Last week I wrote about an album title that managed to say a great deal with only two words. This week, I give you one word, three vaguely defined syllables which perhaps represent the creative peak of modern popular music. I give you:


Imagine is the name of John Lennon’s second solo album released in 1971. Imagine is a verb. Mr Dale, my primary school teacher, said I should think of verbs as “doing words”. This doing word, however, has an overwhelming suggestion of not doing, of dreaming, drifting away on a cloud.

The album explores this strangest of verbs. Most of us spend a lot of time imagining something better. In our own way we imagine heaven. In the title track, John asks us to imagine there is no heaven, to give up on endless dissatisfaction. To do that, we would have to stop imagining. There he is, John Lennon, member of the awkward squad, handing back his MBE, doing bed-ins for peace, on an FBI watch list because of his political activism, telling us to stop imagining a better world. How does that work? How can you say let it be and let’s make things better, at the same time?

The secret lies in the word imagine. This is a word where doing and not doing coexist.


Nothing more needs to be said.

Street Legal – The Art of a Great Album Name

Street Legal is Bob Dylan’s eighteenth studio album, released in 1978. It peaked at number 11 in the Billboard Charts, the first time a Dylan studio album had not reached the top 10 since 1964. Though Street Legal might not be Bob Dylan’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album, I think it has one of the best names of any album ever made. This two word title is a poem in itself, summing up the general direction of the album, and saying something profoundly true about the nature of communication.

So let’s have a think about these two words, street legal, which refer to a vehicle licensed for normal road use, meeting various criteria related to equipment and safety. These criteria exclude more rarified or specialised vehicles – racing cars, off road dune buggies, and so on. There is a sense of compromise as Dylan sets out on the road to meet his audience. He has to make sure his lights and indicators are in order. Are his rear view mirrors correctly positioned? Does he have his road tax and MOT documents up to date? He’ll need those if he’s visiting people like me in England. I know this does not sound glamorous or exciting. Something certainly seems to be lost when you decide to step out of a racing car into a Hyundai i10, which was the car I took a drive in at the weekend.

However, as you make that compromise, a huge new world opens up. You’re not racing pointlessly around a tiny track anymore, or jumping over the same old sand dunes. With your indicators and side lights in good working order, a whole new vista opens up. You are now free to follow the road wherever it may lead. This is a vista revealed by the ordinary rather than the special. You don’t have to be a rock star to make this journey. In fact rock stars risk getting left behind, at an exclusive golf club perhaps, riding in a golf cart, which like a racing car or dune buggy, is not street legal.

So here’s Dylan, magically coming through. He communicates not with special powers, but with the power of the ordinary. An album is a communication, a reaching out. It takes a journey from one person to another in a street legal vehicle. When I think of Street Legal, I think of something like Van Gogh’s portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, an ordinary fellow in an unremarkable job. He sits there, unassuming in his bushy beard, dark, buttoned coat, and his station master’s hat with “Postes” in gold lettering across the front. No one in 1888 could help communication between people more than an ordinary postman. The same is true of Bob Dylan in his Street Legal vehicle in 1978.

Jazz Writing


Last week, writing met J.S. Bach trying to tune his harpsichord at Cohan Castle. This week, I read Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations, where Thomas Bradshaw takes a year off work to learn the piano. Coincidentally,  Thomas stuggles at one point with the C major fugue from The Well Tempered Clavier by Bach.

The Bradshaw Variations was a disconnected story, with no central character, no real plot, and no overt message. Music, however, held the show together.  It was a force representing both freedom and discipline.  Music is neither random nor monotonous – it’s a strange mixture of both. The Bradshaw tribe was similar. It included rigid, traditionally-minded old fools, modern career women who hated their careers, house-husbands who knew nothing about house-work, frustrated wives who drank too much, or who loved the idea of being an artist whilst secretly preferring chaotic family life with an impulsive husband, two long-suffering children, and a manic dog who pees, vomits and hurls himself at doors which he always wants to be on the other side of. They all lived together like musicians in some kind of experimental jazz band. By extension people generally might be considered to live together in a similar way. Bravo I say.

Fiction And The Well Tempered Clavier

Well Tempered Clavier

Fugue no 4 from The Well Tempered Clavier

Writing and music are two of my favourite things.  I’ve often wondered how they go together.  My latest musings have focused on the way writing and music both involve the instinct which yearns to predict how things will go.   People have a natural capacity to constantly review current circumstances and predict future events.  Writing taps into this by creating stories that involve suspense, with clues suggesting how events might unfold, and surprises coming along to keep the reader guessing.  Similarly, music has a quality known as “tension,” based on a sense of anticipation followed by release. This relies on alternating tuneful familiarity with some kind of unexpected dissonance.

This last point is interesting when we look at how music has developed into the form we know today.  Medieval musicians would have found playing two or three different notes together daring. But from the early fifteenth century, composers were experimenting with more complex harmonies. Complex harmonies were not an easy task to produce on musical instruments of the time. Getting harmonies to sound right for certain combinations of notes, meant careful retuning of notes in that combination. These adjustments would then put other combinations out of tune. To play all harmonies in tune meant constant pauses as instruments were retuned. In 1722 the head of music at Cothan Castle in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach, devised a solution.  Drawing on the work of earlier musicians, Bach worked out a way of tuning a harpsichord so that all harmonies in any key could be played in one sitting without retuning – a tuning known as equal temperament.   Bach then published a collection of music – The Well Tempered Clavier – in all twenty four of the major and minor keys. Bach achieved equal temperament by fettling every note so that, bizarre as it may seem, each one was imperceptibly out of tune. In this way Bach found a very delicate compromise which allowed every combination of harmony to work.  Incredible precision was necessary. In fact each note had to be retuned to 1.059463094 times the frequency value of the note below to reach equal temperament.

Equal Temperament allowed music to develop as we now know it.  Modern machine tools recreated Bach’s near-miracle of individual tuning on widely available musical instruments.  Music,  more than ever before, became a delicate balance between familiar but potentially boring tunefulness, and exciting but dangerous dissonance. Whether you are a composer or writer, if you can get that balance you are well on your way to success.  But if anything shows how hard success is to achieve, it’s that mind-boggling number which Bach strove so hard to find – 1.059463094.

Dylan Thomas – Handing Over To Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan with poet Allen Ginsberg in 1975

In my view Dylan Thomas was the last great poet. Until his death in 1953, poetry could be considered an influential part of culture. In the nineteenth century the poems of Tennyson, Byron, Shelley and Keats sold in huge quantities.  Byron in particular was treated almost as rock stars are today.   Byron even dressed rather like Jimi Hendrix.  Into the early twentieth century, poetry continued to be a potent force, as seen in the work, for example, of the War Poets, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot. But from the 1950s onwards things changed.  I like to think that the power of poetry survives and prospers, not so much in modern poetry itself, but through the huge influence of pop music where the rhythmic possibilities of words have been expressed in musical poems.


Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

When I visited Dylan Thomas’ home at The Boathouse in Laugharne, I discovered to my surprise that Dylan Thomas did not make money from selling books, but from the sale of records, particularly in America. Following his death it was record sales that provided for his children, and for his wife Caitlin. Historically Dylan Thomas stood on a border line. He died in New York City on 9th November 1953. Only five months later, on 12th April 1954 Bill Haley and the Comets gathered in New York City’s Pythian Studios and recorded the Freedman/Myers track Rock Around the Clock.  Decca released the record the following month and the age of pop music really began.

Rock Around the Clock, however, was not great poetry.  This played on the mind of a young musician called Robert Zimmerman, who though he loved rock ‘n roll, found something lacking in it.  In 1959, at the University of Minnesota, Robert dropped the stage name Elston Gunn and started calling himself Bob Dylan.  It is generally accepted that this was a nod towards Dylan Thomas.  This link is instructive. Bob Dylan took on the mantle of a poet.   In notes to the album Biograph he says:

“There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

Via Bob Dylan’s interest in folk music, the serious ambitions of poetry found their way into pop music, which over the following decades was to see a great creative flowering.

In 2016 the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for literature.