Notes on Derrida 2: A Reading Regimen

Pulled this one out of my drafts folder and thought I’d finally post it.
If you want to read Derrida, read the works below in the following order before you start:

PlatoPhaedrus, Phaedo, IonRepublicBook VII
Descartes Meditations
Spinoza: Ethics
G.W. Leibniz
Theodicy, MonadologyDiscourse on Metaphysics. See Dewey on Leibniz.
RousseauEssay on the Origins of LanguageConfessionsDiscourse on the Arts and SciencesThe Social Contract
Immanuel Kant
Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Judgment
Hegel: Phenomenology of Mind (“Spirit” in some translations)
Schelling: “Ideas on a Philosophy of Nature…” (1803), “Deduction of a Universal Organ of Philosophy” (1800), “Philosophical Investigations in the Essence of Human Freedom and Related Matters” (1809)
KierkegaardConcept of IronyEither/OrConcluding Unscientific PostscriptConcept of Anxiety
Stéphane MallarméSelected Poems, Essays and Letters (see this collection)
NietzscheThe Birth of Tragedy, The Case of Wagner, Thus Spake ZarathrustaThe Twilight of the Idols
Edmund HusserlIdeas 
Martin Heidegger: Being and TimeKant and the Question of Metaphysics
Claude Levi-Strauss: Structural Anthropology
Jean RoussetForme et signification, essais sur les structures littéraires de Corneille à Claudel

U2’s Songs of Surrender: Another Creative Reinvention

I have to confess my vexed relationship with U2’s catalog since 1991’s Achtung Baby, which remains my favorite U2 album to this day — but I won’t say it’s their best. U2’s best album is unidentifiable given the range of musical styles covered in their 43 year recording history. Over the course of that history every album since Achtung Baby provoked responses in me vacillating between What were they thinking? and Egad I’m bored — for about a year. Then, inevitably, I’d listen to the album again and think, “This is really good music.” It’s happened to me literally every time with every album from Achtung Baby to the present, although it took a bit longer with 2017’s Songs of Experience, which was a painfully blah album for me on my first listen but which, as of yesterday, I have decided is also pretty good. I just want to reorder the songs. Yes, I can see ups and downs in their catalog. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) is now, to me, one of their masterpieces while How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) seems a little incoherent even though I enjoy it a great deal, and I still feel like I need a bit more time with No Line on the Horizon (2000) before I’ll fully appreciate it. I think their message is as deliberately unformed as the horizon on the album cover.

But, I’ve learned. I’ve learned not to mistake an album that meets my expectations, or not, for an album that is good… or not, especially in the case of U2. Before listening to Songs of Surrender, released just this year on St. Patrick’s Day, I committed to accepting it on its own terms. And it’s a good thing I did, because this album represents their biggest musical departure from the rest of their catalog at least since Zooropa (1993), if not in their entire career. There are no new songs on this album, but it feels like we’re hearing entirely new songs from a completely new band. The full version of the album includes 40 songs (each band member selected ten) rewritten musically, and sometimes lyrically, in a style most people will identify with MTV’s unplugged era. But I believe that’s an overly simplistic view of this work. It’s certainly true that most songs are reimagined for acoustic guitar, but calling it unplugged just doesn’t cut it. These songs are dependent upon a single guitar, sometimes a single piano, and sometimes with strings added. Lyrics are sometimes rewritten, as is tempo, but most significantly, their rhythm section has been reduced to providing texture for songs that are now almost fully invested in a single instrument and vocal. These songs have been fully reinvented, not just performed acoustically.

When Nirvana went acoustic for what became their famous last album, their performance on MTV’s Unplugged, producers were concerned about the volume of Dave Grohl’s drums. Acoustic or not, Nirvana performed rock songs that night. Sidelining U2’s rhythm section — which is one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock and roll, ever — is perhaps the album’s most dangerous move. But on this album, U2 set out to take these songs completely out of rock and roll as much as possible, stripping them down to voice and melody. As simple as I’m making these songs sound, I also feel that Bono and the Edge are being stretched musically. They stretch their vocal range to a heavier reliance on falsetto than before, a risky move for most grown men in their 60s, especially with their vocal range, and the Edge stretches his guitar playing as well, seeking new tones dependent on careful fingerwork rather than effects and volume. I have more respect for the Edge as a guitarist after listening to this album.

All of the songs work. Some of them stand out, and some will work better for some people than for others. That’s the nature of musical performance. But I believe this album is another U2 masterpiece alongside Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a judgment that will be reinforced by repeated, careful listening. It’s not an album that’ll play well if you’re looking to be entertained while you’re doing something else, or if you’re expecting arena rock, or punk rock, or good alternative.

Because the album is subdued, I’m a bit worried about what some reviewers will do to it. U2 has become too much of a reviewers’ punching bag, and too many reviewers can’t be trusted to actually evaluate an album’s music. Reviews of Songs of Innocence, for example, focused almost entirely on its distribution (thank Apple for that well-intentioned mess), and when the music was mentioned at all, it’d get a sentence or two along the lines of, “It’s really not that bad an album.” That’s not an album review. That’s a promotion and distribution review. Henry Rollins wrote all we need to hear about the album’s distribution, and the rest should have been focusing on the music itself, which is what an album review should do. Let Henry Rollins remain our punk curmudgeon. He’s the master. We don’t need more of them, though.

Reviews on the internet are also dependent upon clickbait writing, which rewards good reviews, and which is intended to make sure the writers stay inside the mean girls club and not outside it, a place they fear to be. Our discursive environment rewards controversy, big claims, attention getting headlines, and wow what a great album is almost never that. Our environment, in other words, rewards bad reviews and disinformation, which isn’t good if we want intelligent evaluation of our cultural products.

So I can only imagine some of the headlines —

  • U2 reimagines its catalog… as performed by Burt Bacharach.
  • U2 rewrites its top songs… and makes them all boring.
  • U2 loses its mind again.
  • U2 proves that it’s getting old.

As of this writing, I’ve only read one review of Songs of Surrender, and that’s by Pitchfork’s Caryn Rose. I’m citing it here because I think it’s an honest review worth reading. She has some songs she likes, some she doesn’t, and appreciates the album’s strengths. But at the same time, I’d like to question some of her implicit assumptions:

  • First: rewriting a song should improve the song: “That subversion, however, does not improve the song at all.” But why? Any rerecording invites comparison with the original version of the song, but this album is a musical left turn, not an advance on their previous sound. There’s no reason to think that any rerecording here should replace what’s already been done, either in the studio or live, as Rose seems to think: “nothing here is unforgettable or in danger of replacing its original.” It doesn’t have to pose that danger to be good on its own, so I think this expectation misunderstands the album’s intent.

    Can’t artists reconceive a song so completely that it can’t be compared to the original? Covers of other artists’ songs tend to take on a number of forms. Some bands just reperform someone’s original. The band will inevitably stamp their sound on it, but it’s not a reinvention, and in some cases, that’s the point. I saw one band match Van Halen lick for lick, and Zeparella, an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band, so the same with Zeppelin. Matching the original, in these cases, was impressive on its own. In other cases, however, these reperformances take over the original. Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect” replaced Otis Redding’s original, but it’s only a replacement because they were both performing in the same genre at the same time. But other times, a cover reinvents the song. The Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River” will never replace Al Green’s original, just as Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction” will never replace the Stones’ original. In both of those cases, the band’s covers emphasized the newness of their sound. They were reinventions. They weren’t competing with the original. They were creating something new. U2 does the same kind of work with their own songs on Songs of Surrender.
  • Next, the rerecording should remain faithful to the original context: “the re-written lines are interesting suggestions but in most cases, are no more than jarring distractions.” They’re only a distraction if you’re expecting the original song. This idea expresses the music review equivalent of complaints about the live action Ghost in the Shell or Cowboy Bebap. Fans want their product untouched or made a better version of what they already were… somehow.
  •  They have to make some kind of “fundamental transformation”: “None of these ‘re-imaginings’ on Songs of Surrender fundamentally transform any of the 40 tracks.” I’m truly at a loss here, because what Rose describes as songs that work sound like a musical transformation to me:

The more delightful moments on the record start with the Edge’s stunning falsetto take on “Desire,” which turns it into a futuristic, Motown-tinged romp that wouldn’t have been out of place on Achtung Baby. “Dirty Day,” an underrated track from 1993’s Zooropa, subtracts the original’s electronics for cello and a Waits-ian vocal delivery that doesn’t update it so much as make it fit in better with the context of the record. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” cements its reputation as eternally unbreakable, “Until the End of the World” turns into a well-suited country gospel tune, and both “All I Want Is You” and “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” are still heartrending even in their refashioned states. Elsewhere, Bono gives some phenomenal performances, pushing his voice to its limits, like he does as he soars through “Beautiful Day” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.”

How can “Desire” be turned into a “futuristic, Motown-tinged romp” without being “fundamentally transformed”? All of these songs have been transformed from rock to something comparable to an intimate indie album that could have been released by Devendra Barnhart. But I think we see what’s going on from her comments about “Dirty Day.” She praises the rerecording because it “doesn’t update it so much as make it fit in better with the context of the record.” Two other songs are “still heartrending.” Notice the word “still.” That’s it. That’s what she wants — rerecordings that “fit in better with the context of the [original] record.” And notice the word “update”: did she really want U2 to reduce their songs to dance track abortions like “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John and Brittany Spears? Her expectations are that these songs shouldn’t be rerecorded except as improvements of the original that maintain their original aesthetic effect. She doesn’t want the songs rewritten or reimagined but just improved along the lines of what we expect when we see a new and improved sticker on anything.

That’s just not what this album set out to be, and I’m glad U2 had better judgment. Complaining that it doesn’t do this work is a statement about the reviewer’s expectations and preferences, not the album itself. But I think Bono understood the issues involved. His liner notes on iTunes describe how his songs feel to him now after a decades-long recording history:

People say your songs are like your children. Wrong: Your songs are like your parents. They tell you what to do, how to dress. But after a while, if you’re successful, songs become big. They’re owned by other people, not you. And with this collection, we were sort of trying to listen to them again and trying to think, well, first of all, will they hold up? Will they stand up to being broken down outside of the firepower of a rock ‘n’ roll band like U2?

Caryn Rose, who I want to emphasize did write a perceptive review, unintentionally validates Bono’s claims about his songs. She feels like she owns them, not U2, or that their original form should dictate to the band what they can or can’t do with them, so that the songs own the band, not the band the songs. The band, however, wasn’t buying it. They wanted to own these songs again, not to have these songs own them. And they did.

The most remarkable thing about this album is the intensity of emotional effects communicated through a more subdued performance, which poses a real danger for me. By stripping these songs down to melody and vocal performances, the barest essence of these songs, they’re making their original post-punk, alternative, and arena rock songs sound like hype. I feel like I’ve been loving the noise and power but not the music all along. The linked review of Songs of Innocence above expresses a desire for a stripped down U2 punk album. Something that won’t play in an arena but in a pub. I loved reading that — I’ve felt that way for years. I still want it. U2’s Songs of Surrender isn’t the stripped down punk I want, but it gives us an opportunity to love U2’s music without hype, volume, and crowds. Let it do that for you.

The Shape of Beckett’s Waiting

I recently recovered a first-semester graduate paper of mine about Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. I believe I wrote it as a final paper for a graduate class on Irish literature taught by Dr. John Warner. He advocated for my admission to the program on the basis of my senior undergraduate honor’s thesis on James Joyce, and then he retired after teaching this course. I’m grateful to him still for his advocacy for me and for his teaching. The lightly edited paper is below.

The Shape of Beckett’s Waiting
by James Rovira, Drew University
©1999 James Rovira

Waiting for Godot sets itself apart from mainstream European and American theater through an extravagant inattention to time, place, and setting. The original sparse set consisted of a tree and a stone in its final revision, (1) a sparseness which struck early critics so strongly they could not write about Godot without making almost immediate reference to this quality. Harold Hobson said in the opening paragraph of his review, “‘Waiting for Godot’ has nothing at all to seduce the senses. Its drab, bare scene is dominated by a withered tree and a garbage can [. . .] This is not all. In the course of the play, nothing happens.” (2) Kenneth Tynan’s opening line in his review echoes these sentiments: “A special virtue attaches to plays which remind the drama of how much it can do without and still exist,” (3) while Jean Anouilh began his review with the cutting observation, “‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.’ This line, spoken by one of the characters in the play, provides its best summary.” (4) That all three critics made such comments in a tone of disgusted praise attests to the power of Beckett’s play and the effectiveness of his lack of external reference.

For example, the names of the four characters are European, but do not point unambiguously to one locale. Vladimir is a Russian name, Estragon and Pozzo French, and Lucky a translated name that could originate from any language. Estragon claims to have lived in Cackon country (instead of Macon) all his life but would like to wander in the Pyrenees. Acheson further describes the play’s geographical ambiguity, “The fact that Vladimir and Estragon refer to the Eiffel Tower and the Rhone suggests that the road may be somewhere in France; on the other hand, Lucky’s allusions to Fulham, Clapham and Connemara in the course of his ‘think’ imply that the setting is either England or Ireland.” (5) All we can be sure of, in the end, is that Didi and Gogo, Lucky and Pozzo are on a country road, probably somewhere in Europe.

Acheson goes on to describe time’s ambiguity in the play as well, “Pozzo remarks in the first act that there is a ‘[t]ouch of autumn in the air this evening,’ and Estragon in the second that ‘it must be Spring’; yet the stage directions tell us that Act II takes place ‘Next Day. Same Time. Same Place.'” (6) Ruby Cohn’s comments on the nature of time in Godot include statements like, “We cannot even guess at a fictional duration for the play,” and, “The play is riddled with doubt about time.” (7) Cohn also points out that the characters’ attitude toward time in a play about waiting varies as well, “‘Time has stopped!’ of Act I changes to: ‘Time flows already’ in Act II.” (8) Pozzo loses his watch in Act II, and his lines, “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams in an instant, then it’s night once more” is possibly the most significant statement about time in the play. The picture is of a pregnant woman giving birth with one foot on each side of a grave. The baby is born to immediately fall into the bottom of the pit, the fall serving as the full extent of the baby’s life.

Pozzo’s image compresses human life to a short flash of light between the birth canal and the grave, making it a brief suspension in time, much like falling. Or waiting. I believe the word “suspension” defines the shape of the play, and I’m going to use this word in several different, though related, senses. Suspension in Pozzo’s sentence means an interim period between origin (birth canal) and destination (grave). In other words, it is a state between two terminal points so brief as to be irrelevant, and only meaningful as it relates to the terminal points. The baby is not in any one place, but moving between two places. Waiting, especially in Godot, is a form of suspension since it, too, is the interim between two destination points. Here, suspension is the point at which some form of hope (or expectation) is created. Godot’s ambiguity about time and place is yet another form of “suspension,” but here it should be understood as something like the baby’s fall. The play’s locale is not really any one place, but on a country road – in other words, a place between destination points – so that Godot is set nowhere in particular, only in a place that’s only recognized as on the way to somewhere. That the characters never leave the country road in which the play is set is probably the most poignant expression of their suspension. This suspension is the defining characteristic of the play reflected in its non-referentiality both in external setting and internal conflict. Suspension is the stumbling block upon which critics trip and the precise feeling Beckett sought to convey.

Since Beckett is so committed to avoiding referent and action through the course of his two act play, writing about Godot is unlike writing about many other works. The play is virtually pure form without content; resisting thesis, its thesis is antithesis. The word antithesis is being used here in a slightly unusual way. “Antithesis,” here, does not mean one specific thesis set against another. It means the idea of “no-thesis” set against “any thesis.” A better word may be “a-thesis,” used in the same sense as “atheist.” Declan Kiberd observed that “No sooner is a thesis or a personal attribute established in Act One than it is annulled in Act Two.” (9) This is not an uncommon feeling about Godot. Both drama and literary critics alike find themselves saying, about and with Beckett, “there is ‘nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no desire to express together with the obligation to express,'” (10) finding it extremely difficult to speak about a play which seems so committed to saying nothing itself.

Outside referents are not completely absent from Beckett’s work, of course. Beside the few geographical details mentioned above, Biblical allusions present themselves almost immediately. Not surprisingly, Harold Hobson questioned Beckett as early as 1956 about the meaning of these Biblical references, and Beckett’s oft-quoted answer is as cryptic as the play itself,

I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. I wish I would remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters. (11)

By Beckett’s own words, then, in Godot he constructed not so much a statement but a shape, a form into which a statement could be put. Understanding what Beckett meant by “the shape of ideas” is to understand what critics, directors, and audiences have all had to do to approach Godot, and to understand Godot itself and its odd a-thesistic approach to theater.

The word “shape” here immediately refers to the symmetry of Augustine’s words, but contextualized withing Beckett’s drama it takes on a far wider range of connotations. Because the play is so lacking in outside referents, “shape” in Beckett’s sentence denotes form without content. Picturing even an empty glass is still too specific. It would be better to picture is a cylinder that could represent either a glass, a silo, or a pencil. In this example the “shape” Beckett spoke of would be represented by the cylinder. Place this “shape” alongside an outside referent such as a hand, a cow, or a table and a definition attaches itself to the shape. Next to a hand the cylinder becomes a glass, next to a cow a silo, and on top of a table a pencil (provided it is drawn in the right proportion and position in each instance). Against such landscapes the shape becomes more than a “cylinder” (which is really “no-thing” but a form) and turns into a thing with a name. More than that, the shape becomes a thing with a place in the world, with a purpose, with a meaning. A cylinder drawn in such a way that it could represent all three without necessarily being any one of them would symbolize what Beckett meant by the word “shape” and how it applies to Godot.

What critics, dramatists, and audiences alike have done, however, in the absence of any outside referent, is to provide their own. One critic describes the paths recent criticism of Godot have taken as follows: “Beckett’s work has been characterized in terms of absurdist writing, psychological models, modernist subjectivity, postmodern fragmentation and lack of subjectivity, decentering and deconstruction, reader-response theory, phenomenology, speech-act theory, nihilism, semiotics, mythological structures, and many others.” (12) These critics’ work gives Beckett’s shape (Godot) a place in their world, setting it against a specific landscape and, by so doing, ascribing to it a meaning.

This effect was, I believe, Beckett’s intent for the play. I believe he wanted audiences to inscribe their own worlds onto his play, to confront their own “waiting” and their own “Godot” within their experience of the play. I also believe this is why Beckett’s answers to questions such as, “Who is Godot?” was a non-referential and mildly hostile suggestion that “if he had known who Godot was he would have said so in the play.” (13) Any specific referent attached to Godot would limit the play’s possibilities by setting it against a specific landscape, turning it into a pencil or a silo or a glass rather than leaving it just a cylinder. Such a limiting act would rob audiences of the potentially powerful experience of confronting their own reality (in the absence of anything else to confront) rather than someone else’s. What people most often do when thinking about, talking about, or writing about Godot is meditate upon themselves. As one critic put it, “The play [. . .] leaves a pure space between contradictory possibilities, which interpreters are wont to fill with their own desires and fore-meanings.” (14)

One needs only to review criticism of Godot to see that critics are essentially contextualizing the empty shape created by the play, placing the action of the play (such as it is) alongside a broader context to give it meaning. What interpreters do, in other words, is meditate upon themselves by trying very hard to make sense of Godot using the tools they’re most comfortable with. This is a common fault Beckett himself described: “the great success of Waiting for Godot had arisen from a misunderstanding: critics and public alike were busy interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which strove at all cost to avoid definition” (15). Many examples could be cited, but I’ll limit myself to just two: John Leeland Kundert-Gibbs’ No-Thing is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett and James Acheson’s Samuel Beckett’s Artistic Theory and Practice.

Kundert-Gibbs overlaps his three subjects like circles in a Venn diagram, focusing intently upon the area all three have in common. He begins with the reasonable task of explaining Zen and then Chaos theory in turn, noting similarities to Beckett’s work as he proceeds but saving the real analysis for subsequent chapters. What he emphasizes in both Zen and Chaos theory is that they bring to the center marginalized (though always present) elements in Buddhism and Newtonian physics. Zen and Chaos theory are both described by Kundert-Gibbs as “unusual, even radical, revisions of the traditionally marginal void that, for better or worse, surrounds our lives. All three indicate a needed paradigm shift toward — a re-visioning of — the void or emptiness that, of necessity, seems to lie at the fringe of the status quo.” (16) According to Kundert-Gibbs this void is “Nothingness – the eternally unnameable Tao” (17) in Zen Buddhism and the “unsolvable ‘noisy’ void of chaotic behavior” (18) in Chaos theory. Chaos stands in as a black sheep in both these families now brought into the fold by the attention of more recent studies.

Kundert-Gibbs’ retelling of the histories of Chaos theory and Zen Buddhism are succinct and to the point. I would like to make some observations about his rhetorical strategies before I move on to the content of his ideas. Kundert-Gibbs repeatedly emphasizes that in both Zen and Chaos theory the “traditional” is being revised in favor of a “new” approach to the data. But Zen as a “revision of tradition” seems irrelevant to me at this stage of history and especially irrelevant to his argument, much like describing Lutheranism as a radical new departure from Catholicism. Zen is now quite old (however relatively new it is in the west) and the points at which it is compared to Beckett are not debated, I think, in any religion descendant from the Vedas. In other words, he’s not using distinctively Zen concepts. From the beginning of Vedic tradition the ground of being was “he before whom all words recoil.” When the Tao says, “The unnameable is the eternally real,” (19) a Hindu or Buddhist (in the older tradition) would not be terribly shocked.

Next, Kundert-Gibbs sets up as the chief value of his argument the fact that “pressing Zen Buddhism and Chaos theory into a dialogue with each other and with Beckett’s dramatic work is that new substructures and patterns will come to light in all three subjects — and these patterns will, in turn, provide a new, more positive — or at least less despairing — reading of Beckett’s dramatic work” (20). What he doesn’t establish is why a reading of Beckett’s work that is either “new,” “more positive” (both these terms are constantly repeated in some form in the first two chapters of his book) or, at least, “less despairing” is somehow “better.” If what Godot seeks to present to its audience is hopeless despair, then a “less despairing” reading of Godot would be a “worse” reading of Godot (that is, if the critic wants to tell us something about the play more than about his or her philosophy). If “older” arguments represent the true shape of the play more accurately, then “new” isn’t necessarily better. I think that’s precisely the case in Kundert-Gibbs’s analysis of Godot.

The purpose of Kundert-Gibbs’ rhetoric is to advocate a theoretical perspective to a western academic audience already inundated with Beckett criticism. Within this context, it’s reasonable to emphasize the newness of the approach. But at the same time he appears to be trying to cheerlead Chaos Theory, perhaps to lead us to accept a “kinder, gentler chaos” than we’ve known before. He’s not alone in this endeavor, of course; it is a job understandably deemed necessary by most Chaos critics. His work leaves the impression of trying to advocate a new paradigm partly because the word “chaos” as applied to the Zen void of non-being, to Chaos theory in physics (essentially a mathematical study), and as it is used in everyday speech all really mean different things. To his credit Kundert-Gibbs is aware of this danger and makes an effort to keep in mind the boundaries between his three subjects as he allows each to interpenetrate the other, unlike other Chaos critics who tend to obscure meaningful differences through ambiguous jargon.

When he turns from his introductory material to his analysis of Godot, however, he does move beyond rhetoric to more substantial overlap between the three. He dedicates a great deal of time in his Godot chapter to redirecting despair to a “positive” reading in the light of Zen and Chaos theory. For example, when speaking of memory in Godot, he observes that in the play “Memory functions as a grid of expectation placed on true reality and serves as a key element in the character’s suffering.” (21) But he goes on, “Thus it is potentially a positive, rather than a negative, attribute of these characters that they remember as poorly as they do. According to Zen — and even according to the rules of the play itself — it would be best if no one remembered the past or projected the future.” (22) At these points Kundert-Gibbs’s Zen reinterpretation of Godot seems to engage the play’s audience more than the play itself; to the extent that we share in the suffering and feeling of suspension expressed in the play, we can benefit from a reinterpretation of that experience through Zen.

However, Kundert-Gibbs does directly engage the play in the person of Godot, and as he does so the overlap between Zen and Godot seems the most viable. He says that Godot “actually acts as No-thing, the Zen relational ‘without-context’ that determines the mode of interaction between Zen initiate and environment. At each moment, Godot is already whatever the characters ‘need’ him to be.” (23) Kundert-Gibbs effectively identifies Godot with the void at the center of being in Zen because Godot, though absent, still drives the “action” of the play. But at this very point, the point of his deepest engagement with the play, Kundert-Gibbs falls into the trap Beckett described: “It is only an inability to awaken to the true nature of each moment by discarding the sleep of memory [. . .] that keeps the characters waiting.” (24)

This “awakening,” this enlightenment, is the true Godot in Kundert-Gibbs’s analysis, being in place of the thing deferred. This is especially evident in his closing paragraph: “As the dynamic ‘still’ of the world of Godot fades to night, all involved are invited to celebrate the arrival of the always-already present Godot.” (25) Of thousands of readings of Godot, ranging from professional criticism to non-verbal affective responses in audience members, I doubt the idea of being “invited to a celebration” has come up often, if at all. For Kundert-Gibbs to read the play in this way, he ultimately has to promise that Godot will come in the form of an awakening precipitated by their waiting. Like others, Kundert-Gibbs sets the play against a landscape that does tell us a great deal about Zen and the critic’s philosophical and religious outlook, but little about Godot. The play is not so much being written about, but appropriated to espouse a religious philosophy. Once again, the play is “handled” by being given a specific form, and by doing so, distorted.

James Acheson in Samuel Beckett’s Artistic Theory and Practice similarly contextualizes Godot within Christian theology. Like scores of other critics, he quotes the passage from St. Augustine from which Beckett drew inspiration, emphasizing “the antithetical shape of the sentence from Augustine” to assert that “By way of dualities such as these, Beckett raises the question of whether modern man should or should not believe in divine salvation, and with Godot’s non-arrival, strongly hints that he should not.” (26) Acheson finally says that “both in Joyce and in Waiting for Godot an earlier text provides the basis for an original work expressive of scepticism about the existence and behavior of God.” (27) Thus, Waiting for Godot is an invective against Christian belief in God by being an invective against Christian hope; Christians wait for and hope in a God who never arrives, just as Didi and Gogo wait for a Godot whom we have every reason to believe will never come.

Christian theology is certainly a reasonable contextualization for Waiting for Godot since, as already observed, Biblical imagery dominates the play’s opening dialog. It’s also inscribed into the play on much deeper levels: “many details of production set out in the notebooks echo the crucifixion imagery that is found deeply embedded in the play.” (28) But what are we to make of Beckett’s rather insistent denial that Godot was not God? (29) Again, to define Godot so specifically is to obscure the shape Beckett created by turning it into an object. In this case the end result would be a reduction of Beckett’s work to an atheist tract. Beckett had few qualms about attacking theism, of course, and I could easily imagine Beckett saying, “If God is your Godot, so be it.” But Beckett still denied that Godot was God, most likely to keep his shape from being set against too definite a landscape and its meaning too severely limited.

Just by “trying it on for size,” so to speak, we can see how a reading of Godot that makes it out to be an invective against Christian hope teaches us more about the nature of Christian hope than about the “meaning” of Godot. Some modern critics observe that “hope or expectation springs from a sense of lack, emptiness, or insecurity.” (30) The apostle Paul would not disagree. He associated hope with absence, lack, and discontent, recognizing that “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” He went on, however, “But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24,25 NIV). Hope is linked to waiting in Paul, just as Gogo and Didi’s hope is linked to waiting in Godot. They wait because they still think it worth waiting, however much they complain. For all Gogo’s disgust at having to wait, he betrays his true feelings by being genuinely excited when he thinks Godot has finally come. He hopes in Godot all along, and for that reason he continues to wait.

The real despair underlying Waiting for Godot is the meaninglessness of waiting, especially in the face of a Godot who may never come. Paul departs from Beckett at this point, saying that “God [. . .] has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 5:5, NIV). Christian hope (and, by extension, Christian waiting) is not meaningless to Paul because the Christian already has a little bit of what he or she is hoping for. It would be as if the boys who visited Didi and Gogo to inform them Godot was not coming would have brought with them something substantial from Godot, either some token of appreciation for waiting or a project to accomplish while waiting or, better yet, both. At this point a critic defending Christian hope could say, “If only you had faith you’d have a more ‘positive’ view of the waiting process,” sounding much like Kundert-Gibbs although coming from a very different perspective.

Again, Acheson’s reading of Godot as an invective against Christianity and Christian hope isn’t unreasonable, especially given the abundance of Biblical referents in the play, and all the more so since Gogo and Didi are waiting for Godot’s answer to a “kind of prayer [. . .] a vague supplication” (324-6). But Godot’s response seems more like that of a businessman than a deity in disguise. Didi and Gogo are waiting for Godot’s final decision regarding their request. In the meantime they’ve been told by Godot that “he’d see [. . .] That he couldn’t promise anything [. . .] That he’d have to think it over [. . .] Consult his family. / His friends. / His agents. / His correspondents. / His books. / His bank account. / Before taking a decision” (329-39). Unlike the Christian deity, Godot is reluctant to provide direction, make a decision, or issue any command or promise. He sounds more like a careful businessman hedging his bets. Godot could stand in for any “superior” who maintains control by deferral, by keeping others waiting.

So Acheson’s work, while it offers a tenable thesis, cannot be allowed to limit the play, to serve as too definite a landscape. We cannot say Godot is “about” belief in God, or “about” Zen, or “about” atheism. (31) Acheson’s work is, however, still instructive. I think it sheds light on what Beckett found attractive in Augustine’s comment and helps us further define what Beckett may have meant by the “shape of the idea.” Acheson focuses on the thesis-antithesis structure of Augustine’s comment, a reasonable move since Augustine opposes despair to presumption and salvation to damnation. All represent powerful thesis-antithesis pairs, and that there are two sets of these pairs just as there are four characters in the play lends all the more legitimacy to the identification of thesis/antithesis sets. Being the “master,” Pozzo could be identified with presumption while Lucky, being the “slave,” could be associated with despair. These identifications are highly probable since Beckett suggested, “I suppose he is Lucky to have no more expectations.” (32) Didi, the “mind,” could be identified with salvation while Gogo, the “body,” could be identified with damnation, and the four of them together could be said to represent the forces working both within the individual (mind and emotion) and upon the individual (society and its power structures).

This interpretive possibility holds together well, but I think it misses the point at least a little bit. The emphasis in Augustine is not upon the thesis/antithesis pairs, but on the condition of the listener, a condition that is supposed to not be defined by his or her attachment to either presumption or despair. The listener is to consider the threat of damnation and avoid presumption, then consider the promise of salvation and avoid despair. In so doing the listener is suspended between despair and presumption, and it is at this point that Augustine’s quotation probably had the most meaning for Beckett, especially since we have returned once again to the idea of suspension by an entirely different route. A state of suspension, in fact, is desirable in itself, given the options of despair and presumption. Because the state of suspension is desirable to either terminal point (despair or presumption, the birth canal or the grave) Didi and Gogo wait. The players must “hope” for a meaning or destiny still awaiting them in the future, because meaning in their “present” is defined by the terminal points they find themselves suspended between. In the meantime, they endure the “meaninglessness” of waiting.

How then are we to approach this seemingly unapproachable play? As mentioned above, since the play defies meaning (or defines its meaning) through a commitment to suspension, the audience has to provide its own context, define its own suspension, and identify its own Godot. One possible reading of Godot could take into account the play’s first audience, defining Godot’s suspension in terms of a historical moment shared by both author and audience. The play first saw production in Paris’ Theatre de Babylone on January 5, 1953, (33) a mere eight years after the close of World War II. Godot’s few geographical referents all point to Western Europe, the characters’ dress to the first half of the twentieth century. Juxtapose these facts against the time and place of the play’s world premiere and you see a play that gives its first audience every reason to believe the time is now and the place is here. These first theatergoers could easily imagine the country road to be somewhere outside Paris or elsewhere in Europe, a nondescript road they traveled once without noticing.

The “here and now” quality of the play makes out of the characters and their dilemma an Everyman: “V: We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much? / E: Billions” (2433-35). Hugh Kenner argues that Beckett refused to identify Godot with a specific historical setting so that the play could continue to have this effect: “The effort of Beckett’s play in suppressing specific reference [. . .] would seem to be like an effort to arrive directly at the result of time’s work: to perform [. . .] the act of abstraction which change and human forgetfulness normally perform.” (34) However, the context supplied by the audience to this contextless play fits well with the few details provided by the play. So well, in fact, that a reading taking into account the historical situation of the play’s first audience may be the most reliable reading of the play, one that grounds meaning in the state of suspension itself without violating the isolation of Beckett’s shape.

Hugh Kenner in A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett lays the groundwork for a historical reading of Godot. His pithy observation, “It is curious how readers and audiences do not think to observe the most obvious thing about the world of this play, that it resembles France occupied by the Germans, in which its author spent the war years,” (35) holds up well as he describes WW II France and the feelings of uncertainty and displacement that a member of the Resistance movement must have felt everywhere. Kenner denies that “modern history, nor the Occupation, is the ‘key’ to the play,” adding that “Beckett saw the need of keeping thoughts of the Occupation from being too accessible, because of the necessity to keep the play from being ‘about’ an event that time has long since absorbed.” (36) Kenner maintains the isolation of the play’s shape in this way, keeping it from being set against too specific a landscape while still accounting for the play’s origins.

Setting Kenner’s reading against another historical approach, that of Declan Kiberd in Reinventing Ireland, yields interesting results. Kiberd sets the feeling communicated by Godot against the backdrop of the Easter Rebellion Beckett witnessed when he was ten years old. He relates the story of how “Bill Beckett took both of his sons to the top of a local hill, from which the burning inner city could be clearly seen. He began to laugh like someone at a holiday fireworks display, but ‘Sam was so deeply moved that he spoke of it with fear and horror more than sixty years later.'” (37) Kiberd goes on to describe the feeling around and about Ireland at the time“To many, the old Ireland had ceased to exist after the famines of the 1840s and the vast migrations to England and North America: what was left was a tremendous silence, a vast emptiness [. . .] The effect of such disasters was to make the Irish feel like strangers in their own country.” (38)

It’s not hard to see how easily this mood, prompted by the Easter Rebellion and its ensuing insurrection, could be translated into Godot. Neither is it difficult to superimpose Beckett’s experience of the Easter Rebellion upon all of post World War II Europe — upon a Europe that had suffered widespread destruction and upon a populace that had suffered terrible displacement. Beckett had decades to meditate upon the feelings of displacement brought about by the Easter Rebellion insurrection before he faced another, more terrible one in World War II. This translation from Easter Rebellion to European war Kiberd sees in the tramp character in both Beckett’s work and older Irish writing, especially in the tramp’s relationship to setting. These tramps

are presented as characters without much history, who are driven to locate themselves in the world with reference to geography. But the world in which they live has no overall structure, it is a dreadful place in which every moment is like the next [. . .] On the stage of Waiting for Godot is enacted the amnesia which afflicts an uprooted people [. . .] Lacking an assured past, the tramps can have no clear sense of their own future [. . .] They are waiting without hope for a deliverance from a being in whom they do not really believe. (39)

This displacement, shared by both victims of the Easter Rebellion and those living in World War II Europe, is the content of Godot’s emptiness, the mold out of which the shape of Beckett’s Waiting was fashioned.

In this reading Waiting for Godot is a space created between Beckett and his audience in which they can mourn the loss of history, faith, and roots. It is about suffering and displacement without being, necessarily, about any one kind of suffering and displacement. So while Godot grew out of a specific historical moment it is not limited by it. It’s an expression of the angst suffered by a population that had been literally blown out of one history and tradition into another that had not yet been created. But at the same time it could be about any individual blown out of their personal history through tragedy — perhaps even something as commonplace as divorce — into an unformed future. Godot relates the suspension of a people waiting for a destination again, roots and a history and meaningful, productive lives. It’s an Odyssey in which the title character has no home to which to return, but continues traveling without knowing why. Godot is an expression of hope from those who have lost all reason to hope, but continue to hope anyhow since they have nothing better to do. Is there a destination? Do Gogo and Didi finally get an answer from Godot? The play gives us no reason to believe they did, every reason to believe they won’t, but still refuses to give us a definite answer. As numerous critics have inadvertently demonstrated, we can only answer that question for ourselves.

Postscript on Performance: The Establishment of the Pure Shape vs. a New Contextualization.

Joanne Klein in a recent Theater Journal recounts reactions by Beckett’s estate to The Studio Theater production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Joy Zinoman. She says Zinoman’s production “foregrounded race as an inflection of the social and theistic relations of Beckett’s characters.” (40) In “an environment that announced urban cataclysm,” the play was set “in the parking lot of a long abandoned drive-in movie site.” (41) Vladimir and Estragon were played by African-American actors Thomas Jones and Donald Griffen, both wearing “hints of whiteface makeup.” Zinoman’s work essentially updates the play’s sparse cultural referents so that they reflect, once again, details immediately recognizable to the audience seeing the performance, this one located in Washington D.C. In this way she recasts the mold, so to speak. While the shape of Beckett’s waiting was originally molded from the displacement caused by World War II, the shape of Zinoman’s waiting is cast from the mold of a seemingly never arriving sense of social justice for inner city African-Americans. While Zinoman recasts the play, she does so in the spirit of the original, adapting Beckett’s technique to a late 1990’s, inner-city American audience.

However, the response from “U.S. literary agents representing Beckett’s estate,” (42) responses which include “a cease-and-desist letter ordered by Georges Borchardt, Inc., as well as a series of phone calls, letters, and faxes that Zinoman described [. . .] as ‘bullying’ and ‘intimidating,'” (43) seem far less than appreciative of Zinoman’s work. This is a curious response, especially from the estate of someone whose works are as non-referential as they are, and all the more so for Godot. The accusation leveled against Zinoman by Beckett’s estate is that she is “injecting race into the play.” On the surface the estate seems to be trying to protect the isolation of the shape Beckett created in his play. But what they’re really trying to do is suspend Beckett’s suspension; rather than allowing it the fluidity of a number of different responses, all representing a recontextualization over and over again in every performance and in the response of every audience member, they insist on an unswerving fidelity to Beckett’s few cultural referents.

What seems to be coming about here is a modernist orthodoxy idealizing the cultural matrix out of which its premises were formed. This new orthodoxy does not want the “pure shape” (in this case, waiting in Godot) to be set against any background other than its own. At this point postmodernism becomes obsolete. Rather than serving as a continuing critique which must be confronted and answered, this new orthodoxy is itself intolerant of critique and refuses to be appropriated for any purposes other than its own. So long as directors such as Zinoman are allowed to continue their work, of course, the danger of irrelevancy is somewhat moot. But what if we’re seeing the beginning of a larger trend? The prospects are frightening. Especially since the impulse seems to arise from a natural and inescapable desire for a set context, a single referent, one here and one now that we all understand, and that doesn’t change.


1. Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson, eds., The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1: Waiting for Godot, (New York: Grove Press, 1993) 9. All quotes from the play are taken from this edition unless noted otherwise.

2. Harold Hobson, “The Sunday Times” (August 7, 1955) 11. Quoted in Lawrence Gravner and Raymond Federman, ed., Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 93.

3. Kenneth Tynan, “The Observer” (August 7, 1955), 11. Quoted in Lawrence Gravner and Raymond Federman, ed., Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 95.

4. Jean Anouilh, “Arts Spectacles” (February 27-March 5, 1953) 1. Quoted in Lawrence Gravner and Raymond Federman, ed., Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 92.

5. James Acheson, Samuel Beckett’s Artistic Theory and Practive (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 144.

6. Acheson 144.

7. Ruby Cohn, Just Play: Beckett’s Theater (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 36.

8. Cohn Play 39.

9. Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), 543.

10. John Leeland Kundert-Gibbs, No-Thing is Left to Tell (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999), 70.

11. Acheson 5.

12. Kundert-Gibbs 16-17.

13. McMillan and Knowlson xvi.

14. Kiberd 544.

15. Linda Ben-Zvi, Samuel Beckett (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986), 142.

16. Kundert-Gibbs 19.

17. Kundert-Gibbs 20.

18. Kundert-Gibbs 20.

19. Kundert-Gibbs 20.

20. Kundert-Gibbs 16.

21. Kundert-Gibbs 61.

22. Kundert-Gibbs 61.

23. Kundert-Gibbs 81.

24. Kundert-GIbbs 81.

25. Kundert-Gibbs 83.

26. Acheson 5.

27. Acheson 5.

28. McMillan xxi.

29. Acheson 142.

30. Kundert-Gibbs 58.

31. Few writers, of course, like seeing their work limited, but most writers provide at least some contextualization for their work, where Beckett worked hard to provide as little as possible.

32. Ben-Zvi 144

33. McMillan and Knowlson xxvii.

34. Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 31

35. Kenner 30.

36. Kenner 30-31.

37. Kiberd 530.

38. Kiberd 530.

39. Kiberd 538-9.

40. Joanne Klein, “Waiting for Godot,” Theater Journal 51.2 (1999): 192.

41. Klein 193.

42. Klein 193.

43. Klein 193.

44. Special thanks to Dan Knauss for invaluable editorial assistance.

Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song

Needless to say, my site title draws from Dylan’s book title, but only because of a conversation with my sixteen year old daughter Grace. She saw me reading Dylan’s book and asked me what modern songs he wrote about. When I said, “Most of them are from the 50s,” she replied, “That’s not exactly modern, is it?” To make things worse, I pointed out the book isn’t quite philosophy either, so she felt bound to point out that the title of the book sounded somewhat defective. Then she said that she wished someone were writing this way about current artists, like Nicki Minaj. We considered the difference between modern and contemporary, and I suggested that Dylan might have meant by “modern” the beginning of our current musical forms, which in many cases might be the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

At any rate, that’s when I decided to retitle my site The Philosophy of Contemporary Song. I’ll post about Minaj sometime in the near future.

Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster, 2022) is in one important sense a perfectly written book: it’s exactly what Dylan wants it to be. It’s in his voice, it accomplishes his purposes, it says what he wants it to say. I’d love to sit down with Dylan sometime and have a long, heart to heart conversation about our friend the comma, and our common enemies the comma splice and the run-on sentence, but what kind of a pedant wants to talk to Bob Dylan about commas?

Check out my iTunes playlist for Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song.

Apparently me, I am sorry to say.

But it’s still a perfectly written book because it’s in his voice. All of the missing and offending commas are there (or not) to capture that voice. And this book isn’t Dylan’s first. He’s the author of collections of poetry, original art, and song lyrics as well as memoir, a Nobel prize lecture, and now a series of sixty-six short essays about a selection of American songs from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty first. So the question is always why this book? How does it serve his purposes?

When a rock musician gives a song list, it doesn’t hurt to think about what they mean to do with it. David Bowie was asked by Vanity Fair in 2003 to produce a list of his twenty-five favorite albums, and when he described the selection process, he said he pulled out Sgt. Pepper’s and Nirvana and then put them back because they were too obvious. But do you know what that means? Sgt. Pepper’s and whatever Nirvana album he’d selected were important choices and they didn’t make the list. The point here was to draw attention to albums Bowie loved that wasn’t on everyone else’s list too.

I think to some extent Dylan wants to serve the same purposes that Bowie did with his album selection — to draw attention to important but lesser known artists and their songs. For example, Jimmy Wages’s “Take Me (From This Garden Of Evil)” (1956) was left unreleased at the time of its recording. Dylan believes it wasn’t released because it wasn’t a teen hit. Instead, this song “presses the panic button. This record might be the first and only gospel rockabilly record. This is evil as the dictator, evil ruling the land, call it what you will” (p. 17). According to Discogs this single wasn’t released until 2001, so it could hardly have been a formative influence on Dylan.

So why did Dylan select it? I think because it’s a great song, because it works, and I think Dylan wants to describe how it works. I believe that’s what he means by the philosophy of modern song, and I believe that’s the purpose of his book and of his selections.

His purposes for writing the book become more apparent if we examine the content of his entries. Each entry tends to be made up of one or more of the following parts:

  • They’re never introduced as such, but almost every entry starts with a description of what the song makes Dylan see and feel. What he imagines when he hears the song, or what memories are brought to mind. What the songs evoke in him. Artwork scattered throughout the book, often in scrapbook format, lends to this impression as well. I love Sean O’Hagan’s description in The Guardian of these segments as Dylan evoking “the atmosphere or emotional resonance of a lyric by stepping inside the mind of the narrator and, by extension, the songwriter.” Perfect description.
  • Some background on the artist or performer. Jimmy Wages, for example, grew up very close to Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi, but Elvis moved on to Memphis at the age of eight while Wages stayed in Tupelo. Dylan, considering that fact, has to ask what might have been had Wages moved up to Memphis too.
  • Background on the songwriting, the songwriters, or the song itself, which in some cases has a much longer history than expected. These segments, when present, are particularly interesting.
  • Background on the recording.
  • Commentary on the artist’s vocal or instrumental performance.
  • Within all of the above, some commentary on how the song works. Every song chosen for this collection works for Dylan, and he writes to understand how and why. That how and why is his philosophy of modern song.

Not every entry has all of these elements. Every entry performs at least one of these tasks, though. If Dylan doesn’t cover most of it in any given entry, and he always performs the first task, what the song evokes in him, it’s often because he may have two or three entries covering songs by the same artist. I think Dylan chose these songs because of what they allowed him to say at the moment, what they allowed him to write. I don’t think this book consists of a favorites or influences list even though it certainly does include some favorites and influences. I think it’s always a “what does this song allow me to say about songwriting” list, though.

And what about his coverage? I’ve made up a spreadsheet laying out the song and artist demographics across the entire book. Dylan wrote about

  • Five female singers and seven female songwriters. I count everyone in vocal groups like the Temptations.
  • 63 male singers and 100 male songwriters.
  • 19 of these artists were singer/songwriters, not in the sense of genre, but only in the sense that the performer wrote their own material. Only one song is ascribed to “Traditional.”
  • By decade, Dylan discusses one song from the nineteenth century (but as recorded by a contemporary artist in the twenty first), three from the 20s, one from the 40s, twenty-eight from the 50s, thirteen from the 60s, fourteen from the 70s, three from the 80s, one from the 90s, and three from the 2000s, but only two if you push that cover version back to the nineteenth century where it belongs. Is it surprising that nearly half of the songs chosen are from the 1950s? Not for an artist whose first album came out in 1963. So Dylan is indeed revealing his influences, but we shouldn’t forget his choice of Jimmy Wages either.
  • By genre, Dylan chose twenty-three rock or rockabilly songs (too lazy to split these up, but I should), one punk song, fourteen country songs, five folk songs, one bluegrass, three each jazz and blues, twelve early pop songs (easy listening/ big band), and four songs that fall into the categories of either R’n’B, soul, or funk. I expected more folk and less rock, but the big band songs aren’t surprising given his recent albums. We also need to keep in mind that if you go back far enough, rock, rockabilly, folk, and country were all very close together. Sometimes the lines between them all get very thin.

So what do all of these numbers add up to? Dylan was most interested in writing about 50s’ rock and rockabilly with country not far behind, and with the 60s and 70s not far behind. The book is almost completely made up of rock, rockabilly, and country songs from the 50s to the 70s, about 90% numerically. And of equal importance, these songs were popularized by American artists with the exception of “London Calling” by the Clash, his sole punk selection, “My Generation” by The Who, and Elvis Costello. I think this book is reflective of Dylan’s lifetime commitment to American musical forms. There’s no prog or metal in here, although he mentions metal in an interesting comparison with bluegrass. His project wasn’t always to be original, but to preserve and reflect the diversity of American music.

I’ve taken up a good bit of time trying to understand Dylan’s book on its own terms. Some reviewers, annoyingly, do not. One reviewer accuses Dylan of hating women because of the ratio of male to female songwriters — and I have to admit, it’s not a good ratio, but nearly half the songs are from the 1950s or before, and nearly all the songs are from before the 1980s. While there were a number of important women songwriters during this time, there weren’t many compared to men — but worse, the reviewer complains because of some of the lines sung in other people’s songs. That judgment truly demonstrates an inability to read: the issue is not what the song narrates, which often includes evil, heartbreak, and betrayal, but the narrative attitude toward what the song narrates. Depiction isn’t advocacy. The author or authors of 2 Samuel narrate David’s adultery with Bathsheba, for example, but the narrative — or the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures or Christian Bible, for that matter — doesn’t condone adultery, especially not in that specific story.

Reviews tend to ignore some of the most striking comments in the book, such as Dylan’s praise of Tin Pan Alley songwriters — songwriters contracted out to record companies who wrote for multiple performers — even though he panned them in the 60s, leading to the singer-songwriter movement. He also speculates that in our relationships, marriage itself, a lifetime commitment, may be the problem — because of divorce and its monetary implications, and specifically because of lawyers. His solution? Polygamy. Is Dylan updating Blake’s “The Garden of Love,” observing how our systems of laws and religions interfere with something as natural as love? Or is he just following the trajectory of “Cheaper To Keep Her”? How can you listen to that song and not think of lawyers, marriage, and divorce?

There are more women in the book than is reflected in song coverage. He mentions Aretha Franklin and Sister Rosetta Tharpe while writing about other artists. Why is Cher on the list while Carole King is not? And while I wish Dylan had covered Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, he also didn’t cover any of the Beatles as solo artists or as a group, or David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), and on and on, while he does cover Nina Simone. The Rolling Stones are out while the Grateful Dead is in. Why? I think in part because he was focused on American musicians, but also because of what he was trying to say: which, as always, is exactly what he wanted to say, exactly how he wanted to say it. If Dylan died tomorrow, this book would be a fitting last word.

I wish that Dylan would release a book like this written only about women singers and songwriters. He should dedicate it to Joan Baez. I think she’d have to die first. She’d certainly die afterwards.

I have a number of Bob Dylan playlists in iTunes that span his entire career. As you’ll see, some of them overlap because they’re not just chronological but cover different genres, projects, and commitments.

If you like my writing about music, check out my Bookstore.

Alice Cooper: An Overview

I’ve recently created three iTunes playlists covering Alice Cooper’s career from 1969 to the present. These playlists are based on his studio discography. I’ll be meditating on my impressions of him as a long time fan — since the 70s — and my recent listening to his work. Cooper has meant a lot to me since around 1977 or 1978. While “School’s Out” had already been out a few years, I didn’t catch up to it until then. It was my anthem. I hated school. Once I started following him, I dressed up like Alice Cooper for Halloween every year. I had the face and hair to pull it off with the right makeup. I loved his rebellion, his transgression, his sense of threat. He was my first real badass hero.

I’ve divided up his career, and this playlist, into three rather uneven eras:

The first playlist covers the Alice Cooper Band period, from 1969 to 1973:

During this period, “Alice Cooper” wasn’t the name of the lead singer but the name of the band. It became the name of the lead singer over the course of this period, mostly due to fans. The band lineup was very stable during this time, and this is the period of his enduring classic hits such as “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” plus a number of other songs.

But if you were to listen to a greatest hits album covering this period, I think you’d get a false impression of the music the Alice Cooper band actually produced. Rock was just a small part of it. I think it’s better to compare Alice Cooper to David Bowie and Queen in the 70s: they played rock hits, but musically, overall, they weren’t at all limited to rock music, mixing jazz, cabaret, broadway, and folk with rock. Queen was very much interested in opera and musical forms from the 20s and 30s, Bowie in Black American musical forms and German electronica, and Alice Cooper in broadway and a number of other forms.

Of the seven albums the original Alice Cooper band released, the two standout albums are Killer (1971) and Billion Dollar Babies (1973) because the band committed to making rock albums (the rock ballad during the 70s was a standard part of a hard rock album — don’t let that throw you). I would say the weakness of Cooper’s albums until the mid 80s was that he, or the band, didn’t do anything as well as a good rock song. Bowie’s and Queen’s excursions into even the remotest of genres were better produced than anything Alice Cooper did as a band or solo artist outside of rock or rock ballads.

My next playlist covers his early solo period, 1975-1983:

Alice Cooper the band became Alice Cooper the solo act: Vincent Furnier the man was to “Alice Cooper” as David Jones was to “David Bowie.” Cooper continues his exploratory compositional preferences with a new band, continually reaching out to new musical forms while still remaining anchored in a rock sound. His first album from this period, Welcome to My Nightmare (1975), was released on Atlantic records, but all other albums during this period were with Warner.

Welcome to My Nightmare was his last platinum album until 1989’s Trash. It was his last album to have any kind of US certification at all, in fact, until Trash. So this period marks a period of commercial decline for Cooper. It’s generally seen as a period of artistic decline as well, but I think some albums, such as Flush the Fashion (1980), make a coherent musical and thematic statement worth some attention, in addition to producing the Gary Numanesque hit “Clones (We’re All),” and I think Dada (1983) is one of the most interesting albums in Cooper’s catalog in addition to being his most experimental. It’s his version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, but it was ignored when it was released and is generally ignored today.

What happens between 1983 and 1986 is very important. Going into 1983, Cooper is an alcoholic and addicted to cocaine. He and his wife had filed for divorce. One evening, he looks into the mirror and sees blood streaming from his eyes. He’s not sure if he’s hallucinating or really bleeding, but he gets the point, and he flushes his cocaine down the toilet and calls his wife to tell her he’s given it up. She tells him to prove it — go to church. Cooper was raised Evangelical. He does. The spiritually-oriented songs that appear on his later albums are reflective of his own real faith. Some of them, “Salvation” (from the 2006 Along Came a Spider), are even evangelistic in tone, but these are few and far between. He learns to be a rock star without killing himself like one. The Last Temptation (1994) is a notable statement in this way, not only being his first concept album in some time but also the inspiration for a series of comic books by Neil Gaiman.

So my third and final playlist covers a much bigger block of time. Following on the heels of his recovery and conversion, it spans 1986 to the present, which as of the time of this writing is 37 years. But note that the first four-year period covers seven albums, the next eight years covers nine albums, and this 37 year period thirteen:

He’s less prolific in his late career but more focused. He knows what he’s doing. His only two certified albums are the platinum certified Trash from 1986 and his next album, Hey Stoopid (1991). I remember feeling pleased hearing Alice Cooper on the radio again at 22 when I hadn’t heard much of him since my early teenage years in the 1970s. Welcome 2 My Nightmare (2011) and Paranormal (2017) both chart in the top 40 but don’t hit gold level sales.

But I would hardly call this a period of decline. Cooper abandons, by and large, mixing musical forms and plays to his strengths, which are hard rock mixed with metal and, for the most part, straight up heavy metal. None of these albums ever go wrong, but the standout albums to me are his serial killer concept album Along Came a Spider (2008), which is straight up metal, and the industrial inspired Brutal Planet (2000) and Dragontown (2001), both of which engage in searing commentary on the cruelties of the modern world.

Welcome 2 My Nightmare marks a return to his 70s’ formula as a response to 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare, and it’s a good response, but I don’t like it as much as his metal albums — although his fans liked it more. His most recent album, Detroit Stories (2021), sees him reunited with old bandmates from the Alice Cooper band period (those that remain) and notable figures in Detroit rock to perform a classic rock album mixed with some nods to soul and the blues, which don’t appear often on Cooper’s albums at any time during his career. It’s him giving something back to a city of Detroit that gave quite a bit to him musically– and all of us. Despite the band’s Arizona roots, Cooper’s early childhood was spent in Detroit, so this album is a musical return home.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Alice Cooper live twice, both times since 2015. The first time I’d ever seen Cooper perform live was in Ohio opening up for Mötley Crüe on their farewell tour, probably in 2015 (they have since said farewell to their farewell), and then again in Ohio not long after, before 2018, as a headlining act in Columbus in a smaller venue. He had a great band; it was tight, and Nita Strauss shreds. He played a covers set honoring recently dead rock musicians. And the theatrical, horror elements of his show didn’t so much shock me as make me laugh. It was kitsch horror. It probably always was. But it was fun to watch.

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