Pop with a Shotgun

Unsolicited opinions and ungoverned ruminations on pop, rock, soul, funk, reggae, country, folk, disco, rap, and anything else that makes a sound

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The following is a talk I delivered at the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, last March 26. It was part of a three-day symposium called "Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World," organized by my good friend, the unpretentious academic, proud daughter of the lakeland, and all-round righteous rock chick Colleen Sheehy. The conference — which pulled together dozens of speakers, including pretty much everyone of note who has ever expressed thought on the subject of Bob Dylan — was a monumental effort of coordination, dedication, and (Dylanesque word) desire on Colleen's part. All the thanks she received before, during, and after those three days in Minneapolis were inadequate to repay her efforts. We all got to see some great speakers, engage in some lively talk, eat at fine Dinkytown noodleries, and breathe the magic air that swoops regularly off the storied Mississippi.

So: the thing below. It is, I hope, noisome without being noxious. And let me add that my talk had the honor of being name-checked in both
Time magazine and the St. Paul Pioneer Press blurbs on the conference; and that despite my dissemblings I was accused, quite correctly, of having coined the title for the precise purpose of seeing it name-checked in such prestigious annals as Time magazine and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I found out the other day this will not be included in the anthology that is to be derived from the conference. No surprise or shame in that rejection: out of the approximately 50 talks and other performances delivered, I'm certain the editors had no end of winnowing to do. But since the paper is now a free agent and unlikely to be welcomed anywhere but here, I bequeath to you my Constant Reader this poison gift, this toxic waste of an inspiration.

— Yr Blogger

Bob Dylan at the Borderline of Sleaze

In November of 1972, Bob Dylan went to Durango, Mexico to play a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The production was cursed by all the expected crises, but there was one element on the set that no one saw coming. Peckinpah’s biographer, David Weddle, writes that, “The topsoil of Durango was permeated with animal manure that dried up, blew around with the fine silicone dust, and lodged in people’s lungs, causing chronic pulmonary infections.” One of the film’s stars, James Coburn, said that in Durango, “It was really cold and damp, there was wind, and a thousand years of horseshit floating around in the air.”

You believe it. Pat Garrett is a Western that has difficulty breathing. But it does breathe; and much of its beauty is in the labor of that life-sustaining repetition, the desire to breathe deeply and exhale soberly, to absorb sleaze and return humor, feeling, judgment. It’s as if the movie has decided that to embrace sleaze is one way of not just staying alive but being alive in a world of shit.

All the birds are singin' in the mornin' trees
but the birds are not singin' for me
My man did meet with a flirt on the street
gave him a case of VD

I begged him to look up a doctor and go
It broke out all over his skin
But he rubbed hisself with some dark drugstore salve
and he said it's not the VD

I been in the Army and the Merchant Marines
my dear wife long enough to know
Those little hot rashes that burn on my skin
are not the VD I'm sure

Almost from the beginning, Bob Dylan had his own line on sleaze. It’s found in that border region of overlap between body and history, sex and disease, erotic and diabolic. At irregular intervals along that border may be found the Mexican films of Luis Buñuel and the middle albums of the Rolling Stones; Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant and the demo version of Liz Phair’s “Flower”; the novels of Jim Thompson and the psychology of Melanie Klein; PJ Harvey’s first album and Hans Bellmer’s dolls; the Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf and the Naked City photos of Weegee. Or the song that gave this talk its title — “Tough Mama” from the Planet Waves album, recorded just months after Dylan returned from Durango, with horseshit still in his lungs.

Silver angel
With the badge of the lonesome road sewed in your sleeve
I'd be grateful if this gold ring you'd receive

Today on the countryside it was hotter than a crotch
I stood alone upon the ridge and all I did was watch

Sweet goddess
Must be time to carve another notch

Call me one-dimensional, but I can’t think of anything but intercourse hearing this song. In the lyrics primarily, of course, but also in the music, the varieties of energy within a single verse. It’s quite phallic how the first chords make a lunging action, then acquiesce to a rhythm that’s very bump-and-grind, very frictional, which is worked over in another line towards its release in a head-back, arms-out, orgasmic declaration of romantic release, vagina worship — “dark beauty,” “sweet goddess,” “silver angel” — then left hanging by an organ solo that’s like a sweet post-coital whistling in the dark, as the sheets dry and transcendence becomes memory.

I'm crestfallen
A world of illusions at my door
I ain't a-haulin' any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore

Prison walls are crumblin' there is no end in sight
I gained some recognition but I lost my appetite

Dark beauty
Meet me at the border late tonight

The Planet Waves album, when first released, had a set of handwritten sleevenotes that were removed from later pressings. In them, Dylan encourages any connection one cares to make between the situational sleaze of a song like “Tough Mama” and the proximate sleaze of the world outside. These notes — which read like a dirtier version of those noir vignettes that open each episode of “Theme Time Radio Hour” — describe “furious gals with garters and smeared lips on barstools that stank from sweating pussy . . . space guys off duty with big dicks and duck tails, all wired up and voting for Eisenhower.” Can’t you just hear Ellen Barkin speaking those words? It's nighttime in the big city . . .

I’ve always resisted the judgment that Dylan’s primary importance was as a poet. That implies something way too housebroken. As Monty Python had it, “Poets are both clean and warm / and most are far above the norm / Whether here or on the roam / have a poet in every home!” Dylan’s true poetics was a convergence of verbiage and voice which, at least as much as any grimy Kerouacian attitude, preferred to make itself unwelcome in the home. And as a public artist, Dylan would make himself most unwelcome not by his versifying — which from an early point drew the acclaim as well as the disdain of the most respectable poets — but largely by means of his voice.

“A dog with its leg caught on barbed wire,” said Mitch Jayne of the Dillards, and no one has ever quite gotten it better, for those who hate the voice and those who love it. One proof of the intractability of that voice is that, despite its infinite subtleties and sorrows, despite the fact that it forced new ears upon even those unwilling to listen, there is nothing like a popular acceptance that Dylan is a greater singer than, say, Christina Aguilera, the guy from Coldplay, or whatever unborn fetus is destined to win “American Idol” in the year 2027. To this day, that skanky, scrofulous Dylan voice, his basic unit of sound, has never become acceptable, never ceased being the butt of easy jokes and the one impression even non-impressionists can adequately fake.

So it’s worth remembering that Dylan’s “real” voice, his “original” voice, delivered in whispers back in Hibbing, was not the rusty, witty, punky, pointy voice of Highway 61 Revisited but a mellow voice, a ballad voice, as round and consistent as a bowl of pudding. When people who still remembered that voice heard Nashville Skyline, they invariably said, “That’s him.”

Except it wasn’t, really. What we are at first is not necessarily what we are. Obviously Dylan sang that way at first because that was his ‘50s model. Just as obviously, he then harshened his voice because that was the quickest way of imitating the blues and folk singers he discovered later on. Less obvious, maybe, is why he then pushed harshness beyond imitation into innovation, the voice into realms of raspiness undared by any white singing idol in living memory, and by precious few of the blues and folk masters he’d taken off from.

Could it be that Dylan scoured his voice to such a frictive texture because he knew that was the only sound appropriate to his apprehension of things, his harsh and excited, raunchy and humorous take on America? His suspicion that the country was rank with mendacity and rife with pockets of possibility waiting to be picked? That to thrive in America was to navigate rivers of sleaze and valleys of darkness, seeking not the centers but the borders, always the borders?

When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Eastertime too
And your gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through
Don't put on any airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
and they really make a mess outta you

Aside from an aberrational domesticated phase or two, Dylan is an artist of the border. That’s what he sings about, that’s where he sings from. Within that, I’d like to posit — for my own sleazy purposes — a binary metaphor: Tijuana Bob, and Las Vegas Bob.

There are plenty of Tijuanas in Bob Dylan’s past, rough, elemental places where extremes are experienced, glimpses gotten, fantasies and satires hatched — and they all go by different names. Places like Hibbing — “way up by the Canadian border,” as Dylan said on the back of his first album. There’s Highway 61, which runs along the Mississippi, symbolic dividing line in American music and American life. There’s Brownsville, which as a Dylan border town stands, Stephen Scobie says, “between the various realms of history, fiction and myth.” There are the “border towns of despair” mentioned in the song “Dignity,” and the Juarez that witnesses the bacchanal of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” There’s “Santa Fe,” a minor Basement Tape and one of my favorite Dylan songs, a dream of a border rendezvous as full of mumbled, made-up lyrics as “I’m Not There,” and as jaunty with the freedom of escape as “I’m Not There” is heavy with the guilt of escape. There’s also Highway 61 Revisited the album, which — in its obsession with homelessness, roads, junkyards, jailhouses, God, prostitutes, romantic salvation, Mexican debauch, and flamenco guitar — is Dylan’s own Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, his gringo-south-of-the-border story.

Later on Dylan left this Tijuana of the mind, or lost sight of it, and found himself, for a time, in Las Vegas — a very different kind of border town, with its own very different style. Among those places that exist both on the map and between the various realms of history, fiction and myth, Tijuana is where hunger goes to get fed — while Las Vegas is where prosperity goes to get fat.

Once I had a pony her name was Lucifer
I had a pony her name was Lucifer
She broke her leg and needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it could of hurted her

Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
You know she got such a sweet disposition
I never know what the poor girl's gonna do to me next


All right I'll take a chance
I will fall in love with you
If I'm a fool you can have the night
You can have the morning too

Can you cook and sew make flowers grow
Do you understand my pain?
Are you willing to risk it all
or is your love in vain?

The Street-Legal album is Bob Dylan in his first full flush of Las Vegas style. Lots of sex and glitz and wrenching climax, it’s a sausage grinder of entertainment. For better or worse — and you just heard some of both — Dylan comes across on this album as one sleazy S.O.B. “New Pony” is good sleaze: good riff, good arrangement, it’s got a pulse and doesn’t forget the listener has one too. “Is Your Love in Vain” is the worst kind of sleaze, not body but ego-oriented, not dynamic interaction but static spectacle, the phoniness of which makes every revelation suspect, every offering a taking in disguise. Don’t be fooled: when Dylan sings about his pain, he’s really singing about his penis.

Now Michael Gray figures, and I agree, that Street-Legal is a proto-Christian album. He also says that “Every song deals with love’s betrayal, with Dylan’s being betrayed like Christ, and, head on, with the need to abandon woman’s love.” So this sleaze factor is, for Dylan, something new: a convergence, somewhere past the borderline of absurdity, of showbiz, messianic religion, and the self-pity of the noble cocksman — Bob Dylan stars as Elvis Presley playing Dean Martin in a porno-musical version of The Last Temptation of Christ. In the Elvis tradition, there is much sex; in the Dino tradition, much sexism. Like Elvis, Dylan, whatever his avowed submission to an Almighty, is, on this stage, truly Lord of all he surveys. And like Dino, he is also a drunk in love with his own lugubriousness.

What’s missing from the sleaze of Street-Legal? What ingredient does sleaze need to stay alive, to keep flowing, feeling something, meaning something? Innocence, I would say — a sense of innocence. Of delight, of laughter, of thrills — thrills that are not cheap, but precious indeed. Often, what we regard as sleaze is only an image of innocence corrupted. The corruption contains the innocence, and vice versa. When one echoes against the other in a certain way, the walls of memory shake, and sleaze attains to the full grace of art.

If you’ve seen Atom Egoyan’s movie Exotica, you’ve seen this idea in action. A dancer at an upscale strip club wears a schoolgirl’s uniform. A well-dressed man returns night after night to stare at her performance. It turns out the stripper, as a teenager, used to sit the man’s daughter, who’s now dead. Each night the dancer and her watcher are living out a lurid burlesque of innocence, a masochistic playlet wherein sleaze determines costume and setting, and pain preys on memory.

Sleaze as a fact of life and harbinger of death runs throughout post-World War II American art like a polluted river through a factory town — tainting and transforming film, fiction, canvas, musical noise. Sleaze is kept alive and flowing sometimes by pain, sometimes by pleasure — but always by the memory of purity and wholeness it presumes, violates, reacts to in some way, the excitement and beauteous simplicity of what was — somewhere back there, back in a time none of us remembers but imagine we do. In this way, the bombastic sleaze of the old, fat Elvis is redeemed by the breakneck sleaze of the young, sexy Elvis — and all the lecherous lumbering of Street-Legal by the innocent lewdness of a minor Basement song — like this:

Take a look at me baby
(Just take a look at me baby)
I'm your teenage prayer
(You know I'm your teenage prayer baby)
Take a look at me baby
(Take a look over here baby)
I'm your teenage prayer
(I'm your teenage hair)
When it's cloudy all the time
All you gotta do is say you're mine girl
(Ohhh — )
I'll come runnin' to you anywhere
Ah yeah oh you know I will
Take a look at me baby
I'm your teenage prehhhhhhhhh-ehhhhhhh

There’s something ineffable about the little exhalation at the end of that — the little ahhh — and about Robbie Robertson’s repeated ad-lib, “I’m your teenage hair.” Dylan laughs every time he says it: what could be sillier, more senseless, more innocent than that? Yet that’s the whole of adolescent sex, and it could fit on a high school ring: I am your teenage hair. The secret hidden in that perfect absurdity is this — that what turns into sleaze as we age remains the stuff of discovery for kids: the first thrill, the breathless grope, the life-changing experience. Meet me at the border late tonight, Dylan will say six years and a lifetime later to complete that circuit, consummate that come-on — but he’s older now. He’s been to Durango, he’s crossed the borderline of sleaze more than once, and the enticements are altogether darker, richer, more complicated than they were back in the basement.

Clearly it can be said that sleaze, like cholesterol, comes in “good” and “bad” forms. What’s the difference? Well, the bad, like “Is Your Love in Vain,” is essentially inert. It doesn’t happen, it merely congeals. Whereas the good kind always flows — and always takes you with it. It can take you out, like “Tough Mama”; can take you down, like “Tom Thumb’s Blues”; can take you inside, like “I’m Your Teenage Prayer.”

And, if used in a certain way, invested with a certain intent, it can even take you back — far, far back.

In 1949, Bob Dylan’s future hero, Woody Guthrie, writes a collection of songs for the U.S. Public Health Service, which is on the move against the post-war spread of venereal disease. Among Guthrie’s titles are “VD City”; “VD Avenue”; “VD Day”; “VD Gunner”; “VD Blues”; “VD Seaman’s Letter”; “VD Waltz”; and “A Child of VD.” 11 years later, Bob Dylan leaves Minnesota and lands in Greenwich Village, then returns with a bushel of songs — among them Guthrie’s clap cycle, bestowed on him by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who describes them as “those old VD songs by Woody that nobody wanted the young kids to know.”

On December 22, 1961, in the apartment of Bonnie Beecher right here in Minneapolis, Dylan records some of those songs. By far the most vivid, in text and performance, is “VD City.”

Well you've seen your bright visions of glory
where love built your cities on high
I've just seen the cold dark dungeons
where the victims of syphilis cry

They're called to the cities of sorrow
to confess all the wrong things they done
Their teardrops are meet weep much louder
then the cities blown down by the bombs

There's a street named for every disease here
Syph Alley and Clap Avenue
And the whores and the pimps and their victims
all pass on the curb from our view

Once young once healthy and happy
now a whirlpool of raving insane
Cause here in this wild VD City
nobody knows you by name

Your eyes are too festered to see here
Your body is rotten by sores
Every wind stands full of lost faces
Human wrecks pile the stairs and the doors

Must you pay your way to this city
with an hour of passion and vice
I pray that I'll not see your face here
where the millions now burn in this fire

“VD City” could be seen as a moralistic trace of the original syphilitic’s lament, “The Unfortunate Rake,” and its descendent songs of madness and physical waste: “Streets of Laredo,” “St. James Infirmary,” “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” “Insane Asylum.” But “VD City,” though it begins as pious public-service verse, ends as pure apocalyptic poetry, Guthrie’s imaginative embrace of holocaust and damnation; and while extending an ancient tradition of hellish visions from Revelations to Milton to Goya, it’s also very much post-world war, its rhetoric of atrocity touching, if not containing, the burning bodies of Hiroshima, the human piles of Dachau.

“VD City” was another name — maybe the first — for what Bob Dylan would later call “Desolation Row,” or “the border towns of despair”; “venereal disease” a less metaphorical term for “hard rain,” “idiot wind,” “highway blues,” “Memphis Blues,” “subterranean homesick blues,” “Tom Thumb’s blues,” the barren East Texas blues no one sang like Blind Willie McTell. The blues of collapse, corruption, perfidy; visionary blues that discern the fate of nations in the ruin of bodies — or for that matter, the smell of pussy in a vote for Eisenhower. From Guthrie to Dylan we go from the specific to the symbolic, the clinical to the impressionistic. But in each the scale is panoramic, the complaint a truly social disease, each man or woman a victim or witness, the conspiracy of history no longer hidden or even a conspiracy because everyone is in on it.

In cultivating his own sense of sleaze — along with his feel for loveliness, yearning, redemption, what are thought of as the higher desires — Dylan was turning over the topsoil that covered such connections, feeling the seedy truth beneath ordinary encounters — between individual and community, President and polity, Time magazine and time itself. His lyrics caught symbols in the sediment, and his dog-on-barbed-wire voice was likewise a filter of that filth, the sleazy sound of the Great Underneath.

Every major artist is that filter, that distiller of other worlds. Each one comes, in some way, to know the presence and to breathe the fumes of a thousand years of horseshit. That happens when the elements of sleaze are not despised but remade as expressive shades to evoke a congeries of sensations, experiences, nightmares traveling back and forth in time. That’s when sleaze flows, becomes a river carrying the artist and his listener across borders of emotion, metaphor, and flesh.

Bob Dylan got to this knowledge faster and straighter than most, by luring and crafting an innovative ugliness, a transformative impurity out of whatever truths he’d suspected back in the borderland of Hibbing, whatever escapes and fatalities he’d witnessed along Highway 61, standing alone upon the ridge, watching the river flow — river of sleaze, river of death, river of life.

Thank you.