This is something that doesn’t get touched upon very often – a really dumb Bob Dylan song. At their best, Dylan’s cryptic verses fell just on the right side of silly. This is one time he clearly overshot the line, and he knew it. It’s like he started out in his usual vein of poetic seriousness, then said ‘fuck it’, scribbled down a random chorus and wandered off. However, it also happens to be one of his catchiest songs, so it’s enjoyed a life of its own. It’s best known as a novelty Manfred Mann hit, but it’s been covered by a variety of notables. Sing-along choruses have never been Dylan’s bag – he’s not a crafter of pop hits – so this may well be the singiest Dylan chorus ever. Which he still, gleefully, performs in concert. Perhaps he really wanted to contribute something to the culture that was just silly and fun. Wearing the voice-of-a-generation hat all the time gets wearying, you know.
Jimi Hendrix really needs no commentary. Everyone knows this song, and everyone knows his story. To the point of over-familiarity, some would say. Hendrix continues to compel the imagination as much for being such a tantalizing ‘what-if’ as for his actual legacy. Obviously, we all know that it’s more fun to lionize the gifted and dead than the equally-gifted-but-still-plugging-along. We enjoy the narrative more than we enjoy the work. Would we listen to Purple Haze with the same delight if Jimi Hendrix was now an elderly man composing music for films, releasing the occasional space-jazz album, and making out-of-touch comments about today’s social issues? Probably not. We like it because it’s a preview of attractions that never came.
A tale of urban ennui as old as time. Even Jim Morrison, the cocksure rock star shaman, is not immune to that sinking alone-in-the-universe sensation. Which, of course, yielded The Doors one of their most popular hits. Morrison wasn’t the most relatable guy on earth most of the time, what with the whole ‘Lizard King’ messiah complex, but the flashes of soul and vulnerability he showed in quieter moment were beautiful. No wonder that this is a song that fans have latched on to. It speaks to everybody who’s ever felt alone, which is, literally, everybody. Alienation is its own aesthetic now, as emotion becomes commodity and communication seems to be reverting into glyphs, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Out of all the things to love here – of which there are many – the thing I love most right now is the image The Beatles present of themselves in the video. Although they were, at that point in their career, treated as artistic demigods and were (as they remain) the most seriously respected rock artists in the world, they apparently still wanted to be seen as an adorable band of brothers who exist in a whimsical alternate universe full of mad tea parties. Perhaps that can be pinned on the simple reality that their degree of fame made them isolated even from their rock star peers, let alone civilian life. But it seems that even The Beatles themselves liked the idea that The Beatles were more than four guys tied together by a shared occupation, more even than a family; they were a singular unit of a sort that generally exists only in works of fiction. They were like characters in a children’s story, a set of toys brought to life by the imagination of some cosmic Christopher Robin, or a team of wacky-adventure-having boy detectives. The Beatles managed to mythologize themselves to such a degree, and so swiftly and effectively, that they became, in essence, living cartoons. While at the same time occupying the very highest creative pedestal. It was a stranger-than-fiction effect that even Paul McCartney looks back on in bewilderment.
How strange it is to hear the voice of a man who was born more than a hundred years ago. Blind Joe Reynolds was born – whether in 1900, or 1904, or some other year – into a very different world. In his day, black Americans very often came into the world with no record of their birth, never attended any schools, never had their faces photographed, never had their marriages legally validated, never owned property, never had their ills treated or their children born in a proper hospital, and died without leaving a legal trace. (Excepting should they run afoul with the law.) Reynolds lost his eyes to a shotgun accident (was it an accident?), did time in prison (for what?), and spent most of his life as a traveling street singer (where, exactly?), moving around to evade arrest, leaving little trace of himself, except musically. Even though he only recorded on two occasions, and of the recordings he made only a literal handful survive, his distinctive playing style is evident, and influencial. Somehow, the obscure pressings of an obscure blues singer who lived out most of his life in poverty and segregation, became part of the basis of a style of music that came to command popular culture. Blues based rock music, and the lifestyle trappings and social mores that came with it, became a cultural phenomenon in the 1960’s and it’s barely an exaggeration to say that it changed the world (forever! The world. It was changed. Forever.) Not that Blind Joe Reynolds ever got any satisfaction from the gentrification of the blues; he died of pneumonia in 1968, as poor and obscure as ever. Reynolds may have been a genius or he may have been merely typical of the circuit he ran in, and we’ll never have any way of knowing the true extent of his talent. The circumstances he was born to, the times he lived in, every part of the society around him conspired that he and men like him should live invisible lives, should die silently, should be erased and forgotten. He may have written dozens or hundreds of songs, maybe brilliant or maybe not. Songs that have died along with all of the people who’d ever heard them. Out of the eight or so that are known, only one has been rescued, revived and heard by millions of people, though in a rendition that Reynolds could not have imagined in 1929. .
Mostly because I haven’t listened to Marianne Faithfull’ early stuff in a while. It sounds dated, I know. On the other hand, maybe it shows the 60’s pop landscape better than famous songs from more famous artists do. Faithfull occupied a spot somewhere between the folk revival, Euoropop and the American standards showbook; her music didn’t actually have much in common with the British Invasion rock scene with which she is so associated. There was a market for that niche, apparently, though. Faithfull – by her own admission – didn’t make great choices in selecting her material back then; she favored songs by people she was friendly with, or ones that tickled her intellectually, rather than ones that were best for her voice at the time. I would say that she really didn’t have the vocal prowess for dramatic material, and this song wasn’t a good fit for her; still, it has its charm. Dramatic swelling strings need to make a comeback, if nothing else.
What blonde ice queen straight out of a Nazi poster did Leonard Cohen get rejected by in the peeling Chelsea Hotel in the 1960’s, before he was rich and famous? I like to imagine it was Nico, but who knows, there were many ice queens around for an obscure Canadian poet to be rejected by in those days. (As always there are.) Whoever she was, she inspired the dejected poet to transcribe his pathetic crush into one of the most bleak and witty odes to unattainable desire ever written. It is the duty of poets to make an artful lament out of the simple and pathetic humiliation of being rejected by the cool girls. Leonard Cohen certainly told the age old story in a way it had never been told before. That’s why today he’s rich and famous and gets to sleep in nice hotels and probably hardly ever gets rejected.