BLOG 11/02/18: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
I do not like Oasis, Virginia Woolf, Jeff Koons, or Bob Dylan.
But most people, it seems, do. Doubtless, this should worry me. Surely, I must be missing out as just about everyone else agrees on the beauty to be found in a bunch of bushy-browed Mancunians plodding lugubriously through the four chords of Wonderwall. And apparently everyone else thoroughly enjoys the brisk intellectual workout to be derived from overhearing the stream-of-consciousness wittering of middle-class ladies preparing for dinner parties or fretting over lost brooches and their offspring’s fixation with lighthouses.
But frankly, I just don’t get these things, just as I don’t get Schumann’s piano music, chocolate eclairs, Peep Show, The Lord of the Rings, Formula 1, Kraftwerk, superhero films, or ten-pin bowling. I just don’t see the appeal. I don’t hear the music of these things. It’s like I have suddenly, inexplicably, been struck tone deaf.
But amongst my long list of pet hates there’s only one name that’s a source of much disappointment or self-reproach. Believe it or not, but I can live quite happily without hobbits or naughty-but-nice, whipped-cream-and-chocolate confections—or, indeed, shiny metallic sculptures of balloon dogs. But Dylan is different. He really shouldn’t be on my list—and I know he shouldn’t be on it: with Bob, I know I am missing out on something special. Something big.
Everyone digs Bob Dylan, just as everyone famously digs Bill Evans. And what’s more painful for me is that so many of the artists who dig Bob I also dig—and they dig Bob almost as deeply as I dig Bill Evans. And, believe me, I don’t dig anyone deeper than Bill.
For Bowie, Bob Dylan was ‘a strange young man/ With a voice like sand and glue’, but Bowie, nevertheless, still heard in Bob’s songs words of ‘truth and vengeance/ That could pin us to the floor’. And Dylan’s lyrics are apparently deemed good enough to merit a Nobel Prize for Literature-- which is odd to my mind because when I hear lines like the following, they don’t sound much like prize-winning poetry:
Went to see the gypsy,
Stayin' in a big hotel:
He smiled when he saw me coming
And he said, "Well, well, well.”
But to return to the fundamental issue at stake, I don’t like Bob Dylan and, consequently, a jukebox musical using the songs of Bob would not have been my pick. But given the universal acclaim surrounding Girl from the North Country, I fell in with the crowd and made my way to the Noel Coward Theatre on St Martins Lane for a pal’s birthday bash.
Well, I was blown away by this show. Conor McPherson’s play concerns the inhabitants of a down-at-heel guest house in Depression-era Minnesota. This setting takes us back to the small-town world of Thornton Wilder and employs the kind of soap-opera-stylee multi-stranded plot that Arthur Miller used in his own Depression drama, The American Clock.
We have a charlatan Bible salesman and blackmailer, probably on the run from a gaol-break, and a black ex-boxer, who was most likely his accomplice in the escape. We have a bickering middle-aged couple endeavouring to care for their learning-disabled adult son. We have a lonely-hearted widow looking for love and a new start; a fostered black daughter carrying an illegitimate child and a goatish old cobbler set on making an honest woman of her; and we have a layabout, hard-drinking writer son. Finally, most agonising of all, we have shouty, irascible Nick, caring as best he can for his feisty, foul-mouthed wife, Elizabeth, whose mind has been scrambled by dementia. In Nick, we see the captain of a slowly sinking ship: a man so worn down by his responsibilities towards others he has forgotten how to love them.
Yes, there’s a lot of pots bubbling away in Girl from the North Country, and to be frank, McPherson’s script actually brings few of them to the boil. But this doesn’t really matter. It’s the music that matters.
The decision to turn to Duluth in the Thirties for the setting of this melodrama is not that surprising, given that Dylan hailed from this Minnesota city and is most obviously a descendent of Woody Guthrie, the great balladeer of the Depression. No, the genius of this show lies in how it traces back Dylan’s music to its origins in Irish and black music. We have wistful Celtic fiddles and plaintive slide-guitar; we have jazz-inflected acoustic bass and bluesy harmonica; we have strummed rhythm guitars and gorgeous soul harmonies of heart-stopping beauty.
What we don’t have is that voice of sand and glue. And it would be easy to argue that all this show does is separate Bob’s voice from Dylan’s songs, so their beauty finally shines forth, bright and pristine, like sunken treasure stripped clean of mud and barnacles and craggy accretions that have stuck to lost jewels.
But this is not actually the case. The sea-change is altogether more strange and wonderful and complete. Take, for example, the version of Tight Connection to my Heart that provides Girl from the North Country with its most unforgettable aria. Yes, Sheila Atim’s voice is impossibly, miraculously beautiful, but compare Atim’s plangent, poignant ballad of regret and resignation with the up-tempo, poppy original and you’re in for a surprise. Surely, even Dylan’s greatest admirers would have to admit that Simon Hale, who wrote the musical arrangements for Girl from the North Country, found something nobody else would never have dreamt of finding hidden beneath the jaunty rim-shots and reggae-tinged rhythm guitar on Dylan’s 1985 hit. So, this is far more than a jukebox musical: it’s a work of imaginative and musical transformation.
So, what can I say? Since I went to this show, a couple of days ago, I have tracked down the original cast recording and I have played it over and over again. I have fallen head over heels for its renderings of I Want You, Like a Rolling Stone, Forever Young, and of course Tight Connection to my Heart. In fact, I have fallen in love with the whole show, from the opening Sign on the Window to the final folk fiddle of My Back Pages.
But have I fallen in love with Bob? Well, tomorrow I intend to listen to nothing but the Dylan originals, probably whilst stuffing my face with chocolate eclairs and reading Mrs Dalloway—and maybe making my very own Blue-Peter-style Jeff Koons from balloons and mirrored wrapping paper.
Because I do want to dig Bob Dylan and I know I have only just scratched the surface.