Before there was Moby, there was Eno. That is obvious. Before there were most things, there was Eno. MGMT even wrote a song about it. Brian Eno is the slow, inexorable trickle-down effect of personal weirdness bleeding influence into everything around it until it’s come to subtly dominate huge swaths of popular culture. This is why you have half-ambient car commercial pop music as its own genre now. This is why we have a lot of the pop trends that we have, but as always, the original is better and more interesting.
Has Bob Dylan been singlehandedly keeping long narrative ballads alive in the public mind? Maybe not entirely singlehanded but close to it. Can we even follow a narrative of more than two minutes, in our time of micro-bullet points? If the popularity of podcasts is any indication, yes, we as a society still like to follow long narratives. However, I don’t know of very many narrative bards singing long tales and being wildly successful doing it. Bob Dylan’s job is not yet up for grabs, Bob Dylan being still alive and all, but eventually it will be, and who will step up?
The opening of Shine On has always evoked strong images: the changing light of sunrise, beams of light breaking cloud cover, color rolling across a vast sky. Pink Floyd here achieves something that rarely happens in popular music: an instrumental passage that implies narrative. I often think about Fantasia – the child’s introduction to classic music – which invites us to contemplate how passages of music can tell entire stories. People working within the confines of the three-minute pop song don’t have to think about creating musical narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end. They say whatever they have to say in a few words and even fewer chord changes. Pink Floyd, of course, liked to go beyond the pop song formula, and they experimented with longer song structures and extended instrumentals. This particular narrative is only about 13 minutes, but it could have easily been a longer piece. It’s an epic composition.
Well, you couldn’t find more of an all-American classic than Born to Run. In typical Springsteen fashion, even the love songs are loaded with ambiguity. Bruce Springsteen has made it his life’s mission to remind us that even the greatest things – love, family, the open road – are never without bitterness and heartache, and that’s life for ya. It’s a message that millions of people have lined up to hear, so it’s clearly very much on point. I always thought this was a fairly straightforward love song, but taking a look at the lyrics, no, of course it isn’t. She may be the one, whatever that means, but she’s probably bad news anyway. And that, frankly, rings true, because as I’ve said before and will repeat again, love songs that don’t allow faults and ambiguity don’t reflect real life as most of us experience it. Fuck romance, it’s a sham. Whoever ‘the one’ may turn out to be, they’ll most likely break your heart and fuck you over.
Bob Dylan is talking about his ex-wife again, wondering where and how something that began so beautifully went wrong. You and everyone else alive, Bobbo. As much as I feel sorry for the pain of your failure to stay married – and everyone’s – in the long run it was the whole world’s gain. The gain of songs like this one is the lucky by-product of burned-out love. The fuel of creativity is the only thing that redeems our interpersonal failures. If it didn’t feed some artistic drive, all that heartbreak would be for nothing. Not everyone, of course, has an artistic drive to fuel, or knows how to channel their frustrated emotions into productive ends. It’s for those people’s sake that great artists have to suffer. The Bob Dylans of the world suffer and write about it to redeem the pain of all the not-Bob Dylans who don’t have an outlet to give their own suffering dignity and meaning. It’s almost Christlike.
Whatever she’s selling, it ain’t seashells, though if you bought the album you can’t be blamed for expecting something nautical from the looks of Jerry Hall on the cover. Bryan Ferry’s wordplay, meanwhile, is pure beat poetry. An indictment of our modern life, circa 1975? Yes, but sexy. She sells you your fantasies of yourself, and herself on the side, and you’re buying it. You’re a consummate consumer and you need it.
You know what I think rock music has always needed more of? Woodwinds. The lowly flute has been sorely underrepresented in rock, despite Ian Anderson’s most heroic efforts. So here’s a rare non-Jethro Tull flute song, courtesy of the Grateful Dead. It hardly qualifies as a rock song, but if there’s another thing the rock world needs more of, it’s classical-inspired compositions. Actually, that’s not a thing rock musicians need to be dabbling with, for the risk of appearing hopelessly pretentious. Rock stars who think they can be composers often find that their ambition far outstrips their skill set. But for a three minute mini-suite with flute, the Dead pull it off nicely.