Saturday, January 11, 2020

Rock and Roll Eulogy: Neil Peart

I know this will come off as indiscreet. Speak well of the dead, goes the admonishment. Yet, as the tributes pour in for Neil Peart, dead yesterday of brain cancer, I find myself surprised by the widespread willingness to sing the praises of this particular drummer and lyricist. Alan Greenspan, notwithstanding, no one has better promoted the wicked worldview of Ayn Rand than did Peart. Via the lyrics he plugged into Geddy Lee’s Muppetian falsetto, Peart regurgitated the vile vomit of Rand’s so-called “Objectivism,” draped in the shimmery adornment of dystopian futurism. Randian me-firstist discourse is, of course, the cornerstone of the neoliberal revolution that took hold under Reagan and Thatcher but which now infects nearly every aspect of our media, our values, our law, legislation, and “reason.”

Rand’s philosophy make sense as fodder for a music aimed at teenage boys, answering to the narcissistic mandates of pubescence and the demands of Western, waged “manhood.” All selfishness and bootstrapping, Peart’s lyrics paint a picture of a world dependent on the freedom inherent in individual choice-making. (Exhibit A: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,” from the song “Freewill” on the 1980 album Permanent Waves.) Conveniently, it ignores all the implicit and explicit limitations imposed on individual’s choices due to gender, race, and class. In this respect, Rush’s lyrical worldview bears a decided resemblance to the legislative worldview of conservative lawmakers and to the economic worldview of free marketeers. This is no coincidence. Peart’s thinking shares a bloodline with those whose faces would adorn the Mount Rushmore of the not-so hypothetical hyper-patriarchal United States of AynRandica: Milton Friedman, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Ryan, Clarence Thomas. (Bless their stars that the Randians can plausibly nominate a Black man to provide convenient cover for objectivism’s endemic White supremacism.)

Some point out that Peart later dismissed his infatuation with Rand, telling Rolling Stone, “That was forty years ago. But it was important to me at the time in a transition of finding myself and having faith that what I believed was worthwhile." Unfortunately, the damage was done. Literally millions of teenage boys – turned on by Rush’s mixture of power balladry and proggy semi-sophistication, and by Peart’s machine-tooled percussive excess, perfectly composed to be mimed on the dashboards of anything from a tricked-out Trans Am to your mom’s Malibu Station wagon – were introduced to objectivism by Peart (notably via his liner notes to Rush’s 1976 album, 2112, which cite “the genius of Ayn Rand”).

And, still, there are those of us who cling to the fusty belief that, quite apart from the drummer’s intentions, art actually *means* something. We maintain that in the workings of the work, the comings-together of means and method, the collisions of reference and rationale, something emerges that says something, does something, feels like something. Art must take responsibility for this something. And, while one might be tempted to say that the artist, in turn, must take responsibility for the art, I don’t think that’s quite right. Because, as Barthes informed us fifty years ago (plus two), the artist is wholly a product of the art. Not the other way around. Whatever Neil Peart is to us, he is an effect of Rush’s music. Despite all disavowals, Rush’s music always hewed to a particular conception of mastery, expertise, and sophistication (but not too much sophistication – for god’s sake, it’s not King Crimson).

Remember back in 2012, when Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for President, tapped Paul Ryan, throwback-conservative congressman from Wisconsin, as his Vice Presidential running mate? Remember when Ryan confessed to cranking Rage Against The Machine while pumping iron? Remember when Rage’s guitarist, Tom Morello, wrote a piece for Rolling Stone, condemning Ryan and asserting that Ryan was, in essence, a bad listener for misapprehending the meaning of Rage’s music? What’s at issue in this musicological debate is the question of how music makes its meaning. Morello says, listen to the lyrics, dude. He wonders which songs are Ryan’s favorites, “Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of ‘Fuck the Police’? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!” For his part, Ryan says he likes the music, but not the lyrics. The thing about Rush is that, regardless of whether you’re a Morellist or a Ryanian, you’re in a pickle. If you attempt to move past Peart’s Fascile (facile-Fascist) wordsmithing, you’re confronted, unfortunately, with the problem that is Rush’s music.

And here we are forced to realize that, even if forty years ago, Rand was left in Peart’s motorcycle’s rearview mirror, Rush as a musical entity has never separated itself from the core principles of an objectivist worldview. Rush’s music represents a valorizing of technique, as embodied in technical apparatus and virtuosity upon such apparatus. Exhibit B: Neil Peart’s drum kit:

Some drummers play with their bodies. Some play with their brains. (The best combine the two. See the Rock and Roll Eulogy for ClydeStubblefield and Jaki Liebezeit, February, 2017.) Neil Peart plays with his arms. As my friend, Seth Brodsky, quipped, this is “biceptual music,” music of and for the biceps. Like Rage Against The Machine, it’s music for dumbbells. What we marvel at when we marvel at Peart’s playing, is what he can do with his limbs. His drum kit tells us this before he even sits down. Peart’s kit is a text. It reads: “So many things to strike! Imagine this man’s limbs engaging all these objects!” One wonders how he decides that he needs one more piece? That small black cymbal over his left shoulder, for instance? Does Peart lie awake at night, tormented by the fact that his kit presents nothing for him to hit that will produce a frequency of 2600 Hz, sustaining for 6 to 8 seconds? Yes, he does! And that is the source of our techno-obsessive wonder.

Like his kit, Peart’s playing is everywhere-all-at-once. Nary a crevice or fissure in the cliff face of Lee’s bass or Alex Lifeson’s guitar is left unspackled by the daubs and baubles of Peart’s multitudinous double kick drum, his demisemihemiquavers, his flams and paradiddles. Again, the listener’s ear is mesmerized by the techne-dextrousness with which Peart’s spatial detection software tracks down unfilled musical space and pimps it like a Medieval Catholic architect. The meaning of Rush’s music is distilled most eloquently, most unadulteratedly in Peart’s playing. His rototom fills and China crash crashes speak directly to the sinew of the adolescent boy, to the muscle he is so desperate to acquire. The adolescent boy has been taught that this muscle is the key to his happiness and, more importantly, to his self-fulfillment: that is, to the fulfillment of his individuality within the heterogeneous tangle of society. Peart’s are the biceps that launched a thousand Guitar Center drum solos. Peart’s playing is all assertion. It asserts its mastery, its virility, its self-certainty. It is not above stepping clubfootedly on the toes of Peart’s bandmates, just as Rand’s *playing* was not above stepping on others’ shoulders – or heads – to get where it was going.

Again, I realize this will offend some who relish their developmental memories of pummeling the dashboard to “Tom Sawyer” on the Motorola radio. I would never dream of denying you those memories. But development suggests progress, moving beyond the shallow, immediate needs of the moment, to broader sensitivities. Rush’s music and Peart’s playing did not avail themselves of stepping back from visceral responses. Like the objectivist impulses that inform the music, their songs don’t make time or space for reevaluation and realization. Still in the thrall of Rand, Peart wrote the lyrics to “Anthem” on 1975’s Fly By Night.

Live for yourself
There's no one else more worth living for
Begging hands and bleeding hearts
Will only cry out for more

Morellian or Ryanian, the analyses don’t yield much in the way of benevolence. With self-serving autocrats occupying presidential palaces from Brasilia to Washington to Moscow, with an alternative ideology suddenly and realistically available at the highest levels of U.S. government, mourning the passing of Peart’s music feels like an indulgence none of us deserve.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Aretha Franklin

Yes, it's just air - air forced across the fallows and folds of the anatomy. But that simple fact does not diminish the astonishment at Aretha's voice. On the contrary, to think that each of us also forces air from our lungs and forms it into pitched syllables. And yet none of us - no other singer who has ever sidled up to a microphone - could make air do what Aretha made it do. In the depths of her lungs, common air is transformed into a kind of electricity. It is fast. It rises out of nothing. And before you can hear it as a voice or a sound or as music, it is already doing its work. The ear pleads mercy before it drops to the earth in acquiescence and approbation. The ear is not worthy. It can't keep up. It has nothing to offer in return. So it simply submits.

Certainly, her voice is the irreducible fact of who Aretha was - or at least, of who she was to we who listened to her, we who listened to her voice. But there's something else that accompanies Aretha's life and her voice as a kind of fact; something else that makes her who she is in the collective imagination of millions. As with everything we're prone to call "genius," the fact of Aretha is a fortunate confluence of time and events and consciousness as they come up against a talent and sensibility appropriate to their import. Aretha's voice was a voice that we needed to hear. The anger and righteousness of Black Americans' demands for justice rose with the force and speed of a flash flood. Of course, such energy is never sudden, but always the result of pent up power deprived an outlet. Aretha's voice is the correlate of this anger and righteousness, this force and speed. Her voice, in the space of a vowel or a soft consonant, could go from lying down to standing up. It could fill the space of its container. Moments later, in mid-verse crescendo, it could devastate that container, like an Ali punch from the inside.

Earlier today, a friend posted an article from a 1970 issue of Jet Magazine which reports that Aretha offered to pay the bond of Angela Davis, who was then jailed on a fabricated murder charge. In the article, Aretha says,

“Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people – they’ve made me financially able to have it – and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

It's often said that Soul music is secular Gospel; a music which replaces religious faith with romantic love. And much of Aretha's music of the late-60s could be described this way. But reading about Aretha's passionate support of Angela Davis made me think differently about the content of her songs from the late-60s (when Aretha was just in her mid-twenties). Rather than a swapping of romance for faith, Aretha's songs merely depict earthly enactments of the great moral demands of religion. When Otis Redding sang "Respect," it was about a working man coming home at the end of the day and expecting love and dinner and sex and a specifically submissive expression of respect from his woman. When Aretha sang it, it was about something else, something bigger. It was not a plea from the empowered to be recognized as such, but a demand from the disempowered - woman, African-American, colonized, enslaved - to be recognized at all. Aretha's "Respect" is about dignity and justice.

This theme recurs again and again in Aretha's late-60s recordings, often in places where we aren't prone to hear it. "Chain of Fools," is a swampy vamp, combining Pops Staples-tremolo with a vicious funk born of a New Orleans second line. Musically, it is plaintive and bitter and just about ready to burst. At first blush, the lyrics might be taken for the doleful admissions of a mistreated lover. But, given the historical context (the song was released in 1967), how can we ignore the fact that the song begins with the word "chain" repeated 19 times? The singer complains

You got me where you want me
I ain't nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
Oh, you treated me cruel

Of course, this could be the grievance of an abused lover. But it also reflects contemporaneous race relations in the United States. As the song continues, one begins to hear a description of the structural power dynamics of American racism, Blacks forced into weak positions upon which White strength is established.

Every Chain
Has got a weak link
I might be weak, child
But I'll give you strength

The last verse offers a portent. This situation is untenable and "one morning" it will collapse. But, in the meantime, to spite the unconscionable malice of the oppressor, the oppressed will absorb all the punishment, all the degradation.

One of these mornings
The chain is gonna break
But up until then, yeah
I'm gonna take all I can take

The implication, buried not so deeply in the words themselves, is even closer to the surface of the raw wound in Aretha's delivery. She digs in to these lines. In the studio, she has to step back from the microphone in order not to overdrive the helpless diaphragm. As a result, she sounds slightly more distant, yet at the same time, a distortion is introduced - if not of the diaphragm, of the very air itself?

Another song, "Think" - one of the very few that Aretha wrote - also lends itself to this double-reading: on the one hand, that of the jilted lover, on the other, of those systematically disenfranchised and degraded. The lyrics echo Du Bois who said that anti-Black racism provided a “public and psychological wage,” for poor Whites who were "compensated" for their own disenfranchisement by being able to think themselves superior to Blacks. Aretha sings, "Let's go back, Let's go back / Let's go way on way back when." So this is a developmental diagnosis. It's been there since the start. And while Aretha confesses, "I ain't no psychiatrist / I ain't no doctor with degrees." She also declares, "But it don't take too much high IQ / To see what you're doing to me."

The song then pleads with its listener to reject the restraints of the past, of history, of nation, and race, and privilege:

You better think (think)
Think about what you're trying to do to me
Yeah, think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free

And just as "Chain of Fools" wouldn't allow us to miss the point, repeating "chain" nineteen times consecutively, "Think" hammers home its key idea, repeating the word "freedom" twelve times in a row.

The freedom the song demands isn't just her own. She implores the listener to think. Because freedom can't be granted it must be achieved. Blacks' lack of freedom isn't a Black problem. As James Baldwin said,

"We have invented the nigger. I didn't invent him. White people invented him. If I am not the nigger, and if it's true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? Well, he's unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I'm going to give you your problem back: You're the nigger, baby, it isn't me."

Trying to make other people lose their minds
Well, be careful, you're gonna lose yours

Aretha's demands don't rest principally in the words in the way that I can present them here. Again, it's in the way she pours her astonishment and her outrage into the words, into the elasticized contours of the syllables and slurs. How can White America think that this situation could possibly be right? How can they think it's sustainable? How can they not understand that sooner or later the whole fetid excrescence is going to explode in their throats, denying them the air that Aretha takes and gives more powerfully than they could ever dream of?

Aretha is the Queen of Soul. She made Soul in her image and in the image of the struggle. She made it about demands for equality. Hers is not faith replaced by fantasies of romantic love, but about sacred justice brought to bear upon the profane exigencies of her time and place, about America in the twentieth century and about overcoming.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Mark E. Smith

It’s there from the start. From “Repetition” on Early Fall. The Fall is the most complete aesthetic statement in all of rock and roll. Repetition repeats. Wheels within wheels. Waking up, eating, shitting, going to sleep. The patterns repeat: chew, chew, chew, swallow, chew, chew, chew, swallow, ad nauseum. And the nausea too. And history. Bloody history. Nausea. Mark E. Smith never aimed to make music to make us feel better. For forty years of the same and the same and the same, he aimed to make us queasy. Bent over and sipping hungover breaths through gritted teeth. Afraid to open our mouths or eyes too wide, for fear of letting the world seep in. Smith always knew that the most dangerous infection is the most pervasive. Through, I dunno, maybe 60 albums (it depends how you count them), The Fall’s music has desperately repelled the disease of liquidity; of assuming the shape of its container (drivers). Like a gas (man), it escapes. Like a solid it stubbornly stays the same. Errant vowels at the end of words and squeals of malfunction in the midst of boggle-jumble-phrases (“Rowche Rumble,” “Smile” (just “Smile”), “Eat Y’self Fitter”). The anti-matter James Brown. Jesus Christ in reverse. Because art rarely prompts us to ask both the question “how does he do that?” and “why does he do that?” The first question suggests technique-inspired wonder, while the second implies confusion regarding intent. So, if we do ask both questions, it’s about the bad taste of excess (cf. Neil Peart). But with Mark E. (the Marquis) and the rotating cast of Fallers, the questions are begged by the depth of an obviousness we could never have imagined. Like Lester Bangs said about somebody else, The Fall are all about “musical ideas that may not be highly sophisticated (God forbid!) but are certainly advanced.” It’s the nose in front of your face. Out there, in front. But so hard to see, until you smash into the mirror. Sometimes you need to break the thing wot breathes just to remind y’self of how difficult and dangerous it can be to put on airs (or put up with ‘em, or put ‘em in you). Be careful what you wish for, lungs. The first time I saw The Fall I’d taken mushrooms. Rethought the notion of “psychedelic music.” (And “psychedelic.”) (And “music.”) The way he squatted with his back to me the whole time. Another time, the carry bag man lost hold of a shopping bag full of lyrics on the festival stage. Sheets of words deserted him in the wind. He tried in vain to repatriate them to the bag – the odd jobs concatenations that somehow sat upon dumb dogmatic bass lines and befuddling, scudding drumming like a vested monkey riding a rodeo horse. Most of them got away. Like the time he told the recording engineer that the drummer didn’t deserve more microphones than his own single vocalist allotment and made him take the rest away. Or the time he tells the lighting guy at their hometown Hacienda “Donald, stop those lights flashing or I’ll break your fucking neck”and then recites, simultaneously into the microphone and into a school cassette recorder “he tried to induce epilepsy. I, and my strong personality, was having none of it” like those were just the lyrics of the song which maybe they were because how did he do that? / why did he do that? His tongue was so deep in his cheek it came out the other side, which is either the opposite cheek, the opposite of cheek, or maybe the listener’s cheek, or maybe the very idea of the idea of having one’s tongue in one’s cheek, such that it is swallowed back down the throat which is what can happen during induced epilepsy, the gag reflex, and nausea. Or asphyxiation. Rock and roll must now be officially dead, right? Kidding-not-kidding. Fuck.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Holger Czukay

It all comes down to the throb. At the heart of every indispensable experience: that insistence made manifest as periodicity, as repetition. It keeps coming back. It keeps coming back. It inveigles. It urges. It persists. Eventually, the distinction between it and whatever had previously been taken to be “normal,” or “permissible,” or “advisable,” fades away. Its intrusion becomes, at first, simply tolerable. But soon enough it vanishes, like the pendulum of the grandfather clock in my childhood home. Friends would say “how do you live here with that constant ticking?” And I would say, “what ticking?” completely incapable of hearing it. Finally, it becomes necessary. The throb;  the very movement of time, the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, the interstellar hum.

Holger Czukay conjured but one thing from his bass: that throb., Holger’s playing is the most primordial retort to the seismic shufflings of Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming. Together, they perform the dialectics of brass tacks and gilded roses. At one end of the tether, Jaki (who died inJanuary) unwinds the coil, spinning Mandelbrot sets of pulses, spaces, and emphases. At the other end, Holger winds it all back up, tightening the twine into an impossible concentration of matter and energy. Like no other rhythm section, the two of them invent the boundaries of a self-sufficient, and practically endless, musical universe. Anyone who loves Can, whether they know it or not, loves Holger and Jaki mostly. In their spars and scrimmages, entire languages emerge, expend their capacities, and die. They construct in time what Borges’ Library of Babel constructs in space.

What’s more, Can as we know them – and let’s not beat around the bush: they are without a doubt one of the six or seven most significant bands to ever make rock and roll – are largely a product of Holger’s structural vision and ability. He recorded their long sessions, listened to and indexed the fathoms of tape, and edited (by hand; pre-digital) the sessions into ur-compositions, throbbing (again) with the inevitability of being born or dying. He had been a student of Stockhausen and had taken the master’s tools and employed them as weapons against the dogmatic, hectoring didacticism of “serious” music. At roughly the same time that Teo Macero was cutting and splicing Miles Davis sessions in New York to create In A Silent Way, Czukay was chopping up Can sessions at their Inner Space studio in Cologne and assembling a new music that was composed after it was performed.

There is little else in the listenable world that survives repetition as Can does. Their own deeply hewn repetitiveness allows successive listens to act more on the music than the music does on the listening. Jaki and Holger did what rivers do, appearing to follow the contours of the land, when in fact the land is forever yielding to the river. Eventually, rivers either head underground or empty into the sea. In the first case, the river carves ever deeper, hollowing stone, blazing subterranean trails that only the river itself can follow. In the second case, the river disappears into something greater than itself; something more powerful, more extensive. I have no trouble believing that either of these cases (or both) describes where Jaki and Holger have gone.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Jaki Liebezeit (May 26, 1938 – January 22, 2017) and Clyde Stubblefield (April 18, 1943 – February 18, 2017)

I was young once. And prone, as youth is, to surfaces and misconceptions, I once labored under the erroneous opinion that the drummer doesn't matter much. Imagine! Such insouciance! I took it for granted that a beat – any beat – would suffice, so long as the song was good, the singer was expressive, and the guitars were inventive.

Somewhere along the way, I came to my wits. It might have been upon hearing Jaki Liebezeit of Can (probably not the first time I heard Can – I’m not that quick a study – I’m sure it took a number of listens), on Tago Mago, I imagine. “Mushroom” is practically all drums. Just a little repetitive chanting from Damo and the extreme economy of Holger Czukay’s bass. There’s already something going on when the song starts in the middle, unpacking itself like a defiant bloom on a cactus. We hear the sound of the end of something that just happened, something we don't have access to and never will. There’s a little keyboard whine, just a beep, like the tone your microwave makes when your burrito’s done. Then Jaki rolls a slender fill to usher us into the song (or vice versa). It’s all shuffling on top, a cascade of echoes lashing into and out of the caldera. Beneath, way down, the bass drum carves out its own geography. There is nothing to suggest that these two topographies are of the same world. But together they create a world as inevitable as the earth.

Jaki’s worlds are all commotion and tectonics: the shambolic intentionality of human activity scuffling assuredly across the heavings of a planet forever belching itself into shape. There is a naturalness to Liebezeit’s layers. Not in the sense of ease or rightness, but in the sense of nature, as imagined by Jaki’s countryman, Werner Herzog: persistent and punitive. Early, Jaki played with Mafred Schoof’s free jazz quintet. Later, he spoke of having an epiphany that directed him to play monotonously, and he joined Can.

All great music is monotonous. Even if that is not the music’s primary attribute, not the first adjective the critic would employ in its description, there must be a monotonous component to any music we would call great. Lester Bangs repeatedly (monotonously) intoned the necessity of monotony. It’s there in the Velvets and in the Stooges. But it’s also in Ornette and Ligeti and Dylan. It wouldn’t have been in Can had it not been for Jaki. True to the name he was born with, he forced the band and every one of its listeners to confront the step-by-step construction of time, which is also, of course, its deconstruction. We must embrace this time; reconcile ourselves to it. We must find a way to love (liebe) time (zeit) and be loved by it.

From 1965 until 1971, Clyde Stubblefield played drums in James Brown’s band, playing alongside John “Jabo” Starks. The two drummers provided the relentless motor for most of Brown’s best work. Jaki gets credit as a pioneer of the “motorik” rhythms of krautrock. But if you go back to Clyde’s work with James Brown, you will hear the origin and the distillation of the notion. Robert Palmer, to my knowledge, is the first critic to have noted that, starting in 1965 with “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” Brown’s bands began to treat every instrument as a drum. The drummers, Clyde and Jabo, are the foundation of this. But in order to function as both architecture and engine, they had to reimagine their role and their playing.

If every instrument is a drum, then how much territory and responsibility is left for the actual drums? And what if there are two drum kits? In response, Clyde and Jabo tap into the most fundamental understanding of rhythm – that it is a binary code: ones and zeroes, on and off, snap and silence. As much as they create music, they create space. Wicked absences at the upstroke. Targets for the other instruments to hit. Bait set in the bear trap. The band builds itself in these spaces, its form defined by what Clyde and Jabo allow. What made Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, JB’s two great band leaders, so intrinsic to James Brown’s sound, was their ability to tap into this particular evolutionary turn in Brown's music - the one that is the spawning of funk. Maceo and Wesley know what Brown means when he says "don't give me no trash, just give me some popcorn." No excess. Just the moment the kernel pops. Just the singularity of mutation: an impenetrable surface releasing and becoming energy. The Collins boys introduced something else to the mix, a little butter, a little salt. Their playing suggests a libidinal freedom that Brown never allows to surface. But at the core of all of James Brown’s best tracks from the late 60s (“Mother Popcorn,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and Stubblefield’s signature number, “Funky Drummer”) is Clyde’s stringency. His playing is an exercise in repression; as if something is always being held in reserve. This something never comes truly to fruition because what counts is tension, anticipation; not more, but the possibility of more. The repression is ultimately more powerful than its lifting could ever be. The power of the internal combustion engine is predicated on pressure and intermittent release. While the conditions for a climactic explosion are all present, the engine is designed to repress it. Clyde understood this and made of his drumming a motor.

It is cruel (amidst the cascade of current cruelties) that these two great forces should leave us within one month of each other. In the pits of our stomachs, in our asses, in our spatial and temporal imaginations, suddenly there is a lot less possibility of more.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan's Nobel

It’s as if I’ve been dreading this moment.

Bob Dylan’s name has come up each fall for the last few years. Many of the people I love most dearly and admire most deeply have been rooting for this morning’s Nobel announcement. I haven’t been dwelling on it, or preparing for it. But I’ve had to reconcile myself to the looming obligation: should the announcement come, I will need to explain why I’m against it.

Ok, dread isn’t exactly the right word, or the right emotion. In fact, the announcement triggers mixed emotions. To my sensibilities, hewn in the mill of postwar political and aesthetic Modernism – buoyed by the expansion of civil rights and the interrogation of taken-for-granted values, but chastened by window-dressed American imperialism and the existential pessimism of Watergate – there is no greater art in any medium than the mid-60s daggers that Dylan steered to their deserving targets. Nothing else so thoroughly and simultaneously tests the emotions and the intellect, history and formal invention, the mapping of collective desire to individual expression.

My qualms, then, are not about merit. Nor are they about the specious category error of awards for artistic achievement. They are, in fact, about a different kind of category error. And what compels me to write about Dylan’s Nobel is the urge to distinguish the error that bothers me from one which doesn’t.

It doesn’t bother me that, in naming Dylan the laureate, the committee has taken an expanded view of the category of “literature.” As it happens, I am in the midst of writing a book that argues that the expansion of fields in various media that begins in the 60s and continues in strong form through the 70s (in weaker form to the present day) was initiated in part by the advent and acceptance of rock and roll as an art form worthy of careful consideration. No one forced this issue more than Dylan. Cinema expanded to include blank film and slowly morphing wall-hung emulsions. Sculpture expanded to include bulldozed earth and roomsfull of light. It makes sense that literature expanded too. In 1968, Aram Saroyan published an unopened ream of typing paper as a book.

It’s not that rock and roll constitutes a similar expansion of literature, taken into the body as a new manifestation of its medial concerns. Rather, rock and roll in the 60s forced, not just literature, but all traditional mediums to reconsider their relation to their contemporary cultural conditions. Sculpture in the 60s had to confront the increasingly sculptural environment of postwar commodity culture in which technology and the ubiquity of consumer goods situated the perceiving body in a fortress of three-dimensional objects designed to promulgate desire. Many of these objects were mobile, either portable or ambulatory, not sitting still for the contemplation of the perceiving body, but manically traversing its space and attention. Cars, moving pictures, conveyor belts, shelves of jars, radios, electric toys, neon signs, public address systems, elevators, escalators, lights across the night sky. Dylan assumed the form of this kinetic moment. He was wired and wiry, constantly moving in space and time, constantly forming/deforming/reforming; never the same figure twice. Constantly inconstant. Later, it was not his sound, his syntax, nor his semantics that would influence the trajectory of rock and roll, but this twitchy unwillingness to settle. They followed his lead: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols. The sacred, static, sculptural form was ill-suited to respond to this newly erratic world. But rock and roll made perfect sense. It was both the reflection of restless technological commodity culture, and a tool for subduing its most unnerving features. Minimalism and then Conceptual Art descended from the haute encampments of culture and academia to respond to the new realities of the American 60s. Similarly, but coming from a decidedly different direction, the groundwater of American subculture seeped into the cultural foment of the 60s in the form of rock and roll.

As different as their motivations and methods were, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and rock and roll (along with a host of other new and intermedial forms), destabilized the traditional moorings of the throne of aesthetic power. Similarly and simultaneously, social and political movements threatened (or promised) to deconstruct societal power structures and value systems. From the American war in Vietnam to the near collapse of France’s Fifth Republic, the inevitability of democratic capitalism seemed suddenly in doubt.

In objecting to Dylan’s Nobel, I am not trying to protect literature from infection. On the contrary, I am trying to protect Dylan’s work from the assumptions and impositions that append themselves once it is deemed “literature.” (And let’s face it, no such deeming could be more definitive than this one.) Here’s the rub: to call Dylan a literary artist is to homogenize him. But rock and roll has always been an intensely heterogeneous form. It is theatrical in the traditional sense and also in the way that Michael Fried’s used the term: to disparage Minimalist sculpture for anticipating and being activated by an audience. Rock and roll is a kind of performance art. It is a spectacle. It is graphic design: it’s impossible to imagine rock and roll without concert posters and album covers. It is also industrial design: it’s equally impossible to imagine rock and roll without Fender and Gibson guitars, without Marshall amps and Ludwig drums, without PA systems and lighting rigs. Rock and roll is a technological form, at both the site of production and the site of reception. Rock and roll was new media avant la lettre. And, yes, rock and roll is also literary, not just in its lyrics (which is, no doubt, what the Nobel Committee is rewarding here), but also in the various forms of discourse that rock and roll generates, from liner notes, to press releases, to interviews, to critical journalism. Shit, if it were up to me, Lester Bangs would have gotten the Nobel (but for the fact that his death disqualifies him – maybe Greil Marcus?)

Oh, and wait, rock and roll already functions under the umbrellic shelter of a long-recognized artistic medium. We call it music.

But I’m equally unperturbed by what will happen to music if we call Bob Dylan’s music literature. What I care about is what will happen to Bob Dylan’s music, or his literature, or his… Let’s agree, for the sake of this argument, to just call it his “work.” His work is what I’m worried about. Calling it literature reduces it. And Dylan’s work deserves to be defended from this reduction, even if that yoal has already left the quay. In the 60s he was already “the poet of his generation.” In a 2005 book, conservative literary theorist and Oxford don, Christopher Ricks, laid literary claim to Dylan’s words. And now the Nobel. Yes, that filly’s fled the grange.

Dylan’s voice, not the words it sings, is his most powerful weapon. When others sing his words they almost always lose their charge. The Byrds. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Sonny and Cher. Joan Baez. The Staple Singers. The list goes on. So many cover versions of Dylan songs stumble awkwardly into the ravine of righteous intentions. When these versions work, it is almost always due to something peculiar to the performance, something that sidesteps the burden of the words and the cultural specificity of Dylan’s original. When Dylan sings his own songs, he approaches the task with the insouciant disregard of a pipefitter working in the basement of a man he dislikes. He distorts the structures of the songs with contortionistic gusto, insuring that the material can indeed travel from point A to point B, but without instrumental concerns for efficiency or strain upon the system. His phrasing tortures individual syllables and sounds. 

Tellingly, when his voice is absent, he goes for the harmonica like a petty thug in an alley brawl retrieving the dagger from his ankle sheath. Allen Ginsberg (no Nobel) once described Dylan as a “column of air.” The harmonica is all breath, all air: exhale and inhale. It is the voice without language. Listen to the live ten minute and forty-four second versionof “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the Rites of Spring bootleg.  The harmonica reels out beyond the boundaries of the song, daring something else to land in the space the song has created, to colonize it, to recast it, to reengineer its innards such that its heart is routed directly to its lungs. The song breathes blood. The harmonica begins manically repeating a simple phrase, falling out of time and phasing against the strumming guitar, (beating Steve Reich to the punch by a matter of months), then after a long moaning howl which simultaneously conjures the two great beasts of the Western desolation of Dylan’s myth: the coyote and the locomotive, the harmonica escapes the tether of the chords into a territory that Ornette Coleman might have called harmolodic. At the end of the song, the harmonica and the guitar – without Dylan’s voice, without his words – tear at and torment the song, pulling its skin away from its bones. It sounds for all the world like a one-man-band version of the Velvets’ “Sister Ray.” Music trying to destroy the need for music.

If you call Bob Dylan’s work “literature” you deny it all that (and more besides). Not because literature couldn’t expand to include it, but because, as of the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, it hasn’t. I doubt that the Nobel Prize committee concerned itself with Dylan’s decision to “go electric,” with his choice of musicians over the years, with his harmonica, with his shifting look from vagabond Chaplin to itinerant farmhand to Carnaby Street dandy to mascara’d outlaw bohemian to mustachioed snake oil salesman. I doubt they watched Eat The Document.

We do ourselves and our cultural responses a disservice if we reduce Dylan to literature, just as we would cheat ourselves if we reduced Beckett to a mere comedian. Comedy may be essential to his art, but it's neither the whole nor the heart of it. And, Buster Keaton wasn't just an actor. I listened to a lot of Dylan today, much of the time focused on his rickety, cantilevered voice, much of the time not paying much attention to the words. 

This entry is dedicated to my friend, Steve Jungkeit, and to our time on the bus. 

I plan to write more on this topic, dealing with the logic of something like a Nobel Prize for Literature and how that logic is at odds with Dylan’s relation to tradition. I’ll think about the many singers and songwriters with whom Dylan has collaborated, across time and the divide of death. A Nobel for Robert Johnson? For Woody Guthrie? For Bascom Lamar Lunsford? Or Dock Boggs?