Written for Wears the Trousers 21.06.11
Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday a few weeks back was marked, in part, by reflections on the essentially blokey nature of his observable fanbase. While largely true, this has done nothing to lessen the appeal of his songs as cover material for women from Mae West to Sheryl Crow, not to mention Cate Blanchett’s turn as the man himself in the 2007 biopic ‘I’m Not There’. This re-recording by Thea Gilmore of Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding then, isn’t a revolutionary move, but not a foolish one either. It follows Gilmore’s performance at a Dylan tribute concert earlier this year, as well as, all the way back in 2002, her acclaimed recording of his ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’. That song appears again on this album, as do guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, along with Thea’s longterm collaborator, bassist and producer, Nigel Stonier. Continue reading
Whenever I listen to a lot of Lupen Crook songs I can’t help (affectionately) picturing Poor Tom, the displaced nobleman in the guise of a beggar capering upon the blasted heath in King Lear. I realise this is unfair to Mr Crook aesthetically and stylistically, and in any case has hardly happened at all while listening to his latest. Home-produced and recorded in the months just before spring, Waiting for the Postman is a still and contemplative record of domestic claustrophobia, comedown and loss and their ultimate transcendence.
‘The Domestic’, low and lugubrious, starts things on a bitter and hard-bitten note, but the album’s darkly groovy self-laceration – heartbreak and paranoid withdrawal on ‘Cold Alone’, fame anticipated as soul-sucking pull on ‘Tale of an Everyman’ – is leavened with rippling rainy-afternoon melancholy and gently melodic reflections on friendship, love and their loss. ‘Chasing Dragons’, heartfelt and warm, is straightforwardly gorgeous. So is ‘Where the Crow Flies’, so is ‘Arts and Crafts’, and so is the intricately self-referential ‘A Little More Blood on the Tracks’ (and the chutzpah of giving it that title, unusually, didn’t even tickle my Dylanist gag reflex). ‘Hard Times’ is some kind of madly gleaming apocalyptic eurodisco that’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Just an all-round awesome album. This record sounds like a long-held breath let out, like the aftermath of trauma, and it feels like balm applied to wounds.
Lupen Crook, Waiting for the Postman is available here.
So the next scheduled Apocalypse isn’t until October. Good; I have stuff to do before October, but little to do after it, and at the current rate of Armageddon I won’t need to pay off my student loan. More importantly, Dylan was 70 on Tuesday.
One of my favourite theories/lies/facts about Dylan is that the lyrics to ‘It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ consist of titles or opening lines for other songs which Dylan felt he wouldn’t have time to write before nuclear conflagration moved these matters rather lower down everyone’s list of concerns. In similar manner – and because I’m quite aware that most of my writing is what you’d get if you fed ‘The Libertines’, ‘class war’, ‘wank’, ‘appalling pun’, and ‘cultural history’ into a Random Lyrics Generator – here is a blog post consisting of titles for other blog posts which I doubt I’ll ever get around to writing. Only about two of these are serious proposals, of course, and the rest self-parodic. But the two keep changing. Continue reading
My life at present is alarmingly full of content, so, in order for me not to dwell on that, here’s a post that’s almost entirely content-free.
All I want for Christmas is a brand-new leopardskin pillbox hat. I have wanted a brand-new leopardskin pillbox hat ever since I heard the song, at the age of eight or so, an early inkling of my eventual adoration of Dylan. I had at that age very little idea of what a leopardskin pillbox hat might be; all I knew was that it was undoubtedly a Fabulous Thing, and that I coveted one of my own. In all my subsequent years upon this earth, I have sought and never found one, but still I do not give up hope. I would look upon such a thing, should I obtain it, as the sum total of all the earthly richness and splendour that any soul could hope to possess.
NB please do not link me to online images of brand-new leopardskin pillbox hats; they will not be the hat I seek. I have seen and discarded these pretenders, and anyway they cost more money than I have to spend. The hat I seek is a Platonic ideal of a hat, one in all probability too Fabulous to exist within this mortal coil. It would ideally be shiny, and have some sort of black netting forming a veil over one of the wearer’s eyes. I know not if this embellishment would render it no longer, strictly speaking, a pillbox hat. Nor do I care if it does.
I will not receive a brand-new leopardskin pillbox hat this year either. But I do hope I come by such a hat, one day. I have exactly the shoes to go with it.
This song has proved difficult to find online, although, really, every home should have a copy of Blonde on Blonde. Here instead is Dylan being awesomely young and obnoxiously awesome, from the Martin Scorcese documentary No Direction Home.
As a Valleys expatriate, part of my filial duty is to call home every so often and update my mother on how her golden child is getting on in the big city. Usually this is a simple matter of concise summation, adjusted for altered terms of reference based on the fact that my mother last went adventuring in 1972, but when describing what I did the previous evening to her I ran into difficulties:
‘Well… I went to an art gallery in the bit of London where all the bookshops are and stood in an exhibit of books which haven’t been written and only exist within the fields of reference of other books – it’s called an invisible library, right – and we heard a bloke play guitar and read bits out of Dylan’s experimental abstract novel and he had to stand in the window and play to the street because there wasn’t room for everyone inside, and then he’d tell us various writers were great because they didn’t give a fuck, and then he read some more which proved that the same writers actually did give quite a significant fuck about several things, and then some other blokes played guitar but we had to wait because they were in the pub so we told each other what we were reading and then Carl Barat, I’ve told you about him, turned up and he played guitar and everyone cheered and then we went to the pub. No, no, there wasn’t anything to drink in the art gallery.’
‘…Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you went to a happening.’
I suppose I did. There’s no clearer way of describing what went down in Theatreland’s shoebox-sized Tenderpixel Gallery. For an hour before doors the queue snaked along a drizzly and damp Cecil Court – a fantastically bijou Victorian remnant full of bookshops and antique emporia – drawing curious glances from shoppers and shopkeepers. I’d stake my reputation on the bet that everyone’s here for Carl Barat. Pity the dude who strode the length of the queue determinedly handing out postcards for a private view, before asking what the purpose of the queue was. ‘Do you mean to say I’ve given these out to musos, not art-lovers?’ he lamented, watching several get used for roaching material or impromptu shelter from the rain.
Had he been talking to me and not the impossibly glamorous girls behind me, I could have pointed out the irony of his agony, what with Kieran Leonard’s Pages in Plectrums night being basically an attempt to blend music, art and literature. The gallery’s tiny space featured a windowledge as makeshift stage, scattered with dog-eared copies of Improving Tracts. As many of us squashed inside as could fit, with about half as many again left outside to peer through the window like Dickensian urchins. Kieran takes to the stage, looking fretful. An organiser hauls half the PA system to the doorway and turns it to the street. A voice from the back: ‘It’s like the Beatles!’
I’m never sure what to make of Dylan-bothering beanpole Leonard, the latest in a long line of Friends of Carlos. In the current cultural climate I’m loath to criticise someone so obviously well-intentioned and good-natured and who knows one cover of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from the other. So, to be charitable, here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is better at than singing:
1. being a compere, albeit in the manner of a trendy English teacher getting the guitar out on the last day of term
2. keeping people entertained while the rest of the bill is reportedly in the pub
3. being the only other person in the world to rate Tarantula
4. earnest rants studded with nervy swearing
5. making sudden eye contact from under his eyelashes to EMPHASISE the IMPORTANT parts of his SONGS
And here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is worse at than singing:
1. white-water rafting (I’m guessing here, and stand to be corrected).
He talks about Harold Pinter, then he does a song about Harold Pinter. Cans of Red Stripe are passed among the organisers. My lips twitch.
A voice from the back: ‘Is he here yet?’
Kieran looks troubled: ‘D’you want to give him a call? I think he’s in the pub.’
And another thing about daytime dry gigs: there are children in the crowd. Real actual children. There are children who look like cartoons of children: gap-toothed Gavroches in Converse, talking of that time they saw the Specials support the Horrors and repeatedly droning the wrong words to ‘Gangsters’. I glance around me. No, there’s still no bar.
Thankfully, we are at this point graced with the presence of Drew McConnell, Peter Doherty’s erstwhile Babyshambles lieutenant and more recently anchor of the Phoenix Drive and Helsinki. He’s solo tonight, bearing an alarming resemblance to Zammo from Grange Hill and a disarmingly sweet stage presence. His couple of songs, one new and one a Fionn Regan cover, slip down well and are a welcome reminder that in terms of Meaning It trumping vocal talent, Dylan is still the exception not the rule.
A voice from the back: ‘Carl’s here! …oh, no, okay. He’s just getting some soup.’
Third up is Mark Morris. At first I wasn’t sure why that name should strike such dread into my heart, but as he clambered on ‘stage’ it all, like a hideous acid reflux, came rushing back: the Bluetones. The mid-Nineties. The horror, the horror. I suppose if Tim Burgess couldn’t make it, someone has to play the desiccated indie casualty still smearing around the lukewarm shite of their Britpop glory days. They haven’t changed a bit. According to Kieran, much of the Bluetones back catalogue drew inspiration from the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Odd, as the only line I could previously recall of their oeuvre ran When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone / I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on, and even that was an Adrian Mitchell rip-off. See also ‘dull’, ‘plodding’, ‘quavery’, ‘utterly wet and a weed’, and ‘the reason I became a Sex Pistols fan at the age of twelve.’
Before fucking off, Morris nods to the upcoming attraction: ‘Can never pronounce his second name, but you know Carl – the hat, the hair…’
A voice from the back: ‘He’s not wearing a hat tonight!’ A visible ripple of anticipation. ‘Ooooh.’
Kieran’s back and he gets us to précis Oedipus Rex – ‘Greek tragedy, yeah, that’s some fucked-up shit’ – before doing the best song of his I’ve so far heard, setting the tragedy’s narrative in the contemporary London club scene. More flashbacks to lower-Sixth English class.
As the ‘stage’ is prepared for El Barat’s grand entrance, I think about The Sixties redux. There are inherent problems with the sort of unexamined ancestor-worship that gets Dylan to number one with his most mediocre album in decades, to say nothing of its choking-off of many aspects of progressive politics. Sure, this country’s headlong dash back into the maw of the 1980s in political and economic terms calls for a cultural renewal based around civil rights, feminist, anti-racist and youth activism, but, with the exception of Love Music Hate Racism firebrand McConnell, this evening was more Sixties-chic. The fusion of music, art and literature worked, but it doesn’t make up for the music in question being well-meaning-white-boys-by-numbers, nor for the readings being the usual roll-call of dead white modernist males – Eliot, Hemingway, Pinter. The currently pressing issues of racism and wider politics were engaged with only through the prism of readings from Thompson and Dylan and by Leonard’s (like the man himself, well-meaning and tolerable if you grit your teeth) cover of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. I suppose it’s not a bad start, but blinkers and boundaries need to dissolve if Pages in Plectrums is to be anything other than a contribution to the Scene That Celebrates Itself.
A voice from the back: ‘Wahey!’
And then Carl’s here, and my attendant privileges (white, Western, in London, employed) mean that I can stop chin-stroking for a while and start putting my hands together. Polishing off a full glass of Guinness, he kicks off with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. For the first verse, there is not a dry seat in the house. And then you’re struck anew by the fact that, Christ, the man can mumble. The misjudged nature of this cover becomes apparent when he fucks up the line that has the title in, rolls his eyes heavenwards and peels the written chords off the back of his guitar, shaking his head and muttering about only having done that as a favour. He tosses his hair back and, to the biggest – actually, the only – roar of approval all evening, he throws himself headlong into ‘What a Waster’. The song provides an accidentally apt showcase for the Libertines’ golden touch with cultural references, having that line that juxtaposes the Beano and the unabridged Ulysses (or, as Carl has it tonight, with perfect impromptu scansion, the Celestine Prophecies). Just as I’m marvelling at how a musician of Carl’s status can be unfamiliar with the Cohen canon, he reminds me that he’s also got the technological understanding of an elderly maiden aunt: glancing around at the forest of handheld cameras and videophones before him and looking baffled as ever at his own charisma, he exclaims ‘Stop Youtubing me!’.
On the set’s very brief evidence, it’s difficult to tell if he’s still got it, but this is at least nothing like the dark days of his ‘DJ’ and ‘club night’ wheelings-out. He’s in good voice, holding his guitar like a long-lost lover, and remains the only man in the world capable of giving a convincing rendition of the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo. It’s also telling that Carl’s giving up on Cohen and launching into his own intricately expletive-strewn missive gets the best reception, perhaps elevating the need to do it for yourself over the contrived sincerity of paying homage to the old masters. Though his inability to fake it for the space of a song does make me fear for his acting career.
Dylan at Brixton was unreal. In retrospect, since the show opened with a tribute to Link Wray, I’d like to think it ended with a tribute to Joe Strummer. There was a solemnity to things, at times, but not in a way that brought things down at all.
Okay, of course he’s appallingly old now and looks it, but he doesn’t look bad on it at all. And as the bores complained, he’s out of tune, but a) when has he ever been in tune?; b) define ‘tune’; c) ‘Lay Lady Lay’; and d) since when was that the point?. It’s not that his voice is shot, it’s just a different voice. He’s had so many and this is the latest. When some songs used to skid gloriously all over the place, with the exuberance of a toddler knee-sliding on polished parquet at a wedding reception, his delivery now keeps them grounded and anchored, a lilt as light as an empty rocking-chair. There’s something solemn and stately about the way he performs now.
There’s also glimpses of his former selves, like, as Susie said, a Magic Eye puzzle. His early earnest folk persona and his Messianic speed-freak Blonde On Blonde persona and his almost unbearable god-bothering Eighties persona, they’re all still there. It happens when he turns his head and takes the crowd in and there’s a collective intake of breath. There’s still that swagger and cockiness that avoids being arrogance and instead is just absolute self-assurance. Just him knowing he’s been right all along.
There had been a bit of talk about him tailoring the recent sets to express a newfound/rediscovered anti-imperialism. Sunday he played ‘Tales of Yankee Power’, and okay, we had ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (!!!) and ‘It’s Alright, Ma’, and arguably ‘Honest With Me’, but who knows the logic behind it. He’s had more than a moment of being atrociously right-wing and I think he even voted for Bush Senior. It doesn’t matter. Songs like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Masters of War’ have been taken out of his hands and into common ownership. They’ve enriched and strengthened twentieth-century protest the way that only good music can.
The set still contained a few songs I didn’t recognise, which is another reason I love him: there is always more to discover. There was less tiresome bluesy fretwank from the band this time, although there was still a bit. There was, fantastically, ‘Cold Irons Bound’ which sounded about ten years ahead of its time. ‘Visions of Johanna’, bloody hell. Again, there was that swaying between wanting to cry at how fantastic it was both as song and performance, and wanting (only slightly) to laugh at the fact that individual lines were getting their own applause. But then, when you write stuff of startling pinpoint accuracy like We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it or Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously or Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after a while (a line that I’m still not sure how to read), you deserve to be indulged.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, yeah, stately and solemn, and somehow not missing the visceral, malicious quality of its early outings (the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig has the definitive version of it, after ‘JUDAS!’ and after his transcendentally sneering and defiant response of ‘I don’t believe you… you’re a liar… Play it fuckin’ loud!’ The version they play then is fucking scourging, the repetition of ‘How does it feel?! like a whip across the shoulders). But the time for that has passed. He knows he was right. There’s still him-against-the-world feel to things, but it’s not-quite-bitter, resignation rather than rage. He’s beyond and above it all: ‘Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust‘ might, for his younger self, have been slyly about his outlasting Lennon, but these days I wonder if he cares about competition or rivalry, or even recognises it.
Hanging around for the encore, I was expecting the same as the last two times (Like a Rolling Stone/Cat’s in the Well/All Along the Watchtower), but no. ‘Cat’s in the Well’ was cut (possibly there’d been enough apocalyptic visions for one set) and instead there was London fucking Calling. Forty years or so, bloody hell. He matters, the same way the Clash mattered, the Manics, the Libertines. In the way they embody their influences, they matter. Dylan is what music should be and what lyrics should be, how songs should change your life.