On Christopher Hitchens' Taste in Music

William Carl Ferleman

Hitchens on Verdi and Dylan, not God or Iraq.

Paradise Lost author John Milton, a patriotic Englishman, was absolutely an aficionado of music; his father was, in fact, a composer of some 20 works. Scholar Diane McColley recently notes that “Milton collaborated with a court composer, praised the church music that Puritans attempted to destroy, and in his epics represented choral and instrumental music in Heaven, Hell, and Paradise" (Milton in Context, 2010). Notwithstanding, music is typically associated with the sacred among the devotional, and, for them, particularly and personally with God; in Paradise Lost, the angels endlessly, tediously sing to praise the heroic sacrifice of the Son.

This, I think, indicates that in some sense it is understandable that another Englishman and polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, refrains from citing music too frequently or specifically in his several endeavors. “Why, if god was the creator of all things, were we supposed to 'praise' him so incessantly for doing what came to him naturally? This seemed servile, apart from anything else", professes Hitchens in his book God Is Not Great (2007). Aware of both Milton and the Bible, he links music, generally, with “songs of praise" to the Almighty, and, of course, a loathsome variety of human slavishness and worship.

But Hitchens does indeed appreciate music: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and, apparently, the Italian composer Verdi. Not sure about John Lennon per se, however. Alas, he's not as precise about music as he is about culture, politics, and religion. But Hitchens alludes to Verdi in a debate with Rabbi David Wolpe here at the 1 hour 20 minute mark; he discerningly notes that Verdi, in fact, composed devotional pieces but that he did not believe at all.

In his memoir Hitch-22 he speaks about Dylan: “I was fairly soon hooked on what Philip Larkin called Dylan's 'cawing, derisive voice,' and felt almost personally addressed by the words of 'Masters of War' and 'Hard Rain,' which seemed to encapsulate the way in which I had felt about Cuba. Then there were the loving and less cawing strains of 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' 'She Belongs to Me,' and 'Baby Blue' . . ." Actually, he has two Dylan tracks flat-out incorrect here—he rather means to say “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".

As to the synthetic Stones-Beatles debate, he states: “I later vastly preferred Mick Jagger's 'Street Fighting Man,' which had been written for my then-friend Tariq Ali, to the Beatles' more conciliatory 'You Say You Want a Revolution' . . .“ Well, in so stating, Hitchens makes two tangible errors: “Street Fighting Man" is unequivocally not a Mick Jagger song--conceding the point that he wrote its lyrics--and the Beatles' song to which he refers is rather entitled “Revolution 1". Mick Jagger just is not equivalent to the Rolling Stones. Ask Keith Richards, for instance, on this point. And, what of Lennon's unabashedly atheistic song “Imagine"?

The fundamental line must be drawn here: Christopher Hitchens appreciates music but is reluctant in so doing because of music's historical and literary nexus with the sacred and godly, as in Milton. Moreover, such reluctance betrays itself in his several factual miscues apropos of music, and, in particular, music he claims to value.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.