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June 20, 2010

A Song for Sunday #49

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Dylanalia,Music — rmangum @ 9:03 pm

Happy Father’s day, Daddy-O!

When I Paint My Masterpiece is a song written by Bob Dylan, and wonderfully performed by The Band. I have to confess a supreme ignorance of The Band, beyond their association with Dylan and their big hit “The Weight,” but many fellow rock snobs are very enthusiastic about them. (I’ve not even seen the famed concert film The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, and I’m a big Scorsese fan.) The Band’s version of this song was brought to the attention by the movie Observe and Report, a comedy with Seth Rogen playing a disturbed Mall Security guard. In my interpretation of Dylan’s impressionistic lyrics, the singer of the song has never been to Europe, but has as rich an inner fantasy life as Rogen’s character, and imagines himself changing the world and his own sordid and pathetic life by creating an artwork to rival the European masters of old. My favorite line is “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola/Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” It’s a pop-art effect (Dylan, with his roots in the folk scene, is underappreciated as a pop-artist) and stands the European fantasy on its head.


July 8, 2009

The Death of a Technocrat

Filed under: Dylanalia,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 3:26 am
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How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

-Bob Dylan

The hand that signed the paper felled a city
-Dylan Thomas

robert-mcnamaraSynchronicity: My girlfriend had never seen The Fog of War, the fascinating Errol Morris documentary portrait of Robert McNamara as he reflects over his life as a statistical analysis expert during World War II, as the head (briefly) of Ford Motors, as Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense during the Cuban missile crisis and the early days of Vietnam, and as head of the World Bank. We got the film from Netflix more than a week ago, but were away last week for the Shakespeare festival in Southern Utah, and only got a chance to watch it last night. McNamara was already into his eighties when it was filmed, and Jane marveled at how much younger he seemed, how lucid and animated. “Is he still alive?” she asked me. “I’m actually not sure,” I admitted. Well, he was. Until yesterday.

Superficially, McNamara’s career boasts a string of successes beyond belief. He was known in the early, pre-Vietnam years as a “whiz kid”, a genius technocrat out of Harvard Business who made cars safer and bombs deadlier with his mastery of numbers, his gift of analysis. Closer inspection shows someone who engineered a series of blunders as he moved from one institution he had no experiential knowledge of to another. He gave Ford the Edsel, and helped bring America its most traumatic and divisive war of the modern era. But he was blind to the source of his failures because of his ideological commitment to abstract planning, number-manipulation, and managerialism. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things lately as a result of reading Kevin Carson’s Organization Theory. I had to stifle a guffaw when I heard McNamara boast about how he transformed Ford Motors by bringing in his carpetbagging comrades from business schools. You see, Ford had fewer than 10 college graduates among its managers and directors (remember that this is the company which virtually invented the whole industry- and without the help of Harvard!): I’m sure Carson would have a laugh at that one too. McNamara is the “Man of System” famously written of by Adam Smith and (in a more mean-spirited vein) much of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” fits him like a “T” as well: “You that hide behind walls/you that hide behind desks”; “You play with my world/like its your little toy”.  In these aspects McNamara’s career is an exemplary one for the twentieth century (“I could pick a better century out of a hat!” says a character in the movie Sabrina- the one with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, not the one with Greg Kinnear). For further analysis of McNamara along these lines I suggest John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, a book I don’t entirely agree with but well worth reading nonetheless. And of course, The Fog of War. Watching it, even a committed anarchist such as myself must feel some sympathy with the man, who on the one hand has genuinely tried to do good in the world and cannot understand why he has wrought evil, and on the other has the candor to admit that he is a war criminal- or would be, if his side lost.

I have not read any of the mainstream obituaries. I’m sure most will be politic. Many will be laudatory. Lew Rockwell.com was characteristically, and I think justly, acerbic:

Robert Strange McNamara, a brilliant bureaucrat and important member of the US power elite, has died at 93. A key planner of  the terror bombing of civilians in WWII and of the terrorist war on Vietnam, he later continued his service to the empire as head of the World Bank.


If the prosecution of war criminals by the United States was ever taken seriously, McNamara would have been one of the leading candidates for the gallows. Instead, as we have been informed, the man died peacefully in his sleep, further evidence that, indeed, there is no justice in our world.

Is this a bit much? I don’t think so. Bernie Madoff just got the proverbial 99 years (or whatever) and would have been strung up and pummeled with stones like Mussolini if let loose amid the angry mob- and yet he never killed anybody, but merely proved the old saw about fools and their money. McNamara on the other hand- well, just watch the video. So I’ll leave off with another Dylan quote from “Masters of War”, even though I don’t think McNamara was a master of anything.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

May 10, 2009

Gerard Manley Hopkins as a Victorian Bob Dylan

Filed under: Dylanalia,Literature,Music — rmangum @ 12:21 am
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GerardManleyHopkinsWell, at least that’s the treatment he gets from Sean O’Leary in this musical setting of Hopkins’ poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection“. Okay, Leary’s vocals are more like Leonard Cohen, but the chords are reminiscent of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, and Hopkins’ long (one might even say “freewheeling”) lines. I like that he puts the resurrection part at the beginning rather than at the end, which I find to be an anxiety-induced happy ending the devout Catholic tacked on. Read the original poem here.

By the way, the Heraclitus of the title is well worth reading too. He was one of the greatest and strangest of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. Much of his Fragments reads like poetry, and at least one translation has set it in verse.Heraclitus,_Johannes_Moreelse

March 8, 2009

A Song for Sunday #4

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Dylanalia,Music — rmangum @ 9:13 pm
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In February 1966, Tower records released Like a Dribbling Fram, a zany parody of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” by someone going by the moniker Race Marbles, which sounds like a Hanna Barbera cartoon character. The song has a cartoon quality, too (maybe Hanna Barbera meets R. Crumb). Who the hell is Race Marbles? Is he a studio musician goofing off with some spare tape, or an institutionalized weirdo exploited for his “outsider art” like Daniel Johnston and Wild Man Fisher? I have no idea. I cannot imagine this single sold well originally, but you can find it on the garage rock anthology Pebbles Vol. 3: The Acid Gallery (Pebbles is the third best such anthology, after Nuggets and Back from the Grave).

Marbles begins his surreal ballad with perhaps the best opening line ever: “I used to have these argyle socks . . .” His girlfriend comes in to tell him that argyle socks are out of style, whereupon he begins to rant and free associate (after giving her a karate chop to the neck) rhymes involving Jerry Vale,Ginger ale, and a violent snail. He then asks his band if he can blow his harmonica, blows a few torturous notes, then a crash is heard. “I dropped my harmonica,” he notes, and yells at the bass player not to step on his harmonica. “You think you can kill harmonicas like that? More will come. Then there’ll be no more bass players, only harmonica players!” So at bottom, I guess, it’s a song about revolution.

February 17, 2009

To from where?

Filed under: Dylanalia,Music — rmangum @ 12:33 am
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dylan-suckcessAs much as I admire Bob Dylan as a lyricist, I’ve always been bothered (English major that I am) by the line from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that goes, “you’d better get back to from where you came”. This is an awkward construction used to make the line fit. Using the more common “to where you came from” may end a sentence with a preposition, but at least you don’t have the “to from where”, which just sounds weird. The line comes a shortly after one that says, “she speaks good English”. Some prissy types would object to this, but not me. I just find it funny that it is followed by some really awful English.

Almost as bad is the Townes Van Zandt song “White Freightliner”, where he sings “I’m gonna ramble till I get back to where I came”. I don’t think this means what Van Zandt intends it to mean.

Oh, and in “Rainy Day Women”, Dylan sings, “They’ll stone you when you are ung and able.”

December 17, 2008

Don’t Follow Leaders

Filed under: Anarchy,Dylanalia,Music — rmangum @ 10:14 pm
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"Look out kid, you're gonna get hit!"

"Look out kid, you're gonna get hit!"

I don’t think it’s cool to be an anarchist,” says Bob Dylan, right in the midst of his most anarchistic phase. Come on, Bob, methinks thou dost protest too much. Seems like they’ve got your number. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is the coolest anarchist anthem ever.

By the way, I don’t know if anyone has noted this, but I find some striking similarities between this song and Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business“. Listen to the songs back to back. The former seems like a rewrite of the latter, from a sixties rather than a fifties perspective. The message is the same: stay aloof and above the fray, away from leaders and followers, keep moving, don’t give in to the temptations of success and convenience, or give in but don’t take them seriously (it’s all “monkey business”). The free spirit of the American youth flits in and out of the institutions that seek to use him or her for their own ends.

Such is my interpretation, at least. One thing I am sure of, though, is that Chuck Berry has never been acknowledged as the enormous influence on Dylan as a songwriter (except by Dylan himself, in Chronicles), since the former is the commercial “pop” craftsman of mass-produced plastic chart-toppers, and the latter a true Artist, full of Authenticity and Importance. But listen to the songs, man! Like Oscar Wilde, Berry’s art is so perfect it seems trivial, and ends up underrated even though universally respected. chuck001

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