Saturday, August 19, 2017

What’s this hang-up with ‘meaning’? Might it explain by Dylan was so slow to collect his Nobel Prize. I do think it might

NB There are soundfiles in this entry which your browser might not be able to play. I don’t think Opera does well on that score. In that case, try another browser (assuming, of course, that you actually want to hear (originally ‘here’, none of us is perfect) the songs).

I am well aware, especially since a friend pointed it out, that the introduction to these posts can be very discursive, and it has occurred to me that not everyone might like that. I am in the habit of, say, starting a piece with a number of choice platitudes (most of which are usually cribbed from the Economist) about the danger of Trump starting a World War III over North Korea’s nuclear threats or how no one understands the worldwide implications of Guatemala’s foreign policy, only eventually within a few paragraphs to get to the main thrust of the piece, the low standard of contemporary hair conditioners or why minimalists artists always seem to come across as so small-minded.

All that occurred to me when I was considering how to get this post started. I must confess that some might well feel my approach is a more than a tad pretentious (a pretension made all the more egregious by these two rather fey opening paragraphs), to which I can only respond that I am resolved to leave no doubt on the matter that I loathe pretentiousness avec une passion sauvage. On the other hand, well, tough.

. . .

I had my first ever guitar lesson (or as my good friend Pete would point out, every first is always a ‘first ever’ so ‘first ever’ means nothing and is just a waste of four perfectly good letters which might well be more usefully employed elsewhere, but there you go. Hi Pete) last Friday afternoon. That’s not to say I have decided to learn to play guitar, because I have, in fact, played guitar for the past 54 years, although I am the first – but not only – man to admit that for far too many of those years I played with more far more enthusiasm than skill. And like too many of my ilk, I am an incessant noodler, playing a bit of this for a minute or two in this style, then long before anything can get going, breaking off and playing something else in that style, before soon losing interest and taking off in yet another direction.

I have now decided that enough was enough and that I should get a little more serious about it all and get proper tuition to become a little better rather as a mediocre tennis player might be able to improve a little by being coached by someone who knew what he (or, or course, she) knew what they were talking about.

A week or so ago, I asked Nigel who works at Craig’s Music in Bodmin who he could recommend, and he said go to Paul Berrington in Padstow. Not only will he help you (he helped me a hell of a lot, said Nigel), but he’s also a nice guy. Well, I did, and true to Nigel’s prediction Paul has already helped a hell of a lot in just one lesson and even though we spent almost 90pc of the time talking music and chord theory – that is, he was talking and I was listening - and hardly touched a guitar (well I didn’t). But that is only the first stage in this discourse (which I’m hoping is also the noun related to ‘discursive’).

Whenever I want to learn a song – over these past few months, these have included Cry Me A River, Julie London’s version not Justin Timberlake, or Me And Mrs Jones – these days I go to YouTube where there is any number of useful videos, and many more other useful videos just about playing guitar – Marty Schwartz of Nextlevelguitar.com is one of my favourites. Well, most recently I decided I finally wanted to learn a favourite tune of mine, Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, which you can listen to below. I found three videos, and after cannibalising them came up with a pretty good chord sequence which 1) is satisfying and 2) I can play. As always with Steely Dan the chords are not at all straightforward, although in this case they are rather less not straightforward than usual. They involve major sevenths and major sixths and ninths, and I don’t know what else, which, to my ears at least, are a damn sight more interesting than the usual G, C and D and Am, Em and Dm we all start out on.

A bonus is that if you have a certain feel for rhythm and, it has to be said, chutzpah (and I do have some of the first and a little of the second), you can play major sixths, sevenths, ninths and thirteenth or whatever chord of that kind takes your fancy in almost any order and bullshit that you are a rather competent guitar player. Certainly, a good guitar player will suss out the bullshit within seconds, but ordinary Joes will be impressed.

The point it that I know just how good I am – which is pretty well not that good at all - which is why I decided the time has come to try a little harder and so I shall be a regular of Paul Berrington’s once the holiday/tourist season has ended and getting to Padstow is less of a two-hour schlepp and once again the usual 20-minute drive. And so on to the main point of this blog entry (or, if you like, after all the above discursive shite the equivalent for this particular post of why modern hair conditioners can’t hold a candle to those we sometimes used in the 1970s and 1980s): wondering why everyone seems to keen to know the ‘meaning in songs’.

. . .

Steely Dan, that is Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and their songs are, I think it’s fair to say, in a league of their own, both musically and lyrically. ‘Sophisticated jazz rock’ and ‘clever, ironic/wry and witty lyrics’ are some of the gush about their music you will get from music journalists (and mention of which – and their ‘gush’ - obliges me to repeat the quote from Frank Zappa: ‘Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read, ‘ and that pretty much hits the nail on the head.’) But the ‘clever, ironic/wry and witty’ plaudit notwithstanding, Messrs Becker and Fagen do, at least, write interesting lyrics, lyrics which are often far more interesting than those written by many other songwriters.

On the other hand, I, for one, don’t think the ‘meaning’ of their songs is all that important. And sometimes (as in the case of Bob Dylan, of whom more later (©Daily Mail/Geoffrey Levy and other of the paper’s feature writers) the hunt for meaning can, as far as I am concerned, get very out of hand. The thing is that - at the very least, in the case of Steely Dan and Dylan, but I’m sure with other artists, too, fans want – no they demand - meaning. They just can’t do without it. I, on the other hand, am perfectly content with lyrics just ‘sounding good, interesting and intriguing’ and to fuck with meaning.

Becker and Fagen’s song Pretzel Logic also has ‘obscure’ and ‘wry’ lyrics, all two short verses of it and the bridge, that is, which is not a lot of lyrics. And they are good lyrics. The lads themselves are quoted extensively as saying the song is ‘about time travel’. Really? My reaction to that is simply, up to a point, Lord Cooper. I don’t doubt that when they came to write the song, the notion of ‘time travel’ played a part in its genesis, and when you read the lyrics, you can see that the notion of time travel might well have been one starting point. But as to saying anything whatsoever about time travel and saying something useful or meaningful, the honest observation is: bollocks. Here us the song:


Pretzel Logic


and here are the lyrics:

First verse:

I would love to tour the Southland / In a traveling minstrel show
Yes I’d love to tour the Southland/ In a traveling minstrel show
Yes I'm dying to be a star and make them laugh / Sound just like a record on the phonograph
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago, oh yeah

Second verse:

I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time
I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time
'Cos he looks so fine upon that hill / They tell me he was lonely, he's lonely still
Those days are gone forever / Over a long time ago, oh yeah

Bridge:

I stepped up on the platform
The man gave me the news
He said you must be joking son
Where did you get those shoes?
Where did you get those shoes?
Well, I've seen 'em on the TV, the movie show
They say the times are changing but I just don't know
These things are gone forever
Over a long time ago, oh yeah

There are various sites on the web giving ‘the meanings of songs’, and one such includes suggestions as to what Pretzel Logic means.

Songmeanings.com is useful if you are into that kind of thing. I, on the other hand am not, and I am even bemused by what I regard as an obsession to discover ‘meaning’ (and not just in songs, I should add, but here I’ll just restrict myself to songs). I am interested in how a song came to be written, what might have been in the writer’s head at the time, but I’m pretty certain a great many ‘meaningful’ words and phrase are chosen not because they mean something at all, but because they sound right at that point in the song, or because the songwriter hits upon a phrase which exactly matches the beat of the song. In the above example, explanations of ‘meaning’ and just how time travel is described in the song is a ludicrous as suggesting that the line ‘I stepped upon the platform’ refers to the singer – the time traveller who hopes to meet Napoleon – steps ‘on the platform of the time machine’.

. . .

To my mind Dylan, a great favourite of mine, suffers even more from the insistence of those who listen to his music that his lyrics, even the most obscurely outrageous must ‘mean’ something. That isn’t to say that often he is trying to ‘say something’. A good example of when Dylan was trying to describe the world and what might be going on would be Blowin’ In The Wind. Conversely, a song which might sound as though it were full of meaning could be A Hard Rain’s Gonne Fall: ‘Twelve misty mountains/six crooked highways/dozen dead oceans/newborn baby with wild wolves around it’ are all great portentous phrases and they all sound great, but do they ‘mean’ something? I don’t think they do. They just sound right, intriguing and interesting and fit the rhyme scheme of the song.

Dylan himself is on record as being becoming pretty pissed of quite soon in his early days as being regarded ‘the voice of a generation’. And – this is controversial and I cannot prove it or give any supporting evidence – I suspect his silence for many weeks, months even, about being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 was a mixture of embarrassment, incredulity and honesty: he is on record as describing himself as ‘just a song and dance man’ and even though that was a lighthearted comment made at a press conference, it seems to be pretty much the honest opinion of an honest man who has spent the past 58 years doing what he always wanted to do: make and play music and write songs, no less and, pertinently, no more.

That isn’t, of course, to say that there will be many of his songs which don’t have a meaning, perhaps a personal meaning, perhaps songs in which he does want to make a comment – Oxford Town, Masters Of War, from the early days are good examples. But a great many of his other songs are pretty much – well, there’s no other way of saying it – ‘pop’ or ‘rock’ or ‘folk’ songs and no more than that. But that doesn’t deter the hunters after meaning who, for example, haunt this website, bob-dylan.org.uk There you’ll find all kinds of explanations of songs lyrics as well as, I do not doubt, what the wise man prefers eating for breakfast and what brand loo roll he endorses.

Finally, though, and this for me is the clincher that often, if not always, Dylan simply wrote lines and phrases which ‘sounded right’, I few months ago, I watched a two-part TV documentary about Dylan celebrating one thing or another (in which he took part and again struck me as rather more down-to-earth than he is given credit for). In it, Joan Baez, a one-time Dylan girlfriend recalled how once on tour and they were sharing the same apartment or hotel room or something, Dylan was sitting at a typewriter writing portentous lyrics and giggling to himself along the lines of ‘they will have a great time trying to work out what this one means’.

Quite. And that last story makes me like Dylan all the more.

. . .


For comparison here are three more songs. The first is by another favourite of mine, Little Walter and his song My Babe. I can't think too many people will spend too long trying to work out the ‘meaning’ of this song. Essentially, the singer’s girlfriend won’t under any circumstances countenance the singer having sexual relations with any other women as in if he screws another woman that’s it. As lyrics go, I particularly like the completely unambiguous phrase ‘midnight creepin’.


My Babe

Then there’s Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind which I do think he wrote with something in mind, that is ‘we haven’t a clue what the future will hold’.


Blowin’ In The Wind

Finally, there’s his song Went To See The Gypsy. I heard or read somewhere that he did have a particular woman in mind who is ‘the gypsy’, but apart from that, well your guess is as good as mine. Or rather you do the guessing, because I shan’t be bothering.


Went To See The Gypsy

No comments:

Post a Comment