Three Poets and All That Jazz: Dylan (the Bob one), Bowie (the David one) and Philip Larkin’s Record Diary.

image of three books on Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Philip Larkin's essays on Jazz

Three books came my way this Christmas, each about a unique artist and all with very different styles and perspectives.

 

Poet #1

Before Bob Dylan became the 2016 Nobel Laureate for literature, one academic in particular had already been teaching his poetry students about Why Dylan Matters. Professor Richard Thomas has now gifted us with these insights in a highly engaging read that is impeccably researched and to be enjoyed by academic and pure listener-reader alike. The Guardian hailed it with Music Book of the Year 2017 and here is one reader in total agreement.

Growing up and attending school during the 1950s in a small Minnesota town, young Robert Zimmerman absorbed a  multitude of cultural influences that included Roman and Latin Classics amid other literary fodder. Later on, as he ventured forth into the wider American scene, Dylan explored modernist poets like Rimbaud and the writings of Beat authors like Jack Kerouac, all of whom helped shape the unique lyrics of the Bob Dylan canon. Yet the attachment of those words to a musical frame of increasingly sophisticated quality takes the singer-songwriter into a further dimension, one of musical virtuosity that draws from deep roots in American folk to begin with, then blues, country, rock and beyond. It is this intensity of musicianship combined with poetic lyricism that create the sheer enjoyment, intrigue and love of the Dylan canon for me personally and no doubt for many other lovers of Dylan’s work.

Throughout Martin Scorcese’s documentary film, No Direction Home, Dylan describes himself as a musical expeditionary and this is reflected in the ever-changing variety of styles and genres he has adopted to form his trailblazing career. Within that career as musician-lyricist, he is also no doubt a poet. His work, like poetry, exists as a multi-layered treasure, to be enjoyed anew with each listen.

 

Poet #2

In David Bowie: A LifeDylan Jones adopts a chronological-biographical frame, populated by personal interviews and anecdotes from many of David Bowie‘s friends and contemporaries. In a clear avant garde tradition, Bowie songs seem to me to come from a symbolistic origin, whereas Dylan’s, at least early on, were more of a social commentary. Bowie’s abstract style is also a commentary of sorts, more focused on the inner life or inner space, as well as, paradoxically, the vast cosmological context of life – outer space – and on how that can be articulated through the media of the body, clothes, words and music. Bowie articulates alienation like no other.

Jones’s book is a ‘warts and all’ description of David Bowie’s life, especially the earlier ‘rock star’ years, yet it is also a fond and adoring one. We encounter the artist, driven by a creative instinct that was compelled to manifest in a continually renewing vortex of personas, music, lyrics, visual art and styles, with bodily appearance acting as a blank canvas and the stage as pure theater. As I have argued before, Bowie is a shapeshifter par excellence, a hurricane of creativity in relation to the forming and transforming self.

I found this book fascinating and an enriching addition to my indulgence in all things Bowie, especially the way in which the author brings us behind the scenes of the world in which he moved. Many individuals were involved in the ever-changing Bowie project, all of whom fed into what we know and love as the Bowie classics. Read the book.

 

Poet #3

My final consideration in this triad of Christmas gift books is the collection of essays and reviews of contemporary Jazz, written for the Telegraph newspaper from 1961-1971 by the Hull based poet Philip Larkin. Reading this book is like a safari into Jazz history, describing artists like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as their recordings filtered in from the United States and Europe, as well as some well known band leaders within Britain itself, like Kenny Ball and Chris Barber.

While the merits and demerits of Larkin’s life and work are topics of considerable debate at the moment, there is no doubt that he loved Jazz and the people who created it and that, in his own words, in the final analysis, ‘what will survive of us is love’ (An Arundel Tomb).

Another Hull poet, Andrew Motion, has written extensively on Larkin’s life and work and presented a captivating portrait of him on the Sky Arts ‘Passions’ series. The following snippets are from the program and summarise Larkin’s offering as ‘glittering verse that spoke directly to, and about, post-war Britain’ and the uncertainty of life. It is this directness and connectedness with everyday life that forms Larkin’s appeal, welded to an ability to ‘create beauty from despair’. As Shane Rhodes contends, ‘He was incredibly accessible for an academic poet’.

In All What JazzI find the articles informative and fun. They have sent me off on a new pilgrimage into jazz music and songs, some reminiscent of growing up with my Dad watching Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen on TV, others complete revelations, especially the voice of a lady singing with the Chris Barber Jazz Band. She’s called Ottilie Patterson and she hails from Comber in Northern Ireland, just up the road from my home in Carryduff. Here she is; what a voice?!

 

 

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Re-discovering Philip Larkin through word, image and jazz.

the poet Philip Larkin holds a drink and smiles.

A rare smiling image of English poet Philip Larkin.

My old copy of The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, hidden on the bookshelf for years, was pulled out for a nostalgic read the other day after an intriguing documentary about the poet on BBC4 earlier this week. In the Whitsun Weddings collection, in the poem For Sidney Bechet, the poet describes (earlier era) jazz music as falling upon him,

‘Like an enormous yes’ and refers to it as

‘the natural noise of good, / Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.’

While commonly known for a somewhat melancholic approach to life, this does not sound like a person who has no time for passion. It was news to me too that alongside his poetry, Larkin had also made significant literary and journalistic contributions to critiquing Jazz music such as the perhaps controversial (maybe just honest) All What Jazz.

The television documentary revealed even more interesting aspects of Larkin’s artistic dimensions, that included skill with a camera as well as with the poetic word. Some of his images are black and white with a haunting or melancholy quality, reflected in his poetry too, such as Home is so Sad.

Yet much of Larkin’s photographic work is also personal and full of emotion like the multiple shots of intimate friends, male and female, with whom he shared his life, albeit within certain strong constraints and clear boundaries, evident in the ending of Talking in Bed,

‘Nothing shows why / At this unique distance from isolation / It becomes still more difficult to find / Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.

More surprisingly, a significant number of the photographic portraits are of himself, taken with the delayed shutter function of his high-tech Rollieflex camera. The original ‘King of the Selfie’, Philip Larkin was a complex, intense human being whose work continues to intrigue, inspire and invite debate. Some of his photos have been published in The Importance of Elsewhere 2015.

image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/norfolkodyssey/1426630717

 

 

Music and Song: the magical de-stressors.

 

Music and singing have always been my go-to anti-stress therapy. From an early age I was afraid of the dark and of being alone in my bedroom. So I used to sing myself to sleep every night. My repertoire consisted of songs I learned at school, at Sunday School and from the radio. The Seekers were major stars in my world and A World of Our Own was a frequent choice. The Beatles too, especially She Loves You Yea, Yea, Yea. Honestly, music and singing have never failed to comfort and lift me through many years of both a happy and a challenging life.

It was, then, no surprise to discover the power of music in helping patients feel better in all of the mental health contexts where I have trained, worked and researched. My first placement as a student nurse was in a care of the elderly ward in Purdysburn Hospital, Belfast and a well-known local performer arrived once a week to play the piano and sing. It was joyful to help those old ladies gather around the day room and to hear them sing along to old favourites from their era. Often they would continue singing for the rest of the evening, even after the entertainer had taken her leave.

Scholarly reports also attest to the power of music for mental health, especially in a community setting and a selection of their papers and findings can be discovered in a chapter of my book on Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives [Palgrave 2014]. 

For now, here’s another favourite from the one and only Abba. Thank You for the Music 🙂 

 

Another Maestro Passes, Songs Never Die.

Encountering Suzanne

One day a few decades ago while living photo of Leonard Cohen on album cover in the staff residence of Purdysburn Hospital where I trained, a guitar-backed voice drifted along the corridor and filled the atmosphere of my little box room with such a haunting power that I literally stood still to listen. It was my first encounter with Leonard Cohen singing Suzanne.

My friend Edyth had just bought an LP of this master of lyrics and beautiful melancholic melody and once my obligatory cassette tape copy was manufactured, Leonard Cohen became my ‘go to’ artist for many years to come.

To date there is much commentary around Cohen’s prophetic words and their poignancy for the conditions of contemporary humanity but my purpose here is to pay tribute to an artist who enriched my life and helped strengthen my spirit, and to declare both sadness that his life has ended as well as joy that his songs will live forever. Like David Bowie, another Maestro lost this year, his work is woven into my Self in a multitude of ways. Yet professing this devotion often brought forth responses that were characteristically stereotyped comments along the lines of darkness, gloom, foreboding and nihilism. Not for me, though. I have always found Leonard Cohen’s songs enchanting and uplifting. They always bring me joy.

Warm Words

Laura Barton’s obituary for Cohen on The Guardian’s music blog takes the same view. To describe him as a ‘miserabilist’ is ‘to miss entirely the warmth of his words’, which, she elaborates, ‘run at the same temperature as blood.’ What animates Leonard Cohen’s offering is the joy beyond pain, the lesson in the challenge, the solution within the problem, the beauty within the chaos. As Barton reminds us, he echoes the wisdom of Rumi in his song Anthem 

 ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.

So to the songs that stick with me most:

  • The Partisan
  • Famous Blue Raincoat
  • Suzanne
  • Hallelujah
  • So Long Marianne
  • The Sisters of Mercy
  • Lady Midnight
  • Who By Fire
  • Dance Me to the End of Love
  • Hey, that’s no way to say Goodbye

Tibetan Book of the Dead Narration

Some time ago I found a documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead perfectly enriched by Leonard Cohen’s voice as the narrator, so this is what I’m watching now as  my memorial to another Maestro gone from the world. Check it out, it’s a profound exploration of life meaning and enrichment of the human spirit through meditative practice and Buddhist teachings. There is an empathy and wisdom in Cohen’s voice that makes this film a celebration of life in the midst of physical death. I wish him well on his journey and thank him for the songs.

 

Songs Never Die

 

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