Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review of Tempest by Bob Dylan

I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan since 1965, and I’ve almost always been able to tell in advance how I’m going to rate a new album.  I remember counting down the days till I could go into the local record shop and buy Blood on the Tracks, whereas in other cases I looked at the album and decided I’d get it some time.  Although some of those have grown on me a bit, that first vibe has usually been confirmed. 

I was excited as soon as I heard about Tempest.  It’s an album that’s divided Dylan’s fans – hardly a new experience for him.  I can understand people not getting it, but I’m definitely in the “it’s a masterpiece” camp.

I’ve mostly loved Dylan’s recent output, especially Love and Theft, Modern Times and some tracks from the Tell Tale Signs collection, such as ‘Cross the Green Mountain.  The songs on Tempest seem, at the same time, a continuation of the same groove and a new departure.

As with most of his recent work, Dylan’s casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world – “the new dark age” as he once called it – attacking hypocrisy and lamenting the loss of honour and compassion, but his world-view has rarely been as bleak as this, and his voice matches it.  Dylan’s voice has always been raw and rasping, but it’s even more so now.  This is an element many people seem to dislike, but it seems to me that he’s finally achieved what he’s been trying for since he was twenty – the true rough edge of blues masters like Charley Patton or Blind Willie Johnson.  In spite of the rasp, Dylan’s in full control of what his voice is doing, and his timing, phrasing and ability to invest a word with extra meaning are unimpaired.

He’s using his touring band on this album, and it shows clearly that they’re used to playing with him.  Like all Dylan’s most successful backing combos, such as the Band and the Kooper/Bloomfield line-up of the mid-60s, they have the knack of sounding like an extension of what Dylan’s doing, without sacrificing their individual musicianship.  It’s not an easy balance to maintain through his various musical styles, and they achieve it beautifully.

For any new Dylan album, though, the most significant factor has to be the songs he’s come up with.  For the most part, as on recent albums, it ranges from Chicago blues, to country ballads to rock ‘n’ roll, but there are variations – Scarlet Town is as swampy as a six-foot alligator, while Tin Angel is a barely sung folk ballad over an ominous bass riff.

Lyrically, the earlier songs on the album are fairly direct (well, direct for Dylan, that is) and play about with his old habit of setting up clich├ęs only to explode them in our faces.  I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises he warbles at the beginning of Soon After Midnight, but this isn’t some dumb romantic song.  His “date with the Fairy Queen” is on night-time streets full of whores, death and vengeance – Two-timing Slim, who’s ever heard of him? I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.

Dylan has said that he wanted to make a religious album, but it didn’t turn out that way, and religious imagery haunts many of these songs.  You went and lost your lovely head for a drink of wine and a crust of bread (from Narrow Way) suggests the Christian Eucharist, as does Man cannot live by bread alone, I pay in blood, but not my own (from Pay In Blood).  This is a long way, though, from the straightforward religion of the late 70s/early 80s, and the references are both uncomfortable and ambiguous.  Is the blood he pays in the blood of Christ, or the blood of other people – victims of war, perhaps?  Or both?  Maybe, in the end, that’s distinction isn’t what the song’s about, and you can take it whichever way you like.

The later songs are more oblique.  Scarlet Town begins with the opening line of the traditional ballad Barbara Allen, but then goes its own way into a nightmare vision of life in Sodom and Gomorrah where you fight your father’s foes... You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in, you fight ‘em with whiskey, morphine and gin.

Tin Angel also begins as if it’s going to be a traditional ballad (Black Jack Davey in this case) but soon veers off into what could perhaps best be described as the lovechild of Isis and The Man in the Long Black Coat, but far darker and more vicious than either.  This Tin Angel couldn’t be further from the gentle song of the same name on Joni Mitchell’s Clouds – and, since Mitchell criticised Dylan for plagiary a few years back, maybe the choice of title isn’t an accident.

 The title track is a thirteen-minute telling of the sinking of the Titanic, but not a straightforward version.  Dylan has transformed the event into a myth of a society that can’t see that it’s ship is sinking, in a way that reminds me a little of Black Diamond Bay.  An assortment of characters that would do justice to Desolation Row are intent on their own business – even Leonardo DiCaprio gets a look in back on the ship – overseen by the Watchman (Dylan himself?) who saw the Titanic was sinking and tried to tell someone.

Dylan has only ever done one song before that’s a tribute to a fellow artist – Lenny Bruce from 1981, which was uncompromisingly direct.  On the final track here, Roll On John, he gives us a version of John Lennon’s life that doesn’t allow mere facts to get in the way of a good myth – on a slave-ship, ambushed where the buffalo roam, it tells us not how Lennon’s life was, but how Dylan sees it.

Modern Times was criticised in some circles (including by Joni Mitchell) for the way Dylan based some of the tracks on older songs, even though it was no different from what he was doing in the 60s, basing songs on Scarborough Fair, Lord Franklin, The Parting Glass and many others.  There’s been criticism of Tempest on the grounds that he uses many quotes in the lyrics, but this misses the point.  There’s an old saying that a bad poet/artist etc imitates, a good one steals.  Dylan steals, just like Homer or Shakespeare, but far from cheating, the connections the quotes evoke give a whole extra shade of meaning.  Just as they do in Elliot’s The Waste Land, which is widely considered one of the great poems of the 20th century.

There’s been speculation that there may be significance that this album has the same title as Shakespeare’s last play (well, more or less his last).  Dylan’s joked that his title is missing The, and that makes all the difference.  Whatever the significance, I can’t imagine him calling it a day before he has to.  On the form of Tempest, I hope that’s a very long time.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Witch in Aoife's Kiss

The September 2012 issue of Aoife's Kiss is now out, featuring my story Witch. The seventh story to be published about Eltava, swordswoman and adventurer, goes back to show her at fourteen, when boring grown-ups got in the way of adventures.

Aoife's Kiss is an excellent magazine (and I'm not just saying that because they've published three of my stories now) and this issue also includes fiction by Steve Newton, Tim McDaniel, D. Thomas Minton, Rebecca Harwell, L. Joseph Shosty, Mary E. Lowd, Brent Knowles, Charlie Brooks, Tony Peak, Giovanni Giusti, Sarah L. Byrne, Grant J. Howe, Olga Godim and Eamonn Murphy; poetry by Diego Miller, Sandra Sowers Platt, Stephanie V. Sears, Holly Day, Anna Sykora, Will H. Blackwell Jr, Yue Xing Wang and Jason Sturner; and an interview with James Gunn.

All this and the striking cover by Laura Givens for a mere $9.00

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

An Old Horror Story and a Convention

A little over thirty years ago, I was a young, aspiring and mainly unpublished author.  I’d had one or two poems in magazines, but my most prestigious story publication was in a school magazine.  My main interest as a writer was (as it still is, to some extent) a cross between epic fantasy and sword & sorcery, with occasional diversions into other genres.

In 1980, I discovered through a friend that the Fontana horror series, edited by Mary Danby, was accepting unsolicited submissions.  I had an idea for a horror story, so I wrote Safe as Houses, submitted it and was delighted when it was accepted and appeared in The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories – immediately before a reprint of a story by some chap called Lovecraft.  Whatever happened to him?

And then – nothing.  Looking back, I don’t really know why I didn’t write some follow-ups and submit them to Mary, or to any rival publication, but I simply went back to writing fantasy and, increasingly through the 80s, a surreal style of story I described at the time as “dislocated realism”.  I submitted here and there but, in the days before Ralan, Duotrope and electronic submission, it wasn’t easy to find potential markets, and I had to wait another fifteen years for my second published story.  It’s gradually developed from there to the point where now I can (occasionally) sneak into fully professional magazines.

I was always proud of that first publication, but I didn’t really think that much about it.  Horror was always something of a fringe interest for me, and it wasn’t till I started googling myself a few years ago that I was surprised to discover how many hits Safe as Houses got, and that it was part of a horror classic.

Even so, it was completely out of the blue that I got an email earlier this year from Johnny Mains.  He was going to be interviewing Mary Danby as one of the guests of honour at Fantasycon, and was trying to get as many authors as possible that she’d published to be there.  I’d have loved to go to Fantasycon properly, but owing to being on the wrong side of the economic policy of a certain government who shall remain nameless, I couldn’t afford it.  However, I was invited to come down to Brighton for the Saturday as a guest.

I’ve been to various cons as a punter, but this was my first time as a guest, in however minor a capacity.  It was a wonderful day.  Besides mixing with the con crowd, meeting up both with people I knew in person and people I’d only known on line, I got to meet Mary at last.  She was delightful, and endearingly astonished at the fuss everyone was making about her books.  I discovered that she’s descended from Charles Dickens, and the niece of Monica Dickens, and it was awesome to be sitting right next to a member of a great literary family.

Johnny also came over as a really nice guy.  The authors who were there took part in the discussion, giving our reminiscences (although some of the others had a good deal more to contribute than I did) and then shared her signing session.  It was mainly for her new collection of her own stories, Party Pieces, but some people brought along copies of the anthologies, and I got asked for a few signatures.

It seems strange that something I did that long ago, which seems pretty much detached from my current writing, is almost certainly my most widely read story, and can still have an effect after so long.  So I’d like to thank Mary for publishing it, Johnny for inviting me, and both of them for being so friendly and welcoming.

And next time, perhaps I’ll be invited as a guest of honour for my bestselling novel.  Well, I can dream....