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W. H. Auden’s Library Books
02.22.2013
07:07 pm
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A list of the books W. H. Auden borrowed from the New York Society Library during January and February 1962, and for various dates in 1963, reveals the poet’s passion for mysteries and pulp thrillers (including Gladys Mitchell’s The Man Who Grew Tomatoes, John Blackburn’s Bound to Kill, Alex Fraser’s Constables Don’t Count, John Rhode’s The Fatal Pool), as well as literature (amongst which are G. K. Chesterton’s Wit and Wisdom, Delacroix’s Journals, and Schiller’s Essays). All of which he appears to have read at a ferocious rate.
 
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Previously on Dangerous MInds

Writers Bloc: Places where Writers and Artists have lived together


 
Via Poets Org
 
More of Auden’s Library Books, after the jump…
 

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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02.22.2013
07:07 pm
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DM talks ‘Godless Mysticism’ with John Gray, the world’s Greatest Living Philosopher
02.15.2013
08:29 am
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A review of John Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Myths (interview below)

I remember reading John Gray’s epochal Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals sometime in 2004, and occasionally laughing out loud at the sheer misery and horror presented therein. Indubitably the book—one of those you’re likely to read not only without putting it down but without blinking—made an exceptional case for the human animal being frail, amoral, savage, irrational and (last but not least) collectively and individually doomed, but as such reading it felt vaguely masochistic, and reading its brilliant successors—from the happy-go-lucky Black Mass to the laugh-a-minute Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern—frankly perverse (like philosophical self-flagellation). One persisted because Gray was so obviously among the finest writers alive—the nearest thing we have to a Nietzsche by a country mile.

Well as it happens, Gray’s new book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths is not merely an exercise in iconoclasm, and finds the author in an altogether different mood, exploring what might be advisable to the human animal whose precarious existence is compounded by an indifferent universe.

An important thing to note here is that Gray’s books were never meant to revel in pessimism, but to warn us away from reckless delusion. Were fatuous optimism harmless, then maybe we would all do well strolling about looking forward to an eternity in heaven, or, alternatively, anticipating the imminent defeat of death, as did some Bolsheviks (which Gray investigated in his last book, The Immortalization Commission). Such giddy dreams, however, tend to come at quite a frightening price, and the Inquisition or Stalin’s terror represent the respective and bloody tips of those particular icebergs.

Furthermore, although he must have savaged a few thousand modern myths in his time, Gray’s objection is not with myth per se. How else, after all, could he or we hope to grasp his work’s guiding equation—in which to attempt to impose or even seriously imagine an existence without suffering and death exponentially multiplies their influence? The myths of Prometheus or the myth Genesis, Gray suggests in The Silence of Animals, are the very medicines needed to treat those modern myths fathered by Socrates and Christ, two martyrs who chucked caution to the wind… and inspired the rest of the species to follow suit.

Now, if we subsequently see Prometheus or Genesis as being “true”—what do we mean by this? Not that they actually occurred, that’s for sure (Gray has pointed out before that it was only recently that Christians started to consider Genesis as being a literal account of human origins). But this eschewal of literalism is not necessarily an eschewal of mysticism. When we use myth as we have done here, we are trying to access something beyond language and even science—story and symbol are all we have.

For the so-called “New Atheists,” on the other hands, nothing exists you can’t just slap a word on, so their “disbelief” is a matter of having the word “God,” but not having an entity to affix it to (they’ve looked everywhere). Gray suggests an altogether more elevated position:

“Atheism does not mean rejecting ‘belief in God.’ It means giving up belief in language as anything other than a practical convenience. The world is not a creation of language, but something that – like the God of the negative theologians – escapes language. Atheism is only a stage on the way to a more far-reaching scepticism.”

The Silence of Animals is a profound exploration of this “far-reaching scepticism”—or “Godless mysticism.” It is also one of Gray’s best books. No mean feat.
 
An interview with John Gray

Thomas McGrath: John, how did you conceive of The Silence of Animals? Penguin are calling it “the successor to Straw Dogs”—was this your own conception of the book?

John Gray: I do think of The Silence of Animals as a successor to Straw Dogs, though that only became clear to me as I wrote the book. I began it as an exploration of secular myth, especially the variety in which meaning is embodied in cumulative advance in time, but it soon became an attempt to dig deeper into the themes of the earlier book—in particular the idea of contemplation. The chief difference between the two books, from my point of view, is that by presenting contemplation as correlative to a life of action. The Silence of Animals is more positive in tone.

TM: Your The Immortalization Commission is pervaded by the fascinating spectre of the subliminal self - to what extend do you feel something like this guides your own work?

JG: I wrote The Immortalization Commission for three reasons. First, to show how bizarre the history of ideas actually is—and how different from the cleaned-up version that is commonly accepted. Second, to show how the most far-fetched ideas can become an integral part of life as it’s actually lived. How many people know that Arthur Balfour entered into an imagined posthumous correspondence with someone he may have loved? How many that the embalming of Lenin was part of a larger attempt to conquer death? For the people whose stories are told in the book, overcoming death through science wasn’t just an abstract notion. Thirdly, I wanted to tell a story—two stories in fact, though they overlap and interlink—rather than just set out another argument.

Again, these reasons only became clear while writing the book, so I suppose it is true that my writing is in some degree guided by a subliminal thought-process. Maybe this is true of all writers, whether or not they recognize the fact.

TM: The Silence of Animals seems to me your least iconoclastic work. For the first time, you seem to be exploring how the individual might approach the world as it’s presented in your other books. Is this an accurate interpretation?

JG: The Silence of Animals does flow from my earlier work, and you’re right to say that it tries to show how someone who accepted the view of things presented in my other books might approach the world. I’m not sure it will be seen as less iconoclastic—those who hated my earlier work will also hate this, I’m sure, because it too refuses to take seriously the faith in action and progress that they think they live by.

TM: From The Silence of Animals: “By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs, Christianity—the religion that St Paul invented from Jesus’ life and sayings—founded the modern world.” Given that this “expectation” is the very thing you diagnose as lying behind all the Utopian mythologies you attack, to what extent do you view Christianity as a pivotal and essentially detrimental emergence in the history of humankind?

JG: I think of Christianity as being like many world-transforming movements—at once extremely harmful and highly beneficial. Either way it marks what you call a pivotal point in history. Christian myth seems to me deep and interesting, at times also beautiful, whereas the myths of its secular successors strike me as shallow, banal and ugly.

TM: This critique of Christianity’s influence on humanity resembles Nietzsche’s—especially since you see its influence as allied with Socrates’. I’m interested in your relationship to Nietzsche. It’s obvious how you differ, but was he quite formative to your worldview?

JG: Nietzsche was a gifted moral psychologist from whose writings I’ve learnt a great deal. As you can see from my response above, I don’t share his outright condemnation of Christianity. He was in fact much more confined by a Christian world-view than Schopenhauer, an early and powerful influence on him. The later Nietzsche—who became a sort of hyper-humanist—I find absurd, though still more interesting than the dull, respectable, neo-Christian humanists of today.

TM: One way you distinctly differ from Nietzsche is on the matter of morality. Indeed, in The Silence of Animals you describe slavery and torture as “universal evils.” As a reader, however, I feel I know very little about your views on ethics and morality, or the philosophical foundation for such a statement.  How would you define your moral philosophy? Do you, perhaps, have this in mind for a future work?

JG: You are right that I differ from Nietzsche in thinking there are universal evils such as slavery and torture. You’re also right that I intend to focus on ethics in future work—more specifically, I’m thinking of writing a post-Nietzschean genealogy of morals.

TM: You like telling stories about intellectuals. What events in your own life were pivotal to your worldview?

JG: I don’t think any single event has shaped my thinking. I was influenced by the collapse of communism—a development viewed by mainstream opinion as beyond the realm of reasonable probability, but which I thought quite likely from the early eighties onwards. The financial crisis of the past few years has also been formative, in that it has reinforced my view that the near future is often far more discontinuous with the present than is commonly imagined.

Posted by Thomas McGrath
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02.15.2013
08:29 am
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David Mercer: The socialist playwright behind ‘Morgan’ and ‘Providence’
02.11.2013
08:52 pm
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The playwright David Mercer was born in 1928, in a working class district of Wakefield, in the north of England. He was raised amid the poverty and hardship that bred the instinctual Socialism of his father and uncles, which they had learned from experience, and gathered from books by Wells, Shaw, Lenin and Marx. This was Mercer’s first taste of the politics, handed-down, father-to-son, which was to influence all of his writing.

He quit school at 14, and worked as an apprentice technician, before he signed-on for 4-years with the Royal Navy. He went on to study at King’s College, Newcastle, then married and moved to Paris, where he tried his hand as an artist, before deciding he was best suited at being a writer. He wrote long, rambling novels influenced by Wyndham-Lewis. The practice taught him he could writer, but his novels were too abstract and had no relation to how he truly felt. This taught him that he could write but was not a novelist, he therefore started writing plays.

His first Where the Difference Begins (1961) was originally intended for the stage, but was produced for television by the BBC. The play was a valediction to the old men of Socialism, the Keir Hardie inspired patriarchical socialism being left behind by the active Marxism of a younger generation. The play reflected the difference between his father’s beliefs and Mercer’s own—though Mercer was smart enough to be critical of his own ideals.

The play was successful and he followed it with A Climate of Fear (1962), which dealt with conscience under the threat of a possible nuclear war, and The Birth of a Private Man (1963), concerning the problems of maintaining strong political conscience within an affluent environment.

Mercer brought a naturalism to the theater of ideas—he discussed issues of Empire, politics and patriarchy in plays such as, The Governor’s Lady (1965) and After Haggerty (1970), while his television plays, The Parachute (1968), which starred fellow playwright John Osborne, and On The Eve of Publication (1969) with an incredible central performance by Leo McKern, and Shooting the Chandelier (1977) with Alun Armstrong and Edward Fox, which have shaped TV drama right through to present day (in particular the works of Stephen Poliakoff or David Hare), though David Mercer himself is all too often forgotten.

Though a Socialist, Mercer was never blinkered to the follies and mistakes of Socialism, Communism and the politics of the Left. He was aware that the aim of political revolution was often frustrated by the inherited conventions of society, and by the frailty of human emotion and mind. This was shown to it great effect in the film version of his play, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), in which David Warner, had an obsessional relationship with Marxism, apes, and his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave), that led him to (literally) become a revolutionary “gorilla” determined to derail his ex-wife’s new relationship. 
 

 
With thanks to NellyM
 
More from David Mercer and the theater of politics, after the jump…
 

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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02.11.2013
08:52 pm
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William Burroughs on the Occult
02.11.2013
04:45 pm
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Two of the earliest things that I read by William Burroughs were The Job, a book’s worth of interviews conducted by Daniel Odier, along with some shorter pieces that focused on revolution (and revolutionary technology for lack of a better term) and The Third Mind, his enigmatic collaboration with painter Brion Gysin about the “cut-ups” literary technique, and its occult implications. The cuts-up technique holds that if you randomly rearrange words via chance operation, that you’ll find their “real” meaning or encourage some sort of prophecy to leak through. Sort of like those “Magnetic Poetry” refrigerator magnets used as a Ouija board, to put it simply…

The “occult Burroughs” is my favorite aspect of his work. When the topic veers towards the use of occult technology in the employment of revolution, I prefer that even more (like “The Revised Boy Scout Manual”).

Burroughs had a strong interest in the occult all of his life, but aside from his own writings, there were precious few interviews where he’s speaking openly about his magical interests. The interviews that come to mind immediately are the ones Vale did in RE/Search #4/5 and a late in life Q&A that (I think) was conducted by the great Kristine McKenna around the time of Burroughs’ big LACMA art show in 1996 (I can’t find it online). Burroughs’ major biography, Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan, barely touches on the subject, as if a major component of his subject’s worldview had sailed right over Morgan’s head, although Barry Miles’ more sympathetic El Hombre Invisible is much more satisfying in this regard.

Below, William S. Burroughs lectures to his writing class at Naropa University, on “wishing machines,” the paranormal, synchronicity, propaganda and dreams. You can hear Allen Ginsberg’s voice in a couple of places. Taped in Boulder, Colorado on June 25,1986.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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02.11.2013
04:45 pm
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Happy birthday William S. Burroughs!
02.05.2013
12:42 pm
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Photo by Kate Simon.
 
William Seward Burroughs, the literary prophet of everything weird that would happen during the latter half of the 20th century (including the 23 enigma) was born 99 years ago today, in St. Louis, MS.

Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” while Norman Mailer described him as “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War.” Richard C. Kostelanetz wrote that “Naked Lunch is one of the more truly original and exciting pieces of prose to emerge from the fifties.”

Then there was the flip-side of that: English critic Philip Toynbee called both Naked Lunch and Nova Express “bor­ing rubbish, insufficiently redeemed by passages of brilliant invention.” Writer John Wain wrote of Burroughs’ work “From the literary point of view, it is the merest trash, not worth a second glance,” while Burroughs’ arch enemy, Truman Capote, had this to say: “Norman Mailer thinks William Burroughs is a genius, which I think is ludicrous beyond words. I don’t think William Burroughs has an ounce of talent.”

William S. Burroughs traveled to the Western Lands at the age of 83 in Lawrence, KS in 1997.

Below, William Burroughs shooting Ralph Steadman’s William Shakespeare portrait dead. Video by Andrea Di Castro, Lawrence, Kansas, 1995.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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02.05.2013
12:42 pm
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Frank Zappa reads ‘The Talking Asshole’ from William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ in 1978
02.04.2013
04:24 pm
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Filling in for an AWOL Keith Richards (who had visa problems at the time, stemming a then-recent drug bust in Toronto), Frank Zappa reads “The Talking Asshole” routine from William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. The occasion was the Nova Convention, a three-day celebration of Burroughs’s work that took place in New York City in early December of 1978.

Others on the bill at the Nova Convention included Patti Smith, Robert Anton Wilson, Brion Gysin, Laurie Anderson, poet John Giorno, Timothy Leary, Philip Glass, John Cage and author Terry Southern, who can be heard at the beginning of the clip, introducing Zappa.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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02.04.2013
04:24 pm
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Happy Burns Night: Here’s a documentary on the People’s Poet Rabbie Burns
01.25.2013
06:18 pm
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Today is Robert Burns’ birthday, and across the world traditional suppers are held to celebrate the life and poetry of Scotland’s national Bard.

I have never been one for those couthy ritualistic gatherings, where toasts are given to the lads and lassies, and where some elder with a tartan to match his face, gives an address to the haggis. For me these suppers have little to do with Burns the man and poet, who could write such beauty as:

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom
is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts
for ever;

Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm. -

Nae man can tether time or tide;

No, I prefer to see Robert Burns as great poet, a revolutionary, a socialist, an egalitarian, who believed ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ and wrote to inspire a better world:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

That man to man, the world o’er,

Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Burns’ idealism was often compromised by the financial demands of his everyday life - and what a life. A poet, a ploughman, a lover, a drinker, a revolutionary, a government lackey, a hero, a destitute. As Andrew O’Hagan points out in this excellent documentary Robert Burns: The People’s Poet, Burns was the equivalent of a rock star in his day, a writer of songs (“Auld Lang Syne”, “Ae Fond Kiss”, “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose”, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”) and poems (“Tam O’Shanter”, “Holy Wuillie’s Prayer”, “To A Mouse”, “Cock Up Your Beaver”) that enchanted a nation and the world.

It was his ability to touch the heart and mind of his readers and to make them empathize with his subject matter, whether this was love, revolution in France or simply a mouse:

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,

Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

He was idolized by the public, and was a hero and inspiration to the likes of Beethoven and Byron. At a time of great oppression he spoke out against slavery, inequality, and poverty. Burns wanted liberty and fairness for all. Yet he died in poverty, hounded by creditors, and near-broken as a man.

That Rabbie Burns is still read, performed and celebrated 200 years after his death, says all about his importance as a poet and the relevance of his belief for a better world, where all are equal and share the common wealth.

O’Hagan’s documentary Robert Burns: The People’s Poet is no hagiography, but controversially questions many of the assumptions made about this radical poet, and examines the incredible dramatic and often tragic circumstances of his life.

A selection of Burns poems read by the likes of Brian Cox, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Cumming.

Portrait of Burns by Calum Colvin.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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01.25.2013
06:18 pm
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Charles Bukowski tells his worst hangover story: ‘The strangest thing just happened…’
01.18.2013
12:26 pm
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Image via

It involves a lot of cheap wine, puking and… well, I don’t want to spoil it, I’ll just let him tell it.
 

 
Via The World’s Best Ever

Posted by Richard Metzger
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01.18.2013
12:26 pm
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‘Future Now’: A brilliant portrait of novelist J. G. Ballard, from 1986
12.20.2012
06:39 pm
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Writers need stability to nurture their talent and unfetter their imagination. Too much chaos dilutes the talent and diminishes the productivity. Writers like Norman Mailer squandered too much time and effort on making his life the story - when in fact he should have been writing it. J. G. Ballard was well aware of this, and he had the quiet certainty of a 3-bed, des res, with shaded garden and off-street parking at front. Yet, Ballard’s seeming conformity to a middle class idyll appeared to astound so many critics, commentators, journalists, whatevers, who all failed to appreciate a true writer’s life is one of lonely, unrelenting sedentary toil, working at a desk 9-5, or however long - otherwise the imagination can not fly.

That’s why I have always found suburbs far more interesting places than those anonymous urban centers. Cities are about mass events - demonstrations, revolution, massacre, war, shared public experience. Suburbia is about the repressed forces of individual action. It’s where the murders are planned, the orgies enjoyed, the drugs devoured, the imagination inspired. Suburbia is where dysfunction is normalized.

And J. G. Ballard was very aware of this.

Future Now is a documentary interview with J G Ballard, made in 1986 not long after he had achieved international success with his faux-biographical novel Empire of the Sun. Opening with a brief tour of his Shepperton home, Ballard gives an excellent and incisive interview, which only reminds what we have lost.

Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara have edited together a brilliant collection of interviews and conversations with J G Ballard 1967-2008, in one volume called Extreme Metaphors, which is a must-have for anyone with an interest in Ballard.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Postcards from J. G. Ballard


 
With thanks to Richard!
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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12.20.2012
06:39 pm
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Riffing on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’: Rainy day women, Leonard Cohen and the Old Testament?
12.03.2012
08:46 am
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I recently found myself wondering–as you do–what, exactly, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was all about. Precluding, that is, getting high (Dylan: “I never have and never will write a drug song”). My curiosity led me to the following observation by Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin, who observed that the title seems to allude to the following beauty from the Book of Proverbs (chapter 27, verse 15): “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.” (Well if that ain’t the Old Testament’s lightest moment!?) Heylin suggests the title was meant to throw off the censors. Better yet, though: a continual dropping: stoning! “Everybody must get stoned”: Every man (the ones that shack up with women anyhow) must get nagged. The “They” being none other than (Rainy Day) “women.”

Well, they’ll stone you and say that it’s the end
Then they’ll stone you and then they’ll come back again
They’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car
and they’ll stone when you’re playing your guitar

It all comes into focus when you picture a henpecked hubby– even, I fancy, “sent down in your grave,” which suggests the dirt dropped on hubby’s coffin lid by the surviving widow.

While Heylin’s sourcing of the title in Proverbs arguably seals the deal, it turns out plenty of sharper-eared listeners have long held this interpretation of the song (fair enough: it’s hidden in plain sight), and I found it suggested online that the “#12 & 35” element coincides with a woman’s peak fertility. “A continual dropping in a rainy day…” The song’s about PMT!

Having finally sussed “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (it’ll do me!), I moved on to the similarly enigmatic Blonde on Blonde classic “Just Like Woman.” Immediately, of course, we find ourselves assailed by a further “continual dropping” (Bob’s standing “inside the rain,” no less), but – as I chewed again on the song’s famous words – light was shed in an unexpected and entirely different direction…

Does the following verse of “Just Like a Woman” remind you of another famous song at all?

Ev’rybody knows
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.

How about Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”?

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

And if you’re still not convinced that Cohen is here (Dylan’s “new clothes” suggesting “no clothes,” after all) paying subtle tribute to the source of his song’s indelible refrain, remind yourself of the following verse also…

And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

Which is a stunningly imaginative way to recycle Dylan’s rhyme. Those guys eh!

Finally, here’s Al “right place/time/riff” Kooper specifically reminiscing about recording Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, describing his role as a “human tape recorder” who would go learn Bob’s emerging songs and then go prepare the musicians (sketching the odd arrangement too, by the sound of it).
 

Posted by Thomas McGrath
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12.03.2012
08:46 am
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