Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Amy Winehouse, a room, and a song

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

Amy Winehouse. Pic: Fionn Kidney

“She was the last real individualist around.”

So said Bob Dylan of Amy Winehouse, in an interview published last week to publicize Dylan’s new album.

What Dylan’s attempted to do on his new release, to find “the essence of life” in the torch ballads and pop compositions of the Great American Songbook, was second nature to Winehouse. (One of her strongest latter-day performances was a duet with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul‘.)

Her voice was certainly individualistic – like Dylan’s own, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s hard to think of another 21st century singer whose vocal performances had the same smooth snap and kick.

Or the same intimacy. Like the jazz legend Billie Holiday, who Winehouse is often compared to, the Londoner was never more powerful than when she delivered a love song to a simple accompaniment.

“I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”

So says Dylan of the 1940s and ’50s standards he sings on his new album. It’s an observation that applies to a number of Winehouse songs too, not least her composition ‘Love Is A Losing Game’.

The ballad is one I’ve listened to a hundred times, but it’s never sounded better than the first time I heard it, a decade ago, on a TV broadcast of the 2007 Mercury Music Prize award ceremony.

Winehouse’s album ‘Rehab’, though nominated, didn’t win that night (the nod went to the Klaxons – reinforcing the advice that no-one should ever pay heed to a music critic). But her three-minute live performance will be what the evening is remembered for.

She took to the stage just a month after an alleged drug overdose, the start of a drugs-and-recovery narrative that would continue until her tragic death, less than four years later.

‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was well-known at the time, having been released a year earlier on Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ album, but the rapt silence and rapturous applause that night gives some indication of what it was like to see it performed in the flesh.

Below, through, and above it all, of course, is her voice. Intimate, declamatory, wistful, surging – not individual but unique.

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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Dylan and the Dead (literary greats)

Bob Dylan, 1984

Bob Dylan, 1984

What do Sully Prudhomme, Count Maurice (Mooris) Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck, Henrik Pontoppidan and Halldór Kiljan Laxness have in common?

Well, firstly they were all writers, though I confess to not having read any of them.

But they are also members of a select club, one which an ageing American musician joined this week (not that he had a choice in the matter).

Like Bob Dylan, they are all Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Unlike Bob Dylan, their work can hardly be considered popular consumption in 2016.

And yet at one time all were considered authors who produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as Alfred Nobel put it.

Of course, one man’s ideal direction can lead to another’s blind alley. Dylan’s elevation to the canon of literary greats speaks more about the Nobel Prize, and artistic awards in general, than it does about a 75-year-old’s musician’s creative output.

The hat-tip may have seemed revolutionary to subscribers of literary magazines but don’t the classic works of Greek tragedy – the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides – have their roots in choral songs? Two thousand years later, weren’t the chanson de geste – the 13th century epic poems that laid the basis of French literature – sung, not read?

And now we argue about whether the author of ‘Wiggle Wiggle‘ deserves a spot at the table of greats?

As Dylan himself stated many lifetimes ago, when asked if he was “a singer or a poet”: “I think of myself more as a song and dance man”.

Which may explain why, as the critics got their quills in a twist this week, the songwriter was at the Chelsea Theatre in Las Vegas doing what he does, singing, dancing and making no reference to the world’s premier literary award.

He not busy being born and all that…

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

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You can’t always get what you pay $399 for

1035x776-PosterDesert Festival? Why didn’t they just call it Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and have done with it?

Music fans who like to mix their morbid curiosity with four course paired-wine dinners will be reaching for their wallets on Monday, when tickets to a three-day music event next October go on sale.

Call your dad, and your granddad too. Because Desert Festival’s six acts – Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters – fall firmly into the catch-’em-before-they-pass-away category.

The festival’s blurb speaks of a “once in a lifetime” event, with the acts “serving up three incomparable nights of rock’n roll”.

It neatly skips past the large, existential elephant in the room – the fact, given the age of the performers, this is indeed very likely to be a “once in a lifetime” chance to see rock’s 1960s survivors in one place. That said, grim mortality never went that well with the 60s’ spirit (though perhaps the Stones could repurpose Miss You at short notice if needed).

Keith Richards and Mick, Jagger, 2013. Pic: SolarScott

Keith Richards and Mick, Jagger, 2013. Pic: SolarScott

Putting cynicism to one side (always necessary when reading about the Rolling Stones), and discreetly ignoring the mind-blowing ticket prices (general admission starts at $399, with an extra $99 to pitch your tent, and that’s before the wine pairing) could it all be worth it?

If you’re a hedge fund manager flying business class to Palm Springs the answer is a comfortable ‘yes’, not least because you can squeeze six legendary acts into three days while enjoying four course meals ($225, plus fees). Stomaching a Neil Young rant on the evils of corporate America is unlikely to present a problem breeze, particularly given the excellent bar facilities.

But for fans who are – to put it bluntly – poorer, there’s a less of a pull. Any rock listener worth his or her salt has seen some or all of these acts previously or, if they’re like me, has turned down the chance to.

More to the point, the groundbreaking recordings many of them have made have become, after half a century in some cases, separate from the acts themselves.

The 20-something Bob Dylan who performed the thin, wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde will not be in Indio, CA, nor will the angry Pete Townshend behind Won’t Get Fooled Again or the Roger Waters  who co-wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond for his pal.

This music is out there, with a life of its own, long distanced from its composers.  Very little can bring us back 50 years in music, history or people’s lives – not even the opening riff of Satisfaction.

Mind you, it would be worth $399 to see the look on the hedge fund manager’s face when Bob Dylan embarks on an hour of Frank Sinatra covers.

Bob Dylan does it his way, London, 2011. Pic: Francisco Antunes

Bob Dylan does it his way, London, 2011. Pic: Francisco Antunes

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Who’ll Stop The Rain? (and other songs)

rain

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

I’ve got rain on my mind. On my shoulders too, and my shoes, bag and trousers. But mainly on my mind.

It’s been pouring down for weeks in Dublin, or so it seems. If it’s not actually raining it simply feels like a moment of respite, a break in the clouds to emphasise the onset of a new downpour.

Everything is sodden. Thankfully, unlike the unfortunate citizens of Athlone and other areas along the River Shannon, Dublin has not been struck by floods. But it’s been wet – the rain’s been general all over Ireland, and generally all over our psyche.

The skyfall has kept me indoors more than I’d like, an upshot of which is more time spent listening to music. I use it to drown out the noise of the liquid falling outside.

Perhaps it’s cabin fever but this morning, as I woke to the 5am drip and pitter-patter, I thought it was time to combine the two – to play some rain songs.

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Rainslicker – Josh Ritter
“The last 40 days have been rain, the sun is a prodigal one that seems bent upon giving itself a bad name,” sings Ritter, in his song to a girl and her red raincoat.

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A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
Minnesotan Bob knew all about hard winters. He may have written his classic protest song about nuclear fallout but I still think of cumulonimbi, not mushroom clouds.

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Feels Like Rain – John Hiatt
“When the clouds roll in across the moon, the wind howls out your name, and it feels like rain..” A romance in need of an umbrella.

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A Rainy Night In Soho – The Pogues
Or Dublin, or Glasgow, or Portland, or Killarney. Anywhere precipitation meets a hangover.

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Who’ll Stop The Rain? – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Because someone will, right?

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On ‘Blonde On Blonde’

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

Detail from Blonde On Blonde LP sleeve

I’m past the stage of thinking that a record can change your life. I’ve spent hours, days, sometimes even weeks lost in certain albums. And for me, that’s enough.

Any more – such as 18 discs of out-takes from one album – is too much, even if that album is Blonde On Blonde.

But not for many Bob Dylan fans, a sector admittedly not known for taking half-measures. Next month Columbia Records will release The Cutting Edge: The Bootleg Series Volume 12, 5,000 copies of which will be packaged in a limited collector’s edition, comprising 379 tracks crammed onto those 18 compact discs.

The ‘thin, wild mercury sound‘ has got a whole lot thicker.

News of The Cutting Edge made me wonder just how much Bob Dylan any one person needs to hear in their life; it also helped me realise that I’m becoming a simpler type of fan – one who’s happy with the original records, thanks.

I’ve been through my outlaw phase. The early days of bootlegs on eBay or, before that, Saturday afternoon visits to an old basement record store on Wicklow Street (whose name eludes me), which offered shelves of cassettes, all manner of live shows, outtakes and unreleased demos.

I still prize my Blood On The Tapes bootleg – the alternative Blood On The Tracks, cut by Dylan in New York with a stripped-down backing band shortly the later sessions used in the official release. And maybe one or two others.

But there it ends. It’s years since I’ve hunted down a particular session and, as time has passed, much of the better stuff has been cleaned up and officially released anyway.

Bob Dylan, 1963

Bob Dylan, 1963

The complete Witmark Demos, a bootleg passed to me with reverence by a college pal, was issued back in 2010. After a rush to the record store on the day of its release I returned home, slipped on disc one and waited to hear, down the decades, the coughing kid with the rough, golden touch I’d listened to 15 years earlier.

It sounded like what it was – a demo of a young, talented kid, rushing through what he had. The silver thread was missing.

Since then I’ve told l myself that I’ve changed – the younger man willing to spend hours listening to the same 1962 radio session over and over doesn’t have the time or the interest anymore. (That’s not to take from a powerful Death Of Emmett Till on the same recording).

But then I put on the studio albums, and one in particular always delivers – Blonde On Blonde, the record that emerged from the 379 tracks that make up The Cutting Edge.

Its 72 minutes brings much to mind – the Eason store on Church Street in Athlone, long gone, where I bought my first copy; the long, Guinness-and-chianti fuelled nights in college where it was a constant soundtrack; the many moments over the years when it’s come on, or come to mind. Different places, different times, different people – and always the same shambling opening line: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good”.

But it’s not a nostalgia trip. The album is as live an experience today as it was when I first heard or, or when Dylan first cut it, in a studio in Nashville almost half a century ago.

And at its centre is a song I still can’t get my mind around, with lyrics which have haunted me down the years – heat pipes coughing, ghosts of electricity howling in the bones of a woman’s face, harmonicas playing skeleton keys and all-night girls riding the ‘D’ train.

One version of Visions Of Johanna is enough for any man.

Blonde On Blonde hasn’t changed my life, it’s just been a constant part of it.

bob2

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Listening to New York – a playlist

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.

Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.

E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.

For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.

The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.

This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.

Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.

800px-53rd_&_3rdSome of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself  – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.

Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.

Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.

Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.

And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.

It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.

Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.

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It’s not you Richard, it’s me

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

There is a moment at a Richard Thompson show when his guitar-playing virtuosity can put the listener into a trance.

Time is suspended, seconds becoming hours, all of which hang on a raised note, the spell broken only when the melody is resolved. It’s heady stuff – up to a point.

Thompson played more than one furious solo during his show at Vicar Street in Dublin last Tuesday. As he tore through a stomping Hard On Me I found myself strangely transfixed, one part of my brain following the notes, another part thinking ‘where did I put the gas bill?’

Is this something that affects the musician? While most treat a two-hour Richard Thompson set as 120 minutes in the presence of a maestro, does the maestro ever find himself drifting away as he fires off another note-perfect rendition of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning?

One of the most common complaints people make about their jobs is repetition – the tedium of the same tasks the same way, workday after workday. Why should it be any different if you’re one of the top 20 guitarists of all time, whose performances make grown men sigh?

Most of us will change jobs in our lives but rock musicians – of certain stature – can find themselves damned to playing the same songs over and over, for decades. As Thompson commented – after playing Fairport Convention’s Genesis Hall – “that was from 1969” – I thought, ‘you must be a bit tired of it at this stage’.

Perhaps such songs are new every time, with a tempo change, a different venue, a bigger audience, the mutable factors that nudge the original just enough to keep it interesting.

It’s difficult to know what Thompson, whose stage manner is one of acerbic politeness, makes of it. Unlike some of his generation (Bob Dylan, who I’ve heard mangle plenty of songs over the years) the English folk-rocker seems content to mostly stick to the blueprint.

And what a blueprint. The Vicar Street set list included Wall of Death, Shoot Out The Lights and a poignant Al Bowlly’s In Heaven; the show ended with Tear-Stained Letter.

The songs and the technique couldn’t be faulted. The virtuosity was spellbinding. And if I worked through my household chores or audience-watched during a couple of the solos, well, my loss.

Perhaps it wasn’t you Richard, it was me.

A performance to make grown men sigh.

Solos to make grown men sigh

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Sonny: Mythic musician, noisy neighbour

The Williamsburg Bridge. Pic: Tyrael 28

The Williamsburg Bridge.
Pic: Tyrael 28

A saxophone player stands and plays for hours on a bridge – the sky above, the Hudson river below. It’s 1959, it’s New York City and the musician is Sonny Rollins.

For weeks he’s been walking to the Williamsburg Bridge from his apartment on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. Once he arrives at his chosen spot he stands and practices, often for hours. Sometimes he brings friends, more often he’s alone. Usually he spends hours blowing, choosing to play on the bridge rather than in the city clubs.

Three years later Sonny Rollins returns to the jazz scene, releasing an album inspired by (though sadly not recorded on) the bridge – and named after it.

What did Rollins find during those 15 hour days he spent alone over the Hudson River? Whatever it was, it led him back to the music scene that he had stepped away from, frustrated by his self-perceived limitations. His album The Bridge would be acclaimed by fans and critics.

"Sonny

Popular culture, for its part, found something else – a ready-made mythic image, the lone saxophone player practicing over the city, a mid-century outsider urban seer. Rollins’ legend slipped easily into the musical culture of the time – the artist exiling himself to find his muse.

There are echoes of the same story in Bob Dylan’s retreat to Woodstock, or Robert Johnson’s disappearing for six months and meeting the Devil at a crossroads, returning with a new take on the blues.

But every myth has its roots in the everyday and Rollins’ is no different. He first set foot on the Williamsburg Bridge by accident, while rambling around the neighbourhood where he lived with his wife, Lucille. And he returned there not to seek the muse, but rather to avoid annoying his neighbours.

“The problem was that I had no place to practice. My neighbor on Grand Street was the drummer Frankie Dunlop, and his wife was pregnant. The horn I’m playing, it’s loud. I felt really guilty,” he later recalled.

As for his return from the bridge – after two years of daily practice there –  the reality was less revelation and more, well, perspiration.

“I could have just stayed up there forever. But Lucille was supporting us, and I had to go back to work.”

And so pregnancy and the daily grind led to a quintessential jazz myth. The next time I listen to The Bridge I should think of Sonny Rollins’ neighbour and his hardworking spouse – the real reasons he walked on to the Williamsburg Bridge one day in 1959.

But the myth sounds better. As does the music.

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And through it all the river, clearing the heart

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

River Shannon, Athlone, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A place to start.

Maybe it’s Jeff Buckley’s voice at 2 o’clock in an almost-empty Sean’s Bar: Iheardtherewasabrokenchord – broken like the afternoon.
The sun of that day, July of ’98, hanging high over the Shannon, sifting, and the green-topped Peter and Paul’s.

Or a June morning, 4am and sleepless, sitting with my mother on the porch, the light already up.
I’d trade 100 other early mornings for whatever that conversation contained. It remains, somewhere.

Then the fog, always always the fog, murk in summer, freezing in winter.
Friday nights at St Mel’s Park and no idea what was coming from the white, the dirt floors of the stands, the roars.
Feet frozen eyes blinded. Fog there and fog home.

And when there was no fog and no rain the sky, huge above the flatlands and the river, a canvas for stars, for purples and reds, marked by high cirrus and vapour trails.
When people left that’s where they went.

‘I just can’t recallll San Francisco at alllll’ sang Bob one summer, all the month long before I left the town for that city.
The afternoon I left spent with my best pal in a pub on the Left Bank, ‘one more for the road lads one more we’ve time’.

Or further back, to years sinking away from me into the Callows. 1,000s of days of childhood, classrooms, soccer, tree gum on hands, bicycles and books.
Churches, halls, pitches, paths. Chilly Christmas Eves in a hotel on the main street of a town that was the only town.

And through it all the river, clearing the heart of that country. Taking it all, all of us and all we were, west – carrying us to open water.
And I was carried too. But there I was, at the start.

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