Literary Lines Notes: Part 2

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, Tapestrychronicles 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

With Bringing it all Back Home Dylan confirms that the Beats, and specifically Allen Ginsberg, are his literary contemporaries. The black and white photographs on the back of the album include the portrait of Ginsberg in a felt top hat which is also worn by Dylan himself in an adjacent photo where he is surrounded by a crowd, grinning uncomfortably. This symbolic passing of the hat is elaborated by the liner notes, which proclaim “why allen ginsberg was/not chosen t’ read poetry at the inauguration/boggles my mind.” Ginsberg was by this point a frequent member of Dylan’s entourage and “Howl” became a common analogue for his more apocalyptic songs, such as “Desolation Row,” which concludes this album.

With Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s liners notes descend into a surreal density that defies interpretive coherence. Chaotic cacophonic outtakes from the “long piece of vomit” that constitutes the legendary opening track, the notes conclude with a moment of clarity that explains both the form and the tone of the messiness that precedes:  As Dylan declaims, “I cannot say the word eye any more . . . . when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody’s eye that I faintly remember . . . . there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths.” The individual ego and its orienting “I,” both verbal and visual, has been obscured by a series of mouths, the orifice out of which questions are shouted and vomit spews. These lines eloquently invoke the media frenzy that swirled around Dylan in the mid-sixties, the chaos he accepted in the liner notes to his previous album, but which still cannot quite accept him, as the rabid rejection of his turn to electric clearly indicated.

Blonde on Blonde, the acclaimed double album that concluded this highly eventful phase of Dylan’s career, has no liner notes beyond the song titles and credits. Rather, it is dominated by photographs of Dylan, as if no more needs to be said to establish the stature of the songs inside. By the time this album was released Dylan had established himself as both a serious artist and a rock star, an unprecedented combination of high and mass cultural appeal that would transform the music industry and the culture at large. Then came the motorcycle accident, plunging Dylan into a negative space where the press could no longer penetrate and creating a deeper mystique from which he would never fully emerge.

He re-appeared with John Wesley Harding, an album whose return to roots famously bucked the tide of studio-saturated psychedelia inaugurated by the epochal release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The starkness of the sound is matched by the austerity of the lyrics, which clearly evoke the Bible that Dylan kept open on a stand in his study in Woodstock. He may have hated being seen as a prophet, but he loved the language of prophecy, and the collision of these affects generates the unstable ironies of these liner notes, which parody the New Testament tale of the three kings. Thus, “there were three kings and a merry three, too” invokes both the story of Christ’s birth and its trivialization in the contemporary celebration of Christmas. The album, released on December 27, 1967, itself figures as a slightly belated Christmas present, and indeed it is the object of the three kings’ visit. They come in need, as “the first one had a broken nose, the second, a broken arm and the third was broke.” And they’re looking for a key which according to the first is faith, to the second is froth, and to the third a man named Frank.

The key they want will open the album we hold in our hands. Like the reporters who drove Dylan into reclusion, the three kings want to know what his music means: “The first king cleared his throat…”Frank,” he began, “Mr. Dylan has come out with a new record. This record of course features none but his own songs and we understand that you’re the key.” “That’s right,” said Frank, “I am.” “Well then,” said the king…, “could you please open it up for us?” Frank, who all this time had been reclining with his eyes closed, suddenly opened them both up as wide as a tiger. “And just how far would you like to go in?” he asked and the three kings all looked at each other. “Not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there,” said the first chief. “All right,” said Frank, “I’ll see what I can do.” Frank sits down and crosses his legs, then jumps up and takes off his shirt and proceeds to wave it in the air. He stamps on a light bulb, smashes a window and brandishes a knife, after which he asks if he’s gone far enough. Apparently, he has, as the three Kings leave, and the notes conclude that “the first one’s nose had been mysteriously fixed, the second one’s arm had healed and the third one was rich…”I’ve never been so happy in all my life!” sang the one with all the money.” These liner notes offer Frank as an avatar of the artist and the three kings as his addled audience, searching not only for meaning but for miracles and money. Ironically and appropriately, they receive the latter but not the former, leaving the songs themselves afloat in a kind of haunted autonomy.

Dylan would make two more contributions to the genre of liner notes after the debacle of Self Portrait and the triumph of New Morning, with some scattered scribbling on the back of Planet Waves, his first officially issued album with The Band, and a brief paragraph on the back of Desire. On Planet Waves Dylan circles back to his antecedents, both real and imaginary, blending history and legend as he goes “Back to the Starting/Point! The Kickoff, Hebrew/Letters on the wall, Victor Hugo’s/house in Paris, NYC in early/autumn,” aligning his arrival in New York city both with the Hebrew Scripture and with the Parisian dawn of modernism. He continues to elaborate on the complacent and conformist world he would help revolutionize, as the United States is “All wired up &/voting for Eisenhower, waving flags &/jumping off of fire engines, getting/killed on motorcycles whatever -We sensed each other beneath/the mask, pitched a tent in the/Street & joined the traveling circus,/Love at first sight! History/became a Lie!” With history replaced by legend, Dylan returns to the first person, announcing “I lit out/for parts unknown. found Jacob’s/Ladder up Against An adobe wall & bought A serpent from a passing Angel” as if finally finding the imaginary space to insert the Southwest back into his backstory. Dylan concludes by mapping the cities on his tour itinerary onto an imaginary Biblical landscape, intoning prophetically, “Innocent Lambs! The Wretched of the Earth,/My brothers of the flood, Cities of the flesh -/Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Bismarck, South/Dakota,” and concluding with his birthplace, “Duluth! Duluth – where Baudelaire Lived/& Goya cashed in his Chips, where Joshua brought/the house down!” Here the two main arcs of Dylan’s literary legacy, the modernism of Baudelaire and the traditionalism of the Old Testament, converge on the birthplace of which he has no memories. The circle closes back onto the original epitaphs of The Times They Are A’Changin’

The brief paragraph on the back of Desire can be understood as a kind of coda to the linked sequence of liner notes that began on that third album. Continuing and concluding the circular pattern of eternal return that constitutes a kind of leitmotif for Dylan’s career, he opens with “Where do I begin…on the heels of Rimbaud.” The lines that follow are characteristically inflected with Biblical imagery of “the reeds of Babylon” and “the deluge,” which are again mapped onto contemporary place names “from Brooklyn to Guam, from Lowell to Durango.” And they conclude “in the historical parking lot in sunburned California,” the state to which Dylan relocated in the mid-seventies. With these final lines Dylan strolls out into the sunset as paratextual provocateur.

Conceived as a linked set of quasi-autobiographical meditations on the life of the artist, these liner notes can be understood as a sort of surrealistic paratextual kunstlerroman, a serial self-portrait in the distorted mirror of a turbulent decade. Not only did they help to establish Dylan’s literary legitimacy, they also set a precedent and a template for later artists, from Marvin Gaye and David Bowie through Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack, and beyond up through the present. Dylan’s liner notes opened up the album as a paratextual space into which musical artists could insert themselves as artists, confirming in their very practice that popular music is art. And Dylan’s liner notes also demarcate a decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies which can be aligned with the album era as such, the time period when the format came into its own as the platform for pop music artistry.

One convention of liner notes that Dylan neither inaugurated nor participated in was the inclusion of lyrics. As if to subtly confirm the ultimately sensory distinction between songs and printed literature Dylan insists that we listen carefully enough to hear the words on the record without having to read them.

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