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Josh Lukin
Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2003 - 05:35 pm:   

Timmi,

I was intrigued by your mention of Jane Siberry in the "Performativity" thread above. Not only was I unaware that you listened to songwriters who arose in the Eighties, the comment started me a-thinkin' of who else among U.S. songwriters --from any era-- I'd credit with political fables, or fabulation, or what have you. Or heck, any Anglophone songwriters, although we could go back many centuries with that one. Mebbe we can make a List of Neat Stuff, like they do over on Jeff V's discussion boards.

Sixties songs are the easiest, of course.
Phil Ochs --"When in Rome"
Pete Seeger --"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"
Joni Mitchell --Well, depending upon how political the personal is, pretty much any JM song with a narrative to it, no? And that's an ambiguous requirement: depending upon where you perceive a narrative going on, you could put big chunks of Bob Dylan's fifth through eighth albums, even if Sing Out magazine did denounce them as apolitical.

"Well the tv preacher looked so baffled
When I asked him why he dressed
With twenty pounds of headlines
Stapled to his chest
But he cursed me when I proved it to him
And I whispered, 'Not even you can hide.
You see, you're just like me:
I hope you're satisfied.'" is pretty darn political, but is it fabulationous? The universe of that album certainly feels fantastical, inasmuch as that's a criterion. But if it is, then the Seeger tune has to go; because it's a realist story, however allegorical. Sticking to the requirements of a story, set in a phantasmic or fantastic or sfnal or surreal milieu (or whatever feels like one), with a political theme, there are still a lot of candidates.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - 02:37 pm:   

The primary definitions of "fable" in the Random House Dictionary are: 1. a short tale to teach a moral lesson. Often with animals or inanimate objects as characters; apologue. 2. a story not founded on fact. 3. a story about supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents. "Apologue," given as one of "fable"'s definitions, itself has two definitions: 1. a didactic narrative; a moral fable. 2. an allegory.

When I suggested that political fables could be found in songs, I was thinking especially of songs that tell stories resonant with figurative or allegorical meanings. Dylan certainly has a lot of those, & some of them are quite fantastical ("They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown, the beauty parlor's filled with sailors, the circus is in town"-- populated with characters like "the Blind Commissioner," "Cinderella," "Romeo," "Dr. Filth," & "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, with his memories in a trunk"). Others whose songs were often political fables are Tim Buckley, Donovan, Suzanne Vega (yeah, I do listen to a few newer singers, Josh, believe it or not!). Interestingly, although allegories & didactic tales have the reputation of being "flat," & any tale bearing a political lesson is commonly assumed to be polemical, good song-writers tend to infuse their "didactic narratives" with details & nuances that hook (& often delight) the listener. Sometimes the three-dimensionality of the fable's main character (which the writer usually has to sacrifice for fable) is nevertheless so inherent in the text that it ends up disrupting the fable-- as when Siberry apparently just had to write a sequel several years later to her apocalyptic "Mimi on the Beach"-- a sequel titled, all too tellingly, "Mimi Speaks."

We're used to think of "didactic narrative" as being likely to bore us, but you can see in Leonard Cohen's "Story of Isaac," to take a relatively simple example, how a well-known, traditional story like that of Abraham's sacrifice of his son, Isaac (which he is spared from making at the last minute) actually becomes *more* interesting when presented as an allegory rather than less. Here's the text:

Story of Isaac

The door it opened slowly
my father he came in
I was nine years old
and he stood so tall above me
blue eyes they were shining
and his voice was very cold
Said I've had a vision
and you know I'm strong and holy
I must do what I've been told.

So we started up the mountain
I was running, he was walking
and his ax was made of gold.

Well the trees they got much smaller
the lake a lady's mirror
we stopped to drink some wine
then he threw the bottle over
it broke a minute later
and he put his hand on mine
thought I saw an eagle
but it might have been a vulture
I never could decide.

Then my father built an altar
he looked once behind his shoulder
he knew I would not hide.

You who build the altars now
to sacrifice these children
you must not do it anymore
a scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god
you who stand above them now
your hatchets blunt and bloody
you were not there before
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father's hand was trembling with the beauty of the Word

And if you call me brother now
forgive me if I inquire
just according to who's plan
when it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can
when it all comes down to dust
I will help if I must
I will kill you if I can.

Have mercy on our uniform
man of peace or man of war
the peacock spreads his fan.

At first one thinks the song is making a one-to-one comparison between old men sending young men off to die (in Viet Nam) & Abraham's intention to sacrifice Isaac at God's command. Cohen's giving Abraham blue eyes seems to subtly underscore the connection. In the meantime, though, we are touched by the boy's apparent closeness to his father. But when the song launches into the comparison-- "you who build the altars now to sacrifice these children" there's a jarring-- because the song refuses to accept the men's "schemes" as "visions" & pointedly says "these children"-- who we then see are not the *men's* own children-- & scorns the idea of gods or demons ever having spoken to such men as "the Word" spoke to Abraham. (When I listened to it today, for the first time in more than a decade, I found myself thinking about all those Iraqi children-- dead from years of sanctions, & those yet to die in a country in which more than half the population are children, rather than of the boys drafted into the Viet Nam war.) One of the allegory's purposes, then, is to refuse the comparison, & to assert rather that these men (the rulers who send young men into battle) have no business carrying out sacrifices of any children, because they "were not there before." & the song then concludes with a lesson on what the sacrifice of children for such miserable "schemes" necessarily leads to.

The peacock spreads its fan, indeed.

Timmi

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Josh Lukin
Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - 04:06 pm:   

Yes, L. Cohen --"Everybody know that the war is over/ Everybody knows that the good guys lost," and so forth. I thought I was only listing U.S. examples above, but then I realized that Joni Mitchell had found her way in; so there's no reason to exclude her compatriot Cohen. Your gloss on "The Story of Isaac" is quite wonderful --were you listening to L.C. sing it, or to Suzanne Vega? There's probably a bunch of political fables on that second album of his. Cohen's always been serious about his Judaism, and I guess every serious Jew wrestles with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) at some point (I use the verb advisedly: "Israel" = "He wrestled with God, " right?). So the distinction that you note in the "scheme is not a vision" passage and thereafter has a special resonance.

I can't think offhand of too many political fables by the Scottish chap you mention; perhaps you're referring to "Universal Soldier," or to that scathing spoof of commodity fetishism, "I Love My Shirt."

My question about a song like "Desolation Row," implicit in my ramblings above, was Is it indeed one of those "songs that tell stories"? Prior to Blood on the Tracks, I don't see a good number of Bob Dylan songs that I recognize as stories --well, I guess the songs on John Wesley Harding count ("All Along the Watchtower," most famously) but most of the collections of snapshots or vignettes that fill his first seven albums seem to add up to something other than stories, in my vocabulary. Is there a narrative arc in "Highway 61 Revisited" (a song that comes to mind for obvious reasons in this conversation)? Maybe we're invited to fill in our own. I'll give you "Ballad of a Thin Man," although Zimmie dissembled --"No, it was just about a guy we knew in the Village who would walk into a room and put his eyes in his pocket and his nose on the ground, that's all."

And --although Bob was doubtless being disingenuous-- there is a bunch of "borderline" songs that may be meant figuratively or literally, and chansons-a-clef, that I only knew were figurative when the writer revealed that to be the case. Like in the latter case, the Richard Thompson love songs that turned out to be about Allah (or his "Shoot Out the Lights," which sounds as though it's about a mad criminal of some kind but I guess had something to do with Leonid Brezhnev). Still, when Elvis Costello sings, "Death wears a big hat/'Cause he's a big bloke," I'm pretty sure we're in the presence of fable.
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Mike Simanoff
Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - 05:44 pm:   

Check out XTC, the British band from Swindham. They just put the lyrics to their anti-war song "Melt the Guns" on the band's home page, but when you click on it you see "Here Comes President Kill Again," which is definitely a political fable. Other songs from that album--Oranges &Lemons--are similar, and it's a songwriting approach that Andry Partridge has used extensively throughout his whole career.

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Mike Simanoff
Posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - 05:48 pm:   

Errr, from Swindon.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 02:36 pm:   

I wasn't quite swift enough, Mike-- "Melt the Guns" was up on the band's home page when I clicked on the url you provide.

Timmi
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 02:40 pm:   

I feel compelled to correct two typos in my transcription of "The Story of Isaac": it should be "according to whose plan" (not "who's"); & five lines from the end, "I will help you if I must" (my transcription omitted the "you").

Timmi
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 03:03 pm:   

You did start this thread with reference to Jane Siberry's song, Josh-- & Sibbery, like Joni Mitchell, is Canadian. So citing Leonard Cohen fell easily within the discussion (or so it felt to me).

I sometimes think that Cohen's "ideal listener" must be someone seriously into exegesis. (I have it in my mind that one of his grandfathers was a rabbi who published a tome of exegesis, but maybe my memory is wrong.) The lyrics of his songs seem not only spare but simple, & yet in my experience I've often not heard what's really going on in them until I've listened to them for a while & the lack of fit between certain small details & the typically conventional story I've constructed out of them suddenly leaps out at me, & the details resolve into something different, something I just hadn't been getting. It's his brilliant use of detail, I think, that often leads me to a different reading (hearing?) than I'd begun with. But then it's the details that have typically kept me turning the lines over in my head, leading me to a second take.

Your mentioning the "everybody knows" litany, with its aggressive use of irony, reminded me of just how sophisticated many of his narrative strategies are. Fiction writers could learn a lot taking his songs apart. (One could start with what he does in "Democracy is Coming to the USA.")

Timmi
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 03:16 pm:   

Josh wrote: "My question about a song like "Desolation Row," implicit in my ramblings above, was Is it indeed one of those "songs that tell stories"?"

It doesn't have a unified narrative, true. But as I recall, one of the reasons (besides the catchy lyrics & music, of course), I got obsessed with that song in the early 1970s was my desire to "place" Desolation Row (not the song title, but the topos in the song). Various little scenes & characters are positioned relative to Desolation Row, & I wanted to work out a sort of map in my own head of these positionings. (As you might expect, I've long since forgotten what I came up with.) "Desolation Row" is less a vignette than a collection of vignettes that collectively sketch out this topos. (A rather romantic topos, I'll admit. Very 1960s-ish.) Casanova isn't allowed in, nor Ophelia (whose sin is her lifelessness). But we find Cinderella sweeping up & Einstein having become famous for playing the electric violin there.

If a fable has to be *a* story (& not a congeries of small narratives), then "Desolation Row (& most of Dylan's other songs predating Blood on the Tracks) can't be one.

Timmi
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Josh Lukin
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 07:41 pm:   

Thank you, Timmi, for prompting me to look again at Leonard Cohen. I've always thought of him as a lyricist who's only rivaled by Sondheim for meticulousness. Bob Dylan once said to him, "Man, I really like that song of yours, 'Hallelujah.' "

"Thanks. It took me about eight years, on and off, to write."

"EIGHT YEARS?"

"Is that so unusual? Come on, how long did it take you to write a great song like, say, 'I and I'?"

"'Bout fifteen minutes."

Interesting clash of personae there. But I think Leonard and Bob's work is occasionally in a dialogue (How many songwriters haven't found themselves in a dialogue with Bob?) --note the references to the Sermon on the Mount in "Up to Me" and "Democracy." And the latter is indeed an amazing song: my memories of it are associated with my having bought the album The Future on cassette when it came out and playing it on car rides until my mother began singing, in her odd Israeli-Scottish-Brooklyn-Midwestern accent, "Democracy is coming/ To the U! S! A!"

From The Performing Songwriter's interview with L.C. on the occasion of that album's release:

I think other songwriters might have come up with two or three verses of "Democracy" and stopped.
I've got about sixty. There are about three or four parallel songs in the material that I've got [cf. the two versions of "Hallelujah" and the reworkings on Cohen Live of many songs]. I saw that the song could develop in about three or four different ways and there actually exist about three or four different versions of "Democracy." The one I chose seemed to be the one that I could sing at that moment . . .
This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, "I don't think it's going to happen that way. I don't think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of that wall coming down." And then I asked myself, "Where is democracy really coming?" And it was the U.S.A. But I had verses:

It ain't coming to us European style
The concentration camp behind a smile
It ain't coming from the East
With its temporary feast
As Count Dracula comes
Strolling down the aisle . . .

So while everyone was rejoicing, I thought it wasn't going to be like that, euphoric, the honeymoon.
So it was these world events that occasioned the song. And also the love of America. Because I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It's not an ironic song. It's a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song too. I treated the relationship between the blacks and the Jews. For instance, I had:

First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues.
This gutter people always in the news,
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man's back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Verses like that.

Why did you take that out?
I didn't want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality. I didn't want it to get too punchy. I didn't want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.
There were a lot of verses like that, and this was long before the riots. There was:

From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified
Like the fingers on your hand
Like the hourglass of sand
We can separate but we cannot divide
From the eye above the pyramid
And the dollar's cruel display
From the law behind the law
Behind the law we still obey,
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

There were a lot of verse like that. Good ones.

It's hard to believe you'd write a verse like that and discard it.
The thing is that before I can discard the verse, I have to write it. Even if it's good --those two happen to be good, I'm presenting the best of my discarded work-- but even the bad ones took as long to write as the good ones. As someone once observed, it's just as hard to write a bad novel as a good novel. It's just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I can't discard a verse before it's written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines. You can't discover that in the raw.

I love the verse that has, "I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay/ I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet."
Most of us from the middle class, we have this kind of wild, nineteenth century idea of what democracy is, which is, more or less, to oversimplify it, that the masses are going to love Shakespeare and Beethoven. That's more or less our idea of what democracy is. But that ain't it. It's going to come up in unexpected ways from the stuff that we think are junk: the people we think are junk, the ideas we think are junk, the television we think is junk . . .

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Josh Lukin
Posted on Thursday, March 13, 2003 - 07:46 pm:   

That commentary, of course, doesn't address what he does in the song so much as what he doesn't do, and leaves me falling to my knees in gratitude that he didn't include cracks about Farrakhan and Romania and the Berlin Wall. Such editorializing is realliy alien to Cohen's songwriting persona, and is better left to Lou Reed. Still, I think that his comments about what you have to discard and his Phildickian obseration about "junk" are both valuable insights.
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2003 - 08:20 pm:   

Thanks, Josh, for transcribing the commentary. I hadn't made the Phildickian connection, myself, with the lines about the garbage bags & junk, which is, I think, spot-on, but they certainly stood out in my mind-- mostly as evidence of the author's humility & of sense of humor that in no way diminishes the seriousness with which he takes his work-- as well as because his using that simile & then adding the image of himself "still holding up this little wild bouquet" manages to combine two seemingly incompatible images without actually mixing metaphors (which is something of a technical tour de force).

I had a moment of recognition when I read: "I saw that the song could develop in about three or four different ways and there actually exist about three or four different versions of `Democracy.' The one I chose seemed to be the one that I could sing at that moment. . ." This speaks to my experience writing & composing in a number of creative forms-- with the difference that I don't often actually produce more than one of the versions that present themselves to me as possibilities, & have only once produced more than two. "The one I chose seemed to be the one that I could sing at the moment"-- yes, exactly. It's the conjuncture of the moment that often determines, finally, which version of a story one ends up telling.

I think what appeals to me most about "Democracy" is its insistence on seeing strife & stress & pain & negativity as being the necessary matrix out of which democracy can be born, its saying that it's precisely *because* of all the US's social, political (&, for Cohen, spiritual) that it can happen here first. It refuses the premise of so many "utopian" scenarios that presume that a good world to live in can come only *after* some apocalypse wipes the slate clean first so that we can all start over with pure, conflict-free origins. I like, too, that one of its verses connects the coming of democracy with "making love." People don't much link politics with sex in a positive way any more (however commonly we made the connection in the sixties), with the possible exception of those (usually feminists) who quote Emma Goldman on wanting a revolution we can dance at.

Timmi
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Josh Lukin
Posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2003 - 09:05 pm:   

Um, social, political, and spiritual what, LTD?

I love your points, omitted noun notwithstanding, especially your concluding point. Cohen, of course, has the advantage that he never stops writing about sex (I wonder if he knows Delany!); so anything mentioned in a postive way in that context will have that connection, right?

It strikes me in light of your remarks that Cohen is deeply suspicious of the, I dunno, purity (he'd call it "extremism" and connect it to the "scheme" that masquerades as "a vision"), associated with the adherents to the "utopian" scenarios you mention. In opposition to it, he places the "junk" and the "broken" (he wanted to include in The Future a riposte to Bob Dylan's "Everything Is Broken" --the closest he got was, "There is a crack/ In everything/ That's how the light gets in"). That's another parallel to the Phildickian aesthetic, isn't it? Although PKD sometimes seemed incapable, in life or fiction, of conceiving of a love relationship that didn't involve one of the parties being broken, shattered, or wounded and the other having to deal with, accept, or reject the role of healer/supporter.

And who's written as well about "the feel that it ain't exactly real/Or it's real, but it ain't exactly there"? Both guys seem to have been attracted to, and to have found their work rooted in, a similar strain of mysticism.

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