Culture Mulcher’s first post in June 2009 featured Gil Scott-Heron’s legendary, genre-birthing The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as a commentary on the Iranian Green Movement — which didn’t come through as a revolution, but presaged this year’s Arab Spring. Last December, I plugged his first album since 1994 as my favourite of the year.
Scott-Heron, who passed away on 27 May at 62, declined to claim credit for rap, ‘I don’t know if I can take the blame for it.’ — Anyone who was around in 1985 will recall Steve Van Zandt’s great protest chorus, ‘I, I, I . . . I ain’t gonna play Sun City,’ from Artists United Against Apartheid. (It’s hard to recall that Mandela was only released in 1990, a seeming age ago. In the mostly big-hair time vault video, you’ll even see our chromedome Minister for School Education singing at 4:41.) — For a cut on that Sun City album Scott-Heron provided this line: ‘The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh.’ He was always just that bit lighter and cleverer than the rest.
The television will not be revolutionised
One of the most interesting things about his last album, which clocks in at under 30 mins, was that its title was taken from a 2005 song by the lo-fi singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, 17 years his junior. The ironies — that lighter touch — are perfectly evident. Having spent about half of the zero decade in and out of the joint because of crack, his comeback album was called I’m New Here. Scott-Heron obviously connected with Callahan’s lyrics:
I did not become someone different
That I did not want to be
But I’m new here
Will you show me around
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around . . .
And it may be crazy but I’m
The closest thing I have
To a voice of reason
Turnaround turnaround turnaround
And you may come full circle
And be new here again
Scott-Heron, the artist, was fully capable of coming full circle and being new again, which is the shame of his early death. About singers and songs, the natural inclination in writing is to consider the lyrics, as if the sonic quality did not play the larger part of any musical engagement. With Scott-Heron it was his voice, a deep gravelly instrument of great intimacy — he also had the gift of effortless conviction. In Running, his whole life speaks:
Because I always feel like running
Not away, because there is no such place
Because, if there was I would have found it by now
Bill Callahan’s Apoclaypse
I’ve been enjoying Bill Callahan’s new album, Apocalypse. I came to him through the Scott-Heron cover. For an estimation of Callahan’s work try the baroquely oblique microanalysis of a Pitchfork reviewer: ‘everything he’s done ends on similar gestures: a stare, a nod, and the quiet question of whether trying to get to the heart of something is the same thing as actually getting to it.’
What Callahan does do is lay down a feeling, delivering very fine lyrics with his deep tones; he’d be excellent singing lullabies. Sasha Frere-Jones gives a good reading of the artist in the New Yorker: ‘Callahan’s voice has become a gorgeous thing, the product of a resonant chest and even breathing, underlining strange and subtle lyrics — few singers of his cohort put their voices as high in the mix or enunciate so clearly.’
I confess that reading music reviews bores me, or depresses me. It’s like reading the introduction at the start of a “classic” like Moby Dick: it’s good for you, helpful with tips and morals. When all you want is to be swallowed by the whale. But then, how else do we pass on our enthusiasm, our appreciation?
[email protected]: over-rated?
Because he is momentarily unavoidable we’ll have a brief moment with Bob. About Dylan, Bill Callahan says: ‘I never liked him. He seems sort of unpleasant and uncomfortable.’ Closer to my backyard, Constant Gardener claims that Dylan’s voice is intolerable, the adenoidal sneer of an urban Jewish singer disguised in a folkie’s wardrobe and a Welsh poet’s name. A musical female colleague says, Can you imagine a woman getting away with singing out of tune? It is true that Dylan’s voice has been cracked for well over a decade.
A music-tragic friend sent me a link to one of the innumerable articles prompted by Dylan’s 70th birthday last week — his subject line: Is Dylan over-rated?
His own sceptical view was: perhaps (fence sitting)
the smoke and mirrors / schtick does grate with me a bit — have always thought he seemed an emotionless soul — to be admired, enjoyed — not loved. quite rightly ‘Blood on the tracks’ is the closest he comes to spilling any.
his bad stuff is bad his good stuff is fucking great
If he had given the game away 30 years ago he would probably be untouchable
Thinking about it, the answer to his question might come down to this:
— Can Dylan persuasively deliver feelings? — Has he made formal contributions to his field? — Are his musical inventions rich? — Has he been influential?
One would have to say indisputably on all counts. Here’s my rule of thumb for artists: Have they left us just one great thing to enjoy or love or remember a time by? I won’t nominate favourites but when I go to the song page on Dylan’s website, it leaves me reeling.
‘. . . you may come full circle / And be new here again” — He was, for a while, capable of constant renewal — going post-folk electric, going post-protest, going born again, going back to Jewish roots, going back to the oldest folk traditions. Many years ago, the cartoonist Michael Leunig remarked to me how essential it was for Dylan to be elusive, to escape being caught up by the net of expectations, the net of media and fan illusions. It explained a lot, and I believed it, because it was a situation that Leunig profoundly understood. Dylan has said that he admires Tom Waits, another who has slipped the net and stayed his course. And right or wrong, Dylan is staying the course, even at the depletion of the most idiosyncratic and parodiable voice in rock.
Dylan is the anti-nostalgist. When he received his Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1991 (only 50!) Dylan told the crowd, ‘Well, we all know that they give those things out when you’re old, when you’re nothing, a has-been. Everybody knows that, right? So I wasn’t sure whether it was a compliment or an insult.’ Dylan once remaked, Don’t look back, they might catch up to you. And it was Dylan Thomas who said, When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes.
Then again, it was Stevie Nicks who wrote what I regard as the truest and maybe the greatest line about rocknroll: Players only love you when they’re playing. The players, they need us, but we need them too. The audience only loves you when you’re playing. Never forget that.