[Audio] The Difficult Listening Moment: Doing Dylan worse than Dylan III

This mini-series is more challenging than I thought. I have visited blogs which commented that Avril Lavigne did a blah version of Knocking on Heaven’s Door. I can’t see the problem, except that she was born decades after the whole folk subculture that caused the song to happen came and went, but that’s life, isn’t it? I was born after the Beatnik generation, so does that mean I can’t understand Allen Ginsburg or William Burroughs enough to recite them? Knocking suited Avril’s vocal style, and she seems to do a good job. Of course, you should expect a different musical interpretation from someone so young. What’s the problem? Hear for yourself. Knocking was also performed by Guns ‘n’ Roses, The Grateful Dead, Warren Zevon, Eric Clapton, U2, and countless others.

Another artist I have heard being knocked about is Madeleine Peyroux, who did a cover version of Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Peyroux is a jazz singer, and it is a complement to Dylan’s writing and composing that his songs can adapt so well in any genre. Again, I don’t see a problem here. Shawn Colvin and Elvis Costello also did this song, albeit is wildly different musical stylings. It has also become something of a “Lounge Lizard” standard. Here is Peyroux doing Dylan.

But few people would say that Ministry’s version of “Lay Lady Lay” was better than the original. Here is a live recording from 1996:

Brothers In Arms: A belated review of the versions

Not really having heard the original Dire Straits version of “Brothers in Arms” when it came out (it was one of these things I was planning on “getting around to”), my first experience with the song was through protest singer Joan Baez in 1988, with a radio-only compilation back when I was a university DJ. I feel that it was at least her best since “Love Song To a Stranger”, another song that grabs my emotions in a similar way.

Brothers in Arms is about a quintessential Baez theme: anti-war. It is hard to listen to lyrics like “There’s  a million different worlds/and a million different suns/we have just one world/and live in different ones” and not get choked up.

I have heard some remarks in recent blogs regarding the appropriateness of a woman singing this song. Well, I think that war is not just a “man’s issue”. It is an issue for all mankind. I feel no conflict with Baez singing this song. Women have sons, brothers, and husbands that are lost in war, too.  And when you hear Baez sing, believe me, any questions of appropriateness quickly fly out the window. She definitely makes this song her own.

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She does a better job of the vocals than anyone I have heard, including Mark Knopfler, the writer of the tune. But there is an element missing.The music in the background serves as a vehicle for her voice. It is maudlin, and its mediocrity doesn’t become obvious until the song’s ending where the musicians no longer have the power of Baez’s voice to carry the ending.

Finally, after all these years, I sat down and had an un-interrupted, quiet, sustained listen to Dire Straits doing the original song.

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Its strength is its weakness: Knopfler’s Gibson guitar. When most people talk to me about Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms being a “good song”, they are referring to the guitar work. The words of the song, which Knopfler nearly mumbles his way through, takes a back seat to the the guitar playing. In a real sense, the problem is the reverse of the Baez problem: while the voice is just “kind of there”, it is just a vehicle for the guitar. And as Baez shows us in no uncertain terms, the lyrics of the song have their own power in the hands of the right vocalist, making the most of what are powerful, poetic lyrics.

If only we had Knopfler’s guitar, and Baez’s voice doing that tune … we can only dream.

The origin of the phrase "silent majority"

This phrase was made popular by Richard Nixon around 1968 when he attempted to discredit Vietnam war protestors as a group of vocal fringe elements, while he was secretly escalating the war into Cambodia. “The silent majority”, it was supposed by Nixon, still supported the US involvement in Vietnam.

It must be admitted, that 40 years later, the phrase still resonates with us. But as clever and smart as Nixon was, he did not come up with it himself; the phrase actually had its origins in classical literature. It was used to describe dead people. So, surely that must mean that in Nixon’s democracy, we should always respect the opionions of the dead, since there will always be more of them than of us. This need to respect their opinions is made more urgent by the fact that dead people cannot speak for themselves, and thus have no voice of their own in our political discourse. In addition, most of them are hard-working dead people who have never committed crimes.

In recent elections, however, dead people have in fact lent their weight to various political parties by voting in several recent elections in several states in the US. Dead people have also run for political office, and one of them won an election in a race against John Ashcroft. In America, dead people are full participants in the democratic process, benefitting both Democrats and Republicans.

Surely, Nixon’s phrase has resonance, not in the apologetic, hawkish, warmongering sense, but in the originally intended sense, backed by over 1000 years of classical European literature.  I think Nixon really was referring to dead people, and he may have even been invoking the spirit world.

What is the true origin of that phrase? I was itching to find out.

At first, I thought “silent majority” must have originated from Dante’s Inferno, where would likely have used it to describe the dead. It turned out to be too juicy a fact to be true. He doesn’t use the phrase.

Phrases close to this have been pointed out a few years ago by the late classical scholar James B. Butrica, who quoted several writers, including the ancient Roman writer Petronius (AD 27-66): “Abiit ad plures” or, “S/He’s gone to the majority”, a fancy way of saying “S/He’s dead”. Butrica says that the same phrase was also used some 200 years earlier by Roman writer Plautus (circa 254–184 BCE).

At any rate, all I have to say is: one man, one death. It wouldn’t be terribly democratic if one man had two deaths. And also, I believe quite strongly that if you vote when you are alive, then if you die right after you leave the polling station, then you shouldn’t be allowed to come back and vote again as a dead person before the polls close.

In closing, I must say that the constant invocation of “the silent majority” over the years whenever most discourse opposes what a politician does, is a fallacy. We only have one way to read “silent majority” (I’m talking about the living this time), which is to say that if you don’t speak up, it is because it (whatever “it” is) doesn’t arouse your passions, and thus you don’t care. If the majority of voters decide not to vote, for example (as is too sadly the case most of the time), then their silence is not seen as a vote for anyone, and their non-votes are never counted. A politician cannot “listen” to the silent majority, because there is nothing for them to hear.