Saturday, October 30, 2010

Occasional Thoughts on Songwriting: Dylan

I've been trying to write a blog post about songwriting for a while. Whilst there are endless workshops and courses and critical books about writing poetry for instance, I rarely see anything about songwriting. In University music courses I guess it's called "composition", yet classical composition is a whole different world. Given the return to a Brill Building style pop music it's a surprise that for every X-factor audition, there's not some time given over to teaching songwriting. After all, there might even be more money in it. I know that Arvon has run the odd class in songwriting; I think Ray Davies ran one of them; but it remains a dark art.

I've written songs almost as long as I've written poems, though the first music I actually recorded was when I was about 15. Not being a musician, it took me a long time to "write" actual songs, though in many ways I think that's part of the alchemy. Some people probably think I started making music because I wrote poetry, when in fact they couldn't be more different. I don't think there's more than half a dozen "poems" that I've ever tried to make into songs; and, the other way round, proud as I am of my lyrics, they wouldn't have fit well into my recent "Playing Solitaire for Money" for instance. There are a few poets who've dabbled, of course. Simon Armitage has a blues band; Don Paterson was (and is?) a jazz musician; Matthew Welton is working with a classical composer; lyrics have been put to music from W.H. Auden to Edwin Morgan. In 1952 the first British singles chart was published; and different versions of the same popular songs would often chart at the same time - this sales chart of "recorded music" replacing a previous chart of "sheet music." The crossover period didn't last long. A song became synonymous, if not with its writer, but with its performer. Much more recently we've seen "modern classics" such as Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" or abysmal chart fodder like "The Climb" adopted by a number of different artists; yet even when the singer doesn't write the song, it's the performer rather than the writer which we care about.

At this point, my thoughts turn, as perhaps they inevitably will, to Dylan. I've never been his biggest fan, yet have had an interest in him since first hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" when I was 14 or 15. Funnily enough, the music sounded much more dated then, than it does now. Electronic pop music was incredibly fresh, and this unadorned music sounded incredibly dated in comparison. No surprise that Dylan, like a lot of his peers, had a bad 80s.

There will come time to have a proper perspective on Dylan of course, but I got a little inkling the other night, watching a programme about the making of Bryan Ferry's Dylanesque album. It's an excellent, underrated record. There are few performer songwriters - Cohen, Lennon and McCartney, Mitchell, Robinson perhaps - who can furnish a whole album of songs for another artist, but with Dylan it's not the first and not the last. Ferry, no mean songwriter and lyricist himself, makes the point that the songs are often sketches, and that makes them much easier to fill in. I remember a quote from Dylan himself, where he said he never bothered with the pop arrangements of some of his songs from the mid-60s, leaving others to do it for him.

What seems interesting about Dylan now, in 2010, is that his songwriting hasn't diminished even if his voice is a mere shadow, and his recordings veer from the revelatory to the inconsequential. Only a couple of weeks ago the Adele song "Make you feel my love" was a top 10 hit again after it's use on X-Factor, yet, of course, it's not an Adele song at all, but from Dylan's 1997 masterpiece "Time Out of Mind", a dark, misanthropic album of ageing. Ferry also covers the song, far more sparsely; its close to becoming a modern standard.

Dylan's Chronicles autobiography talks quite a lot about his songwriting, and about the music, the writers and performers that influenced him. Dylan as "poet" is one of those recurring arguments that seems to want to confer something on him that's incorrect. He's closer to those older words: "bard", "chronicler", "minstrel", and in Chronicles that how he begins, going from town to town, then playing night after night, absorbing the great folk songs and then writing his own. That Dylan's influence is unparalleled is without doubt, but he wasn't even rock music's first great songwriter. The mythos and range of Dylan's songs is obvious, but was it as a seismic as shift as we get with Chuck Berry, who, in a handful of songs, defined the American Teenager? I think it was the Scorsese documentary that revisited the shock of Dylan going electric on his mid-sixties tour of the UK. The folk fans who booed and heckled and shouted "Judas" were complaining because they could no longer hear the words. It appears, in some ways, a loss of a certain innocence, Dylan's tasting of the apple, and choosing to leave his Eden. Yet his writing remains consistent, whether folk, electric or something else entirely.

Mythos, "the shared elements, characters, settings and themes in a set of works", is strong in Dylan; and his fame, his mystery, his influence all feed into that. His best songs are both the simplest, ("Make me feel my love") and the stories, ("Hurricane"), and Dylan as songwriter remains remarkable whatever the other components are. There are plenty of Dylan songs, "Blowing in the Wind", "Knocking on Heaven's Door", "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", "Lay Lady Lay" for instance, which it hardly seems possible were written by the same writer. Hearing "Make you feel my love" on the Adele album it sounded head and shoulders above the other songs in a way that was surprising - yet its comparing the writing of a precocious teenager with a song written after nearly forty years of writing. Yet pop music is generally brutal. Those performers who are referred to as great songwriters are often given that soubriquet because of their style - they are "singer songwriters" - whilst others are not. Whichever components of U2 wrote the lyrics and melody of "One" for instance, are clearly wonderful songwriters, but they won't be mentioned in the same breath as Elvis Costello for instance, or Paul McCartney; neither of whom, sad to say, have had a hit for years.

I think Dylan's legacy created a sense that a songwriter was wordy, lyrical, a storyteller, a sayer of certain things, yet songwriting is every bit as mystical as Dylan's surrealistic drawls of the late sixties implied; and the written-to-order "Angels", or the heartfelt but simplistic message of "Live Forever" can be every bit as powerful as more complex numbers. The performer-singer-songwriter has a massive amount of ground to cover, particularly when they are also a "pop star" or a "personality", and there's clearly for most there's a well that is only so deep. One of the most successful songwriters of the last thirty years would have to be the British writer, Rod Temperton, who composed much of Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" albums, yet its years since he's had a similarly successful record. Dylan's "sketches", his care and craft, his evolving "mythos", and something unique in the man, have given him an apparently endless stock of subjects, ideas and the words to say them. It is for that, that he most resembles the great poets, I think, rather than the individual songs themselves.

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