TOWARD A PLAUSIBLE, DYSTOPIA-SURVIVING CANON

canon2

Walk the long halls of any canon and you’ll find clunkers, oddities and impostors on its spot-lighted walls. The more discriminating you are, the more of these jarring entries you’ll find and, as time goes on, Time itself, you will see, loosens many of the fraudulent entries from where they’re mounted. In the Lit Canon, for example: Saul Bellow? Heavy in smarts and chutzpah and light on Literary Genius, Bellow was the not-entirely-unwitting beneficiary of the historic conditions (the postWar ascendancy of semi-assimilated Jewish writers,  and publishers,  within a traditionally WASPist practise; that and, later,  Israel’s PR offensive in the wake of the Six Day War) which graced him with several good whacks from the magic wand of Fame.

Bellow’s inadequacies show up like dark spots on rotten teeth in the black light of his greatest acolyte’s talent, and it was only this acolyte’s (Philip Roth’s) false modesty, regarding Bellow’s supposed influence, that kept the average reader from noticing the profound difference between the older writer and the real one. Time will make it clear. Same with Mr. Carver (“K Mart Realism’s”  soused hood ornament);  same with Ralph “I Only Actually Wrote One Complete, if So-So, Novel” Ellison;  same with JK Toole, the prankish footnote on Percy Walker’s career. No surprises in any of this.

Do we really think Jonathan Franzen will be read in fifty years (if anyone is reading anything)? If there is an English Lit (or anything at all) in 200 years’ time, I can imagine students reading DeLillo’s Underworld the way they now read Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, or Petronius’ Satyricon,  following a curriculum including some anachronistically over-interpreted howler like Naked Came the Stranger or Twilight, which will sit, a proud cosmic joke,  between Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet  in some future Uni’s black-ivory tower of a canon. But at least LIT has some sketchy sense of aesthetic discrimination… a “high” and “low”… to manage the hierarchy of our attentions. A reader who can’t tell the essential difference between Joyce’s The Dead and Ray Carver’s (original version of) A Small, Good Thing is only reading in the functionally semi-literate sense of the verb…

Which is what too often happens regarding the parallel canon of Popular Song: a sloppily-curated hierarchy endangers the status and influence of the canon’s hidden,  finest achievements.

Which is what this essay is actually about.

 

2.

 

In the year 1976 we had “Afternoon Delight,” “Sarah Smiles,”  “Get Up and Boogie,” “Love Rollercoaster” and Nazareth’s wrenching puberty-aria “Love Hurts”. We also had Queen’s interesting novelty production “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Bowie’s fairly sophisticated “Golden Years”… seven songs representing four or five distinct categories of value in the songwriting canon.

“Get Up and Boogie,”  “Afternoon Delight,” and “Love Rollercoaster” are disposably commercial sensations requiring zero thought or analysis, “Love Hurts” is entry-level versifying designed for teen consumption, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an educated pastiche,  of classical harmonic forms, with a fractured and melodramatic narrative stretched across the eye-popping chassis of cutting-edge studio craft and “Golden Years” is a creditable attempt at world-weary, postWar Lit.

Bowie, who was always obviously keen to separate himself from the pack (petite bourgeois ambition aggravated by the shame of his mother’s rumored dodgy bedroom activities during the War?), is ambitious with “Golden Years” but the disco format imposes structural limits on the scope of his attempt. There’s only so much text (and so many metaphors) you can squeeze in the four-bar boxes,  with their four-on-the-floor backbone, and keep people dancing. So there’s that limitation (along with the fact that the song was written in hopes that Elvis would sing it: oh, how often Artists naively fail to gauge the demands of the “commercial”! to our benefit), which means Bowie is forced to perform much of the intended evocative literary value the song aspires to, rather than being free to incorporate it on the level of composition.

(Some of) the lyrics:

 

Don’t let me hear you say life’s
Taking you nowhere
Angel

Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young
Come get up my baby

There’s my baby lost that’s all
Once I’m begging
You save her little soul
Golden years, gold, whop, whop, whop
Come get up my baby

Last night they loved you
Opening doors
And pulling some strings, angel
Come get up my baby
In walked luck and you looked in time
Never look back, walk tall
Act fine
Come get up my baby

I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years, gold
Golden years, gold whop whop whop
Come get up my baby

Some of these days, and it won’t be long
Gonna drive back down
Where you once belonged
In the back of a dream car
Twenty foot long
Don’t cry my sweet
Don’t break my heart
Doing all right
But you gotta get smart
Wish upon, wish upon, day upon day, I believe oh Lord
I believe all the way
Come get up my baby
Run for the shadows, run for the shadows
Run for the shadows in these golden years

 

A re-write could turn most of this song into a not-bad little column of  Frank O’Hara’s smoke-rings-blowing free verse, though despite some nicely evocative (Otto Premingeresque) imagery, there’s no sense of a hidden intellectual mass insinuating a deeper and weightier presence under the poem’s surface: the surface is all; nothing coded or subliminal is being smuggled in with the ’50s-era cinematography of the opening lines (a charge I could level, to be fair, against lots of O’Hara’s work). Leagues above “Get Up and Boogie” (and pointing toward Arty-er efforts on the same album and in the albums to come) but not quite Lit. Which is only a sort of “failure” because we can feel the song’s effort  in reaching for Lit and/or Philosophy. It falls short at the level of details, offering instead Bowie’s grandly noire operatic gestures. “Golden Years,” incidentally, ended that year at number 33 on the Billboard Singles Charts.

Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira  peaked at #13 on the Billboard Album Charts for 1977 (which is astonishing and depressing, if we consider the likelihood of that album charting at all in 2019) and on that album there was the song Coyote, a verse or two sampled here:

 

I looked a coyote right in the face
On the road to Baljennie near my old home town
He went running thru the whisker wheat
Chasing some prize down
And a hawk was playing with him
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes
He had those same eyes just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them thru this passion play
No regrets Coyote
I’ll just get off up aways
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

Coyote’s in the coffee shop
He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs
He’s too far from the Bay of Fundy
From appaloosas and eagles and tides
And the air conditioned cubicles
And the carbon ribbon rides
Are spelling it out so clear
Either he’s going to have to stand and fight
Or take off out of here
I tried to run away myself
To run away and wrestle with my ego
And with this flame
You put here in this Eskimo
In this hitcher
In this prisoner

Of the fine white lines
Of the white lines on the free free way

 

So.

1,300 years before the directly-above-cited song hit the radio,  the trippy and presumably runty shepherd Caedmon composed the first “western” pop song (and gave a name to a not-bad sci fi film starring Clive Owen):

 

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

 

Whether or not Caedmon really composed that (the Venerable Bede reports that Caedmon was an illiterate who miraculously and spontaneously blurted that tune right out using words he’d heretofore not known: right), people have been sticking words into musical settings for a very long time (perhaps for nearly as long as words have existed, or do songs… musical sounds from human mouths… predate and even pre-constitute language? Think on it!). But what Joni Mitchell was doing during America’s cheezed-out Bicentennial was a new thing; a leap forward. From Caedmon to Hejira took 1,300 years of steady effort interrupted by wars and famine.

In “Coyote,”  Joni Mitchell created a rhetorical structure, wed to music, that not only withstands scrutiny/analysis as a standalone poem (minus a few superfluous rhythmical flourishes, like the “no no”) … these are song-lyrics that work quite well as self-contained, high-value prose. The transition connecting the antagonistic protag to his animal namesake (and the song title) is so sudden, while at the same time fluidly organic, that the reader/listener wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was lifted from Nabokov: I looked a coyote right in the face / On the road to Baljennie near my old home town/ He went running thru the whisker wheat/ Chasing some prize down/ And a hawk was playing with him/ Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes/ He had those same eyes just like yours/ Under your dark glasses. If I were editing for Nabokov’s publisher in 1962 and this landed on my desk, I’d scrape out that redundant “same” but otherwise marvel at the deftness.

“Coyote,” Ladies & Gentlemen & Ye Others, is a short story, set to music, that could have been written by a big-ticket Lit artist like Nabokov or even (with a few bloody  adjustments)  Cormac McCarthy. No offense to Bob, who gave the 1960s so much brash and knowing glamour, but “Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob’s lyrical pinnacle, is just a sing-songy,  lyrically-not-quite-standalone example of the undergrad poetaster’s Kerouackian affectations compared to “Coyote,” Bob’s nod to Dante notwithstanding, and if any Songsmith should have gotten that Nobel, it was Mitchell. Mitchell invented a Genre; she fused Calliope and Terpsichore into a four-armed, Kali-like,  Postmodernist Muse-Witch:  no gong for that? No plaque on a wall somewhere?

Forget, for a moment, the wicked triumph of slipping the following couplet under the censor’s razor wire only five years after “Christ!” was bleeped angrily from the chorus of Lennon’s “Ballad of John and Yoko”:

 

He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he’s watching the waitresses’ legs

 

If Literary Art is half about the clever compressions necessary to pack a line dense with allusion,  while keeping its prosody sleek (it is), that couplet has it all. And there it was, on the FM Radio, right next to “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”  like Caravaggio or Mary Shelley sat ignominiously upon the little wet wooden platform over a state fair’s dunking tank. And no one cried out. No one rushed in to elevate Mitchell’s great work to a dedicated space of respectful contemplation.

They just tossed it into Pop’s vulgar horse-race and it doesn’t even turn up on Billboard’s year end singles charts. Which is like piling a short story by Cormac McCarthy into a heap with dross by Stephen King, JK Rowling and Sharon Stone and declaring the populist winner the result of a fair and democratic process. Democracy (in The Arts) is the problem. Sometimes, Discrimination is not only okay but vitally necessary. De Gustifuckingbus may indeed be Non Disputandum, but that doesn’t mean Technical Ability, and Aesthetics, and Formal Achievement are.

To show a child that some things are better than others, in any practise or craft or formal discipline, is the cornerstone of Teaching. If some things are not better than others, then what’s the point of learning to do anything “well,” which is already a value judgment?

What Joni Mitchell did, in writing “Free Man in Paris” (1974) and then its successor, “Coyote,” c. two years later, was violate the formal requirements of her putative job as Professional Entertainer (and Christ do I hate “Entertainment”! “Entertainment” is juggling and porno and bear-baiting and “Titanic”: whatever that sensation is that a sensitive soul experiences in front of a grand old painting in a muted gallery with a whiff of a passing stranger’s delicious perfume lingering, that’s what I want from Art, and it’s the heroic opposite of “Entertainment,” which is,  properly, for children and whooping crowds of bamboozled Roman rabble). All Mitchell was required to do was sing something catchy and spunky and littered with references to the populist signposts of the Age. She responded instead with a heedless nod to her Muse’s erotic Desiderata, created a Genre, exemplified a Promethean tragedy and spawned a ragged genealogy of equally-undervalued heirs.  All in the Time that it took our Huxwellian Dystopia to spring hideously to Life and take its first dumb Selfie.

[sidebar: clearly, Don Fagen’s literately-knowing songs deserve special consideration, too, although I’d argue that his soigné, Runyonesque couplets are so clipped and loyal to the strictures of the groove that there’s not quite the sense, in Fagen’s work, of cramming the layers and allusions of a fully-realized short story, into the format of popular song, that we see in “Coyote,” though Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell indeed developed along the same branch of the cultural family tree. Likewise, many rap/ hip hop tunes aspire to Lit, but the efforts are often diluted by so many rhythmical place-holders and crowd-pumping clichés of the genre]

Joni’s heirs (like Joni herself,  tossed carelessly in with the disposable content of our Age) include, for example, the Dirty Projector’s Dave Longstreth, who recently wrote the amazing and far too wonderfully Modernist break-up aubade (edited here for length) :

 

DEATH SPIRAL

[Verse 1]
Hold up, I was reborn the second before the
Plane became shards of glass
And ash when it crashed on arrival I woke up
Feeling like I’m sipping on some René Descartes
And you’re Big Gulping the Bible
Your wings are broken so we fly in a spiral
All I have is my love of love
But now you wanna blow us up
You’re so rock ‘n’ roll suicidal

[Pre-Chorus]
Tailspin, nose down
Now it’s a race to the bottom
Tailspin, nose down
Now it’s a race to the bottom

[Chorus]
You spin me around
In a wild death spiral
We’re hitting the ground
In a fiery pile
Whose fault I couldn’t fly
For the dials, only by the eye
Now the ring is on fire
Now it’s final
Death spiral

[Verse 2]
What can we say? It’s too late
We can’t rewind to when we were both open and amazed
Like a wide-eyed child’s smile
But it’s the end, we’re enemies, not friends
I don’t know your state of mind, mine’s good, bye

[Pre-Chorus]
Tailspin, nose down
Now it’s a race to the bottom
Tailspin, nose down
Now it’s a race to the bottom

[Chorus]
You spin me around
In a wild death spiral
We’re hitting the ground
In a fiery pile
Whose fault I couldn’t fly
For the dials, only by the eye
Now the ring is on fire
Now it’s final
Death spiral

[Bridge]
This isn’t ’bout the time you chased me down the street
Face a rictus of misery and pain
You grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let me leave
Taxi! Taxi! Taxi!
Or how I never learned to let you breathe
Condescended relentlessly
These threads need disentangling
So we have thread left to weave

Now our love is spiraling finally down
Now our helix is widening, coming unbound

[Chorus]
You spin me around
In a wild death spiral
We’re hitting the ground
In a fiery pile
Whose fault I couldn’t fly
For the dials, only by the eye
Now the ring is on fire
Now it’s final
Death spiral

 

 

Which is chucked (with the predictable sensation of being buried in the long, long tail of the also-rans),  in Pop’s insulting horse-race,  along with the nothing-but-professionally-adequate, über-triumphant Adele’s soporific (but it’s The Feels, The Feels!) hit:

I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now
I heard that your dreams came true
Guess she gave you things, I didn’t give to you
Old friend, why are you so shy?
Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light
I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it
I had hoped you’d see my face
And that you’d be reminded that for me, it isn’t over
.
Blah! It’s like comparing the pros and cons of my Wife’s exquisitely-tapering leather knee-high riding boots to super-cheap edge-worn rubber flip flops in the context of a day at the beach: inappropriate! Unfair! A heedless violation of the Aesthetic Taxonomy of an oppressed canon!
.
Another relatively unsung direct descendant of J. Mitchell’s pioneering of a new canon, in the field of the Art Song (I’ve mentioned Longstreth and this other writer before, in this context) is Alex Turner, who comes closer to becoming Pop’s version of the details-jeweler Alice Munro every day (the following effort is still a bit too glib and linear but Turner is getting there):
.

Verse 1]
Arabella’s got some interstellar-gator skin boots
An’ a Helter Skelter ’round her little finger
An’ I ride it endlessly
She’s got a Barbarella silver swimsuit
An’ when she needs to shelter from reality
She takes a dip in my daydreams

[Chorus]
My days end best when the sunset gets itself behind
That little lady sittin’ on the passenger side
It’s much less picturesque without her catchin’ the light
The horizon tries but it’s just not as kind on the eyes
As Arabella, oh
As Arabella

 

Or, in his latter, just-that-much-better Kubrick-meets-Cheever Four Out of Five:

 

Advertise in imaginative ways
Start your free trial today
Come on in, the water’s lovely
Look, you could meet someone you like
During the meteor strike
It is that easy
Lunar surface on a Saturday night
Dressed up in silver and white
With coloured “Old Grey Whistle Test” lights
Take it easy for a little while
Come and stay with us
It’s such an easy flight
Cute new places keep on popping up
Since the exodus
It’s all getting gentrified
I put a taqueria on the roof
It was well reviewed
Four stars out of five
And that’s unheard of
Mr. Bridge and Tunnel on the starlight express
The head of special effects
In my mind’s eye
Hokey Cokey with the opposite sex
The things you try to forget
Doesn’t time fly?I’m in no position to give advice
I don’t wanna be nice
And you know that
Take it easy for a little while
Come and stay with us
It’s such an easy flight
Cute new places keep on popping up Around Clavius
It’s all getting gentrified
The Information-Action Ratio is the place to go
And you will not recognise
The old headquarters
.
And Moses Sumney shows great minimalist  literary promise with:
.
So, as a mild mannered child
My mom would drop me off
In our family’s second hand Mitsubishi caravan
And I would glance back, before my descent
To mutter, “I love you”
In turn she’d nod her head
And turn to the road ahead and sigh
Thank you, thank you
.
Not to forget the always Lit-rich songs of  (sometimes perhaps too-self-consciously didactic) Momus:
.

Murderers, The Hope of Women

With this knife I cut the cake
Who will be my bride today
Sweet Fanny Adams
Watch her climb the step ladder
A present from her step father
Sweet Fanny Adams
See her reaching out and stripping down the muslin drapes
A cover for her nakedness, a veil for her face
With curtains for your wedding dress
You must take your place amongst
The Proper Little Madams
And now because I love you
I must take my place too

Amongst the…

Murderers, The Hope of Women
Death in every new beginning
I must take this woman for my sentence of life
And she must take my knife

I will buy a ring of gold
And you will practise birth control
Sweet Fanny Adams
Like a puppet upon a throne
Of oestrogen and progesterone
Sweet Fanny Adams
This is where your misery starts
This is where your mystery stops
We’ll rent a television
To replace Pandora’s Box
And I will wear a business face
And you will learn your proper place
From those Proper Little Madams
And in my world of cut and thrust
I will learn that my place

My place must be with the…

Murderers, The Hope of Women
Death in every new beginning
I must take this woman for my sentence of life
And she must take my knife

In my pipe and slippers
Do I look like Jack The Ripper
Sweet Fanny Adams
But I poisoned you with every kiss
Smothered you with domestic bliss
Sweet Fanny Adams
Underneath the suntan from the sun lamp that we bought
Your face is paler than the pale face of a corpse
And from the seventh floor of our bungalow
You flung yourself down to where they stood below
Those Proper Little Madams
But in white hair, wrinkles and false teeth
I escaped detection by the police

One of the…

Murderers, The Hope of Women
Death in every new beginning
I must take this woman for my sentence of life
And she must take my knife

All four specimens being the kind of  great Literary stuff that is, as ever, neither widely nor seriously studied in relevant context by dedicated monks but heaved,  unceremoniously,  into the earsplitting 24/7 horse-race (or Coliseum) with, e.g., the textual rhythm-filler of this billions-viewed advert for aspirationally Delusional Late Capitalist Narcissism:
.
Ooh, don’t we look good together?
There’s a reason why they watch all night long
Yeah, know we’ll turn heads forever
So tonight I’m gonna show you off
When I’m walkin’ with you
I watch the whole room change
Baby, that’s what you do
No, my baby, don’t play
Blame it on my confidence
Oh, blame it on your measurements
Shut that shit down on sight
That’s right
We out here drippin’ in finesse
It don’t make no sense
Out here drippin’ in finesse
You know it, you know it
We out here drippin’ in finesse
It don’t make no sense
Out here drippin’ in finesse
You know it, you know it
.

 

Artists… Real Artists… create against the smug indifference (and churlish Indifferents) of their respectively ignorant Ages. Who knows why? They will themselves on, push it with protracted groans all out, as their skins and wombs thicken into armor against the utter lack of general appreciation (among the virtue-signalling Undiscriminating)  for the holy effort. Goddammit. Against every passive-aggressive effort to Kill Off  All Art Forever and replace it with smarmy “Entertainment”.

If a finer, higher, more adult and committed Literature survives the very long techno-trial of this anti-Intellectual Era, it isn’t too far-fetched to think, I think, that it might survive, at all,  two hundred years from now, as Song.

 

 

 

 

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