Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

At last, five days before the deadline, Dylan has delivered his Nobel Lecture. And what a lecture! Read it, or, even better listen to its 27 glorious, (apparently) rambling, mesmerising minutes at
There’s his encounter with Buddy Holly, two days before he died, and feeling that Buddy is passing on the baton.
There’s Dylan listening to and absorbing the vernacular of folk music.
And there are his reactions to three great books: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. His Moby-Dick piece is brilliant: ‘Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale … everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale … We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.’ And that’s just a brief extract.

He ends with, ‘So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means … I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”‘

For more on Dylan and Melville, see my Bob Dylan and “The Confidence Man” page in Music. And for Buddy Holly, my Buddy Holly’s Apartment Tapes, and Buddy Holly ‘Please Don’t Tell’ pages, also in Music. But first – listen to the man!

Buddy Holly’s Apartment Tapes

January 1959, late at night in a Greenwich village apartment, his pregnant wife asleep, Buddy Holly is recording. He’s been recording obsessively since he was 14, and for the last couple of years camped in the studio in Clovis, New Mexico, learning how to write, how to record, what makes a record. He has style and command, as strong in his way as Elvis. He is a master of the catchy look, the catchy song, the catchy sound. He is ambitious. He is 22.

Buddy’s last official recordings, made in New York in October 1958, were string arrangements of two songs written by professional writers, in which his only contribution was to sing. He hadn’t recorded like this since his frustrating and abortive time with Decca in Nashville – after which he returned to Clovis, and wrote, arranged, played guitar, sang and recorded ‘That’ll be the Day’, his first hit. In the next 18 months he established the template for the adventurous pop musicians of the next generation – the need for a look, a sound, and control.

He recorded 12 songs in his apartment. What to make of these tapes, as enigmatic and suggestive in their way as Dylan’s basement tapes? The six songs he’d written, ‘among the most angst-ridden in the entire canon of rock’, ‘clearly reveal that Holly was not a happy Buddy.’ (Julian Lloyd Webber, Daily Telegraph, 3 Feb 2015.) And at first they seem to be the songs of a lost soul: refusing to accept another’s marriage; doubting that true love exists; expressing the pain of being dumped; helplessly longing for a lost love; unable to get over a high-school romance; realising that love is ‘a game’. And seemingly confirmed by the story put across by the Crickets, and other home-town friends left behind in Texas: small-town boy Buddy, seduced by a New York Latina beauty who’s taken over his life, separated him from his old buddies and childhood sweetheart, and dragged him off to New York. The 6 songs as the 2 a.m. howls of a man trapped in a loveless marriage by a controlling wife. Maybe, even, the plane flight was a desperate man flirting with death? It fits the image of the artist as tortured autobiographer, his art a distorted mirror of his life. And it feeds off the jealousy of those who were left behind, who hadn’t dared break away.

But, listen to the songs. They were so well written and recorded that, overdubbed with (unfortunate) accompaniments, they sustained a posthumous career. So, listen to the originals, with the intimacy of Buddy switching the tape on and off, false starts, alternate takes, chatter from Maria Elena. Hear them at They are carefully worked, ready for studio recording. For Holly was a professional. And a professional writer, for a specific market, the teens of the late 1950s, self-absorbed, anxious, tasting a new freedom, obsessed with love, extravagant nursers of broken hearts. Just as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Felice Bryant could write ‘Lonely Boy’, ‘Breaking up is Hard to Do’, and ‘Love Hurts’, songs that strike directly the adolescent heart, without being emotional wrecks, so could Buddy write ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’. His 6 songs are well-worked expressions of the adolescent experience, by one who understands it, but has passed beyond it.

The cleverest is ‘Peggy Sue got Married.’ I’ve written a separate blog on it – see ‘Buddy Holly “Please Don’t Tell”’. He must have been squeezing himself at the development in his craft in the 18 months since ‘Peggy Sue’!
What to Do?’ in 8 lines encapsulates the desolation of the adolescent lost love, ‘what to do, now that she doesn’t want me, that’s what haunts me, what to do? … the record hops and all the happy times we had, the soda shop, the walks to school now make me sad.’ Devastated, haunted, lonely, sad, heartbroken, the end of the world. Buddy’s nostalgia is as strong as ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, similarly written from the point of view of having moved on.
Crying, Waiting, Hoping’ catches all the vainglorious self-absorption of adolescent desolation, ‘crying, my tears keep falling, waiting, it feels so useless … hoping you’ll come back, maybe sometime soon.’
That’s what They Say’ examines society’s promise, that true love will come. It’s the adolescent questioning for the first time, the beginning of existential angst. What if it’s not true, a story to keep us believing in family, to keep us conforming? It’s the older brother, gently hinting. ‘That’s what they tell us, that’s what they say. I didn’t hear them say a word of when that time will be.’
That makes it Tough’ is another break-up song, ‘memories will follow me for ever, though I know our dreams can’t be true. All those precious things we shared together, time goes by, I’ll remember you.’ Here there’s the moving on, from the rawness of pain, to the enclosure of the raw place so it’s preserved as an access point to that golden past, which we can visit as nostalgia, which means ‘the pain of returning home’.
Learning the Game’ is a tiny gem, of music, words and performance. ‘Hearts that are broken, and love that’s untrue, these go with learning the game.’It’s that growing–up point, the loss of innocence – life, love is a game, that you have to learn the rules of, and how to play.
Five of the songs have upbeat, jaunty tunes, the sixth the cowboy lope that could easily become a close dance.

I don’t see these as midnight revelations of a broken heart, rather carefully crafted, ninety-second lessons in life, offering the solid advice of the older brother who’s been through the mill of adolescence, and is beginning to come out the other side. You grew up much earlier in those days – a twenty-two year old was supposed to be past all that; being married with a child on the way was the norm.

So, what would have happened, if Buddy had given his seat on that plane to his bass player, Waylon Jennings? Yes, that Waylon Jennings. Nashville would have lost one of its future Outlaws. And Buddy? He was ambitious, professional. He’d already started his own production company, signed an artist. Maybe he would, like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, have settled profitably into comfortable song-writing, and supper-club singing. Maybe, like Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers, he would have settled into his carefully made image and style, and traded off it as long as he could.

But other songs on the apartment tapes make me doubt it. ‘Wait for the sunshine, Nellie’ was his mother’s favourite – and he lifted the tune for ‘That’s what they Say’. ‘Love is Strange’ and ‘Dearest’ are songs for Maria Elena, but with curious phrasing that sound like a vocal experiments. He was always experimenting. ‘Slipping and Sliding’ is a Little Richard song – he made 4 recordings, each in a different style. And he’d shown, with his version ‘Bo Diddley’ that he was happy to use Black music and translate it for the White market. And ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, a lovingly crafted performance of a classic Leiber and Stoller song show his interest in story-telling and the craft of song-writing.

Maybe he would have settled into middle-age, that began in those days in one’s mid-twenties. Maybe he was just the wrong side of the age divide that separates those who could embrace the sixties, and those who couldn’t. Although he was the template that John Lennon and Paul McCartney modelled themselves on, perhaps Buddy was just too old.
But Willie Nelson was 3 years older, and Waylon Jennings just a year younger, and they did it. Maybe we’d be seeing Buddy, a bright-eyed 78-year-old, still thin as a whip, big grin, big glasses, performing with Willie. Or perhaps Phil Spector is the model, and he would have become the great producer and impresario of the sixties. Maybe he was already exploring the music of Greenwich village, the jazz and the folk. Maybe he would still have been there when Dylan arrived the following year …

Instead of the glutinous, sentimental confection of ‘American Pie’, we need to listen to the Apartment tapes to hear Buddy’s possible future, his death not the day the music died, but when one of the most vital growing shoots of possibility was snapped off, a future music silenced, lost.

Buddy Holly ‘Please Don’t Tell’

I’ve been listening to Buddy Holly’s Apartment tapes. 12 songs, 6 written by him, recorded in the Greenwich village apartment where he lived with his new wife. The recordings, made between his last official recordings – ‘It Doesn’t Matter Any More’, and ‘Raining in my Heart’ in October 1958 – and his death in a plane crash on 3 Feb 1959, were his last. I’m writing a blog about them. In the meantime, this is a look at one of the songs, which I’ll call ‘Please Don’t Tell’.

It’s told in the breathless style of High school or shop girl tittle-tattle, beginning:
‘Please don’t tell, no, no, no, don’t say that I told you so, I just heard a rumour from a friend.’
It continues:
‘I don’t say that it’s true – I’ll just leave that up to you; if you don’t believe, I’ll understand.’
Then it goes into the middle eight:
‘You recall a girl that’s been in nearly every song? This is what I heard – of course, the story could be wrong.’
Then back to the verse:
She’s the one, I’ve been told, now she’s wearing a band of gold …
And into the last line reveal.

Imagine the video, with each line, or half- or quarter-line mouthed by a different character from 50s America – the red-lipped waitress, the ponytail High School girl, the butterfly-glasses secretary, the telltale cheerleader, the freckled kid with teeth-braces, the seen-it-all lady in the café, the shocked aspirational wife, the tight-jumpered ‘easy’ girl … ‘Please Don’t Tell’ is code for ‘pass it on!’ – and it becomes a satire on, and a dig at, the small-town gossip-mill Buddy has escaped.

The mystery, revealed in the last line is, ‘Peggy Sue got married not long ago!

Ostensibly it’s about drummer Jerry Allison’s marriage. But it could just as well be about Holly’s sudden marriage to Maria Elena. He proposed to her on their first date, and she, according to Lubbock talk, has bewitched him away to New York, where she’ll control his life. He left, to much jealous rancour from the band members and friends he left behind.

It was released, after Holly’s death, with a banal backing added, and titled ‘Peggy Sue got Married’. Which of course wrecks the point of the song. It was crass post-mortem marketing, to grab the coat-tails of his number 3 hit, ‘Peggy Sue’ (a song originally credited to Allison). This is an infinitely superior song. Verbally sustained, this is Chuck Berry, Leiber and Stoller-quality storytelling. And excellent musically, its tune echoing the original, but with clever modulations that build the tension. It even has a proper middle eight! – ‘Peggy Sue’ had to make do with a stuttering repetition of five ‘prettys’. ‘Peggy Sue’ is boring and repetitive, given life and kept going by paradiddle drumming and artful performance. In it, Holly has to sing ‘Peggy’ 30 times; he even has to mock his own singing style on one repetition to sustain interest. Call this later song ‘Please don’t Tell’, add paradiddle drumming, and you have a masterpiece.

And the wedding? Oops, maybe the secret is that Peggy Sue had to get married! Not the grand white wedding, but they ‘went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest. / No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle,/ no flowers, no wedding dress’, as Bruce Springsteen puts it so poignantly a generation later. It’s Holly’s message that’s he’s left town, and all that tittle-tattle, having demonstrated how much he’s progressed as a writer and artist in 18 months, and is on his way to being a player in the big city.

Please Don’t Tell

Please don’t tell, no-no-no,
Don’t say that I told you so,
I just heard a rumour from a friend.
I don’t say that it’s true –
I’ll just leave that up to you;
If you don’t believe, I’ll understand.

You recall a girl that’s been in nearly every song?
This is what I heard – of course, the story could be wrong.

She’s the one, I’ve been told,
Now, she’s wearing a band of gold …
Peggy Sue got married not long ago!

Bob Dylan and “The Confidence-Man”

‘See the arrow on the doorpost
Says “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.”’

The first verse of “Blind Willie McTell”. Why ‘Jerusalem’? Of course Dylan is proudly Jewish, and Michael Gray (The Song and Dance Man III, p542) connects it with the marking of Jewish houses in pogroms, and at Passover. But for this most American song, I suggest an American source.

Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857) is a novel in which a trickster, a confidence man, on board a Mississippi steamboat heading for New Orleans, adopts various guises to gull a series of American ‘types’, by inviting them to put their confidence, their trust in him. On p43, the shapeshifter tries to interest a wealthy young man in investing in New Jerusalem, ‘a new and thriving city, so called, in northern Minnesota … It stands on the Mississippi. Here, here is the map,’ showing public buildings, parks, lyceums, even a ‘perpetual fountain’. Of course it doesn’t exist. The Mississippi rises close to Hibbing. So this utopian fantasy place is located near Dylan’s home town. And running the length of the Mississippi is “the great river road”, “the blues highway”, Highway 61, that Dylan memorialised in the title of his sixth album, against the incomprehension of the Columbia executives. So, “Blind Willie McTell” is the song “Highway 61 Revisited”, revisited. But, instead of the larky, sixties’ sick humour of the original, it’s a lament, like a New Orleans funeral dirge, that closes the book on sixties’ utopianism, and opens it on our times, when ‘power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.’

But why does the arrow say this land is condemned? In Dylan’s (and my) childhood, the arrow thudding into the doorpost was the signal for the Indian attack, followed by a cut to smoking ruins and sprawled bodies. Since then, and quite rightly, this wholly negative view of Native Americans has been revised. However, one of the central tales in The Confidence-Man is ‘The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating’, an allegory in which the Indian represents the devil. I’m not suggesting at all that Dylan (or Melville) believe this, but the allegory was useful, at a time when Dylan was actively engaging with Judaism and Christianity, as it connects to the founding-father Puritans’ set belief that the Indians were snakes and devils. (See Cotton Mather’s Magnalia, 1702.) And it sets against the sixties’ view of original man – Native Americans and, by extension, the newly-innocent sixties generation – as Rousseau-esque noble savages, the Judeo-Christian view of man as seduced and fallen. (A fall presaged in the last verse of “Man Gave Names to All of the Animals”.)

I’ve no idea if Dylan has read The Confidence-Man. But he references Melville’s “Captain Arab” (sic) in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”. He writes in Chronicles (p184), of spending hours in the early 60s in the New York Public Library, reading newspapers “from 1855 to about 1865”, ie when the book was published. And I believe there are enough parallels and echoes for these two great critics of the society in which they lived, both of them popular and then misunderstood, rich, complex, baroque in their styles and vocabularies, funny, deadly serious, and deeply pessimistic, to be considered together.

Look at the full title: The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. At his Philharmonic Hall concert in 1964, after stunning his adoring audience with a new song, “Gates of Eden”, as if fearing he’s losing them, Dylan ad-libs, ‘Don’t let that scare you. It’s just Halloween. (Laughter.) I have my Bob Dylan mask on. (More laughter.) I’m mask – erading.’ (Applause, he’s got them back.) On the album’s booklet is a photograph of Dylan in front of a joke-shop window advertising “Large Selection of Masks and Wigs”. In appearance, persona, and in his songs since, Dylan has out-shape-shifted Melville’s shapeshifter.

Another echo. In “I and I” (contemporary with “Blind Willie McTell”), these lines: ‘I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.’ Which reads like a standard trope of the sensitive artist suffering for the gifts he brings us. But return to The Confidence-Man, the tale of China Aster, a candle-maker, ‘one whose trade would seem a subordinate branch of the parent craft and mystery of the hosts of heaven, to be the means, effectively or otherwise, of shedding some light through the darkness of a planet benighted.’ (p178.) (Allegory alert!!) China, honest but poor, is tricked and seduced into taking a loan by his wealthy friend Orchis, which leads to China’s bankruptcy and death. Orchis is a shoemaker, ‘one of those whose calling is to defend the understandings of man from naked contact with the substance of things.’ (p178.) Yet another of Dylan’s many warnings not to trust him too far.

In “Gotta Serve Somebody”, the refrain: ‘It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,’ echoes this exchange between a tough Missourian, speaking first, and the confidence man:

‘Who is your master, pray; or are you owned by a company?’
‘My master?’
‘Aye, for come from Maine or Georgia, you come from a slave-state, and a slave-pen, where the best breeds are bought up at any price from a livelihood to the Presidency.’ (p97.)

The usual critical reading of The Confidence-Man is that he is the devil, or at least his representative. And indeed at the end of the book he snuffs out the last light and leads the gullible man into the darkness. However, a couple of the confidence man’s marks elude, and even best, him. I prefer to see him as an ingenious figure who tests every man, and every idea, to the limit (as Melville did, to his ultimate despair).

And I wonder if that isn’t now the role that Dylan has adopted? His riverboat gambler get-up, his menacing gang (in the video for “Duquesne Whistle”). And after the last concert of his that I saw, Bournemouth, October 2012, without thinking of writing this piece, I wrote in my diary: “On stage he’s both the old vaudevillian, playing the stage villain, and the dark magician, who knows the devil’s ways, and acts devilishly; not to engineer our fall, but to point them out, and give us at least a chance of evading his clutches.’

In this I see him as heir to Herman Melville, and The Confidence-Man.

Neutral Milk Hotel

I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in December 2010. It was one of those‘wow’ moments, and I listened repeatedly, from the perfect lyric of adolescence of ‘King of Carrot Flowers’:  “When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers/ and how you built a tower tumbling through the trees/ in holy rattlesnakes that fell all round your feet// And  mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder/ and dad would throw the garbage all across the floor/ as we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for.” Through the desperate love song and memorial to Anne Frank of ‘Oh Comely’: “and will she remember me fifty years later? I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine …” To the final “two-headed boy, she is all that you need … don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”

Which Jeff Mangum, the genius of NMH, does, audibly, at the end of the song, walking away from it all in 1999.

What I didn’t know was that just as I was listening for the first time to the album, long an ‘Indie classic’, Mangum was reemerging, curating festivals, and occasionally playing live. I watched him on youtube, singing live, and looking a little nonplussed as a thousand word-perfect fans fervently sang his complex and difficult songs back at him. What to do when you make a ‘perfect’ work of art, unnoticed at the time, and a dozen years later it’s fixed into a ‘classic’, every nuance memorised by the fans, but you, presumably, have moved on?

It made me think of another neglected album that later acquired legendary status: Love’s Forever Changes. Released in 1967, when Arthur Lee was 22, and played, by me and others, countless times after Love quickly broke up. It was thirty years before Lee teamed up with what was in effect a tribute band, to tour the album, recording Forever Changes in Concert, at the Festival Hall in London in 2003, and it’s very good indeed. How popular music soaks and colours us.

Listening to Gram Parsons

I start with ‘$1000 Wedding’ (from a time when that was very expensive, the society wedding that trust-fund kid Gram ‘enjoyed’). That voice, a stiletto wrapped in velvet, every surface and edge of the steel felt through the softness, a voice keening and yet without self pity. It begins quietly, almost dreamily, a man questioning, trying to understand. And then Emmylou comes in – bang! – singing lead, get real, man! ‘I hate to tell you how he acted, when the news arrived. He took some friends out drinking, and it’s lucky they survived ….’ A great track.

And then ‘Love Hurts’, surely the finest reading of that brilliant Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song. They’re singing it to each other, but neither in recrimination, nor in that, ‘we’ll tell each other how bad it gets – and then we’ll get it on!’ It’s two soliloquies that writhe round each other without interpenetrating, so intimate but so separate, each singing to the one person in the world who understands, and is untouchable. ‘Love is like a stove, burns you when it’s hot’.

Finish with Gram in The Byrds, the tracks on Sweetheart of the Rodeo he rerecorded singing lead instead of Roger McGuinn. McGuinn’s good, but Gram believes – not in the sentiment, but in the song. Only Gram could sing ‘The Christian Life’ straight, as a fine song. He doesn’t judge, he sings. Such a loss, forty years on.

And if I’m still standing, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wild Horses’ will always floor me!