I start with a little criticism before I get into rhapsodies. For a venue to prohibit a band from playing any covers during a performance strikes me as misguided. I commend encouragement of artistic creation, but this rule offends my Romantic sensibility; it could encourage a breakdown of hallowed musical and poetic form.
Experimental music has its place, even at a concert, but there is ample room for creativity within established patterns; nothing is ever entirely original, only the muse brings inspiration. It came as a surprise to scholars who discovered that the Homer poet – whoever that is – relied on stock epithets like ‘rosey-fingered dawn’, to build strict hexameter verse. These folk expressions were recited from memory before the arrival of writing, and joined with the poet’s own invention, to the accompaniment of strings.
We should remain wary of lapsing into cliché, as George Orwell sagely noted: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’. But idioms that have been handed down bring colour to our speech and writing: tropes connect us to our ancestors in sound. It is the devotion that we give to the Word that is important, and this protects us from sounding hackneyed. The first syllable in ‘rhapsodise’ refers to stitching in needlework, the second to song; so it involves threading songs together, which is the stuff of epic.
Even the arch-Romantic poet Percy Shelley, who overthrew conventions such as belief in an almighty god, relied on poetic forms inherited from past masters such as Spencer, and Milton especially. Creativity is evident in the integration of new ideas into old structures. Thus, Homer’s genius in the Iliad was to develop a short episode within the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. This gives his tale a compelling energy, and encapsulates the longer struggle, which an expansive account cannot achieve. Each age plays with legends that have been handed down.
Café Blum in Berlin’s Neukölln, is a gorgeous old-worldly venue that was filled to capacity for the Loafing Heroes first concert in Berlin for six years. It’s a sign of their stellar quality that two Berlin members could slip seamlessly into the collective.
An exquisite array of instruments were in evidence: Bartholomew Ryan with voice and guitar, Giulia Gallina with voice, concertina and dulcimer; Judith Retzlik on violin, viola, trumpet and a little piano; and Fenster’s Jonathan Jarzyna on percussion, along with a mysterious electronic instrument.
Having organised a few Irish tours for the band I am accustomed to audiences – especially in pubs – occasionally not being respectful to their ethereal music which lilts, rather than declaims; especially Giulia’s haunting voice – and she doesn’t appreciate shouting over a crowd… But this Berlin crowd was almost meditative in its attention: a sturdy forest of straight backs that I viewed from my latecomer’s vantage.
And yet such respect seemed alien to me. I yearned for a drop of devilment, so an inner Irish gremlin compelled me to breath a few heckles for the amusement of an Irish mate who staged some in return. Out of earshot we mouthed barbed comments between ourselves, honouring the sacred craic: ‘Jaysus would you look at your man!’
At the end of the performance the audience clapped for a good five minutes. This was deep appreciation, if not the rapture of an Irish crowd that has been tamed. The band weren’t going to get away without an encore. But the hard-pressed musicians had only a day to prepare, and it took a little while for them to settle on which of their back catalogue to play.
In the meantime I started raucously shouting for covers I know they play, and would usually intersperse through a set. But my cries went unheeded, for the reason I discovered afterwards.
Yet they had just finished with their old favourite, T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, in which Bartholomew recites the poem to a familiar melody, out of which the band improvise on their assorted instruments. I have heard Judith wind a moistened finger around the top of a wine glass giving a high-pitched hum that somehow worked for the song; here she chose the piano as her weapon. It was a pity not to have Jaime McGill’s usual bass clarinet, and arsenal of peddles, but
Jonathan was making deranged noises on his electronic contraption to compensate. No performance of the song is ever the same – not least because members come and go – but it operates within an established pattern, as an evolving legend.
The poem is a classic statement of the modern condition: ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.’ But I think the main reason it goes down so well is because it is so rare for poetry to be recited nowadays, and especially where the speaker really inhabits the verse, leaving an audience spellbound.
There is an amusing story to the recording that is now up on Youtube. A few minutes in you can make out the sound of phone ringing, which was Jaime McGill trying to say she was running late. Sometimes out of seemingly ugly imperfection something new and beautiful arises, and it now seems obvious that a phone should start ringing in the middle of Prufrock.
If a band includes a spoken word recital of a poem is that a cover?! The mind boggles. The distinction between song and poetry is artificial, to some extent a legacy of Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot. Having mastered lyrical verse, he moved away from established forms, favouring enjambments, whereby one line merges with another, and a consistent rhythm is not developed. Eliot did this with a deep knowledge of the poetic tradition, and the Wasteland is still beautiful on the ear: ‘April is the cruellest month … ‘. But poets since the 1950s have strayed into more dangerous waters, where the past is ignored, leaving a boring narcissism instead.
Of course post-modern poetry can work splendidly, as with Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
It also permits some of the worst excesses of self-indulgence at ‘dreaded’ poetry readings. It is hard to avoid an inclination to return to W.B. Yeats, and submit to the hard labour of learning the poetic trade, while occasionally giving vent to a post-modernism that has seeped into our bones.
There was some gnashing of teeth in literary circles when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Songs are often inextricably bound to musical compositions, and when you just read them song lyrics have nothing like the same force. Interestingly Paul Simon dismissed the connection between his song-writing and poetry in an interview in 1968:
‘I’ve tried poetry, but it has nothing to do with my songs … But the lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence, they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet, then people think you are putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.’
Simon was right that a lot of derivative nonsense has been passed off as poetry in song, and that a great tradition was often sadly ignored, but that should not obscure how the songs Bob Dylan have entered the poetic canon, and even lyrics of his own.
Dylan was the leading light – though not my personal favourite – among a generation that developed poetry out of Rock n’ Roll and the folk revival. The prize seems appropriate to me if I ignore the etymology of the word literature, which means writing formed from letters. A Nobel Prize for poetry rather than literature would be more appropriate, which would include all forms, including the novel.
Dylan was of course also iconoclastic, going electric to the horror of some folkies. Labelled ‘Judas’, he responded: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ He had learnt at the feet of great ballad singers such as Liam Clancy and Woody Guthrie, but wanted to expand into new domains. This is the dangerous breaking of boundaries that re-connect with what has come before so as to avoid incoherence. Now, millions strum and sing the songs of Dylan, who took words and melodies from others in turn. That’s how the Songlines flow.
Ewan McCall who led the folk revival in Britain, and composed the classic Dirty Old Town, which is mistakenly assumed to be about Dublin (it’s about Salford in England), had another unbending rule in the folk club he founded that artists could only sing songs from their native countries. But as a Communist he should surely have realised that identity has an evolving plasticity, and anyway nowadays many bands, such as the Loafing Heroes, have multi-national casts.
Perhaps it’s a rebellious Irish streak – I’m still hoping to meet my orderly inner German – but I am wary or rules dictating what a poet can or cannot sing.
So when is a song, or a recital, a cover? There is no firm dividing line, and it becomes a matter of taste. Nothing is truly original, it is all adaptation out of a familiarity, and serendipity is evident too – like a phone ringing in the middle of a recording.