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

Monday, July 03, 2006

Monk played piano like Dylan sang.

My reflections the other night on Dylan & Lennon’s psychedelia were prompted by a sterling review of a new Dylan book by Devin McKinney. McKinney’s closing paragraph:

But you emerge [from the book] with no coherent sense of Dylan's shape or identity, other than that he is to be regarded as a poet, not a pop star. I'm more convinced by Robert Christgau's conception of Dylan as “the Magnificent Phonus Balonus,” calculating wit and coiner of epigrams to pepper the flow of what has been, at its greatest, exhilarating music. Christgau warned that “placing Dylan's work in a page context” is “always a mistake.” So be aware that Gray's Encyclopedia places the artist's work pretty exclusively in a page context, and that your relish in the project will depend directly on whether you believe Robert Browning deserves a longer entry than Bob Johnston. Or how much truth you find in John Lennon's comment: “You don't have to hear what Bob Dylan's saying, you just have to hear the way he says it.”

Dylan at his best is the Thelonious Monk of rock singing: Like Monk’s, Dylan’s tone color is so piquant, his phrasing so strong and free, and his choice of pitches so daringly right, that his sound jumps out of the speakers with a vividness that makes the surrounding musical landscape seem like sonic wallpaper. Lennon and Christgau nail it for me: You don’t have to hear what Dylan’s saying because as a writer, much more often than not, he’s the Magnificent Phonus Balonus (great phrase!); but the way he says, for example, “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule,” it’s a singular gorgeousness.
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