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

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Woolf, Meltzer, and the Alphabet

[I listened recently to some Lennon & Dylan records that I had not heard in a long time. In one song Lennon demands, "all I want is the truth, just gimme some truth." In an earlier song Dylan warns, "Don't ask me nothin' about nothin', I just might tell you the truth." Lennon's "truth" feels simplistic. Dylan's feels complex, ugly, and subjectively honest. The songs bugged me to look up some remembered quotes from Virginia Woolf and Richard Meltzer.]

He stopped to light his pipe, looked once at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one's eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engaged the energies of his splendid mind.

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far, far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenceless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window. They needed his protection; he gave it them. But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q--R--. Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. "Then R ..." He braced himself. He clenched himself.

Qualities that would have saved a ship's company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water--endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help. R is then--what is R?

A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying--he was a failure--that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R--

Qualities that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the Polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counsellor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it, came to his help again. R--

The lizard's eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed among its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash--the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R.

Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R.

He stood stock-still, by the urn, with the geranium flowing over it. How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, "One perhaps." One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, and till he has no more left to give? -- Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Rock, when it’s totally, gloriously on, can go from A to Z -- no sweat -- instantaneously. -- Richard Meltzer, forward to the reprint of The Aesthetics of Rock

* * *

[Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home wowed me -- I had not heard it in years. The 3 love songs, I never liked and still don't, and a few stray lines are bad as ever, but on the whole, the rest of them -- he's masterful, he's on top of his game and his game is the world, and the band cooks with gas. Also listened to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time in years, and it's a wow too. Paul's tremendous lead bass throughout; the lovely melody and gorgeous string arranging and sarangi playing on "Within You Without You" (not sure about those words though); the tremendous orchestra & the gorgeous vocal & drum duet on "A Day in the Life"; great lead guitar playing from George on "Fixing a Hole" and "Good Morning, Good Morning"; great Beatle backing vocals throughout -- a band whose backing vocals often have more character than the lead vocals of most other bands; the tender sympathetic story of "She's Leaving Home," reminding me that Britain did not begin to experience America's post-War prosperity until the '60s, and yes, the parents probably were stern and clueless, but the song makes me feel that they loved their daughter; lotta great songs. Also listened to an early Stones I'd never heard, December's Children, mostly didn't like it -- sloppy but not in an inspiriting way; made me wonder at the Beatles' centrality to the era -- the Stones' music has very little relationship with the Beach Boys' music (despite their shared Chuck Berry roots), and the Beach Boys have little to do with Dylan, but the Beatles' music related to all three, the rough raunch rock of the Stones, the lush melodic pep and sonic splendour of the Beach Boys, and the verbal kaleidoscopy of Dylan. The Beach Boys -- I've mentioned this before -- were the true heirs of Chuck Berry, lyricists of daily social life, and when they look inward in the mid and late '60s, it has nothing to do with Dylan, it's because they happened to have been looking inward a lot in their daily lives (the songs written with Van Dyke Parks excepted -- those do have a Dylan connection).]

Hey John, Carl here. You know, though, you could put Dylan in nearly as central a position as the Beatles - sure, he wasn't an influence on the Beach Boys (until the Smile period), but he was an influence on the Stones as well as the Beatles (who of course influenced him in turn) not to mention on much other 1960s country, folk, folk-rock and psychedelia to come.

The Beach Boys were in a bit more of their own bubble, but otherwise all of these guys were sponges, stealing from each other as fast as they could. Do the Beatles win the "most influential" spot? Maybe in their own time, but as time goes on... a lot of stuff clustered around the 'punk' monicker, from the Velvets and Stooges on down, had more to do with Dylan and the Stones than with the Beatles, quite deliberately. So it balances out.

(Also re: Beach Boys: You could also say the Van Dyke Parks exception is a *big* exception, as Wilson/Parks numbers keep coming out on albums for years after Smile's non-appearance. Most especially on Surf's Up. But by then, it's true, hardly anyone's listening.)
Obviously, Dylan was hugely influential -- I was just sparking on a quick impression, the validity of which I stand by, more-or-less. Stones and the rest reflected Dylan's influence, but only the Beatles of the Top Groups of the time went all the way into surrealism. (Though I've never heard Satanic Majesties.)

And, it's true, the Beach Boys -- who actually covered Dylan! Al Jardine sang "The Times They Are A-Changin'" fairly straightforwardly on "Beach Boys Party!," while the assembled party-ers mercilessly mocked it, chanting "Right!" or "Wrong!" at the end of lines -- a mockery which I appreciate, by the way. The Boys mocked their own hits even fiercer on the same record. By contrast, they covered three (3!) Beatles songs on the same album, mostly very respectfully. (The "Hey!" on "You've got to hide your love away" is giddily, goofily over-exuberant.)

What struck me about "December's Children" was that it was as sloppy as the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie," but not nearly as joyous. Jagger's leering is hugely influential, of course. AND -- the alb's best song, and it's a great one -- Get Offa My Cloud -- is almost anti-rock-and-roll -- Hey! Be Quiet! Show Some Respect! Contradicted by the song's own noisiness, true.

Stones & Dylan influenced punk in style & image, but Beatles' sonic influence was substantial: Ringo's pounding drums on "Money"; the click-click rhythm guitar on "Wait"; Lennon's screaming.
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