Why No Man Should Ever Sing “House of the Rising Sun” Again

Music can give you sustenance during spiritually meager times, and this spring I kept going back to Joan Baez’ first album again and again.


Recorded here in New York City in the summer of 1960, Joan Baez (the album) is a spare production of folk classics. She was only 19, and no one had heard of Dylan and she wasn’t a spokesperson for anything just yet, and the songs are all stories more than statements – and sung by that voice. Lots of them, songs like “East Virginia,” come off as so lively precisely because she’s still such a girl, and the heartache of lost love is palpable in them. “Silver Dagger” is her version of  “Katie Dear,” a ballad of doomed love which, because it’s sung in the first person from the girl’s perspective, is darker and scarier.

These songs also evoke the macabre Appalachian heart of America, our people, and an old soul of a girl who can stare into it without fear, with nothing but clarity.

Last week when the President announced his decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, I naturally started thinking hard about Appalachia and its mythical meaning to us (more on that soon). Coincidentally, it was also the week the art scene in my former hometown of Minneapolis hosted a controversy about racism in art, in Sam Durrant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center. A white artist was the wrong artist to tell the story of the mass execution of Dakotas during the great uprising, they said.

I rarely get excited about artists or writers overstepping the bounds of what content they’re allowed to take on. Is this my white male privilege? Maybe, but I’m more inclined to agree with Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine: “The real problem with [Scaffold] is that ALL its supposed content is in the work’s explanatory wall label,” a damning comment about lots of political art, no matter who’s controlling the story.

But even I had just determined, after listening to Baez’ “House of the Rising Sun” dozens of times this year, that no man should ever sing that song again. The Animals’ version, which is part of the classic rock canon you just can’t avoid, is utterly lifeless. “It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy” changes the meaning of the story. Eric Burden wasn’t the first man to sing it – even Dylan had a version of it – but that doesn’t mean we should ever  have to listen to it.

It’s about a girl in a whorehouse, a “ruined” woman, and devastating in a first-person version by an artistic giant like Baez:

Can we at least agree on that? If your telling the story is going to screw it up, leave it alone.

Herr Tamburin Man

Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for literature? A better question might be, “Who is this cabal of Swedes that decides what greatness is?” Me, I don’t know, but on the face of it I suspect he does…

My friends are mostly elated about it, each of us under the spell of Dylan in some fashion or another. His award, if you believe their comments on it, is a return of literature to its rightful place, in a circle by a fire, with a blind poet plucking at a lyre.

People lose their minds over Bob, as Woody Allen lampooned in Annie Hall. When asked by Shelley Duval’s Rolling Stone reporter whether he’d caught a recent Bob Dylan show, Alvie answered, “Me? No, my raccoon had hepatitis.” (Woody never liked the Beats, or the counterculture in general.)

When Stephen Metcalfe of Slate laid out a case for why Dylan the musician was no poet of Nobel size, he punctuated it with a line whose sentiment comes up sooner or later whenever any writers doubt he deserves it: “We pathetic literati have a few days to pretend to world importance. We just lost another.”

Do we all have such petty, shriveled hearts? Do we look at what the world thinks of writers in general and feel we’re so under-appreciated we can’t clap when the old Stephen Foster and Reverend Gary Davis fanatic gets a medal pinned to him?

I think we can.


No Direction Home

I’ve not posted in a while, but not because I’ve stopped working. On the contrary, forward! (“Forward,” by the way, is the official motto of Wisconsin, a state I’m inordinately fond of.)

For the record, I’m revising my upstate New York thriller, and writing and co-producing another short this summer. Enrico Cullen’s A Man Full of Days, a film I helped produce and wrote about in the past, is getting screened May 20th at the Anthology Film Archives here in New York.

I’ve also been cherishing a book by Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan In America. Wilentz has a personal connection to the subject – his father and uncle, Elias and Ted Wilentz, ran the 8th Street bookshop back when Dylan lived in Greenwich Village – but he doesn’t just shake his family tree for some connections that yield some Dylaniana. He places Dylan at the heart of a complex mid-century cultural circulatory system, with arterial connections both unsurprising and astonishing. There is Ginsberg’s influence, sure, though I wasn’t aware of the extent to which Ginsberg felt Dylan was the inheritor of the Beat mantle. There’s also Brecht, Aaron Copland, and Marcel Carné (?!).

Wilentz says Dylan loved seeing contemporary world cinema, films now regarded as the golden age of arthouse. He apparently liked Shoot the Piano Player but found Last Year at Marienbad impenetrable. My kind of cineaste! Among Wilentz’s many insights, he points out that most commentators, and Dylan himself, regard his period from 1967 to ’73 as “fallow” years. All he did was make John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, appear in a Sam Peckinpah film, publish a book of poems, and write a catalogue of songs that would later appear as Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes. To most people , these would be great and highly productive years!

"You can never step into the same river twice."

“You can never step into the same river twice.”

Like everyone else around me, it seems, I tuned into Serial late this past fall, the podcast produced by This American Life. It was so widely written about, I had nothing to say about it, but for me, like many others I’m sure, it was the gateway podcast. Now I’m in the habit of listening. The one I’ve really taken to, and gotten a few friends hooked on, is The History of Philosophy, Without Any Gaps, an exhaustive series of 18-or-so-minute-long talks about the major ideas in Greek, Arab, and Western philosophy. I never thought I’d find Heraclitus’ notion of one-ness so riveting during a train ride home at night.

The Jinx was good, but Going Clear, the HBO doc about Scientology, spoke to me more. During my end-of-winter getaway to DC I had dinner with some dear old friends I’d worked with at an environmental organization many years ago. The subject of how we felt the organization had taken advantage of our idealism and goodwill came up – it came up, in fact, because I brought it up. I was gratified to find agreement all around. Pores gushing open with white wine and garlic, one person asked, tongue half in cheek, “Did we join a cult?” Another took her at face value, and pointed out that our elders at the time were all of 26 years old themselves. The group’s worst sin, she felt, was the prohibition against quitting, which seems to me a fairly accurate indicator of the four letter C word: If you’re staying because you fear the social ostracism you’d suffer if you left, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a cult.

God bless screenwriter Paul Haggis for speaking out in Going Clear. Of all the first-hand testimonials, he’s the only contributor with a successful career and credential besides Former Scientologist. He has something to lose. I know a kind septuagenarian from Texas who met her husband of 50+ years in postwar Los Angeles, the place and time where Scientology started, but she was at a Christian evangelical camp. It sounds like an atmosphere teeming with spiritual seekers, and it only makes sense. World War Two boomtown after the boom, depressed economy, rootless Okies realizing there is no home to go back to, hundreds of miles from the nearest family members, PTSD and copious sunshine. Fertile ground to plant a loopy religion.

This spring I’m also doing something any norteamericano my age should have done 30 years ago. I’m taking Spanish 101.

Couldn't put it down.

Couldn’t put it down.

I’m a quick study with the structure of languages, being a classics minor in college. I can look at most romance languages and deduce what the subject is, what’s a real verb versus a participle, and what adjective agrees with what noun, but conversation is a totally different matter. I waited till my 30s to take a French class because I dreaded that awful feeling of being asked a question and not having the vocabulary to answer it. It’s like opening a toolbox and seeing no tools in it. Spanish of course comes up much more often in this hemisphere. On top of its practical applications, it is without doubt good for the mind and the soul to get reduced to not just a total dummy but a quaking mess every once in a while.

On my way to Spanish class every week, I’ve gotten in the habit of stopping for a beer at South, a bar in my neighborhood: Having a round first helps loosen the tongue-tied inhibitions. And the bartender at this joint on this night is Rosie Schaap, author of the memoir Drinking With Men.

Of all the narratives I’ve followed this blogless spring, Drinking With Men came easiest. Schaap tells the story of her life by breaking it down into eight or so periods of being a regular at various bars. She portrays bar life as a society with loosely codified rules, then decodes them for us. She’s an economist of the moral currencies of bars who estimates their values by recounting the times she either broke or followed the rules. Though it comes up plenty of times, the matter of gender isn’t the main focus of Drinking With Men. Bar life, as she describes it, is full of warmth and (as much as I hate the abused word) community.


The Soundtrack to Getting It Done

“Those who can, do, and those who can’t, blog.”

Not exactly true, but words that give me comfort when I’ve let time pass without recording my observations about writing so faithfully. Trust me, readers, it only means I have been meeting my deadlines for once. I’m rewriting a thriller set in upstate New York, fulfilling a long-term ambition of setting a story in a vacation destination in the slight off season.

I love to spin music while writing – literally spin it on LPs, since the act of getting up and walking to the turntable is a convenient way to count time. If you flip the record and you’re still on the same page, then you know you’re going slow. Say, for example, I put on Court and Spark. Writing is enjoyable, but “Free Man in Paris” means Side One is already half done, and if I’m diddling with the same paragraph, then it’s time to make some quick decisions. “Other People’s Parties” means it’s almost over, and I’d better have moved on.

If, like Jonathan Franzen has written about, you struggle to focus while the internet is just a click away on your screen, then LPs make a good means to discipline yourself, Musical Chairs style: As long as the music’s playing, no Safari for you!

And then there’s the music itself. Some albums lend themselves to a getting-it-done atmosphere more than others. Eric Hobsbawm, writing about the 1930s, says it was the decade when many shops and homes starting playing the radio all day long, and music became the “aural wallpaper of twentieth century life” (which is a delicate and well-played metaphor for a historian). At your desk, your music becomes the soundtrack, and you the dramatic hero, in the thrilling story of the page that got written using nothing but a keyboard.

Get Happy!!

The more I cultivate a regular writing practice, the more I get off on the music of songwriters with a big body of work. One day this week, for example, I put on Time Out of Mind. It has the atmosphere I’m trying to create on the page, but I ask myself, “Are any of these sad, plodding songs even in the top 50 Dylan songs?” Possibly not, but knowing that it’s not only Dylan, but Dylan at age 56, embarking on his late life journey as guy with a cheeky sense of humor about himself just going and going, still writing good music, it’s inspirational. Verse chorus, verse chorus, sometimes a bridge, verse chorus: This is all he does all day, like Giacometti remaking the same figure again and again.

Alas, my “copy” of Time Out of Mind is off the Internet, just line items on my iTunes, or I’d have listened to it all week. So instead I turned to Get Happy!!, which, according to Elvis Costello’s biography Complicated Shadows, he recorded in a small town in Holland in 1979 with the Attractions, a big stack of soul records, and a steady supply of cocaine. His manager visited from London once, when he saw how high their booze bill was and needed to see what the hell was going on.

It was an easy Elvis album to take a pass on while I was in college. It lacks obvious favorites. But God damn, song after two-minute song, one solid pop track after another, a walking AM radio station. Side One finally takes a few breaths with “Clown Time Is Over” and “New Amsterdam,” the eighth and ninth out of ten songs, and you know it’s time to wind down the task at hand, before “High Fidelity” puts you back on the adrenaline train. Cocaine and Motown. Get it done.

(Ahh, music videos were better then.) I guess being a screenwriter means forgoing any hope of being known for a body of work the way a great songwriter is. You get something like two chances to make an impression, and even if you are successful, you still won’t have the luxury of an audience that contextualizes any individual script by seeing it as part of your overall work. There are a few writer-directors so noteworthy that even their less-than-stellar films are rewarding to watch closely, but screenwriters? Except for Paul Schrader, I can’t think of any.