Whether you live here or not, if you are at all enamored of New York City, you are likely to enjoy scrolling through a Tumblr photo blog called “NYC Past” (via Mick Hartley), which evidently collects photos of New York City down through the decades from sources such as the Library of Congress.
In substantial ways, there are few places which change as much and as quickly as New York City, with a competitive and churning commercial atmosphere that leads to the quick rise and fall of many businesses, and of-course a constant influx of new immigrants from far flung and exotic places like Haiti, India, and Oklahoma. Waves of immigrants had their particular eras as we well know: the Italians, the Irish, the Germans, and so on, but it never ends. Neighborhoods that are at one time slum-like (or actually slums) then become fancied by the artists and wannabee-layabouts, then become hip, then fashionable, then unaffordable by the common man. One way or another all of these cycles continue and yet in some deep-down ways New York never changes; it is still a crazy mix of absolutely everything and it has remained the best shot at a true melting pot that we’ve discovered. Or so I think.
In photographs over the past 100-plus years, for all of the changes, there are the constants. The Flatiron building, pictured above, and built in 1902, is one of the greatest of those, and—although I’m no architecture egghead but merely an average citizen—it seems to me that it is one of the most nearly-perfect buildings ever constructed, occupying its particular location at Fifth and Broadway so aptly as to make one wonder if that corner could have ever existed without it, and maintaining its grace and physical poetry through each and every year since, irregardless of the chaos all around. You can’t take a bad picture of the Flatiron (or at least it’s pretty darned difficult), and it sheds a sense of timelessness over the entire Madison Square neighborhood.
An even-older anchor of New York which you’ll encounter repeatedly if you scroll through NYC Past is the Brooklyn Bridge, which is to bridges what the Flatiron is to buildings. It is just as it should be, and reminds one of how few edifices actually exist in our world of which you could make the same observation.
A little later in NYC history, the Empire State makes the statement only it can make, and the Chrysler building forever seems like an impish and more clever response to it (even though it was actually finished about a year earlier).
Strolling through the streets of New York City past through these photos is a fascinating delight, and the strongest impression for yours truly is how little things have changed in a fundamental sense, and yet how interesting are the changes which have taken place.
Interesting, and sometimes sad. The photograph below, taken sometime in the early 1900s, shows the waiting room at Grand Central Station. Grand Central Station still exists, thank God, and is as impressive as ever. I maintain that if you approach it from Park Avenue South, it takes on the appearance of the grandest-of-all paperweights, holding down Forty-Second Street and indeed midtown-in-general. On the day it is removed, New York will surely explode, just as everyone has been expecting it to do all of these years. The sad change evidenced in the photograph has taken place in the people. Back then, as you will notice, people knew how to wear hats. Both the men and the women. Even just sitting, waiting for their train, they would not be without the appropriate cranial decoration. It is not so today. The decline in the wearing of hats (baseball caps do not count) has been accompanied by too many other declines to list here. Well, thanks to NYC Past, we can dream of a better age.
I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest (the iTunes version until my LPs arrive) over the past week and I’ve also been looking at some of the reviews. My impression at the moment is of a vast gulf between what the album contains versus what even the best reviewers have been able to say about it. I don’t think this is because the reviewers are stupid but rather that there really is so much going on in the songs on this album that a review of standard length and breadth is bound to come up short; this is true I think even more than to the usual degree. I mean, it’s always essentially impossible to write adequately about music, when only listening to it will communicate its nature, but Tempest is a special case, even when compared to many other Bob Dylan albums. I think we’re used to a Bob Dylan album having one or two or even three of the kinds of songs that blow one’s mind and take over one’s imagination. But Tempest, with ten songs, has I think at least eight that reach that level (though I’m not even going to say which two don’t).
On one level perhaps it’s just a question of fecundity. The album is highly populated with long songs, and even the songs that aren’t dramatically long contain lots and lots of words. Dylan’s never been one to record many instrumentals, but I think it’s been a long time since the lyrics have spilled out of him with this kind of volume and force. And not chaotically either: the lyrics are intricate and filled with terrific rhymes, and burst forth in his torn-up voice yet highly nuanced singing with confidence and purpose.
Now, I fully understand why all the people invited to those “listening sessions” earlier in the year were so wowed. An appreciative listener arrives at the end of this album somewhat breathless and slack-jawed in amazement (and not just on the first spin either).
Of-course, all of the above makes me sound like someone who worships everything Dylan does completely uncritically, but I’m long past apologizing for my affection and regard for Bob Dylan’s body of work. Check back in three hundred years and we’ll find out whether those who thought Dylan was very special have been vindicated or whether those who thought he was merely another purveyor of late-20th-century-type rock/pop songs were proven right.
It’s true that not everyone has been bowled over by Tempest. That’s fair enough—no one’s obliged to like it at all—but merely as a student of human nature I’m curious as to why some people who like what we can loosely call “this kind of music” and who attest to loving much of what Bob Dylan has done before would not be nearly as wildly-enamored of this album as others.
The review in the LA Times was not technically a bad review (3 stars), but included substantial caveats. Perhaps reflecting on some of the reservations can be illustrative of where the differences in perception lie.
The reviewer appears to be least-impressed by the title track, which is a fourteen-minute song based around the sinking of the Titanic.
[Bob Dylan] is officially an antique, a relic and the last of his kind in a world that has little time or patience to focus on a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic when everybody already knows how it ends. This is the big, grand miscue on the record. In an Irish-tinged tune that repeats virtually the same 16-bar melody throughout its quarter-hour, Dylan in poetic verse recounts the sinking and the fate of its passengers with a singsong phrasing that grows tiresome.
Well, if “everybody already knows how it ends,” what is the point, indeed?
It’s not beyond the capacity of Bob Dylan to write and record a dull or monotonous track, but I admit it does beggar my own empathetic capacity to understand how someone who generally enjoys Dylan’s music could find this to be such a track. It requires some kind of imperviousness. The folky melody is certainly repetitive, but if you want symphonies, you’re in the wrong place, my friend. For me, the counterpoint of the lilting waltz with the subject matter of the song amounts to something very affecting. And Bob’s singing throughout is so filled with variations in tone and character that monotony is for me very far from the situation. Dylan is really proving on this album how someone with a voice that is so shot can nonetheless be a a singer of great expression and subtlety (at least in the studio).
Ah, but we know how the story ends! Well, to think that this song is intended to inform us of how the story of the Titanic ends strikes me as maybe a slight failure of imagination, or attentiveness, or both. The title of the song, “Tempest,” is the initial tip-off that we are not in literal-ville. The historical Titanic was not sunk in a storm, after all, but by an iceberg (of which there is not a single mention in the forty-five[?] verses). So one might begin to suspect there could be something metaphorical going on. How about the story of the Titanic as a metaphor for life and death—for all of our lives and deaths? In any case, for this longstanding fan of Dylan’s work, it is pretty darned difficult not to be galvanized by the driving parade of verses, some of which include:
The passageway was narrow
There was blackness in the air
He saw every kind of sorrow
Heard voices everywhere
The veil was torn asunder
Between the hours of twelve and one
No change no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done
The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside
They battened down the hatches
But the hatches wouldn’t hold
They drowned upon the staircase
Of brass and polished gold
The watchman he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone
Ah, shucks, if only we didn’t know how it all ends! Oddly enough, despite knowing it all, I find myself coming to the end of this song only wide-eyed and dazed.
Literal-ville doesn’t seem to me like it would be the most interesting place to live, especially if all you’ve got to listen to are Bob Dylan songs. The same LA Times reviewer says he likes the song “Long and Wasted Years,” but sums it up blandly as “a bitter song about a dead marriage.” Oh! I hadn’t realized that’s all it was. Foolishly, I’d felt all kinds of deep vibrations and resonances in this song. But somehow, there must be a way to bang all those verses into shape as just another bitter song about a dead marriage.
My enemy crashed into the dust
Stopped dead in his tracks and he lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart
He died in shame, he had an iron heart
We cried on a cold and frosty morn
We cried because our souls were torn
So much for tears
So much for these long and wasted years
Hmm. If I didn’t know it was only a bitter song about a dead marriage, I’d say the track fairly explodes with emotional echoes and reflections on things like love, loyalty, memory, forgiveness, and regret. In addition, in terms of the sound and vocal performance, it evokes Dylan’s great song from 1986, “Brownsville Girl,” suggesting however vaguely some kind of picking-up of that story many years later. I admit that the track downright makes my eyes well up from the very first verse onwards. Maybe I’ll be able to correct that by keeping in mind the words “bitter” and “dead” from now on (but I wouldn’t count on it).
The same reviewer helpfully points out that the song “Early Roman Kings” is “a blues that directs its wrath at the selfish rich in the same way that ‘Masters of War’ indicted the military-industrial complex in 1963.” Alright. Without reopening stale discussions of “Masters of War,” is slamming the selfish rich—like some “Occupy Wall Street” slogan—really what “Early Roman Kings” is all about?
I can dress up your wounds
With a blood-clotted rag
I ain’t afraid to make love
To a bitch or a hag
If you see me comin’
And you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief
In the air
I ain’t dead yet
My bell still rings
I keep my fingers crossed
Like them early Roman kings
The LA Times reviewer appears to be way more savvy than yours truly, when it comes to hammering the latest Bob Dylan songs into some pre-ordained mold of meaning. For me, up until this point, I was just digging the attitude on this track. I hadn’t picked up on any political or social manifesto. I’ll keep trying, though. Continue reading Tempest by Bob Dylan: Is it an unreviewable album?→
More music journalists are coming out of the closet with their reactions after having had a “listening session” with Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, Tempest. Michael Simmons in Mojo says bluntly that the album is “astonishing.” Anne Margaret Daniel in Ireland’s Hot Press uses words like “breathtaking, mythmaking, heartbreaking” and even “perfect.” It seems they like it. Neil McCormick in The Telegraph has similarly waxed rhapsodic. Continue reading The buzz goes on for Bob Dylan’s Tempest→
As expounded upon before, I’m not an advocate of vinyl purely for its tactile pleasures (although I love holding a real record as much as the next guy), but for quite a few years now there’s been a trend whereby new music released on vinyl has received a kinder and more faithful mastering than that which is released on CD (or mp3), where the abuse of the process of dynamic range compression has resulted in blaring and ultimately-wearying recordings being foisted upon a largely unsuspecting public. (Also known as the Loudness War[s].) The Dylan CD releases of the past several years seem to have progressively improved in that respect. Together Through Life on CD didn’t sound quite as bad as Modern Times had, and Christmas in the Heart seemed (to me at least) better still. (By the way, with the mercury frequently hitting triple digits in many parts this summer, I am glad to suggest that putting on Christmas in the Heart makes for some pretty effective aural air-conditioning. There’s nothing like listening to Bob Dylan sing “Winter Wonderland” when it’s 104 degrees in July. Just try not to get so enchanted that you light up some logs in the fireplace.)
I don’t know how the mastering will go on the forthcoming release, but Sony/Columbia is continuing the recent pattern of offering a vinyl package that also includes the album on CD. This is a smart way of selling it, I guess, albeit that one might wish for a lower price-tag.
Amazon.com is offering Tempest for pre-order as two vinyl LPs with one CDfor (at the time of writing) $25.99. Through the BobDylan.com site, on the other hand, you can pre-order the same thing for four dollars more.
That deliciously brings to mind Bob’s couplet from his song “Po’ Boy”:
I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store
The man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”
Of-course, may the Good Lord hasten the way when all honest consumers will be able to obtain the recording as it was meant to be heard regardless of the medium in which they purchase it. Does that seem so much to ask?
Just the other day there was news of yet another Bob Dylan boxed set to be released in the near future, this one some kind of totally complete collection that will certainly appeal to people who (1) don’t own any Bob Dylan albums already and (2) have unlimited funds for entertainment purposes. Not really too very exciting for someone like yours truly, but news all the same I guess.
(Warning: Contains spoilers for those who still believe in Santa Claus)
Bob Dylan’s album Christmas In the Heart struck me both strongly and delightfully upon the very first listen, and it continues to strike me that way after many further spins. However, rather than try to make a grand case here as to why others ought to like the album (I know that some people love it and some people feel quite otherwise) I’m just going to explore why it seems to work better for me personally than most Christmas albums. I do suspect that how I have inwardly responded to it is true for quite a few others as well, whether or not they have analyzed it for themselves in the same way I do here. Continue reading Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas→