Theres Hot Stuff Here And Its Everywhere I Go
[A Young Persons Introduction to Modern Times]
by John Gibbens
The article below was written in autumn 06 for English Review, a magazine circulated to A-level English literature students, but it was eventually deemed too little lit-crit by the editorial board. Though the readership I had in mind was British sixteen- to eighteen-year-old school pupils, who, it was only fair to assume, would not be particularly versed in Dylans music, I hope the piece may be informative for the more general and perhaps even the more specialised reader.
Epic Sublime Stunning Superb I couldnt help feeling a little queasy at the superlatives quoted in the ads for Bob Dylans latest album, Modern Times. Of course, as someone whos loved his music from childhood up, Im delighted hes still making work in his sixties that can stand with his best. Theres even some personal vindication in it. I started writing about Dylan in the mid-1980s, at a time when he was really an embarrassment to all but loyal diehards. He made a record called Empire Burlesque: I know it was all a big joke, he sings, whatever it was all about. He was one of the kings of rock, but he seemed baffled, like a king who could only get one buttock on his throne. Yet still it seemed to me that Dylan, of all the rock stars, was the one most likely to produce a whole lifetimes worth of art.
So you see, now at sixty-five hes the oldest person ever to have a new album enter the US charts at Number 1. Hes written a wonderful, odd book, Chronicles, whose positive reviews, he said in an interview recently, almost made him cry because people who write about writing know whereof they speak, whereas those who write about music seldom can play. Hes been the subject of a film by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home, which was received as a benchmark in music documentaries. And best of all he has completed what his record company calls a trilogy of albums Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and now Modern Times. They may have a point (well look into this idea of a trilogy later), but I think what they meant actually was a hat-trick three hits in a row.
In a word, hes riding high. And yet, Epic Sublime Stunning Superb each in its own way seems off-centre as a summary of this music. Is it Epic? Ezra Pound said an epic was a poem containing history. Modern Times certainly contains a lot thats old, but it seems to invite us to suspend our belief in history altogether.
Is it Sublime? Does it rise above the mundane into the peaks and thunderheads of great abstractions? No, its matter is mostly grit and grease, eggs and trombones and mules.
Is it Stunning? No, its awakening.
Is it Superb? In the sense of very good yes. But superb in its root sense of proudly magnificent, grand, majestic, overbearing? No; indeed one of the things that makes it marvellous is humility.
A better list of adjectives can be found on a website called allmusic.com. Alongside a good, heartfelt review theres a set of links, designed to lead you to other records that match this one by Mood. Now these are closer to the mark: Wry, Poignant, Passionate, Playful, Literate, Freewheeling, Organic
Being in an organic mood, I followed my mouse, and the first thing that came up was Times Aint Like They Used to Be: Early American Rural Music. And now we are right in the birthplace of Modern Times the old weird America, as people have taken to calling it. Listen to a sample of the first track: Prince Albert Hunt sings, Dig your taters, dig your taters, its tater diggin time. / Old man Jack Frost, darlin, killed your vine. (Now thats weird: Jack Frost is the pseudonym under which Bob Dylan has taken to producing his own records, and the last song on Modern Times, Aint Talkin, begins, As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, / The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.) We are in the world of the Dying Soldier and the Sinking of the Titanic, of How to Make Love by the Southern Moonlight Entertainers and The Tail of Haleys Comet by the Happy Hayseeds.
When Dylan sold out to rocknroll in the mid-Sixties and went electric, he was accused of having betrayed folks clarity of communication, its accessibility, its moral integrity. And he replied that at the heart of traditional music, as he understood it, was mystery, and it was that mysterious dimension he was trying to get deeper into; that he wasnt leaving the tradition but entering it.
His is a tradition in a peculiar sense, though. It is not acquired, as orthodox folk theory would demand, by oral transmission, but chiefly from records like the famous LPs, the Anthology of American Folk Music, that were compiled by a maverick scholar named Harry Smith from his own collection of salvaged 78s, and which became a standard text for folksingers. In effect, mechanical reproduction turned folk into a literature, radio and records enabling songs to jump from place to place and across generations just as writing and printing had with poetry and stories and drama.
A pan-American tradition, such as portrayed by Smith, unbound by specifics of place or time, is Dylans tradition. Indeed, thats probably why he became Bob Dylan, a hobo from the back of beyond, instead of Bobby Zimmerman, a boy from Hibbing, Minnesota: because as such he could inherit this non-traditional tradition entire, the cottonpickers blues from down in the valley and the ancient ballads from up in the hills, the cowboy laments from out on the plains and the hymns from the church in the woods.
Bob Dylan built his first few records visibly out of the tradition, and since then he has ranged right across American popular music styles. With a couple of solo acoustic records in the early 1990s, however Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong he returned firmly to his roots, and the trilogy he has made since are each of them like a patchwork quilt of old sounds and phrases and forms reshaped.
I have my own theory about Dylans trilogies. I see his work in a series of cycles, and each cycle can be divided into three phases, like the seasons, spring, summer and autumn (usually followed by a winter of silence). The spring sees the energetic, turbulent emergence of new material from its subterranean sources for example, the first of his electric albums, Bringing It All Back Home. In the summer phase, the work reaches a poise and fullness, though it may lose some of its appealing freshness along with its rough edges: thus, the diamond-hard focus of his second electric album, Highway 61 Revisited. In the autumn, the work tends to become more enigmatic, dissipating some of its force in complication hence the elusive and fascinating Blonde on Blonde, the last of his mid-Sixties masterpieces.
These three records were made in barely 18 months, however. Could a cycle like this a movement of creative thought and feeling stretch over nine years, which is the period from Time Out of Mind to Modern Times? Yes, there is something like the same development. Time Out of Mind is slightly woozy, semi-submerged, emotionally drunken whereas Love and Theft, released in the US on 9/11, is a work of sudden force. There are some hard-driving blues on it Lonesome Day, Honest with Me, Cry a While which are as fierce as anything Dylans ever recorded; a pretty astonishing way to mark his sixtieth year. Modern Times is a richer, gentler, more engaging work riper, in a word. Each song is shapely, and each shape is different. Dylans voice now must be the loveliest thing ever built from a groan, a croak, a murmur, a whine and a sigh.
Its a postmodern record: that seems the only term for its a-historical appropriation of historic styles. To emphasise its distance from modernity, the title itself is borrowed from a work of 70 years ago. Its a sign of humility, perhaps, that Dylans record, marvellous and memorable as it may be, is always going to be the other Modern Times. In Charlie Chaplins film of the same title, made in 1936, he played for the last time, after 22 years, his famous role of the Little Tramp. Its theme is the dehumanising effect of modern mechanisation, but it tackles it in a most backward-looking manner. It was Chaplins first talkie, but its made like a silent film, with no spoken lines, and plot pointers and dialogue appearing on title cards. In fact, it was the last major American film to use these devices, the last silent in effect. For the first and last time, the Little Tramps voice is heard but only singing a song in nonsense words. There are voices in the film, but they are all from speaking machines.
In early days, people sometimes saw a likeness between Bob Dylan and the Little Tramp, and Dylan admitted that he was inspired by Chaplins creation this permanent poor man who can be seen, in the final frames, mouthing the words, Cmon smile. Dylan has not denied that Modern Times might be his swansong (not that he intends it to be so, but that hes ready for it to be) and his homage to the Little Tramps last bow is certainly fitting in that respect. (And it could hardly be coincidental, surely, that the final song is called Aint Talkin.)
Among the very fleshly concerns I got the porkchops, she got the pie / She aint no angel and neither am I there are also a couple of songs about death here that would befit a swansong. Or rather, they are songs about the survival of love beyond death When the Deal Goes Down and Beyond the Horizon. The latter comes on like Depression-era escapist fantasy in the mould of Over the Rainbow; but look more closely and its clear that this horizon is the one that surrounds our life, and that Dylan doesnt believe the world ends at it. Ive got more than a lifetime, he concludes, to live lovin you. (Or is it, to live love in you?) The whole thing is done so lightly, so playfully, passed off like the scarcely-meant lyric doodlings of a crooner and yet is so pregnant with sense.
Coincidentally, Chaplins Modern Times was fingered for plagiarism (by a French film studio), and so has Dylans been. Within days of its release, there was a news story that Dylan had taken lines from an obscure American poet of the Civil War period called Henry Timrod. (The cryptically inclined also spotted that you could construct modern time from the letters of his name.) Though it was puffed up into one, this was never actually intended as an accusation of plagiarism by Scott Warmuth, the man who first posted it on the internet. He was just pointing out that too many phrases from the new songs found echoes in Timrods poetry, especially A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night, for Dylan not to have been reading it. (Timrod was quite celebrated in his day, known as the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy. I wonder if T.S. Eliots Rhapsody on a Windy Night which has some very Dylanesque touches might also remember him?)
The intriguing thing about the Timrod echoes, and also the use of a refrain from a song of the same era Oh I miss you, Nettie Moore, and my happiness is oer is that it fits with an unexpected passage in Dylans autobiography, Chronicles. He says there that he spent many hours in the library when he first arrived in New York, studying newspapers and documents from the time of the Civil War, feeling that momentous period had something to teach him about his own. The appearance of such texts now, in Modern Times, suggests either an uncannily retentive memory, or that that reading was done, or redone anyway, rather more recently than 1961.
Another twist of the Timrod tale is what it reveals about Modern Times and modern conditions. Scott Warmuth traced the allusion by putting Dylans phrase frailer than the flowers into Google. The point about Dylans plundering of old lyrics is that information technology makes it transparent. If recording began to turn popular music into a kind of literature, the process has been completed by the CD, and now even more compact digital formats, making the music of the past available en masse. The simultaneous presence of that whole tradition in which Dylan started and which Modern Times brings to vivid life is very much a feature of modern times.
You might also be interested in:
Nightingale’s Code: a poetic study of Bob Dylan
Minutes: A Second (pdf)
Walk the Line: a rambler’s guide to the Dylans, Bob and Thomas
the Iron Gates (part