Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Best Talkin' Blues

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to not really get the joke or reference, even if the song is pretty cool. Or doomed to suspect that time travel really exists and nobody's telling me, the way I suspect that Ranch Puffs still exist but my grocery store won't stock them.

That's the lesson of history I learned when I got into Bob Dylan's music a while back, and began listening to more and more songs by Bob Dylan, until one day, to my surprise, I came across a song called "Talking World War III Blues." This is that song:

My first thought was, naturally, Those Baby Boomers, always going around claiming credit for stuff and yet here they've TOTALLY stolen a song from Todd Snider!

I thought that because before I ever heard Bob Dylan's possibly-stolen-through-time-travel-song, I had heard a song called "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." This is that song:

I'm sorry about that recording, too. It's not mine, but it's the best I could find. I'm not sure why, in this digital age, people are still recording stuff and posting it using, apparently, chewing gum, but, then, there you go. I'm also not sure why musicians aren't encouraging people to post video after video on Youtube featuring high-quality versions of their songs, or why the musicians aren't themselves doing that, since doing that would get more people to listen to their songs and then more people would want to download or buy their CDs and then they'd make more money. The artistic process these days appears to be based entirely on Nixon's secret plan to end the Vietnam War -- that is, come up with something, then immediately hide it away from everyone that could ever possibly want to buy it from you or pay you to show it to them or play it from them.

It's true, too -- artists and performers and celebrities and Prince are increasingly demanding that nobody look at, use, display, or listen to their work. You might get sued by Prince for playing his song while you play with your kids. You can look at videos on Youtube but not copy them into your own website. Authors are insisting that Google not index their books for fear that nobody would ever again buy a book; we'd all just prefer to carry around our laptops and read a blurry version of the book online at the airport, I guess.

If "art" continues that way, we can look forward to the day that no music is heard, no books are read, no paintings are shown, no sculptures are sculptured, and no movies are moved, unless someone first pays the 'artist' a million dollars and gives them a nice back rub.

I'm not saying that artists should simply just make everything they create available for free -- although they should, since it's entirely possible nowadays to allow people the option of paying to download a CD for, say, $9.99, or getting a reduced-price or free version of the CD with advertisements on it, just like Hulu shows you TV shows for free, or even just making the CD available for free download if you want like Radiohead did-- but they should keep in mind that the more people hear or see something from their album or book or movie or sculpture, the more they will want more from that artist, so if you put a video on Youtube of your song and let me post it on all my websites so that people can post it on all their websites, everyone in the world might hear that song, and the rule of 100ths means that you'll sell a lot of CDs.

The rule of 100ths, by the way, is my own rule of thumb for how many people have to see something before it sells. I based it on my old astronomy professor's analysis of why he believed there has to be life on other planets. He said that there are a billion stars out there; if 1/100 of them have planets circling them, that's 10,000,000 planets. If 1/100 of those planets are the right distance from their sun to support life, that's 100,000 planets that could support life. If 1/100th of those, he said, have the right mixture of oxygen and carbon and water and Doritos (I added that one) to actually create life, then 10,000 planets out there have evolved life.

That's a lot of assumptions, but I liked the idea, and I adapted it to my own rule, which is that one out of 100 people will do something you want them to do. So 1 out of 100 people will read my website, and 1 out of 100 of those readers will click through to buy my book, and 1 out of 100 of those clickers will buy the book. So to sell one book, then, I've got to get 10,000 people to see the ad for my book (do the math.)

If, then, I could get a billion people to see my book and have a chance to buy it, if, for example, I could have everyone in China go outside and see a giant display ad in the sky with a place to click through and buy my book, I could expect to sell 10,000 books. Or none, since my book isn't translated into Chinese and they probably wouldn't, therefore, be all that interested.

Anyway, the theory holds true, so, Todd Snider, get on the ball and post a real version of "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," which is actually a pretty funny and pretty good song that does a good job of making fun of the grunge rock 'explosion' in the 90s and how record companies are presumed to work, and also has that great line about going onto MTV Unplugged and refusing to play acoustic versions of the songs they'd refused to play in the first place, and [SPOILER ALERT ONLY IT ISN'T REALLY BECAUSE YOU JUST LISTENED TO THE SONG, RIGHT?] just when they were going to really make it big, along comes a band that wasn't even together -- roots grunge.

I enjoy "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" particularly because I was never very enamored of grunge and because I don't think, in the long run, that grunge will hold up all that well. I can listen to Elvis songs today and still love them. I can listen to Beatles songs today and still love them. I can put on the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever today and it's still good. But grunge? I was tired of most grunge songs before the song actually finished playing. So a song making fun of the music was almost a lock to appeal to me.

But "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" doesn't hold up very well to "Talkin' World War III Blues," because Bob Dylan's song was first, for one thing, and being first gets a lot of credit in the art world and in the world of TBOE.

"Talking World War III Blues" also strikes more of a chord in me, for reasons I can't quite fathom. The imagery of the end of the world and everyone dreaming that they are the only person left in existence and having the same dreams seems more powerful. Plus, the song could be depressing and sad and hopeless, but it's not. It's not hopeless and sad in part because of Bob Dylan's bouncy guitar work and voice -- he seems to be saying that things can be all right even if they're not all right, or that things are all right even if they seem to be all right, or that things will seem all right even when they're seeming not to be all right -- and it's not hopeless and sad in part because of Bob's last lines,

"I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,"
I said that.

I like that as a way to finish up the song; I like anything that invites people to be part of the world we create and asks if that person can be part of the world we create.

So to paraphrase me paraphrasing Yogi Berra, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to forever think that the best talkin' blues song is something making fun of grunge rock. But those who do learn the lessons of history realize that Talkin' World War III Blues is The Best Talking Blues Song.

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