Friday, 9 November 2018

Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan - my Desert Island Discs three

When are song lyrics actually poetry?  The basic types of song lyrics, 'I will love you forever' and 'I love you but you're nasty to me,' usually bore me. Occasionally such songs can be raised by a sublime tune and rendition, such as the Righteous Brothers' 'Unchained Melody,' but mostly they aren't any more meaningful than Max Bygraves' 'You're a pink toothbrush, I'm a blue toothbrush.' Things can get far more raunchy, but are basically about one thing, sex. Poetry these are not.

Slightly more interesting song lyrics tell a story - Tom Jones 'Delilah' tells a story of jealousy and murder but with a sing-along chorus which diminishes the impact of the plot. Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode to Billy Joe' is a more obscure and possibly even darker story which leaves the listener wondering what actually happened on the Tallahassee Bridge, but this is still storytelling, it's not usually considered to be poetry.

There's has always been any amount of snooty, academic opinion which tries to dismiss anything beyond a certain highbrow canon as simply lacking the cachet to be considered proper poetry. Their dismissal naturally includes song lyrics. I always disagreed with them, I still do. Who are they to dismiss anything which doesn't fit their preconceived notion of poetry - 90% of which has been written by academic, western men? Answer, they're mostly academic, western men!

About the first pop song I thought of when I woke up and noticed that the lyrics accompanying pop music could, occasionally, have more than the obvious meaning was 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'. from Dylan's fifth album, Bringing it all Back Home released early in 1965. It's more than story-telling and way beyond love songs. To me this seems to resemble the beat poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alan Ginsberg:-

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in a trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off

Look out, kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
A man in a coon-skin cap
In a pig pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten.

There's no obvious love story here, instead we have a sequence of characters each with their own story which Bob Dylan only hints at, leaving the listener equally intrigued and frustrated. In addition there's a continuous stream of part images, hints of meaning and a clever, beat-driven rhyming structure making the whole song catchy despite the complexity. This is poetry;-

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin' that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone's tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA

Look out, kid
Don't matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don't tie no bows
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plainclothes
You don't need a weather man

To know which way the wind blows.

So why is this one of my desert island discs? Well, you tell me what it all means. I can wile away many hours on my desert island working it all out and making up the stories of Johnny and Maggie, the weatherman and the man in the coon-skin cap.

Ah, get sick, get well
Hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is gonna sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write Braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail

Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
By losers, cheaters
Six-time users
Hanging 'round the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool is
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parkin' meters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift

Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work 

'Cause the vandals took the handle

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