Saturday, December 17, 2011

Jam of the day, songs that make you cry, and the devolution of liner notes: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"

Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Song: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Released: 1963
Label: Columbia Records

I was hanging out with a friend at my place last weekend and he revealed that he had never sat and listened to a Bob Dylan album straight through. So, of course, I made him sit there as we played Freewheelin' and then Blonde on Blonde and then … well, then it got late. We laughed out loud at some lyrics, marveled at the ingenuity, and generally enjoyed the tunes, but I made a particular point to stop doing whatever we were doing and really pay attention when "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" came on. Something about it hits me hard, and I find myself unable to not pay attention to it. I remember just crying to myself in the car while driving down an empy highway and listening to it. I still don't know exactly why, but it's just that powerful.


I also sat there and read the liner notes on this old vinyl copy of Freewheelin' I have, marvelling at the detailed, enthusiastic deconstruction of Dylan's songs and what they meant to the culture at the time of release. Why don't we have these notes anymore? Do we despise that much the idea of someone telling us what art is that, even if they're right, we won't pay attention, so no one bothers? Just read this particular passage, on this specific song, and tell me it isn't helpful, a true aid in listening to, understanding, and enjoying the music it describes. [Original punctuation/emphasis style preserved.]
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall represents to Dylan a maturation of his feelings on this subject since the earlier and almost as powerful Let Me Die in My Footsteps, which is not included here but which was released as a single record by Columbia. Unlike most of his song-writing contemporaries among the city singers, Dylan doesn't simply make a polemical point in his compositions. As in this song about the psychopathology of peace-through-balance-of-terror, Dylan's images are multiply (and sometimes horrifyingly) evocative. As a result, by transmuting his fierce convictions into what can only be called art, Dylan reaches basic emotions which few political statements or extrapolations of statistics have so far been able to touch. Whether a song or a singer can then convert others is something else again.

"Hard Rain," adds Dylan, "is a desparate kind of song." It was written during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962 when those who allowed themselves to think of the possible results of the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation were chilled by the imminence of oblivion. "Every line in it", says Dylan, "is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."

And that's just about this song! The entire back cover is filled with paragraphs like these about every song on the album, and some others, setting the record in historical and cultural context, describing its ingenuities and influences alike. It's obviously written by a fan, but not a fanboy. This Mr. Nat Hentoff (who is, as the notes say, "a frequent contributor to such periodicals as 'The Reporter,' 'The New Yorker,' 'Playboy,' 'Commonweal' and 'The Village Voice'") has a lot of positive things to say about Mr. Dylan, but he does so intelligently and interestingly. Record reviews are one thing, but having this kind of critical analysis contained within an album's packaging is an interesting and helpful idea, and I really wonder why it has disappeared. Would some major labels ever consider bringing this back? Thoughts?

On a related note, here's a great blog essay about music criticism and how/why we read it: what i think makes a record review great after reading a couple thousand, and my favorite pitchfork review of all time from Pitchfork Reviews Reviews.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jam of the day, a surprising Rolling Stones lookalike, and ramblings on the evolution of communal listening experiences: Nick Drake / "Pink Moon"

Artist: Nick Drake
Album: Pink Moon
Song: "Pink Moon"
Released: 25 February 1972
Label: Island Records

Nick Drake is an incredible musician and an enigmatic figure in modern musical history. I undoubtedly underappreciated his music (and his life story) when first introduced to him by an older and wiser (and funnier) friend during my freshman year of college. I never let go of him, though, and over the years, I've developed a wonderful appreciation for his music. No one else's songs can actually cause physical chills to run through my limbs as I sit listening, feeling as if this person is reaching across time and space to play me a special show. No one.

I've never known too much about Nick's life, though; this is partly because no one really does, either. Precious few photographs of him exist, and no videos, leaving only his albums and a handful of demo tapes that have reappeared as a "home recordings" compilation to connect his past to our present. I was aware of his tragic story—depression and suicide in his early 20s—but never learned much beyond that, partly because I didn't know how and, I suppose, partly because I wasn't sure that I wanted/needed to. Something changed recently, though, and I found myself picking up Nick Drake: The Biography, by Patrick Humphries, from the local library.

It's a delightful read, and an honest and amibitious attempt to piece together as many facts and personal impressions as possible from contemporary sources—school friends, teachers, family, etc. I'm not even a third of the way into the book, and I already feel like several doors and windows into his music have opened, simultaneously casting some light on dark corners and bringing some dusty, cobwebby, depressing corners into view.

Earlier this year, I stumbled on a new vinyl copy of Pink Moon while out shopping for Record Store Day and snatched it up. It's great for early morning listening, settling down in the recliner with a cup of coffee for a wistful stare out the window. As I mentioned, I picked up this bio at the library about a month ago, and just last week, CC featured a video of a Volkswagen ad using "Pink Moon" in his 5 Songs Ruined By Commercials post. All signs pointed to sharing this song. So here it is. I beseech you, just turn off/tune out/forget about whatever you were doing just now and focus on this song. You'll feel rewarded for your earnest enthusiasm, trust me.

 Note: the top commenter's suggestion to run Rainymood simultaneously is a pretty good one.

On a lighter note, I've come across several amusing anecdotes in the biography thus far. One particularly amusing one is told by a high school friend about a summer road trip from Morocco to Chad during which their car broke down, forcing them to stop in the small town of Meknes. Their mechanic was suprisingly friendly and asked to take before-and-after photos of Nick and his pal with their car. They obliged, paid a small fee, and went on their merry way a few days later. On their way back through Tangiers, they were stopped by the local police and searched for drugs. Apparently, The Rolling Stones had toured through Morocco recently, and the mechanic mistook the boys for Mick and Keith, or something, their photo was published in the local paper, and they were subsequently pulled over and searched. Wild.

Another passage that struck me was more about the nature of the times—the 60s—and how the public interacted with music. The author and his interviewees note the connection between LP sleeves and joint rolling, and then discuss the sense of awareness of the musical charts, the communal nature of music listening, the social aspects:

"… in those days everyone knew what number one was. These days nobody knows, because the whole thing is so fragmented. I think accessibility to material was much more difficult, so there was much more of a sense of belonging to a cult. So if you managed a trip up to London and got hold of a copy of, I don't know, Mississippi John Hurt, this was like gold dust. People would come round and it would be an event to listen to it … I remember hiring the cellar in my college because I'd somehow or other managed to get hold of a first copy of Tommy, and actually playing it like a concert."

"Everyone took music much more seriously than we do these days. You'd gather together, sometimes people would be floating in and out of a particular room where people were smoking, they'd be playing records all day and people would come in and just sit, listening quite seriously all the way through The Beatles' White Album, and then drift off."

That just sounds incredible to me, and so entirely different from our modern technologically-oriented musical landscape. No iPods. No mixtapes, even. Just shared, long-player listening. Turntables and speakers, or headphones. Attentive listeners, active listeners, caring listeners. I'm sure this sounds odd to anyone from an older generation, but god damn I really wish things were like that now. Not completely, because I do appreciate the marvels of the internet and mp3s and all that new-fangled jazz, but … a big part of me longs for those past times (not "simpler times", mind you, though) where there was a sense of universal appreciation for music and art, of communal experience, of … something larger than ourselves, of an awareness of that, and of marveling at it. We need that again.