Rejoicing

Well, I think it’s thrilling that Bob Dylan won his Nobel prize. One of the most profound artists alive today. Someone who goes very deep in me.

dylan-blog dylan-blogAnd I’m also thrilled because by choosing him the Nobel people validated something I’ve been talking about for quite a while — that art has migrated beyond the arts. “The arts” in this case being defined as an industry (made up of institutions offering high art) that claims to represent all art. But doesn’t, because art — and this started long ago — has migrated outside it. And is found all through our society, in pop music, film, TV, cuisine, fashion, children’s books. And the list could go on and on.

When they chose Dylan, the Nobel people showed that they get this.

And also his music

Of course Dylan won the prize for literature. Which he richly deserves.

But here I smell a little bit of danger, the possibility, however small, that giving him a literary prize plays into an anti-pop music prejudice. Namely the belief that if pop music has cultural significance, that’s only because of its lyrics. As if Dylan wrote visionary lyrics, and then sang them to tunes that — compared to classical music or jazz — are pretty elementary.

But I don’t buy that, not at all. If there were a Nobel prize for music, Dylan would deserve that, too. Because, for one thing, his lyrics were written to be sung. Came to us through his music. And wouldn’t for a moment have attracted our attention if his music weren’t the perfect vessel for his words. If it didn’t — by itself — compel us to listen.

As if  “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (the last song on Blonde on Blonde”) didn’t from its very first moments live (like the slow movement of a Mahler symphony) in expanded time, already stretching toward its 11-minute length (an eternity for pop music).

As if each verse of the song (which is strophic, but the verses aren’t at all simply constructed) didn’t contain with in it the song’s refrain, tucked into the verse, not separate.

As if after each verse there’s something that sounds like a transition to the next one. But isn’t, because Dylan breaks in on it, as if he can’t bear not to go on. Which, for brief moments, is the only hurry in the song. Which otherwise stays inexorable, never stops moving, moving slowly, never stopping, never wasting even the smallest instant.

…his voice…

And as if Dylan didn’t sing the end of the chorus…

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,

Should I put them by your gate,

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

…differently each time. The performance, in pop music, being central to the music’s text. (As it so definitely isn’t in classical music.) The varied singing of each chorus being part of the the flow, the form, the evolution of the song.

As is all of Dylan’s singing, right from the start. His voice, so unfairly called tuneless (listen to Nashville Skyline, or his two albums of Frank Sinatra songs, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, ) moves through gradations of singing and speech.

So I read the lyrics…

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times

…and then I hear him sing…

With your mercury mouth [now rising and moving toward speech] in the missionary times

…and then if I listen with my analytic ear I hear more gradations of tone and emphasis just in those words than I’d know how to notate. This is music as body language. Musical flow as body language. Echoing over, under, and around the melody and chords (the things in the song that classical music knows how to quantify), echoing through the guitar, drums, bass, and organ in the band, echoing all around the resonant words. Through five long stanzas, in no hurry, with no destination, always just…

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,

And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,

Oh, do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,

And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,

Who could they get to carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,

Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,

Should I put them by your gate,

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

(plus four stanzas more, a copyright violation to quote them)

Original Source: Rejoicing

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