by Jochen Markhorst
XIX Burping and belching and other bodily functions
Get lost Madam - get up off my knee Keep your mouth away from me I’ll keep the path open - the path in my mind I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind I play Beethoven sonatas Chopin’s preludes... I contain multitudes
In Dylan’s appreciation of so-called high culture, we see the ordinary, somewhat banal development as we see it in the bulk of the world’s population: as a young lad he kicks against it, in middle age he recognises its value, as an older man he is not embarrassed to vent his admiration loud and clear. Measurable, for instance, in Dylan’s evolution of qualifications for a poet like T.S. Eliot. Soft-boiled egg shit Dylan still calls his oeuvre in the 1960s, “aloof”, unworldly and unnecessarily complicating he judges in the 1970s (in an interview with Philip Fleishman, February 1978, i.e. when Dylan is already 36), but only seven years later Dylan places T.S Eliot in a line-up with Elvis Presley and Albert Camus, in the list of artists who had a big impact on me (Biograph interview with Cameron Crowe, 1985). And in the twenty-first century, in Chronicles (2004), the autobiographer, now past sixty, confesses: “I liked T.S. Eliot. He was worth reading.” Two years later, the radio DJ Dylan admiringly quotes the first 11 lines of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” on his radio programme Theme Time Radio Hour.
The appreciation of classical music in general, and Beethoven in particular, has developed identically. In its creative output initially no more than an empty name-check (Ma Rainey and Beethoven in “Tombstone Blues”, “Nucleur Beethoven” in Tarantula), and downright adolescent in a Danish press conference in 1966, in which a wanton Dylan turns the tables and starts interviewing the journalists present. Including an unnamed female journalist:
“And your favorite music” he asked a woman reporter. “What’s your favorite music?”
“Beethoven,” she replied in a cultured voice, “I’m very fond of Beethoven’s Symphonies.”
“Yes, but I was thinking more of your favorite music,” Dylan continued.
“But it is Beethoven,” the woman repeated rather brusquely.
“Oh come on,” said Dylan, “what’s your favorite music?”
A bit awkward, all in all. But certainly not an act; in his autobiography, the elder Dylan recalls finding a Beethoven record in the record cabinet as a young lad in New York at one of his lodgings;
“Once I put on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata — it was melodic, but then again, it sounded like a lot of burping and belching and other bodily functions. It was funny — sounded almost like a cartoon.”
Equally awkward is disqualifying a beyond category masterpiece like the Pathétique as “funny” and “sounding like burping and belching and other bodily functions”. Though that may have been laid on a bit thicker, obviously, by the reflecting older Dylan, some 40 years after the fact.
We see a cautious turnaround in the mid-1970s, when Beethoven is admitted to the soundtrack of Renaldo & Clara (in the twelfth scene, when “Bob Dylan” tries to persuade the young attractive brunette to join him, the Mondscheinsonate plays in the background). The bashing of classical music is over after that, and in the twenty-first century, once Dylan passes 60, the sentiment has turned 180 degrees. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” opens episode 32 of Theme Time Radio Hour (“Moon”), and in The Philosophy Of Modern Song, Dylan acknowledges the melodic magic and influence of classical music when he discusses “My Prayer” by The Platters. “Here are some other pop songs based on classical melodies,” he writes, and then lists “All By Myself”, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and the evergreen “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. A list, incidentally, that he could have expanded by multitudes.
Finally, on Rough And Rowdy Ways, classical music in general, and Beethoven in particular, is alpha and omega. “I play Beethoven sonatas Chopin’s preludes” says the narrator here in the opening song “I Contain Multitudes”, and at the end of the majestic finale “Murder Most Foul” the narrator requests to play Moonlight Sonata in F-sharp. Unequivocal appreciation; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 14 is listed between Roosevelt Sykes’ “Driving Wheel” and Little Walters’ “Key To The Highway” – between pieces of music that the narrator regards as unrelenting, comforting and beautiful masterpieces. Although the addition in F-sharp remains a bit puzzling; the piece is in C-sharp minor, just like Chopin’s ultra-short, virtuoso Prelude 10 and Prelude Op. 45, for that matter. Just as the grammatical peculiarity of writing Beethoven sonatas without possessive ‘s on the one hand, and Chopin’s preludes with possessive ‘s on the other (in the official publication of the lyrics on bobdylan.com) is a bit puzzling as well. Apparently, Dylan now sees the name Beethoven as something like a brand name or a predicate, something like Ford cars or Hitchcock movies. And Chopin does not yet have that status. Perhaps Chopin’s preludes still sound too much like burping and belching to him, who knows?
Then again, Dylan should of course not have listened so much to the preludes as to the etudes. And especially No. 3 (Etude Op. 10), the etude that also inspired an immortal pop song based on a classical melody, which benefited The Platters as well, who scored a world hit with it in 1959: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Kern/Harbach). DJ Dylan plays Coleman Hawkins’ heartbreaking, instrumental version when he opens episode 58 (“Smoking”) of his Theme Time Radio Hour in November 2007 with it, but at home in his record cabinet, The Platters’ sung version is likely to be a little further in front. In the sung version, after all, we again hear multitudes;
Now, laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, so I smile and say "When a lovely flame dies Smoke gets in your eyes"
Yep, I play Beethoven’s sonatas Chopin’s etudes might have been a slightly more personal finale.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 20: The elegance of Euler’s identity
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece
- I contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip