Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Among many contemporary poets and writers there is a reverence approaching myopia towards certain iconic singer-songwriters from the early 1970s, most notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which prevents clear-eyed critical analysis of their careers and current work. There is also confusion as to whether these singer-songwriters should be considered poets, lyricists, poet- lyricists, singer-poets or a dozen other hyphenated nouns.
Accomplished and extremely gifted writers and critics, such as Robert Adamson and Sir Christopher Ricks, who are currently writing at the high standard that both Dylan and Cohen wrote at in their best years, or have even transcended their skills with language, continue to heap lavish praise with nary a critical word to be heard. These same writers, who have no problem dismantling the work of their respected peers, seem to be paralysed when it comes to their musical heroes. They see no conflict in analysing the work of other writers around them but react to any adverse criticism about the ones they choose to follow in music with something approaching the same distain that a mother might have of another mother saying disparaging things about her children.
A strange bond between these ‘super fans’ and their beloved musical artists falls somewhere between a family tie, the devotion of a sanyasin for a guru and the awe and reverence given a tribal shaman. The unspoken taboo and emotional reactiveness given anyone questioning the sacred musical texts of the ‘masters’ becomes a serious impediment to learning anything from the strengths and weaknesses of these artists, incorporating the strengths into our own work—while avoiding the weaknesses.
No-one likes to hear a stranger criticising one of our immediate family members or a friend we love. It always feels cold and uncaring. We feel we have the right to discuss the lives of our own friends, siblings, parents and children, but let someone else outside the circle do this and we cannot bear it. Reinhold Niebuhr, in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), wrote about patriotism in terms that also apply to familial and clan loyalty:
There is an ethical paradox in patriotism which defies every but the most astute and sophisticated analysis. The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism … loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism when compared to lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. It therefore becomes the vehicle of all altruistic impulses and expresses itself on occasion with such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and the freedom to use this power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations …
The psychological blood bond formed over years of being a super-fan of someone like Bob Dylan goes beyond reason. Many of our earliest experiences of first falling in love, of discovering poetry, of being a rebellious individual came during the period when Dylan was writing his finest work: ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’, ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’ and many others.
Some poets and painters I know dressed in stovepipe pants like Dylan, wore their hair teased up like Dylan and strutted their attitude like Dylan. They wanted to be Bob Dylan. Some still do. Dylan once suggested that ‘Not all great poets—like Wallace Stevens—are great singers … but a great singer—like Billie Holiday—is always a great poet.’ To which Christopher Hitchens commented in the Weekly Standard:
It would be an enterprise in itself to disentangle the many ways in which this brief statement is dead wrong. The antithesis, if it is meant as an antithesis, between poet and singer, is false to begin with. The ‘not all’ is based on a non-expectation: How many poets have been singers at all?
A British interviewer asked Dylan last year, ‘You’re meant to be a poet, do you consider your songs as poems?’ Dylan gave him a fierce look and said ‘I don’t call myself a poet … man … my songs are songs … have you ever met these people who call themselves poets … oh, give me a break.’ So now Bob Dylan doesn’t consider himself a poet? One of his most famous quotes of the late sixties was, ‘I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.’
This is an example of how Dylan says whatever he feels like at the time, contradicts himself all over the place, bullies and bamboozles interviewers into utter befuddlement. And educated people who should know better lap it up. I have met quite a few ‘people who call themselves poets’. Many of them know how to write brilliantly, oddly enough. Dylan might learn something from them when he gets off his ‘break’. So what’s the state now of Dylan’s ‘poetry-that-now-isn’t poetry’? Here’s a recent quatrain:
I got troubles so hard,
I can’t stand the strain,
some young lazy slut
has charmed away my brains. (Bob Dylan, ‘Rolling and Tumblin’’)
Not Woody Guthrie, alas, but et tu, Woody Allen? Voltaire once said ‘Anything too stupid to be said is sung.’ That little literary jewel of misogyny was festering there in the middle of a verse of a fairly recent song, ‘Rolling and Tumblin’’. The first line goes, ‘I rolled and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long.’ Sound familiar? It should: it is taken word for word from Muddy Waters’ great classic ‘Rolling and Tumbling’ (1929). Is this the same sharp mind that once wrote:
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand,
at the mongrel dogs who teach,
fearing not that I’d become my enemy,
in the instant that I preach. (Bob Dylan, ‘My Back Pages’, 1964)
Dave Van Ronk, an early mentor of Dylan, in his memoir of sixties folk music, The Mayor of Macdougal Street (2005), made the following observation:
That whole artistic mystique is one of the great traps of this business, because down that road lies unintelligibility. Dylan has a lot to answer for there, because after a while he discovered that he could get away with anything—he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith. So he could do something like All Along the Watchtower, which is simply a mistake from the title on down: a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can’t go along it.
Forty years later the times have indeed changed yet the feelings of the super fans haven’t—but have become more chronically defensive.
At a poetry festival recently I made a few comments during one of my readings about the degeneration of the on-the-page poetics of both Dylan and Cohen from their peak period of the late sixties. It was a small festival and there were only eight invited poets, so everybody saw everybody quite often. The next day, a fellow poet wore a Dylan T-shirt as a sign of solidarity with St Bob and my friend Mark Tredinnick opened his reading by dedicating his first poem to me—and then reading one of Leonard Cohen’s recent throw-away poems, ‘Thousands’. In the poem, Cohen talks about how of all the poets who want to be known as poets, only a couple were genuine, the rest were fakes. Cohen considered himself one of the fakes. A humorous and self-depreciating bit of entertainment, also in the manner of Woody Allen. Really stand-up comedy, not poetry. Leonard Cohen was very good at this back in the days when he wrote ‘Spicebox of the Earth’. Watch those early archival films of him. He really camps it up for the audience. Before he began writing songs. A few years ago, Leonard Cohen said that he considered himself a minor poet, not a major poet. So would that now be a minor fake poet?
In my opinion, Mark Tredinnick, recent winner of the Montreal Poetry Prize, the Cardiff Poetry Prize, the Calibre Prize and the Blake Prize, writes poetry way beyond the abilities of Cohen, even when Cohen was in his prime as a poet. Look at the grace and sensuality in one of Tredinnick’s shorter poems:
I’ve been reading a canto
of Dante each night. Each night,
line by line, I circle down
deeper into the Divine
Comedy. It’s a hard road
even in terza ryma
and not especially funny.
Some nights I drag my feet. Hell,
I growl, here we are again.
Beside me my beloved
lies already. Why not, I
think, jump straight to Paradise? (Mark Tredinnick, from Fire Diary)
Compare that to a recent idea of Cohen’s:
You can start smoking again …
… This is why
The Sages of Japan
Named their cigarettes
‘Hope’ and ‘Peace’
and ‘Peace Light’ and ‘Short Hope’
and ‘Short Hope Light’. (The Flow)
An eighty-year old man who still romanticises and even spiritualises about smoking. I think Cohen needs a new set of sages. The sages around our house call cigarettes ‘death sticks’, ‘stink branches’ and ‘lung shredders.’ But I like that—the sages of Japan. Also, a perfect example of how the organised religious (always men) can grant benediction and sacredness to just about any ol’ thing they want. You name it; we’ll deify it. The Japanese military called their suicide bombers kamikaze, or divine wind.
Even respected academics such as Sir Christopher Ricks put Bob Dylan on the same level as William Shakespeare. A well-known Australian poet apparently agrees. Marking Dylan’s seventy-first birthday last year, he wrote, ‘AND just to make it a little more clear: Bob Dylan is easily the best singer-poet since William Blake and Emily Dickinson, or Shakespeare for that matter.’ Referring to Blake, Dickinson and Shakespeare as singers? Personally, I don’t have any of their records although I will agree that the music in Shakespeare’s plays is nothing to pigeon home about. The Bard alludes to or includes text to more than a hundred songs. But does anyone recall the tunes to any of them? Like this memorable number:
Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!
In thy fats our cares be drown’d,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d:
Cup us, till the world go round,
Cup us, till the world go round! (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra)
Pink eyne, indeed! Shakespeare, Dickinson and Blake are not really singers or songwriters, of course, but as pure on-the-page poets all three eat Bob Dylan for breakfast. Even Robert Adamson is writing better stuff, but I don’t think he knows it.
In Britain, Sir Christopher Ricks is so smitten with Dylan that he sounds more like a babbling groupie than an esteemed professor of poetry at Oxford. He jokingly once said in a public lecture he preferred looking at Dylan to any of the super-models in the Victoria Secret commercial Dylan once did and even offered to have a sex-change operation if Dylan wanted it. He’s joking, of course, but how creepy. And even creepier to put this in an address delivered with students present. Ricks’s book Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003) is one of the worst books of critical analysis I have ever read—a clumsy attempt to erect a religious scaffolding around Dylan’s songbook where none exists. I devoted an entire essay titled ‘Hey Mister Cowbell Man’ to this waste of paper.1
While at first glance it appears an act of humility when an accredited academic of Ricks’s stature surrenders his personal power to someone like Dylan, this position ultimately radiates a narrow-minded meanness. The defective clan adage ‘blood is thicker than water’ comes to mind. We are blood, you are mere water. To paraphrase Niebuhr again, the critical attitude of the individual towards the family is almost completely destroyed. Because blood-clan philosophy is really all about power not love.
The late Adrian Rawlings was reading at a gathering at Monsalvat. I knew Rawlings followed the teachings of the spiritual leader Meher Baba. A close friend of mine from California, Dr Lou Gottlieb, had just written to me of the writings of his Indian teacher, Chiranjiva. During a conversation with Rawlings I was telling him about Chiranjiva when he interrupted me mid sentence: ‘Joe, I have my guru. I don’t need to know about anyone else’s.’ And he walked off. This pretty much sums up what happens when one of these super fans falls in love with a particular other like Dylan or Cohen or a spiritual leader like Krishnamurti, Meher Baba or Rajneesh. They don’t want to hear criticism about their guy, nor do they want to hear any comparisons with anyone else’s. You can see the distress noticeably appearing on their faces. Don’t mention Leonard Cohen’s genius to Bob Dylan followers or vice-versa.
Pico Iyer, in an article for Shambhala Sun, quotes an educated woman friend’s comment about Cohen: ‘… [he’s] a very complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way. I mean, he makes Dylan seem childish.’ The work of the beloved becomes a kind of spiritual canon, much like the Bible for certain fundamentalists as the unquestionable Word of God—blind faith is required to understand it, not reason.
Once you attribute the sacred state to someone else, it puts them in a different moral value system to your own. Followers no longer conceive themselves to be as worthy as the one they follow. One can only be devoted. And people outside the circle can become less than human if they doubt or question. Part of the reason for Leonard Cohen’s poetic stagnation as I see it is that he has given his personal power and authority away to his Buddhist teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Whenever this happens in an artist’s life—whether it’s George Harrison with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Cat Stevens with Mohammed, or Tom Cruise with L. Ron Hubbard, it is pretty much over for them as an original thinker.
In an interview with the UK Guardian, Cohen stated this:
I think you work out something. I wouldn’t call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It’s just my experience. All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience.
Cohen doesn’t like songs with ideas? Ideas are something you want to get rid of? Ideas tend to become slogans? The Zen-lite mind-rot has set in. These are probably some of the most irresponsible statements ever made by a major songwriter. Tell it to Victor Jara, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Kev Carmody or Judy Small. Tell it to Eric Bogle’s ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ‘Universal Soldier’. Tell it to Chinese-Korean Cui Jian with his 1986 song ‘Nothing to My Name’, and those protesters in Tiananmen Square. Tell it to the writer of the French ‘L’Internationale’, one of the most famous socialist, anarchist and social-democratic anthems in the world. Tell the Irish that ideas don’t belong in songs: ‘A Nation Once Again’, ‘Come out Ye Black and Tans’, ‘Erin Go Bragh’, ‘The Fields of Athenry’, ‘The Men behind the Wire’ and the Republic of Ireland’s national anthem, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ (The Soldier’s Song).
Ideas may tend to slogans in the world of advertising, bad pop music and Western students of Zen 101, but in real-world poetry and song, they can change the way people think. A song lyric with an idea is the backbone and soul of folk music, the muscle of social protest music. Here’s the paradox: no-one will ever become a seeing Master if they remain a blind Devotee. Even Christ said clearly: ‘Truly, I tell all of you emphatically, the one who believes in me will also do what I’m doing. He will do even greater things than these …’ (John 14:12). But no-one paid any attention to that.
I visited the Fijian village of Naivuruvuru in the late 1970s and was fortunate to play music one night with the village shaman or sacred musician. We gathered in a corrugated-iron shed off away from the village centre. Men only, of course. We played music for an hour or so and it truly felt like a religious experience. There was solemnity and respect for the head tribal musician as a spiritual leader and even for me as his guest musical accompanist. Then the Yaqona, or kava-kava, bowl was brought out and we took turns drinking from a half-coconut shell. Yaqona is made from the roots of a local plant to produce a liquid with sedative and anaesthetic properties, slightly narcotic. After drinking it down, everyone clapped their hands together three times as a sign of encouragement and then passed the topped-up shell to the next person.
Pop-rock-folk music has its own tradition of shamanistic performers: artists who go within to access the material denied the rest of us ordinary folk. Instead of Yaqona there is alcohol, marijuana, LSD, peyote and harder drugs to alter the senses. Not only Dylan and Cohen, but Van Morrison, Jim Morrison (The Doors), Nick Cave and younger performers such as Kurt Cobain, and the new wave of young emo-goth rockers. They throw themselves on the stage, and mosh-pit, into the audience, practically frothing at the mouth, grappling with their inner demons and muses and take us, the tribe, with them on the journey. Shamanism.
In an article by Michael Dwyer in the Age, several contemporary songwriters were asked, ‘How do you write a song?’ There were four quotes by qualified songsmiths. Paul Kelly was quoted as saying, ‘If I knew how to write a song, I’d be home writing it.’ Leonard Cohen replied, ‘It’s a mysterious condition.’ Neil Young said, ‘Someone may say, but they don’t know.’ And Lou Reed offered, ‘I don’t have a clue.’
I believe all this hocus-pocus about the mystical process of song-craft comes from our shamanistic reptilian brain-stem, it is the same mumbo-jumbo that was always meant to keep power in the hands of a few (mostly men) and away from the masses. But I’m too old, the world is too fragile and history too patriarchal for this kind of blinkered artistic interpretation today. Give me instead some craftsmen like Woody Guthrie, who wrote songs as easily as he spoke out against injustice, or Leadbelly (who could write a song anytime anywhere) and the fifty white-hot sustained writing years of J.S. Bach.
Two contemporary Australian songwriters I admire—Judy Small and Kev Carmody—have assimilated Dylan’s best writing period and it is reflected and transformed in original style in these two masterpieces. Carmody sings:
In 1788 down Sydney Cove the first boat-people land
said sorry boys our gain’s your loss we gonna steal your land
and if you break our new British laws for sure you’re gonna hang
or work your life like convicts with chains on your neck and hands.
They taught us oh Black woman thou shalt not steal
oh Black man thou shalt not steal
We’re gonna civilize your Black barbaric lives
and teach you how to kneel
but your history couldn’t hide the genocide
the hypocrisy to us was real
’cause your Jesus said you’re supposed to give
the oppressed a better deal
We say to you oh whiteman thou shalt not steal.
(Kev Carmody, ‘Thou Shalt not Steal’)
And this strong protest song from Judy Small:
You who poison the airwaves with Ghengis Khan views
You broadcast your bias and call it the news
You say that you speak for the millions out there
And deny that you’re lighting a dangerous fuse
You don’t speak for me, no you don’t speak for me
You don’t speak for me, you don’t speak for my friends
We’ve followed that line, we’ve seen where it ends
Intolerance, hatred, division and strife
You don’t speak for me
You who march in your hundreds of thousands for peace
You who work for political prisoners’ release
You who fight the injustice of women ignored
You speak for me. (Judy Small, ‘You Don’t Speak for Me’)
I also can’t imagine a true master and professional classical composer or artisan uttering any of the above vague statements about how they create. Bach or Stradivarius, for instance.
Seventeenth-century journalist: ‘Mr Stradivarius, how do you create a violin?’
Stradivarius: ‘Mama mia, it’s a mysterious condition. Someone may say but they don’t know. If I knew how to make a violin I’d be home making one. I don’t have a clue.’
Eighteenth-century church reporter: ‘Maestro Bach, how do you write a cantata?’
JS Bach: ‘Mein Gott, it’s a mysterious condition. If I knew how to write a cantana, I’d be home writing one! I don’t have a clue. I just work in the church.’
Ridiculous. Bach could write a cantata in his sleep and he was home writing them every week for Sunday service anyway.
I think the simplest and sanest way to consider the current output of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and others is as performance poetry, without the hyphen, not as on-the-page poetry, which is a completely different skill.
Prior to 1890, most poetry in Australia was received orally or in performance. Dennis Haskell, in his chapter ‘Poetry since 1965’ commented: ‘There are now poets who write primarily for performance rather than the page and, whereas good readers were once more scarce than good poets, these people are very much “performers” …’ (in Bennett, Strauss and Wallace-Crabbe (eds), The Oxford Literary History of Australia, 1998). Geoffrey Dutton, in ABR after the 1970 Writers Week, also advised: ‘If poets are going to perform in front of large audiences,then they ought to learn how to project their voices, or how to use a microphone; otherwise they should introduce the poem and let someone else read it.’
The great singer-songwriter wordsmiths of the late 1960s have continued as the performance poets they always were while letting the quality of their on-the-page writing degenerate. Is it possible today to be both an accomplished written-word poet and an accomplished singer-songwriter? Why not? John Dowland did it in the seventeenth century. And Dowland was also a master musician and lutenist.
So how do we proceed? Salvador Dali once said, ‘He who is afraid to imitate, creates nothing.’ The most effective way I have learned to benefit from the work of the great songwriters is first to imitate them, in the manner of an apprentice imitating and learning the craft of a master. Violin makers, musicians, poets, songwriters—it doesn’t matter. Learn what they have to teach. If one is serious about learning from Bob Dylan’s and Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, not just talking about it, then learn how to actually play and sing their masterpieces. By heart. Then learn to write and sing your own songs and write song lyrics that equal or surpass them. It can be done. Picasso once said it took him four years to paint like Raphael but his whole life to paint like a child.
As a grandmaster prepares for a match against other grandmasters, songwriters study the strength and weaknesses of others. Then they improve on the weaknesses and create their own surprises and masterpieces to take the art forward. Let me give you an example from my own writing of assimilating influence and creating something original. This is a recent song lyric in the manner of the early folk ballads of the late 1960s, informed by Dylan’s ‘Girl of the North Country’, Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘In the Early Morning Rain’ and that style of romantic and poetic songwriting.
The Green-Eyed Boy of the Rain
Somehow we drifted into this wet place
I just couldn’t feel any pain
he came and stole her away from me
the green-eyed boy of the rain.
I wanted to kill him to tear him apart
until nothing of him would remain
when I thought of him kissing her mouth
the green-eyed boy of the rain.
I thought I had rights to her body and soul
now I can’t even say her name
I drove her away and right into the arms of
the green-eyed boy of the rain.
Anger and sorrow become the same thing
two sides of a dark window pane
I’d give everything to see her look back from
the green-eyed boy of the rain.
This lyric was published by Les Murray in Best of Quadrant Poetry 2001–2010, as verse. Murray has still never heard the music to this. At the time of writing, you probably haven’t heard the music either as it remains unrecorded and seldom performed. But it is completely effective as a stand-alone poem. I am not being boastful here. Rather, I suggest that it is possible to bridge the poetry–song lyric abyss without it veering off into performance poetry.
‘Puncturing myths, boycotting analysis and ignoring chronology are likely part of a long and lately quite successful campaign [of Bob Dylan’s] not to be incarcerated within his own legend,’ remarked Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone. In a recent Sixty Minutes interview, Dylan was remarkably candid:
Dylan: I don’t know how I got to write those songs.
Interviewer: What do you mean you don’t know how?
Dylan: Well, those early songs were almost like magically written:
… darkness at the break of noon
shadows even the silver spoon
hand-made blade the child’s balloon
eclipse both the sun and moon
to understand you know too soon
there is no sense in trying … (Bob Dylan, ‘It’s All Right Ma’)
Dylan: … well, try to sit down and write something like that—there’s a magic to that and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic you know it’s a different kind of a penetrating magic and you know I did it at one time.
Interviewer: You don’t think you can do it today?
Dylan: No … well, you can’t do something forever and I did it once and I can do other things now but I can’t do that.
Dylan is being refreshingly honest here and this is admirable. But ‘penetrating magic’ tells us nothing about how to create. He says he doesn’t know how he wrote his masterpieces and he can no longer do it. That’s about as clear as it gets. I would argue that one can do something ‘forever’ and continue to get better at it. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Picasso, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats and others come to mind.
So, failing an extended course at Penetrating Magic School, it is up to us to take responsibility and work it out for ourselves so that we can do it and keep that ball rock’n’rolling. Great songwriting and writing great poetry are like anything else. You learn your craft so you can do it in your sleep. You get inspired. Then you write your song. Then you write your poem. And the essential part of mastering anything is honest self-evaluation and self-criticism and the disciplined practice of evaluating and criticising other masters of your craft. You master your craft by learning from strengths and weaknesses. Not by boycotting analysis. Not by clan mentality. Not by blind faith. Not by pagan worship, but by inspired work.
Image credit: Sharon Mollerus