Thursday, October 13, 2016

Two Problems with Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature

  1. The elevation and sanctification of the strange and pernicious middlebrow belief that "songwriting" is essentially and importantly the writing of lyrics, or, to put it slightly differently, that the important and meaningful parts of songs are their words. The best way to dispel this one is to dive into this cover of "Outlaw Blues" by Thin White Rope, in which the guitar lines that come in after "I feel just like Jesse James" manage to convey that sentiment (cocky strutting) and "I got a woman in Jackson" (randy as fuck howling) substantially better than the words do (which is itself well). In rock and roll, it's almost always the guitars that get the best words.
  2. A parallel misapprehension about songwriting: that it is fundamentally an individual act, and that the players of songs are somehow secondary or subordinate. An easy way to correct this misapprehension would be to start your own fucking band, which would quickly revise your mental model of songwriting through the tool of practical experience.

If you're into easier, less rewarding modes, you could correct both of these mistaken notions simultaneously by reading historical accounts of the process of recording Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", probably as responsible for the award as any other single song:

Tom Wilson invited Al Kooper to stop by the next day's session simply to watch, but he had far bigger plans. "Taking no chances, I arrived an hour early and well enough ahead of the crowd to establish my cover," he wrote in his 1998 book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. "I walked into the studio with my guitar case, unpacked, tuned up, plugged in, and sat there trying my hardest to look like I belonged." Soon enough, [British blues player Mike] Bloomfield walked in and began practicing. "[He] commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I'd ever heard," Kooper wrote. "And he was just warming up! I was in over my head. I embarrassedly unplugged [his guitar], packed up, went into the control room, and sat there pretending to be a reporter from Sing Out! magazine."

With Kooper in the control room, the same group from the previous day launched into "Like a Rolling Stone," though with Paul Griffin moving from organ to piano. Kooper knew so little about the organ that he didn't even know how to turn it on, but he was desperate to play on a Dylan song and when a distracted Wilson didn't give him a firm "no" he walked into the studio, sat down at the instrument and was delighted to see Griffin hadn't turned it off. "Imagine this," Kooper wrote in his book. "There is no music to read. The song is over five minutes long, the band is so loud I can't even hear the organ, and I'm not familiar with the instrument to begin with. But the tape is rolling, and that is Bob-fucking-Dylan over there singing, so this had better be me sitting here playing something."

Wilson may have been shocked when he saw what was happening, but Dylan dug Kooper's sound and asked for the organ to be turned up. "You can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band before committing myself to play in the verses," Kooper wrote. "I'm always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys." The unique style of playing not only gave the song a signature component, but it also introduced Dylan to a musical collaborator he would return to time and time again in the coming years.

In "Like a Rolling Stone", the organ is an unmistakeable carrier of meaning, and it was an accidental, improvisatory addition. Occluding these facts is one consequence of Dylan's Nobel.

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