The Dark Song Blog


One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father coming into the living-room one morning and announcing to my oldest sister: “Come quickly – there’s a very sick man in your room.” That sick man was none other than Bob Dylan himself (she had left her favourite tape running). After that it always felt as if Dylan’s incorrigible voice had invaded our house.

A certain disruptive, restless quality has always been at the heart of rock, and it seems to be channeled most effectively through voices that are not smooth or conducive to easy listening. The talent shows that obsess TV viewers today are designed as family entertainment, and they tend to reward voices that have the broadest possible appeal in small doses.

Dylan’s voice, by contrast, has always had the raw power to polarize any audience, and the same is true of surprisingly many singers who have something to say. Listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited or Randy Newman’s Sail Away, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones or Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man for the first time can be unsettling: why would anyone who can hold a tune deliberately sing like that? The answer is not always the same, but in Dylan’s case at least the vocal style he cultivated was a perfect fit for his subject-matter and his particular stance.

That position is perhaps most clearly defined in the unparalleled Chimes of Freedom from his 1964 Another Side album. The song is dedicated to a host of the dispossessed and down-trodden that comes to include “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” There is nothing in popular music of the past five decades that surpasses it for sheer lyrical ambition, and its slightly ragged vocal delivery adds to the effect, as Dylan’s voice strains to articulate a vision at the limits of language: “Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked / Tolling for the outcast burning constantly at stake / And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”

Rebels and outlaws, of course, had been romanticized in popular song for centuries. Dylan inherited a host of such characters from the plain-spoken Woody Guthrie. But where Guthrie’s outlaws are noble working-class heroes, Dylan includes both the rebel and the rake in one line.

The inclusion of the rake is significant: Chimes of Freedom was a folk song when it was released, but within a year Dylan had shocked his audience at the Newport Folk Festival and emerged as a rock singer that redefined rock’s subject-matter by creating ambivalent characters in worlds with no moral centre: the voice we hear in Like a Rolling Stone has a completely different texture from the one Dylan had used the previous year, and it cannot be pinned down to any fixed position. It pitches itself deliberately between notes, apparently impervious as to whether it gives pleasure or not.

These days I am often amazed in public places by the music playing on the loudspeakers, by its lack of force and distinction. Listening vicariously the other day to an array of boy bands, girl groups and light classics, I heard the sound of a culture afraid of its own shadow, a culture to which rock ‘n’ roll never happened.

I wish the sick men and women would come out.

The Dark Song Blog


When a friend whose judgment I trust recently expressed a lack of fondness for John Lennon’s much-covered Imagine, I felt rueful for a few seconds – I’ve always loved that song, although my relationship to it has changed over the years. But I also understood what he meant. I remembered what happened to me when I last sat through Michael Wadleigh’s monumental Woodstock documentary. From the start, my reaction was more tentative than it had been in the past, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, when the crowd started chanting to try and stop the rain, I suddenly felt an unbridgeable gap between myself and those chanters. I had seen an irony that had escaped them, and having seen it, I could never unsee it again.

I first heard Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock, from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, on one of the cassette tapes that were handed down to me by my older, wiser sisters. It had been taped from an old record, borrowed from the Worcester Town Library. Mitchell accompanies herself on electric piano, an instrument I had never heard then, and her otherworldly original version of the song is much more tentative, less strident than the cover versions that were to follow in its wake. There is an urgency to Mitchell’s performance that can still take me by surprise.

When I was fifteen, the song’s celebration of personal and political freedom seemed to promise that both those ideals could be attained at the same time. It now strikes me that Mitchell had the sense to keep the song open-ended: the transformation from bombers into butterflies in the final verse is something she dreams, a vision whose beauty depends on the impossibility of its fulfillment. As an adolescent I was prepared for the fact that the world could fail such a vision. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the vision itself should be in any way inadequate or flawed. That was what I felt the last time I watched Woodstock, and the fact that the experience was funny made it all the more devastating.

I still listen to Mitchell’s songs, early as well as late: they are extraordinarily fine for their own sake and on their own terms; I find that Imagine still has a resonance for me. But differently: whereas before it had been a clarion call to independence from superstition and materialism, I now feel a certain tenderness when I listen to it, as if I am confronted with a younger version of myself.

I don’t think this is primarily due to getting older, though age is no doubt a factor in such things. I smiled in recognition recently when I heard the Smiths’ Death of a Disco Dancer for the first time. “It happens a lot round here”, we are told. “And if you think peace is a common goal / That goes to show how little you know.” The guitar swirls around Morrissey’s voice like broken glass, and the effect is both troubling and strangely exhilarating. “Love, peace and harmony?”, chants Morrissey, “Oh, very nice, very nice, very nice, very nice / But maybe in the next world …”

Would I prefer the Smiths over Mitchell and Lennon for desert island listening? Probably not: Mitchell went on to become an artist of many voices, and Lennon’s genius more than matched his hubris, though these days I am more moved by his O My Love, also from Imagine, than that album’s title tune. In it a beloved is addressed in terms of wonder: “O my love, for the first time in my life / My eyes are wide open …” Significantly, though, the world that is embraced here includes sorrow as well as dreams, minor as well as major chords.

The Dark Song Blog


It seems strange now, but my introduction to the Velvet Underground came via an acoustic album by John Cale, 1992’s extraordinary Fragments of a Rainy Season. I remember hearing it for the first time one winter morning in the house of John Turest-Swartz, who later came to produce Red Earth & Rust’s first album. Cale accompanies himself on piano throughout, except for a few tracks with acoustic guitar, but his performances are all the more effective for their starkness. I remember hearing a lot of madness in songs like Darling I need You, Fear (Is a Man’s Best Friend and Guts, and a sort of rueful tenderness in Buffalo Ballet, Close Watch (On This Heart of Mine) and Chinese Envoy. The effect of this juxtaposition on me was so powerful then that I can still sometimes hear Cale’s voice in mine, a voice that is at the same time cultured and primal, alternating between caresses and menace in the same song. One of the highlights is a slow piano version of Heartbreak Hotel that always returns to the same jagged, unresolved chord as if to emphasize that there’s no getting back out of lonely street, until you can feel it in your bones.

There are other similar concerts I love by established artists: Randy Newman’s Live, for one, and Tim Buckley’s Dream Letter. More recent examples include Rickie Lee Jones’ Naked Songs and Marianne Faithful’s Twentieth Century Blues. But Fragments of a Rainy Season just might have the edge over all of these. Two decades of great songs have a lot to do with it, but there is also something else: there is something strangely compelling about Cale’s relative lack of interaction with the audience. He does not explain anything, never seems to look affectionately over his shoulder to make sure that everyone is having a good time. When the last song (a sparse cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that inspired Jeff Buckley’s more famous rendition) and the succeeding applause has faded, there is a sound of distant thunder. It is as if we have been abandoned in an open place, exposed to all the elements.

In those days I didn’t think of myself as a pianist, although I did happen to have one in my house. I can see now that Cale’s daring to accompany himself on piano emboldened me to do the same. Later I heard John (Turest-Swartz, this time, not Cale) play Close Watch (On This Heart of Mine), a song that mixes longing and regret in equal measure, on his piano, adding whole verses of new words in places. Perhaps that was the final piece of the puzzle: you could learn songs by heart; make them your own and earn the right to change them.

Even then, for a long time I could only imagine my own role in such a conversation as that of a mediator, or as a sort of encyclopaedia of fragments, of other people’s voices, other people’s songs. It would be years before I felt ready to fashion a voice of my own. Still, I remember that first encounter with the contradictory Cale as a moment of permission and a challenge to follow.



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