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Sunday, 6 April 2008

Written in granite: Dory Previn [2] – Mythical Kings And Iguanas

Mythical Kings And Iguanas was Dory's second and by far her most successful LP; it is also her best. This is the album people know if they know any of her work. Its influence on my own lyric-writing is incalculable and I recently realised that I've taken a lot of my phrasing from Dory too. MKAI is an album made by a woman in her forties and that's also its main subject matter. And, for once, Dory's Dad barely gets a look-in (at least not directly, the male of the species doesn't come off particularly well; but then there's no myopia about the shortcomings of her own sex either). It opens with the title track with its self-deprecating late-sixties stuff about "astral walks" and I Ching. That's followed by the album's one slightly throwaway song, Yada, Yada, La Scala, although even a slight song like this contains the key line: "talk to me please in bed, where it matters". Then comes a sequence of three absolutely astonishing songs. In a parallel universe run by and for myself, The Lady With The Braid is a standard, it is performed by every singer-songwriter as a rite of passage and indeed there are several thousand cover versions (a bit like Yesterday in this one). It has a lyric of surgical (open-heart surgery) precision and attention to detail. And, as we know, over the ages it has been claimed that either God or the Devil can be found in the detail. I rather think that this song deserves a piece all to itself so perhaps I'll do that soon, but the moment halfway through when she sings "You can read the early paper and I can watch you as you shave... Oh God the mirror's cracked..." is absolutely heartbreaking. Anyway, we'll take a closer look at this song later. That's followed by another tour de force in Her Mother's Daughter, the story of a domineering mother who starts by insisting that no suitor is good enough for her daughter, then that she needs looking after in her old age. In the hands of a lesser writer this could easily turn into melodrama, with the daughter becoming bitter, twisted (or even psychopathic), but in Dory's, from the opening "'You'll grow into a beauty' her mother always said..." to the final "she listens in on other people's joys, and looks longingly at all the passing young boys" the touch is deft, there's even humour. Then, when you think this can't possibly be taken any further, side one closes with Angels And Devils The Following Day, which has one of the most arresting first lines in all popular music, especially for 1970: "Loved by two men equally well/Though they were different as heaven and hell/One was an artist, one drove a truck/One would make love, the other would fuck". There is a definite art to the use of the "f" word in popular music. Delivered in the right way it can be devastatingly effective and this is one of the finest deliveries ever made, light and clipped for maximum effect.

So that's side one. Side two doesn't let up the pace. It opens with the wonderful narrative Mary C. Brown And The Hollywood Sign, which was later turned into a short-running musical revue and an album we'll come to shortly. Again the humour is savage, the rhyming brilliant and the overall effect. It is also absurdly prescient, being a story about the nature of celebrity. The story (essentially true, I believe) is that of an actress in Los Angeles who failed to carve out a career in films and then committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood Sign. "She jumped off the letter 'H' because she did not become a star/She died in less than a minute and a half/She looked a bit like Hedy Lamarr" followed shortly afterwards by the pay-off: "When Mary Cecilia jumped, she finally made the grade/Her name was in the obituary columns of both of the daily trades". Next, Lemon-Haired Ladies is a return to the territory covered in Beware Of Young Girls on the first album, but this time it's directed at the man (ooh, who could this be; a clue: not her Dad). We're back to storytelling on A Stone For Bessie Smith, about a woman who buys a gravestone for the eponymous singer but fails to make any provision for her own funeral arrangements. Did I mention the black humour? That's followed by The Game, a sustained metaphor of a fairly hackneyed kind (er, "life's a gamble, you know...") but here once again the sheer detail raises it to another level and she manages to bring the Crucifixion into it again. The album closes with a reprise of the title track.

Musically it's Dory's most coherent album, acoustic guitars, electric lead providing mostly atmospheric touches, keyboards filling out the sound but it's kept restrained most of the time, the music is always serving the lyrics. And what lyrics they are. As I think I said in the first Dory piece this is grown-up stuff. In that sense it was so far ahead of its time that it's difficult to comprehend what a different world it entered when it was released in 1970. I've got a bit of a theory about how it wasn't until approximately 1989 that rock music accepted that it was middle-aged and began making records accordingly. Again, this might well be a good subject for a future piece. Dory wasn't totally alone in making adult records before 1989, of course, Leonard Cohen springs to mind, as do David Ackles, Bill Fay and... Frankly not a whole lot of other names. Since 1989 yes, the climate has changed, with female artists leading the way: Emmylou Harris proudly sporting her hair ALL dyed grey on the front of the utterly astonishing Wrecking Ball in 1995, Lucinda Williams effectively starting her second career in 1989 and going on to make some of the truest of all records (last year's West has an emotional impact that just seems to reach into my innards, grip my guts and waggle them about a bit), Joni Mitchell's magnificent Travelogue through her back catalogue, Kate Bush's Aerial, and with a few blokes also picking up on it, Leonard was ahead of the game with I'm Your Man where, by appearing with a heroic banana in hand on the front cover he forced even the most obtuse of critics to acknowledge he'd always had a sense of humour, Dylan's two albums with Daniel Lanois (who also produced Wrecking Ball), i.e. Time Out Of Mind and, from 1989, Oh Mercy... Well, yes, perhaps this does call for a piece in its own right. But, as I say, Dory was 20 years ahead. Mythical Kings And Iguanas is her masterpiece. Virginia Woolf said that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people", well I'd like to paraphrase Mrs Woolf and say that Kings is still one of the small group of rock records made for grown-ups. There are a few more of them in 2008 than there were in 1970, but still not all that many.

We'll be looking at Ms Previn's third album, Reflections In A Mud Puddle (guess what? It's got a side-long suite of songs about her father) at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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