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June 18th, 2007

pasting it together

Today on my dawn plane to Austin, I read a nice think piece in Paste magazine by Ed Ward, who went to a Dylan concert with a German friend, aged ~ 40, who confessed that she didn't "get" Dylan at all. Mr. Ward wrote how he understood, in the same kindly note that one might understand a flat-earther. As one who enjoys a lot of Bob Dylan, thinks a few Dylan songs are classics, and who even managed to see Dylan on a "good night", I had complete sympathy with Mr. Ward's intrepid friend but uninspired friend, as I am sure there are many ways I don't really "get" Bob Dylan--he is more a step in the path than any member of my own personal heroes list. I never get critics of "a certain age" who worship him, or, indeed, worship the Stones or the mods or even the Velvets. I used to subsscribe to Rolling Stone when it was more than a skymall, and I still feel that way.
Mr. Ward's point was that you "had to be there" to understand what Dylan did for lyrics, but my own quick note to myself was that any of a dozen jazz artists were, in this same era, saying much more with much less inessential fluff without lyrics than mouthfuls of self-convinced "poetry".

Yet the subtle ironies of taste struck me when I read in that very same Paste issue how Bryan Ferry had gone about choosing Dylan songs for a new album of Dylan covers. As if I had not had the prior set of thoughts, I nodded to myself, and said "I completely get that".

I do love the way that cross-generational homage works. Perhaps Amy Winehouse will introduce a new generation to the 60s soul singers she adores. But does it always really work that way? I'm not so sure. I had a college room-mate for a short while, in the 1970s, before he pledged into a fraternity. That was the Autumn in which 801's Live album first got heavy rotation on my turntable. Eno's ironic reading of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me", one of my favorite covers and favorite 801 songs, was just rolling in as the strains of "Miss Shapiro" rolled out. My room-mate suddenly had a quick start of recognition. "That's a VAN HALEN song!", he cried, triumphantly. I taught him a little rock history. Perhaps he used it later as a "musical knowledge" line at mixers during pledge week.

I like Paste because it takes music reviews seriously without taking itself too seriously. I like, too, the letter from the thirty-something father who exulted that his 3 year old recognized a Decembrists song, because it had been featured on a Paste sampler CD. The idea of a music magazine for people as ancient and out-of-touch as thirty pleases me, somehow.

I grew up in an era in which music and ennui were synonyms, and all our listening tastes hovered between pastiche and magpie nest. Would-be experimentalists led us to the main lode of the real thing. We mined the true gold, and left the pyrite for the tragically hip.

Eventually, aesthetics become self-invented because for the thinking listener, there are no trains to Heaven, as the song goes, and the Kingdom lies within. A fun band is a fun band, popular or not, but the whole notion of concentric circles of "with it" music is a bit quaint now. Everyone plants their own garden now. The seeds of our discontent are now grown glorious Spring, and the resulting sunflowers will change the music from ennui to enveloping grace. Pop finished eating itself, and nothing is left but tuneful memories. It is for us but to sing along with the ghosts, and listen carefully for the coming change of sound. It's all assemblage, in genre boxes, and
the sounds outside the box are, if no longer the only sounds that matter, nonetheless a place I seek out as if hunting butterflies with a camera.