Don’t Fake it Baby, Lay the Real Thing On Me

Bowie has said that “Moonage Daydream” was his attempt to write T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam”—a huge radio hit in the UK during the gestation of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars. But there’s another interesting music reference in “Moonage Daydream”. That skronking riff that comes in at 1:50 (produced by the wacky pairing of baritone sax + pennywhistle) is Bowie seeking to crib the sound of an older doo-wop song, “Sho’ Know A Lot About Love” by The Hollywood Argyles. Huh. OK!

“Moonage Daydream” is colored-out with great lines, but there’s a lovely ambiguous one that depends on where you place the comma. Ziggy, the androgynous alien descending from space to save mankind, sings:

The church of man, love

Is such a holy place to be

But, of course, it’s also

The church of man-love

Is such a holy place to be

Girlfriend in a Coma / Boyfriend in a Comma

Speaking of lyrics, personae, and dubious salvation, Robert Zimmerman has released a new LP under his popular stage character “Bob Dylan”. Pitchfork didn’t much care for the new album, Tempest, because Dylan’s voice sounded “insane”—which is not a put-down in our book! (B. Dylan’s best wtf-insane-voice performance remains his Cadillac Escalade commercial.)

But the whippersnapper reviewer really jinxed it when she called out Dylan for littering the album with “flaccid clichés”. Accusing self-aware artists of clichés is already dangerous territory, but the line the reviewer singled out—“you burned so bright!” (eulogizing John Lennon)—was an unfortunate choice. The lyric ties into—and leads toward—the final verse, where Dylan sings, “Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright” which is an allusion, yes, to Billy Blake:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

As if he weren’t playing with clichés/stock language, Dylan’s next line is “I pray the Lord my soul to keep”.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
In the forest of the night,
Cover him over and let him sleep.

jus sayin

Artistic use of cliché is best detailed & defended by our friend Mr. Christopher Ricks. Who—probably not coincidentally—is also a “Dylan scholar”. (Which, I believe, where he comes from is also called “a wanker”.) (Mr. Ricks’ other bag is poets alluding to poets so—with Dylan quoting Blake on a Shakespearean-titled album—I’m sure he’s frantically dunking his quill!)

The joy & profit in reading Mr. Ricks’ careful writing is his skillful ability to remind us the meaning of words; to rejuvenate words that have grown old; to refresh a staid phrase. He might ask us to grasp the etymology of handle, and in one gesture remind us of their original connection to the hand. And in the next sentence deftly deploy thimble to guard us from forgetting that hand : handle :: thumb : thimble.

For Ricks the mere use of cliché is not problematic—for all language is fair game—only rote usage. In his 1980 essay, “Cliché”, Ricks argues against style pedants who dream that we do away entirely with clichés. First, because it is hardly possible:

The only way to speak of cliché is with a cliché. So even the best writers against clichés are awkwardly placed. When Eric Partridge amassed his Dictionary of Clichés in 1940… his introduction had no choice but to use the usual clichés for clichés. Yet what, as a metaphor, could be more hackneyed than hackneyed, more outworn than outworn, more tattered than tattered? Is there any point left to—or in or on—saying of a cliché that its “original point has been blunted”? Hasn’t this too become blunted?

Second, and more importantly for Ricks, we shouldn’t dogmatically eschew clichés—because they are fecund territory. Surely we shouldn’t mindlessly traffic readymade phrases & preconceived notions, but precisely because of a cliché’s familiarity, it can be artfully reshaped, gainfully redeployed.

Of course this isn’t a weird or arcane subject—I mean, isn’t this how all your friends make joaks?–punning & pruning, twisting & turning stock phrases inside out? As Ricks reminds: “For a great deal of daily conversation finds wit and humor and penetration in a conscious play with clichés.”

One of Ricks’ primary examples is, yes, Bob Dylan, who often “throws new light on an old cliché, or rotates a cliché so that a facet of it catches a new light”.

…it is heartfelt play of mind which the best of our recent writers elicit from a vigilant engagement with clichés. In the poems of Christopher Hill, as in the songs of Bob Dylan, there is a continual creation of delight—theirs and ours—from the opportunities presented in the countless clichés of our times, clichés which are not to be scorned or expelled (your writing will only become haughty and outré), and not to be truckled to, but which are imaginatively, wittily, touchingly cooperated with.

Ricks proffers several examples from Dylan’s songbook, including an unpacking of Dylan’s “Masters of War”:

So take the cliché seethrough your eyes. Ordinarily, casually, it means putting yourself in the other man’s place, seeing things through his eyes. Far harder to do than the easy saying of it would suggest. Possibly a very misguided thing to do, too. So Dylan wrests the cliché into the more stringent sense which goes with sharp-eyed suspicion: “seeing through things” as knowing their cunning and hypocrisy.

A world war can be won

You want me to believe

But I see though your eyes

And I see through your brain

Like I see through the water

That runs down my drain

The first verse had sung “I just want you to know / I can see through your masks”—the vigilant sense of “see through”—so that when we hear “But I see through your eyes,” we see that it doesn’t mean the usual blandly magnanimous thing (“from your point of view”), but the stubborn opposite: I see what your eyes are trying to hide. The cliché has been alerted, and we are alerted to its clichéness, seeing the words from a new perspective, a different point of view, and seeing penetratively through them.

 

Bonus Track: A funkified live version of “Moonage Daydream” from David Live (1974) replete with sax wailing, boxing-ring bells, and Hammond organ riffs that sound like they fell off Highway 61 Revisited.

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