Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review, 3:AM, FullStop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and more.
Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.
In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.
Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”
This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense?
Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).
I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).
The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.
Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.
DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.
Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.
I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.
I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.
Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?
DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.
Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?
DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).
Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?
DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.
Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?
DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.
Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.
Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?
DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”
There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.
Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.
DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.
Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.”Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”→
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
For me, the golden age of rock was cut short by the success of the Beatles, which could be dated either 1964 or 1966. UK artists had contributed important hits to the pop field—but the triumph of the Beatles formula shifted pop away from the breakthrough of the late Fifties. The Beatles were essentially a music-hall “kid” act, limited to a four-square, discrete-pitch vocabulary. (They knew American ethnic music only by rumor.) They found and crystallized the segment with the best numbers—early teens who wanted something more bland than actual rock. At this point, the regime of maximum sales backfired, as one might well have expected it to.
The “youth” craze of the Sixties became increasingly dubious (from flower power to Altamont), and the Beatles and their imitators morphed, leading their fans to a mystique of consumerist dissipation. (Carnaby Street and “Yellow Submarine.”) For me, the Beatles’ consummate song was “Revolution,” which begins “If you wanna make a revolution, count me out.” It served as the anthem for all the mediocrities who responsed to the stresses of the late twentieth century by embracing institutional co-optation.
After the Beatles seized the market, white pop ceased to interest me except for the flukes. When Bob Dylan added electric instruments and blues chops to his act for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” that impelled me to my initial rock efforts of 1966 (with Walter De Maria on traps). Given my political engagement, I had been waiting for an impetus to try songs with “revolution” lyrics.
In general, the ascendancy of the Beatles, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., ended ethnic-rock—the ethnic impulses reverted to the segmented R&B and C&W markets. After the mid-Sixties, rock-pop no longer had ethnic chops—could I have been the only one who was musicological enough to realize that? Rock-pop became uniformly loud in a way which was vulgar, mechanical, and bloated. (There was no more of the profundity, and I mean profundity, of a Chuck Berry or of “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”)
From Henry Flynt’s essay “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music.”
Bob Dylan gets extra-rambly in a 1966 interview with Playboy. I like to read the following riff as a surreal story-poem. If you want more context, the interviewer asks Dylan as a preamble to the ramble: “Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-‘n’-roll route?”:
Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a “before” in a Charles Atlas “before and after” ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy – he ain’t so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?
My uncle has always aided and abetted my love for the music and mythos of Bob Dylan. He hooked me up with Anthony Scaduto’s 1972 biography Dylan, which I still consider a high point of musical biography and journalism. It’s a work that traces Dylan as a dialectical synthesis of the sources around him: Little Richard, the cold winters of Hibbing, Woody Guthrie, Charlie Chaplin, etc.
So anyway, I was pleasantly surprised (but hardly shocked) to find a copy of LIFE’s Bob Dylan retrospective in the US mails, kindly sent by my uncle. It’s crammed with pictures I’d never seen before, and the copy is surprisingly well-written (if occasionally snarky). Anyway, good stuff. I share a few pics:
This month, to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday (which is, um, today), Picador is reissuing Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic under the name The Old, Weird America. Marcus uses Dylan and The Band’s recording sessions at Big Pink in 1967 as the ultimate synthesis of “the old, weird America.” From these legendary sessions Marcus unpacks Moby-Dick and William Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jerry Lee Lewis, Puritans and cowboys, utopias and ranches, Harry Smith and Dock Boggs, the Reverend J.M. Gates and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” murder ballads and the Beats, Clint Eastwood and Frank Hutchison, and more, more, more.
While Bob Dylan and the guys in the Band–Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson–are the protagonists of Marcus’s pop history, Harry Smith is perhaps its signal hero. Marcus finds in Smith’s seminal work Anthology of American Folk Music a history of democracy and America “made by willful, ornery, displaced, unsatisfied, ambitious individuals.” Marcus figures Anthology as the direct antecedent for The Basement Tapes. And yet as he moves backward in time he also moves forward, tracing the spirit of the old, weird America through to Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana.
Marcus’s mission isn’t so much a to tell Dylan’s history (yet again) as it is to contextualize Dylan and The Band’s project against the backdrop of the American folk past. As such, Dylanphiles won’t exactly find a new version here of the narrative that they’re undoubtedly so familiar with (cantankerous Dylan goes electric and “betrays” the folkies). Instead, what we find in The Old, Weird America is a verbal attempt to match the discursive, rambling, reference-hopping spirit of those sessions in ’67, and if Marcus at times rumbles and tumbles all over the place, we can forgive him—his weirdness is merely an attempt to match the verve, audacity, and strangeness of The Basement Tapes.
According to AV Club, Bob Dylan has inked a deal with Simon & Schuster to write six books, including the long-awaited follow ups to Chronicles, Volume One (easily one of our favorite memoirs or music books or Dylan books or whatever you want to call it). Also connected: MobyLives reports that literary agent/villain-in-an-alternate-universe-where-everyone-actually-cares-about-publishing Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie may be the guy responsible for the delay of Chronicles Volume 2.
Here’s Dylan haranguing a journalist in one of my favorite scenes from Don’t Look Back—
When Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart came out a few months ago, most critics obsessed over the ironic possibilities of a Bob Dylan Christmas album, especially one called Christmas in the Heart, especially one with that cover. Had these critics forgotten that Dylan has always held his cards tight to his chest? That he’s been producing his albums for years now under the kinda-Christmasy pseudonym Jack Frost? That he only does what he really wants to do? For many of these critics, the fact that all proceeds of the album go to Feeding America functioned almost as an excuse for (more) weird behavior from Dylan. All one has to do, of course, is simply listen to the music to find that Christmas in the Heart is a minor masterpiece in the Christmas music genre and a wonderful, strange fit in the Dylan canon.
Dylan tackles fifteen carols and classics in a consistent, old-timey style evocative of Les Paul and Mary Ford and other hybrid Country & Western of the immediate post-WWII era. Dylan’s production is warm and simple, showcasing the talent of his players and backup singers. Opener “Here Comes Santa Claus” sets a lively pace that slows down over the course of the album’s first side, through a lush “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to a version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that wrangles just the right mix of bitter and sweet. Dylan’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” is downright ethereal. The album picks up again with its only barnburner, a fired-up version of Lawrence Welk’s polka, “Must Be Christmas.” Do yourself a favor and enrich your life by watching the marvelous video (seriously watch it, if for nothing else than for Dylan’s surreal wig):
The energy and strange, chaotic madness of “Must Be Christmas” makes for the lively climax of the album, and the video clearly represents Dylan’s vision of Christmas as carnival. Not that it’s all ritual madness, of course. The commercial/spiritual paradox of Christmas comes out in the end, as the record winds down with the secular melancholy of “The Christmas Song” followed by the stirring hymn “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.” If there’s any concern that Dylan is somehow not entirely earnest in his Christmas music–or too earnest in his irony, perhaps–one simply has to listen to the spirit in his gravelly, aging voice. Christmas in the Heart may be ironic, but that shouldn’t diminish its pleasures at all: it’s a self-conscious, loving irony, far from sneering, and certainly not a trick on the listener. It’s a gift of music, really (as corny as that sounds), one that asks the reader to laugh along with it, but also to feel genuine sentiment in the beauty here. Highly recommended–especially on 180 gram vinyl (the vinyl addition includes the album on CD and a 7″ single of “Must Be Christmas” and a B-side of Bob reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with backing music by John Fahey).
I spent a few hours cleaning up/out the office today. Hundreds and hundreds of books. Here are a few scans of old favorites, cool covers, and some I didn’t know I even had, like this one:
No memory of acquiring this book at all. Dig the cover though. Here’s another one with a cool cover the origins of which are dim:
Probably a remainder from my high school’s library, like this book about our Fair Florida:
I’m pretty sure that the fort here is meant to be the fort in Old St. Augustine. As a Floridian, I will attest that this image captures the essence of Florida life. Lovely.
Jock of the Bushveld was one of my favorite books as a kid. I actually used to live in the part of South Africa depicted in this book. Sorta. My dad bought me this book.
Cat’s Cradle is one of my favorite books. My copy is clearly in terrible shape. The cover disappeared years ago. I think my cousin gave me this book.
I know I swiped this one from my cousin: Anthony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan. I’ve read this book probably more than any other nonfiction book I own. A lot of my friends have read it too, and remarkably, it’s always made it’s way back. Not sure when the cover went MIA. Apparently, I forged Dylan’s autograph on the upper right. I’m sure there was a joke behind this at some point.
I haven’t written about an honest-to-God book theft in awhile. I stole this book from a large corporate book store when I was sixteen or seventeen. It’s pretty small. I think I just put it in my pocket. It was easy and I got a thrill from the experience. That said — kids, don’t steal stuff!
First off–yes, the entire list could be comprised of Dylan songs. I choose this one simply because it’s one of my favorites, and also from the first Dylan album I ever bought. Dylan visits a psychiatrist and tells him about the awful dreams he’s been having. Dylan is “down in the sewer with some little lover” when the bomb goes off; upon surfacing he discovers a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors aren’t to friendly–in fact, he’s even accused of being a Commie at one point. Even the abandoned Cadillac he finds–a “good car to drive after a war”–brings him no pleasure, and in his loneliness, he takes to calling the automated time update service, but it’s no longer being updated. The doctor cuts him off, saying that he’s been having similar dreams, only he was the only one left alive in his dreams. Dylan ends the song by declaring “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,” the subtlest anti-war slogan I’ve ever heard.
2. Stephen Malkmus, “Jenny and the Ess-Dog”
The tragic story of Jennifer, an 18 year “rich girl,” and her 31 year old boyfriend, “the Ess-dog, or Sean if you wish.” The Ess-Dog plays in a 60s cover band, drives a Volvo, and loves to play frisbee with their dog Trey (um, shades of Malkmus himself?) They love to make out to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms and do cocaine (Trey observes their “baby talk voices and post Class-A nasal drip”). Of course, such a romance can’t last: Jenny heads up to college in Boulder and pledges Kappa; the poor Ess-Dog starts waiting tables and even “sells his guitar.” Sad, sad, sad.
3. Roy Orbison, “Running Scared”
In just three verses and under two and a half minutes, Orbison captures all of the paranoia, fear, and triumph of teenage romance. The narrator is always “running scared, feeling low,” afraid that his girl’s ex might show up and try to get her back. Sure enough, his shaky confidence is put to the test: the ex shows up, “so sure of himself, his head up in the air.” The poor narrator’s heart is breaking, but in the final glorious moments, his girl chooses to stay with him. Classic.
4. Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”
So you’ve always wanted to read Emily Brontë’s Gothic romance Wuthering Heights but you just don’t have the time? And you don’t even have time to read the Sparknotes version? Or even the Wikipedia entry? Well, never fear–singer-songwriter/space alien Kate Bush recorded a chilling version of the story (okay a tiny little fragment of the story), told from the perspective of poor dead Cathy, pining for Heathcliff–the adoptive brother she spurned (ooh! Incest! uh…sorta). Even if it’s just a take on one part of the novel, it’s still a good story, a great song, and a truly ethereal vocal.
Pretty much every song by my favorite band Fiery Furnaces is some kind of zany adventure narrative, full of places and names and numbers. Blueberry Boat in particular has any number of good narratives–the title track, “Chris Michaels,” “Quay Cur”–but my personal favorite is the rivalry between two brothers at the end of “Chief Inspector Blancheflower.” “Blancheflower,” like many Furnaces’ songs, is a suite; the final segment of the suite is cleverly framed within the rest of the narrative as part of a story told over a “Woodpecker cider with a local fratricider” to the previous narrator. Despite “Mom’s oxycontin and the Amstel light,” the narrator finds that he’s doing all of the talking during a visit to his “younger brother Michael,” prompting him to get “both remotes and turn off the DVD” and confront his brother. It turns out that little Michael is now dating the narrator’s ex, Jenny. “My Jenny?” he asks, dumbfounded, to which little brother replies: “You know damn well she ain’t your Jenny no more.” He confronts Jenny the next day outside her “dad’s bakery,” accusing her of messing with Michael’s head as “some kind of revenge” against him. In the end though, it’s futile. He winds up at a bar, telling the story to the previous narrator.
6. De La Soul, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Claus”
Dillon, the seemingly benevolent social worker who mentors the fellas in De La Soul, is actually a monster who molests his teenage daughter Millie. She takes her revenge at the local mall, coldly executing her pop who is volunteering as Santa Claus: “Millie bucked him with the quickness/ It was over.” Classic track, classic album.
Unfortunately, no vid for “Millie,” but you can still enjoy “A Rollerskating Jam Named “Saturdays”” (with a sweet Chicago sample, to boot):
7. Public Enemy, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
“I got a letter from the government the other day/ I opened and read it/ It said they were suckers/ They wanted me for their army or whatever/ Picture me givin’ a damn–I said never.” This is possibly the best opening in the history of rap, but Chuck D only keeps upping the ante: the narrator soon realizes that “the suckers had authority,” and before you can blink, he’s “sittin’ in the state pen,” planning his escape. He attacks a “C-O,” steals his gun, and goes on a prison rampage, “52 brothers” behind him. The faithful S1Ws arrive (with bazookas!) to escort the escapees to northern freedom. Great stuff.
Tricky’s version is pretty good too:
8. Leonard Cohen, “The Partisan”
Cohen adapted “The Partisan” from an old WWII French Resistance song, “La Complainte du Partisan” by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly. The historical significance only adds to the song’s haunting melody and diffident spirit. “The Partisan” recounts the sad story of a freedom fighter who has lost his wife and children, but keeps on fighting. “There were three of us this morning,” he says, ominously adding, “I’m the only one this evening.” Grim stuff.
9. Johnny Cash, “Cocaine Blues”
“Cocaine Blues” begins with narrator Willy Lee telling us: “I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down” for messing around on him. He sleeps on the murder, then wakes up the next morning and “takes a shot of cocaine” before taking off. Unfortunately, the cops catch up with him down in Juarez, Mexico. He’s sent to trial, and the “little judge” hands him his sentence “in about five minutes”–“99 years in the Folsom pen.” He laments that he can’t forget the day he “shot that bad bitch down,” warning the listener to “lay off that whiskey, and let that cocaine be.”
I couldn’t find footage of Cash doing the song, but this isn’t so bad:
And if you insist on seeing Cash sing a narrative song:
10. Tom Waits, “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”
The saddest Christmas song ever begins with a junkie whore’s plaintive salutation to her ex-lover: “Hey Charlie I’m pregnant.” She goes on to explain that life now isn’t so bad: her old man, who “works out at the track” knows that the kid isn’t his but promises to “raise him up like he would his own son”; he even gives her a ring that was “worn by his mother” and takes her out dancing “every Saturday night.” Still though, things aren’t great. The hapless narrator delivers one of the saddest lines in any song I’ve ever heard: “I still have that record of Little Anthony and the Imperials/ But someone stole my record player/ How do you like that?” Things get even sadder when the narrator laments: “I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope.” By the end of the song she comes clean, admitting that she doesn’t have a husband, and that she’s writing because she needs to borrow money. It turns out she’s in prison, and she’ll be “eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.”
11. New Order, “Love Vigilantes”
“Love Vigilantes” is now over twenty years old and just as relevant as it ever was. This is a love song, a protest song, and a ghost story all in one. The biggest irony isn’t the O. Henry-by-way-of-Poe twist ending, it’s the discrepancy between the ebullient rhythm and pop melody of the music clashing against the mournful lyrics.
12. Belle and Sebastian, “Jonathan David”
On the surface, “Jonathan David” appears to be a song about two guys who like the same girl: “I know you like her/ Well I like her too/ I know she likes you.” However, pick up the Biblical allusion to find the subtext. The narrator says, “I was Jonathan to your David/ You’re still king.” In the Old Testament Book of Samuel, Jonathan takes an extreme liking to future-king David, pledging his undying service to the handsome young hero. For centuries, whether the relationship was platonic, romantic, or sexual has been under debate. Read more here. In the light of the Book of Samuel, Belle and Sebastian’s “Jonathan David” is still about a friendship split by a girl, only it becomes clear now that the narrator is really in love with his friend. In typical B&S fashion, the narrator wavers between hope and despair, declaring at one point that “It’s not like we’ll be parted/ It’s not like we’ll never know love,” before ending on a melancholy note: “You and her in the local newspaper/ You will be married and you’ll be gone.” In the end, his adolescent homosexual infatuation has to give way to public expectation (“local newspaper”), and the simple fact that his friend digs girls.