Friday, May 11, 2007

Savage Gift on a Wayward Bus

I try never to find out anything about my heroes--especially musicians. Though they were central to my college soundtrack, I can't name all the members of Pink Floyd (though I can generally tell the Sid Barrett from the Roger Waters/David Gilmour era). I'll collect interesting tidbits--like the fact that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had a bit of a thing. But I've avoided her bio as well.

I've never understood why my students have a hard time with stuff like cryptic modernist poetry. They get frustrated when the words don't apparently mean anything. Like most people my age, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan. Song lyrics weren't supposed to make sense. They just were--certain phrases suggesting entire stories. So what if they didn't hang together?

Somehow, Dylan's lyrics formed so much of my permanent inner monolog--the recurrent scraps of memory, images, phrases, languages that make me who I am, that I did stuff like get married on the 5th day of May.

I just saw "Don't Look Back," DA Pennebaker's documentary of Dylan's tour to London in 1965--just before he went all electric and pissed off all his friends. It was a discovery. He looked, at that age, impossibly young, surprisingly Jewish, and was far more arrogant and less charming than somehow I expected. He was also an amateurish guitar player with a strange, weak voice, and no particular charisma. How the hell did he ever become the musicians that all the other folk rockers in the '60s wanted to be, much less a star? And yet, there was something--the whine and scratch of his voice, the surreal conviction of his lyrics, his soft-spoken self-absorption, that kept me mesmerized.

What put me off, of both Dylan and the doco, however, was what an asshole he was being to Joan Baez. She was doing her best to be the decorative, vapid '60s girlfriend (Marianne Faithfull, who hung silently about in the fringes the whole time, was much more convincing and more annoying in this role). But it didn't sit well--especially when she started singing and playing--better voice, better guitar playing, much more stage presence. When he paid attention to her music at all, it was only as a kind of background noise to his own songwriting--until he joined her in a nice Hank Williams duet, at which point she faded into supportive girlfriend mode again. Later, she faded from the film entirely (it turns out that they were breaking up at the time, and she pretty much just bailed. Good for her).

But I was all pissed off at him--for his stardom and his entitlement, and the way he was treating Joan Freaking Baez. I got all the more pissed off when I looked her up and found out that it was she who got audiences to take him seriously at all. She was the respected star with the career. He was a whiny unknown who used to get booed off of her stage when she invited him on.

He never invited her onto his stage at any point in the movie. I wonder if he ever did. I wonder if he ever knew what he owed her, or just took it as his due.

She was a feminist when there weren't many, out as bisexual long before it was fashionable, and committed to activism. So I got all like full of feminist rage. I get full of feminist rage a lot lately, and I'm neer sure what to do with it. Not many outlets for feminist rage, these days.

The trouble is, I've always liked Baez a whole lot less than I like Dylan. Her voice is interesting, but her lyrics are painfully conventional, and I hate the way that, for decades after they broke up, and after the obviously sucky way he treated her, she obsessively covered his songs--and the ones she wrote were often obsessively about him. Ugh. She's just a boring bland nice lady folksinger. Were all '60s women such freaking doormats?

Well ok, Diane DiPrima wasn't. She fucked all the Beats and liked it, she's outlived almost all of them, and her poetry kicks ass. And then there's the extraordinary Yoko Ono, to whom one of my students recently re-introduced me. So much more interesting than John, so much less conventional. She was nobody's self-effacingly supportive girlfriend. He met her at one of her shows. It was he who pursued her as she continued to make her art. And she continues to this day. And of course Courtney Love, who is both a brilliant musician and an enormous asshole. Except of course she doesn't get to be an asshole. She doesn't even get to be a musican, by most people's account.

Forty years later, it's really not that much easier for women than it was then. They're still judged as girlfriends, wives, part of the support system. And the riot grrrl/Lilith Fair movement of the mid '90s pretty much failed to impress me--all tiny fist-shaking, suicide anthems and delicate hysteria.

I feel like some misplaced Joan of Arc.
I need more female heroes.
Who are yours?