Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part One

Today, somewhere, someone probably asked this question for the first time, and yet I’ve been aware of this question for my entire adult life. So, before I try to address the question, let me ask first, how long have we been asking this?

The ancients didn’t ask it. It seems clear that if one goes far enough back in most cultures it was taken for granted that poetry would be sung or accompanied by music. It seemed to make little difference if it was an epic story or a condensed lyric expression, music was assumed as appropriate bordering on required.

Was there a progression away from music being expected with poetry in those times? I wish I could say I was scholar enough to answer that question here. As literacy became widespread, as the collecting of libraries increased, I assume more people may have read Homer or Sappho* on the page than heard their works performed. And similarly, when Confucius and his school collected The Book of Songs  they may not have assumed that each student would learn to sing and accompany each of them. Still it would have been absurd then for someone to judge that these works could not be poetry because musical accompaniment and performance had been associated with them.

Plectra and Sappho

Let’s see, one of these ought to work….And Sappho holding her plectrum in right hand

 

If we stay with English language and move on, we know that the Elizabethans recognized some poetry as destined for the printing press’s page, some for performance on the stage, and some for musical settings as songs. Poetry could be associated with music, but it wasn’t the default.

Continuing to sweep forward quickly, a few Romantics like Robert Burns wrote songs and Blake was reported to sing some of his work as well. Some of the prime British Isles romantics wrote literary ballads or the like, works that referred to song forms but without associated music, meant to be seen on the page.

Likewise, there seem to be only a scattered few in the late-Romantic/Victorian era and onto the early English language Modernists who were musical composers and poets or who assumed musical performance for their chief works. Long-time readers here will know that I like to point to Yeats as an exceptional example to this. For a time he pushed for poetry as performance with music and may even have composed or aided in the composition of some of the accompanying tunes. Little of his crusade survives, though it’s possible that one of the tunes to which his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”  aka “The Golden Apples of the Sun”  is sometimes sung might be his, or personally approved by him.

That Yeats was closely associated with drama and theater may have something to do with this. Newly composed poetic drama is an uncommon form in the modern era, but drama normally presumes performance. Although readings by poets are common in the 20th and 21st century, the nature of the performances vary considerably, and it became common for poets to give dry readings that by the writer/reader’s nature or intent drained dramatic and performance elements from the reading.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider two unlike American poets who emerged in the early 20th century: Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot. Lindsay, who came and went well before the first Beat poet stepped in front of a jazz combo can easily be seen as the original slam performance poet.

He wrote his poetry expecting to perform it. Associated with that expectation, his writing is designed to impact the back row of the auditorium immediately, and if he ever wrote a poem with layers of meaning or intentional ambiguity, I’ve never come upon it.

Eliot on the other hand, read somberly in public, but as much (or more) as Lindsay he seemed to inform his poetry with music. As I return to my serialized performance of his masterwork “The Waste Land”  this month I’m reminded of music’s considerable presence in it. He samples music in his great poem just as a modern hip hop composer might, dropping in scurrilous barracks ballads, pop songs, Wagner opera, and birdsong. He didn’t perform it as floridly as he wrote it, and so even if “The Waste Land”  bore an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices”  Eliot does not do the voices when reading it, nor does he sing the music he’s decidedly referencing. It can  be performed however, and while the poem’s detailed layers and references won’t come through in one sitting, a performance like Fiona Shaw’s illuminates the emotional and character range in it better than anyone’s silent first (or probably tenth) reading of it will.

My performance of “The Waste Land,”  now about half complete, attempts to bring the abstracted music back to life in the poem, even if I reserve the right to select genres and modes of expression that Eliot might not expect.

When I perform a poem like Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  I expect you’ll get as much, or perhaps even more, from hearing it once as you would reading it on a page.

One of the knocks on poetry with music, or performing poetry in general, has been that it doesn’t help subtle and complex thoughts in poetry come through the way that slow reading on a page where one can look up and down the page at will does. I’ll agree there’s a non-linearity in reading poetry on the page that is difficult to translate into performance. But does musical performance of words prevent “re-reading”?

Music rejoices in repetition. Words used with music often take on refrains and repeated sections. I will sometimes create such refrains even if the original page poem doesn’t include them. Gospel and other ecstatic performance styles have been known to drill down to word or syllable level in repetition, again, somewhat compensating for that weakness of performed poetry vs. its non-linear presence on the page.

Particularly with recordings (although repeated performances have the same virtue) you can re-experience the poetic text for comprehension of different levels or different vectors of observation.

When I’m attending a poetry reading, I’m often worried that I will not be able to keep up the level of attention on the poet’s words as they read them throughout an entire night. This is irrespective of the value or quality of the poetry. A good poet is quite likely to cause my mind to explode with exploration engendered by a line, and I’ll find on my return that I have missed the rest of the poem! And a really good poem can blank out the next several poems.

On the other hand, a simple text like Otis Redding’s song “Respect”  as performed by Aretha Franklin and band can bear (for me) hundreds of listens. I will notice new things each time, or given the decades over which I’ve heard it, I may re-notice things I’ve forgotten I’ve noticed before. These revisits will also reach favorite moments where I wait for pleasures to return. A knottier text like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”  once seemed like a way to vicariously experience a certain kind of demimonde I was only peripherally experienced in. Listening to it over my life tested it against theories that it was about gender fluidity, or that it was a patriarchal endorsement of the male gaze and privilege, and now I usually hear it more as an expression of two addicts negotiating their other relationship besides the one to the chemicals and the situation that obtains them. It may be none of those things, or it may not always be one of those things. It may be something different the next time I listen to it.

Why shouldn’t Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”  or Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind”  get the same chance? Of course we can re-read a page poem, or read it and double back to check some connection, but particularly with short poems, might not music encourage repeat play?

In this first part we’ve talked more about poetry and the perception that it has become increasingly separate from music. In the second part we’ll come from the other direction, and talk about song lyrics and that old, but not ageless, question about if they are poetry. I’ll leave you with my performance of Yeats’ “Wandering Aengus.” We don’t know exactly how Yeats would have wanted it performed, but his writing on poetry with music indicates he didn’t want the performer to sing it in an art-song manner. Perhaps I’m complying with his wishes, but then I can’t really pull off full-voiced art song.

 

 

 

*My favorite Sappho legend—as a guitar player that must have the right flat pick to approach the instrument—is that she invented the plectrum.

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Poetry in Gray, Part 2

As we continue our accelerated exploration of poetry for National Poetry Month, let’s look at another way that poetry, and in particular T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  manifested itself in popular culture in the black & white TV era.

Yesterday’s post about a Twilight Zone  episode shouldn’t be all that shocking. Rod Serling made his bones as a screenwriter first, and many of his TZ episodes were adaptations of short-stories, albeit genre short-stories that might not pass muster in Western Lit classes. Burgess Meredith, who embodied the Prufrockian Harold Bemis had a long career in stage plays that were literary adaptions as well, including directing Ulysses in Nighttown  and a touring production titled James Joyce’s Women.

Still, in the unnamed straddle-decade of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, science fiction and fantasy were rarer than televised literary adaptations. What was extraordinarily common was “Westerns.” A plethora of cowboys, gunfighters, sheriffs, horse-soldiers and ranchers rode the gray sage range. Watching them now I’m struck buy some things. They are often surprisingly violent. The small fuzzy low-contrast home screens wouldn’t have portrayed the later exploding blood-squib aesthetic of Peckinpaugh and Tarantino well then, but the Westerns of this era intensified the meanness, meaninglessness, and sadism to Jacobean revenge play levels.*

Paladin-Dylan 1

The moving pencil moustache writes, and fashion notices. Richard Boone as Paladin and Bob “Marshall” Dylan who’s taken to wearing dark western gear in his later years. Not pictured: Johnny “The Man in Black” Cash.

 

Taken in general they are also shockingly racially ignorant and ahistorical. The lead roles, the protagonists and antagonists, are nearly always white men, and then if the Western is a way to examine the historic violence of white men that could have its value, but it’s often white man against white man that is the central focus on the small screen. The issue of the conquest, displacement and decimation of First Nations people is rarely dealt with in any searching or complex way, and so that fault has become a commonplace in comments on the 20th century Western. What’s even more obtuse is the lack of any significant ethnicity beyond WASP-white. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and first generation immigrants in general are all highly under-represented and when present, most always stereotyped.** Latin-American characters exist to a greater degree, given that much of the settings for these dramas would make it impossible to white-out them from history.

So, black & white television Westerns of this era are largely white & white.

I can’t hold it up as an exemplar in these matters, but my favorite of the era was Have Gun Will Travel.  It wasn’t consistent in mitigating these massive blind spots, but it had its moments.*** And as a half-hour drama, many episodes present almost poetic compression: striking unusual characters that exist for a scene only, tales told in only a few stanzas, epigrams dropped in as dialog. Watching a good episode is so unlike modern season-arcing prestige TV. You’re left to fill in the life before and after of most any character, and conflict doesn’t brew and simmer over hours, but often is “An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

Will Travel LP collage

‘50s TV may have bleached the Old West, but that didn’t mean Afro-Americans and others had to go along with that.

 

So how am I going to stretch things to bring“The Waste Land”  into this six-gun waving post before I wind it up? Well, the Have Gun Will Travel  “Waste Land”  referencing episode “Everyman”  is so bold-faced that the writer certainly intended it, though I can’t say if anyone thought many viewers would catch the in-jokes in between the cigarette and laxative commercials.

You can see the entire episode here. It’ll take you about 25 minutes to view.

This attempt to incorporate elements of “The Waste Land”  fails to succeed overall, but some things about it are still striking. The mysterious Danceman character (a Summoning of Everyman/Seventh Seal  dance of death reference?) could appear in a Bob Dylan song and not be out of place. The strange and sketchy dynamics in the shopkeeper and his daughter might subtly be riffing off “The Waste Land’s”  sexual anxiety.

Once more, let me leave you with a Parlando audio piece featuring the LYL Band using the words of Carl Sandburg, this time his “Long Guns”   which I mix with a little Howlin’ Wolf. The player is below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here. And as to Howlin’ Wolf, well you just need to seek him out, but the man learned at the feat of rural mixed-race early-20th century Modernist Charley Patton.

 

 

*Alternate reader and keyboardist here, Dave Moore wrote a chapbook about he and his brother watching these shows as kids and making a game of totaling up the dead. It’s certainly math of higher numbers. Even in the half-hour dramas, one can be fairly certain there will be death along with threats of death—often multiple deaths, often murders, along with executions, duels, and battle deaths.

**Historically, the “Old West” was demographically diverse, just as most frontiers are.

***Two examples: “The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs”  featuring singer/guitarist Odetta, and a flawed episode with some strong elements written by Gene Roddenberry “The Yuma Treasure.”

A Game of Chess, presenting T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month

Each April, as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month, the Parlando Project has been presenting in serial form T. S. Eliot’s High Modernist masterpiece “The Waste Land.”  This year, we’re up to the third section of the poem “The Fire Sermon,”  but before we present new material, I want to give our newer listeners/readers a chance to catch up.

It’s possible to read the entire “Waste Land”  aloud as a dramatic monolog in less than 40 minutes total time. Fiona Shaw has done this, and her performances of it cannot be praised or recommended enough. But for me personally (and this goes back to my first readings of the poem) I’ve always been struck by “The Waste Land’s”  intense musicality. The collage process of various voices is musical, and “The Waste Land’s”  constant changes in tone and insertion of quotes from other poetry eerily predict hip hop mix tapes in a 78 rpm world. Themes emerge and fall back and are then repeated later on, just as they do in long-form musical composition. Eliot even quotes song lyrics multiple times in the poem.

The Waste Land cover

He got $2,000 for service to letters, but our aim is to demonstrate the music in it

 

So, I’ve long dreamed of performing “The Waste Land”  with music—and now, as part of this project I’m realizing that dream on the installment plan. While I think the music can help bring some solace and additional shadings to Eliot’s unstinting look at human failure and limitations, the resulting performance is lengthy. It’s not the kind of thing I can take on creating and performing lightly—and to listen to it, even casually, is not light entertainment either. The Parlando Project normally focuses on shorter poetry, the lyric impulse. Almost all of our pieces are under 5 minutes, and we have hundreds of them available here. So, don’t feel obligated to listen to these longer “Waste Land”  pieces. They are not for everybody, and I believe they are consistent with Eliot’s design to write only for those willing to look at dark impulses and feelings, to weigh and consider them within your mind and heart.

Here’s “I. The Burial of the Dead,”  the first section that famously opens with “April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land…” which is likely a reason that April is U. S. National Poetry month (and may already be referring to another poem, Walt Whitman’s Lincoln elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”)

 

 

 

And here’s last year’s contributions, the section “II. A Game of Chess”  rolled up into one piece for the first time here. I start out this one by making an ex-post-facto connection of Eliot’s lavish and dissipated opening of “A Game of Chess”  with the late-night, dragged out, “Ain’t it just like the night” style of Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan, and it ends with an appearance of a guest reader Heidi Randen for the monolog about Lil and Albert and their just-discharged-from-the war marriage.

 

 

This month we’ll continue our serial presentation of “The Waste Land”  with one of its longest sections, “III. The Fire Sermon.”  If you’d like to read along with the text of the poem while listening, the full poem is here. With these musical presentations I maintain that you can listen to them and not feel that you need to understand what the poem means in the essay-question sense, and instead only require the poem’s words to strike you with scattered connotations and impacts. There are a great many resources for those who would like to delve into deeper meanings of “The Waste Land,”  all the things that Eliot intended to put there—and also the things he only inherently and accidentally included. For those that enjoy that, there’s much there at that level, but I remind you of the concept I laid down a couple of posts back regarding Emily Dickinson’s much shorter poem: a poem isn’t so much about ideas, it’s about the experience of ideas.

The Temple of Summer

I spent Saturday riding my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail and visiting Hibbing, the Minnesota Iron Range hometown where Bob Dylan grew up non-ferrous.

To the visitor, the landscape there has a strangeness. Since the late 19th Century, open pit iron mining has been the industry of the region. An open pit mine is not the kind of underground tunneling and mole-dark pick-axe work you might visualize when you hear the word “mine.” Instead it is the removal of cubic miles of earth with explosives and huge shovels, work my wife describes as “making your own Grand Canyon.” The iron gives exposed rock and dirt a Martian red hue, and this colossal earthwork of generations of open pit mines has added extra hills, ridges, gorges, and small lakes. Though trees and brush eventually regrow and give these acts of men something of the appearance of nature, some hills retain the terraces where the trucks drove, giant Northern ziggurats or Mayan temples, now sprouted with pines—the Hanging Gardens of Bob Dylan.

postcard mesabi iron range

“Making your own Grand Canyon”

 

Since Bob Dylan grew up here, the strangeness of this landscape may not have impressed him in his youth, but an adulthood away might have eventually revealed its uniqueness. It is a singular place on a Labor Day weekend where one can see the mark of daily labor sculpted in a giant tableau.

How many of us can say the same for our labors? Children are raised, daily cares are met, that meeting makes a decision, a sick person is comforted and will live another couple of decades, the number of widgets on the planet increases infinitesimally, a project that will impact things for a few years is completed. In contrast, in the land around Hibbing, Virginia, and Mountain Iron, vistas are forever altered to mark a work life.

Virginia MN Bridge view

A view from the highest bridge in Minnesota spanning part of a no longer active open pit mine now filled with water outside the town of Virginia. The landscape you are viewing is man-made, not a natural feature.

 

An artist’s work, for all the literary pretentions to immortality, is at least as ephemeral as other work. The work is finished, and the earth has not changed its face. The work is read, seen, heard by its handful, and it melds at best into a memory in some part of those.

So, punch a clock or not, these are the same jobs, the same work. The poem, the performance, the painting, no less, no more, the product effort of applied human energy as any other work.

Occasionally, someone gets to be a Bob Dylan, and the vistas change. Leonard Cohen said that giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain. I stood next to my bike on the state’s highest bridge spanning a man-made gorge and thought, maybe somehow, even subconsciously, this landscape gave Bob the idea.

Iron Range Truck

“Cruising down the highway in a Greyhound bus/All kinds of children they was hollerin’ at us…”

 

Today’s audio piece will not remind you of the Bard of Hibbing, as it is a fuzzy epitaph using Mellotron instead of giant earth-moving trucks to get its rocks off me. Here’s wishing all Parlando Project listeners a lanquid fall into the fluffiest possible snowbank. As you exit the Temple of Summer, listening to the music using the player below, I remind you that the Parlando Project appreciates your attention, but still needs listeners and readers. If you can, let others know what we’re doing here, and if you’re new to us, you may want to check out our archives with 250 other audio pieces combining various words with original music.

Visions of Cleopatra

“Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule.” This famous line from T. S. Eliot’s modernist epic “The Waste Land” —oops! I’ve become confused here. As part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I’ve been performing “The Waste Land”  and dropping the mixtape here as I complete a section. We’ve completed the first part “The Burial of the Dead,”  and this week I moved on to the start of the second section.

That section, sub-titled “A Game of Chess”  opens with an elaborate descriptive passage with lines quoted from older literature, with paraphrases and references of stories dating back to Classical Greek. It’s opening lines are cribbed from Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra. The section’s sub-title itself is taken from an allegorical play first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

Throughout “The Waste Land”  Eliot does this. He’s sampling. He thinks these bits will add flavor, perhaps even to those that aren’t as well-read and as he was in 16th and 17th Century literature. But this is also part of one of his tactics in his poem, to portray the specific malaise and suffering throughout Europe after the First World War and his own personal depression and chaotic marriage as something adrift in time, an infinity echoing inside the museum of Western Culture.

In this opening section he’s describing a woman in an over-decorated room full of upper-class bling and old-fashioned mannerist art that makes only sentimental reference to searing tales. As he describes this his syntax is convoluted, his sentences run-on, his poetic line breaks disassociating. And all this is in service of a segment when nothing, absolutely and intendedly nothing, happens.

As I re-encountered this section I had that flash of metaphor that I love. Metaphor is the powerful fusion that occurs when two things unite into one expression. Eliot’s room may be decorated differently, but the room seemed familiar, the language usage brought forth déjà vu, the air in the radiator pipes rumbled, the heat pipes just coughed.

How much did T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”,  or this section of “The Waste Land” enter into Bob Dylan’s toolbox? The two poets share some common influences from French poetry. Both love to mix highbrow and lowbrow references. Both quote and paraphrase other writers, though in Eliot this is usually considered scholarly, and with Dylan it’s too often taken as evidence of plagiarism. Sometimes Dylan is just Eliot without footnotes.

All I have to go on is a passing reference to reading and finding some value in Eliot in Dylan’s memoir “Chronicles,”  and the line in Dylan’s own waste land epic “Desolation Row”  where “The Waste Land’s”  editor and dedicatee Ezra Pound and Eliot are fighting in the (ivory?) captain’s tower. That’s plainly thin evidence. The flash of metaphor don’t care,  these two moments of decorated stasis feel similar enough to inform this performance.

Eliot on Blonde Crop

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins—and Shatzberg, I know it’s cold out here, but can you at least focus the camera…”

 

I got part way into this recording of the first part of the second part of “The Waste Land”  as illuminated by Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”  before I decided I’d go with more than memory and listen to the canonical recording from the “Blonde on Blonde”  record. I’ll have to say that my memory-track of “Visions of Johanna”  is mostly a mashup of the various live versions performed solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica in 1966, where Dylan’s “you’ll like it, or you won’t” singing makes every word tell. Dylan had a hard time getting an electric band version recorded that same year, perhaps because a Rock’n’Roll song about stasis is a hard thing to make. On reencountering the “Blonde on Blonde”  version, I took some inspiration from it: the organ player who gets lost partway in, the importance given to the bass part, and the drums that follow the ebb and flow of the singing. I’m not trying to duplicate the record, just tipping my hat to its effects.

This is the sort of thing we do here, even on months that aren’t National Poetry Month, bringing music to poetry and illuminating poetry with music, reencountering familiar poems to see something new in them, finding lesser known poems and presenting them. We do that a little different each time, as a visit to our archives on the right side of the page will demonstrate, but to hear this part of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” performed, use the player below.

 

London between snows

One more post where we slide the Parlando Project and “other people’s stories” to the side and become more like a conventional blog. Last night in London was a blustery snow squall, but as Minnesotans who know that the Theater of the Seasons plays in Repertory, we were up and around throughout the day. Our target was the area around the Strand and Trafalgar Square to hit the National Gallery. We really only struck Trafalgar Square a glancing blow, though it seems an impressive urban plaza. As we approached through the flakes and gusts, I pointed to the back of the column and asked my wife why they had a monument to Captain Crunch here.

Admiral or Captain

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and close up of the statue at the top

 

Faux-naïve humor aside, some of the best parts of the day were the little things. As we passed a small library I saw a poster in the window about Sylvia Pankhurst, the most radical of that suffragette clan. Inside was a small exhibit detailing the middle of her career in anarcho-syndicalist circles which lead her to a steadfast effort to warn against the rise of Italian Fascism in the years between the wars. Some of the exhibit showed the efforts to extend Fascism to Britain through local London groups, which included the information that the library building itself had been formerly the headquarters hall of the Italian Fascist organization.

Shortly after entering the National Gallery we noticed these mock Roman mosaics on the floor leading into the central gallery. At first glance, one assumed they’d be the sort of stolid decoration museums are known for—but wait, is that Bertram Russell? Winston Churchill? Turns out they are a set of witty between-the-wars comments on the modern virtues. “Don’t tread on Gretta Garbo…” sings Ray Davies in my mind.

Lucidity with Bertram Russell

Lucidity on the ground in mosaics

 

We’d come for a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit which showed how much these original hipsters loved to put mirrors, particularly convex mirrors, in their paintings. At the exhibit I learned that the art Academy the PRB bros rebelled against had been in a wing of the National Gallery building, a museum then full of the lush late Renaissance paintings loved by the 19th Century. As young rebels are wont to do, they instead looked to the earlier painters with their sharp Colorforms palette.

We took a side-trip down the Strand until we came upon the Savoy Theater and then the grand Savoy Hotel. Our bootheels had to do some wandering, but, sure enough, we found the alley where the “Don’t Look Back”-“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed, and where more than a hundred years earlier William Blake had lived and worked on his Dante “Divine Comedy” etchings as he lay dying. We couldn’t see the Thames to confirm if flowed like gold, what with all the buildings the years put there between Blake’s place and the river, but you could still see Dylan and Allen Ginsberg standing in that alley.

The Savoy Alley yesterday and today

Click the link in this caption to learn more about Angels in the Alley by the Savoy Hotel

 

That evening we went to a mostly Mozart concert at Saint Martins in the Field, which was fine. Now that I actually try to write string parts and play them via virtual instruments, it was nice to see hands play the articulations from a front-row seat. But, before the concert, we ate at “The Crypt” beneath the church, which is not just a goth-sounding marketing name, but the actual crypt, complete with grave markers. My wife wandered about the area, reading the grave markers, noting one for a five-year-old child.

Everything in the past is beneath and beside us. Everything in the future is too, but we cannot see nor feel it yet.

London between rain showers

Last night I saw the London production of “The Girl from the North Country.”  The play’s production illustrates well how context can change a work of art.

I traveled 4,000 miles to see a play in London written by an Irishman integrating work by a Jewish iron-ranger with a British cast portraying a multi-racial rooming house in what was once Minnesota’s second largest city in the 1930s. The Irish playwright is Conor McPherson and the integrated work was 20-some songs by Bob Dylan.

How much went wrong in such an enterprise? I suppose plenty. I could see seams, but it seamed not to matter much. The core idea, of placing Dylan’s songs in the context of the 1930s worked well. Songs you believed needed to be set in the beatnik early 60s or the cultural turmoil of the around 10 years we don’t name as a decade after that, or  against the Reagan/Thatcher or Christian fundamentalist revival and so on, lived inside different lives anachronistically.

Is it a Dylan musical? Not really. Minutes taken out of context could look like that somewhat new form, the Jukebox Musical, but the dramatic material is darker and more substantial than the kind of utilitarian connective material in a Jukebox Musical’s book. This is play with music, not music connected by play. The songs are all sung by the actors, and the musicians are all on stage, sometimes mingling in tableau. In one brilliant little piece of business, a drum set placed upstage has various actors in the cast sitting at it and banging out simple but effective Basement Tapes backing.

In the best moments, the songs (or portions of songs, few are sung in anything close to their entirety) function like an ancient Greek chorus, or at least as I read those classic Greek plays in English translation. The play (or book if you must) reminded me of Eugene O’Neill, someone I have not read or seen in performance  in decades. Poetic dialog was uttered often, but character context kept this from being overly artificial (it’s a very unusual cast of  characters).

The parts are well sung, and the all-acoustic band with period-correct instruments does well. Same with the acting, which ranged from excellent to good, in a performance that demands a lot from it’s cast. As an evening of theater my wife and I thought it was transcendent, as theater should be. At the end of the performance, about a third of the audience jumped up in standing ovation, followed slowly by another portion, perhaps a third again. As we walked out we heard the reaction of some of that sitting third, disappointed at what has been a very well-reviewed production. I have no idea what the London-usual is for ovations, but in the Twin Cities, everyone stands almost all the time.

My wife doubts it will ever have a U.S. production. She thinks the material is too dark to appeal to audiences seeking uplift for their expensive theater tickets. I’d add that the play’s plot is very indirect with lots and lots of dead ends and shaggy dog story elements. If one is open to that (as I am) this doesn’t hurt anything, but some will miss the comfort of standard story through-lines. By chance I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”  on the plane trip over, and its Irish screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, also setting his story in America, has a similar shaggy storyline, and asks for similar emotional commitment for unexpected sharp plot turns. McDonagh’s screenplay however, treats  most of its characters, most of the time, as morons. This is not a metaphorical epithet. I found it puzzling and ultimately disrespectful for no good effect that so many in “Three Billboards”  were played as being so dumb.

By contrast, in “Girl from the North Country” McPherson has two characters who frankly have mental disabilities, and yet even they are offered more discernment and respect from their author creator in his play.

You do not have to be a Dylan fan to enjoy this play, but you do have to accept a tale that starts with all in trouble  and finishes with things worse for almost all, and with a singing of “Forever Young” that could cause you to never hear the song the same way again.

 Keats Pharmacy crop

Actual storefront in Hampstead. A sour joke:
vaccination against consumption was not available to apothecary/surgeon John Keats

Today we paired my wife’s love of nature with my love of Keats by visiting the Keats House near Hampstead Heath. Keats House is the duplex that was Keats last rental home, and the place where he wrote many of his best poems. There are few real Keats artifacts, but the house contains some of them and replicas of others. Seeing Keats marked-up Milton books, covered with underlined passages and marginalia in Keats own cramped hand was one highlight. I’m no expert on early 19th Century English living standards, but the  living quarters seemed surprisingly middle class adjusted for the time considering what I knew of Keats struggles with money.

My wife caught a break in the grey gloom and rain showers to spend some time roaming the heath while I nursed a cup of tea and started some blog posts and people watching. I have no Bob Dylan to share today, but here’s a version of John Keats “In the Drear-Nighted December” performed by the LYL Band.