Thursday, December 9, 2021



Tom Waits is one of the finest lyricists, colloquial without being bucolic,  reflective without self-pity, poetic without forcing a rhyme or an image. He succeeds where  other “storytellers”--Harry Chapin, Billy Joel--flounder. Where others abuse  tired qualifiers and moldy tropes that make their tales little more than cold soapy water, Waits had the instincts of a good short story writer, a John  Cheever, a Flannery O'Conner, a Nelson Algren. 

A character, a journey, a timeline, telling and terse details, just the right number of qualifiers, wisdom to not fill in all the spaces nor to betray his mood and artistry with a convenient “moral.” At his best, he conveys emotions of all sorts--rage, joy, sorrow, regret, celebration, lust--and allows the listener to experience them fully, with minimal manipulation. What has occurred during his many mini-sagas, for both the protagonist and listener, remains a mystery; the meaning and the lesson to be learned is deferred except, perhaps, to resonate in the interstices of one's own memories that the story isn't over yet. 

Joyous or at randomized saturation of despair, melancholy, or anger, one goes to work, to the next town, to the cemetery to respect, going on with what we're doing because that's what we do. Still, the sense, somehow, with all the pain, disappointments, and mundane travails that one is richer, wiser, or wizened, for all the acute sensations a memorable time awards us, That makes him an artist. A fine fellow.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


 THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING a novel by Dawn Powell

A New York comedy of manners set in the Forties concerns a married couple comprised of a famous playwright and her husband. This academic labors at his specialty in obscurity. While successful in this discipline, the husband works away in his obscure scholarly endeavors, known by virtually no one, saves for a handful of peers. At the same time, the wife is the toast of Broadway, blessed with hit after hit, loads of favorable reviews, and admiring tidbits in all the newspapers. Fate, or some other cruel force that loves to upset the smug and arrogant expectations, works so that the husband gains incredible notoriety for the research he's been pouring over for years, even breaking through to what was then the mainstream media. 

At the same time, the wife must deal with a box office bomb and negative reviews, items that have her reputation sliding quickly down the social ladder. Powell is one of the better comic writers we've had --a spikier Edith Wharton, shall we say, a funnier Thomas Hardy (think of Mayor of Casterbridge)--who provides momentum, atmosphere, and rich, crackling dialogue in this many -charactered satire. This would be the sort of novel Tom Wolfe has been trying to write for years. Powell's conference is crisp, curt, and telling in what it reveals about the characters, and the prose has a jazzy feel to it, a lightly worn eloquence that doesn't smother the momentum. Tall buildings, over-decorated apartments, and rattan-tat bustle of agendas being advanced abandoned Big Apple-style brings us a comedy of hubris. This is a city full of schemers and naifs, whose respective social positions are not repaired. Powell understands irony and contrives its use beautifully toward something resembling poetic justice.

More about Wolfe-as-novelist, he lacks the precision of detail, character quirks and reveals himself to be a rather drifting plotter. The arcs of his novels lack the efficient forward movement of Powell, who has the sense along with the Hardy as mentioned above that fate, triggered by seemingly insignificant gestures, remarks, or stray, condemning thoughts, results in reversals of fortunes, either comic or tragic. We are fortunate that Powell opts for the comic. Wolfe piles it on, sentence after sentence, clause after clause, until he suffocates the good ideas he might have hard. Powell keeps us intrigued as to how much deeper the characters in question can deepen the hole they're in. We have here a situation where the fortunes of a famous wife and unknown husband are suddenly and realistically reversed, a turn that reveals the external relations and loyalties tied as they are to one's fortunes. Or lack of them.

Saturday, November 27, 2021


 Some who admire David Foster Wallace assert that those who don't "get" him or are guilty of misunderstanding what he's doing as a writer. If they are missing the point so often over the entire length of his talk, the fault is not entirely theirs. DFW had a habit of reflexively resorting to a passive "ironic" tone when the ideas in his work piled up under the weight of his un-diagramable sentences, which is a handy way of getting a laugh and riffing on end.

His point, his warnings, his insights became nearly unnoticeable for all his showing off. If there is a disconnect between audience and speaker, Wallace shoulders much of the blame. He was a fascinating writer and occasionally brilliant, but his lack of emphasis when it counted did him no favors. He did so many digressions as a means of revealing what's behind the narrative curtain, analogous, I suppose, to the grand scene in Wizard of Oz as Toto reveals that the Great Legend is both social construction and a fraud, that the brilliance is made indistinguishable from the exuberant and chatty bullshit that glut Wallace's writing. Wallace couldn't resist the impulse to comment, dredge for ironies when natural contradictions didn't avail themselves, serve heaping amounts of what read like undigested research. It was such a massive dump of information that what he'd written in his fiction transformed from the precious element of "telling detail"--that bit of commentary on specific items in a room and the speech acts of characters revealing some submerged desire to contradict and flee the world they've created or have selected--into mounds of unconsidered data.This always struck me as a species of hording, if you will; perhaps he was a rigorous editor of his own material in ways unknown to us, far too much of his work reads like a man who couldn't throw out paragraphs or pages that didn't bring quality to the reading experience.

There's a "look-ma-no-hands" showiness about his books, Infinite Jest especially. I suppose that as one who has made his way through a bevy of Henry James, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon novels, all thick, labyrinthian, very extended in their conditional constructions who managed both to comprehend (I think) and enjoy the deluges of word virtuosity, I guess it's ironic I'd find Wallace's prolix tiresome. Not really. The other three were (are) better writers who wanted their sentences to contain surprise and ideas while not sacrificing the providence of tale they were engaged in telling. I never thought Wallace graduated beyond the status of being a loquacious verbal show-off.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

An old review of a fine Chet Baker album

 Trumpet player Baker has a relaxed, lyrical, muted style superficially like Miles Davis's from his Kind of Blue. Indeed, a first impression makes you think the resemblance is vital, not a little. But Baker has a voice very much his own. On You Can't Go Home Again, he applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could. The benefit of Baker's technique is the hushed tone, the muted sighs and near whimers of emotion that emerge from the trumpet's bell. Where others like Freddie Hubbard attempt and often succeed in creating beauty with reams of unapologetic bravado and virtuosity--even Hubbard's wonderful treatment of ballads resemble nothing less a gauntlet being thrown down to anyone else who thinks they can do better--Baker is the romantic who has a hard time coming up the right words to profess a feeling. But when he does, the build up, the pauses between his short phrases, his whispering rasp of a tone rises eventually to full sonnets of sound, phrase after phrase coaxing unintended nuance from a composer's melody. An easy sound that's difficult to come  by.  The music is lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white-faced, mass-market commodity). Still, Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of an excellent group of sidemen.  Drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, and guest musicians like Hubert laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson, charge ahead, relax the tempos, and pivot to new cross-rhythms and chord combinations that remain infectious throughout. Sparking moments abound particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and, Brecker. The lyricism here is managed without the goo of sentimentality: Baker's power seems to come from a deeper source that can't be diminished.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021


In a feature in the current issue of Slate, Jack Hamilton adds some lighter fluid to the controversy slowly boiling over who was the better wordsmith for the Beatles, Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Not coincidental with the release of the pricey two-volume, slip-cased set The Lyrics where McCartney describes his authorship of  150 songs both for the Beatles and other projects, Hamilton, as one could expect, bucks conventional wisdom and argues that Sir Paul was the superior lyricist. Do you remember your younger life when you waxed incessantly, continuously, and oppressively about one album, one exceptional album that was the greatest album ever made, a work of art unlike any other we've ever seen as a species and the likes of which we will ever see again? Do you remember forgetting about that extra-fantastic disc and then listening to it again  decades later,  realizing it hasn't traveled through the years as well as you claimed? And remember what you said at the time? 

I remember my hyperbolic tantrums arguing for the genius of many records I've since abandoned. That is what Hamilton's defense of McCartney's lyrics for the Beatles read like, a gushy mash note. Of course, the man had a way with words, but…please calm down… Like anyone else obsessed with what the Beatles have accomplished and how it was that they created a body of work without peer, I've dived into the weeds to determine who had the more outstanding mind and pen, John or Paul. After much scrutiny, cogitating, late nights scanning lyric sheets wearing headphones while the Beatles blared loudly and made my hearing even worse than it was, my conclusion is that it's a draw between the two. 

As for songwriting partners and as lone authors of single songs while in the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney seemed an evenly matched pair as lyricists, with McCartney having a substantial edge for composing engaging and deceptively simple melodies. Lennon, to be sure, could write a lovely song as well and do so throughout the band's lifetime, but  McCartney has the advantage. As Beatles lyricists,  one can strongly argue that the two were equal for fluidity and agility of expression. Their distinct personalities gave the metaphorical Beatles Universe (with some exemplary additional contributions from George Harrison) a remarkably fresh and finally unpredictable take on the human experience.  McCartney was a fine lyricist with the Beatles, and I'd even agree brilliant at times. Still, I believe the old saw that Sir Paul's best abilities as lyricist and melodist may well have remained dormant if Lennon hadn't become such a significant presence in his creative undertakings. And yes, I would agree, Lennon might have remained yet another Rocker doomed for inevitable anonymity if he hadn't made McCartney's acquaintance.  This will, undoubtedly, be argued about until the end of time.  Notably, McCartney has been showing concern over his legacy as he gets older. He wants the world to realize the weight of actual contribution to the Beatles' longevity, perhaps even a desire to take Lennon's reputation as the superior lyricist and intellect down a peg or two. 

'Though fueled by resentment, I suspect,  there is no getting away from the fact that the solo efforts by Lennon and McCartney, including struggles with Plastic Ono Band and Wings respectively, are depressingly substandard considered against the work they'd done for the Beatles.  Of course, both bodies of post-Beatles music have pockets of the old magic, charisma, wit, and melodic bite. Still, Lennon had descended from the ranks of an artist to becoming merely a Professional Celebrity, an amazingly clueless personality whose lyric acumen was now little else but sloganeering no more subtle than a bumper sticker. McCartney, in turn, couldn't seem to write a cohesive song anymore; his song structures were erratic, jarring, disjointed, too often coming less well than office buildings abandoned during construction. His lyric writing was gibberish, and those who want to defend the words he wrote for Wings come off as wishful thinkers.             

Monday, November 1, 2021


JohnMayall is a multi-instrumentalist in the sense that an office worker is a multi-tasker. This would mean, for our purpose, someone able to do several things simultaneously poorly. A better analogy might be an old joke, a jack of all trades, master of none. Mayall is someone who dabbles on harmonica, guitar, keyboards, having a tentative command of blues basics and not much else. I wouldn't even call him an instrumentalist--dabbler pretty much gets what he does. His penchant for finding tasty and distinct blues guitarist was undoubtedly aimed at fleshing out what otherwise would have been a thin, brittle sound from the blues breakers had he featured himself as a featured soloist. Mayall is not an exciting musician.  Of course, I  give Mayall full credit for putting together crackerjack bands that have, at times, making it possible for Mayall to release first-rate albums. The albums I listen to especially are USA Union featuring the sadly underrated Harvey Mandel on guitar, Larry Taylor on bass, Sugarcane Harris on violin, and, of course, Turning Point, with the splendid, Desmond-y sax work of Johnny Almond and Jon Mark on acoustic guitar. Mayall's harmonica work was more texture than anything else, save for the excellent workout he accomplishes on Room to Move. These were band albums with credible, blues-based tunes with jazz used as texture, groove, and pacing. Too often, much too often for me, though, Mayall has pushed his harmonica work to the forefront, usually following a hot guitar solo or sultry work out from a reedman, and the effect is like a blowing out a tire when you're cruising at a comfortable rate of speed. It's my view Mayall was playing catch up with what the Butterfield band was doing with their jazz-rock ventures. What Butterfield and his crew did on East-West with the Work Song and the long title improv, released in 1966, is so profoundly ahead of its time that I consider Mayall's contribution to the fusing of jazz, blues, and rock as a bit less important than you do. It's a matter of taste, I realize, and I'm just stating mine, perhaps obnoxiously so. It may well be an unrealistic expectation of mine for musicians described often enough as "band leaders" to be solid and confident soloists no less than the musicians they hire.

Saturday, October 30, 2021


The steadfast confusion of reason and emotion, and, let's add, the Hamlet-like state of ambivalence and hesitation when attempting to decide which direction to lean in, which road to follow,  is precisely the kind of writing literature should be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Tension, anger, conflict, a war between impulses that are global in scope but local in context. The goal isn't the resolution of conflict, as that would be mere preaching and the extension of convenient dogmas; what's more exciting and likely closer to the cold shiver of recognition is in how things end. Being neither philosophy nor science of any stripe, fiction is ideally suited for writers to mix and match their tones, attitudes, and angles of attack on a narrative schema to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished. 

The attack on modernism's arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly overstated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms precisely what that actual reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. Individually, each writer had a different view of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

I agree with Fred Jamieson on the point that Post Modernism, in effect, is a restating of the modernist project., although I suspect the critic was as much interested in preserving his own relevance as a critic as he was in establishing new distinctions to a topic that has, if nothing else, perfected the practice of topic drift. His implication is that postmodernism is critical of the culture it ironically reflects; this stance would keep Jamieson, a dutifully abstruse Marxist variant, in things to write about. Or write toward, as the excellent critic's style is, to introduce things he intends to address and then to defer, endlessly it seems, until some clarity is brought, by him, to the terms and context of his impending discussion. He is, it may be said, the lecturer's image who assumes the podium without his notes organized, considering he has noted in the first place. Jamieson, in fact, is something of an ironic example of postmodernism less as a stylish choice or determined practice than as the result of trying to wear too many hats; it is more important to act as though you have a point than to actually have one, to begin with. Jamieson has his insights and critical genius, of course, but too often, it takes a good while for him to warm up to his actual set of talking points.
 Writing is an argument so far that the central impulse to write is to make a series of statements about oneself and one's experiences in the world and reach a satisfying conclusion, some "meaning" at the end of the chat.

Roland Barthes noted that the effort to achieve fixed meaning is doomed, as experience is not a static event but a fluid movement through time that a writer's perception of changes moment to moment, text to text. They attempt to resolve the contradiction, arrive at something absolute in a universe that seems to permanently withhold its Absolute Meanings during this lifetime, and to achieve, somehow, some peace, some satisfaction. But no: the argument persists, the imagination soars, the old certainties cannot contain either the unset of new perceptions or can soothe a writer's innate restlessness. In literature, the conflation continues, reason and emotion color each other, the eyes shut, hoping for vision, a clear path, but the writing continues, the sorting through of experience continues, the unease continues, the world changes radically and not at all. Postmodernism's overall mission is to notify us of the limitations of our tropes, our schemes, and our historicized absolutes seem redundant to what literature already does.

Friday, October 8, 2021


 Yes, I agree. Musical styles, genres, you name, need to change to remain relevant in the march of history scurries towards an always uncertain future. The idea is that whatever art one loves that had its origins in the marketplace will remain relevant and, dare we say the word? relevant. That's the hope, and it's a fact that popular music styles have been altered, adapted, extended, made simpler by younger artists picking up the task of creating sounds for the ears of the buying public. Still, the mergings of whatever "old school" with the taste of the current crop of teens currently glutting the marketplace haven't always been smooth, pleasant, or, bottom line, interesting.  Cruel to say, but heavy metal under any of its specialized micro-genres is a dead end. Rap and hip-hop are fashion cliches these days. Jazz, it can be said, is graduating to the classical concert hall, elevated as art music, which means smaller audiences and grants from whatever federal or local government agencies. Speaking of the evolution of country-rock fusion, it seemed some years ago that the movement has gotten to the point where the songs, the arrangements, are painted by numbers affair, a kind of assembly line professionalism where songs contain elements of rock and country--power chords, blues guitar licks, hard backbeats for rock, pedal steel guitars, fiddles, harmonica flourishes for the country--that lack all authenticity or conviction. I am thinking specifically of Shania Twain, a Canadian who is an outstanding example of country pop-rock that has been grimly calculated to appeal to a broad audience. Quantity, remember, reduces quality. It seems the same thing that happened to the exhilarating genre of jazz-rock when in a short period, it got formalized to a very recognizable set of riffs, solos and resolutions, all-flash, speed, and no improvisation. "Rock this Country" likewise is all riffs and no heart, teeter-tottering between the rock accents and the country lilts. It is a Frankenstein monster, neither alive nor dead, merely ganglia of nerves pulling the beast in different confused directions. It's an apt metaphor; the producers are so obsessed with making sure the dissimilar parts are balanced that we think of the hulking movie monster learning to walk.

Thursday, October 7, 2021


Interestingly, it's been two years since Joker came out, and while I tend to rewatch movies I liked in the theaters when they come to a nearby streaming service, I haven't had the interest or the patience to view Joker again. I would modify my initial praise for the movie being well made to it being "slickly avant-garde," with the experimental aspects of that last phrase reduced to being the name of a style a bright film student can study and mimic at will. There is a discussion of this film having a sequel, which would be disastrous. It was a gutsy move by Warner Brothers to allow this extreme (if overcooked) take on one of DC's major characters; it garnered them good reviews, a billion dollar box office. But what story would there be to build on? Ultimately Joker was a fluke and I suspect there is no demand to visit this cynical and arty take on violence and insanity again. 

Friday, October 1, 2021



Losing My Way and Finding My Voice  

 By Richard Thompson


It seems to be a reasonable expectation that people of genius with extraordinary lives and stories to relate would be able to tell their tale in a manner as robust as the lives they've lived. A slight sour truth to accept is that not all extraordinary songwriters aren't the best narrators of their journeys. My expectations were raised by the revelatory musings of Rolling Stone guitarist and songwriter Keith Richards' memoir Life, a memoir that was all sex and sizzle and jaw-dropping revelations.  Richard's witty, regaling truth-telling about his life on the edges of rock and roll had me insisting that any future musical remembrance be equally careening and in your face. 

The demands were cooled considerably by other biographies I read after the vicarious thrill of Richard's enthused embrace of his wild ways. Bob Dylan's book Chronicles, Vol. 1 had the Maestro speaking obliquely about his life, influences, not revealing much that wasn't already in the dedicated fan's knowledge base. That wasn't wholly unexpected since Dylan has been cagey about talking about his personal life. When he wasn't making things up, he simply out large chunks of his coming of age.   Similarly, Jorma Kaukonen wrote of his time as lead guitarist for the San Francisco's iconic Jefferson Airplane in Been So Long: My Life and Music, a memoir of his life growing up in the fifties and thriving as an artist in the swirling 60s counterculture. His prose was flat, and his feelings influences, friends, politics, and the free-love spirituality of that pugnacious decade are soft-spoken. The detachment from his history made it seem like he talked about someone else's life and career. Kaukonen, perhaps, would instead have not been charged with writing about them at all. I suppose the lesson was that although there's an overabundance of rock stars with stories as horrid, funny, and chaotic as Keith Richard's. Some of the stories are quieter in the telling, deservedly so.

  Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock, and Finding My Voice, 1967–75, a new book by acclaimed Richard Thompson, guitar hero, songwriter, and singer and co-founder of the influential British folk-rock band Fairport Convention Richard Thompson, is appealing, soft-spoken but overly cautious telling of the facts of his life. Not without sin, sizzle, disaster, or tragedies that need to be overcome as eventual success comes to the music and the music maker. His style is reflective, meditative to a degree, choosing his words and descriptions carefully. There's also a tangible air of hesitancy while he recounts his story, a seeming concern to avoid the dramatic, the sensational. Too much caution, however, as there are moments where eloquent rumination on incidents would have given Beeswing greater philosophical heft. To this day, it's one of my low expectations that old guard rock stars have something resembling a pearl of elegant and lengthy wisdom that's formed over their years of music-making on an international scale. Thompson is the soft-spoken sort, it seems, and the soft written as well. Elegant in his brevity and occasionally minimalist prose, he trades not in a scandal, gossip, or revenge snark; he goes forth like Joe Friday in Dragnet, just the facts as best he remembers them, told as well as he can manage. The album sold meagerly, but it was a fruitful starting point for the legendary band as they progressed. Sandy Denny, a woman blessed with an ethereal and silver-toned voice, replaced original co-lead singer Judy Dyble, Thompson's girlfriend. The addition of Denny to share lead vocals with singer, guitarist, and songwriter Ian Matthews coincided with Fairport's burgeoning desire to grow conspicuous American influence and instead explored and made use of their own rich of British and Celtic music folk styles. The following three records-- What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege, and Lief—marked a band that had invented a new kind of folk-rock, based on a fascinating combination of blues, jazz, and rock filtered through the gossamer textures of British and Celtic melodic construction and overtone. Fired by the unique sensibilities of Thompson's guitar work, the songwriting collective in this band gave the world that singular thing in pop music history, a distinct body of work.


Thompson doesn't belabor song meanings or origins nor deep dive into the tricks and techniques of his laudable guitar skills, preferring to limn lightly through the scuffling days of the years 1967 through 1975. Again, there isn't much in the way of sordid detail, strong opinion, or linguistic scene-chewing, but the book does provide a breezy, montage-like feel of Fairport and the bands they knew gigged in the same towns at the same clubs, pubs, and meeting halls. The elements of low paying gigs, the band's eventual adapting an abandoned, unheated pub as band living quarters and rehearsal space, creative tensions in the band, and having a singer in Sandy Denny who was as strong-willed and undisciplined as she was brilliant, and alluring are the ingredients of a rich tale that here seems told only by a third. Beeswing has concise and breezy pacing that the book gives off the feeling of being a treatment for a motion picture music biopic. The chronology of events has the air of a "greatest hits" list with the details scantily fleshed out to satisfy the requirements of a screen screenwriter who can squeeze everything into an entertaining and pat 120-minute feature. You want to know more and can't but feel a bit cheated.


What might deeper feelings there have been within Thompson when he had to fire Denny from the band? He makes a note of the difficulty in weighing Denny's great talent against her insecurity and hard-drinking. At this point in a much-detailed story, we witness a conflicted choice to make sure that the band he co-founded remains a stable entity for the sake of his free expression and reason to exist. It's apparent that as much as he loved Denny and cherished her talent, he felt it better that he and the rest of Fairport move ahead without her. Thompson writes of this deftly but is sketchy on the emotional details. The book is full of matters that cry for a fuller accounting, episodes such as Thompson's eventual conversion to Sufism, meeting his eventual wife and songwriting-performing partner, encounters, and music with John Lee Hooker and Van Dyke Parks, and Linda Ronstadt. Incidents get mentioned, briefly described, sometimes with significant poetic effect, but too often being a glancing overview of a crowded with meaningful encounters and musical landmarks. In the end, the style and amount of details are suitable for a making-of-the-band movie or an outline for a limited series for a streaming service. As a book, though, it's a slight effort often poetically expressed. Thompson has a reputation as a potent lyricist who condenses emotional states and situations to brief, evocative epiphanies. It may be the case that his habit of compositional mind influenced his decision to avoid revealing too much of his inner life.  The subtitle of Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock, and Finding My Voice, 1967–75, tells us that the book covers only eight years of the author's career, hinting that there's another part of the story to be told, another volume forthcoming. With one book done, it would be a sweet deal if Thompson warms up to the idea that he's now a writer and composes the next volume fearlessly, with verve, detail, and nuance.  Thompson is a magnificent talent, and the world needs him to tell his tale of a critical and enthralling time in popular music history with the vividness it deserves.

(Originally published in The San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission).






Saturday, September 25, 2021


Bob Dylan performed at New York's esteemed Carnegie Hall, for which he additionally wrote the program notes.  Titled My Life in a Stolen Moment, it's a long, rambling length of free verse poetry that is an intriguing example of Dylan juvenilia. A self-conscious and entirely awkward combination of Beat style first-thought-best-thought idea and the unlettered eloquence of the deep feeling poor white, it purports to be the true telling of Dylan's upbringing in small-town Minnesota. It's not a reliable document. As an autobiography, I wouldn't trust a word of it. Dylan embellished his story from the beginning. Inconsistencies and incongruities in his stated timeline were noted early on. I remember that Sy and Barbara Ribakove were suspicious of Dylan's accounting of his life back in 1966 with their book "Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story." All the fabulation has certainly given a couple of generations of Dylan obsessives much to sift through and write books about. It's a poem, of course, but not a good one. What had always irritated me about Dylan's writing was his affectation of the poor, white rural idiom. It's dreadful, unnatural sounding as you read it (or listen to it from his early recordings). While it's one thing to be influenced by stories of hobo life, the Great Depression, and to use the inspiration to find one's uniquely expressive voice as a writer or poet, what Dylan does here ranks as some of his most pretentious, awkward, and preening writing. One can argue in Dylan's defense with the vague idea of negative capability, but that holds water only if the writing is great and the writer is possessed by genius. Of course, Dylan is/was a genius, but this was something he wrote when he was merely talented and audacious. Genius hadn't bloomed yet. This bucolic exercise has always been an embarrassment, juvenilia that sounds juvenile.