Friday, August 7, 2009

Bob Dylan, "James Alley Blues" (1961)

I was just listening to this, and I think I may have been too reserved in my praise for the Bonnie Beecher tape, i.e. the 5/61 Minnesota Tape. It's great stuff.

I can't find a copy of it to link to, but Dylan's rendition of "James Alley Blues" on here is very affecting. His guitar work - sometime in early 1961 his guitar work really slipped into the pocket, and one of the great joys of his acoustic performances ever after has been the fullness and richness of his guitar playing. Here it's calm and assured, rhythmic but gentle, with a wistful melodic thing that sneaks into it every once in a while.

And the way he delivers the lyrics. No twenty-year-old ought to be able to deliver a line like "times ain't what they used ta be" with this much conviction. And he carries that authority throughout the song: he sells it. This isn't a young man dinking around with a guitar anymore: this is a performing artist performing.

Since I can't link to Dylan's version, here's the original, or at least seminal, version of the song, by Richard "Rabbit" Brown. Notice that in Brown's version, that first line is "Oh, times ain't now nothing like they used to be." A little more ornate, as befits Brown's elegant, tricky vocal line: he was a professional entertainer, and you can hear the professional's slickness in his delivery of the line. I don't mean that as a knock: he's good, and he sings good. We like that.

But Dylan's version simplifies the elocution, and why? I don't know if this was his decision; maybe he learned it that way from someone else. But the effect is to bring a more unadorned feeling to the sentiment, and you can hear how Dylan's vocal capitalizes on that. Rabbit Brown was reaching for professionalism; Dylan in 1961 was grasping for an amateurish, untutored quality that signified authenticity, but which was really another variety of professionalism. You can hear (if you listen to his earlier recordings) how long it took Dylan to get to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Shamus Young's DM of the Rings

Props to my sister, who, no doubt provoked by my recent spate of Tolkien posts, sent me a link to this: a screencap/photoshop web comic that imagines the Lord of the Rings movies as a D&D campaign. The author, one Shamus Young, deserves a lot of admiration for seeing it through to the end - CXLIV episodes plus bonus tracks.

In order to fully appreciate this comic, you not only have to have memorized the LOTR movies (guilty), but you have to have been a Dungeon Master at some point (guilty, too). If you have, it's a wickedly precise parody of both. If not, it's at the very least a great glimpse into RPG culture.

It's been almost twenty years since I played D&D, and I have no plans to pick it up again, but I remember it vividly. There's no creative outlet quite like being a DM: it's incredibly rewarding to take other people, living breathing other people, through your creations in real time. But of course it's incredibly frustrating too, because those people will inevitably screw up your creations. It's a little hint of what God must feel like, which is to say, it's a good way of gaining insight into the mysteries of artistic creation.

Warning: it flags after the first thirty or forty episodes. And: you can pretty much skip his "moral of the story" essays below the comics. Unless you are a gamer.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

3:10 to Yuma, and endings

Saw 3:10 to Yuma last night, the James Mangold remake from a couple of years ago. I'm still trying to catch up on what looked from my perspective like a fantastic slate of movies in Fall '07 that seemed to take forever to get to Japan, where I was...

Anyway, it's an excellent film, one of the best modern Westerns I can think of. But I wasn't sure why Evans needed to die at the end. Maybe I missed something, but the arc of his character seemed complete, and cautiously triumphant; according to the myth-logic of the Western, and the way this film in particular seemed to be proceeding, I felt that earned Evans a happy ending. Hmm.

Now, I'm not the staunchest defender of Hollywood's happy ending machine, but neither am I one of those who distrusts a happy ending. Hollywood's insistence on happy endings is a fixation on one kind of myth, the myth that Everything'll Turn Out Alright: Optimism, which sells in this country, but which as we all know isn't Realism. But to resolutely avoid happy endings is to insist that Nothing'll Turn Out Alright: Pessimism, which is as much a myth as Optimism. The fact is that in life nothing turns out either alright or not alright, because nothing turns out: life doesn't end: you don't know how things end until you're dead, and even then, your story may be over but somebody else's goes on. But art requires endings, and these inevitably sort out into happy endings or not-happy endings. My point is, both are artificial, because endings themselves are artificial. Artificial in the sense of being full of artifice - products of art.

So I don't look specifically for either a happy ending or a sad ending (although I like the feel-good impact of a good heroic triumph as much as the next guy); I just look for an ending that fits the art. I'm not sure Evans's death fits 3:10 to Yuma. But again, maybe I'm missing something.