Where another man's life might begin
That's exactly where mine ends
These weren't the lyrics I was expecting to stick in my head from last night's Thea Gilmore gig at Union Chapel. In fact, it wasn't really a gig I would have bet on myself attending, being that she was covering Bob Dylan's album John Wesley Harding in its entirety to mark the legendary almost-Crouch Ender's 70th, and I am not what I would call a Dylan fan, in that I've never been electrified by his music. But I was electrified by Cate Blanchett's performance as the beautiful, androgynous, charismatic imp in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' strangely magical anti-biopic of the anti-rock star.
Despite my lack of Bob-knowledge, I was exhilarated by the film's freewheelin' turn through Greenwich Village, outlaw country, Gospel choirs and back - but what's stayed with me are the performances by Blanchett, Julianne Moore (playing a female folk star who is in no way based on Joan Baez) and Charlotte Gainsbourg -- although what I remember most about Gainsbourg in the film is thinking that someone should write a biopic of Patti Smith (Just Kids is crying out for an adaptation) and cast her in the lead.
That says more about my preoccupations than about the film, or indeed about Dylan, whom I was undoubtedly turned off male professors with a tendency to waving around a rolly in one hand and a battered copy of Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin in the other, while exhorting us to "fucking read Dryden." No thanks. So I'm no Bobsessive, but I love Thea and loved her cover of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" so I was willing to see what she'd come up with. While Caroline Sullivan of the Guardian called Gilmore's recorded version of JWH "for completists only," the live show brought out something that's perhaps less palpable on the record, and excitingly strange: a female artist singing these incredibly masculine songs.
It's not just the lyrical content that could loosely be described as pretty male, but the stance of the singer: the inheritor of St. Augustine, the frontier dweller -- and the hobo. Figures of wandering, of travel and movement outside of social norms, whether sinners or saints (who were once sinners), the characters and narrators of the songs are facets of a male archetype. Which is not to say that women don't wander, move (or sin), but that the conservative patriarchal forces of Euro Western society have largely conspired to keep women in the house (where they belong!), so that any wandering woman is automatically errant and aberrant, as a symbol and in actuality.
So for Gilmore to claim the hobo's harmonica (I'm dying to say the hobo's oboe, but it would be a lie) is visually as well as audibly powerful. Where a man's life might begin is both traditionally and symbolically, exactly where a woman's ends: at the threshold. In the story of Dinah, the Old Testament makes it clear that a woman outside her front door cannot be raped, because if she's out there, then she's declared herself common property; an attitude that persists today in shaming rape survivors based on their location and clothing. Which surfaces the other sense in which a woman's life might end where a man's begins, a sense that is threaded throughout the history of folk music: in murder ballads that often hymn the end of a woman's life at a man's hands, often for her presumed infidelity, but sometimes just because that's the way things are between men and women. Willie Nelson's "I Can't Let You Say Goodbye" (used to excellent effect as the killer's theme in Jane Campion's hugely underrated In the Cut) makes the point chillingly: "Please have no fear, you’re in no harm / As long as you’re here in my arms / But you can’t leave so please don’t try…” The archetypical male/female erotic relationship is not a model of love, but of murder.
Nowhere is this clearer than on Kristin Hersh's ferally brilliant album Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight, which brings new life to old songs by revoicing them -- not from a female perspective, but as a female singer, in an act of transgendering. Rather than rewrite the lyrics to give us female murderers (there are a few of them in the old ballads as well), or happy endings (the Disney post-feminist princess trick), Hersh - like Gilmore with JWH - stakes a claim to the songs and the masculine archetypes they contain. Hersh's jangling take on classic American folk songs (including lullabies with dark intentions) preceded, by three years, Tori Amos' better known project Strange Little Girls, a cover album that identified female personae within and as narrators for songs by male artists, playing with goddesses and (as this Red Riding Hood-inflected video shows) fairy tale heroines.
But unlike Disney re-ups, Amos' strange little girls -- with their wigs and wolves and vaginas raining blood from the sky -- show that femininity is a performance, a put-on (or stick-up), a costume: one that is often worn under duress, or interpreted as putting oneself at risk. Stranger still, Dylan's JWH ends with a song that might suggest the same about masculinity. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" -- if you look at the title objectively, what it offers is a position of vulnerability: not I'll be your lover or man or master, but "baby." Yes, it's also a little creepy. But the nursery rhyme-like lyrics ("The big old moon's gonna shine like a spoon" -- what do you make of that little gem, Ricksy-baby?) and suggestion of escape and the abandonment of social norms and the outside world - close the door, kick your shoes off - creates a space beyond gendered identities (OK, so the singer is pretty bossy and demanding -- "bring that bottle over here" -- or maybe just wants to go the whole baby fetish...), a space where men can admit to vulnerability. And sung by a pregnant Thea it has something extra, some enlargement of the aspects of human life that tend to appear in pop music. Open your eyes, open your door, maybe?