1987 is the most important year in alternative rock

From chart hits to mainstream breakthroughs, it was the year modern rock came into its own

Why 1987 remains the most important moment in alternative rock
The Psychedelic Furs; Depeche Mode; Echo & the Bunnymen(Credit: Legacy/Sire)

The National has achieved many things in its career: music festival headlining slots, Grammy nominations and near-chart-topping albums. However, the brooding, Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band hasn’t had a No. 1 single — until now.

Billboard reports “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” a song from the National’s forthcoming “Sleep Well Beast” album, reached the top slot of the Adult Alternative Songs chart for the week of August 19, beating Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” by a measly two spins.

In addition to the National and Arcade Fire, the rest of the Adult Alternative Songs chart top 10 includes a slew of seasoned artists: Portugal. The Man, Spoon, The War on Drugs, The Killers and Jack Johnson. Sonically, these acts don’t overlap much. However, on an aesthetic level, they all promulgate a musical approach predicated on constant metamorphosis.

The Killers’ “The Man” is an icy, funky strut; the War on Drugs’ “Holding On” is rife with sparkling Springsteenisms; Portugal. The Man’s “Feel it Still” is a taut, soulful shimmy. The biggest chameleons might be Spoon, whose latest effort is the ominous, funky “Can I Sit Next to You,” which feels like Duran Duran filtered through a paper shredder and pieced back together.

In a striking parallel, the composition of the Adult Alternative Songs chart — notably the abundance of veteran bands who are fearless about evolution — echoes the equally transformative alternative bands dotting 1987’s music landscape.

That’s not necessarily surprising: 1987 was an enormously influential year that shaped how fans and artists alike create, consume and appreciate so-called modern or progressive music.

To understand why 1987 is a cultural inflection, it’s best to consider it the year a burgeoning underground movement crystallized and mobilized. Certain facets of this movement were already in place, of course. Specialty national video shows such as MTV’s “120 Minutes” and “I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge” and USA’s “Night Flight,” as well as regional video shows (V66 in Boston and MV3 in Los Angeles) were already airing clips from new wave and so-called “college rock” bands. Modern rock-leaning radio stations — notably KROQ in Los Angeles and the Long Island powerhouse WLIR — were also giving these new groups a platform.

On a more mainstream level, John Hughes-associated movies such as 1984’s “Sixteen Candles” and 1986’s “Pretty in Pink” combined relatable depictions of teen angst with a cool-mixtape musical vibe. Hughes treated bands such as Thompson Twins, New Order, OMD and the Psychedelic Furs like futuristic pace-setters. The people responded in kind.

In 1986, OMD’s “If You Leave,” from Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” peaked at No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts. No wonder critic Chris Molanphy, writing in Maura Magazine, points to “how pivotal Hughes was in helping to break what became known as alternative rock in America — he served as a bridge between what was known in the first half of the ’80s as postpunk or new wave and what would be called alt-rock or indie rock by the ’90s.”

Hughes’ imprint reverberated well beyond films. For example, the movie “Pretty in Pink” took its title from the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name. Appropriately, the U.K. band re-cut the tune, which originally appeared on 1981’s “Talk Talk Talk,” for the film’s 1986 soundtrack. This slicker new version landed just outside the top 40, at No. 41. However, the goodwill earned by this re-do buoyed the Furs through 1987: The desperate swoon “Heartbreak Beat,” the lead single from the band’s 1987 LP, “Midnight to Midnight,” became the Furs’ only U.S. top 40 hit, peaking at No. 26 in May.

“Midnight to Midnight” polarized fans: A collection of full-on synth-pop gloss, it bears little resemblance to the group’s early, moody post-punk. Yet bold evolutions were a 1987 trend; multiple established modern and indie bands staked a decidedly contemporary claim, sometimes in ways that completely overhauled (or at least added intriguing new dimensions to) their previous sounds.

(Let the record show that this phenomenon also has precedent: For example, Scritti Politti’s glittering synth-pop gush “Perfect Way,” which reached the top 15 in 1986, is a far cry from the band’s scabrous post-punk roots.)

Elsewhere in 1987, Echo & The Bunnymen buffed up their gloom on a self-titled album with sharper production, while Depeche Mode countered with “Music for the Masses,” an (appropriately) massive-sounding record with a dense, industrial-synth sound. The Replacements, meanwhile, teamed up with producer Jim Dickinson for “Pleased to Meet Me,” their most streamlined and focused rock record yet. R.E.M. forged a production partnership with Scott Litt that would stretch into the ’90s, releasing the loud-and-proud political statement “Document.”

In many cases, these evolutions didn’t necessarily lead to immediate commercial dividends. In fact, the Smiths — inarguably one of the biggest cult alternative acts in the U.S. — broke up in 1987, making their forward-sounding final album, “Strangeways Here We Come,” a posthumous swan song. However, in 1987, the upper reaches of the pop charts were noticeably more amenable to modern bands.

 Consider this a culmination of a slow and steady trend — how the chart inroads made by OMD and the Psychedelic Furs paired with those made by Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls” hit No. 1 in 1986) and INXS (who set the stage for its blockbuster 1987 record “Kick” with 1985’s top 5 smash “What You Need”).

“Just Like Heaven,” from 1987’s “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,” became The Cure‘s first U.S. mainstream top 40 chart hit, peaking at No. 40 in 1988. The shimmering 1987 synth-pop gem “True Faith” also became New Order’s first top 40 single, landing at No. 32. Other bands found even greater success: Midnight Oil’s “Diesel and Dust” spawned that band’s first mainstream hit, the top 20 entry “Beds Are Burning,” while R.E.M. landed its first top 10 single with “The One I Love” from “Document.” Los Lobos’ cover of “La Bamba” hit No. 1 (though having a major Hollywood movie behind them helped tremendously).

What’s interesting: Besides individual radio station charts and specialized trade magazines, these alternative acts didn’t yet have a dedicated Billboard chart. The publication only launched its Modern Rock Tracks chart on Sept. 10, 1988, “in response to industry demand for consistent information on alternative airplay,” as it noted in that week’s issue. In hindsight, it’s easy to see this chart as a reaction to 1987’s alternative groundswell. The influence of these groups was now impossible to ignore, and measuring their reach and impact — no doubt crucial for label bean counters, if nothing else — made sense.

In an interesting twist, 1987’s beginnings and endings were as formative as their transformations. That year’s dissolution of the Smiths and Hüsker Dü led to each band’s frontman — Morrissey and Bob Mould, respectively — launching fruitful and vibrant solo careers that endure today. Debut records from Jane’s Addiction (a self-titled effort) and Pixies (“Come On Pilgrim”), and second albums from Dinosaur Jr (“You’re Living All Over Me”) and Faith No More (“Introduce Yourself”) put forth an aggressive, hybridized rock sound that presaged ’90s grunge, metal and punk. Even Crowded House’s 1986 debut LP finally spawned two hits in 1987, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong.”

And, in terms of the touring circuit, plenty of popular 1987 acts continue to find success; U2 playing 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” to packed stadiums is the most obvious one. Depeche Mode is currently embarking on an amphitheater tour while Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes have toured sheds together all summer. In spring 2017, Psychedelic Furs tapped Robyn Hitchcock as an opener. In the fall, the band is teaming up with Bash & Pop, featuring the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, for tour dates.

These tour dates in particular have led several writers to recently question whether “80s pop” or “classic alternative” could become the new classic rock. It’s an intriguing idea, although one the radio consultants at Jacobs Media doubt has traction.

“While these bands may do well at state fairs and other summer festivals boasting well-stocked lineups of bands, their ability to support a format is questionable,” Fred Jacobs wrote in a recent blog post. “Classic Rock — and its derivatives — as well as Oldies stations were predicated on the power of nostalgia — not just for a few thousand fans in a market, but for tens of thousands or more of die-hard supporters. We’re talking mass appeal vs. niche.”

Jacobs then went on to point out that Echo & The Bunnymen received only seven spins on a Classic Alternative station in a recent week. “It’s hard to create a groundswell of support for poorly exposed music that’s now 30+ years old,” Jacobs adds.

In a sense, current successful bands like Arcade Fire, Spoon and the National are better positioned than their 1987 analogs to avoid this trap. Multiple channels — radio, video, streaming, live shows — make it easier for bands to gain exposure and reach more people.

At the same time, 2017’s fractured musical culture means that there are plenty of people who either don’t listen (or don’t need to listen) to any of these bands. For proof, just look at the puzzled reactions to Arcade Fire nabbing the Album of the Year Grammy in 2011. One person’s mainstream band is another’s niche or unknown act. Perhaps the underlying concept that drove alternative music culture’s 1987 rise — the mainstream cracking the door open to outsiders — is still alive and well in 2017.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.
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You may never hear anything from Prince’s vault of unreleased music

The fate of musical icon’s unreleased songs is less than clear

You may never hear anything from Prince's vault of unreleased music

Prince (Credit: AP/Liu Heung Shing)

Fans of the late musical icon Prince may never be able to admire the content stored inside two of the artist’s storage vaults due battles over rights to his estate, according to the New York Times.

When musician passed in April 2016, he left behind hundreds or even thousands of songs with no plan and no will. “But a conflict in Prince’s estate over a $31 million deal with Universal for music rights means that much of the vault may not see daylight for months or even years to come,” the Times reported.

Kevin W. Eide of Carver County District Court in Chaska, Minn., the judge overseeing Prince’s estate, described the conflict as “personal and corporate mayhem.”

At the beginning of the year things seemed to be on the right track, however, Universal decided it wanted to cancel its deal for Prince’s recorded music which would have included rights to most of the vault as well as those attached to later albums.

One of the most important things was “a timetable for obtaining American release rights for some of Prince’s early hits, after the expiration of existing deals with Warner Bros.,” the Times reported.

The Times explained:

Universal said that it had been “misled and likely defrauded” by representatives of Bremer Trust, the Minnesota bank charged with administering the estate, and demanded its money back. According to Universal, it learned after closing the deal that some of the rights it had paid for conflicted with those held by Warner, through a confidential deal that company signed with Prince in 2014.

Judge Eide has allowed Universal’s lawyers to finally view the Warner contract, and the company’s response is expected this week. Whatever happens, music executives say, the episode may harm the estate and complicate efforts to make another deal.

Some experts believe that no matter the ending, it will come with a price. “I don’t think there’s an outcome that is free of cost,” Lisa Alter, a copyright lawyer told the Times. Alter, however, is not involved with the case. But she also doesn’t believe there is an outcome “that is free of some damage to the estate in terms of throwing a cloud over what the rights really are.”

Music executives have said that it’s quite rare for a deal like Universal’s to be canceled. “And the story has become all the more riveting with allegations of mismanagement and deception on the part of estate representatives, including L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer who once represented Prince and was an adviser to Bremer,” the Times reported.

 

 

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

How to beat perfectionism

Percussionist Patti Niemi talks about enduring anxiety, rejection and how to handle failure and not fall apart

LISTEN: How to beat perfectionism

When you have lots of conversations with women like I do, a few themes start to emerge. One that comes up again and again is the pursuit of perfection.

Anxiety is the drumbeat to perfection, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than men, so perhaps it’s appropriate that I got explore its rhythms with Patti Niemi, a world-class musician and percussionist for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

She’s written a memoir about her experiences, called “Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit,” and she spoke to me about how even now, after 25 years with the same orchestra — that’s 25 years without needing to audition, which is a major anxiety trigger for her — that perfectionism is still alive and well.

Niemi had been at Juilliard for two years when she sat down at a rehearsal and suddenly realized she had no control over her hands. She had been playing percussion since the age of ten, had participated in hundreds of rehearsals and countless performances, but had never experienced something like this before.

“Physically, what it feels like is you’re just going off the rails, and about to lose your mind,” she says, looking back on her old panic.

A painful inner monologue kept the engine going. It went like this: “I need to be perfect, I can’t be perfect, therefore what am I going to do?” And then, “Back to, I need to be perfect. It’s a long hard dialogue,” she says.

She says her anxiety got really bad at Juilliard because she suddenly realized how high the stakes were. “I felt like I suddenly had something to lose.”

She ended up using Inderal, a beta blocker, to calm her nerves so she could focus during an auditions and move forward.

During her last year there, an older male professor told Niemi that he had fallen in love with her. She was deeply uncomfortable and says it was “the perfect storm” of imbalanced power dynamics — and a sense of feeling trapped.

Listen to our conversation:
https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=inflection-point-with-lauren-schiller-6NkYz8&ge=s1!7a4126191ee956161c1af5eeac2ce277adb68f8c

“Here you have a very powerful mentor an hour a week alone, and they have this power over you,” she says. “A teacher can recommend you for a certain audition if you weren’t able to get in to the audition,” at first. “I mean, they still have a lot of power as far as jobs go.”

Like Anita Hill did with Clarence Thomas, Niemi continued to work with her professor, and even go out to dinner with him. “It didn’t occur to me not to,” she says now. “I need to manage it, “ she thought at the time — and attempted to control the situation by asking her professor lots of questions about percussion and avoiding talking about anything else. “I just thought if I made him mad he would retaliate.”

Niemi says she’s heartened to see that things are different for women in universities now. Back then, in the late ’80s, she says there was no mechanism at the school for her to share what was going on. “It just wasn’t talked about,” she says.

“It still happens but now you’re told very clearly these are the lines you can’t cross. This is what you can’t do. And to be fair to him, he wasn’t told that, how it worked at the time.”

Niemi’s anxiety appeared well before the period her professor told her he was in love with her, but his “confession” did nothing to ease it.

“It had a pretty strong effect on me physically,” she says. Eventually she developed an ulcer. That anxiety came out most of all during her auditions.

In spite of her uncomfortable relationship with her professor, Niemi decided to stay on at Juilliard in their graduate program. “I started a master’s program mostly because living in New York and not having a place to practice for production is very difficult,” she told me. But after a few weeks, being around her teacher became overwhelming.

A few months in she braved another audition and succeeded in landing a position with the then-new New World Symphony, which accomplished two things for her: she was able to get away from her professor and she finally accomplished what she had set out to do from the age of 10 — live and work as a professional musician. But her professional aspirations were not yet complete. The New World Symphony is a training ensemble, and the participants are expected to continue to audition for permanent positions elsewhere.

In spite of the great lengths Niemi went to manage her anxiety and perfectionist standards, after a number of auditions she almost won but didn’t, she finally lost it. “My room got messy,” she writes in her memoir. “I didn’t care enough to clean it. While I was practicing for the Boston audition, it had been filled with instruments. Now the floor space was covered with dirty clothes. I let dishes sit in the sink until the silverware rusted, and a little white mouse appeared from behind my bookcase one day. I had been sitting at my table so immobile he probably assumed I was one of the chairs. He darted away only when I screamed.”

Niemi says it’s important to talk publicly about anxiety so that others don’t have to struggle as much as she did and because she says there is still stigma. “When I was in school it was so painful to me. I thought, I’m the only one doing this. Everybody else manages anxiety no problem.”

Twenty-five years ago she earned a spot with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and has played with them ever since.

During complicated performances, the old feelings return sometimes. Here’s how she described awaiting her moment in the orchestra pit for a cymbal crash: “Sitting there, trying to keep track, watching the singers up on stage, and it’s getting closer and closer. Finally, I’m counting down, I’m listening to the music. I’m waiting for my moment. I stand up I take these big hunks of metal I’m about to fling at one another and I wait for the moment and the conductor lowers the baton.”

Even after two and a half decades, “I know I have to be perfect in this moment and it has to happen.”

Niemi has tempered her anxiety with wisdom. She’s accepted that to do anything in life truly meaningful, failure comes with the territory. “Rejection is a gift,” she says.

“You are going to fail. It’s how you handle the failure to be perfect that you have to manage.”

When I asked Niemi if she has ever had a moment where she asked herself why she stays in a field that makes her feel this anxious, she said, “I always wanted to do it. It was so hard. But I never questioned whether I was going to do it. I worried about that in the book because I put so much emphasis on the hard parts of it that I would that come off sounding like I was ungrateful or I didn’t appreciate this opportunity I had. I’ve never felt ungrateful. I loved music. I love it. And I was really lucky to fall into this opportunity. I wanted to write about what was hard about it.”

Lauren Schiller is the Executive Producer of Audio for Salon.com and the creator and host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast about how women rise up.

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of “Like a Rolling Stone”

How Bob Dylan took a “long piece of vomit about twenty pages long” and turned it into a six-minute masterpiece

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of "Like a Rolling Stone"
(Credit: AP/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon)
Excerpted from “Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited” by Mark Polizzotti (Continuum, 2006). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

It has to be the most celebrated drumbeat in all of popular music. Often described in ballistic terms—a “rifle shot,” a “gunshot”—Bobby Gregg’s inaugural smack is indeed the shot heard ’round the world. “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA,” Bruce Springsteen recalled twenty-four years after the fact, “and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Greil Marcus, in his penetrating if overwrought study of “Like a Rolling Stone,” contends that while many other songs use the same kick-off—including the Beatles’ “Any Time at All” from the previous year and Dylan’s own “From a Buick 6” further down Highway 61—“on no other record does the sound, or the act, so call attention to itself, as an absolute announcement that something new has begun.” This might be overstating the case somewhat: as Al Kooper reminded Marcus, it’s very common for the drummer to end a one-two-three-four count with a sharp thwack. Still, there is something about this particular beat that makes it more than simple timekeeping, that renders it more memorable. Somehow, a common device has turned itself into a signature. If you heard only this one second of “Like a Rolling Stone,” you could still identify the song.

This drumbeat has become so associated with the song, in fact, that its presence or absence directly inflects upon the character of the performance. “Like a Rolling Stone” was the invariable closer of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. One can almost gauge the degree of exasperation he felt on any given night over the catcalls that greeted his electric set by the emphasis that drummer Mickey Jones placed on his opening salvo. It echoes authoritatively in Edinburgh. It booms with smashing finality in the valedictory concert at Albert Hall, following a drawling introduction in which Dylan dedicates the song to “the Taj Mahawwwl.” And it positively deafens with scorn following the legendary “Judas!—You’re a LIAR” exchange between Dylan and disgruntled fan Keith Butler at the Manchester Free Trade Hall ten days earlier, which triggered Dylan’s exhortation to the band to “play fuckin’ loud.” Its absence in favor of a cranking instrumental build-up, in the version played at the Isle of Wight in 1969, was one of the reasons for that performance often being tagged as lifeless. (Oddly, the version played at the infamous Newport concert, only weeks after the studio version was recorded and with many of the same musicians, also foregoes the opening bang: it made enough of a statement as it was.) Among the many, many covers of the song, one by the band Drive-By Truckers is notable in that it begins with a similar drum shot, which then rests for a few bars, imbuing their entire rendition with a kind of we-know-you-know slyness.

In fact, the famous drumbeat is actually two beats, the resounding snap of the snare followed by the almost subliminally faint echo of a kick-drum, which makes the whole thing take a half-step back and gives it an extra push of forward momentum: not ONE-(pause)-TWO, but ONE-two-THREE. Marcus, again, tends to oversell when he likens “the empty split-second that follows” the initial beat (but that’s just it: it’s not empty) to both “a house tumbling over a cliff ” and the Oklahoma Land Rush. What he’s missing in his own rush to hyperbole is the way that half-heard second beat pulls in, eases in, the onslaught of guitar, piano, organ, bass, and drum that henceforth sends the song—and the album it starts off with a literal bang—charging forward.

“Like a Rolling Stone” is also no doubt the most famous song ever written out of sheer boredom. Dylan had spent April and May 1965 in England, for what would be his last fully acoustic tour. Both the performances and the time surrounding them, captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back (the title’s lack of apostrophe mirroring Dylan’s idiosyncratic approach to punctuation), show a man barely going through the motions. Dylan is in control of his material and his audience, but there is no spontaneity and little verve. Even supposedly off-the-cuff remarks (“This one is called ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’—ho ho ho” [audience laughs]) have been rehearsed many times before. By the time he returned to the States at the beginning of June, he was considering giving up performing altogether. “I was very drained,” he explained [in a Playboy interview] several months later. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.… It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”

What changed his mind, he said, was the new musical vista opened by “Rolling Stone.” “I’d literally quit singing and playing,” he told Martin Bronstein of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before.” As he described it to Jules Siegel, the “vomit” began as simple prose ramblings: “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper… I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion following something.”

Dylan’s interviews are notoriously unreliable sources of information, more like theatrical performances than communication sessions, and perhaps none more so than the ones he gave around the release of Highway 61. But what emerges consistently from his remarks about “Rolling Stone,” in addition to his pleasure at having written it—“the best song I wrote,” he told Gleason—is the sense of spontaneity regained, of an elusive but thrilling encounter with the muse. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that,” he recalled in 2004, with a note of wistfulness as if speaking of a long time gone. “It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.” To television commentator Ed Bradley that same year, he described the songs of this period as having come from “a place of magic.”

In this case, the magic seems to have been triggered precisely by the creative stagnation Dylan had been feeling (and that his records had been showing) over the previous two years. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is well-crafted but resolutely downbeat, more like medicine than entertainment, while Another Side, despite a few stand-outs, just sounds bored. Little wonder that by the time Dylan returned from his all-acoustic British tour, he’d decided to give it all up—or that the inspiration of “Rolling Stone” seemed such a godsend. It ushered in a creative outpouring that is almost unrivaled in Dylan’s career (let alone anyone else’s), and that over the following half-year resulted in many of the songs on which his reputation still stands.

Also rare for a chart-topping pop hit, the lyrics focused not on love but its opposite. It was “all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest,” Dylan told Siegel, immediately amending that to: “In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word… It was like swimming in lava. In your eyesight, you see your victim swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree.” Lucky in lava is not the same as lucky in love, but the contradiction is very much in keeping with the spirit of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that manages to balance sadism, compassion, and sheer liberated joy in a six-minute display of pure bravado.

Debbie Harry opens up about working with Sia and Blondie’s new album

The singer shared stories about collaborating with everyone from Johnny Mars to Charli XCX on “Pollinator”

Debbie Harry opens up about working with Sia and Blondie's new album
Blondie (Credit: Alexander Thompson)

As the ’80s dawned, Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry and electro impresario Giorgio Moroder teamed up to write “Call Me.” Its stomping beats and slashing guitars made for a No. 1 hit.

When Blondie set out to make the record “Pollinator,” the band members again looked outward for collaborators, pulling in some of the most exciting, innovative pop songwriters working today.

As a whole, the stellar “Pollinator” captures the same sense of excitement and possibility of the group’s early experimentations with the then-nascent genres of  hip-hop and synth-pop thanks in part to a collection of stellar collaborators. Blockbuster singer and songwriter Sia and Strokes’ Nick Valensi co-wrote the effervescent new wave styled “Best Day Ever.” Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and Harry partnered on the pulsating, disco-pop standout “Long Time,” while Charli XCX co-wrote the punkish “Gravity.”

The rest of those contributing to “Pollinator” are similarly A list: Legendary guitarist Johnny Marr wrote and plays on the Brit-rock-tinged “My Monster,” while Joan Jett makes a cameo on the pile-driving punk-pop gem “Doom or Destroy.” John Roberts — a voiceover artist and musician known for his work with “Bob’s Burgers” — and the What Cheer? Brigade horn troupe add funk and pep to “Love Level,” a song Harry and Blondie guitarist and co-founder Chris Stein wrote together.

In all, “Pollinator” distills so many of the styles and approaches that Blondie has adopted over the years to great effect. The electro-charged “Fun” is already No. 1 on the Billboard U.S. Dance charts, and the band is teaming up with Garbage for the Rage and Rapture tour, that kicks off July 5 in Saratoga, California. It’s an inspired road pairing, as both groups boast top-notch musicianship and empowering feminist icons who are leading the charge.

Harry checked in with Salon for a brief chat about “Pollinator,” her new collaborators and why she can’t stop “pushing.”

As a musician and vocalist, what stood out to you about the songs that were brought to the band for consideration for the record. What did you guys really want to tackle and dive into?

We wanted to have a Sia song, ’cause we admire her so much. As far as the other ones go, it just had to do with whether we liked them and felt that they would be good Blondie songs.

Dev Hynes and Charli XCX are also on the record. What stands out to you about them as songwriters? 

I can’t really say — I think that they have an intuition, a personal intuition and ability to touch something that is a part of them. It really comes across as being, I don’t want to use the word soulful, but in actual fact, it reflects something from within themselves.

I agree with that. Everything they’ve done, there’s a lot of sincerity. And you can tell it’s coming from their heart — which is also kind of a cliché, but that’s what draws me to their music too.

Yes, yes, very much so. And [there’s a] Charli XCX song, I don’t know if you’ve heard this one, it’s called “Tonight.” She said she wrote that when she was 15. To me, the experience and the maturity that is reflected in her lyric is really outstanding. It’s not like a 15-year-old.

How did the Johnny Marr collaboration come about?

We had put out feelers, or questions or requests, through BMG, and he wrote that song for us. When I met him in London, he was talking about his kids a lot. And it’s very funny, after I learned that he was very involved as a parent, I could see how he could write that song. It’s very charming; it has this double meaning.

You and Chris Stein co-wrote “Love Level” together. John Roberts was on it, and then so is the What Cheer? Brigade. How’d that song come about?

I knew John from New York for years. He used to have a band called OPTI-GRAB, which I really loved. I really admired that little group that he had, it was just a three-piece, and it was very clever and beautifully written songs. They opened for us. So I’ve known John for a long time and then he moved to LA, he got that gig with Bob’s Burgers, you know. Voiceovers. He actually helped create the character of Linda.

As far as What Cheer?, I went to an event at P.S. 21 in Long Island City; they have art events. And I went to something there, and What Cheer? banged around and played, and I thought they were wonderful. It reminded me of marching bands or parade bands from New Orleans, and I’ve always loved that because it’s sort of loose but tight.

How did making the record in New York at the Magic Shop right before it closed influence the vibe of the record, if at all?

Well, I think that we were all moved to be a part of working there. It’s such an institution in New York. Although we had never worked there previously, we knew that [David] Bowie had finished “Blackstar” at the Magic Shop, and we’re all very moved and connected with him or by him, and it’s just a part of recording history. Since we’re such a New York-based band, to be a part of that, and to have the opportunity to record there historically is really great.

In terms of the tech part, the room is a very substantial, large room [and] has a great sound to it. It’s very, very warm. And it has a great board, a famous board. It’s just one of those places that doesn’t exist anymore.

Blondie is touring with Garbage this summer. Have you guys talked about doing any live collaborations or anything? 

No, we haven’t gotten that far. And I think that we will — I hope that we will — because that would be a really, really cool thing to do. And I have sort of been envisioning how we can collateralize this thing, you know. So, it’s in my mind. [Laughs.]

I really liked what you said in a recent interview about nostalgia not being really appealing to you. Especially as someone with an incredible body of music work, spanning decades, how do you balance the past with your tendency to always want to move forward?

Well, I don’t really have a problem with that. I’m proud to be part of popular music, modern music, of course. But I don’t know — I guess I have a strong sense of digestion. I like to hear things. I like to experience new things.

That’s the kind of life that I lead: I’m always pushing. I’m pushing, pushing, pushing. And I know that there will come a day when I have to sit back a little bit and not be striving so much. But, so far, that’s been my interest. I have a great band who, you know, we all share the same kind of feeling. It’s exciting. It makes it very, very exciting.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

“Sgt. Pepper’s” at 50: was it a concept album or an identity crisis?

The Beatles’ psych-rock opus, receiving a lavish reissue in May, isn’t what you think it is

"Sgt. Pepper's" at 50: was it a concept album or an identity crisis?
(Credit: Salon/Flora Thevoux)

Beatles fans, get your credit cards ready: On May 26, the Fab Four is unleashing a lavish revamp of 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in honor of the landmark album’s 50th anniversary. Among the notable features of the reissue are outtakes and alternate versions of songs from the vaults — including the “Pepper”-era double-A-side single “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” — and a new stereo mix of the record that producers claim buffs up the painstaking vibe of the original mono mix.

“They were trying to create this immersive world that the stereo didn’t have,” Giles Martin, the man responsible for the new stereo mix (and, incidentally, the son of the late Beatles producer George Martin), recently told Rolling Stone about the original mono mixing sessions. “Nobody paid much attention to the stereo mix. What we did [today] was work out what they were doing in the mono mix and apply it to stereo.”

It’s a no-brainer that the Beatles team would choose to release a deluxe reissue of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The LP has sold over 11 million copies in the U.S. alone and remains one of the band’s most beloved records.

From an artistic standpoint, the album ushered in the Beatles’ most expansive and experimental phase, and featured even more studio innovations. “On ‘Pepper,’ it was like starting over from scratch, getting down to the individual tonalities of the instruments and changing them,” engineer Geoff Emerick told Guitar World. “They didn’t want a guitar to sound like a guitar anymore. They didn’t want anything to sound like what it was.”

It’s almost impossible to calculate the influence “Sgt. Pepper’s” had on modern pop music. Perhaps it is better to just say that there is a “before,” and there is an “after.”

What’s more of a gray area: definitively calling “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a concept album. The Beatles themselves have gone on record expressing skepticism over the label, although musicologists, die-hard fans and academic scholars beg to differ. This dissension arises partly because everybody has a different idea of what makes a concept album, well, a concept album — something I discovered after idly asking my Facebook friends how they defined the term.

To some, thematic continuity was the key factor; to others, a well-developed story arc was crucial. Other people felt a concept album should possess a common thread between lyrics, while musical connections — whether in the form of variations on melodies or chords, or related tropes and patterns — are salient characteristics. How a concept album differs from a “song cycle” or a “rock opera” also came up, although that’s a separate issue in and of itself.

Of course, this debate rages with the benefit of having decades of concept albums to dissect. When “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” arrived, musicians were in the early stages of figuring out how the theme-heavy records favored by jazz artists and Frank Sinatra might be adapted for rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the Mothers of Invention’s 1965 double album “Freak Out!” and the Beach Boys’ 1966 opus “Pet Sounds” are widely considered to be the first rock concept albums.

Not so coincidentally, Paul McCartney has gone on record as saying that both of these records were on his mind as “Sgt. Pepper” started coalescing. “I played [‘Pet Sounds’] to John [Lennon] so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence,” McCartney said in one 1990 interview. “If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed ‘Pepper.’ And my influence was basically the ‘Pet Sounds’ album. John was influenced by it, perhaps not as much as me. It was certainly a record we all played — it was the record of the time, you know?”

The overlapping harmonies of the “Sgt. Pepper” song “She’s Leaving Home” are certainly Beach Boys-indebted, although the buffalo stampede-caliber psych-rock of “Freak Out!” has a subtler influence. (It’ll be most interesting to see how or if the latter record’s DNA seeps into the “Sgt. Pepper” bonus tracks surfacing on the reissue.) And it’s possible there’s an element of suggestive thinking in play as well: McCartney likes two influential concept albums, and they informed his creative process, ergo “Sgt. Pepper” must also be a concept album.

What’s at least clear is that the freewheeling, free-spirited vibe of the Mothers of Invention made a deep impression on McCartney and his creative headspace. “We were fed up with being the Beatles,” he said in Barry Miles’ biography “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now.” “We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn’t want any more. Plus, we’d now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”

In the book “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties,” McCartney elaborated on the impetus for the record. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”

Every Beatles record feels like it inhabits its own unique universe, but “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is shrouded in a particular kaleidoscopic mist tied to its time. That’s due to the studio techniques,  which, if anything, contribute the most to the record’s conceptual unity. But despite its reputation, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” doesn’t feel driven by any sort of formalized (or internal) rule or structure. Instead, the conceit is a broader, external one — an alternate-universe version of the Beatles, maybe, or a record where the band members are exploring different dimensions of their existing personas. It’s based around a defensive concept, one predicated on reacting to the past.

Of course, the rub is that the members of the Beatles evolved and experimented, but could never really run away from their strengths. Sure, the opening title track and closing reprise are unifying elements introducing an imaginary band, and both songs encourage fans to pretend like they aren’t going to be listening to the Beatles.

However, the sepia-toned “When I’m Sixty-Four” is easily identifiable as old-before-his-time, pure McCartney sentimentality; “Within You Without You” is unmistakably George Harrison sitar-driven mysticism; and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” sung by Ringo Starr in the guise of the Eeyore-like Billy Shears, is an inimitable mix of playful and droll. “Lovely Rita,” meanwhile, embodies the push and pull of influences that emerged when the four Beatles combined their individual strengths.

“‘Sgt. Pepper’ is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere,” John Lennon told journalist David Sheff in 1980. “All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works ’cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.”

Speaking about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the book “Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies,” Ringo Starr adds: “It was going to run like a rock opera. It had started out with a feeling that it was going to be something totally different, but we only got as far as Sergeant Pepper and Billy Shears singing ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’ It still kept the title and the feel that it’s all connected, although in the end we didn’t actually connect all the songs up.”

Cleverly, the title track and reprise also function as a sturdy defensive mechanism. These bookends effectively set up a tabula rasa listening experience and allow for critical leeway about the eclectic music in between — since, after all, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” often feels like someone skipping up and down a radio dial, flitting between stations and styles. By creating personal distance from these experiments, the Beatles give extra cushioning to their transition away from fresh-faced rock ‘n’ roll.

“It seems now that the Beatles were effectively saying, ‘Look everyone! Concept albums are possible. This [‘Sgt. Pepper’] isn’t it, but it proves that it’s possible,’” Thomas MacFarlane wrote in the essay “‘Sgt. Pepper’”s Quest for Extended Form,” which appeared in a book about the record. “In retrospect, this ingenious strategy helped them buy the time necessary to explore questions regarding formal space on a sound recording.”

The genius of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” of course, is that it thrives apart from any concept, and its songs succeed on their own individual merits. McCartney for one remains proud of the record. During live shows, he’s fond of reminiscing about how he and John Lennon saw Jimi Hendrix cover the record’s title track at a concert — three days after the album was released — while the loopy “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” has been a recent Macca setlist staple. Once again, the legend of “Sgt. Pepper” lives (and evolves) another day.

 

 

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism

Let’s get past the stupid Nobel debates: Dylan is not just a great poet, but a prophet whose genius can sustain us

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism
Donald Trump; Bob Dylan (Credit: AP/Getty/Ben Stansall/Salon)

Two weeks ago, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize in person; true to form, he did so not at the December ceremony (where Patti Smith performed in his stead), but during a previously scheduled tour of Stockholm. He has yet to deliver, on tape or in person, the acceptance speech that is a precondition for the prize money. When he won the prize it was just before the November election, and now we’re a few months into the unfolding disaster. Which makes you wonder: Does the Nobel Prize committee know more about us than we know about ourselves?

This may quite possibly be the best Nobel Prize choice ever for literature, right up there with the recognition of William Faulkner. It has been given to the right person at the right time, as the academy has made an urgent intervention into the vexing question of just what literature is, at a political moment when demagoguery is making a mockery of language.

Writers and critics know that nearly all the greatest writers of the past century — and we know who they are — failed to get the award. The Nobel for literature is most helpful when it brings someone deserving to the global audience’s attention. Such was the case with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk; he was already at a young age a world-class author, but the award gave him millions of new readers. And though Dylan has been a songwriter’s songwriter, or musician’s musician, for 55 years, there couldn’t be a better time than now for his poetry of prophecy to soak through to everyone’s consciousness.

Perhaps millennials in pursuit of the latest musical illusion will seek out the timeless instead, in Dylan’s music, which should lead them back to the abiding sources of American music: the origins of the blues tradition, for example, in such singers as Charley Patton or Skip James, or Blind Willie McTell, about whom Dylan recorded a memorable song in the early 1980s, or later Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, all acknowledged influences on Dylan, whom he transformed and reworked in his own idiom.

Dylan receiving the award at this point in time is a reminder for us to seek the ultimate sources of poetry — and I certainly consider the blues as poetry of the highest order — rather than be distracted by the next vulgarization that comes along.

Purity, of the most extreme degree, to the point that it is prophecy, is what Dylan manifested, particularly in his peak 1962–1966 period, which I think is unparalleled in the history of music for its sheer genius, its fecundity and its deep tapping of the mystical poetic roots, all of which defy comprehension as to how it could have come about in such a short period of time.

Is Dylan a poet? To me, the question is, is Dylan the 20th century’s Arthur Rimbaud? Or Keats or Shelley? Or Yeats? Those are the valid comparisons for me, not whether he is a poet.

The Nobel academy is also recognizing, as it failed to do when the time was right, the entire Beat tradition, into which Dylan flows and which flows into Dylan. Remember that Allen Ginsberg was more Bob Dylan’s acolyte than the other way around. All of the Beats alive at the time of Dylan’s peak productivity in the early 1960s were keen to associate themselves with him, and for good reason. If Beat poetry is poetry — and I suppose some academicists would question even that — then Dylan was its purest, most acute, most immortal manifestation.

I would make the same connection with folk music, too. There is a long tradition of American folk music, almost necessarily associated with the left, or rather programmatic left causes, that Dylan tapped into and revived and intensified, put into a language of pop music, and later rock and roll, or folk-rock or whatever you want to call it, an endeavor that had eluded the so-called “purist” exponents of folk music.

The question of authenticity is front and center in any evaluation of Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. He was always secretive and still is, even in a supposedly tell-all work like “Chronicles: Volume One“ (2004) — about his origins as a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, preferring to make up fabulous tales about himself when he first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, intent on becoming a “music star.” Robert Allen Zimmerman liked to claim to reporters then that he didn’t know his parents, that he had worked in carnivals around the country, that he had traveled everywhere as a hobo on freight trains — and in that era of impromptu reinvention, it was all taken in good spirit.

For that matter, Woody Guthrie, to whom Dylan rigorously dedicated himself early on, arguably mastering Guthrie’s oeuvre better than the master, was himself an act. A creation of the big cities, tutored by academic folklore experts, speaking for the “folk”? But he is as authentic as they come, right? Or Pete Seeger, how about him? Whenever you look behind any artist claiming to be authentic, you find the same story of invention, duplication, homage, unreality and indecipherability. Dylan, being perhaps the most lacerating of all the modern wordsmiths, represents these traits in the most intense manner.

Like the best poets or prophets, he is unknowable — to this day.

The 1967 movie “Dont Look Back — D.A. Pennebaker’s pathbreaking cinéma vérité record of Dylan’s 1965 English tour — remains the most astute example of its genre. Take a look at it to decide for yourself the issue of Dylan’s authenticity as poet, or prophet.

To me, Dylan’s dealings with the two journalists he meets in the film — the first of whom he treats in a Socratic or Wittgensteinian manner, questioning the very definition of such basic concepts as friendship or identity, and the second a Time magazine reporter Dylan interrogates about what is news (or fake news) — are particularly emblematic of the degree to which he was not a fake. He was immersed so deeply in all the intellectual currents of his time, in a purely intuitive manner — and this is where the obvious comparison with Rimbaud comes in — that he didn’t have the luxury to worry about such distinctions as fake or authentic, or to wonder about how he was learning what he was learning.

He acted a little put upon in that movie, but you can also sense that his degree of poetic intensity — poetry defining the person and persona of the artist, not just as a part-time or semi-habitual intellectual endeavor — couldn’t possibly be kept up for long, as was the case with Jesus, for example, and that the end was near.

It is said that Dylan’s first long-term girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, taught him much about poetry — and art and literature and radical politics — and that later Allen Ginsberg, especially after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, provided him with further reading material. But these are just ex post facto biographical explanations that don’t tell us much about where his poetry came from.

The motorcycle accident, oh yes. That was the dividing line, in 1966, in rural Woodstock, New York, after which the poetry and the music ceased to be what they were before the accident. I believe that, as any prophet-poet in his condition would have done, he terminated his prophecy at that point. The accident probably wasn’t serious after all. But Dylan retreated, didn’t tour for another eight years, and tried to rediscover himself, going back to the roots. Later, in his explicitly “spiritual” manifestations — the avowed Christianity, for example, or the reclaimed Jewish heritage — he tried to capture the spirit that had moved him, but the gift of prophecy had left him.

Of course, he had already committed the ultimate no-no, as far as folk purists were concerned, by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but now, after trying the amplified rock and roll sound, he went back to the basics, consciously limiting the sound in “The Basement Tapes“ that eventually came out as a result of work he did in 1967 in Woodstock, removed from the public eye. He didn’t release this work at the time, instead trying on different modes, with a brilliant reinvention of the pastoral in “Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait“ and “New Morning,” work that I find increasingly meaningful with the passage of time.

How great his poetry and music were in the 1962–1966 period can be understood by the fact that Dylan himself was never able to approach his climax, despite half a century of relentlessly trying.

I’ve been diligently exploring album after album of the post-motorcycle accident era, and they’re all gems in their own way, but Dylan himself recognizes that he could never again reproduce the magic of 1962–1966, a period that includes “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited“ and “Blonde on Blonde.”

Weary of hewing to expectations, he wanted to terminate, also, any programmatic association with the progressive/alternative/leftist folkies, having mastered their tradition quickly, and having decided to move on.

He had to move along; the direction his poetry was dictating compelled him to. Can we imagine “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an acoustic song? But “To Ramona” we can, and must. He had soaked it all up, the gentle radicalness of Joan Baez, the straight talk of Woody Guthrie, the surreal imagistic prolificity of Allen Ginsberg, incorporated it all in his poetry, and made something entirely new out of it in that climactic period, and then almost as quickly as he’d done it, he ended it and moved on. Isn’t that the way of all prophets?

His so-called Never Ending Tour, consisting of thousands of concerts since the late 1980s, still with no end in sight, seems to me a prophet’s impossible search for what he was and what he has lost, though he doesn’t necessarily want it back. In the process he has been discovering himself and his songs anew for the last four decades, without any hope of ultimate success. Long ago, he lost his “voice” — literally.

It has been his greatest sacrifice, I think, this never-ending tour, which fueled the bootleg industry, and in which every Dylan song is a work in progress, different each time, coming across as provisional poetry for our time that refuses to let us see poetry as fixed words with fixed meanings. Dylan was as postmodernist as Charles Olson, the never-ending tour his expressive manifesto of poetry as contingent and hopelessly derivative and unself-sufficing.

He distilled the best of our literary and artistic values in that period of profound self-questioning in American culture — we have been going downhill in every respect since then — and this is another reason why the Nobel committee’s recognition of him at this time is an important reminder of what was best about America (all of which is rapidly dying, as even Dylan will cease to be in a short while). What was best about us was our ingrained quality of doubt toward highfalutin theories and our conviction in the decency of the common man, as evident in Thomas Jefferson as in Mark Twain. This has become all the more important at a time when demagogic manipulation has taken us a long way from our founding ideal of democracy as a practice of stubborn skepticism of — well, of bullshit.

There is no better antidote for the box we’ve put ourselves in, in this age of distorted politics, than any of Dylan’s music of that early period. The Nobel committee is also implying, by overlooking the “literary” names that are perennially mentioned as American contenders, that we are not good enough in what we think of as the literary realm; we are too conformist there, and this too is a timely rejoinder to us, a reminder that the game may well be over for us.

But the question remains, is it poetry?

How can anyone listen to “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and seriously ask this question?

I think that the New Critical approach taken by British critic Christopher Ricks — breaking down each Dylan song according to conventional matrices such as rhyming and alliteration and assonance — is a bit reductionist and naive. It misses the point about Dylan’s poetry.

Of course all the techniques are there, the whole poetic arsenal, and also tremendous fluidity with transitions, handling meter in a way suited to both poetry and music (that is, reading and singing), giving complex intellectual life to the linguistically simplified blues and folk and country traditions by way of exploiting modern(ist) techniques, and exploiting images and metaphors to merge the personal and the political in a way that few writers have been able to do.

That’s all there, without a doubt.

But is it still poetry if it’s not put to music? I suppose that is the underlying question that bugs those who resent Dylan getting the award. (In asking that question we are also, by the way, questioning whether drama is literature, because it too is enhanced by or is meant for performance. It’s a point Dylan noted by mentioning Shakespeare as literature in his Nobel acceptance speech.)

I would argue that Dylan writes his poetry in a way that takes full advantage of the potentialities of performance. We cannot say that poetry is only that which is purely restricted to the page. Poetry can be written to take advantage of the latent possibilities of delivery and performance and spectacle and music and everything else we can think of doing with it. And it is the better for it.

Conventional modern poets — William Blake and W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost aside — have had a very difficult time with certain things. How can a ballad, especially one dealing with tragedy, not succumb to the weight of its form, and succeed instead in building a transcendent argument by repetition, or accumulation, making the story larger than the sum of its content? This dilemma, actually, is true of all conventional or academic poetry. When it is written down as poetry, it often loses form and flexibility. To what extent can a poet magically endow it with a life that refuses to die, once it’s written?

That comes from prophecy, or the kind of youth that is immune to ordinary views of decline and mortality (hence Rimbaud and Keats and Dylan), a beautiful youth that delivers the best of our human spirit without knowing what it is doing. It can condemn without being whiny. It can fall in love without being naive. It can exit politics or love without being coy. That is a much higher form of poetry that breaking things down by New Criticism methodology will not explain.

Consider how in his early composition “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” Dylan is completely unafraid — and this must have taken an incomprehensible degree of unselfconsciousness — to indulge in a form of satire that he knows must lead back to himself. In that period he often wrote very long poems, unafraid of the risks in doing so.

The Death of Emmett Till” is another condemnation, like the even better “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which presents racial oppression without self-consciousness (he sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the murder of Medgar Evers, in Mississippi along with Pete Seeger, and you can catch a glimpse of it in “Dont Look Back”). Perhaps this is why he needed what I would consider the crutch of folk music for a start, to convey his sense of the wrongness of things in a form that wouldn’t overwhelm him. His poetry contained the genre of folk music, rather than the other way around. Isn’t that amazing? But then, he was completely self-taught.

How is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as short and concise a Dylan poem as we’ve ever seen, any less of a poem than the best that Hardy or Tennyson or Yeats wrote? The hinge, of course, is the “answer” that’s “blowin’ in the wind” — an answer Dylan has no intention of revealing.

Why does “Masters of War” not indulge in didacticism and pettiness, as is true of most political poetry, despite being a curse going back to a classical form? We might as well ask if the Bible is poetry. Or if the great religious scriptures of East and West rise to the level of poetry.

In “Masters of War” Dylan shows that he has complete mastery of the logic of the Bible, whatever his actual degree of study of it at the time may have been, because it’s what makes the curse work, it’s what elevates it to the highest degree of well-wishing (by naming sin) one could direct toward the enemies of humanity: “But there’s one thing I know/ Though I’m younger than you/ Even Jesus would never/ Forgive what you do.”

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” takes off from a well-known Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” but consider the layers of transformation when Dylan gets to work on it. With his insistent play on “my blue-eyed son” and “my darling young one,” it is perhaps his most tragic song, his most ideally executed song. I have no clue how he writes something like this (and then pitches it in his incomparably poignant voice, the most penetrative musical instrument of the late 20th century): “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,/ I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,/ I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,/ I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,/ I saw a white ladder all covered with water,/ I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,/ I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

It would take a petty bourgeois (f)rigidity of murderous proportions, a zombie commitment to academic poetry driven by mechanical identity politics and anti-humanistic neoliberalism, not to see the transcendent poetry in this. This is poetry that means business, it is written from the depths of the mystical soul whose origins no one can perceive, and it is presented with zero self-consciousness, both on the page and in the delivery, and it works!

He does compression, of the pressure of mortality, in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” in a way that makes it a poem of cozy friendship, exploding the sonnet of mortality, if you will, into something else altogether. A dream of mortality, we are led to think.

Has any poem-song of our time managed to be as inclusive of the shifting paradigms of change, as consistently progressive, as beholden to the long long view, as “The Times They Are A-Changin’? With simple words like “rattle” and “battle” he cuts out all the excess and superfluity of “poetry.” “Admit that the waters/ Around you have grown,” he starts, which is as powerful today as it was half a century ago.

How is “To Ramona” any lesser than the greatest of Keats’ songs of love — such as the elusive “La Belle Dame sans Merci”? Actually, Dylan does one better, by wanting to fortify Ramona — though that is ultimately her own job — against the illusions of the world, which is not interested in love: “But it grieves my heart, love,/ To see you tryin’ to be a part of/ A world that just don’t exist./ It’s all just a dream, babe.”

Later, in “I Want You,” perhaps the most beautiful love song of our time, Dylan opens up that fissure between the distracting world and the purity of love, in simplified language that refuses to look at anything but love. Compare the burdensome language used to describe distraction — “The guilty undertaker sighs,/ The lonesome organ grinder cries,/ The silver saxophones say I should refuse you” — with the simple purity of “Honey, I want you.” This is a playful dialectic that shows full awareness of the potential of poetry in explicating deep philosophical quandaries by the weight one places on words, by where and how one places them, by how one combines strength and lightness in the same compact space.

The brief lines, the staccato buildup, the rapid-fire listing of traps and illusions in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” make for as great a poem of keeping your head under while the capitalists are out to get you as has ever been written: “The man in the coon-skin cap/ In the big pen/ Wants eleven dollar bills/ You only got ten.” Now we’re dealing with Apollinaire, or Tristan Tzara, or Mayakovsky, in the plangent refusal to go along with conformity, in seeing the unreal behind the real, in arguing against formal education and formal manners.

This is true also of “Maggie’s Farm,” which he sings, in early recorded versions, with a laughter in his attitude that makes a mockery of work as a nationally sanctified enterprise, of discredited puritan aesthetics, that is as valid as Kerouac or Vonnegut or Bukowski.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” takes on the “discovery” of America itself; but which America? Dylan sings, “He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort/ And start buying the place with beads/ Just then this cop comes down the street/ Crazy as a loon/ He throw us all in jail/ For carryin’ harpoons.”

This is argumentative poetry that should be sung on all our streets, poetry that is fortified with music on the mind, with Dylan’s or any other wannabe prophet’s whine (or wine) in mind.

Mr. Tambourine Man” is very artful in splitting the poet’s persona from his poetry, in seeing the divided self, in alienating him from his alienation — as Charlie Chaplin did in the movies, or as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were doing contemporaneously (Dylan loved Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”), making of the artistry of connectivity the greatest alienation of all: “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.// Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,/ My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip.”

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of our most conclusive modern poems. It is so good that you know that the end for Dylan can’t be far off, because this level of prophetic poetry just can’t continue: “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn/ Suicide remarks are torn/ From the fool’s gold mouthpiece/ The hollow horn plays wasted words.” Everything redundant about poetry, all of its wasteful tricks, has been done away with in this poem; its essence is pain, and because it is pure poetry, it does not come across as narcissistic, as none of his great poetry does. This alone sets Dylan apart from all postwar American poets.

He resorts to what I would call a surrealism not of cynical laughter but joyous present-mindedness when he considers his situation as an artist, or really a thinking person caught up in murderous capitalism, in “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/ Ain’t it hard when you discover that/ He really wasn’t where it’s at/ After he took from you everything he could steal.”

His poetic technique here illustrates, embodies, executes to perfection the “no direction home” ethos. It has been interpreted, this song-poem, as a revenge fantasy with particular entities in mind (as has “Positively 4th Street”), this one with perhaps the suicidal actress and model Edie Sedgwick as the target. But none of his poems of that era work at that reductionist level; they are all ultimately about himself, the fame and glory of being the prophet of his time preventing any narcissistic consciousness, which I find the most unbelievable thing about his poetry then.

Ballad of a Thin Man” reminds us of Ivan Illich and Herbert Marcuse and the great social theorists of the 1960s, who talked about how functioning amid capitalist conformity has reduced us to intellectual and psychological ciphers, the Mr. Joneses of the world having their throats handed back to them: “You’ve been with the professors/ And they’ve all liked your looks/ With great lawyers you have/ Discussed lepers and crooks/ You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.”

His poetic technique here, in posing relentless direct questions, as is true of so much of his work then, exemplifies the thinness of our personalities: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is.” There is zero poetic “technique” involved in this line; yet it is as high a poetry as Li Po’s in capturing the essential hollowness of our situation.

He plays on “stoned” (in both the Biblical and countercultural sense), with a duality of meanings opening up because of the unresolved tension, in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Here, as in so many other poems, the repetition doesn’t come across as a lament seeking something as prosaic as a political solution, but becomes the summation of our tragic condition, as is true of all real knowledge: “They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave./ But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.”

Do I even need to talk about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”? It is a bold reinterpretation of his own earlier songs in a wildly unpredictable surrealist landscape: “With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,/ And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,/ And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,/ Who among them do you think could resist you?”

Various women have been said to have been the intended subject of this poem — perhaps Joan Baez, perhaps Sara Lownds, Dylan’s first wife — but it sums up, better than any poetical venture of our era, what it means to maintain the mystery of one’s existence, its purity and innocence, in a time when everything militates against it. Our vision is enough to see it, is it not? Only poetry, only the song of poetry, cuts through to the indefinable essence of the beloved.

Here, Dylan reaches the peak of his mysticism, but despite the length of the song, so unusual for its time, there is nothing wasted. With each powerful metaphor — “your sheet metal memory of Cannery Row,” or “your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — he piles on his own inadequacy to deal with, on its own terms, the beauty of women, or the beauty of anything beautiful.

Each of Dylan’s masterpieces from his peak deserves an extended breakdown to understand what he is doing poetically, though of course I can’t do it here. But any poet today who wants to know the source of life in poetry can learn untold amounts from making the attempt.

Dylan lent intellectual substance to popular music for the first time, and he was the first to show that complex poetic forms could be commercially successful. Rock and roll was already moribund, and had become silly after its inspiration from the original blues, by the time Dylan got started. But it got a new lease on life from him. Rock and roll stars — the Beatles were overwhelmed by Dylan — from Mick Jagger to David Bowie tried to reproduce a little of what Dylan had done poetically, but to one degree or another, they all failed. Heck, even Dylan after 1966 mostly couldn’t do it, which shows you how great his poetic zenith was.

His later “personal” poetry is just as “political” as his earlier songs designated as such. More than any other poet-songwriter, he completely erased the distinction between the two, more than even Allen Ginsberg, I think. That is a huge contribution both to music and poetry, one that has not been exploited since then, because it is so difficult to do. One that perhaps requires above all the gift of prophecy, for which we might have to wait another 500 years.

To experience, even at the remove of more than half a century, a tiny bit of what Dylan’s poetry achieved when he was the master of his game is to be transformed in the way that only the highest forms of writing can transform us. Through this award, Ginsberg gets a posthumous freebie, as do many others of that period who were plowing deep into the intensity of psychic experience, like John Berryman and Ted Berrigan. We Americans were never that good before. We never will be again.

What we need, at this point in time, more desperately than anything, is to return to the root of love, that is to say, to stare blindly, and with the highest intensity, at our human reality. Dylan did that better than almost anyone else in the last hundred years, except perhaps T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Philip K. Dick. This is why he will be read and listened to and admired as long as the self exists in tension with the collectivity, as long as people fall in love and ponder their mortality, as long as they are oppressed or killed or helped or saved by society.

Poetry does all that, doesn’t it? It can deal with all that, can’t it? Of course I haven’t been surprised at the condemnation that has erupted on American social media since he won, the duly certified and credentialed writers asserting that Dylan is not literature, this is a slap in the face of literature, and what about the real writers? That tells you all you need to know about why he won the Nobel Prize, and yet why his poetry cannot truly be recognized as victorious.