Wednesday, 22 November 2006

WORKINGMAN'S BLUES NO. 2

Sleep is like a temporary death…

 

 

 

"You will perceive that in the breast

The germs of many virtues rest,

Which, ere they feel a lover's breath,

Lie in a temporary death"

Henry Timrod, Two Portraits

 

 

Workingman’s Blues No. 2 is already the most celebrated, though perhaps the most misunderstood, track on Modern Times. Distinguished by a beautiful, shimmering arrangement and heartfelt vocals and crammed with memorable poetic twists, it has an anthemic, always ‘scarf-waving’ quality found in only a few other Dylan songs (Just Like A Woman, The Times They Are A Changin’ and Like A Rolling Stone might be said fit into this category).  Without a doubt, it gets you right there. Most of the (overwhelmingly glowing) reviews of the album have already acclaimed it as an ‘instant classic’. It’s the track on the album you might like to play to a non-Dylan fan to try to win them over, to show them that Bob isn’t just this whiny folk singer after all - that he can write a ‘good tune’ and deliver it like a ‘proper singer’ if that’s what he really wants to do. The music and the singing carry the track’s overwhelming mixture of bitter nostalgia and defiant dignity in a way that almost anyone can relate to. As a song it is heart-stoppingly  moving. It lifts the spirits. It can make you want to cry. But it is not, as a number of (perhaps hopeful) commentators have suggested, any kind of ‘protest song’. The feelings it conveys are ambivalent, complex, sometimes confused. Positioned at the beginning of ‘Side Two’ of the record, it radically changes the tone of Modern Times. The first five songs are concerned with awaking the spirit of creativity - they are playful and hopeful. Workingman’s Blues No. 2 begins Dylan’s examination of the ‘dark side’ of our Modern Times. Despite its attractive tune and lush presentation, it is the most opaque and ‘difficult’ song on the album.

 

The song is a ‘sequel’ to Merle Haggard’s 1967 celebration of blue-collar pride, Workin’ Man’ Blues. But here Dylan’s rationale is very different to his reworking of blues classics in Rolling and Tumblin’, Someday Baby and When The Levee Breaks. His Workingman’s Blues lifts only the chorus line …Sing a little bit of these workin’ man’s blues… While Haggard’s song is a straight twelve bar shuffle, Dylan’s version is not (in the musical sense) a blues at all. Yet it’s clear that any examination of No.2 must start here. Haggard’s narrator is an upstanding member of the ‘proletariat’ (although you won’t, of course, find that word in his song) who has been …a workin’ man dang near all my life… supporting nine kids and a wife with his ‘working hands’. He’s determined to keep working …as long as my two hands are fit to use… and in a pointed sneer at those no good hippies who were getting so much of the limelight at the time, declares (twice in the song, so we can’t fail to get the point) that he ..ain’t never been on welfare/that’s one place I won’t be…  But as he sits drinking his beer in a tavern, he does confess that sometimes he does fantasise about doing …a little bumming around… and catching …a train to another town…   It is perhaps this part of the song, with its connection to the Woody Guthrie freight-train rambling ethos which originally inspired the teenage Dylan, which provides the clearest link between the two songs. Naturally, Haggard’s narrator’s moment of doubt is quickly excised as he reiterates his intention to ‘keep on workin’ ‘

 

In the late ‘60s a song like Haggard’s Workin’ Man’s Blues would have been seen as terminally unhip. Yet from today’s perspective it is a classic of Americana, and in its own way as much a product of the late ‘60s as the Jefferson Airplane. In this and other songs Haggard was reacting against the spirit of his times by reasserting ‘traditional American values’ but not in a gooey, flag-waving way. The narrator of the song may be proud of his stance, but we are left in little doubt that his life is grueling and unrewarding. He has to keep on working because he has no choice. No doubt he’s in that tavern a lot, downing a great deal of beer. It’s a significant marker of shifts in cultural values that earlier in 2006 we saw Haggard touring in support of Dylan, interspersing his songs with sneering references to Bush’s foreign and domestic policies and comic tales about hanging out and getting very wrecked with his buddy Willie Nelson. Dylan, of course, keeps resolutely mum about such matters. It’s also significant that we can trace the beginnings of such a shift back to the late ‘60s when Dylan himself, then regarded by the counterculture as nothing less than a living prophet, the ‘voice of their generation’, would have no truck with psychedelia. In seclusion in (of all places) Woodstock, New York State, he was creating recordings which, from The Basement Tapes (1967) to the much-misunderstood Self Portrait (1970) (despised by the ‘hippie establishment’ at the time but now standing as an important landmark in the development of ‘Americana’) daringly embraced country music and many of its values. Meanwhile, Dylan’s soulmate in this adventure, Robbie Robertson of The Band, was also involved in creating an imaginative new perspective which incorporated ‘workingmen’s values’ within a vision of what Greil Marcus was later to call ‘the old, weird America’. In Mystery Train, his wonderfully eccentric paean to Elvis Presley and The Band, Marcus  calls The Band’s own epic of the ‘working life’ King Harvest (Will Surely Come) (1969) Robertson’s ‘masterpiece’. King Harvest, with its embrace of unionization and its steadfast ‘working man’’s perspective, seems to me to be the other key text we need to look at with reference to Workingman’s Blues No. 2.

 

Dylan’s begins memorably with his own piano intro to the song’s distinctive melody, underpinned as he begins to sing by Donnie Herron’s understated viola and George Recile’s clipped, military-march style drumming. The voice is warm and resonant, gentle and welcoming. The first image is of sunset:  ..an evenin’ haze settlin’ over town/starlight  at the edge of the creek… , the words and the singing style creating an idyllic picture.  After this, the next lines are perhaps something of a shock, as we are immediately transported into the ‘political’ territory of a kind of ‘Marxist lament’ : …the buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down/Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak… Yet Dylan’s delivery remains calm and melodic. The use of the term ‘proletariat’ sounds oddly archaic here, and the sentiment itself strangely nostalgic. We soon learn that the opening image is part of the narrator’s ‘sweet memory’ of a life that has been lost, and so the use of the term seems to be part of that ‘lost world’. At the end of the verse the narrator, still calm and reflective, comments that …they say low wages are a reality/if we want to compete abroad…  This is already a widely-quoted couplet, which many commentators have used to suggest that the whole song is a protest against globalization. Despite the fact that it chimes with Dylan’s oft-expressed concern for the American working man, as expressed in his 1983 song Union Sundown (which for all its clumsy rhetoric really was a protest against globalization), his 1994 collaboration with Willie Nelson Heartland and most famously mouthed in his highly controversial comments at Live Aid in 1985 which led to the annual Farm Aid concerts, little of the rest of Workingman’s Blues No. 2 actually supports this claim. In fact, the narrator delivers the lines with a sense of acceptance - there is no real anger here.

 

The backdrops against which the narrator sings are constantly shifting. As with many of Dylan’s recent songs, it’s hard to figure out whether the action is taking place in the present day or in some past time. Sometimes we seem to be in the present day, sometimes in the 1950s, the 1930s… sometimes as far back as the American Civil War. The narrators of many of the songs on Love and Theft and Modern Times live in a kind of timeless dreamworld. Dylan has said that his ambition is to write songs which ‘stop time’. We are never sure whether the actions he describes are happening in a chronological sequence or not. The songs’ stories are told through the unreliable filter of memory. In the next verse we hear that the narrator is closing his eyes and …listening to the steel rails hum… suggesting he is now a vagrant, riding a freight train. But not because, like Haggard’s working man, he seeks the freedom of ‘bumming around’.  Like the migrant workers of the depression, he has no choice. The whole song can be seen as a kind of dream vision seen through this dispossessed working man’s eyes. The great irony of the song is that he is no longer a working man at all. His work has been taken away. The hunger he is fighting to stop …creeping its way into my gut… may be real hunger, or a hunger for ‘what has been lost’. In any case he sounds tearful, and resigned to his fate, telling us he has hung up his ‘cruel weapons’. The love object he addresses, whom he implores to …come sit down on my knee… may well be a child who has now grown up. In his tearful vision the narrator remembers the child as they were when he was raising him or her. He wants to enfold the child with love. But his mind is continually restless. For like the narrator of King Harvest he’s a ..union man all the way… In his mind, there are still battles to be fought. In each chorus he fantasises that, together with his child he will again fight the bosses on the ‘frontline’. The final line of the chorus repeats Haggard’s modest refrain as if it is a sacred call to arms.

 

As the song progresses the narrator descends further and further into his dream-fantasy. He is an old man, raging against the dying of the light, crying ‘tears of rage’. He imagines dragging those who have dispossessed him down to hell, lining them up against a wall to have them shot. But he is weary, confused, his consciousness …tossed by the wind and the seas… Already he is sinking back into sleep, resigned to his redundancy in this cruel world that has rejected him: …Sometimes no one wants what we got/Sometimes you can’t give it away… As he descends into sleep, dark visions begin to overwhelm him. He …sleeps in the kitchen with my feet in the hall… Of course he has no house, only this tiny freight train carriage where the’ kitchen’ and the ‘hall’ are so close together. He imagines himself confronted by countless faceless enemies, crowding in on him. He knows that death itself is not far away. Sleep is comforting to him but it is …like a temporary death… He knows his death is approaching but he knows not when. In the darkness he feels the …lover’s breath… which in Timrod’s poem will be the force which will awaken the spiritual life within. But it is too late for that breath to work on him. He feels …the night birds call… He knows that the end is nigh. Yet there is no sense of panic, or despair. The music remains stately and unstressed; the band subdued and disciplined behind the singer’s masterful control of his breath.

 

Increasingly, the narrator becomes a Lear-like figure, exiled from his land and his children. Like the singer in King Harvest he has lost his barn and his horse and his money. He knows that …the sun is sinking… on his life. Like the narrator of that great song of generational anguish Tears of Rage (another song which echoes King Lear, written by Dylan with a melody by The Band’s Richard Manuel) he fears that his child has rejected him. …Of what kind of love is this/Which goes from bad to worse… he asks himself in Tears of Rage. In Workingman’s Blues No. 2 the narrator is even further down the line: …Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me…  The narrator tells us that the child has …wounded me with your words… He says that he will wipe the memories of his enemies from his mind, but that the memory of his child – the new ‘working man’ will always remain with him. In the final verses he tries to heal the rift between them – though he is possessed by a disturbingly dark apocalyptic vision of what will happen to the child: …All across the peaceful sacred fields they will lay you low/They’ll break your horns and slash you with steel … he implores his loved one to look into his eyes one final time. And then, as life begins to ebb away, he fantasises that the child will …lead me off in a cheerful dance… Everything will be remade anew… the old man sees himself with …a brand new suit and a brand new wife…  He declares that he can live well on a meager diet. In the final moments he restates his pride in being a ‘working man’ by telling us that he is ready to work again, unlike those who …never worked a day in their life/Don’t know what work even means… Perhaps he is Haggard’s working man, now grown old, his world and his values in ruins. But in the end, as the sun sinks on his life, and although circumstances have overwhelmed him, he has something solid to cling to. His pride, in the end, is his salvation.

 

Although, with its opaque and mysterious surface, the song may appear to be at odds with much of Modern Times, Workingman’s Blues No. 2 is in many ways its central opus. It is a kind of ode to ‘Modern Times’ itself. Not only the modern world of the technological, globalised culture of the twenty first century but also the eternal process of evolving into ‘Modern Times’ that happens to every new generation. And Dylan himself, of course, is a ‘working man’ who for the last eighteen years or so of the Never Ending Tour has pursued the goal of finding his own salvation through constant work. There is a level on which, in Workingman’s Blues No. 2, he is addressing his audience, taking us through the times in which he himself felt abandoned, having only his own pride to fall back on. But the renewed confidence he now shows in his music and his writing - the result of years of hard work - can be felt in every moment of this transcendent, far-reaching piece, which stands with his very best songs. Like Visions of Johanna or Desolation Row or Idiot Wind or Jokerman or Blind Willie McTell it can be subjected to many different interpretations. And like those songs, every time you hear it sets off new trains of thought in your mind. All you need to do is close your eyes and listen to those steel rails humming…

 

 

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Wednesday, 22 November 2006 02:33:07 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [26]  | 

HEY JUDE

This is the second extract from my forthcoming book Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles. This extract features what may well be their finest hour, and explores how it focuses on the relationship between Paul and John

        In 1968 The Beatles, along with the youth culture that they spoke for and symbolised, stood at a crossroads. Though the excessses of the ‘summer of .love’ had faded, the liberationist politics of what became known as the ‘new left’ were now emerging. The ‘hippie movement’ was broadening and diversifying into the ‘counter culture’, a broad social grouping and set of perspectives from which the ecological, feminist, gay liberation and ‘new age’ movements were already beginning to materialize. All of this was a reaction to the apparent insanity of the ‘straight world’ with its militaristic, oppressive culture expressed most symbolically and potently in the ultimate obscenity of the nuclear arms race. Much of this new culture took the form, at this point, of a kind of messianic idealism. It was in this spirit that The Beatles, having lost their manager and ‘guide’ Brian Epstein, now decided to handle their own affairs by setting up their own company, Apple, on which their own records and those of their protegees would be released. The Beatles themselves, along with their closest confidants like their former road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, would be ‘co-directors’ of the company. For a few euphoric months Apple - attempting to become an alternative to the ‘straight’ record companies - opened its doors to every kind of  eccentric performer, and there were grandiose expansionist plans through which The Beatles (who had, sadly, no real grasp of  the ‘realities’ of the business world) thought they would be able to revolutionise the media industry. Eventually, the whole edifice came crashing down like a house of cards, bringing The Beatles with it, but in mid-1968, as their first Apple single Hey Jude was released, they stood on the brink of what appeared to be a brave new world. It was appropriate, then, that the first single on their own label was to climax in a kind of universal mantra, with which the whole world could sing along. Yet ironically Hey Jude, while it expressed with great eloquence a feeling which virtually anyone could identify with, is also a song which (if perhaps unconsciously) gives voice to the tensions which were soon to tear The Beatles, and with them many of the idealistic dreams of the counterculture, apart.

         In many ways Hey Jude is the supreme expression of The Beatles’ art, combining the communicative directness of their early music with the sophistication of their later years. Contained within the song is their entire history as a recording group, their key influences in the fields of soul and rock and roll, and a plethora of complex emotions. Hey Jude is, like their early defining moment She Loves You, an ‘advice song’ from one friend to another. It culminates in an expression of spiritual bliss and solidarity that is profoundly informed by the group’s journey through stardom, drugs and meditation. Like their early singles it is an ‘ecstatic’ song, building up to a great release of emotion that transcends mere words. With a sheer, aching soulfulness it articulates the emotional struggle involved in the process of artistic inspiration itself, while conveying the terrible strain of ‘carrying the world upon their shoulders’ that The Beatles had heroically taken on. Highly significant to its position as a song which ‘sums up’ everything The Beatles represented is the way it stands as both a celebration of, and in some ways a farewell to, the creative relationship which sustained the group, that between John and Paul. In later interviews John spoke rather eloquently and bitterly of his relationship with Paul as being like a ‘marriage’. He was unequivocal that his union with Yoko Ono was responsible for cutting his dependence on this relationship. Hey Jude, whether consciously or not, dramatises the ‘divorce’ between John and Paul, yet it does so without bitterness or remorse. Paul recognises that John was …made to go and get her…, that only through his relationship with Yoko can John’s terrible inner scars be healed. Paul shows himself willing to sacrifice the bond which has elevated his own life to such extraordinary heights. It’s quite a sacrifice. Yet Hey Jude never wallows in misery or self-pity. Although the emotions it presents us with hover on the edge of a great heartbreak, the singer refuses to give in to despair.

          The track begins with an intimate solo …Hey…before the first stabbing note on the piano. Throughout the first verse the piano merely plays this rhythmic accompaniment while Paul’s voice carries the melody. The first lines sum up the message of the song, with the simple internal rhymes bad/sad, heart/start counterposing the repetition of better instead of a rhyme at the end of lines two and four. The second line …take a sad song and make it better…could be said to summarise the entire song. The idea of creating uplifting ‘music’ is the song’s central metaphor, underlined by the later statement that ‘Jude’ is …waiting for someone to perform with… The song itself continually builds around this simple beginning, its strikingly impressive and portentious melody being woven over more and more instruments and voices. Acoustic guitars, strummed by John and George, come in, then sighing vocal …aahs…as Paul sings …the minute you let her under your skin/then you begin to make it better…Yet again the word ‘better’ is repeated, as if it is a kind of key to the song, a magical invocation to lift the spirits. Then the drums kick in, restrained at first, as the melody builds and the emotions being expressed begin to go beyond simple advice.  The lines …any time you feel the pain/Hey Jude/refrain…with their understated staccato pauses, create the impression that the singer is beginning to ‘feel the pain’ himself. The use of the musical term ‘refrain’ has a neat double meaning as the words ‘Hey Jude’ are the actual refrain of the song. The singer pleads with Jude not to …carry the world upon your shoulders… urging him not to …play it cool… and suppress his emotions towards the object of his love. At the end of this verse there is a small pause and the first few …na na na nas… Already the ‘melody of restraint’ that characterises the verses is set against the ecstatic melody that will supersede it.

         In the next verse, another countermelody is set up The singer pleads with Jude not to ‘let him down’, pleading with him to follow the object of his heart’s desire. As he finishes the line …you have found her/now go and get her… the line …let it out and let it in…is slightly superimposed over his words, before it re-emerges in its ‘official’ place before …Hey Jude, begin…at the start of the next verse. It is as if a whole group of melodies are struggling to get out. The line itself mimics the most crucial element of meditative practice, the control of the breath, which is itself the key to expressive singing. Now John and George begin to join in on the lines of the verses, their voices very slightly out of synch with Paul’s, providing another ‘layer of melody’. In the next verse their vocal …aahs… return. As Paul sings the staccato lines  …Don’t you know that it’s just you/Hey Jude/you’ll do… it’s as if something is catching in his throat, but he is determined to deliver the most distinctive line …the movement you need is on your shoulder… The final verse repeats the first one, but now with John and George joining in. Then, on the next …better…the song suddenly ascends into the stratosphere. Paul repeats the word four times. Each time the vocal inflexion is higher and more strangulated, as the …na na na na…melody comes in and takes over. It is as if the singer, having tried reasoned persuasion, has now gone beyond logic and can give vent to pure emotion. As the …na na na nas…build up, over the basic bass, drums and tambourine rhythm, an orchestral backing, with violins, violas, cellos, flutes, clarinets and trumpets, adds to the mix while Paul, his emotions fully unleashed, begins to ‘scat’ over the swaying mantra in the background. As the ever growing chorus wills Jude on to his destiny, Paul cries and squeals …Yeah, Yeah…you know you can make it… repeating lines from the song. Over the last minute the chorus begins slowly to fade, with the singers, the rhythm section, the orchestra and Paul’s frenetic contribution all competing against each other like layer upon layer of melody. Once the song is over it as if these melodies are hanging in the air, still being sung somewhere, as if the singers have merely moved away into the distance out of earshot. Ultimately Hey Jude is a song about the power of music itself, as a means of expression of pure passion and pure will.

   

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WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

is now available HERE


 

If you have any comments please email me at chris@chrisgregory.org . I'm always glad to hear what people have to say. You'll very probably even get a reply!

        

        

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 22 November 2006 02:12:07 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 
Tuesday, 14 November 2006

ANDY AND MARILYN

andy and marilyn were made

for each other:

he dressed her,

bedecked her

in her funeral flowers-

he was a weed,

she was a doll,

in his hands

the imprint

of her smile,

stolen

from the mona lisa-

across her mouth

a smudged, blood-red gash

 

he loved her,

he wanted her,

so he fed her

into his factory,

and off the reproduction line

she came,

still smiling,

that same fixed transparent smile

that same fixed transparent smile

that same fixed transparent smile...

 

andy cried

as the images multiplied-

somewhere in the process

his love for her had died.

 

 

Tuesday, 14 November 2006 01:32:14 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [25]  | 
Monday, 06 November 2006

DYLAN MEETS THE BEATLES

EXTRACT FROM WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE?  RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

The following is an extract from my forthcoming book  Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles. The title is derived from my desire to 'rescue' The Beatles from the cultural institutionalism that at times seems to overwhelm the way we see them in a haze of nostalgia for a so-called 'innocent age'. The book presents a critical overview of The Beatles' music and lyrics and places their work in the cultural context of their times. It's quite surprising that, despite the huge number of publications devoted to the 'Fab Four', only a handful seem to take them in any way seriously. This is a great shame, giving their huge artistic achievement and the massive cultural weight of their influence on modern popular music. I have placed considerable emphasis on the notion of Beatles as 'revolutionaries' and have linked their work to the sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, as well as focusing on the development of their 'spiritual' perceptions. The book takes a unique approach to its subject matter by mixing critical writing with fictionalised sections in which I have taken 'real' or imagined incidents in The Beatles' lives and dramatised them. The following extract is from the beginning of Chaper Two, and is a fictionalised account (based on the testimony of The Beatles themselves in the Anthology TV series) of their first meeting with Bob Dylan. Much of the rest of the chapter goes on to analyse the way in which Dylan influenced The Beatles' songwriting in their 'transitional' phase.

 

             August 28th 1964. The Beatles, Brian Epstein and their road managers, Neil and Mal, sit in a darkened, wood-panelled room in the Hotel Delmonico, New York. The blinds are drawn, even though it’s a cracking hot day outside. A creaky old fan whirs half-heartedly in the corner. They’ve been to a few strange places on this tour, met some pretty weird people, been screamed at by what seems like millions of kids, even had groups of paraplegics wheeled in to see them backstage…  as  if they were supposed to have some kind of healing powers, like they were bloody Jesus and his three disciples or something. But this, George tells himself, has to cap it all. The guy who is ‘entertaining’ them actually looks quite a bit like Bob, with the same curly black hair and reflective shades, which he apparently never takes off. He even says his name is Bob. He doesn’t speak much though, just slouches on a black leather sofa reading a Marvel comic. Every so often he reassures them that Bob himself will see them ‘real soon’.

            “It’s a bit like waiting for an audience with the Pope,” John observes, staring up at the ornate if rather decrepit carvings of cherubs on the ceiling.

            “Didn’t we meet him already?” says Ringo dryly.

            “Wrong country,” George mutters. They’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour now, and they’re getting to feel a little itchy, to say the least. Bob’s not QUITE ready, the other Bob tells them, without looking up from The Incredible Hulk. He keeps offering packs of Marlboro and Camels and suchlike round. From time to time a big, burly guy the other Bob calls Vic comes in, mutters something unintelligible into the other Bob’s ear and wanders out again. Paul stares down absent-mindedly at his fingernails, whistling some knackered old show tune or other, being as annoyingly cheerful as ever. Ringo yawns and absent-mindedly drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. There’s no stopping him. Probably does it in his sleep… John continues to stare up at the ceiling, yawning. He’s unusually quiet and subdued today. Even Eppy, who is squinting at the New York Times, looks a bit nervous, glancing up every so often and then quickly burying his face back in the paper, as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t. George, however, feels quite relaxed. Oddly enough, after all the attention they’ve been getting, he’s actually really quite appreciating being ignored. The truth is, they’re all knackered and rather enjoying a bit of quiet. This tour has been like a mad bloody circus. The previous visit to the States, the first one, had consisted of one or two TV shows and a couple of big gigs in concert halls. This time they’ve been doing the full coast to coast thing, playing ballparks and stadiums, all of which have, by now, started to look pretty much the same. Every night they’ve been cranking out the usual stage act. It’s been impossible, as ever, for them to hear themselves play…

 In between all that various millionaires have been putting them up in their mansions. One goofy rich old couple in Florida had lent Ringo this bloody great big yacht and, having absolutely no idea how to pilot the thing, he’d crashed it into the dock, breaking half of it up. The bloody jerk. Of course, he nearly shat himself, thinking they’d try to sue him, and expecting he’d get hauled over the coals by Brian for being such a dick. But the old folks actually seemed quite pleased. After all, even if the boat was smashed up, they could impress their friends by saying “A Beatle did this”. It was like Ringo had done them a favour. If he’d offered to burn their house down they’d probably have passed him the matches. Bloody yanks, they’re are all a bit cracked… Meanwhile, they’d had to shake hands and make small talk with all these majors and mayoresses in god awful civic receptions across this country, who always declared how proud they were to have them in St. Louis, or Houston or New Orleans or wherever. Paul would witter on to them for ages. Ringo would make those weird jokes of his which they’d never understand. John would put on his patented ‘plastic smile’ , showing all his teeth and confusing them by going into this posh accent and pretending to be a friend of Princess Margaret. “Old Magsie,” he’d chortle, “damned fine old stick, you know. Decent chap.” Sometimes John would claim to be George, and George would say he was Ringo and so on, just to relieve the boredom. The thing that stuck in George’s mind about the mayors and mayoresses was that they all had really shiny teeth, like they’d just auditioned for some toothpaste commercial. He figured there must be plenty of work for dentists over here.

Then of course they’d had to sign their autographs on hundreds of bloody photos of themselves. Eppy would bring a big box of them in every day. “Just a few things for you to sign, boys,” he would announce cheerfully. “Oh, jolly dee,” John would say, taking the piss out of Eppy’s posh accent. Eppy’s so easy to wind up. Especially when John goes off on one. Soon their wrists would be aching and they’d persuade Neil and Mal to take over. Mal would do George and Paul, Neil John and Ringo. They never seemed to mind too much.  George yawns. When he thinks about the whole shebang, it all kind of merges into a blur. American cities all looked alike anyway, with their skyscraper skylines and all that. And one hotel room looked much like any other. Most of the time they just played cards, wrote the odd song, arsed about with guitars and took the piss out of each other. Every so often a party of girls got sent up. That was alright. You could have two, three, even four each if you wanted. You felt like you were doing them a favour somehow. But after a bit you even got bored with that…

This hotel room feels different to most of the places they’ve been, though. It’s kind of magnificent but somehow decrepit at the same time. A bit like Liverpool, really… Over by the door stands, a skinny young guy with long frizzy hair and quick, darting eyes who looks like a Beatnik version of the twitchy murderer in that Hitchcock film, the one with the old lady’s skeleton in the chair. He never says a word, and keeps taking nervous-looking glances into the corridor outside. Could be he’s the lookout, like in one of those old Westerns where some gang of outlaws is about to rob a bank. But maybe George has just watched too many bloody movies…

            Finally the skinny guy makes a thumbs-up sign to the other Bob, who mutters something to Vic, who goes out of the room and then comes back again almost immediately, jerking his head at the other Bob.

              “OK, guys…” the other Bob slurs, “Bob can see you now.”

              Vic opens the side door and they file through dutifully, like a line of schoolboys going for the cane. George tries to suppress the giggles. In the other room the windows are open and there is Bob himself, rocking backwards on a stool by an open window, shrouded in cigarette smoke, staring down at the typewriter on the desk in front of him. At first he doesn’t even raise his head. He’s wearing big thick black glasses, a pair of scruffy jeans and a tee shirt with a faded picture of some Indian chief printed in black and white on the front. George is surprised at how small he is. The bizarre thought enters his head that he should stride across the room, shake him by the hand and say “You’re Bob Dylan. You’re really quite small.”

There are a couple of sofas in the room so they all squeeze onto them. Vic remains standing by the door. Finally Bob moves his finger away from the typewriter, shakes his head  and looks over, as if he’s only just noticed them.

“Hey…”  he drawls, “You guys…ah… sit down…”

            “He sounds just like his records,” George thinks, but doesn’t say. One morning earlier this year, when they’d been playing in Paris, George had put on his favourite disguise - a false beard and glasses which he fancied made him look like Inspector Poirot -  and nipped out to a street market, where he’d picked up a few souvenirs - plastic Eiffel Towers for the folks back home and stuff - and this album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. When he played it, all the guys were completely gobsmacked. For about a month afterwards, they’d listened to nothing else. There were all these amazing songs about World War Three and A Woman Who Was A Child, I’m Told and Ten Thousand Drummers Whose Hands Were A-Bleedin’. They’d never heard anything like it.  John had said it was like hearing Elvis again for the first time. Only cooler, Paul had put in. Ringo had said he liked the songs but that voice was a bit hard to take. But that’s what’s so great about it, John had told him. Forget the words, I just love that sound.

         “Listen…ah…” Bob removes his glasses. He looks rather bleary-eyed, to say the least. “You guys wanna get high?”

Ringo looks at George with a puzzled expression. Mind you, Ringo could look bamboozled by almost anything…

            There’s a few moments of rather awkward silence. Paul breaks the ice. “Well, we are on the tenth floor…”

            “That’s bloody hilarious, Paul,” says John. “You’re so fucking quick on the uptake…”

            Bob doesn’t flinch. It’s as if he hasn’t heard any of this. He fumbles in his pocket and produces a packet of cigarette papers. He pulls one out and slowly starts to fold it, working with one hand only while the other hangs limply by his side.

            John speaks up. “I tried smoking pot a couple of times back in England, Bob. Never did a thing for me.”

            “Don’t suppose you’ve got any rum and coke, Bob?” Ringo enquires hopefully.

            Again, Bob appears not to have heard. He raises his head slowly, still shaping the cigarette paper carefully with his other hand.

“But guys, what about that record you made? The one where you sing ‘I get high… I get high’ ?”

Silence again. They all look puzzled. Then John appears to cotton on. “D’you mean ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand?’ ”

“Sure, man” Bob drawls. “That would be the VERY one.” As he speaks he lengthens his vowel sounds lugubriously. 

“Actually Bob, that goes ‘I can’t hide… I can’t hide…’”

"You're kidding, man..." Bob shakes his head, "I thought..."             

            “Sorry to disappoint you, Bob. We’re strictly rum and coke men.”

            Bob shrugs. “Fucking great record, man.  I dug it, man, really. Fucking outrageous chord changes. You gotta let me know how you pulled them off.”

            John looks surprised. “You liked it? I didn’t think it would be your cup of tea.”

         At this Bob’s face creases into a smile. He begins to giggle, in a surprisingly high-pitched voice. “Hey, not my cup of tea, man… that’s great… really funny…”

         John raises an eyebrow. “And I wasn’t even trying…”

         Bob waves his finger lazily at Vic. “Hey Vic, man, we got any of that Columbian bush left?”

         Vic nods silently. He reaches into one of his trouser pockets and tosses a small plastic bag across the room. Bob catches it lazily in one hand.

        “Listen guys… I don’t know what kinda shit they’re smoking over in England. But you just GOTTA try this stuff…”

         As he rolls the joint one handedly he’s still giggling to himself, tapping his feet, muttering ‘I can’t hide… I can’t hide…’

 

 

                        
          …So half an hour later Paul is nagging Mal for a piece of paper and a pencil, insisting he’s got the answer to the Riddle of The Universe and just HAS to write it down. Ringo has his head in his hands. Tears are streaming down his face. “I’ve got to stop laughing,” he’s telling them all. “It hurts too much…” Bob is rattling on to George and John about how he adores Little Richard and how he was in this high school band called The Golden Chords playing Little Richard numbers when he was fifteen and how he loves rock and roll and not only Leadbelly and Woody and stuff like that and how they really HAVE to read Bound For Glory and On The Road and how Dostoyevsky is really fucking cool man and no he didn’t name himself after that Welsh poet and how he’ll have to shut this window cos this fucking joint is blowing in the wind, man, ha ha ha, and George and John are just cracking up, shaking their heads in disbelief and then the other Bob comes in and tells them they have to keep the window open anyway cos there are cops in the hotel corridors and possession is heavy shit in this city at which Eppy, who hasn’t said a word since they came in the room, looks distinctly worried. But before they know it Paul is rolling on the floor declaring ‘There are seven levels!’ to anyone who might want to hear but nobody can because everyone is talking at once and John is doing his cripple impersonations and drawing his weird cartoons on the hotel walls and George and Bob have their arms round each other supporting each other to stop each other from falling over because John is so goddamned fucking funny and Bob says he really should have his own TV show or do cabaret like Lenny Bruce and Neil is still trying to help Mal find that bloody pencil and even Eppy is cracking up now and of course Ringo is just laughing and laughing and laughing…

 

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WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES

is now available HERE


 

 

Monday, 06 November 2006 23:53:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [18]  | 
Saturday, 04 November 2006

TRANSFUSION

The bodies lie

Helpless

In democratic rows

As the switches

Are thrown

One by one

And the blood flows

 

A million silent mouse clicks

Making an aggregate,

A figure to weigh in calculation.

Today it is down

Against pork rinds and frozen steaks

 

The price of the blood,

Is fixed on invisible scales,

It has been weighed

And measured, fitted tightly

Into sealed sterilised capsules,

Flown across the world in no time

 

Now the tubes are hooked up

To thousands

Of life support machines.

 

Soon

 

It will be pumping,

Gushing like thick black

Spurting oil

Into our homes, the corpuscles

Merging and mixing,

Circulating into a billion

New homes

 

Its worth

Precisely calculated

 

Its energy

Fuelling our hearts

 

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MORE POEMS AT http://www.chrisgregory.org/poems/ 

 

I'd be interested in anyone's responses to this or anything else on this blog.

Email me and let me know.

 

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Saturday, 04 November 2006 13:20:21 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [27]  | 
Friday, 03 November 2006

CHILDREN OF MEN: CONTEMPORARY DISTOPIA

I saw a film today, oh boy….

 

It’s only once every few years that you walk out of a film and you are so gobsmacked that you can hardly speak. It happened to me a couple of days ago on my first viewing of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, adapted from the novel by P.D. James. I’m still reeling from it, but perhaps the most shocking part of the whole experience was walking out of the multiplex onto the streets of my home town – Lancaster, actually, but it could have been be a thousand other towns in England on a Saturday night.  Gangs of drunken twenty somethings in white shirts and tiny dresses were roaming the traffic-less streets while nervous-looking policemen and women, tooled up to the nines in body armour, rattled instructions into hand held radios. The streets were strewn with rubbish. The cameras craned over us, watching our every move. The police brushed against my friend and I as we attempted to walk innocently home, as if we were not there. Although the movie depicts a far more dangerous scenario, the parallels with what things are like NOW was glaringly obvious.

 

That was why the film was so scary. Though it’s set about twenty years into the future, its not futuristic. It’s not science fiction. In fact, technologically things seemed to have gone backward. Nobody rattled on about the bloody internet. Quite possibly there was no internet. The rest of the world – apart from Britain, it seems, and a few other enclaves – had been blown to hell in nuclear wars. Britain had turned into a fascist state which imprisoned millions of desperate refugees in huge ghettos – a homegrown holocaust. The plethora of mainly Eastern European voices of those desperate caged figures was quite deliberate – showing how the ‘asylum seeker’ paranoia in this country,  and the proposed laws restricting movement into the Britain  from ‘certain’ Eastern European countries, are rooted in the kind of thinking that led to the holocaust itself. And at times the dangerous scenario that everyone faced on the streets in everyday life put me in mind of Iraq today, where the only safe thing to do is stay at home (and even that isn’t safe)

 

.

 CLIVE AND JULIANNE: They should have stayed at home                                        

 

                                                         

 

But the script is clever. There’s hardly any mention of Islamic terrorism or anything like that. This is not a ‘post 9/11 film’. Nor does it bother with any ecological guff. It’s a moral fable in the tradition of Swift and Kafka and Orwell. Occasionally it reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s devastating dystopian satire Brazil and his apocalyptic Twelve Monkeys, but the film is less playful and spectacular than either of these. What gives it its magical edge is its proposition that all the women in the world became infertile in 2008. Among its most haunting scenes are those in an abandoned school. Thus, it seems, the world is utterly fucked. already. Yet there is one woman who offers an almost magical ray of hope

 

 

 

I don’t want to go on because I don’t want to spoil the film for anybody. It’s a really gripping thriller and has you clutching your seat and nearly screaming. Clive Owen, as the hero, is suitably taciturn and cynical. Julianne Moore is tight lipped as his terrorist ex-girlfriend. The dreadlocked terrorists, who want to start a revolution, are even bigger bastards than the police. Michael Caine is wonderful as an aged hippie dope dealer. They pump antidepressants intro the water system he moans but ganga is still illegal.  Despite all the doom and gloom, there are a number of really funny moments. And jokey Pink Floyd and contemporary Dylan references. There’s a real flying pig over Battersea Power Station. As one character says to another (Paraphrasing Dylan’s 2001 song Bye And Bye) The future now is a thing of the past. The film ends with Jarvis Coker singing a beautifully dry ditty called The World Is Still Ruled By Cunts.

 

I guess that’s the message, in a nutshell.

 

 

Friday, 03 November 2006 04:31:04 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [17]  | 

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