September 15, 2006

Editorial: Amy Goodman & an analysis of Bob Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit": The Truth vs. The Noise

Last night, we went & heard Amy Goodman speak at the First Congregational Church in Oakland. She's celebrating the tenth year of her revolutionary radio show Democracy Now! & plugging her new book, at the beginning of a long, long tour. The book is number 18 on the Times Bests Sellers List, & she urged her crowd to buy two or three copies so that the Times had to put the title on their printed list: Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, & the People Who Fight Back. The New York Times, she claims, has refused to review this or her last book, possibly because there was a chapter in Exception to the Rulers called “Lies of the Times.”

Goodman spoke eloquently. She has a daunting memory for names of people & dates, & strings ideas together in an inspiring way. Seemingly spontaneously, she rattled off a long list of other times terrorist-related events have happened on September 11ths on U.S. soil, all easily accessible to her quick brain. Unfortunately, she lumped all of the questions from the crowd into one multi-answer at the end. One of the questions written down for her was “are we the choir you're preaching to, is anyone else listening?” She didn't really answer that question, but she had previously referred to the waxing of her show's popularity, which she assumes is in response to a growing awareness that “mainstream” news must be leaving important things out. She mentioned that some of the largest crowds they've drawn were at supposedly un-“liberal” cities such as Fresno & Salt Lake City, where fire marshals complained of an audience sitting in the aisles & on stage. Also, although independent radio is always fighting hard to remain alive, this old medium is fatally linked to another out-of-date medium, cars. And, unlike television, where it is almost impossible to insert an alternative opinion, & there is no channel between 4 & 5, radio still uses a dial, a show like Democracy Now! can be found by scanning between NPR & a Christian station.

Learning to play Dylan songs is a decades-old practice of songwriters & amateur musicians around the world, & it is almost always educational to the individual even when the result is un-listenable. Even among singers who have recorded their versions – take one of your favorite Dylan songs & type the name into iTunes. There'll be twenty versions & half of them are probably pretty disappointing (it lets you listen to thirty seconds of each song without purchasing it). I just did this with a Dylan song that I've been writing a new accompaniment for, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, a song from his golden era which is thematically related to a set of “comparative love songs” I sing (“My love is like a red, red rose.”) There is the range of a subtle actor in Bob's interpretations of his own lyrics, but Judy Collins, for example, just sings every line prettily. There is also a version in German by Wolfgang Ambros. How can you translate Dylan? Not only is his language as specific as Pushkin's or Shakespeare's (so, technically, untranslatable), but so much hinges on rhyme, meter, puns, irony, allusion, & the deviation from rhyme & meter, as to make the task discouraging.

But learning songs invites a close analysis of the poetry which few modern Americans embark on. Memorization of famous national poetry is too common in other cultures, but not so much here. And then there's Bob Dylan. Tens of thousands of people know various of his lyrics by heart. And, it doesn't need to be said, his language is rife for interpretation & fecund with shifting meanings.

Then there are the lines in his songs which at first seem like filler, or like the controlled nonsense popularized by Lewis Carroll; or, as the New Yorker critic Louis Menand called it, “lines that are truly lame.” Ironically, the example he gives is a verse from “Ballad of a Thin Man”, the one about the midget shouting the word “NOW!” This I know to be my friend James Eliot Quill's favorite verse, & I take his opinions on Dylan more seriously than Menand's. So can we agree that everyone thinks Dylan uses some nonsense-filler, but no two people agree on which lines are & which aren't? No. Yes. It doesn't matter.

So take for instance “Love Minus Zero”, a song I got to thinking about after singing it fifteen times yesterday. (The lyrics are here.) The song is based on a fundamental juxtaposition, that of “my love” - who exhibits a kind of purity, almost mystic – versus everything else the song mentions, usually superficial in an ambiguous way. In the first two verses, the only thing we really find out about her is that she's quiet. Listen: “she speaks like silence ... she doesn't have to say ... she laughs like the flowers ... she speaks softly.” But poetically, of course, it's a wisdom in comparison to the noisy world. The other half of her personality is what she knows, but, presumably, isn't preaching with much volume. The second two verses are full of the above mentioned “nonsense-filler”. But it's always there in contrast to “my love”, and there is drama in how it unfolds over time. In the third verse, she is still detached & too wise for this world. But in the fourth, it is now night & the weather is less hospitable. There's still the noise of the country doctor's rambling & the hammering wind, & the superficiality of the bankers' nieces waiting for the magi, but this time “my love” is hurt by it. Dylan creates these “mixed-up” worlds in many of his songs, & the “narrator” is often the one who is troubled by the mangled procession of perceptions – think of “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” or “Desolation Row.” This song is much shorter, & the narrator's role is to idealize the girl who stands in relation to the mixed-up world, & at the end, he is haven when it breaks her.

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