Givin’ ’em Lots Of Room

I did have more to say  about the women in Dylan’s songs who come from worlds worth being dreamt, but I think I’ve mentioned this already somewhere. The sleeping women are watched, and they’re also protected and private.  So many of the women in the songs move, travel, change–they leave the club in the middle of a song, they go to Tangier, they frolic in parks, they become big girls (a phrase which is deceptively offensive, it’s the singer’s unhappiness that infantilizes the woman, she is indeed on dry land and in somebody’s room, he can paint her in any colors he wants), they are satellites, they travel incognito….so many women are free while the singer is stationed forever in the song,  imagining and mourning and lusting and fuming and surrendering. I like the songs that are compasses of love: the singer is the “fixed foot” and the woman “far doth roam,” and neither soul “comes home” to the other. I like those because I feel the women untethered and belonging to themselves. Maybe Prof Ricks will read some Donne to his Misogyny class–that I would be sorry to miss, it sounds much better with an English accent than a Brooklyn accent. Nothing really sounds good with a Brooklyn accent except the recitation of a pizza recipe. I digress.

This diagram is a good segue for what I wanted to think about today–at first glance it can appear to be a clinical bawdiness. But it is not. These are vocal cords.

My father was a great enthusiast of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died 6 days before Bob Dylan’s 71st birthday. I grew up hearing enough recordings of his voice that by age 12, I could recognize him immediately. My father died 154 days before Bob Dylan’s 59th birthday, and learning of Fischer-Dieskau’s death made me sad and sentimental, so I dug up Roland Barthes’ essay The Grain of the Voice, in which he disparages Fischer-Dieskau, to distract myself.

Barthes gets to F-D through his anxiety over the apparent conundrum of translating the experience of music into language. His bête noire is the adjective and his other bête noire is the language of transcendence. “Are we condemned to the adjective?” Barthes laments. “Are we reduced to the dilemma of either the predicable or the ineffable?” He tries to find a way out of this bind, to give us a chance to marry language to music without producing the stillborn adjective-ridden description, or the chimera-monster of transcendence. He hits upon the idea of embodied language,  what he will call the grain of the voice, “the very precise space (genre) of the encounter between a language and a voice.” (His emphasis.)

To illustrate this idea, he pits F-D against  Charles Panzera, whom I confess I hadn’t heard of before reading Barthes’ essay. F-D loses, because although he is “an artist beyond reproach…nothing seduces, nothing sways us to jouissance.”  “With FD [NB: Barthes didn’t have the patience to type out his entire name either], I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth. All of Panzera’s art, on the contrary, was in the letters, not in the bellows (simple technical feature: you never heard him breathe, but only divide up the phrase).”

The encounter between a language and a voice is pretty much where you live when you listen to Bob Dylan, and Roland Barthes lived long enough to hear When He Returns, for crying out loud, although we don’t have time to worry about that. My version of the Fischer-Dieskau–Panzera showdown would be Rufus Wainwright’s and Bob Dylan’s versions of Hallelujah, and I mean Dylan’s 1988 live performance of Leonard’s song which if you haven’t heard it, you must kill anyone who stands in your way of hearing it.

We like Rufus very much here in the garden, his voice is like nicely salted caramel, and I doubt anyone could top his sly and silky cover of Leonard’s Everybody Knows. His Hallelujah is silky too, and pure, and very nearly liturgical. His hallelujahs and indeed his treatment of the whole song favors the cultured liberal’s illusion that religious art proves that religion is really all about feelings, and beauty, and religious art proves we can all share feeling and beauty, because that is what art is for. Rufus turns the song into a lovely piece of humanism.

Bob Dylan’s Hallelujah is all human and never humanistic. There’s an urgent low quaver in the opening lines, David playing his secret chord, and then, ” But you don’t really care for music, DO YA?” That is a man sounding harsh and shameless,  taunting his own god,  not a man singing a story about problems between a fictional character and his god. Then a different kind of boldness when he soars on one breath through “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing hallelujah.”  He bites off “You saw her bathing on the roof,” and manages to get so much teeth into the one word proof, that I learn what the word means–it means faithlessness. Then he lets go the r’s at the end of chair and hair, to let the words rise. And the hallelujahs themselves are almost everything you need to know about that space where a voice meets a language: Dylan’s hallelujahs are nearly everything he can do with his voice, from loam to honey,  and more kinds of feeling in 4 syllables than most of us will experience in a week. If hallelujah is gratitude and praise, how better to make that happen than to body the word. How puerile to think praise is just a tone. By the time Dylan announces “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll, stand before the lord of song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah,”  to say he’s manifested the lord of song right there is a trite and evasive response. Instead I hear how to be bold and rooted enough to dare a lord of song to doubt his existence.  He does what Barthes argues: “The song must speak, must write— for what is produced at the level of geno-song is finally writing.”  And this writing occurs in the uncanny space when the signs and symbols of language are of a piece with those mortal bits of vocal cords. It matters absolutely that this space where matter meets sign and composes tangible writing is not mystical nor ineffable, nor is it humanistic. I think Bob Dylan owns this space.

I wanted an image for this space, and I think this painting, The Sounds in the Rock, by Theodoros  Stamos is just right. Unfortunately it doesn’t reproduce well, and unfortunately, MoMA has taken it down for the time being. If you’ve seen it, you may agree with me: the painting pulls you into a strange dark beautiful place with echoes you can just barely hear until you start to freak out a little and feel you better move on because those French tourists are starting to look at you staring a little too slack-jawed at a painting by an artist they never heard of.

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2 thoughts on “Givin’ ’em Lots Of Room

  1. What do you make of Cohen’s women?
    I’ve noticed that some people make him out to be more ‘gender enlightened’ than Dylan, but to me all his women seem like Johannas.

    • Leonard Cohen more gender-enlightened than Bob Dylan… That’s a showdown I don’t think I can referee. Myself, there’s a strange and reliable depression I always feel after listening for an hour to Leonard Cohen’s self-feeding, never-satisfied, always one-sided desire. His desires seem to feel like one desire that constitutes him, and yes, all his women become Johannas whose life support system is his attention. But also somehow worse than Johanna because they are corporeal, Cohen’s women, they’re in the room with him. Or on the riverbank. Suzanne is captivating and nurturing, she is only half-crazy because he describes her so, and until she gets him on her wavelength and perhaps teaches him we are all half-crazy, she’s unloved. Up to this point she seems in the family of Little Wing and Sugar Magnolia, fey and delicious nymphs who understand that they have to go back to their cabbage patch when the man serenading them is done with their song. But this is Leonard Cohen, so his unexpected melding with Suzanne by the water leads into a meditation on Jesus’s sacrifice, redemption, salvation–and all those men drowning in their sins. The stakes become so high in the 2nd verse, there are the mysteries of faith and wisdom. Then the woman in her rags and feathers returns to lead our fallen singer to the river, she is wild and a seer and maybe he does find redemption in the water she leads him to having mystically convinced him, through the voice of the river, that he’s always been her lover. (And sure in language strange she said “I love thee true.”) Suzanne is a woman making tea, and she is a faery, I can see her and then see through her. She’s the occasion for the song but not its maker, her own language is nature, not art. This gets a little fatiguing, dispiriting. And Tonight Will Be Fine also depresses the hell out of me. It is utterly of a piece with Leonard Cohen that it’s his love that has thinned out, not the woman’s, And of a piece that he sadly recognizes her beauty and generosity deserve better than a night that is only an interlude in the singer’s disappointment–and her “vast” love keeps her so sadly chained to a man who doesn’t want her enough. Really, it’s enough to darken a person’s day sometimes. We haven’t outlived these tropes, I haven’t even outlived them. And I’m thrilled to have tkts to see Leonard Cohen share all this with me in December. “I’m tired of choosing desire” he sings–intones–on his new record, and I do believe him, and there’s something to that. So thank you for bringing up Leonard.

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