Foreword by Tom Palaima
In his gloriously honest essay that follows, my longtime friend and really soul mate—though we have met in person only once for three evenings in May 2007 in Munich where I was helping in a conference for German postdocs on power figures and hierarchies in ancient cultures—Nikos Samartzidis quotes the Greek Bob Dylan, Dionysis Savvopoulos:
“The artist simply learns to observe some small details and understands where a thing is going…”
And indeed artists time out of mind observe the particulars that most of us miss and capture them for us in visual or oral/aural poiemata, literally ‘the end results of the process of making or creating’. And their poetic creations reach into our souls and stir them to the point where we can feel the pulse of the human thing as it has insisted to endure despite the cruelties and misfortunes and the ‘accidents that will’ that seize and shake and redirect again and again all of our lives. They express joys and sorrows, beauty and ugly, kindness and brutality, the seen and the unseen, cold hard facts and hints of ideas and feelings, the remembered and the forgotten. They make us human even when we do not want to be.
Nikos is a great soul like Dylan, like Savvopoulos. His artwork like theirs moves backwards and forwards in time and really obliterates it, using the earliest symbols for capturing human speech in western culture, the Linear B script.
Here he discusses three pieces that present visually κομμάτια και Θρύψαλα from three great masterworks of Bob Dylan.
The PASP Archives are proud to archive and exhibit the artworks of Nikos Samartzidis, which include over thirty paintings on canvas and board, a dozen clay tablets, and linocut prints. All artworks cited by Samartzidis in his study of Dylan are housed and on exhibit in PASP.
Triptych in “Linear B” by N. Samartzidis
Some reflections and comments by the artist
When the idea of making a piece of art based on Bob Dylan’s lyrics was first proposed to me by my personal and scholarly friend Tom Palaima who teaches courses on how Dylan’s music explores human lives and our human condition, I automatically asked myself the question: Which one of his countless songs and lyrics should I include? The answer, of course, was difficult and subjective. In general, as Tom knows, I almost always chose texts from somewhere in the long sweep of three millennia of Greek poetry for my Linear B transcriptions. But there were exceptions as well. My most basic criterion beyond quality was the timelessness of the subject. If I asked 10 different people to tell me what their favorite Dylan songs were, I would probably get 11 different answers. So I decided to transcribe these lyrics that had once been a permanent buzz into my own ears.
I had already transcribed several songs by Greek songwriters. One of my favorites was Dionysis Savvopoulos who had already covered two songs by Bob Dylan in Greek. “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Wicked Messenger” with respective titles “O Paliatsos ki o Listis”, and “Aggelos Exaggelos”. Tom takes up “O Paliatsos ki o Listis” in an article on Dylan’s place in the long tradition of ‘hard traveler’ songs in the Modern Greek Studies Yearbook for 2010-2011.
I had the impression that there was some kind of a parallel world between the two artists. They were born about three years apart. They had both left the university to pursue their dreams. Dylan to meet Woody Guthrie and take up singing in New York city. And Savvopoulos to take up singing in the capital of Greece, in Athens. And they both do it in a similar way. They hitchhike. Dylan is dropped off in a winter snowstorm on January 24, 1961 on the Manhattan side of the George Washington bridge. Dionysis with a truck. That will be the name of his first album, “Truck” (Fortigó). Something that brings both musicians closer to me is that I myself dropped out of school in a youthful crisis and also hitchhiked from Thessaloniki to Piraeus heading for the island of Crete….
The career of both artists, especially Dylan, is more or less well known. For Savvopoulos, some may not know that in 1967 he was briefly imprisoned and beaten for his political convictions by the Greek military junta of 1967-1974. This is where he gets his inspiration and writes his song: “The word of Demosthenes”. [NOTE 1] The authorities of the Greek dictatorship forbid him to work in Plaka anymore (the old historic district of Athens, full of music bars, cafés and taverns). He leaves the country illegally but later he is forced to come back for family reasons….
The next common point that connects the two artists in my opinion is the public recognition that comes after many years. Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in October 2016. About a year later, in November 2017, Savvopoulos was named honorary professor of the Philology department of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In his speech at the time, he even referred to the joy he felt when he learned a year earlier about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. “…But also the light of the rhapsodes, Homer and the lyrical poets” said Mr. Savvopoulos and added: “The Swedish Academy feels this light and comes to show it to us, giving the Nobel Prize to a leading troubadour of our time”.[NOTE 2]
Dylan himself had said in his own speech: “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read”. And Savvopoulos has said, referring to the way he composes his songs, writing both the music and the lyrics at the same time: “The art of singing exists before writing… I belong to an oral culture. Songwriters are related to storytellers, our songs are often stories… ” [NOTE 3]
But where and when had I heard Dylan songs? In my high school years I listened, apart from Greek music, mainly to Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, The Carpenters, Jim Croce and others. I liked ballads and would occasionally scratch a tune myself on my guitar that I was learning at the time. It was the time of the seven-year dictatorship in Greece, that lasted until 1974.
After the fall of the junta, in the time of the so-called “Metapolitefsi”, many things changed in the daily life of the Greeks. One of them is of course the intense politicization, the mobilizations, demonstrations, the struggles of all kinds. In universities, students spend more time in assemblies and on the streets than in class. Parties and concerts are part of everyday life. “Banned” composers like Mikis Theodorakis are being heard again and the circumstances are conducive to new sounds and voices. That’s when I heard Dylan’s songs being played and heard more and more at concerts and political youth gatherings, at parties and “at impromptu” small events on the lawns of the university.
A special event concerning Thessaloniki is the great earthquake in June 1978. Because too many houses were deemed uninhabitable, too many people – those who did not leave the city – lived for many months in tents in parks and squares. I myself lived in a tent on the lawn of the campus. And I remember that after the first weeks, and after the fear of the people had subsided somewhat, there were spontaneous open-air concerts for morale boosting and entertainment. So one night I remember listening to:
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you…”
played by an amateur student group. And I felt that Dylan’s song described exactly how I was feeling at that moment, before I got completely sleepy and retired to sleep in my tent.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” was already one of my favorite songs. I loved it for the simplicity of the melody and the powerful imagery that the lyrics conveyed. I used to play it myself on the guitar. A song that is always relevant.
As for “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” I found it as almost prophetic. “Prophetic charisma” is also attributed by many to Dionysis Savvopoulos, but he has said: “My songs are not prophetic. The artist simply learns to observe some small details and understands where a thing is going… “[NOTE 3]
But let’s come to the visual arts. I’ve chosen for transcription the three songs I mentioned, some representative verses from each one. The above mentioned and the following:
before it is washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist,
before they’re allowed to be free?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind…”
(“Blowin’ in the wind“)
πριν να χαθεί μέσα στη θάλασσα;
Και πόσα χρόνια μπορούν κάποιοι άνθρωποι,
να υπάρχουν πριν τους αφήσουν νάναι λεύτεροι;
Την απάντηση φίλε μου την παίρνει ο άνεμος,
φυσώντας μέ το ακατάληπτο βουητό του…»
In Linear B, the Greek above is rendered:
po-sa, ko-ro-ni-a, po-re,
na, u-pa-re-ke, e-na, qo-u-no
pi-ri, na-ka-te, me-sa, te-ta-ra-sa
ka-i, po-sa, ko-ro-ni-a, po-ro-u
ka-po-jo, a-to-ro-po-i, na, u-pa-ro-ko-u,
pi-ri, to-u, a-pe-so-u, na, e-i-na, e-re-u-te-ro(2),
te, a-pa-te-se, pi-re, mo-u
te, pa-i-re-na, o, a-ne-mo,
me, to, a-ka-ta-re-po-to, qo-u-e-to, to-u
ro-we-ro-to, a-re, ti-si-me-ra-ma
And for The Times They Are A-Changin’:
as the present now will later be past.
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last.
For the times they are a-changin’…”
(“The Times They Are A-Changin’”)
όπως το τώρα θάχει γίνει παρελθόν.
Το κατεστημένο αποσυντίθεται γοργά.
Κι αυτός που πρώτος είναι τώρα, μετά θα είναι ο τελευταίος.
Γιατί οι καιροί αλλάζουνε…»
And for this one, the Linear B of The Times They Are A Changin’ is:
au-to, po-u, to-ra, e-i-na, a-ro-ko,
ta, ki-ne, ke-re-ko-ro,
o-po, to, to-ra, ta, e-ke, ki-ne, pa-re-ro-to,
ka-i, au-to, po-u, po-ro-to, e-i-na, to-ra,
me-ta, ta, e-i-na, o, te-re-u-ta(2)-o,
ja-ti, o-i, ka-i-ro(2), a-ra-zo-u-ne,
ro-we-ro-to, a-re, ti-si-me-ra-ma
But it is not enough for me to simply translate and transcribe the text in Linear B. I’m looking for a decorative element that fits the theme. The idea came to me almost unexpectedly. Already observing the symbols of the Phaistos Disc, I was impressed by the symbol (02, plumed head) with the head that looks like a hairstyle of the “punk” subculture. For me it was very “up to date” and related to revolutionary music. I combined the head with the body of another symbol of the disc (01, Pedestrian) and with the symbol (12, Shield) that resembles a tambourine as well. So I had the caricature of someone playing a tambourine, coming out from the depths of time. (Maybe from Crete? Where the tradition of the “mantinades” exists to this day?) [NOTE 4]
For the second part of the triptych I was less demanding. I wanted it to be simpler and modest, so that “the tambourine man” would not be overshadowed. But something that coincides with the ancient character of the work. Browsing through Norbert P. Kunisch’s book Ornamente geometrischer Vasen, I chose the symbol for a volute tree, having in mind the image of the wind blowing through the foliage. We hear and do not hear at the same time, repeating the same mistakes. I also added the sketch of a simple spiral that refers both to some kind of labyrinth and to the hope of getting out of it…
Fortunately for all of us, in the last part of the triptych we have something more optimistic: the message that “the times are changing”. It may happen outside of us, but it would be best to be prepared for the changes that are “coming”, hoping that it will be for the good of all. From the same book Ornamente geometrischer Vasen I chose the decorative design that represents a bird, the body hatched, with raised wing, in metope composition. The bird has the ability to fly. In my imagination it replaces time, which also “flies” and leaves without anyone being able to stop it. In the same capacity, however, it announces and brings things with it, things we may not have experienced before, like a good messenger, who finally brings “good news”….
For more Samartzidis paintings housed at PASP, see our online exhibition.
Be sure to also check out Samartzidis’s website, where he exhibits all works.
[NOTE 1] Transcribed by me as: “OLYNTHOS”, 40 X 55 cm, Acrylic on plywood, 2007
[NOTE 3] Writers’ Meetings at IANOS café | Dionysis Savvopoulos | IANOS