Okay, so really my thirteenth year began a few months ago. Like an errant post (i.e., all of them), this nine-year writing-about-music project has bloated to more than twelve.
It’s jubilee time.
It’s been three and a half years since I paused to reflect; and while lateness, like verbosity, has become something of a hallmark of this blog—reflections started coming late as early as the fourth year—a forty-month year is a noteworthy dilation, quite a bit longer than I expected when I put “year” in scare quotes in my meta-post at the end of year eight.* But as I have previously rationalized, balance must be maintained between production and reflection; otherwise there is precious little to reflect upon, and Helldriver begins to sound like Henry James at his molar-grinding worst. (If only!) I have also flogged myself to exhaustion about lapses in productivity and excesses of verbosity; eventually, one has to learn to live with one’s monsters, as I believe Eugene O’Neill put it; or perhaps better, with the monster that one is. (But must one force others to live with it, too? Yeesh.) Anyway, this forty-month closing “year” has welcomed ten new posts, about a variety of topics and genres, in a variety of forms and lengths. Unlike James, I have a goodly amount to chew over, which should keep me busy stuffing my face for a few thousand words, at least.
However, as the above throat-cutting—sorry, clearing—suggests, I am doing more than just taking stock of a year’s (or three and a half years’) worth of writing; I am also looking back over the life of the blog as a whole—twelve years, 104 music posts—with an eye toward closing up shop.
Closing up shop? Is this the end? Am I pushing the shiny red button? Well, no. Not exactly. I’ll still occasionally post thoughts about music as they occur to me, if they seem worth sharing. I may even load up a couple of music-themed stories that, for whatever reason—length, abrasiveness, some weakness I can’t or won’t see—no editor has yet deigned to touch. I hope to develop the Charnel House page, probably with brief notes about cinema and literature, again as they occur to me, and whenever I can make the time. Finally, I’m going to keep updating the publications widget in the sidebar (“Brood”) as new stories and essays appear in print or online. The Pit Stop is, after all, for better or for worse, quite possibly for worse, no, quite definitely for the worse, very much for worse, very very very very much for worse, for the worst, for the worst of the worst, what passes for my web presence, my brand, which apparently every author needs today to affirm their substance, currency, and significance, together with constantly-updated social media accounts and mulch piles of broken transistor radios. So, no, I mean yes, this blog will continue crawling along on its stumps, even as the “Material/Music” page mostly ceases to accumulate new posts, and begins to resemble a disheveled e-book.**
With blogging, after all, comes the expectation of updated content, lest it be considered purely archival. But how long must a blog remain unattended before it is declared defunct, as opposed to, say, on indefinite hiatus? Visitors, seeing the Pit untended for the occasional six-month interpostular lag, might already have erroneously presumed it abandoned. As I noted after year six, fields lay fallow to allow soil time to rejuvenate. (But soil can simply become exhausted, past the point of rejuvenation, can’t it? Is it the soil of The Pit that is exhausted, or the beleagured old farmer at the tiller? If he hibernates for a time, will the soil improve with him?) Perhaps we should classify blogs like geologists do volcanoes—active, dormant, or extinct—and consider the Pit Stop dormant—expect occasional rumblings, even a rare full-on eruption—and this “farewell” post a combination of milestone and headstone.
When I started blogging, I referred to abandoned blogs as the corpses of astronauts drifting around in space. But I’d prefer to think of the Material/Music page as a ship sunken to the floor of the web, filled with unknown treasures … aye, and man-eating sharks, swimming in and out of the deadlights …
Anyway, I certainly don’t want to commit to anything when I’m gearing up for a break. I just don’t want to feel beholden to it anymore, you know? I have too many other competing projects to work on. Completion of my autobiography, tentatively titled An Immense Turgidity, is paramount. The manuscript thus far runs 1,800 pages; I have just begun to examine, in meticulous detail, the filing and serrating of my baby teeth. Happily, I have arranged with I Lost My Left Hand in a Punch Press for serial electroviolent distribution, so you won’t have to wait for the completed book to begin reading, and reading, and reading. They pay at the semi-professional rate of one decorative pebble per page; I have every reason to be prolix. Nor does the electronic format dissuade me from obeying my worst impulses. Quite the opposite. Nor is there anything remotely “green” about the wanton use of computers hooked to acres of servers run by coal-fired power plants fed by obliterated mountaintops, despoiled streams, and slurry-buried homes, and cooled by the Colorado Rivulet and desiccated Arizonan aquifers larded with the turds of a billion homesteaders and the skeletal remains of countless irrefusable offers, refused.
I once called this blog the well-stuffed graveyard of my literary ambitions. Will I whistle when I toggle by? (Really, I’m not going anywhere; there is no elsewhere. The Pit is the circumference of my being. I carry it with me wherever I go. Think of it as a staycation.)
Ah, Helldriver. You’ve come a long way from the Reality Streets of your birth, when you were under the tutelage of that mohawked, stakeboarding god Silas Allen, committing myriad atrocities in the windowless apertures of buildings set diminishingly along the barren street of your perspectival-exercise existence. You graduated from those streets to the stick-figure serial killer of the late eighties, anti-christened by the Voivod, ornamenting—illuminating, if you will—the margins of daily pool-water chemical tests, where you sharpened your knife disarticulating others of anything smacking of an appendage, even as you articulated the traumas of young adulthood for legions of chlorine-drunk pre-meds; and from there, after almost two decades of sporadic appearances in private correspondence and the margins of class notes, your resurrection on the internet, like some moldering Lazarus with a ‘tude. A music critic, of all things! Not an easy in cognito, but it has shaken the detectives from your trail.
And yet, you’re still that same old murderous stick figure deep inside, aren’t you?
All that rises must fall is a law of fortune as much as physics. And it has been quite an extended fall, rivaling that of the rebel angels into hell. What was theirs—nine days? What is nine days, compared to nine—or twelve—years? (It is one three-hundred and sixty-fifth, if that question was actually intended to be answered; the blog, as you have said before, murdered the rhetorical question.) Satan looks puny by comparison! In its early days, the Pit was indeed one of the most admired properties on the Commons, very much the image of the prelapsarian Lucifer; and you, Helldriver, were something of a celebrity in this small, fetid pond you tended so carefully. But in the end there was simply too much talk of necrophilia; stray comments about masturbating with severed body parts; occasional offensive language that could not be redeemed by your wan attempts at satire; jokes with irreligious punchlines; evidence that you are, at best, half-woke; rampant swearing, as though it were the only way you could make yourself understood; peurile attempts at gallows humor; occasional unhinged outbursts against scholars with whom you disagree; and reams and reams of bad taste—surely the deepest sin of all, for a music writer, to be so utterly fucking uncool, to actually like some of the shit you do. Where once you hung certificates on your walls, you now keep your filthy curtains drawn. The judgment rings throughout the Commons: Fie, fie on Helldriver! His tongue flappeth too loosely; it flappeth here; it flappeth there; it flappeth without cease; yea, like a mutilated earlobe, like the wings of the carrion-seeking bird; and wheresoe’er it flappeth, it fanneth the flames of ennui; yea, the very cats of ennui are waken’d to meowing. And to the sins of ire and vainglory must be added gluttony, and the worst kind: gluttony for words; for to scroll through any post is to immediately induce carpal tunnel syndrome in the unsuspecting visitor. O, Helldriver, couldst thou but once quiet thyself and listen …
Simply put: I have become a liability. But then such is the nature of aging, is it not? The elderly become more and more opaque to the present, and vice-versa. Our voices crackle like old vinyl. You could measure the red shift of our language: our words elongate, our meaning becomes infuriatingly obscure. The present hurtles off, and every time we congratulate ourselves for having secured a foothold in it again, we look up to find our interlocutors further away. Eventually, we slip entirely over the horizon.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my star fell, but if I had to guess it would be somewhere around 2013. This is convenient, because I get to blame the downturn in my hearing, my subsequent withdrawal from concert-going and, eventually, from most music-listening, all of which allowed posts to bloom like algae, greedily sucking up all the oxygen and asphyxiating every other organism. But was there a particular post that jumped the shark? Reader, I will leave that to you to decide. I would rather think of the last several years as a veritable orgy of shark-jumping: a circus of ramps, flaming hoops, and pools, each pool filled with various specimens of the world’s eight deadliest species of cartilaginous fishes (more specifically, selachimorpha). Here in the Pit, sharks are constantly being jumped, sometimes by multiple jumpers, sometimes over multiple sharks, on a variety of different motorized and non-motorized vehicles, as well as hurdled on foot. Helldriver’s Shark-Jumping Circus is indeed a marvel of the modern age, fulfilling, as always, Blake’s dictum about the fool persisting in his folly; and so another name for this blog, The Persistence of Folly, featuring not melting clocks but melting clowns shellacked with the frying eggs of anti-drug commercials. With this post, this closing reflection, I seize the Fonz’s hand, shout “Ayyyyy,” and we jump into the pool. Let him try to resist; I am not the sort to buckle to whining greasers. Together, we enact The Valhalla of Chum.
But enough about me. On to the business of the night.
To prepare for this reflection within a reflection, this meez-on-beem, I went back and re-read my earlier end-of-“year” reflections, eight of them in all. While the music-writing on this blog has—I hope—ranged far and wide, and developed in some—again, I hope—interesting directions, I think there is a something-able consistency of principle and vision, going all the way back to the innocence of its fledgling year.
First, the interplay between the personal, historical, and musical, each illuminating the other, even as music has remained the guiding star and central focus of this blog. Music, that is, as a platform for exploring art, self, culture, and society, as much as the latter serve as platforms for exploring music. This hardly seems controversial; occasional claims about the value of attempting to confront music head-on, in itself, and other such vague formulations, generally made in the context of Writing About Music pedagogy (see the “Postmortem” series), have likely ruffled more feathers. To ruffle a few more: I think we’re all but drowning in context today. We’ve been told so many times that everything is mediated that we’ve forgotten the object that prompted our love and devotion in the first place—because, yes, there was a first place. Picture-taking before we look. Googling before (and while) we listen. We’re so afraid of naked confrontation that we shiver before we’ve even untied our shoes. But then we’ve been so emptied of our selves that we have nothing to fall back on anymore (to paraphrase James Baldwin). We never land; we just surf. Like that parody of Joyce Kilmer: “In fact, unless the billboards fall/ I’ll never see a tree at all.” Exactly. We need some serious internal monkey-wrenching. And so part of the ethos of this blog has been to try to give attention to the material object that is music as well as the myriad contexts in which it can be dressed, and to simply disbelieve the current mantra of its contextless inaccessibility, much as Jacques Barzun, in the first epigraph on The Rotten Plank, disbelieves the “affectation” that writing about music is impossible. Like Barzun, I regard context-mania as “local and temporary,” to be replaced, some time after I die, with widespread Cults of Mystical Union, all the better to extinguish the culture of alienation under which we writhe like pinned bugs that some sadistic or absent-minded museum intern didn’t think to euthanize.
The Barzun epigraph, however, pulls us in another direction; for it is writing about music which is (popularly) deemed impossible, and which Barzun, like a true empiricist (i.e., unlike me), notes is undermined by simple observation of people leaving a concert. “Perhaps,” he writes, music “must be talked about if it is to give its devotees full measure in enjoyment and significance.” In other words—as I glossed at the end of year 2—maybe articulating music in language is the way we fully experience it.
This brings me to a second key tenet: the pre-eminence (and general undervaluing) of writing in writing about music. (Good writing, I mean—not Helldriver’s writing, which, as I lamented at the end of year 7, threatens to “sink under the weight of its own discursivity.”) I have made this case any number of times over the course of the last twelve years. At the end of year 3, for example, I professed my faith in the cenotaph rather than the resurrection of the (absent) body. Faith, that is, in the materiality of the sign: writing as ersatz body; writing as self-resurrection. Faith, above all, in the role writing plays in the creation of knowledge; for the very process of putting pen to page transforms the thoughts we erroneously believe we merely capture, in that dialectical give-and-take between self and text. (As I quoted in the first-year reflection, “How do I know what I think until I read what I write?” Apparently, E.M. Forster originated this, if my source is to be trusted.) At the end of year 5, following an old poetry teacher, I discussed writing as a way to test one’s ideas, first by formulation, then by dissemination. As a public forum, the blog thus has a role to play: it is a way of calling oneself to account. And at the end of year 6, I mentioned that the hunch we have while listening becomes, through the process of annotation and writing, a quest.
There was a lot at the end of year 6 as well about how we eventually have to leave listening behind and let the ideas and language lead: like any other writing, music writing has to justify itself as text. Of course we have to be careful not to drift too far; at some point, we will need to come back to the music, to test where the writing has taken us, and possibly to rein ourselves in. But if we don’t let the writing lead, the piece will be dead, lifeless; it will communicate nothing to the lay reader beyond the factual. The music is our anchor, but an anchor only sets boundaries, it’s not the sail, keel, or compass, all of which can only be found in the writing. Or, as I put it at the end of year 7—and this riffing on an early statement of method called “Briefly” (9.19.10): because music is an absent center, writing has to become its own center; by doing so it arrives at the supercharged corona of the music, rather than fantasizing about reaching the unreachable core, the thing-in-itself.
At the end of year 8 I made perhaps my strongest pitch for writing about music as a craft, and argued that there was no shame in music critics being first and foremost writers. (I also tried to address that old, knotty question of what a music writer’s music education should look like: How much? About what, exactly?) Language is a writer’s instrument and music; we do nothing but harm devaluing any of what it can bring to bear. Carl Wilson’s beautifully-phrased “what it’s like for me to like it” (in the third epigraph on The Rotten Plank) reminds us of the extent to which all writing about music is helplessly metaphorical. Perhaps we need more unapologetically discursive music writing? If we can’t capture the letter of the music for anybody but scholars, we better damn well be ready to capture the spirit.
A third tenet springs to mind, maybe really a subset of the second, one I’ve mentioned only occasionally: that writing about music should aspire to capture something about its subject that is irreducible to either harmony or history: the ethos of a genre, the feel of a song. Part of this is recognizing, once again, that the signifier, as much as the note, is a material, a sonic entity; and mimesis, broadly figured, is a legitimate way of trying to capture the musical experience in writing. Perhaps—faith again!—the more sodden one is in the music one writes about, the more it will soak into the rhythms and cadences of the prose, and the images and metaphors one chooses, or that find their way into successive revisions.
On that note, and lest the reader think me tipping the scale too much toward writing—guilty as charged—let me bring music back to the forefront. The idea of recursive listening has been a key tenet of this blog. This is something of a privilege of the dilettante, who, rather than being beholden to the shitstorm of abundance and impending deadlines, can reach over from their mental hammocks and—careful not to knock that cocktail over!—press REWIND, or lift and drop the needle a few grooves back. Finding balance is important; the dilettante can be too narrow, too provincial, just as the professional can be too restlessly, even frivolously, cosmopolitan. Me, I’d rather go down to the stream by my house and watch the damselflies, or walk in the woods across the street to see how my old friends, the trees are doing, than take the next plane to a foreign country and rollerskate through the museums (to borrow from Vonnegut). But I admit it’s been too long since I’ve been to the shore … or past it.
Anyway, my real point: over the course of these dozen years, many times the decision to write about a particular musician or band became an excuse to listen to them pretty much exclusively for a few weeks, or even months. I found that, in doing so, over time, the words, images, and metaphors I sought to apprehend the music slowly accreted. It made me a better, closer listener. I wondered about this as early as year 2, thinking again about that Barzun epigraph: that talking (and writing) about music might be even more active than he describes, impelling us to apply ourselves more fully to the listening experience. And this, from the end of year 6: “What I most want is to articulate this thing called music, so as to better understand and appreciate it; and my desire to articulate drives me to listen, annotate, write, and listen again.” Recursivity in listening and writing are thus bound closely together: writing prompts us to go back and listen again, and listening drives us back to the pen.
The (hyper)valorizing of writing brings me to a fifth tenet, retroactively inspired (or maybe better, justified) by the Scott Burnham epigraph about trying to imagine a discourse for writing about music that is neither too academic (i.e., only accessible to experts) nor too touchy-feely. I’ve tried to conceive of this blog as one blind annelid’s attempts to squirm in the direction of said discourse(s). The cathedral of any new way of approaching music in language will necessarily be built by thousands of hands; I only hope to leave the mark of mine on a few of the less-prominent stones. (Since when do annelids have hands? Maybe I’m just pooping the dirt that will become the stones that others lift.) I have tried to answer Burnham’s call through formal experimentation, i.e., trying to write about music not just in the traditional forms of review and profile, but in fiction, epistle, mock interview, doggerel, pastiche, poetry, instructional guide, faux academic discovery, parody, and so on. To what extent can these ulterior forms tweak the language in which we attempt to speak (about) music?
By doing so, I have also attempted to assert my rather tenuous authority as an academic blogger whose area of expertise (such as it is) is decidedly not music. For writing about the “slippery fish” that is music—for speaking the ostensibly unspeakable, according to the popular “affectation”—I dared suggest (at the end of year 5) that a “loose, intuitive, multi-pronged” approach, encompassing impression and personal narrative as much as history and analysis, could be fruitful. Later, at the end of year 7, I called for a “cautious interdisciplinarity” in writing about music. I think the Wilson epigraph also speaks to this, when he suggests that music-writers need not be so anxious about writing from positions of authority; if they relinquish that, at least a little, they might offer us instead “a tour, a travelogue, a memoir,” and, overall, help foster a more “pluralistic” music criticism.
This “pluralism” goes hand-in-hand with my last tenet (#6, I think): the idea of an archeaology of tastes, with the blog as an ideal platform for exploring the layers that make up our musical identities. As I have noted, the analogy is too static: old tastes continue to circulate in our memory, impacting present listening, and creating matrices for the way we listen to new music. (I know: so much for contextless listening!) And if reactions to music are indeed the unique product of patterns of listening built up over an individual’s lifetime, then it follows that criticism should aspire to be more inclusive, encouraging listeners to share their own unique experiences and perspectives. I think this also resonates with my application of the Burnham passage: an approach to writing about music that encompasses multiple forms, discourses, and disciplines.
In sum, I still hew to the little sentence I wrote at the end of year 8, when I was rebutting attacks on music journalism: the only thing that matters is “whether [the] writer can explore the musical experience sensitively in language.” And that, at least a few times, perhaps by sheer dumb luck, is what I hope this blog has been able to do.
Way back at the end of my first year I said that I had no interest in writing broadsides, that I really wanted to write about music I like—that my enthusiasm was what inspired me—and this has largely remained true, with the exception of a few passing swipes at Liszt, hair metal, ‘90s rap-metal, ‘80s British pop, and The Dead, some of which hatreds are nostalgic holdovers from my youth. I’ve been less guarded about tone in some of my book reviews. In hindsight, I wonder if this is a symptom of what I called “the weird sadism behind public stonings” that “the internet seems to cultivate.” Maybe I’ve just become more impatient with trends both societal and culture-critical; and I have sometimes used specific disagreements to generalize (perhaps unwarrantedly) about a broader declension in the Humanities and Arts. I recognize that I am not only responding to shifting trends in art and society, but also taking a position in the old debate between Marxists and postmodernists over what David Harvey called the condition of postmodernity.
If I bent my anti-internet-sadism rule in my last post, that parting shot at the distract-o-verse with popular music scholar Anahid Kassabian as convenient foil, I think the explanation (if not justification) can be found in that same first-year reflection: “I am perhaps overly impatient with those who are bored and distracted”; and conversely, “I am moved by the spectacle of those deeply appreciating the music they hear.” Even back then I was making a case for “music as a vehicle for transcendent experience.” In a world of increasing distraction, musical and otherwise, it’s logical that I would end up lashing out at an aesthetics of distraction.
The other day I was listening to Portishead on the way down to a medical appointment in Westchester. My hearing is so fucked up by now that most of the little listening I still do, I do in the car, and I get whatever I can out of it, setting very low expectations—in fact, sometimes I just give up and turn the music off. Since the mice have once again nested, pissed, and shat in my air-filtration system, I have no AC, forcing me to modulate temperature and airflow by opening and closing windows and/or the sunroof, which, of course, greatly impacts the audibility of music. Driving while listening to music was always a great pleasure, and some days it still is, even if the music is now more a prompt for memory. But after my broadside against Ubiquitous Listening, I couldn’t help but ask myself while I was driving to Westchester listening to Portishead: what role does driving play in my aesthetic appreciation? To what extent does it impact, rather than just interrupt, my listening? Can it be said that the driving and the music are adjuncts to each other, attention modulating between them, the rhythms of driving, of interacting with the motor and steering, as much as the scrolling landscape, the roar of the wind punctuated by the sounds of surrounding vehicles passing and being passed, transforming the way I hear? The Portishead, with its indelible groove and keening vocals piercing through all that rush and roar, was a great test case. I alluded to this in a caveat in the post: about listening to Ravel while walking and Brahms while driving. Such notes have come up in other posts before (e.g., “Leviathans,” 10.30.10); I even wrote a whole post (albeit satirical) about participatory listening when we drum on the car’s interior, as I pretty much always do, particularly when I’m listening to rock (“Crash Course in Auto-Drumming,” 2.19.18). Nor should I forget that repetitive, close, analytical listening are partly made possible, and certainly enhanced, by technologies that do indeed “liberate us” from the whole, allowing us to revisit not just the work but individual passages. And yet, these are still intense forms of attention; they may either threaten or enhance the whole, but they are the antithesis of the mitigated (at best) forms of attention Kassabian not only describes, but valorizes. Anyway, I could keep piling caveat after caveat onto the pile that was begun in the post itself; the point is that my general aversion to aspects of Kassabian’s argument doesn’t mean I’m not still thinking about the issues she has raised, and the way my own day-to-day experiences with music are modulated by other activities.
I appear once again to have defied Emerson’s hobgoblin with respect to the concept of Zeitgeist, which I attempted to uphold at the end of year 7 (the idea that a prevalent aesthetic or theme actually does reflect something of its time), and then attacked in the “Nostalgias” section of “Kibble” (5.8.22). But then both instances were so larded with caveats that it seems to be more a question of emphasis than outright inconsistency. Simply put: we can (and should) seek to understand how texts respond to the deep currents of their historical moment, how the myths expressed by those texts serve to suture up contemporary dilemmas, as James Woods noted. Otherwise, we end up with nothing remotely interesting to say (cf. my comment at the end of year 7: “What’s the point of falsifiablity if there’s nothing worth falsifying?”).
The general vileness of the second part of “Two Saints” (6.25.20) was obviously intended to rub people the wrong way. Hey, I try. It was fun to attempt doggerel—it is, as I note there, harder than one might think—and if anyone can take anything seriously in a text about dismembering bodies in the bathtub and the aroma of Todd Rundgren’s crotchless pantyhose … well, I don’t know what to say. I’ll be here all week? No applause, just throw money? I can say that I proudly sent the fruits of my efforts to the folks at St. Vitus—I thought it would bring a smile to their face and a chuckle to their heart, as Red Skelton used to say—and got back … a chorus of crickets. Perhaps this is as it should be. (This must be how I scare off the itinerant scholars, to whom I’ve fruitlessly bared my back so many times, awaiting the lash …)
I was happy to be able to bring some older material to the Pit this “year” as well, and even happier that I put my shoulder to the wheel such that I did not simply post them, but rather attempted to put them into dialogue with newer thoughts and discoveries. Just as the blog becomes a fluid electronic platform for cycling back to ideas once-tested from a different angle, not so much repeating as re-articulating—like coming back to the same place in the woods from a different direction, or at a different time, perhaps in a whole different season, and finding it is changed—so these older materials became a way of re-engaging with earlier writing and listening selves, forcing me to contextualize my observations with more recent scholarship and listening experiences (see “Archaeology of Noise” (1.8.22) and “Domenico in the Heart” (3.28.21)).
“Kibble,” too, was a way to capitalize and expand on the past, drawing on fledgling notes I had made in journals going all the way back to the beginning of this blog, re-crafting (and in many cases much extending) them into a provisionally finished form—though some, such as the bit about Willie Colón, originally titled “Salsa and Fatalism,” I look forward to developing at greater length in the future. Like this ending reflection, “Kibble” helped me create a sense of closure … even if, for something as scattered as a blog, it can never be more than a half cadence.
And what of the Payphone Project, which momentarily turned my attention in year 5? It is a creature of the Charnel House, but I would be remiss not to mention that, according to a news update on the classic rock station I listen to in the car, and had occasion to both parody (“Classic Rock Radio,” 1.27.18) and interrogate (“Refined,” 5.30.18), about a month and a half ago the last payphone was removed from New York City. Someday, someone will find this archival footage of payphones, and bless Helldriver, who will then crumble into dust.
Okay, done pseudo-intellectualizing. Back to the fun stuff.
Over the last nine (sorry: twelve) years, I’ve waxed prolix about Bach and Bartók, Scarlatti and Shostakovitch; I’ve reviewed performances and recordings by a number of pianists, both veteran (Glenn Gould, Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel) and emerging, as well as a few string quartets, all of which occasioned passing comments on other composers—Beethoven, Chopin, Ligeti, Debussy, etc. I’ve written about Miles (twice), Monk, Rollins, Shorter, Dolphy, and Coleman (Ornette and Steve); about pianists Kazzrie Jaxen, Fred Hersch, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Jackie Terrason, Mamiko Watanabe, Jason Moran, Brad Meldhau, and Orrin Evans; about John Zorn (twice) and John Scofield, Miguel Zenon, Dave Holland, William Parker, Daniel Carter, Linda Oh, Sam Newsome, Mike Stern, and J.D. Allen. Thrice have I tilted at the windmills of Rush, as well as Demolition Hammer, Anthrax, Vio-lence, Immortal, Janes Addiction’s “Jane Says,” Slayer and Dave Lombardo, Voivod’s Piggy and Pantera’s Dimebag, Testament’s Alex Skolnick and Overkill’s Bobby Blitz, Goatwhore, High on Fire, Carcass, Evile, and St. Vincent; and, more passingly, Napalm Death, Exhumed, Whores, Absu (sorta) … and others. (I have also enjoyed poking fun at Def Leppard and Loverboy, though I admit it’s shooting fish in a barrel.) And of course situating all these bands and artists necessitates dozens more mentioned in passing—part of the way music writers build credibility, which I find some do to an unsavory, highly-annoying, shit-on-the-outsider degree. And then there are the so-many musicians and bands and albums I scribbled notes about, some of which I was able to squeeze into the “Kibble” compendium, and others I could not: Irene Schweitzer, PJ Harvey, Dave Rempis, Rob Brown, Rob Halford, Olivier Messaien, Meshuggah, The Dead Kennedys, Hamid Drake …. There are three or four posts on music in film, three extended reflections on the stumbling art of teaching writing about music, and a half-dozen book reviews that aspire to Luciferian magnitude. And while all of the above amounts to only a fraction of a dozen years’ listening and reading and concert-going, it is a good cross-section, and much more representative than any list of fifty (or whatever) favorite albums, or songs, or works, as some music critics offer their readers, great as the temptation might be to follow their example.***
In lieu of this, I have decided to choose a handful of posts where any Pit Stop virgins who wake up to find themselves ritually sacrificed here might begin their underworldly soujourn. It’s hard to pick; like those pesky songs that happen not to appear on your favorite albums, there are a lot of sentences and paragraphs I like in posts I would otherwise disavow, or blush to have read in my presence.
The astute reader will notice the hyperlinks. By adding hyperlinks, I am breaking my fourth-year vow, when, as said reader might remember, I taunted them with hyperlinks-that-weren’t. Here, for the first time—with the exception of crediting photographs—are actual working hyperlinks. There’s no better place to recant than on one’s deathbed, after all. (I’m not really recanting. It’s a list; it’s not like I’m embedding them in a paragraph. And anyway, they only take you elsewhere in The Pit, so you’re still immured.) So, without further ado, and in chronological order:
“Footprints” (7.26.10). Analysis and impressions of the Wayne Shorter classic—surely one of the most beautiful tunes ever written.
Epicness (1.15.11). Because of course I had to sneak in something about Rush, and something short, despite what the title might make you think.
Gentlemen’s Club (6.30.11). Metal meets jazz at New York’s Iridium, with my lost brother Alex Skolnick (of Testament) and Les Paul’s (R.I.P.) band.
Glee Metal (3.17.12). I wrote a few extended posts on metal that bundled concert review, album review, and band profile; this one might be the most successful. (I could attribute it to being inspired by a comeback album as good as Worship Music, but Carcass’s Surgical Steel was no slouch.)
Dreaming American (7.21.12). Short but sweet, this “review” of a July Fourth-or-so Mamiko Watanabe set (name unmentioned in the article) at an UWS restaurant considers contemporary jazz in the context of nationality and venue.
T-shirts & Wittgenstein (5.24.13). My semi-undercover report on the first conference of the Society for the Study of Metal Musics, at BGSU—“semi” because I really did go as an attendee, but also with the intention of writing something for the Pit Stop, and my intentions got the better of me.
Ex Nihilo (6.3.15). An extended treatment of the music of Ornette Coleman; published serendipitously just a few days before his death, it has become an elegy/eulogy for another lost great.
Dr Heidegger’s Punks (4.16.16). My book “reviews” tend to be tortured, prolix wanderings mixing love and ire, and none moreso than this one—though much more love than ire here—about “crossovers and conflicts” between metal and punk.
Samson in Old Kentucky (5.21.17). While I occasionally alluded to film throughout the years, and even reviewed a film book in my seventh year reflection (“Seven Years in the Pit,” 8.4.17), I only wrote a few posts specifically about music (and sound) in film: “Silent Movie” (3.25.11), “The Interrupted Nocturne” (12.20.11, about Polanski’s The Pianist), and this one, about Will Rodgers and the musical moments of the 1934 film Judge Priest.
Audience (10.27.19). Maybe the best example of the move in the blog’s latter years to trying a variety of approaches to writing about music, this brief repurposing of Jamaica Kincaid’s famous voice piece “Girl” doubles as a potential writing exercise, and so dovetails with the Pit Stop’s sporadic writings about pedagogy.
Domenico in the Heart (3.28.21). I was glad to finally post this extended meditation on my favorite baroque composer, which cross-indexes a revision of the original 2013 reflections on the classic Kirkpatrick bio with discussion of more recent scholarship.
Of course, you’re free to dive in anywhere, and navigate these choppy waters as you wish. The ten most recent posts—covering the last few years’ sporadic postings—are available via links at the top of the righthand column; the complete archives are available via the drop-down menu beneath them. Even better is the tag cloud located under the publications (“Brood”); here, you can search by musical genre or by type of post. Please feel free to drop a bottled message into my fetid tarn. You can do so by commenting on an individual post, or by commenting on the blog as a whole via the “About” page, as a couple of brave souls have seen fit to do. In case you would like some guidance, as well as to answer questions that I have either received in the form of comments or defensively anticipate, I have assembled a list of F-AQs (as per the decal on Dean (Vio-lence) Dell’s bass back in the day).
Q: Why the fuck are your posts so long?
A: Why the fuck is your attention span so short?
Q: Can I read part of a post, or just skim?
A: You can disrespect yourself as much as you like. It’s a free country. But if you straw-man me in a comment, I’ll make you wear a hell toupée. Fair warning.
Q: I wrote a comment. I don’t I see my comment. Where’s my comment?
A: Keep your shirt on—face it, you don’t work out enough to take it off, even when you’re alone. Simple answer: if I didn’t vet comments, the Pit would be flooded with spam, baked beans, spam, strawberry tart, rat sorbet, and spam. So, if you’re not trying to enlarge my penis or install me a carpet, and you’re not saying something so vague as to be blitheringly idiotic, your comment will appear just as soon as I get to my dashboard and click “approve” (which sometimes takes months, just FYI).
Q: I find myself disagreeing with you a lot. What should I do?
A: Enter the circle. Fire at will. Kill at command. Tear me a new one. Do your worst. This is Valhalla; I get to re-assemble myself later on. And then: eat. There is no truth but that which is discovered—and sanctified—through combat.
Q: What should I do if I find an error in one of your posts?
A: What, did you think Helldriver was infallible? A bit Popish of you, ain’t it? Post a comment. I will make it public, publicly thank you, secretly hate you, actually appreciate you, and correct the error. (Typos included, but for those I’ll probably just keep it all private.)
Q: Half the time I can’t understand what you’re saying.
A: Can you rephrase that as a question?
Q: What if I can’t understand what you’re saying?
A: Try harder. And stop whining. Think of it this way: your brain didn’t evolve to kill other predators with rocks or watch daytime TV, whatever biologists might tell you. It evolved to understand Helldriver’s blog posts. That is the secret teleology of cerebral evolution.
Q: Why is your blog so undertheorized? I mean, you’re an academic, aren’t you?
A: Yeah, well. Sort of. My doctorate is in Tiddly Winks. I like to think of myself as a professional dilettante who somehow managed to con a large public institution of higher learning into hiring and promoting me. My ascendancy probably says more about the state of public higher education than I am comfortable speaking about publicly.
Q: Twelve years is a good run. What accounts for your stamina?
A: Shit-tons of coffee, as I think I’ve said elsewhere. And playing with dogs.
Q: Why are you so angry all the time?
Q: Have you ever heard the expression “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”?
A: Yeah, and you can kill a lot more with a rolled-up newspaper. What the fuck do you want to catch flies for, anyway? Who are you, Renfield?
Q: You offended/annoyed/bored/upset me. Who do I complain to?
Okay. That’s it. Thanks, be well, and another tomorrow remember to walk in the light.
* As I noted in “Two Years in the Pit” (4.14.12), Thoreau compressed two years into one. Squishing twelve years into nine is hardly as audacious, though squishing three-and-a-half years into one is quite a bit more. In terms of the final year, I have outdone Henry’s compression by roughly 20%; in terms of the blog as a whole, Henry outdid me by 25%. I think the latter figure is more indicative, which, at least by some specious mathematics, makes Henry 25% more adacious than Helldriver. But then that’s the sort of cat Henry was. You can’t outgun him. Motherfucker built his own cabin.
** I spent much of my seventh-year reflection (8.4.17) pontificating on the difference between blogs and books (e.g., “Blogs are passionate and thoughtful sallies at ideas that are revisited over time, forming an evolving network.”), using Minding Movies by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson as my springboard. In one post, Bordwell encouraged “slow blogging,” and touted the net as a place for lengthier “critical essays,” ideas which I both deeply appreciate and find quixotic, given the reality of internet reading habits. And yet, I have spent the last twelve years engaged in just that quixotic enterprise, since by the length of most posts and the aversion to hyperlinks I seem to be attempting to resurrect the habits of print culture online—a doomed, if noble, enterprise. (Doomed nobility! What could be more attractive?)
*** The temptation is real. As a child, I was an inveterate list-maker: Longest Rush Songs. Shortest Rush Songs. Best Rush Songs. Worst Rush Songs. Best Guitar Solos. Favorite Movies. Best Movie Murders. And so on. (I’m not making up those titles, not even the movie murders one.) I still break down and make lists of things sometimes; it’s clearly a deep-seated psychological urge, maybe something akin the psychology of collecting, which, according to Simon Reynolds (in Retromania), may be a way of warding off the fear of death. (Oops. I seem to have made one after all.)