The other day, after reading Raúl Caballero García’sElBeiSMan essay on a recent Bob Dylan CD (see http://elbeisman.com/article.php?action=read&id=574), as well as several reactions to Dylan’s still more recent Shadows in the Night CD which Caballero mentions, I then sent off a passing email question to my good good friend, Alessandro Carrera, prolific and brilliant Italian novelist/poet/critic/theoretician and writer on music (especially Dylan, but also Sinatra, Miles Davis and Schönberg) as well as many other things:
Alessandro, what did you think of Dylan’s Sinatra? Strange selection I thought, mostly early, romantic and not very deep — and most interpretations not so good as cover or counter? — an inconsequential album? Some raved, others grunted. And now I ask the learned...
I enclose Carrera’s answer which to me is a totally remarkable example of thinking, judging and forming a careful opinion — a great model for all those so quick to come to cleverly thought-out conclusions; I also enclose some final interactions stemming from his answer. —MZ
Dear Marc, your ambivalent question and comment point to a complicated issue... I’ve been struggling for days to find the time to write a review of for an Italian website (the newspaper I used to collaborate with, Europa, has folded). I use your invitation to comment as an opportunity to improvise a review I will then translate.
I have read many enthusiastic and even over-enthusiastic reviews, and some scathing reviews mostly from people who used to hate Sinatra in their prime and everything Sinatra stood for (another one in the list of Dylan’s “betrayals”...). Most of the time, I think, the enthusiastic reviews are mere sighs of relief that the entire operation was not a disaster.
I am not so enthusiastic, but I liked the record, and it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece in order to be endearing. Shadows in the Night is a very somber record, a funeral march for the great songs of the past, and it is unequal. Some songs come out very well, others don’t.
To me, the highlights are “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “Stay with Me,” and “Lucky Old Sun” (a song Dylan has sung many times in concert but never recorded before). The low points are “The Night We Called It a Day,” just because his voice is not up the task, not even in the minimalist setting he has (wisely) chosen, and “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, not because he sings it badly, but because the inherent kitschiness of the song is hard to dispel. In fact, Dylan’s interpretation skillfully tones down the pretentiousness of the 1950s’ obsession for classical crossovers (better Dylan than Pavarotti, if you just want to deconstruct it), but the song is what it is.
Dylan reduces the songs to the chordal structure, with minimal arrangements, the steel guitar replacing the string sections, almost no drums (only brushes), and a soft brass section sometimes in the distance. The recording was live, the singer and the band in the same Capitol Studio were Sinatra recorded, with minimal technology. It’s a good idea, and it is consistent with the stripped-bare versions of folk songs Dylan recorded in the 1990s: to find the hidden folk song in every song, the “kernel of the real” (in Lacanian jargon) that stays unchanged in all incarnations of a given song. Greil Marcus has written that he sings “Stay with Me” as if it had been written by Stephen Foster, and that’s exactly right. Even more, as if it had been written by some 18th century Methodist pastor. Maybe he should have done it twenty years ago, his voice would have been better, but then again you would miss the plaintive, whispering, and yes, even ghostly aura Dylan manages to give the songs. Not with a bang but...
Listen to “Lucky Old Sun” when he reaches the word “paradise.” He is clearly struggling to hit the note, and there is tenderness, resignation, and desperation (or desperation and resignation) in his effort. A couple of associations came to my mind. First, two Elvis’ songs about paradise. One is “Anyplace Is Paradise” (1956) one of his most perfect blues, a truly shining performance, and “So Close, Yet So Far (from Paradise)” of 1965, a much lighter song. Yet Presley is able to convey the idea that paradise is contained in the word itself. You may never enter it, but you can sing it, and for the moment (a moment that lasts an entire life) that will be enough.
The second association is a nasty one, or better, if you allow me, a variation on nasty Jewish humor. Recently, I watched on TV Mel Brooks’ stand-up performance at the Geffen theatre. If I’m not wrong, it is the first and only time he has done a stand-up, and he is 88 years old. It was hilarious. He recalled when he was a boy and his parents took him to the Catskills on vacation, in hotels full of old Jews who ate voraciously every kind of thing a doctor would disapprove of today. But they did not die because of what they ate, Mel Brooks said, oh no. They died when they try to sing “Dancing in the Dark,” the Dietz-Schwarz song. For “Dancing in the Dark” has a tune that goes up and up, and you better sing “Dancin’ in the dark ‘til the tune ends, we’re dancing in the dark” in mid- or low-register if you want to get it right when it comes to “we can face the music together.” But those old Jews started the song in mid-high register, Mel Brooks said, and then they tried to keep up with the tune, up and up and up until, at “we can face the music...” they have a stroke and drop dead.
Now, listen to Dylan singing “That Lucky Old Sun,” when it comes to “Send down that cloud with a silver lining, lift me to paradise...” The strain in his voice at the very word, “paradise,” made me think for a moment, oh, my god, now he’s kicking the bucket. And it’s not even the highest note in the song. To quote a great stanza from The Pogues (“A Rainy Night in Soho”), “We watched our friends grow up together / And we saw them as they fell / Some of them fell into heaven / And some of them fell into hell.” Presley’s voice fell into heaven, while the rest of his body, and his life, fell into hell. Maybe the same could be said about Sinatra, albeit not to the same extent. Obviously, Dylan is different. He does not have Presley’s or Sinatra’s voice. He will never reach that paradise. He will always remain outside the “Gates of Eden” (it’s one of his songs of 1965, and in fact it describes only what’s happening outside the Gates of Eden, for no one knows what goes on inside). But he is not leaving, he’s still there, like Kafka’s man from the country, standing at the doorstep of the Perfect Song, the Perfect Pitch, the Paradise of Song he will never be admitted to. And he sings his being left outside, with a perseverance that is either pure stubbornness or great artistic truth, and, likely, a mix of the two.
Well, sorry for using you as a guinea pig, but without your input I would have never written the review. Abrazos,
MZ to Alessandro Carrera:
I’m so glad my question helped spark your fire. This is so great, so careful, so differentiated, so deeply understanding. All I expect from you. I confess part of me did respond positively but I thought I should block my silly sentimentalities, my Sinatra obsessions. Your review confirmed my deeper feelings opposing my more surface thoughts that I didn’t want to admit to.
Following your lead I would like to defend “Full Moon” a bit. I believe it’s the Ur song for the whole concept album. Maybe Dylan’s iron range background pushed him toward Guthrie and a whole (then recent) tradition of left populist folk appropriations, but there were probably seeds in the post-war years tying his early musical formation to some of the same tin-pan alley and Broadway musical traditions (often the products of Jewish writers writing for largely New York though not quite Catskills or Hibbing’s Jewish audiences) which helped form Sinatra and produced the mode of reappropriating classical melodies that became a trademark of Italian American singers like Sinatra (Tchaikovsky: “None but the Lonely Heart,” Ravel: “The Lamp is Low,” Rubenstein: "If You Are But a Dream," etc.) and Perry Como (Chopin: “Till the End of Time”).
For Sinatra’s eightieth birthday tribute party, which was, yes, twenty years ago, and at Sinatra’s request, Dylan sang “Restless Farewell,” one of his early songs, which Sinatra must have sensed had some affinity with his own musical roots and sensibility—and this before an audience not all that different (though Hollywoody) from Mel Brooks’. What we get with Dylan’s “Full Moon” is Dylan’s rejection of the rejection of Sinatra by the former’s politically correct Anglo American fellow co-generationists, a kind offading tribute to a faded pop style that only survives with Tony Bennett and a few others, Lady Gaga above all — a tribute too to those Fred Gardaphé calls the OL’s: the old Latinos (or Italians) who showed up in New York and elsewhere before the huge NL (new Latin American/Latino/a wave) hit U.S. urban areas far from the border. No wonder you in your incredible, ever-bourgeoning writing on Dylan and Scorsese in his one documentary film on him catch Dylan better than any one else I know. I’d say that Dylan’s “Full Moon” is a Jewish American tribute (most readers of elbeisman.com may not realize that Dylan is a Zimmerman — and that’s with one n, not two!), where late Euro-romantic Rachmaninov meets Woody Guthrie and (why not?) maybe even Ginsberg. What I hear is the saddest sound in the world — a kind of Kaddish for Sinatra and … Dylan. … for me and … the rest of us.
(For some interesting sidelights related to all this, see http://www.cinchreview.com/bob-dylan-frank-sinatra-2015-a-very-good-year/14141/)
Your critique is truly a small masterpiece, teaching us how we should listen and live. Congratulations!
Alessandro to MZ:
Great connections between the Iron Range, Woody Guthrie, and the faded world of classical radio stations in the 1950s, whose programming had Adorno screaming at the walls of his Los Angeles condo (why all this Sibelius and Rachmaninov? Wheres Schönberg? Where are Bartók and Stravinsky?)
Not sure theyre connections as much as conniptions. I wonder how much New York tin pan alley got up into the iron range, home of Dylan and Gus Hall. As for Adorno, his negative dialectics just separated him all the more from much that might be “vulgar” or “popular” around him in good old L.A. Not that he doesn’t have a point about the culture industry, etc. But what you describe is why Latin American cultural studies went with Gramsci instead of Adorno. Hell, if the austere Schönberg could play tennis with Gershwin, and if Dylan in a manner of speaking could play ball with Sinatra, why couldn’t Adorno loosen up just a little? . . . Did he ever see Fantasia or go to see Los tres amigos at the local movie theatre in Westwood? Did he ever see Dali’s picture with Disney? I once saw Marcuse at a ball game in San Diego’s Padre Stadium and even Marc Zimmerman was spotted eating peanuts there…
Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S. cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.
Alessandro Carrera (Lodi, Italy, 1954) is Director of Italian Studies and Graduate Director of World Cultures and Literatures at the University of Houston. He has written a great number of books of music and literary theory and criticism, as well as several works of fiction and poetry. A winner of several prizes, he has also worked for years with the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He is also a leading authority on popular culture, one of the leading critics of Bob Dylan, and the translator of Dylan’s autobiography and over three hundred fifty songs into Italian.