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Month: May 2011

Tales of Yankee Power

Sorry I’m a bit late with this post. I wanted to have it out in time for Bob Dylan’s birthday on the 24th, but what with being deeply embroiled in writing a ghost story and my own closely adjacent birthday to contend with it didn’t quite happen. Never mind. So far as I’m concerned, any day is a good day to talk about Dylan.

I’ve been enjoying the various articles in the media this week: fans listing their Dylan top tens (I have to admit I’m a bit of a list junkie), personal reminiscences and most of all the imput from the next generation of Dylan obsessives, young people who weren’t even born when Dylan first started cutting records but who find his timeless lyrics and unique delivery as affecting and relevant now as they were for their mothers, fathers and teachers in the sixties and seventies.  I couldn’t help smiling though when I came across yet another discussion around the subject of whether Bob Dylan should be counted as a poet or not. I would have thought it would be obvious to anyone reading Dylan’s lyrics that his use of rhyme and assonance, word association, literary reference and pure lyrical expression makes him one of the most gifted, original, anarchic, articulate, relevant and expressive poets of the 20th century.    

My first awareness of Dylan’s daring use of assonance came when I first listened – properly – to his classic of 1975, ‘Simple Twist of Fate':

They walked along by the old canal/A little confused, I remember well/And stopped into a strange motel with the neon burning bright/He felt the heat of the night/Hit him like a freight train/Moving with a simple twist of fate

The cheekiness of the line-break on ‘freight train’ still astounds me, makes me lighter inside with the pleasure of it. Thinking about this, it came to me that what people are responding to when they call Dylan a prophet or a revolutionary – even if they don’t consciously know it – is his graceful articulacy, a use of language so fluid and so natural that it can break any rule you set for it and still come out kicking ass. The ‘message’ of Dylan’s lyrics, after all, is not a call to revolution or political activism but an injunction to remain true to oneself, to reject all party allegiances in favour of artistic integrity. It was this rejection of the political that was one of the central causes of his split with Joan Baez.

I’m privileged to have genuine memories of Dylan from the time when the tracks were still new. Indeed it was Dylan’s lyrics that formed the basis of one of my earliest horror stories. The track in question was ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,’ which I must have heard for the first time when it was released as part of the Greatest Hits Vol 2 in 1971. From the moment I started paying attention to songs – which happened at a very young age – I was obsessed with their lyrics even more than their melody. My interpretations were often distinctly strange. At six years old I was convinced that ‘Mobile’ was about a kidnap victim being held in some kind of underground cellar! I’m happy to say that I also have more nebulous, magical recollections of songs like ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that for me then were cornucopias of imagery, words like jewels that I hoarded and wondered at, not knowing quite what they meant, understanding only that I found them bewitching.

My rediscovery of Dylan came in the early 2000s, when I began listening to him seriously and this time as a writer myself. I was stunned by what I found. Not just by the classics, but by songs I’d never known existed and from every decade of his remarkable career. It was then that I started looking at him ‘on the page,’ and became a devotee. His lines make me shudder with rapture, not simply at the depth of emotion expressed but with the sheer power and strength of the writing. To see something done this well, intention so boldly and securely executed, is one of the purest delights known to me.

I’m not going to list my top ten – there are plenty of those to choose from already – but I would like to draw attention to a strand of Dylan’s oeuvre that means a lot to me, that stimulates my imagination endlessly and that perhaps has deepest resonance for any writer and that is Dylan’s work as a narrative poet, a balladeer in the truest sense of the word, where the ballad is not a slow love song but a compacted, lyrical retelling of a tale of love, freedom and infamy.  The first stanza of ‘Idiot Wind’ illustrates this perfectly:

They say I shot a man named Gray/And took his wife to Italy/She inherited a million bucks/And when she died it came to me/I can’t help it if I’m lucky…..

Who was Gray and what did he do to get himself shot? Is the narrator being ironic with his use of the word ‘lucky’ and how did the wife die anyway? It’s a mini-ballad in itself, enough to provoke a thousand much longer stories.

In ‘The Changing of the Guard’ we have a story and a lyric that could encompass the whole grandeur and repeating tragedy of Greek mythology:

‘Gentlemen,’ he said/’I don’t need your organization/I’ve shined your shoes/I’ve moved your mountains and I marked your cards/But Eden is burning/Either brace yourself for elimination/Or your hearts must have the courage/For the changing of the guard’

I love the earlier line about being ‘caught between Jupiter and Apollo,’ summarizing the woman’s divided attraction between the man of power and the man of physical beauty. The song – which has sometimes been derided as ‘incomprehensible’ – is a masterpiece of passion and concision. 

The shaded beauty of Dylan’s scene-setting in ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,’ is given as much weight as the bloody action itself and demonstrates a commitment to the business of storytelling that is up there with Leonard and Chandler:

Outside the streets were filling up/The window was open wide/A gentle breeze was blowing/You could feel it from inside/Lily called another bet/And drew up the Jack of Hearts

I can feel that breeze, the only relief from the stuffy, dustbowl heat that is a metaphor for the fight that is about to take place. Dylan’s narratives are filmic in their scope.  ‘Senor: Tales of Yankee Power’ takes place in the same blasted, blood-streaked landscape as Jodorowski’s El Topo or the Coen brothers’ magnificent No Country for Old Men. The sound of that song is the sound of the spaghetti Western, the mariachi-sounding sax riff directly evocative of the music of Morricone.

And the lyrics! If we’re still playing top 10s, which I think we probably are, I would have to place ‘Senor’ as my personal number 1:

There’s a wicked wind still blowing on that upper deck/There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck/There’s a marching band still playing in that vacant lot/Where she held me in her arms one time and said ‘forget me not.’

It must say something that I don’t have to check these lyrics online before I post them because I have a typed copy of them folded inside the cover of my current working notebook. Scanning the dozens of reader comments on The Guardian‘s ‘Top 10 Dylan’ blog, it struck me forcibly that not one person had included ‘Senor’ among their line-up. I’m therefore doubly proud to draw attention to it here.

Time to stop listening to me, and get back to your own favourite Dylan! On Dylan’s birthday itself I put Blood on the Tracks on my headphones and walked from Hastings through St Leonards along the promenade. The sea was a glister of rhinestones. The castellated facades gleamed white against a burnished sky.

Out of This World

I was lucky enough to be present at the opening of the British Library’s new SF exhibition, Out of This World, last Thursday night. The exhibition has been generating a lot of publicity – most notably The Guardian’s SF Special in the Review last Saturday – so naturally I was very curious to see what the BL had come up with.

A lot of time and trouble has clearly gone into the planning of this event, and the exhibits have been beautifully presented. I don’t think there’s a book lover alive who would not relish the chance to wander among cases containing first edition works by Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham, Jules Verne, Borges, Ballard and Brunner to name just a few. The books have been grouped thematically rather than by date, which gives the visitor – especially the visitor who is perhaps less well informed about SF – a handle on how speculative fiction has evolved, how new themes arrive as old ones recur, how the SF picture fits together.

I tend to operate from the standpoint that any publicity for SF is good publicity, especially when you have one of this country’s major cultural institutions doing its bit to encourage interest. However, I do feel that this exhibition throws up almost as many questions as it provides answers. I couldn’t help noticing that – yet again – there was no spotlight here on SF as literature. The emphasis – as so often within the mainstream – was very much on ‘SF by category’ (catastrophe fiction, steampunk, cyberpunk, time travel etc) and not at all on what these writers had accomplished as writers, as opposed to prophets of doom or brave new worlds.

It’s a difficult balance to tread. If this exhibition encourages one new reader to get their hands on a volume of stories by Ballard – as I’m sure it will – then I’m all for it. The books are there to be discovered, and the impact this event will have is as much in the hands and minds of its visitors as its organisers, after all. But surely we’re past the stage of having to use jokes about light sabres to win ‘em over?

Having said all of that, I’m closing this post with a photo of myself standing outside the Tardis. Well, how could I resist….?

House of Fear

House of Fear is a new anthology of stories based around the theme of the haunted house. It’s edited by Jonathan Oliver, published by Solaris, and will be available from October 1st – which makes it the ideal Hallowe’en gift.

For the full (and impressive) line-up go here:

http://www.solarisbooks.com/titles/title_details/house_of_fear?hjfi5q35e736aun17d82n65jt1

My own contribution to the anthology is a story called ‘The Muse of Copenhagen.’ I suppose you could say it’s my own twisted look at the Battle of Maldon…..

Bellony

This story had an interesting genesis. I was talking with my friend Chloe about the games we used to play as children, and she told me the story of how a friend’s father erected a door for them in the back garden. The door served no practical purpose, it was just there, a door in a doorframe, smack bang in the middle of the lawn. Chloe and her sisters and friends invested this door with magical properties. For them it was a door to anywhere, and they took turns in choosing what they would find on the other side when they went through it.

I found this story wonderful. I asked Chloe if I could use it, and she said yes. It was some months before I found a story of my own that would fit with Chloe’s memory, and as so often it turned out rather differently from what I’d envisaged. I only hope Chloe wasn’t too disappointed…..

When I was ready to write the story I took the train down to Deal so I could walk Terri’s route along the beach there. A story’s sense of place is very important to me, and I felt I couldn’t begin work until I had the geography of Bellony clear in my mind. It was a Saturday, and the weather was changing rapidly back and forth between bright sunshine and heavy showers. I took pictures from the pier looking back at the town, the beach, the old Art Deco cinema. I went south along the promenade and ended up walking all the way to Dover.

Once I’m walking I often find it hard to stop.

Bellony has recently been nominated for a British Fantasy Award in the novella category. You can now read it at the Featured Story page on this website.

Bellony features in the anthology Blind Swimmer, published by Eibonvale Press. Read more about the book at the Eibonvale site.

Paraxis

Interzone editor Andy Hedgecock and Lancashire writer and poet Claire Massey have started an online magazine of speculative fiction. It’s called Paraxis, and you can read it here.

This first issue is on the theme of Power. It features  stories by Conrad Williams and Nicholas Royle as well as my own story ‘The Upstairs Window’ and some arresting artwork by Beth Ward, Aurelia Milach and Claire Massey herself.  Andy and Claire have clearly put a lot of thought into this project and the results, I think, are fantastic. They’re already seeking submissions for future issues so there’s plenty to look forward to.

Claire’s own site is here, and is well worth a visit for her online collection of ‘strange maps’ alone. Claire has a strong interest in fairy tales and her writing blends myth and contemporary reality in a subtle and evocative way. Her story ‘Chorden-under-Water,’ which you can read at the site, rings with that peculiarly English mysticism you might find in a song by Sandy Denny. 

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