The Llewyn Davis character in the brilliant Coen Bros. film suggests, I don't say represents, Dave van Ronk. So let's start with some tunes (not necessarily the renditions) from the movie done by the Mayor of MacDougal Street.
To Scottsdale this drizzly dreary dark December morning to see the Coen Bros. latest on its opening hereabouts, Inside Llewyn Davis. A tale of two kitties is a sub-motif that symbolizes the self-destructive folksinger's troubles, but it would take a couple more viewings for me to figure it out.
The film gripped me and held me its entire running length, but then I lived through that era and I know the music and its major and minor players. Figuring out the the cinematic references and allusions is part of the fun. Tom Paxton, Albert Grossmann, Jim and Jean, The Clancy Brothers, Bob Dylan . . . they are all there -- or are they?
A distinction is made between purely fictional objects (native objects) and immigrant objects: historical individuals that have been imported into fiction from reality. Many of the characters in the Coen Bros. film seem to belong to a third category. They are not wholly unreal like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or lightly fictionalized individuals like many of the characters in Kerouac's novels, but fictional surrogates of real-life individuals. For example, there is a character who suggests Tom Paxton, but could not be said unambiguously to represent him, pace Dave van Ronk's ex-wife who writes, in a critical review, "The character who represents Tom Paxton has a pasted-on smile and is a smug person who doesn't at all resemble the smart, funny, witty Tom Paxton who was our best man when we married."
Ann Hornaday's Washington Postreview ends brilliantly:
In many ways, “Inside Llewyn Davis” plays like a waking nightmare of creeping anxiety and dread, as the era’s grandmaster of brazen self-invention arrives unseen in New York while Llewyn’s self-defeating near-misses pile up like so much street-sullied snow. But this soulful, unabashedly lyrical film is best enjoyed by sinking into it like a sweet, sad dream. When you wake up, a mythical place and time will have disappeared forever. But you’ll know that attention — briefly, beautifully — has been paid.
The era's grandmaster of brazen self-invention is of course Bob Dylan, who blew into town that bitter winter of '61 and who in a few short years brought about a sort of Hegelian Aufhebung of the folk era: its simultaneous cancellation, preservation, and transmogrification into the heart of the '60s as represented by the trilogy of Dylan at his most incandescent: Bringing it It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde.
Mr. Bill made a mistake the other night on The O'Reilly Factor when he said that the British skiffle group Mungo Jerry's sole Stateside hit, In the Summertime, is from '67. Not so, as I instantly recalled: it is from the summer of 1970. I remember because that was the summer I first read Kant, ploughing through The Critique of Pure Reason. I sat myself down under a tree in Garfield Park in South Pasadena with the Norman Kemp Smith translation and dove in. I couldn't make head nor tail of it. But I persisted and eventually wrote my dissertation on Kant.
Now why is Mr. Bill's mistake worth mentioning? Because, to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And we wouldn't want to repeat the '60s.
Those were just some of the songs from that summer of '63, the summer before the JFK assassination. It was a hopeful time, race relations were on the mend. But then everything fell apart and here we are 50 years later in the midst of serious national decline with a incompetent race-baiting leftist occupying the White House.
Gene Pitney was born 17 February 1940 and died 5 April 2006. Biography here.
Pitney was something of a melodramatic crooner in such hits as Town Without Pity, but he also penned upbeat chartbusters like Hello Mary Lou for Rick Nelson when he was called Ricky and He's a Rebel for the Crystals. The latter, featuring Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production job, has that oddly stirring quality common to many of Spector's productions.
Before getting on to tonight's scheduled presentation, we pause to remember George Jones who died Friday at 81, his longevity proof of the human body's ability to take a sustained licking from John Barleycorn and keep on ticking. I don't believe Jones ever had a crossover hit in the manner of a Don Gibson or a Merle Haggard. He was pure country and highly regarded by aficionados of that genre. Here are two I like:
Bob Dylan, From a Buick 6 (1966), from Highway 61 Revisited with Al Kooper on organ and Mike Bloomfield, lead guitar.
Lovin' Spoonful, Six O'Clock (1967). More proof of the vast superiority of the '60s over every other decade when it comes to popular music. No decade was more creative, engaged, rich, relevant, and diverse. Generational chauvinism? No, just the plain truth! But you had to be there.
Joni Mitchell wrote the song and her version is my favorite at the moment. Judy Collins made it famous. I am on a Dave van Ronk kick these days and his rendition, though less 'accessible,' is a haunting contender.
According to the Wikipedia entry on van Ronk, "Joni Mitchell often said that his rendition of her song "Both Sides Now" (which he called "Clouds") was the finest ever."
I was surprised, but pleased, to see that the late Lawrence Auster, traditionalist conservative, photo to the left, 1973, had a deep appreciation and a wide-ranging knowledge of Dylan's art. Born in 1949, Auster is generationally situated for that appreciation, and as late as '73 was still flying the '60s colors, if we can go by the photo, but age is at best only a necessary condition for digging Dylan. Auster's Jewishness may play a minor role, but the main thing is Auster's attunement to Dylan's particularism. See the quotation below. Herewith, some Dylan songs with commentary by Auster.
This Dylan song can seem amorphous and mystical in the negative sense, especially as it became a kind of countercultural anthem and meaningless through overuse. But the lyrics are coherent and profound, especially the first verse:
They say everything can be replaced They say every distance is not near But I remember every face Of every man who put me here.
The modern world tells us that everything is fungible, nothing is of real value, everything can and should be replaced—our spouse, our culture, our religion, our history, our sexual nature, our race, everything. It is the view of atomistic liberal man, forever creating himself out of his preferences, not dependent on any larger world of which he is a part. The singer is saying, No, this isn’t true. Things have real and particular values and they cannot be cast off and replaced by other things. And, though we seem to be distant, we are connected. I am connected to all the men, the creators and builders and poets and philosophers, and my own relatives and friends, who have come before me or influenced me, who created the world in which I live.
First off, some comments of mine on the video which accompanies the touched-up Blonde on Blonde track. The video is very cleverly constructed, providing a synopsis of milestones in Dylan's career. The first girl the guy with the acoustic guitar case is walking with is a stand-in for Suze Rotolo, the girl 'immortalized' on the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album cover. But now we see the pair from the back instead of from the front. She is replaced by a second girl representing Joan Baez. (Dylan's affair with Baez helped destroy his relationship with Rotolo.) Then the guy gets into a car and emerges on the other side with an electric guitar case. This signifies Dylan's going electric in '65 at the Newport Folk Festival, a change which enraged the die-hard folkies and doctrinaire leftists who thought they owned Dylan as a mouthpiece for their views. A quick shot of a newpaper in a trash can with the headline "Dylan Goes Electric" appears just in case you missed the subtlety of the auto entry-exit sequence. After that we see a downed motorcycle representing Dylan's motorcycle accident, an event that brings to a close the existentialist-absurdist-surrealist phase of the mid-60s trilogy, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. After the accident Dylan is further from the mind and closer to the earth. Dylan the psychedelically deracinated returns to his roots in the Bible and Americana with John Wesley Harding. The girl in the brass bed is an allusion to "Lay Lady Lay" ("lay across my big brass bed") from the Nashville Skyline album. Dylan then colaesces with the man in black (Johnny Cash), and steps over and through the detritus of what remains the hippy-trippy 60's and into the disco era, his Christian period, marked by the 1979 Slow Train Coming and a couple of subsequent albums, his marriage to a black back-up singer, and on into the later phases of the life of this protean bard on never-ending tour.
By the way, that’s the first time I’ve seen “judge” rhymed with “grudge” since Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” from Blonde on Blonde. Here’s the recording.
Dylan’s lyric (not for the first time) is pretty appropriate to our situation:
Well the judge He holds a grudge He’s gonna call on you. But he’s badly built And he walks on stilts Watch out he don’t fall on you.
There is now on the U.S. Supreme Court an intellectually sub-par Puerto Rican woman whose entire career has been essentially founded on a grudge against whites, a judge who makes her pro-Hispanic, anti-white agenda an explicit element in her judging. “The judge, she holds a grudge.”
Sotomayor is not the first of that kind, however. Another Supreme Court sub-competent, Thurgood Marshall, openly stated to one of his colleagues that the philosophy behind his judging was that “It’s our [blacks’] turn now.”
Thinking about the murder of motivational speaker and “positive, loving energy” guru Jeff Locker in East Harlem this week, where he had been pursuing an assignation with a young lady not his wife but got himself strangled and stabbed to death in his car by the damsel and her two male accomplices instead, I realized that this is yet another contemporary event that Bob Dylan has, in a manner of speaking, got covered. Here is the recording and below are the lyrics of Dylan’s 1964 song, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” where the singer, with his “pale face,” seeks liberating love from an exotic dark skinned woman, and is “surrounded” and “slayed” by her. The song reflects back ironically on the Jeff Locker case, presenting the more poetical side of the desires that, on a much coarser and stupider level, led Locker to his horrible death. By quoting it, I’m not making light of murder, readers know how seriously I take murder. But when a man gets himself killed through such an accumulation of sin and gross folly, a man, moreover, whose New Agey belief in positive energy and transformative love apparently left him unable to see the obvious dangers he had put himself in, there is, unavoidably, a humorous aspect to it.
SPANISH HARLEM INCIDENT
Gypsy gal, the hands of Harlem Cannot hold you to its heat. Your temperature is too hot for taming, Your flaming feet are burning up the street. I am homeless, come and take me To the reach of your rattling drums. Let me know, babe, all about my fortune Down along my restless palms.
Gypsy gal, you’ve got me swallowed. I have fallen far beneath Your pearly eyes, so fast and slashing, And your flashing diamond teeth. The night is pitch black, come and make my Pale face fit into place, oh, please! Let me know, babe, I’m nearly drowning, If it’s you my lifelines trace.
I’ve been wonderin’ all about me Ever since I seen you there. On the cliffs of your wildcat charms I’m riding, I know I’m ‘round you but I don’t know where. You have slayed me, you have made me, I got to laugh halfways off my heels. I got to know, babe, ah, when you surround me, So I can know if I am really real.
Understated topicality also characterizes A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, written during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, lending it a timeless quality absent in a blatant 'finger-pointing' song such as Masters of War. The Baez version is probably the best of the covers.
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right in the outstanding PP & M version. Another permanent addition to musical Americana. Said to be inspired by Suze Rotolo, the girl on the album cover.
In her memoir, A Frewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Broadway Books, 2008, p. 277-8), Suze Rotolo says this about her mother Mary Rotolo:
I remember her informing me that the career army man an older cousin was married to had lost out on a promotion that involved security clearance because of my appearance on the cover of Bob's album. I was astounded.
True, the times they were troubled. Protest against the escalating war in Vietnam was on the rise, draft cards were being burned, and colleges were erupting with discontent. Blues, bluegrass, and ballads no longer defined folk music, since so many folksingers were now writing songs that spoke to current events. Bob Dylan was labeled a "protest singer." But the absurdity of my mother, Marxist Mary, trying to make me feel responsible for a military man's losing a security clearance because I am on an album cover with Bob Dylan, a rebel with a cause, left me speechless. And that was all she said to me about the cover or the album in general.
A tip of the hat to Monterey Tom for hipping me -- as we used to say in the 60s -- to James Kalb's Out of the Wreckage. Excerpt:
So the Sixties led to what it thought it hated most, a consumerist, conformist, careerist, and bureaucratic lifestyle, guided by the heirs of Madison Avenue and deprived of spontaneity and close human connections. The revolution had gone nowhere. Instead of the dry martinis and marital cheating of the 1950s, we had free-floating relationships and designer beers. Instead of the creativity once promised, we had commercial pop culture that only becomes cruder and more crudely commercialized. And instead of musical rebellion, the cover of Rolling Stone now features admiring images of the President.
Another thing from that era [the '60s], now surfacing in England, is the rampant promiscuity disguised as 'alternative' and 'liberation'. Jimmy Savile (I assume you have been following this case) was one of them. But I remember John Peel, who was an icon of English counterculture, boasting of sleeping with girls as young as 13, and there is a splendid passage in Playpower, by Richard Neville (editor of IT and OZ) about bedding a 'cherubic' fourteen year old, after smoking pot with her. It was meant to be liberated then, but in retrospect ... ?
At every step of his life, though, the sexual revolution wrought its harm. It perversely rewarded the irresponsible behavior of his parents and his stepparents. It had, even by then, made sexual activity among young people something to be expected, so that a lonely kid like Danny would constantly have to wonder about himself. It had corrupted the popular culture, so that well-chaperoned and innocent CYO dances were a distant memory. It set him up for a short-circuited sexual relationship with a mother-substitute, depriving him of the children that might have sweetened his advancing years. It swept away all the institutions that used to bring boys together, as boys, to train them to be decent and well-adjusted men. It raised him up in an anti-culture of faithlessness, as he would witness one sexual “relationship” after another dissolve by ill-will or boredom.
It has brought us a world wherein people sweat themselves to death in the pursuit of unhappiness. Some of those people, by the grace of God, miss their aim.
Nostalgia time again. Scott McKenzie, famous for the 1967 anthem "San Francisco" penned by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, is dead at 73. Gen-Xer Mick LaSalle gets it right in his commentary:
The thing about that song is that . . . however naive and even sanctimonious it might be, it is so clearly a true expression of a mindset, of a vision, of a moment in time, of a generation, of an aspiration that, even if it is singing about a San Francisco that never happened and a dream that never came true and never really had a chance of coming true, and that had only a scant relationship with reality . . . it’s a precious thing. It’s a document of a moment, but more than that, a perfect poetic expression of that moment.
It was not MY youth, but I can recognize in that song and in the purity of McKenzie’s vocal something that is as unmistakably honest, in its way, as Gershwin playing the piano, or Fred Astaire dancing, or Artie Shaw playing the clarinet. It is youth finding itself in the world and saying the most beautiful thing it can think of saying at that particular moment. You can’t laugh that away. You have to treasure that. Really, you have to love it.
The so-called Summer of Love transpired 45 years ago. (My reminiscences of the Monterey Pop Festival of that same summer of '67 are reported here.) Ted Nugent, the guru of kill and grill, and a rocker singularly without musical merit in my humble opinion, offers some rather intemperate reflections in a WSJ piece, The Summer of Drugs. Excerpts:
The 1960s, a generation that wanted to hold hands, give peace a chance, smoke dope and change the world, changed it all right: for the worse. America is still suffering the horrible consequences of hippies who thought utopia could be found in joints and intentional disconnect.
[. . .]
While I salute and commend the political and cultural activism of the 1960s that fueled the civil rights movement, other than that, the decade is barren of any positive cultural or social impact. Honest people will remember 1967 for what it truly was.
Although I am not inclined to disagree too strenuously with Nugent's indictment, especially when it comes to drug-fueled self-destruction, Nugent misses much that was positive in those days. For one thing, there was the amazing musical creativity of the period, as represented by Dylan and the Beatles above all. This in stark contrast to the vapidity of '50s popular music. Has there been anything before or since in popular music that has come up the level of the best of Dylan?
The '60s also offered welcome relief from the dreary materialism and social conformism of the '50s. My generation saw through the emptiness of a life devoted to social oneupsmanship, status-seeking, and the piling up of consumer goods. We were an idealistic generation. We wanted something more out of life than job security in suburbia. (Frank Zappa: "Do your job, do it right! Life's a ball, TV tonight!")
We were seekers and questers, though there is no denying that some of us were suckers for charlatans and pied pipers like Timothy Leary. We questioned the half-hearted pieties and platitudes and hypocrisies of our elders. Some of the questioning was puerile and dangerously utopian, but at least we were questioning. We wanted life and we wanted it in abundance in rebellion against the deadness we perceived around us. We experimented with psychedelics to open the doors of perception, not to get loaded.
We were a destructive generation as well, a fact documented in Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the '60s. But the picture Nugent paints is onesided. Here is Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" which was one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement. Or give a listen to the Youngblood's Let's Get Together. This song captures the positive spirit of the '60s, a spirit not much in evidence nowadays.
How many of these do you remember? If you were too much of the '60s then you probably don't remember anything assuming you still animate the mortal coil; if you were too little of the '60s then you won't remember any of these for a different reason. But among these five are three very beautiful songs from that amazingly creative time.
In the calendrical '60s, before the '60s became the cultural '60s,* there was a lot of great music from girl groups like the Marvelettes. I spent the summer of '69 delivering mail out of the Vermont Avenue station, Hollywood 29, California. One day out on the route two black girls approached this U. S. male singing the Marvelettes' tune, Please Mr. Postman. Ah, yes. Ever dial Beechwood 4-5789? Playboy.Don't Mess With Bill.
*I reckon the cultural '60s to have begun on 22 November 1963 with the assasination of JFK and to have ended on 30 April 1975 with the fall of Saigon. Your reckoning may vary.
Let's not forget Joan Baez's sister, Mimi (1945-2001). Interestingly, the girls' father is the noted physicist Albert Baez (1912-2007). I remember a physics teacher in high school showing us an instructional film made by one Albert Baez. We were surprised to hear that he was Joan's father. We hadn't heard of him, but we sure had heard of her. This was around 1965.
Joan and Mimi sing a lovely version of Donovan's "Catch the Wind." Speaking of Donovan, here he and Joan collaborate on another unforgettable 'sixties tune, "Colours." Finally, Mimi, her husband Richard, and Pete Seeger in Pack Up Your Sorrows.
I drew your attention to John Pepple's weblog, I Want a New Left, a few days ago. Pepple identifies himself as a leftist, but what's in a label? If he were characteristic of leftists, which he isn't, I would have little or no problem with them. I find myself wholly in agreement with his post, We Need a Cultural Revolution. His topic is violent crime among the poor, and how the rebellious attitudes propagated by the 'Sixties Left have had terrible consequences for the poor without harming the well-off who spread the pernicious attitudes and who, after sloughing off their rebelliousness, slid comfortably back into the establishment. Excerpts, emphasis added:
The problem goes back to that cultural revolution called the Sixties, because this sort of thing [extreme gang violence] did not happen before that decade. Part of that decade was the rise of the left’s cultural dominance, and the left (whether the old left or the new left) has always been soft on crime. Pushing poor people into crime makes sense to the left because such criminals are seen by them as heroes against the evil capitalists. But in fact poor people who turn to crime basically rob other poor people, which means that the total gain for the poor is zero. Moreover, once businesses in poor neighborhoods realize they have to deal with criminals, they raise prices, either because they have to hire more security people or because they have to compensate for the goods lost through theft. Once again, this doesn’t really help the poor.
That is spot on. Leftists coddle criminals and the unproductive while penalizing productive behavior via taxation and regulation. But by attacking those who create wealth, they make everyone poorer. Fetishizers of equality, leftists would rather have everyone poor and equal rather than tolerate inequalities that benefit the worst off.
It transpired 43 summers ago, this June, the grandaddy of rock festivals, two years before Woodstock, in what is known as the Summer of Love. Your humble correspondent was on the scene. Some high school friends and I drove up from Los Angeles along Pacific Coast Highway. I can still call up olfactory memories of patchouli, sandalwood incense, not to mention the aroma of what was variously known as cannabis sativa, marijuana, reefer, tea, Miss Green, maryjane, pot, weed, grass, pacalolo (Hawaiian term), loco weed, and just plain dope. But my friends and I, students at an all-boys Catholic high school that enforced a strict dress code, were fairly straight: we partook of no orgies, smoked no dope, and slept in a motel. The wild stuff came later in our lives, when we were better able to handle it.
I have in my hand the programme book of the Festival, in mint condition. Do I hear $1,000? On the first page there is a quotation from Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice:
How sweet the moon-light sleeps upon this bank! Here we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night, become the touches of sweet harmony.
Ah yes, I remember it well, the "sweet harmony" of the whining feedback of Jimi Hendrix's Fender Stratocaster plugged into his towering Marshall amps and the "soft stillness" of the The Who smashing their instruments to pieces! Not to be outdone, Jimi lit his Strat on fire with lighter fluid. The image is burned into my memory. It shocked my working-class frugality. I used to baby my Fender Mustang and I once got mad at a girl for placing a coke can on my Fender Deluxe Reverb amp. On the last page of the programme book, a more fitting quotation: the lyrics of Dylan's The Times They Are a Changin', perhaps the numero uno '60s anthem to youth and social ferment. Were the utopian fantasies of the '60s just a load of rubbish? Mostly, but not entirely. "Lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it's been."