Accompanying this month’s blog is an image of Omniscience 1994 by Remco de Fouw from the Arts Council Collection. Made in copper and sprinkler fittings, the sculpture is remarkably similar in form to the Orsini bombs used to attack the Gran Teatre del Liceu and evokes the disruption which befell the opera house in 1893. In Omniscience the supposed comfort and protection of sprinkler heads are used to dramatically form the surrounds of a bomb containing all of the inherent threat and tension carried therein.
When I went
to Barcelona in 1975 there were two venues for classical music. One was the
Palau de la Mùsica Catalana, a magnificent, almost outlandishly ornate concert
hall created in an Art Nouveau style called Modernisme at the beginning
of the twentieth century. Although weeknight concerts, with some of the
greatest performers in the world, could be expensive and exclusive, tickets for
the city’s symphony orchestra concerts on Saturday evening, and repeated on
Sunday morning, were cheap.
began with some orchestral suites and ended with a major symphony or concerto,
favouring Brahms, Schumann, Schubert symphonies and concertos by Brahms or
Beethoven or Mozart.
before the interval each week something interesting happened. They programmed a
short piece by a young, contemporary Catalan composer. He or she was often in
the audience, accompanied by a proud family and loyal friends.
Saturday in 1977, according to my diary, it was a piano piece, fresh from a
modern Catalan composer. I noted: ‘The pianist, who has played all over the
world, came out, to applause, and sat down. She did nothing. She stretched and
yawned and turned the sheet music upside down, or else put it the right way up.
(Later, I learned that this was part of the composition.) She then stood and
peered deep into the stringed body of the piano. She plucked a string and then
another. No melody emerged, no tune. Just two disparate notes.
was a frightened silence in the hall. What would she do next? What the great
pianist did next was she stood up and gave the side of the piano a good hard
slap and then sat down again. And then she plucked a few more strings and
slapped the piano one more time and then once again, this time with ferocious
energy and abandon. And then there was vigorous applause. It had ended.
these Catalans are very advanced. Or else they are all friends of the composer
or the pianist.’
Saturday evening in that same 1977 in that very same concert hall something
quite significant occurred. The printed programme was entirely in Catalan. The
previous week, it had been available only in Spanish. I was fascinated not only
by the change but by the lack of fuss, no transition to a dual-language
edition, no announcement.
interval, I asked an usher if there was a copy of the programme in Spanish as
well as in Catalan. She seemed puzzled and went away, returning accompanied by
an officious-looking young man who asked me in Catalan if I was the person
seeking a copy of the programme in Spanish. For a moment, as he and the usher
studied me, I might have been a representative of one of the many enemies of
the Catalan people. So, I explained quickly that I was perfectly happy with my
Catalan-language programme but I was keeping a diary about change and I wanted
to note this big change in the diary. The officious-looking young man peered at
change, clearly, had not happened by accident. It was a small, interesting way
in which the outside world made its way into the life of the concert hall. The
dictator was dead and the Catalan language was slowly becoming an official
came to the other music venue, the Liceu opera house, in a different way. In
1893, an anarchist threw two large bombs – known as Orsini bombs, they were
like large grenades with spikes – into the stalls – the expensive seats - of
the Liceu during a performance of Rossini’s ‘William Tell’, killing twenty and
injuring many more. Because one of the bombs did not explode, it was
photographed and put on show, thus putting the further fear of God into
was privately owned. The old rich families of Barcelona held shares in the
building. On opening nights, crowds gathered to watch as the owner-class came
in their chauffeur-driven cars and all their finery. While the death of the
dictator in November 1975 changed many things, it seemed not to make any
difference to the shareholders of the Liceu and to the spectacle they created
on these opening nights.
for the operas were prohibitively expensive. The first time I tried, it was a
disaster. When I showed my ticket – for Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ with Montserrat
Caballé - at the front door, I was directed to another door, less grand and
auspicious, to the side. From there began a set of stairs that rose endlessly
and grew narrower as they got higher. When, eventually, I found my seat, I
discovered that I had no view at all of the stage, none. Standing up would not
help, because there was not enough head-room to stand up. Soon, others arrived
and took up the seats around me.
sad when the music began in the sure knowledge that the stage must be bathed in
beautiful light and the costumes must be gorgeous and the set superbly crafted.
The real problem, however, arose in Act 4. I could not bear it any longer as
Mimi sang her farewell. I had paid my money, I needed to see what was happening
on the stage. I could hear the singing and the orchestra clearly as a hungry
person can smell food.
I felt a
rat-like determination to see Caballé just once. Just once. I waited until a
soaring moment, Caballé’s voice as its most splendid, and I not only leaned
out, but rested my two hands on the shoulder of each of the two men in front of
me and I propelled myself forward like a duck. That allowed me to catch a
glimpse of the stage, just one glimpse, just for one second.
whose shoulders had thus been used went crazy. But, by that time, I had
retreated into my cage, the place from where I could hear but not see. The
problem was that my leaning had been less gentle than I had planned. I had
clearly ruined the experience of a great high note for two members of the
audience who had paid more money than I had.
they knew where I was.
opera ended, I did not wait for the applause. I needed to get out of that
building before anyone reported me to the police.
when the opera house burned down it was re-built using public money. It was no
longer owned by a consortium of the rich. To justify the use of tax-payer’s
funds, an advertising campaign began using a single slogan over and over: ‘El
Liceu es per tots.’ (‘The Liceu is for everyone.’) For some reason, this
worked. Ordinary music-lovers in the city saw no reason why they too should not
attend the Liceu.
the re-opening of the refurbished opera house for BBC radio and noted how
determined the publicists were that the whole world would know that the day of
the rich families was over. One of them followed me around for two days making
sure that I said this regularly into my microphone.
after that, booking for the whole year ahead began in late July. Tickets would
be sold out in a few hours.
at the Liceu, I should have been listening intently to Deborah Voigt and José
Cura in a production of André Chenier in the Liceu. I was on my own, sitting
downstairs at the front of one of the little boxes. The view was perfect. But
as soon as the lights went down, I started to think about something else. No
matter what I did, my mind wandered. I had written the opening of a new novel –
the book that became ‘Brooklyn’ - but was unsure what might happen after the
first chapter. Slowly, in the dark - the brilliant, dramatic singing as a kind
of backdrop - the novel unfolded, almost all of it. It was surprising in how
much detail it came.
there? Why that night? By the time the opera ended, I had the novel. All I
needed to do now was to write it.
spring of this year, I saw that Bob Dylan was to play in the Liceu in June, and
I got tickets.
struck me first an hour before the concert in the upstairs bar is how old we
all are. Or: everyone else looked old and I suppose I must be old too.
Dylan albums I heard were in the late sixties when a friend in Enniscorthy
acquired LPs of ‘John Wesley Harding’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’, and then later
in Barcelona in 1976 and 1977 when there was a copy of a Greatest Hits double
album in a flat I was living in. My Catalan friends really knew these songs and
cared about them.
strange is that I missed out on everything between ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975)
and ‘Oh Mercy’ (1989). I must have been thinking about something else. And I must
have been dozing at the Dylan concert in Slane that I went to in 1984. Later,
when I grew to love some of the songs from that period, I got to know them one
by one, rather than as tracks from an album. It is only recently, for example,
I have got to know ‘Changing of the Guards’, which is on the ‘Street Legal’
album from 1978.
I think I
like the lyrics of that song as much as I do ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’
and ‘Farewell Angelina’. Some of the lines in these three songs sound like
something that came raw into Dylan’s head. Because his head is a place filled
with rich echo and intricate mischief, the images in these songs sound urgent
most of the time, almost true.
Dylan appears to pick words because of their sound. Perhaps the only advantage
of the word ‘chimes’ is that it rhymes with ‘rhymes’ and with ‘times’. Thus,
his sad-eyed lady has a voice ‘like chimes’ and his ‘Changing of the Guards’
has ‘the wailing of chimes.’ He also loves an ingenious rhyme, such as matching
‘lowlands’ with ‘no man comes’, knowing that his style of singing will fill in
whatever is missing in the echoing sound.
his images are filled with mystery. In ‘Changing of the Guards’, after many
moments of pure obscurity, we get ‘And cruel death surrenders with its pale
ghost retreating.’ In ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, there is a lovely
willful listing of qualities that sound right but make no sense. And then there
is: ‘And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul’. Dylan enjoys sounding
like an ardent lover and a high priest rolled into one.
three songs, the energy often comes also from surreal sources, as though Dylan
is dreaming or he is high, and registering how skewed and weird and oddly
exciting everything seems. But ‘my
warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums’ in ‘Sad-eyed Lady’, or ‘She was torn between
Jupiter and Apollo/ A messenger arrived with a black nightingale’ in ‘Changing
of the Guards’, or ‘King-kong, little elves and the rooftops they dance’ in
‘Angelina’, are all beyond me. But I like the obscurity, the irrationality, all
carried towards meaning by the melody.
not poems, although they take as much as they need from poetry; rather, they
are ironic words for songs, and they take as much license as they require. They
manage to sound throwaway and deadly earnest at the same time. We listen to the
undercurrent of dark, sly laughter coming to the surface to match the
album ‘Good as I Been to You’ appeared for Christmas in 1992. I wore it out as
I did an earlier Dylan album which I acquired around this time – ‘Self
Portrait’. And there is a version of ‘Pretty Saro’ that was recorded for that
album but not included that I love. And then in the autumn 2006 I found myself
in Texas. And I was driving a PT Cruiser. (I never worked out why everyone
laughed when I mentioned this.) And each time I drove – and I drove a lot in
Texas – I started with the same song. Month after month. It is called ‘Working
Man’s Blues #2’ from the album ‘Modern Times’. The voice is gravelly and weary.
I am glad that one critic called it ‘heartbreakingly romantic’. I didn’t know
that one line (‘No one can ever claim that I took up arms against you.’) is
taken directly from Ovid’s Tristia or that the song uses the same chord
patterns as Pachebel’s Canon in D.
days before the event in Barcelona in June I looked at the setlist for the
concerts Bob Dylan was doing in other European cities. And as I began to listen
to these new songs and look at the lyrics, I decided to feel nothing but
disdain for those who wished Dylan would sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Hey, Mr.
Tambourine Man’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and loads of his
other best-known hits.
was packed for the second of his two Barcelona concerts.
lights went down and the music started, I didn’t realize at first that Dylan
himself was actually on the stage. The piano he was standing at faced inwards;
the lights never came up fully. When it was clear it was Dylan himself, a sort
of hush went through the opera house, not a gasp, but a sense of wonder that it
was him. I felt this too, but I hadn’t felt it in Slane in 1984. I wonder what
has happened in the meantime. And I wonder who else I might feel this sort of
the songs he sang that night - such as ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, ‘I’ll Be
Your Baby Tonight’ and ‘To Be Alone With You’ - were old Dylan songs, but many
were from his new album ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’. The voice was raspy, growly,
but with a bleak and melancholy edge. He seemed to favour short two and three
syllable phrases as though he had found a more comfortable beat for his voice
than the longer line in a four-line stanza. His voice followed clipped speech
or maybe a moment of thought. There was no point in letting the melody or the
tone of Dylan’s singing do the emotional work for you, the words mattered. He
was singing the words.
were words written in the American grain, with echoes of blues songs and beat
poems. In ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, for example Dylan invoked ‘Ginsberg
and Corso and Kerouac’, but in the line ‘Hibiscus flowers, they grow everywhere
here,’ he was also invoking Wallace Stevens, who wrote a famous poem ‘The Idea
of Order at Key West’, but also other poems set in Key West, such as ‘Of Mere Being’:
palm at the end of the mind,
the last thought, rises
in the palm, without human meaning,
human feeling, a foreign song.
know then that it is not the reason
makes us happy or unhappy.
bird sings. Its feathers shine.
palm stands on the edge of space.
wind moves slowly in the branches.
bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
That is a
late poem, written when Stevens was in his seventies, but it has much in common
with an early Stevens poem ‘Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,’ whose last ten
lines could easily be adapted by Dylan – with some rhymes added, and heavy
percussion between the phrases – and made into another song about Key West:
it was that monstered moth
had lain folded against the blue
the coloured purple of the lazy sea,
which had drowned along the bony shores,
to the blather that the water made,
up besprent and sought the flaming red
with yellow pollen – red as red
flag above the old café –
roamed there all the stupid afternoon.
didn’t bother much with facts. When he opened his poem ‘The Idea of Order at
Key West’ with ‘She sang beyond the genius of the sea,’ he expected us to
assent to his tone and not ask who ‘she’ was precisely or how she could sing in
this way or what exactly was ‘the genius of the sea.’ So, too, in Dylan’s ‘Key
West’ song, we are not meant to ask how Dylan, born in 1941, could possibly
have heard the news of the assassination of President McKinley, which happened
in 1901, on the radio. It is part of the song.
thinking. Listen to the song.
would be a mistake. In the Bob Dylan Review in the summer of 2021 there is an
essay by Jim Salvucci called ‘Bob Dylan and Wallace Stevens in Conversation’
which deals with the problem of anachronism in this song: ‘Could Dylan be guilty of a careless
anachronism? Many others have noted that the first line of Dylan’s song
(“McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled”) quotes the opening line of “White
House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, first recorded
in 1926...Poole’s song cleverly tells the story not of McKinley’s life and
assassination but of his final days lingering with the fatal consequences of
two bullet wounds. Thus, when Dylan’s narrator states, “I heard all about it –
he was going down slow / Heard it on the wireless radio,” he is not referring
to the breaking news of McKinley’s murder but to hearing the song “White House
Blues” itself playing on the radio.’
These are the things you need to know. My problem
is that this concert happened only once. When it was over, I had to go. Towards
the end, Dylan moved to stage right, gave up hiding behind the piano, and he
acknowledged the band name by name. It was good to see him.
I looked around the Liceu and then up into the
higher tiers from where the man threw the bomb in 1893. I even looked at the
chair where most of the novel ‘Brooklyn’ came to me over three hours in 2007.
But no ghosts appeared. What occurred to me instead was how unlikely it would
have seemed when I came here first in 1975 that I would come here again
forty-eight years later to see Bob Dylan and a band play these strange, late
songs. But that thought didn’t last for long. It was still early; still almost
bright. Out on the street, Barcelona was getting ready for another rough and
rowdy Saturday night.
Colm Tóibín (July 2023)