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‘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.

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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.

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!

The Night Sky

To save money the council now switches off the street lights in our street in the early hours. The result is magical. We have the night sky back. The stars, from being fogged and distant, are now distinct, glittering and close. The sky is once more a starlit canopy. At this season Orion is perfectly framed by the buildings, a huge presence, with studded belt and sword. This morning, for one morning only, he held, in his raised left hand, the full moon, a ball of light, a shining snowball. Ice glittered on the roofs in the moonlight.

The piles of books – my book! – the friends, neighbours, family and fellow-writers, my reading listened to carefully, questions and answers, congratulations, copies bought and signed, the mingling, with glasses of wine, of the diversity of people I know. The book launch. It feels like the end of the endeavour, when of course it’s just the beginning. But it is the end of the process of turning my manuscript into my book. So, before getting on with the real job of getting Dionysos’ Island out there, I’ll tell that story.

The manuscript’s finished. (Manuscript means of course ‘hand-written’, which I like, even if I did type it in Appleworks on my ancient ibook.) Now to turn it into a book.

First, move the Appleworks file onto my mac mini. Then open the file in Pages. (You can open Word files in Pages, too.) Pages is Apple’s very sophisticated word processing application, and costs a mere £13.99 from the App Store. I set the whole book in Pages: page size, chapters and sections, left and right pages, page numbering, margins, line spacing, even kerning (adjusting the space between characters to improve the look, called, not unreasonably ‘character spacing’ in Pages) etc, etc, and this was what, converted to a pdf, went to the printers. And it looks great, totally professional. It can also easily be used for e-books. So – three cheers for Pages.
(A couple of warning notes, however. First, I was involved in setting both my previous books, First Cut and Diggers and Dreamers, and without some experience, it can be a steep learning curve. Second – proof reading. We all know the limits of spell checkers, and the Pages Proofreader is also limited and bizarrely politically-correct. I proofread by going through the ms several times, but ideally get someone competent to proof-read for you.)

I did, however, outsource the cover – I know my limits. An excellent graphic designer lives in the same town, and she is really good at converting the ragbag of images and sketches I take to her into a great cover that’s all marked up ready for the printer. Thank you, Linda and Joss (he’s the techie). Cost: £250.

Who to publish? That’s easy. Having decided to publish my first book several years ago, and gone through the usual dispiriting and time-consuming process of approaching agents and publishers, I decided to self-publish, and set up, with a fellow-writer (Sebastian Hayes – check him out on sebastianhayes.co.uk – he’s pretty much the cleverest person I know), Brimstone Press (brimstonepress.co.uk). To quote: ‘Brimstone Press enables writers to self-publish and market their books within an environment of shared expertise and experience.’ End of plug. Dionysos’ Island will be our thirty-third title.

Printing. My previous books were printed by Antony Rowe, who were the early leaders in short-run and print-on-demand digital printing. However the new kids on the block are imprintdigital. Several Brimstone authors have used them. Their website has an easy-to-use price calculator, and they are straightforward, fast (one day for a proof copy, under a week to print), and excellent quality. They’re a small outfit, run from a barn in the Devon countryside, nimble, and their price easily undercut Antony Rowe’s. However I did have a problem with them printing the wrong cover finish, which although it was eventually resolved, made me hope they don’t sacrifice care for speed. But, an excellent print job.

So, the books are here. Now to get selling!

First Post

First day on my new site, just getting started.