[This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column. We will analyze album lyrics for meaning, and examine with close readings album titles, song titles and close reading of lyrics. We are looking, reading and listening for the microcosm of the album, and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the 1970’s, 80’s and more recent decades. ]
“Everything I’mma saying, you can say it just as good” — Bob Dylan
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapter 15 “Icarus”
John Coltrane, Giant Steps
Bob Marley, Natty Dread
Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone
Recording history is very short, as is the history of recordings of protest music. Woody Gutherie’s recording, Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940, is one of the earliest examples in recorded music of lyrical subtleties such as Horatian Satire, as well as one of the earliest examples of Post-Modernism in any medium. When John Coltrane titles his solo album Giant Steps, he is not only taking such steps in modal jazz, but also toward a concept album. If Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning in 1954 is the first concept album, Giant Steps in 1960 is the second.
Giant Steps has no lyrics, only song titles. The briefest statement of subject becomes vastly important. In terms of concept, the album begins with track three, the brief Countdown, followed by Spiral with its descending modal scale. After these four fairly jarring tracks, the album reaches a melodic middle with Syeeda’s Song Flute and Naima. The conclusion is the up-beat Mr. P.C. I argue that this upbeat tempo and the anonymous Mr. of the title, along with Coltrane’s ongoing struggle with heroin, indicate that this song is about a drug-dealer.
This is the arena of Malcolm X’s nom-de-guerre Detroit Red, of which chapter 15 of his and Alex Haley’s the Autobiography of Malcolm X, “Icarus,” paints a brief picture. But this chapter also exposes the radical that the man, himself, becomes, and the radicalism that becomes the credo of punk. Of greatest interest to the punk project and to my arguments are the passage on the March on Washington and the passage on his appearances at universities, both Ivy League and Black universities. Peace and love had failed, it was time for radicalism.
The latter passage engages notions of institutional acceptance, of the flaccid academic institutions of the time that Bob Dylan will criticize in Like a Rolling Stone, and the authoritarian control of knowledge and analytic thought perpetuated by such institutions at the time. Though Bob Marley’s lyrics have been pacified and monochromed for such institutions with releases like Legend, if you doubt his status as a revolutionary in line with Malcolm X, remember his lyric from Talkin’ Blues, the penultimate track on the album Natty Dread: “I feel like bombing a church, now that you know the preacher is lying.”