Nice to see Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature – it shows that you don’t have to be academically acceptable to win it. One of the people he beat to the Prize was Salman Rushdie, who is eminently academically acceptable but possibly the most over-rated writer in history. I've waded through The Satanic Verses and a couple of his short stories and found them bloody near unreadable…….if it hadn’t been for the Fatwa and years of personal bodyguards (at tax payers’ expense, I seem to recall) I think he might well have sunk without trace.
But he was not as bad as Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Party politician and professional Yorkshireman. Many years ago, in a budget bookshop in Tintagel, Cornwall, I bought a book of his called The Maker’s Mark, about a steel family in Sheffield in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was billed as “part one of an epic and unmissable seven part family saga”. God only knows what happened to parts 2 to 7 – I’ve never seen them anywhere, which is no surprise: the first book is without a shadow of a doubt the worst book I have EVER read. Apart from how badly written and turgid and humourless it was I remember nothing about plot or character (I think one of the characters rose to fame playing football for Notts County or someone, but I may have imagined that bit….). I spent the best of part of a year reading the thing, out of sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to be beaten, and then, exhausted, passed it over to the second-hand book stall at the local church summer fete. Priced at 10p, it was still languishing, unsold and dusty, at the last fete day I went to, perhaps 8 years later. It’s probably still there now. I remain convinced it only found a publisher because of who wrote it, not its quality.
So the fact that a songwriter and musician has won this years’ Nobel is refreshing and a bow to popular culture rather than Academia, and this is no bad thing. Without a doubt, Bob is a fine and inventive songwriter, but whether songwriting should be considered “literature” is an open question. Judged on sales and influence over a generation, then possibly – and no-one could seriously question Dylan’s output or appeal over the last 50 years. He knocks Rushdie and the other contenders this year out of the ball-park in that respect. People will be singing along with Like A Rolling Stone or Lay, Lady, Lay long after our Salman has been forgotten, in my view. But literature? Arguable, I would say.
Some poet (who needless to say I’ve never heard of and whose name I have immediately forgotten) was particularly critical, and described Dylan’s lyrics as childish, poorly written and lacking in rhyme and rhythm. Probably overlooked for the Nobel……. But childish? The early stuff, maybe, when he was learning his trade (the same as all of us). Poorly written? No, a lot of it is unforgettable – The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Isis are little gems. Lacking rhyme and rhythm? Possibly, but they are songs, so perhaps the rhyming bit doesn’t matter as much as it does in poetry (and since when did say e.e.cummings bother about that? Great poet, but still trying to figure out upper case letters, never mind rhymes and metre). Still, each to his own I guess. If the judges are happy to call it literature, I ain’t going to argue.
As fine a lyricist Dylan is, though, he is not my favourite.
Nor are Lennon - McCartney, or Jagger – Richard, ground-breakers though both pairings undoubtedly were. Nor Elton john and Bernie Taupin, another 70s duo still going strong in this 21st century. All six of them are touched by genius, and along with the late great David Bowie formed and continue to supply the soundtrack to my life and dominate the Music Library on my phone.
In fact, I have two favourites and simply cannot choose between them. Both have been around for years, and share another huge chunk of my Library. They are both firmly blue collar working class boys, much like myself, who have made good (and huge piles of money) working their arses off and making some quite brilliant music on the way.
From the US is the brilliant (though often denigrated, for reasons I can’t begin to understand) Boss, Bruce Springsteen. I first heard him way back in 1975 or thereabouts, when over a few beers in a Tunbridge Wells pub I spent a drunken hour listening to two close friends complaining bitterly about what a poser he was, how his music was boring, pretentious shit, his guitar playing no more than rudimentary beginners' strumming, and much else that was a lot worse. Intrigued, I wandered off to my local Our Price and purchased an original vinyl copy of Born to Run. It simply blew me away. I later bought Born in the USA, also on vinyl, tapes of Human Touch and Tunnel of Love, and later downloaded The Ghost of Tom Joad, The Rising and We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions), as well as a two volume Essential…. compilation. And the 30th anniversary box set of Born To Run, complete with the DVD of that immortal 1975 London concert that broke him in my homeland.
I remember watching an MTV Unplugged session, with a band of then young musicians (rather than the magnificent E-Street Band) including, if memory serves, on drums the excellent Cindy Blackman (now married to Carlos Santana and a mainstay of Lenny Kravitz’ band). He played the first song, solo and acoustic, then said something like “That’s the unplugged bit, now let’s do the real stuff”, brought the band out, strapped on his battered old Fender and blew the place away for an hour and half. A short concert by his standards – I saw him and the E-Street Band in London’s Earls Court in the mid 90s and was treated to a full-on three hour concert that remains the best gig I’ve ever been to. Twenty thousand people – including yours truly - singing along word-for-word Born To Run reduced me (and many others) to tears. Magic is the only word I can find to describe that night.
But live concerts are transient things, by their very nature. You buy your ticket, turn up at the venue, enjoy the show (or not – I dozed off in the front row of one once, Barclay James Harvest in Croydon, many years ago: sober too) and then go home again. Springsteen at Earls Court was exceptional and not to be forgotten, others I’ve been to I’ve forgotten before I’ve arrived home. What makes a show, and an artist, exceptional is the content – the quality of the music, the skill in the song writing. In both areas, in my view, Springsteen is without peer.
He is more than a rocker (though tracks like Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and Born to Run, Born in the USA and Glory Days are American anthemic rock at its very best). Listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad – the entire album is country music, and he is as adept at that as his lung-bursting stadium rock. Or The Seeger Sessions – pure traditional American folk, complete with fiddles and washboards (and recorded with a local bar band in his kitchen in New Jersey, apparently). And don’t forget the ballads – the Oscar winning Streets of Philadelphia, Nebraska (which is classic country too), and American Skin (41 Shots). Ignoring Seeger, all of those feature some sublime lyrics that are in my view more poetic than anything Dylan has written.
Springsteen appeals to the American blue-collar worker in a way few contemporaries have. His songs are full of small town America, its people struggling with a depressed economy and unemployment, but always with some hope to keep them going. In The River, he writes about a young family, High School sweethearts, whose love is fading – some of the most poignant lyrics I’ve ever heard are in this song: “We went down to the Courthouse and the judge put it all to rest/No wedding day smile, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress…” and again: “I got a job working construction for the Jonestown Company/But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”. Rural New Jersey in the 1980s recession personified. In Thunder Road there is more hope for the young lovers: “Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk/And my car’s out the back if you’re ready to take that long walk”…..and a final bellow of “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling outta here to win!” You did, Bruce – you surely did. I could write pages of this stuff, quote lines from song after song – but I won’t. You can find ‘em all on Spotify or iTunes or You Tube, and enjoy them all at your leisure.
My other hero (and that is seriously not too strong a word) is Britain’s own Mod wide-boy, the recently knighted Sir Rod(erick) Stewart, Highgate’s finest, professional Jock and Celtic fan. I never saw him perform, but did once see him on the M25 motorway, near Swanley in Kent. I was driving clockwise towards Sevenoaks one sunny Sunday afternoon, and across the carriageway, on the hard shoulder of the anti-clockwise side was a brilliant red Ferrari Testarossa, a cloud of steam streaming from the rear-mounted engine compartment. And standing at the front, yelling (presumably) into a mobile phone was Rod. I guess the AA or Green Flag Rescue was being summoned….. At the time, as well as the LA mansion, he had an estate near Epping Forest in Essex, in the grounds of which he had laid out a full-sized football pitch that was kept in pristine condition and was good enough for the top clubs to use if they were in town and wanted to train away from the press. Gordon Strachan, now managing Scotland but then in charge of Southampton used it from time to time, I remember. Top man, our Rod.
I bought his classic Every Picture Tells A Story album back in 1973, largely because I liked Maggie May, the stand-out single taken from it and his breakthrough chart hit. I remember seeing him perform it “live” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops show, using his then full-time band The Faces as back-up, with Radio One dj John Peel guesting on mandolin. All a joke – Peel was clearly miming, as was the band – drummer Kenny Jones was pretending to play bass, guitarist Ronnie Wood was a half-beat behind on drums, keyboard wizard Ian MacLagan tried to look as though he knew how to play guitar, and bassist Ronnie Lane tinkled the ivories. During John Peel’s little mandolin “solo” (played on the record by Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson) the rest of the band started playing football on the stage. It was fun, and summed up that band’s entire ethos. Thirty years later a couple of greatest hits compilations came out called, very accurately, Five Guys Walked Into A Bar and Nice Boys (When They’re Asleep) - the latter of which I downloaded and thoroughly enjoy.
If there is one thing The Faces enjoyed, it was having a good time. A few beers (well, several, actually), some Jack Daniels bourbon or a vodka or two, Rothman’s King Size cigarettes, maybe a Castella cigar. A game of darts or bar billiards (pool was not as ubiquitous as it is nowadays). And of course, girls. A whole string of them. So basically what the vast majority of us were doing on a Saturday (or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) evening……Friday was usually a night off, because we had football matches to play the next day. Followed by fish and chips, a curry or a Chinese. Happy days.
But while the rest of us just enjoyed it all, Rod was busy chronicling it in a catalogue of good-time English rock songs, of which Maggie May was the first and still best known (although in my mind not the best song). Lyrically, the songs are like Springsteen’s – working class guys enjoying life, stuck in dead-end jobs, looking to better themselves, falling in and out of love. But instead of America’s vast plains and dusty dirt roads (to quote Springsteen again, from Thunder Road), Rod spread his net further afield to catch a decent phrase. Whether he had been to all the places he referenced, at that relatively early stage in his career, is doubtful, but they worked exceptionally well in his songs. The Faces classic Poolhall Richard, for instance, talks of the legendary Minnesota Fats “standing at the back in a plastic mac” while our hero beats the titular Poolhall Richard in a frame of eight-ball in order to save his relationship with his lady – “Man, you’ll never ever steal my lady then!” he sings joyfully.
There’s another reference to the States in You Wear It Well, a later single from the album Never A Dull Moment. It starts “I had nothing to do on this hot afternoon/But to settle down and write you a line/I’ve been meaning to phone ya but from Minnesota…/Hell, it’s been a very long time”. Call me cynical, but the American Midwest seems a bit of an unlikely destination for an up and coming singer from north London just starting out – but it works well in the song.
There are more geographical references throughout the Stewart catalogue, especially in what for me is the best song the man ever wrote, the title track from Every Picture…. The vinyl I bought is long gone, sold for the price of a beer sometime in the alcoholic haze that was 1972 to 1976 in my life, but even then I knew it by heart and loved it. I found it again on a CD compilation called The Millennium Collection, in a Tesco superstore in Gdynia of all places. It remains one of my favourite albums and has pride of place on my Music library – there is nothing on there later than about 1976, all taken from his classic solo albums (nothing by The Faces), and every track is good-time English rock that evokes memories of my own misspent youth.
Every Picture…. tells of Rod leaving home to seek his fortune with his father’s advice ringing in his ears – “Daddy said son you’d better see the world/I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to leave/But remember one thing – don’t lose your head/To a woman that’ll spend all your bread/So I got out….”. And out he goes – to Paris (“I got arrested for inciting the people to riot/When all I wanted was a cup of tea!/I was accused!”), then on to Rome (“My body stunk but I kept my funk/At a time when I was right out of luck/Oh my dears, I’d better get out of here/’Cause the Vatican don’t give no sanction”). I was jealous of the man, and wanted to go too, especially after the next bit….."On the Peking ferry I was feeling merry/Sailing on my way back here/When I fell in love with a slit eyed lady/By the light of an Eastern moon/She took me up on deck and bit my neck”. But it was perhaps a bit risky, because “Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She claimed that it just ain’t natural!” And that little couplet sums up Rod Stewart…….a little bit racist (Slit Eyed lady indeed!), a little bit sexist (never used the pill?) but for all that having the time of his life – while I slaved away in what I considered the kind of dead-end job he had escaped from. And of course I escaped too, in his music.
Apart from a slushy interlude when involved with Britt Ekland, his music never really changed, and the same themes and word play cropped up again and again. In Dixie Toot from the album Smiler, he sings about being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – “Sitting in my back yard, wondering which way to go/The sun shines on my back and it hurts” and in the next verse another brilliant batch of fun and games: “I might lose control of my powers/I might even lose my trousers/Smash my glass, behave like trash if I want! Ha!” Who cares what anyone else thinks, I’m having a great time! From the same album, in Sailor, he sings about a narrow escape: “Running down the highway in the pouring rain/Escaping from my wedding day/I heard the bells ringing in the local church/The ceremony’s nearly under way/Her mama got hysterical, the bitch was cynical/Daddy’s in the corner drunk” then a cry of “Sailor, show me which way to go!/I screamed out loud!” Considering the man has been married about four times and has eight kids, I find that one a little ironic……but it’s a great song.
He was the same in The Faces before they broke up (when he left to go solo and make his millions in the States, and his co-writer Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones - still there forty years later). The best example is probably Stay With Me: another classic that these days may not have seen the light of day, with a final verse going “So in the morning/Please don’t say you love me/’Cause I’ll only kick you out of the door/Yeah. I’ll pay your cab fare home/You can even use my best cologne/Just don’t be here in the morning when I wake up!” On Miss Judy’s Farm there’s another nice throwaway couplet that again offends, this time animal lovers: “She had a peroxide poodle/That I would kick if I was given the chance”. Not my favourite mutt, either, Rod……
Over the years he mellowed and rather than being the cockney rapscallion he showed a more romantic turn of phrase, but there has always been the odd throwback to a freewheeling youth – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy is a more or less a disco re-run of Stay With Me (boy meets girl in club, takes her home…..the twist is in “watching the early movie” rather paying “a cab fare home”), Lady Jane (bitter ex-lover who knows “secrets about you” and has “plans of my own”) to name but two of the better known. And of course the universally panned (but I quite like it) Hot Legs (“You’re wearing me out/Hot legs, make me scream and shout/I love you honey!”). Not sure whether that makes Rod the irresponsible kid or me……probably both of us.
So there we have it. The Boss and Rod the Mod. Two very different songsmiths, whose art has entertained me for most of my adult life and continues to do so still in my 60s. Born to Run, Thunder Road and The River still bring lumps to my throat and a tear to my eyes, and Every Picture….., Miss Judy’s Farm, Dixie Toot and pretty much anything by The Faces a smile to my increasingly wrinkly old face. Whether either of them are worthy of a Nobel Prize in the same way as Dylan is doubtful, but for this listener at least their work is better and more accessible than Bobby Z’s sometimes opaque verse.