On Dylan On Dylan

Dylan On Dylan, edited by Jonathan Cott

As an exercise once a year Georges Perec described the houses on the street he lived on as a child. He did this to compare how his memories and his expressions of them would change over the years, when he was in different places and at different ages.

This put me in mind of Bob Dylan in this collection of interviews spanning the years; from 1962, when he was 20 years old, to 2004 when he was 63. He’s consistently asked similar questions, such as what his influences were, how he feels about his songs and, from the late 60s onwards, he’s often asked about being seen as “the voice of  generation”. And obviously this changes as time goes on, a common thread running through his answers but different none the less.

Anyway, I wondered when I picked this book up in a second hand book shop in the Lake District on a particularly rainy Sunday, whether I would ever read it, let alone enjoy it. As any budding young muso has I’ve had my own “Dylan phase” but that was years ago, plus a book of interviews from a man who is a famously acerbic interviewee, wanting to reveal nothing, often offended by questions – that’s going to be pretty tedious, right?

Well, not for (supernerd) me it turns out. Firstly, I think (and so does the book, in case you’re worrying I’ll ever have an original opinion) Dylan’s reputation as being terrible to interview stems a lot from “Don’t Look Back”, when he is both a) being pissed off by facile questions about being a protest singer and b) being a 24 year old dick. But, as seen through these selected interviews, he can be funny and illuminating but, importantly, only on subjects he wishes to be. I think he sensibly does not see interviews as any kind of therapy, instead only revealing what he wishes to reveal. This is not to say he hates the interview process, obviously treating it as some type of game during the period covered here.

After a while I stopped thinking of this book as a collection of interviews, and more of a biography written in the eye of the storm, by  a multitude of people, pin-pointing Dylan at various points in his life without the benefit of hindsight – instead concentrating on the present at all points. It’s obviously not a diary, or a ‘tell-all’ – for example Dylan keeping variously a marriage, family and heroin habit secret during the time covered – and it’s not unbiased – some of the articles verge on sycophantic, talking about pieces of work that could be charitably called “not his best” – but it is a great snapshot of how the outside world viewed Dylan as he lived his life.

In terms of subjects covered I found a few things fascinating. Obviously in the 60s there was a lot of talk of why he didn’t align himself  more with political movements and why he didn’t sing protest songs anymore. Thinking about this after a while for me  it became a case of “well, why should he?” I don’t spend my whole life protesting, no matter how shitty the world is… but listening back to his first few albums you can see where these interviewers were coming from, full of incendiary protest songs as they are. Also, in a typically contrary measure, when people shut up about him protesting he wrote a few protest songs and started getting involved in Farm Aid.

I loved  the way he talks about his songs. It’s heart warming to see he never rejects his material, beloved by so many, as he changes styles (as might be expected) and as he gets older he talks of his awe at how he used to write. He does, however, refuse to be drawn into specifics about his songs instead talking more of a mood that may have inspired them or that he just channelled them from somewhere else, which to me makes sense: why kill the mystery of a song by going into specifics? Besides, he may not even know himself.

Another thing I enjoyed was the generosity and insight with which Dylan talked about other writers. He thinks Ray Davies is really great and wonders why people don’t ask him about Ray more. On Paul Simon he quite rightly points out that Simon has written some amazing songs and some bad ones too, “but hasn’t everyone?”

Some tidbits: Dylan thinks all of his albums sound pretty crappy; Dylan can spout gibberish with the best of them; when he started out he was asked why his “fans were all between 18 and 25”.

I also got to thinking if there was any body else I’d be interested in seeing given this type of treatment – and I struggled. Recently Haruki Murakami, someone I respect greatly and an esteemed polymath, has been giving a bevy of interviews promoting his latest novels… and if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. On the other side of the coin Noel Gallagher (not a hero of mine by any stretch of the imagination) is an undoubtedly great interviewee but I think a whole  book would fail to kepp my attention, no matter how many amusing soundbites it contained. In the middle of these two, Tom Waits, a hero, has actually had a similar book published; whilst he’s known as giving fantastic interview I’ve always found these a bit stagey, a bit too “look how interesting and strange I am”.

Finally, an answer is given as to why Bobby did the Victoria’s Secret advert in 2007…

From a televised press conference, KQED (San Francisco), December 3, 1965

If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?

Ladies garments

The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats are a heartfelt, super literate (kind-of) band.  If you don’t know them, they are John Darnielle’s project running from the early 90s up until the moment you’re reading this, starting as a super-lofi, cassette only, cult band, and turning into a lusher, hifi 4AD/Merge band. For my money, John Darnielle writes some of the most affecting, appeal-to-the-senses lyrics you’ll ever find, hitting you in the gut on a huge variety of subjects from monsters to bible stories, to his own past to the Chicago Cubs – usually written from the view of a person who has reached a crux point in their life.

Untitled Birthday cake song.. the Ur Text for mountain goats songs.

And while I admit their songs aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, not being hypermelodic or danceable, there is a huge variety of subject matter covered, even if it at times you’d swear he’s writing the same song again and again (N.B I write this as a super fanboy nerd)…

So I thought, who better to do a reductive “rank the albums” style thing on?

1. The Sunset Tree (2005)

The third of the post lofi albums. I originally wrote it off as a substandard rewrite of his previous material. Shows what I know, and also calls into question somewhat the veracity of this list. As time went on I began to appreciate this autobiographical album, a prequel of sorts to “We Shall All Be Healed”, as the masterpiece it is. Telling the story of JD’s life with his abusive stepfather, these are a gorgeously realised set of jaw-dropping songs, comparing the horror that existed in Danrielle’s young life with the beauty and escapes that could be found there too. Has exhilarating songs like “This Year” – “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me” – and eulogic  beauty in the tender “Pale Green Things”. Essential.

2. The Coroner’s Gambit (2000)

The first album I heard by the MGs so it’s bound to have a place in my heart. I couldn’t believe the intensity of songs such as “Family Happiness ” – “You can arm me to the teeth, you can’t make me go to war” – or the perfect descriptions of infatuation “baseballs fly faster when you watch them fly”. I’m really sorry to write this, but I felt as if my head had been blown open. Finally, after years of dross, poetry I could like.

3. All Hail West Texas (2002)

JD’s kiss off to the lofi genre, recorded solely on his trusty boombox, and different in tone to the Coroner’s Gambit. There’s a lovely lightness to some of the narrative based tales here, starting with two of JD’s most beloved songs “Fall Of The Star High School Running Back”  and “The Best Heavy Metal Band Out Of Denton”, the latter of which is a perfect summation of teenage dreams and the consequences of quashing them (later expanded in the excellent 33 1 3 book “Master Of Reality”). This album also contains the lines “hi diddle dee dee,a  pirate’s life for me”. What’s not to like?

4. Tallahasse (2002)

The first super duper hi fi album and, not coincidentally, their first release on 4AD. With help from his friend Frank(lin) Bruno of the great Nothing Painted Blue and featuring the Adam-John-Miller-influencin’ bass playing of Mr. Peter Hughes for the first time. This tells the story of the much tortured Alpha Couple (the pair John Darnielle had been torturing in song for ten years)  and features songs and lyrics that will resonate with anybody who’s been in a slightly tortured relationship (e.g. everyone). Something for everyone to like then but it helps if you wear glasses and like to wear thick jumpers. Contains their biggest “hit”, and best anti-love song ever, “No Children”.

5. Sweden (1995)

The second “proper” MGs album. May or may not be a concept album. Contains the backing vocals of female bassist Rachel Ware, as do most very early albums. Contains gems such as “Some Swedish Trees” and “The Recognition Scene”. The album isn’t actually about Sweden but I hear if you squint at the cover for long enough the album’s connection to Sweden will be revealed, along with some dark, dark secrets. Enjoy the flubby bass.

6. Full Force Galesburg (1997)

Holds a whole mountain of appeal-to-the-senses, naturey type writing even for JD. And mentions of animals. Contains several outstanding songs including Masher, possibly my favourite Mountain Goats song, which puts it close for all time. Similar in tone to albums like Nine Black Poppies and Zopilote Machine but the superior songs make it stand out. Sorry I’m losing control of the language again.

7. Heretic Pride (2008)

Monsters was the starting theme for this album. But not all of it’s about monsters. I don’t think. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” kicks all kinds of ass, as do a whole bunch of these songs. Nice video here for Sax Rohmer #1 as well.  Probably could have done with out the Bob-Dylan-reggae of New Zion, but whaddaiknow?

8., 9. and 10. Bitter Melon Farm, Ghana, and Protein Source of the Future, Now! (2002)

Three CDs of John Darnielle’s early tape songs. Pulls you into an alternative universe of swapping tapes and John Darnielle’s kitchen and boots and dreams and town and… Contains gems such as “Billy the Kid’s Dream of The Magic Shoes ?”, “Golden Boy Peanuts” and a cover of Ace Of Base’s “The Sign” – what a tune! Not a place to start but a wonderful place to get lost in.

11. Get Lonely (2006)

A break up album that lays open pure devastation in a literal, non abstract, narrativily way. Nails the feeling of disorientation, pointlessness and sadness this all entails. JD told an interviewer you had to have experienced a bad, bad break up to appreciate it. I can see that. Subdued, small and succesful,  just not an album I turn to as often as some others.

12. Nine Black Poppies (1995)

A reviewer somewhere, once (how’s that for referencing?) said they couldn’t imagine The MGs topping Cubs in Five when they first heard it (but now realise the hifi stuff’s great too). I see what they mean: “The stars willl spell out the answers to tomorrow’s crossword and I will love you again.”  Contains the most out of time literally-phoned-in performance I’ve ever heard on the last track, “Lonesome Surprise.” This is global!

13. We Shall All Be Healed (2004)

A fine collection of songs telling the story of JD’s young adult years that only suffers from not being as great as the albums (Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree) that sandwich it. Pretty damn dark subject and lyrics hidden in some pretty poppy songs (for The Mountain Goats that is). Put me off heroin for life.

14. The Life Of The World To Come (2009)

All based on Biblical verses, but not being a biblical scholar of any kind I couldn’t tell you anything of their provenance. Has a lot brilliant understated songs on it and some of JD’s trademark fist-to-foolish-heart lyricism  – “I will do what you ask me to do, because of what I feel of about you”. Doesn’t quite coalesce for me but a fine album nonetheless. Listen to 1 Samule 15:23 for a delicate, non-judgemental song about a faith healer. Go down to the nether worl, plant grapes.

15. Nothing For Juice (1996)

An early lofi album, with a bit of varied instrumentation. The lyrics are there but the melodies aren’t quite. An enjoyable listen and similar in tone to Sweden and Full Force Galesburg with some songs giving early(ish) signs of the type of song Darneille would master on The Coroner’s Gambiut. Contains an almost unrecognisable cover of Robert Johnson’s timeless “Hellhound On My Trail” and 4 “Going To” songs for fans of the “Going To” series.

16. All Eternals Deck (2011)

The lastest offering. Not bad, just not great. “God Damn These Vampires” is a highlight and some of these tracks were recorded with a death metal producer, which gives these tracks an breathing-on-your-neck-intimate feel rather than the brutality you might expect.  High Hawk Season, a choral all vocal song, in particular feels like a failure to me. An album that never really clicked with me, but pretty much all MGs stuff is slow burning for me so I may like it more in the future.

17. Zopilote Machine (1995)

No idea what a Zopilote is (checks google) ah, it’s Spanish for Buzzard, naturally. Great word. This is The Mountain Goats album debut. Contains all the elements that would be in their music for the next 7 years but isn’t quite as compelling as the later releases.”We Have Seen The Enemy” is lovely in a dark way.

18. Beautiful Rat Sunset (1996)

A good example of early MGs and technically an EP rather than a full blown album. A dark, slightly off, mood prevails and a keen ear is needed to take in the information.  A pleasant listen but not as incendiary as his other works.

Not included

The Extra Glens – Martial Arts Weekend (2000) and The Extra Lens – Undercard (2010)

John Darnielle writes and Franklin Bruno does the music. They’re not called the Mountain Goats so… but if you want my opinion “Martial Arts Weekend”  is great, “Malevolent Seascape X” soundtracking me puking from smoking too many cigarettes at the age of 27, “Undercard” is not quite as good but has gorgeous songs such as the accordion driven “In Germany Before The War”.

Come, Come To The The Sunset Tree (2004)

…If The Sunset Tree had been All Hail West Texas. Vinyl only release of boombox demos of Sunset Tree songs. Nice to hear but I prefer the fleshed out versions. Max Broady prefers this.

Hail and Farewell Gothenburg (Never Released)

This was leaked and John Darnielle didn’t ever want it releasing. So I won’t review it.

Also not included: loads of 7 inches, bsides and that. Including a song written from the point of view of Toad from Mario.

Disagree? Think I’m an idiot? Please let me know, I love The Mountain Goats and am happy to chat about them!

John, October 11

Why I love The Olivia Tremor Control

I’ve been listening to and thinking about the Olivia Tremor Control a lot recently. it must be the weather, the Indian Summer we’re having this week seems to fit their mood perfectly, the glorious last flames of a dying fire. Or maybe they’re just autumnal, I don’t know.

It’s only recently I realised that I actually love them (like the love a man has for a fine cuban cigar). I think the fact that I never appreciated them fully, in fact at times they bored me, now leads to their appeal. That I’ve been digging out their two albums and a collection of singles, listening to them for a week, and putting them away for a decade now, shows that they’ve held some kind of place in my heart.

So what is it about them? Well, the music – obviously. They’ve got great tunes influenced by stuff I love – 60’s psych, any world folk music you care to mention – but what I really love is the sense that they’re not professionals. Sure, their recordings are unbelievably dense and experimental but underneath it all I always feel a band who are just normal people trying to make music they love. I root for them and am pleased for them when they manage it.

I think this comes from a couple of things. The first is the aforementioned boredom. This comes from a couple of places – first there’s the perversity of putting a great number of instrumentals, pieces of music concrete and found sound between the pop songs on their albums. Dusk at Cubist Castle features an 8 minute piece of water dripping, cars going by and talking in the middle of a suite of music. and then the songs themselves, to half listening ear they can become  drowned out by the soundtrack bits and seem limp and dull. They’re not. And finding this out makes me love them even more.

The other part that makes them seem like real people, people I want to succeed, are the lyrics, which are part and parcel of the Olivia Tremor Control world view. They come from the Elephant 6 collective, a bunch of bands who were friends growing up so my view is already coloured by this but songs with lyrical hooks like “model portrait heads of Gertrude Stein” and “1000 typewriters soaked in green paint!” make me think of a band trying to create their own world, a more interesting, stranger world, through their music.

When I listen to them I see the members singing songs sounding like the era they grew up in, trying to recreate these sounds, trying their hardest to make it is interesting as possible. And they do.

John, September 11

Gravity’s Rainbow

I’ve just finished Gravity’s Rainbow after “reading” it for over a year. Here are some thoughts…

Thomas Pynchon - Mysterious

Gravity’s rainbow. I tried to sum it up in 3 words: Awesome. Epic. Confusing.

I’ll start with confusing. The novel jumps around from person to person, place to place, time to time without any warning. I started off by finding this all immensely baffling and tried to go back a page to re-read (being notoriously bad at concentrating on anything approaching a complex text). After rereading I still found that, no, it didn’t really make sense. So after a while I gave up and just let it wash by me, even if it made no sense.

If it makes no sense, one might ask why did I read it, let alone finish it? Frankly, I almost didn’t. It took me a year on and off to finish. I’d read for a week then read a few more books then start again.  It was over 900 pages long, and for the record my preferred length for a book is around 100 pages. So: epic. The scope of the book is mind-blowingly vast; I couldn’t possibly list all the plots and characters in the book let alone the themes (even if I actually understood them). The novel is very, very loosely based around the hunt for the V-2 rocket in World War 2 Europe, but takes in a man who inhabits other people’s dreams, quasi-paedophilia, a sentient eternal lightbulb, a pig festival, an orgy, a man who’s every erection predicts a rocket strike and sex. Lots and lots of sex. In fact, if I had to say what the book was about I’d say it was a bizarre Freudian analysis of war. But not really. Actually don’t quote me on that.

The garish cover of the copy I was reading

And finally to awesome.  I read the book for over a year. I’ve a terrible attention span. It’s confusing. But it has some of the finest writing I’ve ever encountered and is full of more ideas, history, pseudo history, science, pseudo science, mysticism, pseudo mysticism (is that a thing?) than I’ve ever encountered before. It’s as if Pynchon decided that it wasn’t good enough to cram a thousand short stories’ worth of ideas into a novel, ensuring each one is beautifully rendered with bizarre slang and songs, but that he had to completely rewrite – possibly even destroy – the novel as well.

Anyways, part of me wishes he’d written it in a linear, more coherent fashion, Dan Brown style. But I suspect that mystery and a search for the unfindable is the essence of the book. And if I can’t find the meaning of the book properly, really, hasn’t Pynchon done his job?