The Music and the Myth: Dylan, Cobain and Cash

Here’s something a bit different I’ve been working on the last few days. It’s a look at the concept, image, and myth of the rock musician, loosely connected by three album reviews: Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan, In Utero by Nirvana, and At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash.

Bob Dylan – Blonde On Blonde


Dylan followed up his magnum opus Highway 61 Revisited with this playfully visionary double album, proving that his surrealist folk poetry had lost none of its force, and pushing it simultaneously into more personal and more musically ambitious directions. He threw out the Dylan myth of the socio-political neo-prophet, proving to be a romantic at heart, and a master craftsman of the pop song when he wanted to be. Beginning with “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35”, it’s quickly clear that this is a departure from the way Dylan ended his last album, with an 11-minute epic in thrall to Shakespeare, the book of Genesis, and T.S Eliot. Instead of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, we get a suggestion to just, you know, get stoned, and set to a whimsical, lightly psychedelic marching band rhythm. Dylan subverts his persona and our expectations of his music with a wink and a nod, and carries this sense of humour through the rest of the album.

‘Visions of Johanna’ charts a mysterious love affair which circles around its titular character with a spiritual uncertainty, into which Dylan ambiguously inserts himself. Musically, the track has a similar gliding quality, with short electric riffs and descending bass lines floating over the organ which holds it all together in the background. ‘Johanna’ treads the line between subtle narrative storytelling and personal sentiment perfectly, and is rightly remembered for these reasons as among his greatest songs. ‘I Want You’, by contrast, is a bouncy, simple tune that ranks among the most immediately appealing he ever wrote. It demonstrates Dylan’s mastery of the guitar in a very economic sense – the riff that the entire song is built around is ridiculously simple and so infectious that as soon as you hear it you can’t stop whistling it.

Dylan returns to loosely psychedelic blues-rock territory with  “Stuck Inside of Memphis…”, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, and “Most Likely You Go Your Way”. These songs explore all kinds of grooves from rock music past, present, and future, all regulated by the tight, punchy drumming of Kenneth Buttrey. “Memphis” is silky smooth folk rock that wouldn’t have been out of place on Highway 61 Revisited, which travels into all kinds of fantastic places in the verses (Panamanian moons, neon madmen climbing New York streets) but always circles back around to its chorus with hypnotic regularity. “Most Likely You Go Your Way” achieves a similarly hypnotic effect in the percussion, which recalls the thick, compacted sound of  White Light-era Velvet Underground.

Blonde On Blonde ultimately proved to be one of rock’s most influential albums, a tipping point which revitalized the old and turned it into something daring and new. On top of this, it was a unique and revealing look inside the head of Bob Dylan, one of the Western world’s greatest musical myths.

Nirvana – In Utero


Nirvana’s last, loudest album, In Utero, was many things. First and foremost, it was a reaction to the sudden, unexpected fame the band had found with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a deliberately abrasive record meant to challenge the fans they had gained with that second album. Songs like “Scentless Apprentice”, “Tourettes” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” were an attempt to reclaim some kind of punk rock authenticity through sheer force of aggression, and re-situate their music in the context of bands who inspired them to begin with, like the Melvins, Big Black, and The Pixies. That Cobain even felt he needed to do such a thing betrays both his extreme artistic self-consciousness and also his bleakly comic sense of humour, and it is these two traits that preside uncomfortably over In Utero as a whole, teetering on a knife edge. It’s an album full of black, self-deprecating neuroses, sometimes cloaked behind  a sly wit (“Rape Me”) or told at the remove of an external narrative (“Frances Farmer Will have Her Revenge On Seattle”), but more often than not simply laid painfully bare for the listener.

In this way In Utero is also completely inseparable from the events that followed its release, when Cobain took his own life on April 5th, 1994. It’s difficult not to hear the album as a protracted suicide note which addresses both his listeners and those closest to him, culminating with the tragic, beautiful “All Apologies”, where Cobain sang those devastating final lines: “What else should I be? All apologies”. But this would be a restrictive way to look at an album that was the product of a band, not one man. Nirvana as a whole were a band that took short, simple ideas and turned them into something huge and expansive. Their songs were so simple that almost anyone could learn to play them (I suspect millions of kids learnt guitar via ‘teen spirit’ and ‘come as you are’ like I did), and yet they manage to achieve an uncharacteristically thick, forceful sound on record. Much of this is down to Krist Novoselic’s bass, which sits much, much higher up in the mix than most conventional rock bands. As a result, some songs like “Heart-Shaped Box” are so coated in a thick, moody layer of sound that it can be difficult to pick out individual notes.  And Dave Grohl’s drumming stands out among the pantheon of 90s rock for the sheer force of it – see, for example, the way he thunders into “Rape Me” around the 30 second mark and completely brings the track to life.

The interplay between these finite parts was what really made Nirvana great, but inevitably it is Cobain and the shadow of his suicide, hanging over all his music, which is remembered. The perverse cultural fascination with the rock ‘n’ roll suicide would not have been lost on Cobain, and it’s not hard to imagine that he would have found the whole spectacle of his death and the commercialization of his legacy to be grossly amusing. It’s precisely the sort of thing he would have turned into a barbed, bittersweet song like those all over In Utero. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic, or any less important. Cobain was a troubled man to begin with, and so to suggest that the sudden fame and orgy of media attention was the sole cause of his death would be childish. Rather, it serves to remind us that such an intense, scrutinizing idolatry, both on an artistic and personal level, can be fatal in the wrong hands.

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison


In many ways, Johnny Cash is the point of origin for just about every rock myth and image there is. The outlaw, the musical martyr pushing for change, the drug addict, the cultural icon – these are all just parts of the persona that Cash carefully cultivated years before they were popularized in contemporary rock. Alongside Dylan, he was one of the first and most enduring figures who went on to define the language of rock music as it emerged from country, rhythm and blues. At Folsom Prison, probably his most famous full-length release, captures all these elements of his persona from one recording of a live show at the eponymous prison. Cash’s songs are carefully tailored to his audience: he indulges in his outlaw fantasy to the fullest, singing about getting busted by cops, shooting cocaine, shooting people down, and fighting the establishment. He reinvents the outlaw image of the classic western, switching out turn of the century America for 1960s America, about to embark on another huge cultural (and musical) revolution, and positions himself as it’s enigmatic figurehead hero.

But Cash too was a very troubled man, who struggled with addictions and other problems in his private life. The turbulent career of his (and others around him, like Elvis Presley) was the reluctant blueprint for  every self-destructive rock star that followed, preceding Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, and many more. Cash didn’t just perpetuate the myth and the clichĂ© – he was the myth, and he made it clichĂ©.

Listening to At Folsom Prison, however, you wouldn’t necessarily think so. Like Blonde On Blonde, this is an incredibly fun album, with Cash completely in his element aiming friendly banter at the wardens, and gaining whoops and applause from the audience. Several times during the show he stops mid-song to aim a joke at a member of the audience, or to make some self-deprecating quip about his set list. Near the start of the show, he stops to inform everyone that “this shows being recorded, so you can’t say hell or shit or anything like that”. Then, turning to his producer, smiles, “hows that grab ya, Bob?”. The album is full of these wonderful moments of complicity between Cash and his audience, and they create an electric atmosphere for the whole show that’s palpable.

Perhaps the biggest cheer is reserved for ‘Jackson’, Cash’s duet with his future wife June Carter, and probably the most infectious song here. On this song they perfected the ‘boom-chicka-boom’ sound of the rhythm section to create a song which constantly propels itself forward, matching it to a killer chorus that Cash and Carter bring to life with their constant back-and-forth verbal sparring. They trade off lines about getting married in a fever and ‘makin a big fool of yourself’, skirting around the details of their private life and their tumultuous relationship. They’re well aware of the public fascination with celebrity in music, just as Cobain was when he made cutting remarks on In Utero about the media’s vilification of his wife Courtney Love and their complete disrespect for their privacy (“If she floats then she is not / A witch like we thought … That legendary divorce is such a bore”).

The myth of the rock star is to be found somewhere in this mess of contradictions, in the lives of people like Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain and Dylan. It’s in the self-perpetuating stories of the music they made, in the media and their relationship with image, and in the real, complicated people behind the masks. Some deal with it better than others: while Robert Allen Zimmerman was able to wear the character of Bob Dylan with a chip on his shoulder, some musicians like Cobain just couldn’t cope with every detail of their lives being made available for public consumption. Perhaps this is all symptomatic of the difficult relationship between music and the listener in the age of rock music, where we latch on to the artist as a character, a construct, and an ideal, rather than simply a creator of music. At the end of the day, it would do all of us some good to step away from the never-ending media frenzy of musical persona, and just to consider the music for its own merit. Isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

johnny cash lookin sad

CLASSIC REVIEW: Pixies – Doolittle


From 1988 to 1991, the Pixies put out four albums, at a rate of one a year. Then they broke up. In terms of sheer density of quality, their output is staggering: each of these albums has been called a classic, and each one pursues a different, singular take on the band’s sound. Their crowning achievement is Doolittle, their second album, which took the modus operandi of their debut and applied it to material even darker, stranger, and more mysterious. Conceptually, the Pixies arrived fully formed – their disjointed, dynamic, surrealist take on garage rock was fully evident on Surfer Rosa – but it was only on Doolittle that their execution comprehensively matched their ambition. Here, their dynamism was given room to breathe with greater recording fidelity, and their penchant for surrealist lyrics took on a new cohesive significance.

Doolittle is an album about communication; between animal and human, man and woman, artist and listener. To get there, it surveys surrealist cinema, roman mythology, and the Flintstones. In Spanish. If it’s range of cultural reference can be baffling, that might just be the point, because the Pixies are a band who thrive on contradiction and tension. Some of their greatest, most accessible pop songs have been followed on albums by short blasts of punk aggression, and the songs  themselves are delicate high-wire acts constantly teetering between harsh and soft, loud and quiet. At any moment, they feel like they could spill from one to the other. Take, for example, ‘Dead’, which opens with pounding drums and lurching guitar feedback while frontman Frank Black sings stuff like “you get torn down, I get erected”. Then, for exactly 12 seconds, it sparkles into a bouncy, major-chord chorus before being swallowed up by guitar noise. ‘There Goes My Gun’ pulls the same trick but inverted, stretching out that bouncy, major-chord chorus into the whole song and cutting short moments of dissonance into it. These songs, each only a couple of minutes long, demonstrate the ease with which the Pixies swallowed up and spat out, disfigured, the remnants of traditional rock music song structure.

This irreverence for tradition manifests itself also in the albums most pop-leaning moments. Songs like ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘La La Love You’ are played with a knowing irony and tongue firmly in cheek, but they turn hipster bait into something entirely more interesting by being, at the same time, bloody great pop songs. ‘Here Come Your Man’ has the kind of perfect plinky-plonky cheese that makes for classic karaoke, while the latter song features guitarist Joey Santiago, voice dripping with sarcasm, doing his best crooning Morrissey impression and founting about love, sex, and his ‘pretty baby’. At the start of the song, he unassumingly instructs you to ‘shake your butt’. He’s joking, but you want to do it anyway.

Elsewhere, Doolittle proves considerably darker. Opener ‘Debaser’ is a song about Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, a disjointed assault on the eyes that remains just as shocking today as it was in 1929. The film’s most famous shot was also its mission statement, in which a woman stared blankly into the camera while her eye was sliced open with a razor blade. Black, in the songs chorus, shouts that he’s “slicin’ up eyeballs”, but what he’s really slicing up is eardrums, because the song, and the album as a whole, can be considered as the musical inheritor of everything Un Chien Andalou stood for. It’s the point where twisted romance meets lyrical surrealism, where animal desire meets human intellect, transforming the language of rock music into a kind of primal communication which proves most affecting when it transcends lyrics entirely. Take, for example, the moment in ‘Debaser’ when Black breaks down into maniacal laughter just as the bridge brings the song to a moment of  brief calm. It’s perhaps the most spine-tingling moment on an album full of spine-tingling moments.

Another highlight is ‘Hey’, which bends its western-tinged riffing around a wonderfully wormy baseline to compellingly sleazy effect. The song touches on the albums theme of communication (or lack thereof) through the lens of a man and a woman, attempting to flirt, but conveying their emotions with all the subtlety of two gorillas shouting at each other: “‘UHHH’ said the man to the lady. ‘UHH UHH’ said the lady to the man”. It’s a moment that manages to be funny, slightly disturbing, and intensely serious at the same time: in this respect, it couldn’t better represent Doolittle as a whole. It’s also an example of the effortless chemistry between each band member, how they complement each other’s strengths without any one instrument taking the spotlight.

The Pixies created something unique with Doolittle. They were smart, funny, primal, angry, and silly all at once, and in this mess of contradictions there was something new, something rock music had never seen before. It’s no surprise then, that swathes of bands followed in their wake. Kurt Cobain famously described “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as his attempt to ‘rip off the pixies’, but their influence has trickled down into all kinds of places. You can hear it in Deerhunter’s anxious punk melody, the Dismemberment Plan’s scattershot neuroses, the Flaming Lips’ psychedelic surrealism, and countless other places. It was the lightning in a bottle that drew a line under everything that had come before, and then bounded forwards into new, unexplored territory. With the Pixies now back together and working on new material, it remains to be seen whether lightning can strike twice. But whether or not it does, Doolittle remains, as wild and untamed as ever, and ready to slice up our eardrums all over again.