Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dylan and sexism. It wasn't just rock and roll, it was '60s pop culture. I rented Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" a few weeks ago. The women's roles are appalling. If you didn't get the Y chromosome, you're either a blank-slate sexpot or a willful older shrew. Molly Haskell wrote a whole book about the decline of women's roles in the movies, "From Reverence to Rape." Really good book -- not just a downer, she really loves movies and writes zippily about them.

Dylan and mystique. Been trying to figure out why his ever-too-cool mask while singing "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" got so under my skin. I talked it over with my friend Jake London.

"I just don't get the appeal of the too-cool distanced hipster persona," I said.

"You're not supposed to get it," he replied. "It's meant to exclude. If you get it, that means you're cool too."

"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is a witty song; I always took it as a flirty homage to the song's "you," but knowing Dylan, maybe I should have heard it as an angry put-down. Onstage in the PBS clip, his face gives no clue; he's just playing the notes, man, like some classical cat who isn't worrying about what the piece means, man.

Hipsterism is trivial. Worrying about "cool" is some trivial bullshit. Go back to high school if you want to worry about "cool."

I've had this problem with Dylan and Tom Waits and John Fogerty for a while -- all the effort I hear them putting into the creation of their personae -- so trivial! So much wasted energy! The grinding of the machinery, whirr whirr whirr, pointing my attention not to some human or sublime beauty or truth, but to some . . . minstrel mask. The mask should be transparent, should be the means through which we more easily experience the human or sublime beauty or truth, but with these guys, the masks are too cumbersome, too much effort and thought go into the mask as end, mask as goal, so that's what I hear -- the masks. And additionally with Dylan and Waits, the touristy obsession with the urban underclass . . . is a fashion that goes back to the Victorian era. Which, come to think of it, may be Dylan's connection to Victoria's Secret. Victoria's Secret is . . . he's a Victorian.

I think my hotheadedness about this "cool" business is that the "cool" persona Dylan invented is still the reigning rock persona 40 years later. And by now, it's lame. A couple years ago, I played an acoustic night hosted by my friend Jake, where 20 or 30 local players each played a couple songs, as a fundraiser. Some hot guys from a local band with a bit of a national rep played; I chatted their leader up because I'd recently heard one of their songs on the college station and I'd liked a rhythmic thing the song did very much. A few days later, Jake and I were walking downtown. We saw the band with whose members we'd shared a bill a few days before. They were posing for a band photo. Looking serious and stern as they stood in front of a corregated metal door. They looked embarrassed to be caught in a cliche. I mercilessly said, with a raised fist and a jaunty smile that I hope seemed teasing in a friendly and not a completely nasty way, "Rock and roll!"

vote for Miles

Thinking about "cool" and hipsterism, I listened to some electric Miles today, "He Loved Him Madly." I never saw Miles, have scarcely ever seen film of him, but who cares about cool with music this probing and gorgeous. No distanciation in that playing. No trivializing around with masks.

I mean, I think the fact that we're still talking about Dylan is just proof that the masquerade of hipness that he staked his career on worked. What's that quote from the new movie? "I wanted to be like those singers who, when you looked in their eyes, you knew there was something they weren't telling you." Or something to that effect. I mean, the seduction of Dylan is that he's an enigma, and that, of course, is the essence of whatever "cool" is. Don't begrudge Dylan for acting a certain way; point is, do you like his music or not? Do you like thinking about his lyrics? Point is, the persona is a byproduct; one could make the argument that without his persona Dylan is ten times less popular, influential, whatever, but I don't think I totally buy that.

Anyway, cheers, and keep up the great blog.
Thanks for the compliment and the right-on comments.

I used to love him, but it's all over now.

I still love a bunch of his lines. And a couple handfuls of his songs.

I admire his crazy tone & timbre & phrasing as a singer. Sometimes I love it.

Huge influence, obviously. He changed things, changed the way people thought about songwriting; and to that extent, as a songwriter, I'm in his spell. But though he initiated the changes, he's not my favorite of the changed songwriting landscape.

Earlier cool-ists -- like James Dean or Marlon Brando -- the "cool" masked a huge well of emotion. I usually don't hear that under-emotion in Dylan. I sure don't hear it in "Pill-Box Hat." As a rule, I feel a lot more emotion, and a far wider range of life experience, in Woody Guthrie's songs and singing.

In Miles Davis, the under-emotion is monumental.

Thanks again.
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