Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque

Empire Burlesque

Bob DylanEmpire Burlesque Columbia FC 40110 (1985)


Empire Burlesque first came to my attention when Richard Hell wrote something on his web site about liking it.  While the focus isn’t always on the lyrics–something almost guaranteed to turn off most Dylan fans – -the musical backdrop is far richer than on most of his albums.  It does sound a little dated.  But the use of (synth) horns and backing singers works better here than on Street-Legal.  There is a ragged decadence to the music that fits.  The songs evidence contentment, but with questioning, lingering doubt just below the surface.  Something about it all sounds mature.  Plus, for the skeptics, try going straight to the solo acoustic closer “Dark Eyes.”  Can you maybe admit that the young Dylan of the 1960s was still alive and well?  If you can answer “yes” in the context of an overtly “folk” song, then go back to the opener “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” and “Emotionally Yours” and ask if there isn’t some of the same spark there in a whole different setting.  This album may be reviled by many fans, but it is probably my favorite of the post-Desire albums, edging out Shot of Love and Good As I Been to You.

13th Floor Elevators – Easter Everywhere

Easter Everywhere

13th Floor Elevators – Easter Everywhere International Artists IA LP 5 (1967)


Strangely enough, Easter Everywhere manages to be a psych-rock classic.  The epic opener “Slip Inside This House” is about as good as they come.  After that, things may seem a little more uneven than the debut The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators, but given a little more time this album reveals itself as something just as finely crafted, if even weirder and darker.  Conventional judgment might call this a poor recording, given the tuneless vocals and guitar–and it’s fair to call them tuneless in the sense that they make pervasive forays into atonality–but it’s precisely those elements that make this so very psychedelic.  A cover of Dylan‘s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (shortened to just “Baby Blue”) winds up being almost as compelling as “Slip Inside the House.”  This feels like all the unexpected and unpredictable energy of the 1960s coming to a head.

13th Floor Elevators – Live

Live

13th Floor ElevatorsLive International Artists IA LP 8 (1968)


A fake live album of studio outtakes with crowd noise overdubs.  The material does actually align with the band’s actual live set lists though.  The thing is, as posthumous releases have demonstrated, they could have released a high quality album of real live recordings.  Not bad for fans, in spite of the pointless canned applause, but casual listeners can safely pass this by.

Alain Badiou – In Praise of Love

In Praise of Love

Alain Badiou with Nicolas Truong (Peter Bush, transl.) – In Praise of Love [Elogie de l’amour] (New Press 2012, Flammarion 2009)

Alain Badiou is among the more vital philosophers alive today.  Not that many care.  He appears in Godard‘s Film Socialisme delivering a lecture to an empty hall on board a cruise ship (Godard insists he listed Badiou’s presentation on the ship’s social itinerary).  It is worth mentioning this because Badiou references the film project in this book, In Praise of Love, but also because the book draws its title from another Godard film of the same name.

Badiou begins the slender — and highly readable — volume critiquing the role philosophers have or have not played in investigating love.  He finds the sexless, lonely philosophers who make up a basic course in the field somewhat poor in experience.

For Badiou, love is about “see[ing] the world from the point of view of two rather than one.”

“[W]hat kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one?  What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?  This is what I believe love to be.” p. 22

He calls this a “Two scene.”  It is “the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.”  It is something more than the concerns of a single individual.

“[Love] is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.” p. 25

This is a proposition that requires, most fundamentally, a risk.  In his own philosophical jargon, mentioned in the book but also explained in plain terms, this initial encounter is an “event” (a concept he laid out in Being and Event [L’ être et l’événement] (1988)).  An “event” is something that is only authentically possible when it seems to exceed its causes, a rupture in what seems possible under prevailing norms giving rise to a fleeting subjective decision point about how to experience the world.  There is just something likeably good about this thesis.  But even if there might be widespread agreement on this point, for Badiou, it is only a starting point.

Drawing from Arthur Rimbaud‘s line in A Season in Hell [Une saison en enfer] that “love needs to be reinvented” he stresses the need to continually choose to construct the “Two scene”.  This, in Badiou’s jargon, is a “truth procedure.”  In the face of changing events he sees a need to reinvent the “Two scene” in the context of each circumstance, which is to say moving from point to point, to replay the initial declaration and “find the terms for a new declaration.”

“Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” p. 32

Badiou denigrates the view of love in a typical theatrical play being about and culminating with marriage, the sorts of stories in which the wedding takes place at the end and we are to assume that therefore “love” has been achieved, and is over, complete.  He instead, somewhat provocatively, points to Samuel Beckett as “a writer of the obstinancy of love.”  Perhaps another example beyond those given by Badiou, within the limited range of Hollywood movies, is the film The Five-Year Engagement (2012), in which the main characters initially try to sort out their lives before getting married only to repeatedly choose to view their lives in terms of a being a couple.

Badiou even applies his ideas of love to politics.  He sees it as a way to limit identity politics, and “integrate the most extensive divergences” in a kind of internationalism that permits real equality.  He contrasts that project of “love” with the “reactionary project” that “is always the defense of ‘our values’, . . . as the only possible identity.”  This is his perspective on multiculturalism, and continues his support for secular states in which people of different religions, cultures and ethnicity can live together.

Some of the specific examples illustrating the concepts tackled in the book may be highbrow, or at least very French.  But Badiou frames his discussion of love in terms that are freed from the contexts of his examples.  Badiou’s thoughts on love are at once immediately understandable and uniquely his own.  He is most concerned with what sustains a way of subjectively experiencing the world.  He sees “love” as an important process for doing so that is more than just a one-time declaration, or a finish line.  It is an unstable thing.  This is what makes it so vital.  Philosophy is all about asking better questions.  Badiou is asking questions that confront everyone.  He’s put the question forward in a way that has a curious blend of practicality and theoretical weight.  Curious readers should give his ideas a chance.

Neil Young – A Letter Home

A Letter Home

Neil YoungA Letter Home Third Man TMR-245 (2014)


Neil Young has continued to zig and zag in his later career.  That is the best thing about him.  The obvious gimmick of A Letter Home is that it was recorded with an antique amusement park recording booth more than 60 years old, one never intended in the first instance to produce “professional” quality recordings.  With it, Young records an introduction to his deceased mother and then plays songs of famous songwriters he admires–all ones from eras after that of the recording booth.  The equipment provides a way to focus attention on the performances.  The lack of fidelity, the gaps and clicks and pops, they all impress upon the listener that not everything is captured.  The recording is a partial document.  But the vintage equipment doesn’t allow a conscious selection and control of the final product to the degree assumed by contemporary standards.  The creates the possibility for the audience to wonder what it is really about.  At that point, with the audience properly oriented, Young delivers some rather wonderful performances.  Gordon Lightfoot‘s “If You Could Read My Mind” is the least predictable, and best, of them.  Some Willie Nelson songs, particularly “On the Road Again,” fail to impress to the same degree.  At its finest, A Letter Home has Neil Young not on a pedestal, but somebody hacking away with the sort of materials and technological residues available to anyone else, making a mark only so much and so far as his talents alone permit.  IT would seem they can take him quite a way indeed.

On Criticism (1)

I think I’ll start a periodic series of comments on the nature of criticism.  This is the first installment.

There is a necessity of a multiplicity of meanings.  That is to say, criticism cannot exist from a single perspective.  The point of consulting criticism should be to include a range of possible perspectives.  Meaning, in the sense that criticism engenders, can only be partial.

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

Highway 61 Revisited

Bob DylanHighway 61 Revisited Columbia CL 2389 (1965)


Highway 61 Revisited was Dylan’s entry into the realm of superstardom.  He had popularity that was entering the same leagues as that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  Bringing It All Back Home was massively popular, but Highway 61 confirmed that Dylan was no flash-in-the-pan success.

This is quite simply the single most essential Dylan album, and one of the most essential rock and roll albums by anyone from any era.  The enduring importance of this album might be how it managed to be a rock album of substance, something with real weight and depth, not just tawdry entertainment.  Unlike Bringing It All Back Home with an entire side geared toward folk rather than rock, Highway 61 Revisited focused entirely on rock.  So much early rock and roll was easily dismissed as just dance music or hillbilly stuff without cachet in urban centers.  This album was something else.  It raised the bar for what rock music was (or could be) about.  In a way, it helped give unprecedented legitimacy to rock and roll, without ever diminishing the intensity and energy and exuberance of the music.  By this point, Dylan’s songwriting talent was unassailable.  He had successfully fused blues rock with poetic lyrics that encompassed symbolism, American and biblical mythology, surrealism, literary references, and vivid imagery.  The songs rarely “meant” anything in a literal sense.  They were oblique invocations of certain feelings and images without a fixed and definite meaning.  You can listen to these songs again and again and come away with a slightly interpretation each time.  Roland Barthes wrote the following year in Criticism and Truth that “a work is ‘eternal’ not because it imposes a single meaning on different men, but because it suggests different meanings to one man…”  So it was with these songs.  Dylan’s approach was drawing huge influence from the writings of the Beats, incorporating that writing style into a rock and roll setting.  The music still had a huge, driving syncopated beat, complete with just enough of the twang and grit to draw a clear line of influence from early rock and roll.  He was supported by a studio band that included members of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band plus Al Kooper on keyboards.  Kooper was not a keyboardist, but the recording sessions for this album made him one.  Electric guitarist Mike Bloomfield has a strong presence that separates the sound of this album from others Dylan had recorded to this point (or what he did later, for that matter).

On “Tombstone Blues,” Dylan sings “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” invoking American slang in which both “yellow” and “chicken” refer to cowardice.  Applying the terms to the sun, Dylan–in a way that epitomizes his songwriting at the time–says something that is perfectly plain but that doesn’t mean anything in particular.  He turns the word “yellow” from a description of color into a slang reference to something that doesn’t really have a literal meaning when applied to the sun.  But to follow this, you almost have to work backwards through the lyrics.  In a nutshell, that’s Dylan’s mid-1960s songwriting.

Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding

Bob DylanJohn Wesley Harding Columbia CS 9604 (1967)


After the enormous success of Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan had his motorcycle accident and he retreated from the public eye.  He wouldn’t put on a public concert for a few more years, and it would be about eight years before he toured again.  After exploring rootsier music in private with The Band in recording The Basement Tapes demos, he made something of a break with the studio recordings of John Wesley Harding.  In what would come to characterize a lot of Dylan’s later recordings, there is something of a search for peace and solitude in this music, as opposed to the brash and bold approaches of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.  He turned away from what listeners might have expected.  Now Dylan was exploring myth and historical curiosities of the American Old West — just after the Summer of Love found the counterculture exploring entirely new social relations.  The album title is about Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin (Dylan changed the spelling here).  The entire album is something of a return to more traditional folk music, but with a significant change from Dylan’s earliest albums.  This album was recorded with a backing band, and the drums of Kenny Buttrey and bass of Charlie McCoy propel the music forward.  If any of Dylan’s albums deserve the description “folk-rock” he so disliked, it’s probably this one.  Recorded entirely in Nashville, Dylan’s vocals are noticeably stronger than on so many of his recordings.  His nasal whine and mumbled grunts are held in check.

The songs tend to be good, even if some are content to merely lock into a simple groove.  “All Along the Watchtower” is a song usurped by Jimi Hendrix for an incendiary cover version on next year’s Electric Ladyland.  Although the version by Hendrix is iconic, Dylan’s original version is still vital.  Dylan’s version has a pressing weariness that is completely different from the ominous desperation of the electrified Hendrix version (which tends to be used in almost every Hollywood Vietnam War movie).

While perhaps not as immediately ear-catching to the newcomer as the last few albums, John Wesley Harding remains among Dylan’s best albums.  I’ve played this album numerous times around others and they ask what it is, because few seem to immediately recognize this as Dylan (or at least seem unsure about it) but generally are drawn to like it.

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music

Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music

Various Artists – Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music Legacy C5K 61432 (2000)


As an overview of jazz, this set definitely falls in the shadow of the great compilation The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.  There is a lot of overlap between the two, and to the extent that they are different, the Smithsonian collection is superior.  One principal reason is that the Smithsonian collection sticks to being an overview through about 1960, and doesn’t really go beyond that date (with a small number of exceptions mostly linked to the early 60s).  This Ken Burns set, however, does go beyond 1960, but offers only an extremely scattershot and poor representation of anything post-1956, and by the last disc seems veer into the territory of rock and pop songs rather than jazz.  Anyway, pick it up if you find a bargain copy more easily than the Smithsonian one.

This set does track somewhat the TV miniseries Jazz by Ken Burns, which in my opinion is an abomination.  Sure it has some great archival footage, but it’s buried under some hammy, overproduced narration and a deluge of longwinded Wynton Marsalis monologues.  The TV show is more a history of the rising and falling popularity of jazz in society, more than a musicological history of jazz the folk art and its evolution in predominately musical terms.  So, naturally, things stay pretty much on track through the rise of jazz to the height of its popularity, but completely fall apart during the period when the popularity of jazz was on the decline.  Rather than discuss the incredible space that was created at a time when tremendously creative artists more at the fringes were vigorously pursuing the idiom relatively free from commercial concerns when there were still enough jazz venues open, enough willing record labels, and recording technology had never been better, rather than touch on that era in a meaningful way, the TV series merely offers a few blunt dismissals of the “new” music of the 1960s (though you might say there is no such thing as bad publicity).  Then, as a final touch, the TV series displaces the discussion they should be having about the fragmented nature of modern jazz by filling up an unnecessary amount of time with lengthy obituaries to the jazz legends of decades past, many of which were previously presented in the miniseries at length, at the expense of the modern jazz legends of the era they purport to be discussing.  Given the length of the TV series, they can hardly say there was no room for modern jazz.  Also, you might guess it from the title of this particular box set, but they ignore 99% of jazz that came out of Europe or elsewhere.  In all, though, the TV series has all the faults of those history books that Howard Zinn, James Loewen et al. have pointed out: they revel in feel-good myths at the expense of hard facts, and manage to paint jazz as no more than a quaint historical oddity, only relevant today to the extent that it can be trotted out as a dusty museum piece or nostalgic/retro fad.  Contrary to what you’ll hear in the Burns TV series, jazz didn’t kinda die in the 1970s; the (hack?) critics selected for interviews in the TV series just happen to not like music of that era.  Bring in a different set of critics and you would have an entirely different set of perspectives.  The problem is that it relies on a kind of false consensus.  It would be like doing a documentary of 20th Century politics and featuring only talking heads from a single political party, one that was actively involved in politics of that era.  Would you trust it?

Cultural Detritus, Reviews, and Commentary