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Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

This piece is actually what I was writing when I started thinking about the so-called baby boomer generation, and the whole generations scheme, which led to a separate post on that theme. More about that further down.

A month or two or three ago when this album came out there was a promotional video for it using the first track, "I Contain Multitudes." I listened to it and thought "Well, this is an album I can skip." I mean, Dylan's recent work has been pretty good, but there wasn't all that much that I felt like I couldn't do without. There's so much music I want to hear that I wasn't going to bother with this one. But my friend Stu told me I really should give it a listen. So I did: thanks, Stu.

I do think it's a mixed bag. But the good stuff...well, I'll take it track by track.

"I Contain Multitudes"
(The phrase is from Whitman, as you probably know.) I just don't care much for this. It's not so much a song as a recitation over some not especially effective music. There are some good lines but overall the lyrics are not so great. "I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes." It's a good thing that it's not that long.

"False Prophet"
Now the album really gets started: blues riff, words somewhat on the dark side. I would quote some of it but you really have to hear it in his voice. At six minutes it doesn't seem too long. His vocals are impossible, by which I mean that it seems impossible that they are as effective as they are. As has been the case for some time, it's often a stretch to call what he does singing. But it really works.

"My Own Version of You"

All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you

Over a descending spooky-movie line the song goes on like that. Is he creating a Frankenstein's monster, or an ideal lover, or maybe even creating God in his own image? I'm not sure--making linear sense is not what Dylan does--but this is a strong track. Everybody knows Dylan traffics in allusion, but I suspect he does it even more than most of us recognize. Like this line: "You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome."

Because I've had a copy of Bo Diddley's 16 Greatest Hits since I was 18 or so, I happen to know that the second sentence refers to one of his lesser-known songs. I don't know how many people who listen to this album would catch that. Or how many such references I miss.

"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
A love song that, like all love songs, could be addressed either to a person or to God. Every now and then Dylan writes what seems to be a conventional love song, and I tend not to like them. I didn't like "To Make You Feel My Love" on Time Out of Mind and moreover thought it was totally out of place on that album. Not surprisingly, it was covered by some other artists. Anyway, this is good, but not one of my favorites.

"Black Rider"
I'd call this "pretty good": an interesting lyric, not much musically. As with "Multitudes," it isn't overly long, which is good.

"Goodbye Jimmy Reed"
I love this one. It sounds like Jimmy Reed and the lyrics are sharp. It's a tribute to Reed, with musical and lyrical allusions to some of his songs, and weighted with a sense that he had something that we still need.

"Mother of Muses"
Slow, kind of pretty, a sort of prayer. But I'm afraid I don't care much for it.

"Crossing the Rubicon"
Now this is a killer. There's a pattern in my reactions here: a preference for the more rock-oriented and sharp-tongued songs. This one is both. The more I hear it the more I like it, and want to say it's up there with some of his classics. As the title suggests, it's about a moment of decision and determination in the face of long odds, and it's very powerful:

Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond:
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon

"Key West"
I really wanted to like this one. I've never been to Key West but from what I've seen and heard it must be an enchanting place. This song should enchant, but for me at any rate it does not. And at nine and a half minutes it goes on too long to suit me.

"Murder Most Foul"
Now I will contradict what I said about the pattern of my reactions. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.") Superficially this song is like "Multitudes"--really just a recitation over a musical background. And I did not expect to like a 17-minute Dylan song. I expected it to go off the rails, like the long closing song on Time Out of Mind, which spends too much time on a silly episode apparently sparked by rhyming "legs" and "eggs."

This is where the "generations" stuff comes in. In the post I mentioned earlier I argued that if we're going to classify people in that way one of the groups should include those born between roughly 1940 and 1960--which is to say those who had the experience of growing up in the 25 years or so following the end of World War II. 

For better or worse, it's a feature of the constantly changing modern world that if you live a normal three-score-and-ten or more you're going to see the world you grew up in disappear. I've seen it happen to my parents and their parents and now it's happening to me. Naturally it often seems to the passing generation that the changes are for the worse, but whether that's actually the case or not, it's a sad thing.

This song is Dylan's farewell to the world he and I grew up in. Or rather to the America we grew up in. And it's a lament, which he hangs on the myth of the Kennedy assassination. I call it a myth because that event became almost immediately a symbol that was at least half-detached from the reality. I was never caught up in the Kennedy mystique--it wasn't a political thing, I guess I just don't care much for Glorious Leader cults. And I never thought much of the idea that the nation lost its innocence at his assassination, and so forth. (America innocent? Oh, come on.) But there is a kernel of truth there: there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning.

Over a quiet and somber background of piano and bowed bass, the song begins with the assassination and then begins branching out into cultural references. A little more than halfway through, it becomes a litany.

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Wolfman is requested to "play" one after another mid-century image: songs, movies, people.

Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and All That Jazz
Play something for The Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel play Pretty Boy Floyd

The instrumentation grows slightly as it goes on, including a bass drum that sounds as big as a room. It's funeral music for a funeral song or poem, and I find it very moving. The thing about the times is, they never stop changing. 


Let's Revise the "Generations" Business

I've been complaining for a long time--yeah, I know, this sentence could end right there, but I'll continue anyway--I've been complaining for a long time about the "generations" construct which is a sort of pop sociology thing that sometimes seems barely a step up from astrology. This chart, harvested from Wikipedia, sums up the system, if we can call it that:

1024px-Generation_timeline.svgAnd I think it borders on crazy. I guess it started with the "lost generation" of the 1920s. But that term was just an observation that Gertrude Stein made about a particular set of extremely atypical artists. I don't know whether it was ever applied to an entire cohort of people who just happened to have been born around the same time. It certainly wouldn't have made much sense to classify my wife's grandmother, born ca. 1900 in rural Mississippi and growing up in circumstances more 19th than 20th century, more frontier than suburbia, with Ernest Hemingway's crowd.

Continue reading "Let's Revise the "Generations" Business" »


Impermissible Ideas

As it always had the potential to do, the philosophical and religious neutrality which is the ostensible framework of the American system is collapsing. See this post by Rod Dreher, one of many in which he describes the movement in big-time journalism to full-on advocacy for various left-wing causes. Here's an anecdote:

All this put me in mind of a conversation I had maybe 15 years ago, when I was a columnist and editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News, with a Millennial writer there. He knew that I was a conservative, and I knew that he wasn’t, but none of that mattered. I mentioned to him one day that I thought the paper’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided, and had become a matter of pro-LGBT advocacy journalism. He agreed that it was one-sided, but told me that he didn’t think there was a legitimate other side. I pointed out that we lived in a rather conservative part of the country, and that most of our readers took the opposite position on gay marriage (this was around 2005, I think). Were they all bigots who didn’t deserve to be consulted in our reporting? Yes, he said. If the paper was reporting on the Civil Rights movement, he said, would we feel morally and professionally obligated to seek the views of local KKK leaders?

Continue reading "Impermissible Ideas" »


Two New Year's Day Reflections

I find Kevin Williamson to be the most consistently interesting writer at National Review these days. That's not necessarily entirely a good thing, because when I say "interesting" I also mean "entertaining," and often that entertainment involves scathing language about someone. In principle I do not approve of scathing language about persons and try to resist the temptation to use it, so I guess what it amounts to is that I'm vicariously enjoying his put-downs, which makes me feel just a touch guilty. Not very, because most of the time the put-down is merited.

And I usually disagree with at least some part of any piece he writes, sometimes something minor and sometimes major. His brand of conservatism is definitely more libertarian than mine. But--and this is a little surprising for a libertarian, or at least a somewhat-libertarian--he is really at his best on deeper subjects. This is one:

If we are to resolve something for 2020, then maybe that should be our resolution: to bear always in mind that this is not Donald Trump’s America or Elizabeth Warren’s America but ours and Walt Whitman’s and John Coltrane’s and Herman Melville’s and Toni Morrison’s, and that if we really love this country, then that can only be because we love the people in it, the ones who are with us still and the ones who have been, who are “not enemies but friends.”

This will be our year. It will be the year that we make of it, which is both our great hope and our great, fearful responsibility.

Read the whole thing; it's worth it. One thing I like about him, something he shares with recently citizen-ized Charles Cooke, also of NR, is an appreciation of this country in all its madness and glory. Elsewhere he recently said something to the effect that what works for health care in Switzerland will not work here:

The basic problem with that always has been that Switzerland is full of Swiss people, while the United States is full of maniacs.

Precisely. I always stress that when discussing American politics and culture with someone from another country: you simply won't understand us unless you start with the recognition that we're more than a little crazy. Samuel Johnson's famous remark that "If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" applies triply to the United States of America. I am often sickened and repelled by this, that, or the other in the U.S., but never not interested. 

And, as Williamson says, life in these United States is not defined or limited by politics. I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to "Donald Trump's America." I fear such people live in cyberspace, large parts of which Donald Trump has made his own in the way that is too often effective in cyberspace: by being a troll. A great many people on the left seem to feel that their lives have been almost ruined, or in some cases not even "almost," by Trump's presence in the White House. This is...unhealthy to say the least, and as it's partly a choice, most unwise. 

I think the reality of life for the very large majority of us is that politics generally has a relatively small impact on our day-to-day lives, and plays a very small role in our conversation and other dealings with other people. I can recall only a few face-to-face conversations over the past half-year or so with anyone except my wife in which the subject even came up. Two of those were with liberals, and when the conversation drifted into politics--not by my choice--it immediately blew up in my face. The level of rage was disconcerting, and I will certainly try hard to avoid any more of those. 

Also at National Review, Richard Brookhiser does a nice exegesis of Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush." Perhaps you remember that it was the first poem in the 52 Poems series that I did a couple of years ago. I don't think more than a few days ever go by without my thinking of those last two lines.


Written In Sand

This was taken from a room in a motel at Gulf Shores over the Thanksgiving weekend. It struck me as very poignant. Where will Mike, Angie, Logan, and Blake be ten years or more from now? Will they remember each other? Will they remember Thanksgiving 2019? And where will I be? Possibly not in this world.

This message was well above the waterline, but would have been blown away, or mostly blown away, by now, as we've had some windy days since then. WrittenInSand


Sharing Is Not Necessarily Caring

Like any reasonable person, I am annoyed by the tendency on the part of some people to use the word "share" in place of "said" or some equivalent. "Jane shared that she had pizza for lunch." I guess it's one of those infections that has spread from the world of psychotherapy. But I very much enjoyed this item from a news story about a fitness instructor who apparently went a little berserk and started sending death threats to people she viewed as competitors:

“All hell is gonna rain fire down on your world like never seen before,” Steffen allegedly shared in a message to one victim.


Le Spleen de Samsung?*

My DVD player is having problems so I started looking for a new one. Of course all sorts of stuff has changed since I bought this one--everything is Internet-enabled, etc. So, trying to figure out what I actually need and/or want, I was reading the users' questions and answers for one I'm interested in, and saw this:

Question:  Does it have app for MLB tv
Answer:     i’m not good with tech stuff - i don’t know what MLB means and i hate apps
By Brandy [name redacted] on March 5, 2019

I would almost sort of like to meet Brandy.

* (Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris: "The title of the work refers not to the abdominal organ (the spleen) but rather to the second, more literary meaning of the word, "melancholy with no apparent cause, characterised by a disgust with everything".)


The Issues Are Not the Issues Anymore

I've been trying to remember where I heard, attributed to some leftist, the saying that "The issue is not the issue." The only thing turned up by a quick search is a remark attributed by David Horowitz to some SDS organizer of the '60s: "The issue is never the issue. The issue is the revolution." 

Even if that's apocryphal, it certainly describes the method of many political activists, especially those who see themselves as being engaged in a campaign for some sort of broad and fundamental change. You pick particular situations that can be exploited for your purposes, but they're mainly important as means toward a far more important end.

I think--I'm afraid--that the quotation has a wider application now. It pretty much sums up our whole political situation. Right and left disagree as much as they ever have about specific policy questions. But those are somewhat in the background except insofar as they can be used to advance the essential cause: for progressives, to gain decisive control of the federal government so that "the New America" can begin (I've been seeing that term a lot recently); for conservatives, to prevent that. 

Old-fashioned liberals believed in the constitution, but they are a fading breed, being replaced by leftists for whom the constitution is at best a set of more or less arbitrary rules that can be set aside when progress requires it. At worst it's just one more oppressive structure put in place by white men to keep everyone else down. In any case, it should be construed as requiring (or permitting, as the case may be) whatever advances the progressive cause. That tendency on the left has been evident for as long as I can remember, but it's far stronger now. 

It becomes more and more clear that a lot of very influential progressives simply don't care in any positive way about the actual history, culture, people, and constitution of this country. They can only value it insofar as it seems to promise a bright shining socialist John-Lennon-Imaginary future. Anything that would get in the way of that vision must be discarded or destroyed. They're best understood as millenarian religious fanatics. I don't by any means say that everyone on the political left thinks this way, but, as I said, they are many and influential beyond their numbers.

So when the question "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is asked, my answer now is pretty simple: the constitution. Everything else in American political life depends on that. If we lose it, we lose the republic. And I think that would be a bad thing--even for those who don't at the moment understand that it would be. 

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review a couple of weeks ago in response to a New York Times call for "packing" the Supreme Court as a way of defeating the obstacle of originalist judges, makes the point brilliantly:

Bouie complains: “In the past, courts have walled entire areas of American life off from federal action. They’ve put limits on American democracy.” Indeed, they have — that is what they are there for. The Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments exist explicitly to “put limits on American democracy.” Majorities do not get to overturn freedom of speech or freedom of religion. They do not get to impose slavery or imprison people without trial. There are lots of things majorities do not get to do. This is not some modern conservative invention to frustrate progressives — it is the design of the American constitutional order.

(Strange that you never hear progressives complaining about how Roe vs. Wade “walled off” abortion from majoritarian lawmaking.)

Bouie’s majoritarian ideology is nowhere to be found in the Constitution; in fact, the very structure of American government is designed to frustrate that kind of crass majoritarianism. Hence the Senate (as originally organized) and the presidential veto, both designed as checks on the excessive democratic passions to which the House might be subject; hence the written Constitution and the Bill of Rights, i.e. America’s Great Big List of Important Stuff You Idiots Don’t Get a Vote On, and a Supreme Court constitutionally empowered to police those limits. You can call that an ideology, too, and even conservative ideology, which it is: Properly understood, the principles and philosophy of the Founding are what it is conservatives try to conserve.   

Exactly. The movement for getting rid of the Electoral College deserves similar scorn for similar reasons. Speaking of which, there is no surer way to get me to vote for Trump than to attempt to subvert the Electoral College. (You can read Williamson's whole piece here.)

We're in a strange situation now (to say the least). I don't think Trump really understands or cares about the constitution much more than most of these progressives do. People call him a fascist, but that's silly and lazy: if the word means anything useful (which is questionable), a fascist is a person with a rigid ideology. That's one of the last things Trump can be accused of being. The note in his manner and behavior that makes people think of fascism is that of the caudillo: the amoral strong man of the sort who tends to gain control of nations that have no strong constitutional framework, no strong deeply-rooted sense of "government of laws, not men."

And yet he has pretty well delivered on his promise to appoint constitutionalist judges, who are the final bulwark of a republic deserving the name. The man progressives call authoritarian is actually, where it counts most, shoring up the foundations against authoritarianism--even if he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. 


Stupid, Stupid, Stupid Trump Controversies

A few months after Trump's election I realized that there was no point in following the news stories about him. Every few days there was some new burst of outrage, and at least two thirds of the purported scandals turned out, when I read more about them, to be exaggerated, trivial (what was that nonsense about Melania's jacket a while back?), or sometimes just plain false. It's just not worth the bother of paying attention. Even the big He's A Russian Agent!! story pretty much fizzled out, and in fact, according to some non-crazy people, was more of an FBI scandal than a Trump scandal.

I thought most of the media had thoroughly discredited themselves years ago, but they continue to dig their hole deeper. They clearly see destroying Trump as part of their mission, at the moment probably the most important part. And I suppose it works for them in some ways. It does serve to keep the anti-Trump outrage at fever pitch. But for those who, like me, don't much care for him but have kept some sense of balance, it produces only irritation and disdain. And of course his millions of active supporters just dig in their heels and see him as a hero-martyr. All in all, it serves only to deepen the cloud of anger and mistrust that has enveloped the country.

As of today the completely stupid uproar about Trump's statement that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama has been going for about a week. I frequently use Google News to get an overview of the day's news stories. This is about half of the stories about Hurricane Dorian currently displayed there. 

Trump-Dorian

This is crazy. On both sides. It's hard to tell at this point who's baiting whom, and who's crazier. I'm not sure what Trump originally said, but the fact is that we here in Alabama were worried about Hurricane Dorian for a while. "Threatened" might be overstating it, but the projected path of the storm for several days had it heading more or less due west across the Florida peninsula. It is not only possible but has in the past happened that a storm has done that and then re-strengthened after it got into the Gulf. And I assure you that any hurricane in the northern Gulf of Mexico is always a big deal for us. Damn right we were concerned, and watching closely, until it became more or less certain that the storm was going to turn north. In calling it a threat to Alabama, Trump was not lying and not crazy. At worst he was exaggerating and/or speaking carelessly. It was not a big deal

But then of course the Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers in the press and social media had to jump in and start jeering and accusing. And then of course the thin-skinned egotist in the White House had to respond. And the thin-skinned egotists in the press had to respond to that...and here we are, a week later, still talking about it as if it were important. I wonder if anyone has brought up impeachment yet.

I would like to think that this is some sort of nadir, but it can probably get worse.