Reagan and Trump, undoing half the progress they made).
Dylan’s desire to expose the system as an inhuman creation of human beings still runs hot throughout Highway 61 Revisited, and the movement away from protest songs so apparent on Bringing It All Back Home is now complete. In its place are vignettes that dramatize the unfairness and absurdity of it all. Although sometimes his symbolist leanings lead to little more than wordplay, the best songs—er, poems—are marked by powerful imagery pregnant with meaning.
“Like a Rolling Stone” was a breakthrough for Dylan in many ways, for at the time of its composition he was seriously considering tossing his musical career down the shithole. He told Playboy, “Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation . . . But ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ changed it all. I mean it was something that I myself could dig. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.” What began as “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long” eventually turned into one of the most influential singles ever written, and convinced Dylan to stick with songwriting. During the months leading to its creation, he had developed the practice of sitting in front of the typewriter and dumping everything that came into his head onto paper. This cleansing ritual helped rid his brain of various expectations, overbearing influences and miscellaneous crap, enabling him to find his own voice within the muck. And I mean “voice” literally and figuratively—I’ve never considered Dylan much of a singer (she said in a tone that communicated understatement), but on “Like a Rolling Stone” he sings with absolute clarity and confidence, like a man who has found his true calling.
On one level, the piece is the ultimate karma’s-a-bitch song, with Dylan seemingly taking pleasure at Miss Lonely’s plummet from privilege. And while I certainly don’t buy the interpretation pitched by Jann Wenner that the song celebrates the poor woman’s liberation, I don’t accept Dylan’s offhand comment that the song is mainly about revenge. To my ears, the lyrics are a justifiable expression of outrage at the obliviousness of the wealthy, white and privileged when it comes to the suffering and resentment they generate. For me, the core couplet of the song appears at the beginning of the third verse:
Ah, you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
It’s that kind of obliviousness that earned Marie Antoinette a trip to the guillotine, the ugly fuel that feeds the justifiable resentment of the underclasses against an arbitrary system based on inheritance and tradition. That such an arrangement is allowed to exist in an allegedly democratic society is a fucking outrage. I think of the British, still under the rule of Etonians and Oxonians who have peddled the bullshit quality of their “superior” education for centuries. The truth is much more prosaic:
Ah you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Her fall from grace, occasioned by one of the many frauds who prey on the leisure class, is depicted in terrifying fashion, and any empathy we feel for Miss Lonely comes from the vivid description of her new life at rock bottom:
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
She has no choice but to sell herself for money, because of the uninformed and oblivious choices she made while riding high:
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
You may notice that there’s no evidence that Miss Lonely has learned a damned thing. Dylan doesn’t supply us with an appendix or a sequel describing how she rose from the mat and became a passionate social activist dedicated to eliminating income inequality and social injustice. Instead, he leaves her in the cold streets, devoid of understanding, clueless as to how she got there, another life trying to survive in the darkness, surrounded by society’s castoffs, part of an underclass created by an upper class that couldn’t care less.
The music that accompanies “Like a Rolling Stone” serves its purpose by providing Dylan an open stage to recite his lyrics. Mike Bloomfield was on a tight leash (Dylan told him he “didn’t want any of that B. B. King stuff”), and his contribution is appropriately pedestrian. Al Kooper lost his guitar slot once Bloomfield entered the picture, and over the protests of producer Tom Wilson, slipped into the mix on the organ. His contribution can be easily reproduced by any church-going grandma with a cheap portable electronic keyboard. The most impactful decision came early on, with the change from 3/4 to 4/4 time, unstiffening the flow and aligning the music with rock sensibilities (you can hear the “waltz” version on Volume 2 of The Bootleg Series, and it’s bloody awful). “Like a Rolling Stone” smashed paradigms about song length and subject matter in rock music, and remains one damned fine piece of work.
With a few notable exceptions, the music on Highway 61 Revisited is unremarkable, but hey, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, not music (no, there isn’t a Nobel for music, but he wouldn’t have been under consideration had there been one). Half the songs are little more than standard blues progressions or variations thereof, beginning with “Tombstone Blues.” Though Bloomfield gets in a few good licks during the presentation, the rest of the band (including Dylan) seem to spend most of the time struggling to keep with the choppy, high-speed rhythm. The struggle has nothing to do with the chords, which add up to a grand total of two. The lyrics fall into the symbolist-surreal camp without much in the way of concrete imagery, and the listener leaves the table hungry for meaning. It’s one of those Dylan songs that have a few good lines you can quote to enliven a dull conversation; of those, the last verse takes home the gold:
Now, I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
Ironic that these lines appear in a song largely bereft of melody. While it’s tough to follow a masterpiece, “Tombstone Blues” would be a poor choice no matter where it appeared on the tracklist.
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” features an easy, loping beat with a last-call honkytonk feel courtesy of Paul Griffin on piano and the rhythm section of Harvey Brooks (delivering a rather cheeky and playful bass line) and Bobby Gregg on drums. Though my usual reaction to a Dylan harmonica solo is “Hurry up and move on, Bob,” this one is well played and features a fantastic flourish at the end, as if he’d like to have another go-round. In addition to providing Steely Dan with the title of their debut album, the song foreshadows his deeper exploration of country sounds in John Wesley Harding. And though I wish his use of sexual metaphor could have been a little more explicit (or more complete with the introduction of a tunnel for that train to slide into), I deeply appreciate the line, “I want to be your lover baby, I don’t want to be your boss,” an emphatic rejection of all those early rock songs that made a big deal about making a girl “mine.”
The second attempt at blues-based rock, “From a Buick 6” doesn’t fare much better than the first—it’s a stiff presentation, in large part due to Harvey Brooks’ annoying make-sure-you-hit-all-the-right-notes bass part. Dylan seems to have fun singing about his shotgun-equipped squeeze who puts up with his shit and pulls his ass out of various jams, but “From a Buick 6” is not one of his most memorable works.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” certainly is. In order to appreciate the context of the song, I suggest you crank up your cable TV with its thousands of channels and find one of the networks airing old sitcoms around the clock. You’ll want to find episodes of three shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Notice the manicured lawns and manicured white people. Pay attention to the routines, and how the boys raid the refrigerator after a long day at school, how the dads sit in their easy chairs and read the afternoon paper after a hard day at work (except Ozzie—does anyone know what the fuck he did for a living?), how the family all sits down together for a dinner of meat, vegetables, potatoes and milk, how the neighbors drop in without knocking and are invariably greeted with a smile, how the moms are always in dresses and have plenty of time on their hands to make the beds and straighten up the living rooms without breaking a sweat. Pay particular attention to the characters of Ricky, Bud and Beaver, the three boys most likely to cause “trouble” by getting into “scrapes,” and how dad (or mom, on rare occasions) gets them out of the fix and wraps it up by giving them fatherly advice related to one of life’s lessons—all of which have to nothing to do with helping the boys find their true selves, but have everything to do with enforcing conformity to social norms that reflect the American ideal.
This was the America of Mr. Jones, a society where everyone knew their roles, where everyone adopted a very narrow definition of right and wrong, where everyone followed a routine, where everyone watched the same shows, where everyone’s goal was to try their very best to be a “good” father, mother, son, daughter, businessman, housewife, etc. That was the America that sucked the life out of early rock ‘n’ roll, the America that assigned degrading roles to women and people of color, the America that worked diligently to create a predictable, safe environment for its citizenry.
The façade began to crack in 1963 due to the Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy Assassination, two events that shattered the manufactured image of American perfectionism. Women, equipped with The Pill and lessons from The Feminine Mystique, began to assert themselves in unfeminine, unpredictable ways. By 1965, the world of the Nelsons, Andersons and Cleavers seemed on the “eve of destruction,” and all those Mr. Joneses (Ozzie, Jim and Ward) who had built their lives around a very specific set of rules and the virtue of predictability proved themselves completely incapable of comprehending it all:
You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The verses in “Ballad of a Thin Man” form a series of nonsensical interactions, sort of like distorted takes on “Who’s on First” that evoke terror instead of laughter. What is most terrifying to Mr. Jones is that his “proper” education, where success is measured not by critical thinking ability but the ability to memorize certain “truths” and regurgitate them during the final exam, has left him completely unprepared to deal with the unexpected:
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The unusually complex chord pattern (for Dylan) clearly indicates a song written on piano, as the contortions necessary to pull off that F#augBb in the second position on a guitar is itself a paradigm-breaker, whereas it’s a simple adjustment on a keyboard. Kooper’s horror-movie organ enhances the other-worldly feel of the song to the nth degree. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomfield plays his supporting role to perfection with nimble complementary counterpoint mixed with shimmery vibrato chords. Dylan’s vocal has all the right touches, and you can tell he’s on his game in the first verse:
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
(laugh) You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
That little laugh feels like, “You’re kidding, right? You don’t know how to explain a naked man to your wife? Uh . . . hasn’t she ever seen one?” Perhaps not. It was twin beds/lights out for Rob and Laura, after all.
Flipping over to Side Two, we get “Queen Jane Approximately,” which most have interpreted as a softer version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” with the main character awash in the emptiness of a life based on materialism and the “need” to impress others. The difference is that Queen Jane’s story takes place before the crash, giving Dylan the opportunity to offer himself as her savior. The problem with the accepted interpretation of the song is Dylan’s response to Nora Ephron (cited in Andy Gill’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right) that “Queen Jane is a man.” At first glance, Dylan’s assertion smells like bullshit, but after turning the lyrics upside down and inside out in my head for weeks, I realized I was attempting to interpret the song through contemporary norms regarding LGBTQ relationships, forgetting that the song was written over four years before the Stonewall Riots when homosexuals were considered persona non grata.
Viewing the song through that lens changes everything. Instead of viewing Queen Jane as some form of debutante bored with it all and dealing with her looming old maid status by refusing to see anyone, the line “When your mother sends back all your invitations” becomes a mother’s painful rejection of a son for his immoral, socially-unacceptable behavior. The interpretation gains more validity in the third verse, especially when you remember that homosexuality was described as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the DSM as late as 1973:
When all of your advisers heave their plastic
At your feet to convince you of your pain
Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic
Some of the “treatments” prescribed by mental health “advisers” to “cure” homosexuality were indeed “drastic,” including electro-convulsive therapy applied to the brain and genitals, castration and lobotomies. Given that Dylan spent his more focused formative years in the Village, he would have been acutely aware of the existence of the homosexual underclass and their struggles. So while I could be completely off-base by interpreting the song through my personal lens of bisexuality, let me point out the obvious: when you hear the word “queen,” what comes to mind after you’ve emptied your memory of British female monarchs, Freddie Mercury and the four suits in a deck of cards?
Proving that “third time’s the charm” isn’t just an exhausted cliché, Dylan and his pals finally hit pay dirt in the field of blues-based rock with “Highway 61 Revisited.” Though now truncated and merged with various interstate and US highways, Highway 61 is best known as the Blues Highway; the intersection with US-49 is the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly offered up his soul to Satan. At the time the song was written, the road stretched from the Delta to Duluth, where Dylan was born (the cutoff is now in the center of Minnesota, in the town of Wyoming). In Dylan’s imagination, Highway 61 is the place to go if you want to accomplish something that either a.) falls outside the boundaries of socially unacceptable behavior or b.) falls outside of society’s capabilities. It’s the ultimate back-channel for making things happen.
The steady, rollicking beat gives a singer lots of flexibility with their phrasing, and Dylan takes full advantage of that opportunity. Combined with his use of American vernacular (as opposed to high-falutin’ ”poetic” language), his phrasing reminds me of a street corner storyteller, a guy whose flair for language draws a crowd of regulars who gather ’round to hear his latest riffs. In the first verse, he transforms the story of Abraham and Isaac into a tale anyone can relate to through his use of everyday language, his depiction of a religious icon as an Average Joe and conversational phrasing with pauses and emphases in all the right places:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61”
Beneath the fun and language games you’ll find pointed commentary on the state of things in 60’s America. Georgia Sam in verse two (likely a reference to Blind Willie McTell) is a black man desperate to escape something (a lynch mob, the troopers, whatever) and asks poor Howard about an escape route. As Howard is carrying a gun, we can assume that Howard is poor and white; if so, we’re left wondering whether his directions to Highway 61 will lead Georgia Sam to freedom or to his demise. Verse three satirizes American consumerism and the useless junk left in its wake; the fourth takes on the myth of the American nuclear family. The last verse held special meaning for a populace living under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the real-time escalation of the American presence in Vietnam, but Dylan’s insight is even more relevant today, given the presence of the roving gambler in the White House and the sycophants who eagerly do his bidding:
Now, the roving gambler he was very bored
Trying to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said, “I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes, I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61”
Though I wish Dylan had eased up on the siren whistle after a while, “Highway 61 Revisited” qualifies as both a hoot and a storytelling masterpiece.
Dylan songs often improve when other people sing them, and I do prefer Judy Collins’ rendition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” on In My Life with its varied instrumentation featuring winds and pizzicato strings. That said, Dylan’s version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” somehow feels more intimate and true-to-life. Integrating bits of Rimbaud, Kerouac, Poe and Hank Williams, the tale describes the experience of a painter (according to Mr. Dylan) who (like nearly every American expat who chose Mexico as their getaway destination) finds himself the victim of what he might define as “gringo exploitation,” but is more accurately the alienation he feels as a stranger in a strange land, where the exploiter has now become the exploited, where Americans are viewed with suspicion and distrust:
Sweet Melinda, the peasants call her the goddess of gloom
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room
And you’re so kind and careful not to go to her too soon
And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon
His attempt to distance himself from the culture through an attitude of cultural superiority hasn’t worked (“And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through”), and since he doesn’t want to wind up like Angel (“Who looked so fine at first but left looking just like a ghost”), he decides to move on: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” Good call, dude.
Now we arrive at the single reason why I have resisted reviewing Highway 61 Revisited with every fiber of my being: eleven minutes and twenty-four seconds of “Desolation Row.” The listening experience is a drag; the music rarely varies (three chords, I-IV-V); and the one notable variation—a Marty Robbins-like “latin-flavored” guitar counterpoint courtesy of Charlie McCoy—gets tiresome after the third verse. Geez, Bob, couldn’t you have pulled something out of the Johnny Cash Playbook and changed the key a couple of times? The lack of a narrative discourages continuing disinterest; the song is just ten stanzas of poetry randomly thrown together connected only by their proximity to Desolation Row. New York Times critic Robert Shelton watched Dylan perform the piece in concert and described it “another of Mr. Dylan’s musical Rorschachs capable of widely varied interpretation . . . It can best be characterized as a ‘folk song of the absurd’.”
I tend to agree, but getting back to the Swedish Academy justification for the Nobel Prize, the poem generally reads well. Some of the stanzas click; others seem overwrought; some feel like gibberish. I suggest you skip the album track, read the poem and pick your favorite verse. As I’m forever interested in the subject of gender within culture, my favorite is the second verse:
Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one, ” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
I always thought Romeo was an asshole and I hope the ambulances mean that Cinderella kicked his entitled male ass.
Highway 61 Revisited usually appears in the top ten in those greatest albums of all-time lists—lists that are still largely compiled by Baby Boomers. Although the reasoning behind those lists is fundamentally flawed (appreciation of a given piece of music is always affected by mood and individual experience), I can fully understand why the album has achieved such lofty status. In the context of 1965, Highway 61 Revisited was the ultimate mind-blower, an integration of folk, blues and rock loaded with compelling lyrics—lyrics that were light years ahead of anything else on the charts, lyrics that caused people to stop and re-think “reality.” What blows my mind is that there was once a period in modern history when producing intelligent, thought-provoking music resulted in mass-market acceptance and commercial success.
Hard to imagine that now.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of entering the management ranks is that your bosses will always recommend their favorite business books. Luckily, I learned pretty quickly that you actually don’t have to read the damned things. All you have to do is skim a couple of chapters or glance at the liner notes to get the essence of any business book and dazzle your superiors with the meager nuggets of wisdom dispensed by self-styled management gurus:
Now Discover Your Strengths: Do what you’re good at (assuming you can find a job that pays for whatever it is you’re good at).
Situational Leadership: People are different and need to be managed differently. Duh.
The Leadership Challenge: Stuff your ego up your ass and listen to your employees. Double duh.
The Five Dysfunctions of Team: People can’t work together unless they trust each other and stop being assholes. Triple duh.
The tome I found most offensive was Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. It is neither amazing nor revelatory that human beings resist change. “The quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese,” advises Dr. Spencer Johnson, ridiculous advice for people who happen to like cheddar and gag at the smell of gorgonzola. He assumes that all change is good, which is so far from the truth that I wonder if he received his doctorate from Trump University.
Yes, some people resist any change with every fiber of their being because they’re either too lazy or stupid to learn new things or see things in different ways. But what Dr. Johnson (who has a vested interest in kissing management ass) fails to acknowledge is that people who actually work in organizations resist change because most of the changes initiated by management are dumb fucking ideas.
Speaking of dumb fucking management, the suits at EMI didn’t like the idea that Blur wanted to move their cheese away from Britpop towards a post-grunge, lo-fi American indie sound. They were terrified that Blur’s stylistic metamorphosis would alienate their loyal fan base. Some argued that Blur were about to commit commercial suicide [gasp!].
Huh. A couple of years ago I would have said “Blur was” rather than “Blur were.” I’m sounding more and more like a Brit every day. I’m gobsmacked.
And that’s a good word to describe the reaction of EMI management to the news that the lead single, “Beetlebum,” went straight to #1 and Blur followed suit on the album charts. Blur also did reasonably well in the United States (#61), where “Song 2” made it to #6 on the alternative rock chart.
Though producer Stephen Street claimed that “Blur had decided that commercial pressures and writing hit singles wasn’t going to be the main consideration anymore,” a glance at the timeline suggests otherwise. Oasis had moved the needle on Britpop to a harder rock sound with Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, becoming the darlings of the British music press in the process. Damon Albarn had already dismissed The Great Escape as a “messy release” and was looking for a way forward. Graham Coxon had gone into full rejection mode as far as Britpop was concerned, filling his ears with fourth-generation Pixies-influenced American bands and urging his mates to let loose.
The most noticeable difference is in the band’s attitude towards the music. Graham Coxon noted, “It was the first time we sort of jammed. We’ve never really jammed before. We’ve been quite white-coaty, overall about recording, like in a laboratory. Yeah, we did actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting.” Modern Life Is Rubbish had already indicated the band could rock pretty hard when they felt like it; on Blur, they would devote a whole lot of recording space to letting it fucking rip. Sometimes the looseness goes too far, resulting in energy-sapping, self-indulgent crapola, and in the end, Blur is something of a mixed bag, more an escape from Britpop than a coherent artistic statement.
Speaking of Modern Life Is Rubbish, I have the same quibble with Blur that I did with that album: the selection of the opening track. In this case, my quibble may be more controversial because it involves the vastly popular “Beetlebum.” To put it as gently and respectfully as possible, I hate this fucking song. Perhaps it’s the dumb words (even Albarn couldn’t tell you what a beetlebum is); perhaps it’s the faux-sexy, heroin chic a la the Velvet Underground (Damon and Justine were in their “white period” at the time); or maybe it’s the obvious late-period Beatles influence—Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic claimed the song covers “The White Album in the space of five minutes.” I like The White Album about as much as I like “Beetlebum,” and though I don’t often agree with Erlewine, I think he was onto something here. “Beetlebum” is also something of an outlier, as it bears little sonic connection to the other songs on the album, and generally you want the first track to set the tone. I would have gone with “M. O. R.” or maybe “Movin’ On” to get things going . . . but I also could see “Song 2” if Blur had wanted something with greater shock value in the pole position.
Opening with “Song 2” certainly would have qualified as a statement, though not the statement Blur intended to make. Alex James told Q Magazine that the band was just fucking around, essentially satirizing heavy grunge: “It was kind of a throwback. We’d always done brainless rocking out, though maybe it’s not what we’re known for.” In this case, the satiric nature of the song completely escaped the listening audience, particularly in the U. S. where millions were still in mourning for Kurt Cobain. “Song 2” became an international hit, the song that finally broke the wall of ice between Blur and the U. S. audience. To this day, the “Woo-Hoo Song” is the first song that comes to mind when you play word association using the word “blur” with a Millenial yank. As one who loves gritty, dirty power, I have to say they pulled off the con with the necessary aplomb, especially Alex James with his madly distorted bass. With typical hyperbole, NME referred to the nifty opening as Graham Coxon’s “finest moment,” and while the strummed chords are certainly ear-catching, if a shitty guitar player like me can reasonably duplicate it, no way in hell is it Graham Coxon’s finest moment. Satiric or not, the song is an absolute gas, a Pixies-perfect duplication of soft-LOUD dynamics and grunge/post-punk form.
“Country Sad Ballad Man” is one of those songs that sounds charmingly quirky on first listen, but turns into something as welcome as a root canal the more you listen to it. As in “Beetlebum,” Albarn’s lyrics emerge from a heroin haze as he slips in and out of consciousness (“VIP 223/I had my chances/Or did they have me”). Coxon did notice the less-than-stellar lyrics Albarn contributed to the album, concluding that “he’d obviously gone off his head a bit more”. That’s a very polite interpretation—one could say that John Lennon was completely off his rocker when he wrote “I Am the Walrus,” but the delightful wordplay reminiscent of his two poetical works hardly indicates a songsmith completely disconnected from his language center. Albarn’s effort here is more like post-India Lennon, so let’s call “Country Sad Ballad Man” Albarn’s version of “Yer Blues” and move on.
The most energetic rocker on the album originated in the musical laboratory of David Bowie and Brian Eno while they were experimenting with the concept of writing several songs with the same chord progression while recording Lodger. If that sounds like a stupid idea likely to result in one helluva boring album, well . . . it’s theoretically possible to vary instrumentation, tempo, vocal style, and even genre to a point where the results might prove slightly interesting. I guess we’ll never know for sure, as only two survived to make it to Lodger: “Fantastic Voyage” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” Blur borrowed—no, flat-out stole—the chords and call-and-response pattern from “Boys Keep Swinging” to create their very own contribution to the repetitive progression movement, a song called “M. O. R.” (duly crediting Bowie and Eno after the long arm of the law stepped in). As to which is the more successful effort, Bowie wins by a landslide in the lyrics category but Blur takes home the gold in the rock-the-fuck-out race.
Graham Coxon’s intro to “M.O.R” is far more impressive to my ears than the intro to “Song 2,” flipping from strong clear picking to muted-string shuffle in a heartbeat. The build itself is pretty fabulous, with each instrument adding a little more tension in turn, the piano serving as a nudge to Albarn to step up to the mike. Damon breaks out of the fog to deliver a clear, clean vocal that rises in excitement as the band explodes in rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy. The lyrics aren’t half bad, reflecting Blur’s experience in the pop-star grind, likening the experience to the ups-and-downs of a relationship in the chorus:
Here comes tomorrow (Here comes tomorrow)
One, two, three episodes (Three episodes)
We stick together (We stick together)
Go middle of the road (Middle of the road)
‘Cause that’s entertainment (That’s entertainment)
It’s the sound of the wheel (Sound of the wheel)
It rolls on forever (Roll, roll forever)
Yeah, you know how it feels (Know how it feels)
Here comes a low (I’m a boy and you’re a girl)
Here comes a high (The only ones in the world)
Here comes everything (Like monkeys out in space)
Here it comes (We are members of the human race)
I don’t know what the monkeys have to do with it, but I love that line.
Albarn follows his solid effort on “M. O. R.” with an even more enthusiastically felt performance in “On Your Own,” a piece he would later refer to as the first Gorillaz song. Though still clearly imbued with rock sensibilities in the form of Coxon’s superb work throughout the piece, the drum machine (honorably handled by drummer Rowntree) hints of the repetitive beats of hip-hop, while the loosely-delivered, heavy-on-emphatic-rhyme lyrics are only loosely connected to the melody. The message in the lyrics seems to be “follow your instincts, for whether you wind up as prime minister or sucking your toes in the shade of a redwood forest, who gives a fuck because WE’LL ALL BE THE SAME IN THE END.” I rather like that message, because I’ve always suspected that our definition of success in life is as arbitrary as fuck. And I more-than-rather like the song—the laid-back feel is balanced by strong forward movement, with just the right amounts of this instrument or that vocal and not a peep more.
“Theme from Retro” has been described as “obligatory space-rock trip-hop,” something that presents Blur in dub,” and “an unyielding, lovely row. Like, say, a Blur B-side.” Those are phrases concocted by critics who couldn’t get their heads around it, had to call it something and decided that it was time for clever phrases. The title is actually quite informative: the words “theme from” imply a cinematic experience; in this case, a theoretical film entitled “Retro.” I can see this piece working in soundtracks supporting darker productions (what comes to mind immediately are the dystopian, alternative realities of Mr. Robot). The organ-synthesizer mix is brilliantly constructed to create a sense of “something wicked this way comes”, and Damon Albarn’s wordless vocalizations cause me to visualize being locked in a room with no lights and hearing voices on the other side of the door that I can’t quite make out, amplifying the frustration of feeling trapped. I’ve read that many people find “Theme from Retro” a bore; I think it’s one of the more successful experiments on the album.
The first solo Coxon composition and performance appears next in the form of “You’re So Great,” a lo-fi love song of sorts framed in stereo acoustic guitar with two disparate electric solos. The first solo is loaded with dissonance, as it sounds like Coxon is either using the ultimate in slinky strings or that he’s deliberately de-tuned the guitar and using his nimble fingers to approach but not quite reach the proper notes. The scene involves Coxon waking up, and that warped guitar sound mirrors exactly how I feel when I wake up—sort of like I’m walking on thick foam rubber while navigating this irritating thing called reality. “Tea, tea and coffee,” sings Coxon; “Coffee, coffee and a cigarette,” sing I, but either way, we’re on the same page. I have come to fucking loathe mornings, especially workday mornings.
What kind of species would create a world where we are forced to spend most of our time doing stuff we don’t want to do in order to earn the privilege of survival?
Mini-rant out of the way, we move on to “Death of a Party,” an effort that is simultaneously mesmerizing and off-putting. The music—a mix of lo-fi guitar, booming reverb-coated beats, hard-picked bass and Hammond organ on the horror film setting—establishes the perfect setting for a gothic funeral, underscoring the “death” in the song title. In keeping with the theme, Albarn sounds positively bored to be at this or any other party on the planet, but his I-can-hardly-find-a-pulse vocal, combined with dull lyrics short on sardonic wit, results in a tremendous chasm between band and vocalist. The frustrating thing is I don’t think he’s that far off—clip this phrase here, shift to a loud whisper there and he might have nailed it. As such, I’ll yearn for an instrumental version and hope to hear it in a soundtrack someday.
But definitely not as part of a soundtrack to a Bruce Lee movie. As a practitioner of the martial arts (recommended for all women who want to survive in toxic masculine cultures), I love the integration of physical and mental discipline I experience when I’m training, but have no idea why anyone would want to watch a martial artist for purposes of entertainment. Or a boxer. Or those idiots in whatever that fight club thing is. And I’m certainly not entertained by Blur’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the late Mr. Lee, my nomination for the longest minute and twenty-five seconds in music history—a stunningly undisciplined performance, rather like vomiting.
I have no idea what Blur were trying to achieve in “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love” except to fill the album with the requisite fourteen. The tagline bears no relationship whatsoever to the lyrics, something we’ve learned is not an uncommon experience on Blur. This time the lo-fi and prominent guitar string noise become quite irritating, and the song plods along like a heroin addict coming down from a high.
Huh. I wonder why.
“Look Inside America” is notable for combining bits of two of their more famous Britpop songs: “End of a Century” in the intro and “Country House” in the build. Once I get over the obvious similarities and get ready to enjoy the song . . . what the fuck is that? Orchestral support? Are you guys out of your fucking minds? And shit, there’s even a fucking harp waiting for us around the next bend! Gee, I hope Damon Albarn has something meaningful and important to say about his problematic relationship with the United States . . . uh, no. And he’s lying like a Trumpian bastard when he tries to tell us, “I don’t know if it means that much to me.” Bullshit! Graham Coxon, on the other hand, is ab-fab on this piece.
“Strange News from Another Star” feels more Bowie than Blur, a tale of psychic collapse in the context of dystopia a la Diamond Dogs. The source for the title (and mood) is a story by Herman Hesse, an author who also had little truck with reality. The music combines sweetly-played acoustic guitar, wild dissonance and sharp guitar echoes in one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. Unlike the disconnection experienced on “Death of the Party,” Albarn’s lethargic vocal feels more in sync with the bleak landscape (and equally bleak lyrics). This one foreshadows Blur’s later explorations with electronica . . . one of their many shifts in style that more than a few listeners find frustrating.
The band gets back to down-and-dirty in “Movin’ On,” a pretty straightforward rocker featuring full power and Albarn’s voice channeled through a lo-fi filter. Coxon ramps up the effects pedals on his solo, which is one of his wildest efforts. It’s kind of like an updated version of The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star,” adjusted for changes in fashion:
We’re sticky eyes and sticky bones
You get no time on your own
You get a dose and get a ghost
You get it coast-to-coast
Dye your hair black
Get Satan tattooed on your back
Pierce yourself with a coke can
Put yourself in fake tan now you’re in a band
Ah, the glorious nineties and all that we pissed away in an orgy of nihilism.
The final curtain takes a long time to unfold as Damon Albarn relives his youth in Aldham, Essex in “Essex Dogs.” If you can make it through the factory-like soundscape (not the most pleasant listening experience), you’ll be treated to a Damon Albarn narrative poem that forms the best set of lyrics on the album. In an interview, Albarn described his hometown as “One of those burgeoning Thatcher experiments where they were building loads of small estates,” communities without souls, and with little for teens to do but fuck up the dreary sameness of it all:
I remember thinking murder in the car
Watching dogs somersault through sprinklers on tiny lawns
I remember the graffiti
We are your children coming near you with spray cans of paint
I remember the sunset and the plains of cement
And the way the night just seemed
To turn the colour of Orangeade
In this town, cellular phones are hot with thieves
In this town, we all go to terminal pubs
It helps us sweat out those angry bits of life
Those angry bits of life drove Essex (historically a Tory stronghold) to vote overwhelmingly for Leave (remind me not to schedule next year’s holiday there). Given his comparative lack of lyrical effort on the album, “Essex Dogs” reassured me that Albarn hadn’t gone completely to the dogs (pun intended) and still had a gift for writing vivid poetry with Keatsian negative capability (see a dozen other posts for an explanation of “Keatsian negative capability”).
Blur’s final fuck off to Britpop appears after several seconds of silence following “Essex Dogs.” On Parklife, Blur introduced an intermission midway through the album in the form of “The Debt Collector,” a village green gazebo piece with a real brass band . . . so very, very stereotypically British. On Blur, they place the intermission at the end, a pattern-breaking message all by itself. The faux string section struggles against bursts of dissonant guitar chords and a weirdly-fitting guitar counterpoint, described by Q’s Andrew Collins as “a distressed instrumental sign-oft that goes nowhere.”
A worthy competitor to Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the album that killed Britpop, Blur is clearly a transitional album without a conclusion. Their next album (13) would still find them in transition, a production featuring a couple of echoes from Blur but much more introspective. None of the seemingly endless changes in style have in any way damaged relations with their fan base; 13 went immediately to #1 . . . as did Think Tank, as did The Magic Whip. While debate concerning the quality of their work from an artistic perspective is certainly valid, Blur certainly mastered the art of connecting with listeners to ensure commercial success.
All of which adds credence to my theory that line staff are just as likely (if not more likely) to make sensible decisions than management. I can now picture my father reading this and ringing me up to suggest that I end the essay with one of his favorite quotes: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” As he has consistently rejected all things Britpop over the years, I refuse to give him such satisfaction.
Shit. I just did.