Literary Liner Notes: Part 1

The Album Era: Circular Speculations on a Period Concept

Tapestry is an icon of the Album Era, that relatively brief but eventful period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when long-playing records dominated the industry, deeply informing our relationship to popular music. Insofar as it indexes Carole King’s graduation from pop singles to rock albums, Tapestry chronicles the inception of the album as a mature work of musical art in which songs are sequenced and covers are designed to tell a story, frequently about growing up. And rock music itself grew up during this era, exhibiting a new cultural maturity and seriousness.

Over the next six days I will share some thoughts and theories I’ve been developing over the last few years about this period concept, which I believe informs everyone’s relationship to popular music, whether or not they were alive during the time to which the concept refers. – Loren Glass, author of Carole King’s Tapestry

The resolutely minor genre of liner notes recently received a considerable boost in cultural stature when Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar decided to feature Nat Hentoff’s commentary on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as the first chapter in their Library of America anthology Shake It Up: Great Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z.  Hentoff was the most prolific producer of these simultaneously ephemeral and essential paratexts and it’s fitting that his introduction to the young Bob Dylan also introduces this collection of popular music criticism’s bid for literary respectability. Insofar as they emerged during the transition from singles which could be listened to in the record store to shrink-wrapped long-playing albums that had to be purchased before being heard, liner notes can be understood as the discourse that determines the inauguration of the Album Era as such. In taking albums seriously as art, liner notes anticipated the roll of the writing collected in Lethem and Dettmar’s anthology.

There is another story that starts with these liner notes and that is the story of Bob Dylan’s own innovation of the genre. Starting with the “11 Outlined Epitaphs” for his next album, The Times They Are A-Changin (1964) and ending with the invocation to Rimbaud on the back of Desire (1975), Dylan’s liner notes over the course of this crucial decade provide critical commentary on his transformation from folk singer to rock star to modern messiah. This sequence of liner notes bolstered his bid for the literary significance of songwriting and provided a platform from which he could parley with his rapidly expanding public. And, as with so much else Dylan did, his liner notes provided a template for subsequent popstars to exploit this unique space. 

Dylan’s decision to write the liner notes for his third album was at least partially a response to the press, and especially to Newsweek’s exposure of the lies he’d told Hentoff, as well as Robert Shelton, the New York Times music critic who wrote the liner notes for his first album under the pseudonym Stacey Williams. In those initial notes Shelton had claimed that Dylan lived “briefly in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and New Mexico,” and Hentoff had reiterated these falsehoods, recounting that Dylan, “during his first nineteen years … lived in Gallup, New Mexico: Cheyenne, South Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; [and] Phillipsburg, Kansas.” Dylan had been lying about his past since before he had arrived in New York City, and these initial liner notes further reinforced the image he was developing as a homeless troubadour who spent his restless youth riding the rails and exploring America like his idol Woody Guthrie. But then, on November 4, 1963, Newsweek published an exposé affirming that he in fact “grew up in a conventional home, and went to conventional schools. He shrouds his past in contradictions, but he is the elder son of a Hibbing, Minnesota, appliance dealer named Abe Zimmerman.” Dylan was outraged.  

While it’s not entirely clear precisely when Dylan penned the outlined epitaphs that begin on the back of The Times They Are A-Changin’ and then ambitiously extend over onto both sides of the album’s full-size insert, they can be understood as a response to the Newsweek profile and to the increasing media attention he was receiving. Their scale alone is notable, as Dylan seems determined to surround these songs with a dense web of language that operates as both threshold and barrier. More particularly, they represent his reckoning with the Midwestern antecedents that were named in the Newsweek article and then lyrically introduced in the opening verse of “With God on Our Side.” As a complement to the famous first lines of that song, Dylan’s second epitaph opens with the town of his birth, which holds “no memories” and about which he carries “no feelings.” Dylan concedes that his antecedents are resolutely middle-class, noting that Hibbing “was not a rich town/my parents were not rich” and it was “not a poor town/an’ my parents were not poor.” Rather, and as the term “epitaph” confirms, “it was a dyin’ town … deserted … already dead.” Clearly referencing the song from his second album that had first brought him national attention, he calls the abandoned North Hibbing a “graveyard/where even the markin’ stones were dead/an’ there was no sound except for the wind/blowin’ through the high grass.” Dylan’s response is to run (like the wind) and keep running. In this epitaph he both acknowledges and abandons his familial past. Indeed, one word that is notoriously absent is “Zimmerman.” 

In the third and fourth epitaphs he concedes that his Guthrie image was a fantasy, first noting that “In times behind, I too/wished I’d lived/in the hungry thirties/an’ blew in like Woody/t’ New York City/an’ sang for dimes/on subway trains” and then more bluntly avowing that “Woody Guthrie was my last idol.” Thus, Dylan arrives in New York “without ghosts by my side/t’ betray my childishness/t’ leadeth me down false trails/an’ maketh me drink from muddy waters.” This overtly Biblical epitaph for Guthrie’s ghost foreshadows his imminent rejection of his immediate past as youthful avatar of the Folk Revival. He then moves on to craft a more direct response to the increasing attention he is getting in the press, as the ninth epitaph affirms, “I do not care t be made an oddball/bouncin past reporter’s pens/co-operatin with questions/aimed at eyes that want t see/“there’s nothinhere/go back t sleep/or look at the ads/on page 33”/I don’t like t be stuck in print/starin out at cavity minds.” The mock dialogue with a reporter that follows anticipates the increasingly aggressive and absurdist colloquies that Dylan would conduct with the press as his fame grew. 

These liner notes are likewise a bid for literary legitimacy, as Dylan namedrops his many influences, extolling “the sounds of Francois Villon/echoin thru my mad streets/as I stumble on lost cigars/of Bertolt Brecht/an empty bottles/of Brendan Behan,” and continuing with mention of Ginsberg, Yevtushenko, and William Blake” Names such as these will continue to be promiscuously peppered across Dylan’s liner notes, establishing a lengthy and elaborate literary lineage for the lyrics within.

The liner notes for Another Side of Bob Dylan make his bid for literary status more explicit. Titled “Some other kinds of songs” in large bold print and subtitled “Poems by Bob Dylan,” these notes deliberately invert the implicit hierarchy of songs and poems, indicating that if the lines of poetry on the back of the album can be considered songs then surely the songs on the album can be considered poetry. And again he shadow-boxes with the press, reporting that “i tell reporter lady that yes/i’m monstrously against the house/unamerican activities committee/an’ also the cia an’ i beg her please/not t’ ask me why for it would take/too long t’ tell she asks me about/humanity an’ i say i’m not sure/what that word means. she wants me/t’ say what she wants me t’ say. She/wants me t’ say what/she/can understand.” 

And, finally, on this threshold of his turn to electric rock, Dylan invokes the Biblical figure of Joshua, the successor of Moses who violently conquered the Holy Land after the prophet’s death. Twice Dylan exhorts Joshua to “go fit your battle,” as if girding his own loins for the conquest to come. Dylan may have resisted the public’s designation of him as a prophet, but he also reinforced it by strategically seeding both his lyrics and his liner notes with Biblical and apocalyptic references.

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