I’ve been meaning to write my music column for BC for a while now – (for those who’ve read List of the Moment and waited, I am grateful. Know that I am working on at least two forthcoming lists.) Yet, this had to come first.
Perhaps I should reintroduce myself to Blogcritics where I have been for so very long now and one of the first places I felt at home. (Thank you Eric, thank you Lisa, thank you all.) I’ve been thinking about music (wow, big surprise) and a few things came to mind. Let me say off the bat before everyone gets up in arms (I hate histrionics), these are just thoughts, musings, opinions, rantings, ravings, etc and I am just thinking outloud. There may or may not be some validity here – I don’t know. I think so, but let’s see.
It’s Kurt Cobain that got me. It heard “All Apologies” the other day – specifically an outtake from a bootleg. I heard the slur of it and the whole GenX swagger that is sort of insecure and looking for a fight at the same time. We identify because that’s us with our baggy jeans sliding just so off our hips and our sweaters hanging over our gentle palms like the security blankets. We are not quite sure we want to let go of our multiple messy layers and our Converse sneakers and messy hair and there is (there was) Kurt Cobain. We didn’t have to imitate him (though many did after the fact) – he was us and we were him and as such, we identified with him.
It had been so long since any music had really moved me, as in moved me, until Nirvana came around and the sound just fucking changed. It was like nothing else. It was the way Little Richard changed things (There would be no Elvis with no Little Richard in my view.), and Dylan, Bob Dylan, his influences run the gamut, but Dylan too is major influence who was influenced by his major cultural icons – Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Little Richard, old blues traditions, and so on. It’s a narrative thread that you can trace back pretty easily if you care to. What interests me lately is why it is that some people – like Little Richard, like John Lennon, like Bob Dylan, like Elvis Presley, like Kurt Cobain, and others we could name here (the list is too long but you know the obvious references) – I’m not intentionally leaving anyone out here – think Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 who changed the sound of Motown forever – I just can’t include everyone. You get the point though – some people just become iconic.
Perhaps it is because they just do it better so they become archetypes. Ask my friend Paul and he’ll tell you that Shaggy from the original Scooby Doo is the original GenXer in some ways. Look at Shaggy and see traces of Kurt Cobain. It’s not about appearances alone, it’s about attitude. It’s about zeitgeist and what Cobain did and what Bob Dylan did and continues to do and this is the key here – is that they both picked up on the zeitgeist of the time.
It’s interesting that when pressed, both have suggested that this is not a particular gift (for I think it is a gift in some ways) as a curse. The ability to express for other people so that they can relate – to be like a shaman in some ways such that you express for the whole village and are, in short, a sort of conduit, is an amazing thing. You are, in Inuit and pretty much any non-western culture, a holy man. Dylan said of this ability to feel, after noting that he feels a lot, “It hurts.” I bet. I bet it hurts a lot and I bet it’s exhausting. Small wonder that so many musicians who really hit the top top top have trouble coping and turn to some deep-throated narcotic and sup like humming birds. That doesn’t surprise me one bit.
The thing is, you can’t spin it both ways – or you can, but frankly, that smells like bullshit. Sorry everyone, but it does. You want to be famous. You want success. You set out, as Dylan did, for New York City (“to meet Woody Guthrie”). If that had just been it, where was the return ticket, or the return ride home? C’mon. Why stay and why spin all the stories at the Folksinger’s Choice interview, which is highly entertaining but we all know and even the interviewer seems amused to be hearing about how Dylan grew up really all over but sorta somewhere near Sioux City and South Dakota. He has “lots of brothers and sisters” (everyone did in the sixties, sister). But he played with it and that’s cool. That Dylan is a private person does not surprise me. I am actually a very private person. Yet, I am absolutely compelled to be honest when I write. (It is a dangerous compulsion.)
What anyone who spins it and sets out to be famous and known and let’s face it, Dylan as we know put a lot of effort into creating a certain image and outward projection: in short, he became the brand “Bob Dylan”. According to Suze Rotolo, Bob spent hours getting ready for the cover shoot for The Freewheelin, trying on different outfits until he achieved that just-so disheveled look that said, “This is me, uncontrived.” And we bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Nothing wrong with that. We would not have if we did not want to; I fully believe that. So why do we or did we buy into that?
We need people like that, I think. We always have thoughout history. That’s why we created the mythologies complete with a pantheon of gods and goddesses with whole stories (elaborate and complicated at that – such a web!) because we need that. We need that because there are archetypes in our society and we sort of need the perfect one – or one that so totally (or comes as close as possible in this world) to what we imagine – that we believe or know it is possible to live that dream. That person, Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, and so forth (great writers likewise) – they show us that a kid like us, be it a Jew from the Midwest or just some kid in Seattle who says fuck the Lithium because it makes him too blank to write – well, they are sort of outlaws. Every society needs an outlaw. Trust me, I share the same birthday as Jesse James (September 5th). We need outlaws. Big Star put it well in the song “Thirteen”: “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”
We all want that. I do. Maybe I’m wrong about you, but fuck, yes, I want someone who, if they had to, would do anything for my love even if that meant being an outlaw. I want nothing less than a total cowboy. You bet. Now you know I have to quote Dylan (it would be remiss) who said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Honest with whom? That’s the question. And which law? I am assuming we are talking about the basically arbitrary social confines and conventions that we agree to as a group, because without them, we would have total anarchy and that doesn’t work. So, we agree to certain “principles,” but as a general rule they really do seem to me (and again, this is just my opinion so don’t go nuts) pretty arbitrary and that they are often so changeable (and sometimes, at times, have been outright sick and cruel).
I often wonder wtf is going on. I listen to the 4 Non Blondes sing “What’s Up” and I totally get it because I so don’t get it. Yes, every day I too pray for a revolution of some kind, but it’s a thought revolution. It’s a change in the way of thinking or some of our thinking because to me, some of it seems arbitrary and it is hardly that I am such a radical – another loaded word – because I do not see myself as such. I would say I am an “indie”.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliott Smith lately too, a great great loss. That is, as with Cobain, as with Lennon, but for GenXers I think, a day you just do not forget. Cobain. Smith. Both seemed to say so much of what we had to say and in the right way. In every case, we have helped create and uphold these figures – they have enormous talent – but without you, without me – they would cease to exist in the way that they do. A myth, a legend, cannot go on living without word of mouth, without buzz, rumor, gossip, spin, without someone like me or you to write about it and get it all down on paper so that the historical record is accurate. So that somewhere this is catalogued away in some archive someday and someone will reference it perhaps and that is important.
Somehow that is important. Language is our every day currency, just as it is for Dylan, just as it was for Cobain. It resonates and we all have our own unique emotional response to it – and that is why it hits. Your emotional response is bound to be different from my own, which makes interpreting what “so and so” is saying pretty much impossible unless you are that person. I can tell you first hand as a writer that after having my first book reviewed, I was astounded by some of the things that I “was saying” because I didn’t think I was saying those things at all. What was it Baez says in No Direction Home? I’ll paraphrase. She says something along the lines of, and this is when they were a couple in the early sixties, Bobby says to her, “One day people are gonna read these songs and they’re gonna wonder what they’re about. And they’re gonna write what they’re about (and then she says he giggled and said) when I don’t even know what the fuck they’re about (more giggles…).” And she laughed telling the story.
I find that not totally honest on his part. Some of the songs Dylan clearly knew what they were about and it’s pretty clear. Others? That’s for him to know and if they resonate with you, resonate with me, so much the better. Same with Cobain. Is it really important to know what the song meant to him, or is it more important that he stood up as an icon in many ways and gave the big, hurt, vulnerable, pissed off, I wanna change the world but I don’t know how to start, I’m apathetic but emotional, and a poet, and a fuck you to the world on behalf of GenXers everywhere? That to me seems the important part. I’d say the same of all of the others I note here, and those I did not note but whom you can easily infer – you know who they are – they stood for something, and so we stand for them.
Thanks for listening,