Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dylan as poetry

I posted this comment on Matt Merrill's post about Dylan. Matt was responding to this piece (which I have not read yet).


First of all, it's a little hard to test Dylan's lyrics as poetry, since his best texts are ones that one is mostly already familiar with. Perhaps Andrew Motion (and you and I) should have read the lyrics to all the songs on "Modern Times" before listening to the CD. An experiment for his next album?

Secondly, I'm a little unsure about the idea of "depending for effects on the music"? It's hard to separate the music and the text, of course, but just because the music provides effects does not mean the text could not stand alone. To use your example of RT: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is a wondrous text. I can't imagine without the music, because I know RT's version too well, as well as Greg Brown's superb cover of it on his "The Live One," but the text is still flawless.

Finally, I have a collection of Greg Brown's live covers of Dylan that is fantastic. I can send you a copy if you like.


Donald Brown said...

Back in those days when I believed someone could be a poet without writing a line of poetry, I also believed that poetry, in our age, should be performed not simply printed or merely read aloud. I don't hear many poetry readings that come close to what I thought I meant, but Dylan was the ideal. Sure, they're songs, but his ability to put across the words with his voice is key to what the songs are.

I was thinking about this before I saw your post; I was walking with iPod playing songs from "New Morning" and "Self Portrait" -- most of the songs on the latter he didn't write, and neither album is touted as great Dylan lyrics. But his ability to put those songs across gave me great delight that went far beyond what would be printed on the page or the music sheet. "Copper Kettle": listen to him declare "we ain't paid no whisky tax since 1792." "Went to See the Gypsy": "it was nearly early dawn" -- it gets me every time; "If Dogs Run Free" -- listen to how he says "In har-mo-ny with the cosmic sea / true love needs no com-pa-ny." It's gauche and charming at the same time. And speaking of covers: his version of Lightfoot's "Early Mornin' Rain" is a gem.

and read this, then listen to him sing it ("Sign on a Window"):

Build me a cabin in Utah / marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / have a bunch of kids who call me Pa / that must be what it's all about / that must be what it's all about

I like covers of Dylan songs too, but it's mainly because they're good songs to interpret, to try to find a voice to match the voice(s) he found in singing them.

So I'd love to have Greg Brown's covers of Dylan tunes.

Brian Campbell said...

The trouble with most literary people -- I mean academics and the like -- when they consider song craft is that they lack musicianship, or appreciation for the musical qualities of a good song. (They may love music & certain songs, but that's not the same thing.) When evaluating a song as poetry their first inclination is to excise the music and to see if the lyrics work by themselves as a poem. Inevitably, they are disappointed. They are then likely to put down songs and the songwriting craft as "bad poetry put to music", a "minor art", etc.

In a good song, lyrics and music are inseparable; in the writing of them, the latter evokes the former more often than the former evokes the latter. (That's at least my experience: nothing like learning a new chord progression to bring out a new song from me...)

If one were to do a truly faithful critique of a song, part of that job would be to look at certain chord changes and see how they correspond to the emotional colorations of the words that go with. Most of these, of course, are purely intuitive on a part of the songwriter, as with most vocabulary choices in poems. Few literary academics have any idea the kind of discipline it takes to come up with a good bridge, how strictly honed diction has to be to follow the punch of a rhythm, and how much thought -- or feeling one's way -- can go into that. "Inspiration's great," Sheryl Crow once said, "but knowing the craft will save your ass." Couldn't be put by a better craftsman -- or woman.

Brian Campbell said...

Hi Andrew, here's some interesting dialogue I've been having on my site on this issue:

R. W. Watkins said...

I've never really considered Dylan-the-recording-artist a poet--just a sometimes-brilliant songwriter (who has a very limited canon of creative writing on paper). Like Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, Ted Nugent, etc., he's also an idiot savant. He admitted in the 60 Minutes interview a few years back that he just wrote those old protest songs for the sake of writing songs--he never really fully believed in most of that stuff. Also, in that No Direction Home documentary they aired on PBS, he admits that he never knew what a communist was when he was well into his 20s, despite hanging out with the likes of Pete Seeger. And don't forget his conversion to Christianity, complete with a reputed baptism in Pat Boone's swimming pool.

As far as I'm concerned, the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, The Doors' Jim Morrison, Lou Reed (despite being heavily influenced by Dylan), Patti Smith and Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo all function far better as printed poetry on a page.
Monday, September 10, 2007 6:04:00 PM
Brian Campbell said...

Yes, I'd say you're right there. I can think of a few others: Kurt Cobain, Amanda McBroom (The Rose), Joni Mitchell, even, I'd say, Tom Waits.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 11:15:00 PM
R. W. Watkins said...

Yeah, Brian, I meant to include Mitchell in the above comment, but forgot her at the last minute. The others you suggested were good choices, too--definitely Tom Waits. Waits's old sidekick in the L.A. cafe scene of the mid to late '70s, Ricki Lee Jones, also fits the category quite nicely; as does Jimi Hendrix (particularly on the second Experience LP, Axis: Bold As Love), Bruce Cockburn, and probably Nick Cave (The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). As well, I would consider Pete Townshend (both on his own and with The Who) and Roger Waters (with or without The Pink Floyd) as the great rock 'n' roll playwrights, so to speak. Their lyrics on concept albums truly function as opera librettos. Ditto for the late Frank Zappa in the comic sense.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007 11:16:00 AM



Donald Brown said...

I agree with what Brian Campbell says about doing a "truly faithful critique of a song," which is why I don't feel capable of really writing in depth on Dylan as I would like because I don't play an instrument.

However I disagree with Watkins' comments. I would agree that many of the people he mentions are good songwrites and sometimes great lyricists, but they pretty much all mine a definite area. Dylan is more vast and has songs that equal the best of any of them. In fact, almost all of those he mentions were influenced by Dylan to some extent (if necessary I can cite examples in most cases).

As to quoting what Dylan says in interviews as a means to get a handle on him . . . really. And Ted Nugent??

Andrew Shields said...

"Dylan is more vast": what a wonderful way to put it.

One could push it further: he defines how unlimited the word "vast" actually is.