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Bringing It All Back Here

On June 24th, in Nowlan Park in Kilkenny, an event takes place which will showcase the very best in American music. The line-up comprises three artists - The Violent Femmes; The Flaming Lips; and Bob Dylan – who an ongoing chain of influence in American popular song. There’s Dylan, who having himself absorbed diverse influences from folk, country and blues music, went on to tear up the rule book, thereby not merely changing the rules, but the whole game. If Walter Benjamin’s dictum that all great works of art either end one era or begin another one holds true, then surely that is what Dylan’s great mid-’60s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde did. When The Violent Femmes first appeared in the early ’80s they were playing a weird hybrid that could best be described as folk-punk. ‘Country Death Song’, a track from their second album Hallowed Ground, is a direct descendent of Dylan’s ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’, from The Times They Are A Changing. The Flaming Lips are perhaps the first band in the history of rock to combine successfully elements from punk with those from progressive rock, as though the new wavers of the late ’70s foreswore amphetamine sulphate and started taking LSD instead. They also manage to fuse ideas drawn from psychedelia with tonalities from soul. It’s as though there’s room for The Sex Pistols and Yes, Jefferson Airplane and The Four Tops, all on the same record.




To discuss these acts briefly, in order of appearance, The Violent Femmes eponymously titled debut album, and the follow-up Hallowed Ground, represented such a raw outpouring of teen angst that they have carried the band through a succession of more lacklustre releases that never quite fulfilled their early promise. Today, they are a cult classic, with a devoted following for their intimate, atmospheric, viby gigs. It’ll be interesting to see how they transfer coterie-feel of their club appearances to the bigger stadium venue.

Since their inception in 1983, The Flaming Lips have weathered several line-up changes, but have now crystallised around the triumvirate of frontman/lyricist/agent provocateur Wayne Coyne, multi-instrumentalist and musical director Steven Drozd, and bassist Michael Ivins. Early recordings were released on their own Lovely Sorts of Death label, with 1990’s In A Priest Driven Ambulance providing an incipient highpoint. Signing to Warner Brothers in 1990, there followed the largely disappointing Hit To Death in the Future Head. However, subsequent releases like Transmissions From The Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic helped to consolidate their reputation. But it was with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin that they really upped their game, and stepped into innovative yet classic territory. This album, together with follow-up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and the recently-released At War With The Mystics, represents a sustained period of creative excellence over three records perhaps not heard in American music since Dylan’s above-mentioned mid-period trilogy, and certainly not in world music since Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of Low/Heroes/Lodger.

With their cosmic sci-fi leanings, and the urgency of their concern with the duality of love and death, The Lips, together with sister-band Mercury Rev, are latter-day hippies, older, wiser and more sussed than their naïve predecessors. This is what I mean about a distinct lineage in American music from the ’60s to the present. For if Mercury Rev, with whom The Lips formerly shared guitarist Jonathan Donahue, and who now work with the same producer in Rev’s bassist Dave Friedman (perhaps the premier knob-twiddler de nos jours, providing his services to a veritable role call of the more successful alternative bands), are a contemporary incarnation of Dylan’s old backing band The Band, getting their heads together and communing with nature in upstate New York (the circumstances surrounding the making of The Band’s debut Music From Big Pink in Woodstock and Rev’s most recent The Secret Migration certainly invite comparison, not to mention the fact that both Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band guested on The Rev’s breakthrough 1998 album, Deserters’ Songs), then surely it is not fanciful to suggest that The Lips, although born, bred and based in Oklahoma City, represent a current rebirthing of the more tripped-out, West Coast, San Francisco/Grateful Dead wing of the hippie movement. Expect balloons, space bubbles and people dancing on-stage in rabbit suits in Kilkenny, in what promises to be an uplifting and cathartic show.

So how, as they say, is Dylan going to follow that? When it comes to Mr Zimmerman, it can seem that there is little left to say, so much ink has been spilled in the popular press and specialist publications, magazine articles and academic studies, in an industry akin to that surrounding Shakespeare, Joyce or Beckett. In over thirty years of being a Dylan freak, I have come to the conclusion that people either get him, or they don’t.

The case against was probably put best by Derry-bred rock writer Nik Cohn, who in 1970 dismissed Dylan as a minor talent with a major gift for self-hype. (Mind you, Cohn also dislikes The Beatles, believing they were ‘bad for pop’.) With hindsight, Cohn acknowledges that Dylan has been a great manipulator of the pop form and pop imagery, although “I still can’t stand the sound of his voice or his bloody harmonica.” Another criticism, as put to me recently by a well-known Dublin songwriter who will remain nameless, is that there are too many words in Dylan’s songs, and they go on for too long.

Perhaps these strictures are best answered by quoting a fellow practitioner of (almost) equal accomplishment and renown. In a 1988 interview in Musician magazine, Leonard Cohen opined: ‘Most music criticism is in the nineteenth century. It's so far behind, say, the criticism of painting. It's still based on nineteenth century art – cows beside a stream and trees and ‘I know what I like.’ There's no concession to the fact that Dylan might be a more sophisticated singer than Whitney Houston, that he's probably the most sophisticated singer we've had in a generation. Nobody is identifying our popular singers like a Matisse or Picasso. Dylan's a Picasso – that exuberance, range, and assimilation of the whole history of music. I’m more like a Matisse. (Laughs) I mean, I love Matisse, but I’m in awe of Picasso.’

Of course, as Cohen indicates, Dylan didn’t spring from nowhere. If, as Billy Bragg has written, Woody Guthrie was the first alternative musician, out there telling it like it was while the masses were in thrall to the escapism of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, then Dylan learned a lot from him, just as he learned from Hank Williams (particularly in the latter’s Luke the Drifter persona), and bluesmen like Sleepy John Estes, Jesse Fuller and Blind Willie McTell. But he did take these formative influences and go to places no one else had ever gone before.

These days, it has become fashionable to ask why he keeps doing it, and if The Neverending Tour will ever end. Certainly, there is no longer any cachet left in saying you have seen Dylan, since if you miss him this time round, chances are he’ll be down the local crossroads again in six months’ time. Well, one reason to keep on keeping on is that if you are still making albums as good as Time Out Of Mind or Love and Theft, you might want to play some of the songs off them live. Another is that, as Dylan expressed in Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary, No Direction Home, ‘I don’t think the best versions of my songs have been captured in recording studios. They’ve taken place on the stages of the world.’ As has often been remarked, he never sings the same song twice. True, he did go through a bad patch in the late ’80s, when it seemed that, clad in a hoodie, he was taking a sledgehammer to his back catalogue in every show. But anyone who saw him three years ago in Nowlan Park (a venue he clearly likes) will know that these days he dresses on stage like a Lyle Lovett-style southern gent, seemingly intent in performance on finding the perfect reading of each song. Besides, when you’ve got a back catalogue as extensive and varied as his, who wouldn’t have fun touring it? During the two shows at Dublin’s Point Theatre at the end of November last year, he only repeated two songs on either night. While a crowd-pleasing classic like ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is virtually guaranteed a run-through as an encore, how often do you hear ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, from 1968’s John Wesley Harding, getting an airing? As for those who mischievously maintain that he needs to pay his alimony, Dylan’s ex-wife has long ago remarried, and all his offspring are of age. No, he doesn’t need the money. Like Macbeth putting on his armour to go and fight when all is lost, like a Beckett protagonist who must keep talking in order to justify his existence, Dylan has to keep singing. It’s what he does. If he stopped, he might die.

Actually, just as Dylan toured with the aforementioned Grateful Dead in the early ’90s, thus helping to get him out of the slough he was in, what I’d really like to see is their latter-day reincarnations, The Flaming Lips, backing Bob Dylan on a few numbers in Kilkenny, in these happier times for him. After all, they do share an audience. That really would be Bringing It All Back Home.

First published in Magill magazine, June 2006













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