Song and Dance Men: Dylan at 70

The old man enters the club and finds his place at a small table near the stage, taking a seat opposite an empty chair. He is short, wiry, and diminutive and a little absurd in his black embroidered cowboy shirt and dark pants. His thin face is sheltered by a wide-brimmed hat; beneath a long nose is etched a pencil mustache. The eyes, when they emerge from beneath the hat brim, are narrow and seem pressed into a semi-permanent squint; it might be tempting to call them sad, but for the way they swiftly and piercingly take in their surroundings. They dart to and fro through the club, noting the mostly empty tables and the waning daylight streaming in through a solitary window, before settling on the stage, where the evening’s first performer is ambling toward the microphone.

He is young, almost child-like, with round cheeks and curly close-cropped hair. Dressed in jeans and a coarse denim shirt, clutching a guitar with unclipped strings winding off the tuning pegs like whiskers, he might be mistaken for a roadside ragamuffin, but the grin gives him away, even more than those babyish cheeks do: a grin of knowing impetuousness, a charmer’s grin, a grin that knows luck is on its side, or fate or destiny or whatever you choose to call it. Yet how to account for the contrast between the puckish demeanor and the voice? How does someone barely distinguishable from the average small-town twenty-year-old — for it is apparent to the keen observer that the hardscrabble mannerisms are an affectation, given away with a subliminal wink — sing so forlornly, so emphatically and so unaffectedly of things he could never have experienced? The words he sings are infused with the morality and vision of an Old Testament prophet, strained through the vocabulary of an itinerant brakeman. He chides and insinuates and accuses and finally takes it all back onto himself: Ah, but I was so much older then. Always his voice prowls among the words like a hunter nosing for prey in the rocks, investigating dark corners, overturning and exposing hidden things, ignoring what lies in plain sight. It remakes old sayings and never utters the same word in the same way. Not a conventionally attractive instrument, but one that seems to say, Would I be saying these things, in this way, if they weren’t true?

This performer soon gives way to a new face — and the transformation is shocking. In place of the fresh-faced, Jimmie Rodgers-like troubadour now stands a dandified Mod in a tight-fitting striped suit, a wild nimbus of hair radiating from his head like sunbeams, his sallow face guarded by a pair of dark glasses. But the most noticeable transformation — before he starts to sing, that is — is the Fender Telecaster guitar slung high on his chest. He begins to pick at it tentatively, his long-nailed fingers not quite used to the guitar’s weight and action. From the shadows, he is joined by four other musicians, and this ensemble explodes into a roaring barroom blues, tough and loose and fearless, that batters the walls of the club. The gangly singer steps to the microphone and cuts loose in a voice like a police siren amplified through a Marshall stack; he howls, wails, croons, giggles, moans, an unfathomable conviction undergirding everything and holding it together. The words are as arresting as the voice — in fact, the words don’t seem as though they could be delivered any other way. There are torrents of imagery, as though a hundred years of newspaper headlines, shared memory and tall tales were compressed into some cultural singularity before bursting out again, coalescing into a fractalized landscape where Beethoven, Jack the Ripper and Ezra Pound rub elbows with gamblers, old widows, strutting commanders-in-chief and the unnamed lost and lonely. There is jarring silliness, surprising pathos and mystifying juxtapositions of time and place. And most piercing and memorable is a question, thrown out to the audience like an unanswerable taunt: How does it feel?

Click to continue reading “Song and Dance Men: Dylan at 70”

Bob Dylan, Ron Rosenbaum and the Bobulators

On May 24, Bob Dylan will be 70. To kick off what is sure to be a tidal wave of retrospective articles, Ron Rosenbaum published this essay on Slate.com, imploring us to give Dylan the most worthwhile gift of all:

… to extricate Bob from the treacly, reductive, crushing embrace of the Bobolators. (My name for those writers and cultists who still make Dylan into a plaster saint, incapable of imperfection, the way Shakespeare’s indiscriminate “bardolators”—one of my targets in The Shakespeare Wars—refuse to believe it possible The Bard ever wrote a flawed line or a poorly chosen word.)

Similarly, the Bobolators diminish The Bob’s genuine achievements by putting everything he’s done on the same transcendentally elevated plane. With their embarrassing obeisance, their demand for reverence, their indiscriminate flattery, they obscure the electrifying musical—and cultural—impact he’s actually had.

Perhaps I should begin by confessing that Rosenbaum is a writer who I find grating even when I agree with him. Take the example above. First there is that term “Bobolator.” On first glance, it is easily misread as “Bobulator,” like a human calculator of all things Dylanesque. Once you’ve arrived at the correct spelling, how to pronounce it? The most natural and immediate pronunciation is BOB-oh-later, which sounds like an overpriced fishing gadget; or, if you’re a gorilla buff, BO-bo-later. Reading the rest of the paragraph, we find the reference to “bardolators” — presumably a coinage of Rosenbaum’s, and which leads us to conclude that “Bobolator” is a pun on “idolator” and thus pronounced bahb-AH-lah-ter. Except that doesn’t flow off the tongue quite so trippingly, and I for one am apt to simply read it as BOB-oh-later, despite ostensibly knowing better.

And this is just the first paragraph. Leaving aside for the moment the straw man argument Rosenbaum sets up here, was there not an easier way into this subject than by means of a labored coinage that reads strangely and has the surely-not-coincidental effect of reinforcing its creator’s cutting wit and contrariness? People who invent pet names for other people and things always get my hackles up; usually they want you to ask them what they mean, the better to show off their cleverness and originality. I once knew a woman who, in the midst of a conversation on theater, kept referring to Kenneth Branagh as Roman. I put the name in italics because that is how she pronounced it — if you’ve ever heard someone talk like that, you know what I mean. It’s a distinct inflection whose unmistakable subtext is, Do you not wonder why I use this word, when the rest of you are all using a different, more common word? Does it not make me an object of even greater fascination? Usually I refuse to indulge masturbatory crap like that; on this occasion I gave in, and found out that Roman was the name of Branagh’s character in Dead Again, which at the time (1993) I had not seen. Why she insisted on using that name, rather than Mike (his other role in that film), or even Henry the Fifth, she did not explain. It didn’t matter — the only point was to make people notice her. She might just as easily have called him Orson.

See, this is how it is with Rosenbaum for me. Points that I might find perfectly unobjectionable are wrapped up in excess verbiage, intellectually overwrought and/or propped up with attacks on straw man caricatures, so I’m too busy picking nits to fully get behind his arguments. For example, is there a more deserving object of attack in pop music than Billy Joel? So why then does Rosenbaum’s take-down of the man seem to whiff it so much? I mean, sarcastically making fun of Joel for attempting to be “deep”? Every hack entertainer does that; that’s what makes them hack entertainers. (To be fair, his identification of “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me” as the epitome of Joelian dreck is dead-on.) I wanted to love this essay; I wanted to paper my office walls with it. As it is, too much of it amounts to a child blowing raspberries. I’m sure it felt better to write it than it does to read it.

Click to continue reading “Bob Dylan, Ron Rosenbaum and the Bobulators”

My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)

Recently my 160 GB iPod classic began showing signs of advanced age. I would fully charge it, play it a bit, leave it to the side for a day and return to find the battery nearly depleted, sometimes so low it wouldn’t turn on. I began to think it was time, that this device had finally reached the point where it could be allowed to retire gracefully.

I bought this iPod, my third, shortly after the “classic” designation was first introduced. I was thrilled: this was the first iPod large enough to hold the entirety of my music collection, freeing me from the burden of curating playlists and trying to second-guess what my tastes would be on a given day. (I have largely re-assumed this burden with my 32 GB iPhone, but that is another matter.) It did not trouble me at the time that, merely by calling its former flagship product a “classic,” Apple was signaling that the iPod’s glory days as a music device were behind it. A classic is something beyond the need for evolution or change, something that provides the same pleasures over and over, something — if I may get momentarily pretentious — more associated with memories than hopes.

So, back to my ailing iPod classic. I had some extra money and, what’s more, an impeccable justification for replacing my current model. Except I dragged my feet. I looked at the refurbished models on the Apple website and noted with approval that I could save quite a bit of money buying used. Gradually it dawned on me that I didn’t want to buy a new iPod. Not because of sentimental attachment to the current one — though I love Apple technology, the devices themselves are completely fungible to me, and I have no hesitation in dumping my current object of affection for something new and improved. The problem is that the current iPod classic really isn’t improved from the model I bought in 2008. Today’s classic supports Genius playlists and … I’m not really sure what else. There is certainly no difference of any substance. I can’t think of another Apple product so little improved over so long a time. But then, why improve a “classic”?

I see the logic. Apple is about iOS devices: the iPad, the iPhone and its bastard offspring, the iPod touch. The iOS platform is Apple’s chance to directly influence the evolution of an entire new computing paradigm, in a way they didn’t quite do with the Macintosh. They’d be crazy not to put all of their eggs in that basket. And let’s face it: mp3 players are so five years ago.

Click to continue reading “My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)”

Sockbert: Scott Adams and Metafilter

Last week, it was revealed that Dilbert creator Scott Adams had been trolling the forums of Metafilter with a sock puppet account called PlannedChaos. PlannedChaos, you will not be surprised to learn, thought pretty highly of Scott Adams. Comics Alliance published a good summary of the whole affair, including a close accounting of Adams’ shifting rationalizations, instances of bad faith, and general tacky douchiness. You can read the fateful Metafilter thread here.

I will say at the outset that Scott Adams’ is one of my favorite blogs. You often hear people talk about writers whose work they never miss even if they rarely agree with the writer’s point of view. I don’t have the stomach to read any hardcore right-wing bloggers, but Adams’ libertarian-occasionally-edging-into-heartlessness bent doesn’t really bother me. What I enjoy about him is the way in which he starts with an absurd or wild premise and attempts to follow it to its logical conclusion — this post, for example, on a hypothetical society in which technology essentially eliminates personal privacy. So many times we will get an idea that promises, or threatens, to lead us down logical, ethical or moral paths we haven’t trod before, and we immediately stamp it out with a “that’s a stupid idea.” And it usually is a stupid idea. But sometimes it’s good to let a stupid idea bloom, just to see how close to the sun it reaches. I frankly did much the same thing in my airline security post a few weeks ago.

I don’t defend Adams being an asshole — and what’s more, I don’t excuse assholishness as either an inverted form of integrity or a privilege granted to the especially intelligent or accomplished. Adams deserves the shit he’s caught for suggesting that teaching history be cut back or eliminated, or that discriminating against women and children was “easier for everyone.” So give him his just desserts and move on. As Bill Maher once rhetorically asked, “How can I know where the line is if I don’t occasionally cross it?”.

The Next 30-Day Song Challenge

  1. A song you play solely to annoy your spouse
  2. A song you would want played at your disbarment hearing
  3. A song that makes you churlish
  4. A song that fills you with a nameless dread
  5. Your favorite sea-shanty or prison work song
  6. A song that comes to mind when you hear the word “concupiscent”
  7. Your favorite obscure song that you trot out to prove you were into a popular band way before anyone else
  8. A song you used to have as your answering machine greeting back in the Eighties
  9. A song that was forever ruined for you when you discovered your mother also liked it
  10. Your favorite song about architecture
  11. A song you would have wanted to hear in the last scene of The Sopranos other than “Don’t Stop Believing”
  12. A song you can no longer listen to after seeing its title tattooed on some douchebag’s arm in a sports bar
  13. Your favorite song by a band with three or more consecutive vowels in its name
  14. Your favorite song combining Phrygian modality with lyrics about fucking
  15. A bad song you were introduced to by someone who said, “it reminds me of you”
  16. A song you would like to take back in a time machine and play to Vlad the Impaler
  17. Your favorite song by a woman whom you suspect has some really hot piercings
  18. A song played by your cousin in his shitty bar band, the one that still plays “Sex on Fire” in every goddamn set
  19. A song you would use to corrupt a child
  20. Your favorite song by an artist who used to be cool before she had kids
  21. Your favorite song by an artist who used to be cool before he cut his hair
  22. A song you would sing to stave off madness while sealed in a sensory deprivation tank
  23. A song you would like to beat the shit out of someone to
  24. Your favorite song by an artist you dislike not for their music, but for their profound moral failings
  25. A song you would like to have the shit beaten out of you to
  26. A song you would play to clear a house infested with spiders
  27. A song that somehow sounds orange to you
  28. Your favorite song from a band you once pretended to like in an attempt to get laid
  29. A song you hated in your youth but which you have now come to like, and which now serves as a painful reminder of how adulthood has robbed you of everything that once made you vital and interesting
  30. A song you would like to freeze to death to

Until we meet again, Sarah Jane: Elisabeth Sladen

Like the rest of Doctor Who fandom, I was gutted — the Britishism sums it up as nothing on this side of the pond quite does — by the sudden death of Elisabeth Sladen at the age of 63. I’ve watched Doctor Who pretty regularly since the mid-eighties, and while my estimation of various Doctors, writers and producers waxed and waned, my admiration for Sarah Jane Smith only grew. Brave, loyal, intelligent, unpretentious and really quite pretty, she made for a perfect geek crush, which later morphed into a sincere and growing admiration for the extraordinary unsung actress who brought her to life.

I once wrote an essay on The Doctor’s female companions for a now-defunct website, and this is what I had to say on the subject of Sarah Jane Smith.

First things first: there were in a sense only two companions in Tom Baker’s era: Sarah Jane Smith and everybody else. Originally conceived as a one-dimensional foil for the chauvinist Third Doctor, Sarah Jane began life as a flinty feminist go-getter, Mary Richards with a small helping of attitude. Once Baker began to hit his stride, she lost much of that edge, but what she gained was far more important and interesting. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane took the mentor/acolyte dynamic established over the previous decade and turned it on its head. Despite — or because of — all the Fourth Doctor’s brilliance, he seemed frequently unable to fully occupy a given situation: he snapped at the people he sought to help, ignored their questions or answered them with callous jokes, or simply gazed off into the ether. It was Sarah Jane who provided the emotional context for the Doctor’s journeys: yes, her presence seemed to say, we are here to help, and it will be all right.

A character is only as great as the actor who plays her, and Elisabeth Sladen made Sarah Jane into far more than what appeared on the page. She invested every moment with a deceptively simple, human believability, and thus remade the character into a common yet fully realized person, quite possibly the most well-rounded character Doctor Who ever had. Her mix of decency, intelligence, and heart gave Baker the freedom to make the Doctor as remote and alien as he dared, and to depend more and more on Sarah Jane in the process. “I worry about you,” she chides him in “The Hand of Fear,” and the beauty of the scene is its truth: The Doctor really is a little helpless without her, and he knows it. Baker himself seemed quite devoted to Sladen, professionally if nothing else: much of his performance was tuned to their chemistry and he dreaded her departure from the show. Indeed, following Sladen’s farewell in “Hand of Fear,” Baker pressed the production team to let the Doctor travel solo; it was as if he knew the ideal balance of the Doctor and Sarah could never be duplicated, and that even to try would be futile.

* * *

Little wonder, when all’s said and done, why Lis Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith still retains her Best Companion trophy all these years later (though Ace’s rapport with the Seventh Doctor makes her a close runner-up). The role of the companion, after all, is to stand in for all us humans watching the show, and Sladen worked her ass off to make Sarah Jane the most accessible, likeable, and interesting human being she could. For all her successors’ talents, they lacked either the scripts or the personality to bring out the best in insecure Tom Baker.

Until we meet again, Sarah.

I never imagined when I wrote that piece that Doctor Who would come back as spectacularly as it has. I certainly never imagined that Sarah Jane and I would, as it were, meet again, let alone with such bittersweet feeling; “School Reunion” is a lump-in-the-throat episode for any fan of the original series. And despite all the drama and heartache that came with Rose Tyler, Martha Jones and their successors, Sarah Jane’s bond with the Fourth Doctor — with all the Doctors — remains pitch-perfect. Some things really are worth getting your heart broken for.