Review: Rock and Romanticism, edited by James Rovira

The connection between rock music and Romanticism is a longstanding one. Thomas Goldthwaite, reviewing an Elvis concert in Phoenix, Arizona in 1970, compared the rock star (not entirely favourably) to a mixture of Lord Byron and Davy Crocket, and Camille Paglia was to repeat the comparison – sans Davy Crocket – twenty years later in her sprawling Sexual Personae. Byron doesn’t get his own star turn in this latest collection edited by James Rovira, although the artist formerly known as Shelley (as Percy Bysshe has tended to be referred to in recent years) does have a particularly fine chapter dedicated to him. Instead, the essays here largely concentrate on Wordsworth and Blake as influential figures in the field of rock music that runs from the sixties until the present day. This particular review will focus on those chapters dealing with Blake, although this is by no means a comment on the remaining sections that outline Wordsworth’s role in defining contemporary music.

James Rovira’s introduction to Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, explores the relationship between its two defining terms and is very good on the established – but not unproblematic – definition of Romanticism, with Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity being an important text. The most significant element here is Löwy and Sayre’s notion of Romanticism as “opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values” (cited p.xiv), which is important in terms of defining the attitudes of both Romanticism and rock music outside of the essentially modernising strands of Marxism. This definition works very clearly in one important aspect in terms of of rock music as not “selling out”, a theme which runs through the Situationist Internationale through punk and into grunge, although plenty of Marxist and left-wing critics have noted the intensely capitalist nature of contemporary popular music, the tensions of which are evident in some of the essays in this collection. Marxist readers of Blake such as Saree Makdisi would probably make much more of this tension, but I have never seen Blake as a proto-Marxist but rather, as with William Godwin, a proto-anarchist – which is one reason why he is such a good role model for rock music and something that could have been pursued more forcefully in one or two of the essays here. Rovira is mildly, and correctly, critical of the privileging of the conceptual over the affective in Löwy and Sayre’s definition of Romanticism, that it tends to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the movement in favour of economic, social and political contextualisations (p.xvi), but at the same time the use of this approach does provide a coherence and direction to the discussion of relations between rock music and Romanticism throughout the collection.

As well as considerations of direct influences of Blake – such as actual settings of his lyrics to music or allusions to his poetry – some of the theoretical discussion in the book revolves around Raymond William’s “structures of feeling”, the observation that artistic movements are rarely acknowledged at the time because “both participants and observers are unable to objectively distance themselves far enough from it to classify it” (p.37). As such, influence may be parallel and affective rather than direct and referential, and Lisa Crafton echoes an approach adopted by myself, Steve Clark and Tristanne Connolly in Blake 2.0 to draw attention to models of reception that emphasise affiliation or resistance as much as concepts of transmission and inheritance (p.67). As a very personal aside, it made me laugh to see my own words used against me as, once or twice as detailed below, I would have really appreciated a few more examples of such “patrilineal concepts”. Nonetheless, on the whole I agree with this approach (I would have to say that, wouldn’t I) as it offers a much more allusive and sophisticated model for discussion Blake’s reception.

The first essay in the collection is a perfect example of just such a sophisticated reading. Luke Walker, whose work on the 1960s counterculture and Blake is a fantastic addition to reception studies of Blake, offers a wonderfully subtle interpretation of Blake, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Noting that there has not been a great deal of academic work on Dylan and Blake despite bold assertions, as in the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, that “Bob Dylan is the spiritual twin of… William Blake” (p.3), Walker provides a delightfully nuanced reading of how much Dylan really knew about Blake – and how little he may have wanted to be influenced by him, at least in the 1960s. Personally, I am perfectly happy with the notion that Dylan didn’t actually know Blake at all well, an argument pursued by Tristanne Connolly with regard to The Doors in her article “How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?” – the Romantic could still have been important as the grain of sand (literally in Dylan’s case) to inspire various pearls of his own music. Walker provides a compelling and extremely well-thought through argument regarding Dylan’s struggling anxiety of influence towards Blake but also, in many respects more significantly, towards Ginsberg. Certainly in the later decades of his career Dylan could be much more relaxed in his relationship with Blake’s work, indicating a renewed respect towards the poet in an interview from 1992 and incorporating cut-ups (after William Burroughs) of Blake’s “The Tyger” in “Roll on John”. Again, Dylan’s reading of Blake does not need to be particularly deep to be significant: as Walker indicates, throughout the 1960s Blakean texts operated in a rhizomatic, fragmentary fashion, cropping up as aphorisms and graffiti which seemed entirely appropriate to the inventor of the proverbs of hell (p.9).

The next essay on Blake, Douglas T. Root’s “William Blake: The Romantic Alternative”, is the most frustrating for me and the one where I would have preferred a little less free-form, allusive structures of feelings and a little more rigorous – Urizenic, even – patrilineal heritage. This essay was more frustrating because I essentially agree with Root’s argument that Blake’s attitude towards art, or more accurately the accepted myth of his attitude towards art as someone who once wrote “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s”, is precisely why he does provide an allusional, parallel model for much contemporary music. From the Pre-Raphaelites through the Surrealists to BritArt, Blake has frequently been seen as a “total artist” – one who lived entirely for his art and someone who, unlike many of the other Romantics, never sold out. Actually, the reality of Blake’s personal situation was much more complex than that, and ignores the fact that the editions of Young’s Night Thoughts and Blair’s The Grave were intended as fully capitalist publishing endeavours for which Blake would have happily sold (if not sold out) his skills for a much higher price were he able. Nonetheless, one legacy of Blake’s failure in his life time to be a successful artist – along with his continued faith in his own art and abilities – has been an enduring, and sometimes essential, myth of the Romantic artist alone against the world.

My frustration with Root’s essay is that, by concentrating on Blake’s influence on alternative American rock music and pretty much ignoring entirely the British scene he effectively eviscerates much of his argument. Blake’s influence on figures such as Kurt Cobain is definitely present, but also much refracted: Cobain recorded a soundtrack to Burrough’s “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him”, and Allen Ginsberg (who, according to Sam Kashner, rejected Cobain’s application to the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) was part of the Nirvana front man’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Gus van Sant’s poetic retelling of his final hours, Last Days, Cobain is renamed Blake, but by ignoring the British connection, Root cuts off a direct line into rock music: Malcolm McLaren studied Blake at art school, Derek Jarman name checks the Romantic constantly throughout his movies, and Jah Wobble (John Wardle), bassist in Public Image Ltd alongside John Lyden, recorded an entire album based on Blake’s works, The Inspiration of William Blake (1995). I am by no means so crass a reader of reception to insist that direct transmission is the basis for meaningful readings of Blake’s afterlife, but the addition of “punk Blake” would have made the argument for “grunge Blake” much more convincing.

By contrast, Nicole Lobdell’s essay “Digging at the Roots: Martha Redbone’s The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake“, is direct, simple and one of the most joyous essays in the collection, although that probably reflects my attitude that this is among the best musical adaptations of Blake’s work ever to be made. Lobdell’s contribution is less theoretically complex than that of Root and Walker, probably because when dealing with such an overt piece of musical reception issues of the anxiety of influence or importance of structures of feeling tend not to apply. Instead, the chapter offers a detailed and comprehensive account of the contexts of Redbone’s album, outlining how her Appalachian ballad is partly an adaptation of older, English forms to create what she terms “Appalachian Romanticism” (pp,51-2). This chapter is probably weaker in terms of theoretical readings of Romanticism – I did cringe at an appeal to “the universality of the poetry and the timelessness of the Romantic ideals that the music embodies” – but it is excellent in terms of exploring the minute particulars of both the Appalachian context of Redbone’s music and close readings of the tracks on the album.

The final essay that deals with Blake, Lisa Crafton’s “‘Tangle of Matter and Ghost’: U2, Leonard Cohen, and Blakean Romanticism”, is considerably more sophisticated – and an essay towards I am ever so slightly more ambivalent. It’s greatest achievement is to inculcate a greater sympathy towards U2, who for me embody a capitalist sellout of rock music that tends towards an ersatz version of Romanticism. Crafton demonstrates that U2’s interest in Blake has existed for a much longer period than I had realised, and offers a much more generous understanding of their political engagement in terms of Löwy and Sayre’s notions of Romanticism which, if I never quite fully agree with, I did come to appreciate much more. The vision of Blake that U2 sees may sometimes be my greatest enemy, but what I cannot doubt – quite clearly from their recent albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – is that the group’s appreciation of Blake has been an enduring and honest one. Regarding the link to Leonard Cohen, I was slightly more perplexed: Crafton seems to follow a line that Cohen operates more in terms of a Blakean/Romantic aesthetic – I don’t really have a problem with this, but also Cohen seems to know Blake fairly directly, as when he invoked the poet in a 1988 interview.

This review has focussed on the chapters dealing with the reception of Blake in Rock and Romanticism and, as such, neglects those that deal with Wordsworth or other aspects. That is no comment on their quality – David Hogsette’s chapter on Rush and Romanticism, for example, is an essay in pure, unalloyed joy, and some of the contributions on Wordsworth offer sophisticated readings of musical contexts and influences. The subtitle, relating music to Blake and Wordsworth, doesn’t always work (Lorenzo Sorbo’s final chapter on the Scapigliatura is fascinating but feels as though it belongs to a different collection) and at times I would have preferred either a more comprehensive collection on the influence of Romanticism throughout rock music – Shelley and Byron are spectres that have haunted the dreams of far too many wannabe rock gods – or, alternatively, a collection that dealt more intensely with William Blake. The latter, perhaps, could have extended the boundaries of rock into other genres, such as pop evocations (one of my favourite settings remains Blur’s “Magpie”, the b-side to their single “Girls and Boys”), as well as exploring the English music scene, where William Blake thrives in the work of artists as diverse as Van Morrison (mentioned in passing several times), Julian Cope, The Fall and Pete Doherty. Some of these are dealt with in the follow up volume, that explores post-punk, Goth and Metal, and in any case these desires also reflect my intense enthusiasm for this book: Rovira’s decision to deploy Löwy and Sayre throughout the collection gives it a coherence that is unexpected in an edited volume, creating an extended argument regarding Romanticism’s influence on contemporary music that is frequently compelling and always fascinating.

 

James Rovira (ed.), Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.

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