Is there a term for a growing suspicion of things people tell you? I looked it up and can’t find one. Balonaphobia maybe?
It’s not because of the recent political falsehood fest, although that did throw gas on the fire. It might just be age with a splash of cynicism. Whatever, it’s afflicting me.
Take song lyrics. Take, say, Bob Dylan.
Bob recently won the Nobel Prize for literature, which he famously didn’t respond to for a while, and then disclosed that when they present the prize in Stockholm on December 10, he won’t be there.
That’s certainly his right. Sartre declined the award altogether. V.S. Naipaul wouldn’t even come to the phone. That don’t bother me none, as Rod Stewart might say. What bothers me are the words. For example:
Now, your dancing child with his Chinese suit,
I spoke to him, I took his flute,
No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?
Hmm. Where’s he going with this?
But I did it because he lied,
because he took you for a ride,
and because time was on his side,
and because …
… I want you.
Oh. Well, that explains it.
Like all balonaphobia sufferers, the malady requires me to go back and check reams of his lyrics to see how many other pounds of baloney are there. A lot, it turns out.
Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots,
tailgates and substitutes,
strap yourself to a tree with roots,
you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
As my case has progressed, I’ve come to think this: Dylan, who made it clear early on that he didn’t want to be the Voice of His Generation, grew scornful of his fame once in a while. When that happened he would open his rhyming dictionary and just throw any old thing at us to see if anybody was really listening. It was a musical Emperor’s New Clothes kind of thing. And a lot of people, me included, weren’t really listening, so he kept it up.
Einstein disguised as Robin Hood
with his memories in a trunk
passed this way an hour ago
with his friend, a jealous monk.
I’ve heard it said that you’re not supposed to analyze lyrics. You’re supposed to simply let the song wash over you and have whatever effect it has. That’s the way I’ve done it for all these years, and I was happy. Then balonaphonia set in.
The thing is, I like Bob Dylan. I’ve always liked him. I think it’s a requirement of my generation to like him. Which is why this sudden-onset suspicion is disturbing. And yes, he’s written a lot of great songs, so he’s entitled to some duds.
Furthermore, it’s not just Dylan songs that are setting off my alarm. Even very good songs by the best writers can have troubling lyrics lightly buried like land mines.
I don’t want to leave her now.
You know I believe and how.
Like, you bet?
If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal.
I can call you Betty and Betty when you call me
you can call me Al.
Okay then, Al.
Hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp.
That’s why the lady is a tramp.
And speaking of California, a few months ago I was in the crowd at the Arlington for Santa Barbara’s installment of the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence. There I had the pleasure of hearing our town’s own Michael McDonald tell this story:
He was noodling around with a piano riff one day and asked his wife what she thought of it. Not much, was the thrust of her answer. At that moment, Kenny Loggins showed up for a songwriting session.
“What do you want to work on?” McDonald asked.
“Let’s start with that thing you were just playing.”
The result was “What a Fool Believes,” which was my gang’s theme song during the fall of 1979 in Nashville and a big hit for the Doobie Brothers. So I harbor fond thoughts about the song, but my condition required me to back and double-check the lyrics for gibberish and whaddya know, it makes perfect, elegant sense. I’m not saying McDonald and Loggins should have won the Nobel, but in my current condition I appreciate their attention to reason.
Lots of people are outraged by the choice of Dylan for the literature prize. The New York Times went so far as to editorialize about it, saying in part, “As reading declines around the world, literary prizes are more important than ever.” Instead of choosing a poor poet struggling in a garret, “the committee gave the prize to a man who is internationally famous in another field, one with plenty of honors of its own. Bob Dylan does not need a Nobel Prize in Literature, but literature needs a Nobel Prize. This year it won’t get one.”
Balance that against the comment by Keith Richards:
“I thought it was very far-reaching for the Nobel people to give Bob the prize for literature. I think it’s the first time us songwriters have been begrudgingly let into the literary world. But that’s good, especially because all those bastards like Shakespeare ever did was to steal songs and ballads from minstrels.”
So let’s say there are arguments on both sides. But in the end, balonaphobia sufferers will simply have to fast forward through lyrics that grate on the logical left side of their brains. Or they can write their own lyrics and sing them over Dylan’s whenever necessary. Like this verse I use for “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”:
I like sitting on a fence
and I like spicy condiments
and elephants and tents with vents
and Dylan songs that make no sense.