Author Archives: helldriver

Pressure Begets Grace

Alex Lifeson and Grace Under Pressure

[One of the first posts I wrote for this blog (a decade ago) was a defense of Rush, prompted by the premiere of the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage at the TriBeCa film festival (“Not an Apology,” 6.8.10). “Epicness” (1.15.11) followed shortly after. As I begin to look into the sunset of this blog—that is, as I watch Helldriver ride into the evening redness in the west on his fire-breathing mare, and my eyeballs, following him, begin to steam, and bubble, and melt down my cheeks in bloody, vitreous tears—I think it high time to add one more. Don’t imagine it’s the last Rush post. But future ones will have to await the Resurrection.]


During the first decade and a half of their history, Rush released three live records, one after every four studio albums. The live records were intended as both milestones and measures of growth—pencil-marks on the wall of their development: that year we were THIS tall

Somewhere along the way, these live-album milestones came to signify moments of transformation in their sound. There is some sense to this. Since the band has invited us to see each set of four studio albums as a chapter (e.g., the liner notes to All the World’s a Stage (1976) claim this first live record “mark[s] the close of chapter one in the annals of Rush”), they enter fan discourse as a shorthand way of referring to different periods in the band’s history, and to fans’ individual taste preferences.

The problem with the “chapter” idea is that it tends to overemphasize similarities among the four albums grouped together, and to obscure cross-chapter affinities. There is simply too much transformation within these chapters, and too many affinities across live-record milestones, to warrant a cohesive view of the band’s sound over any four records, however we try to group them. Caress of Steel, for example, has more in common with A Farewell to Kings than with Rush; the transformation from Hemispheres to Permanent Waves is at least as stark as anything the band did across live records; and so on.

That last comment might raise some eyebrows in the fan community. As every fan knows, 1982 was a watershed year. There is (the story goes) no chasm so wide as that between pre- and post-Signals Rush, which is supposed to denote the moment that keyboards overwhelmed the band’s sound, transforming them from a proggish power trio into something that sounded more like the New Wave. Word choice says everything: what to some ears sounds suffused in keyboards to others sounds smothered. But whether suffused or smothered, awash or overwhelmed, so stark is this purported division that the fan community is generally understood as being divided into two irreconcilable camps: “old Rush” fans (i.e., pre-1982, with Moving Pictures as the culminating record, and covering almost the entire range of songs still played ad nauseum on classic rock radio); and those more ecumenical “Rush fans,” whose interest in the band has remained consistent up through their most recent efforts.* This tendency to see Signals as game-changer is further buttressed by the band’s subsequent decision to split with longtime producer Terry Brown, with whom they butted heads during the making of that record.

Conventional narratives have a seductive explanatory power. Given, however, that the meridian of objectivity is ever a dream, their illuminating light always casts shadows. Clarity comes at the expense of distortion; distance sacrifices details that only resolve on a closer view. Consider: keyboards were an integral part of Rush’s sound beginning with A Farewell to Kings (1977), when the Moog started to make its appearance in songs like “Xanadu” and “Madrigal.” Nor was the band a complete stranger to synths before this, as the spaced-out noises that open “2112” attest. Nor, given the bands that inspired them in 1975-6, like Floyd and Yes, would there have been much of an aesthetic hurdle to expanding the use of keys. (Interestingly, keyboards only began to form the contested border of Rush’s root genres of hard rock and heavy metal in the early ‘80s, and that likely in response to the very genres Rush embraced.) That said, keyboards in the four records pre-Signals were mostly ornamental, providing color and atmosphere for particular sections of songs (e.g., “Xanadu”), or texture to round out and enrich the trio’s overall sound (as happens throughout much of Permanent Wavesand, to a somewhat lesser extent, Moving Pictures). We get hints of the broader role keyboards would come to play in “Jacob’s Ladder” (Permanent Waves), and then in “Camera Eye” and “Vital Signs” (Moving Pictures). Signals’s coup was to have the keys migrate out of bridges and transitional passages, into verses and choruses, though seldom both in the same song (see below); and much of the rest of the band’s eighties output would continue this trajectory toward a more expansive, central role for keyboards and synthesizers, with the guitar more and more settling for the keyboards’ original role of providing ornament and color. Thus, rather than keying in on Signals as a moment of rupture, we might instead see the dozen years between Kings and 1988’s Hold Your Fire as a bumpy continuum, with the balance tilting ever more stage left.

Another reason Signals gets singled out as the band’s fall from grace is the well-documented infighting about the role of keyboards that clearly came to a head around this record. While Geddy Lee (bass, keys, vocals) spoke admiringly of Trevor Horn and Ultravox, and of the importance of the keyboards to create textures and “emotional colors,” and Neil Peart (drums) pointed to Peter Gabriel as an example of a musician “finding [his] feet” in the new musical moment (qtd. in Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure, ps. 102-3), Alex Lifeson—himself an admirer of many of the same bands and artists—seemed to be wondering what had happened to his guitar. He might even have been wondering what had happened to Lee, esconced behind his wall of keyboards like a castled king, Lifeson himself a superannuated knight, tilting at sonic windmills. Signals also marked the beginning of Peart’s use of drum machines, though at this stage still behind the scenes; in the “diary” included in the Signals tour book, he writes about the humbling experience of having the Roland teach him new rhythmic patterns—shades of the chess master playing the computer. The electronic drums would only arrive with the next album, Grace Under Pressure (1984), and then only marginally; by Power Windows (1986), Peart’s kit was spinning around during performance, to reveal (quite literally) a whole other side of his playing, whose new sounds he incorporated into his through-composed drum solo. It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in reverse … though, despite his moniker as “the professor on the drum kit,” some fans clearly wished Peart would play a little less Jekyll, a little more Hyde.

In stressing continuity over rupture, I don’t wish to be understood as engaging in some teleological fantasy about the band’s evolution.† As every biologist knows, evolution is a lot messier and more complicated than the slow accretion of traits on a cladogram would seem to suggest. But I do think evolutionary change is a useful lens through which to view Rush’s music. It is perhaps the most curious feature of their history: on the one hand they are viewed as paragons of musical integrity, enshrined in their anthem “The Spirit of Radio”; on the other hand, there is perhaps no band in the history of rock that responded more completely to the currents of their cultural moment. (Indeed, I remember visiting the radio station at my sister’s college, pulling out their copy of Signals, and finding some DJ or other had left a nasty note (imagine!) taped to the cover, to the effect that the band had no identity at all.) Were they any other band, their fans would have labeled them sell-outs. The tension is generally resolved by the idea that their change was based on free aesthetic choice rather than on market expectations, an idea which the band promoted in ancillary materials (“somehow we became popular!” they exclaim in the liner notes to Exit … Stage Left) and encoded in their lyrics (e.g., “Tom Sawyer”’s “Changes aren’t permanent/ But change is,” or “Digital Man”’s “Constant change is here to stay”). It is also resolved by a tendency among fans to view the band in a sort of vacuum, fandom encouraging a certain deafness to context, and particularly unjust where Rush is concerned. Thus, the band’s penchant for leaving fans behind only confirms their integrity, as does their favoring of newer material in concert over “jukeboxing” (though the ubiquitous medleys of their later years complicate matters). Whether we choose to place the emphasis on outside influences or the band’s morphing these influences into their own sound, Rush were clearly involved in a continuous dynamic exchange with a changing environment—musical, cultural, technological. Viewed in this light, we might say that their first dozen years were marked by constant rupture, and thus a paradoxical continuity.

If conventional narratives shape our understanding, they do so by shaping how—and even what—we hear. Once the standard narrative is accepted, it becomes part of our framework for listening, and even whether we choose to listen at all. Anything that bumps up against this intellectual construct of the band’s history is essentially muted by the assumptions we bring to our listening. This is a particular injustice to Alex Lifeson. For what is generally lost in the narrative of the sacrificing of the power trio on the altar of pop and the guitar’s asphyxiation under pillows of synths—and what is muted as well when we imagine the band’s history as a continuum of slowly-accreting traits—is the mighty bump that was 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. Two years after Rush was supposed to have “smothered” their guitar in keyboards, the band released what I like to think of as their last great guitar album. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the sound the band had adopted with Signals—rather, that is, than break out the Gibson doubleneck and ES-355—Lifeson evolved—in fact, had already begun evolving on Signals—to accommodate the evolving sonic matrix of his bandmates, itself an adaptation to changes afoot in the broader environment of popular music. All these pressures, and all this close listening to the musical moment, combined to nudge him into some of the most graceful guitarwork of his career


I’ve often wondered about the extent to which Rush’s identity as a power trio and their ethos of trying to reproduce studio albums live (without hiring extra musicians to tour) impacted their aesthetic decisions about how to incorporate keyboards. Given that Lee was never quite able to do three things at once, oscillation between the bass and keys was a given; and this oscillation had the effect of creating a split between “newer” (prog-cum-New Wave) and “older” (hard rock/heavy metal) sounds.‡ On Signals, the split runs right down the middle of the songs, between verses and choruses, amplifying what Peart called their “dynamic contrast.” “Analog Kid” is a good example: rockin’, riff-dominated verses yield to (for all intents and purposes) guitarless choruses of church-organ synth and delay-heavy vocals. “Chemistry” operates in much the same way; “Subdivisions” does the reverse.

“Analog Kid” is also notable for being the last bona fide burner of a solo Lifeson recorded. There are a few shreds of this left on the second side of Pressure, but nothing like the extended scramble that had defined many a Lifeson solo up to this point. That guitarist was laid to rest on Signals. Perhaps the competition from Van Halen clones and Yngwie wannabes had simply become too stiff; if so, then this was yet another evolutionary pressure to which Lifeson responded. What comes to the fore on Signals, and even moreso on Grace Under Pressure, is another side of his playing—the one that had given us such gorgeously different solos as “Bacchus Plateau” and “Limelight,” “Different Strings” and “Cinderella Man,” “No One at the Bridge” and “Camera Eye,” all of which are distinguished less by technical skill than an ear for melody and structure, timbre and texture. In some cases—“Cinderella Man,” “Limelight”—the bass is busier than the guitar: Lifeson seems more interested in milking the life out every note he plays (and “note” is rather stretching it … like he does).

Lifeson has cited the solo on Signals’s “Chemistry” as a personal favorite, and with good reason: the oblique approach to the song’s progression and melody, the highly gestural sound, the searching phrases he uses to build tension as he finds his way back to and then embellishes upon the song’s chief melody, all speak to a master soloist at work. But there are a number of other tracks on this record which, both as accompaniest and soloist, demonstrate more clearly the emerging style that would come to dominate Grace Under Pressure. Listen to him, for example, on the bridge of “The Weapon”: his guitar surfaces from a cataclysm of electronica, first matching its noise, then slowly finding its voice with a bugle-call arpeggio that morphs into an accelerating phrase—every element of the music heightening every other—; and then holding center stage alone for a breathtaking moment before the band picks up around him and carries the song back into its groove, its main progression, and its final chorus. Here, the solo no longer stands apart from the song in traditional front-of-the-stage, above-the music virtuosity; nor is it a “break” for an all-band jam (e.g., “Freewill”): it is an integral part of a developing composition. One could remove the guitar solos from, say, “Natural Science” and little would be lost (it sounds like blasphemy to my ears, but it’s true). Not so with “The Weapon.” The solo is too tightly wedded to the song.

Even the solo on “Subdivisions,” which almost seems an afterthought, bears the marks of an emerging sound: it hardly departs from the melody; all its rather limp energy seems geared toward ushering in the closing chorus. What I would most point to in this solo, however, is the brief, concluding chord progression. It seems so innocuous in the context of this song; but viewed from the vantage of Grace Under Pressure, it is nothing short of revolutionary. (NB: Is it the embedded solos, the truncated stage for virtuosity, more than the oft-cited production or abiding presence of keys, that led to the feeling the guitar is somehow “absent” on Signals? Or does the negative guitar judgment of Signals largely rest on “Subdivisions,” which, together with the solo-less “New World Man,” are the only tracks casual listeners seem to know, the only ones occasionally played on the radio? “Subdivisions” is the song that most lives up to those keyboard pejoratives. Even a synths-heavy song like “The Weapon” has a lot more guitar; the synths are there more for backdrop and texture. By turns, at least, the sound on this record is a lot more balanced than “Subdivisions” (or a miffed Lifeson) would suggest.)

And then there’s “Digital Man.” It’s not the solo I want to call attention to here, filled with Lifesonian noise and wah, the interplay with the bass and drums closer to a “Limelight,” with which it favorably compares. It’s the guitar sound as a whole. You can hear it most clearly on the section leading into the solo: twangy, vibrato-enhanced chords that settle and fade over Lee’s walking bassline and Peart’s fickle ride. We hear something similar in the powerful introduction to “Countdown” (much the best part of that song). If that burner of a solo on “Analog Kid” was a swansong for the Lifeson of old, “Digital Man” is the grown-up Lifeson, and the grown-up Rush: the one whose rebellion Terry Brown couldn’t put down.**

The overall approach to the guitar for color and texture rather than riffs and blistering solos; the heightened attention to dynamics and effects; the use of chords in solos, from which single note phrases emerge, or vice-versa; and the integration of these solos into the overall composition: these are the chief ways Lifeson’s sound began to transform on Signals, a transformation that would come to startling fruition on Grace Under Pressure. Many years ago on this blog I made the somewhat exaggerated claim that some of Voivod guitarist Denis “Piggy” L’amour’s best work sounds like “one long chordal solo” (see “Deulogy,” 1.4.11). One could make a similarly exaggerated claim about Lifeson on this record. Once again, it’s difficult not to view these shifts in terms of evolutionary pressures: Lifeson, now competing with a more obviously polyphonic instrument, began to think of his guitar more like a second keyboard, and to investigate more seriously its polyphonic possibilities. In his atrociously-titled Contents Under Pressure, Martin Popoff writes disparagingly about “guitar-emulating keyboards,” but the reverse is at least as true: Lifeson’s becomes a keyboard-emulating guitar. “Emulating” is really too strong a word, though. Grace is a guitar record to boot; the instrument simply asserts itself in a way to which Rush fans, at least at the time, were not accustomed.

One of the ways the guitar asserts itself on Grace is simply a matter of pitch: Lifeson spends a lot more time playing in the upper register, the skinny frets, the unwrapped strings. Many years ago I heard a beautiful lecture at Julliard by the great Gunther Schuller, about Duke Ellington. (Julliard was always having free music-oriented events, which, as a chronically-broke part-time teacher working just a few blocks away, I tried to take full advantage of.) Schuller noted that, in some Ellington compositions, the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone played in opposite registers to a traditional Dixieland arrangement. In other words, Ellington had purposely reversed the ranges in which we expect to hear these instruments, in order to arrive at something new to the ear. A similar thing happens, I think, on Grace Under Pressure. Rather than the guitar’s heavy power chords undergirding Lee’s achingly high voice, on Grace Lee’s voice, which (as Chris McDonald notes) from Permanent Waves forward had come more and more to occupy a middle register, the guitar floats over the top with high triads, squealing noise, and harmonics. It fills the range Lee’s voice used to occupy.

“Red Sector A” is perhaps Lifeson’s chief accomplishment on this record. The song has keys galore, true. But it’s impossible to imagine “Red Sector A” without the reefs of high triads Lifeson builds atop the throbbing electronic pulse and steady hi-hat beat. They dominate the choruses, extended versions of which appear in the song’s introduction and conclusion, and with which the mid-range arpeggios of the pre-choruses contrast. Even the verses, where the keys are most prevalent, work in call-and-response with the guitar (and, in turn, the drums). As for the solo—even the word sounds funny, what with the way the guitar participates in the movement through the song’s bridge—it is exemplary of Lifeson’s new sound. After the second chorus the song is almost driven to a halt—mostly by contrast; it is the first time the motoric electronic pulse drops out—and this in itself fills the moment with tension, which Lifeson capitalizes on with a series of chiming, widely-spaced harmonics. The solo develops into a sort of fanfare; drums up the ante, though without losing the tom-focused spareness that itself contrasts with the hi-hat-and-snare pattern that had dominated the song up to the break. Lifeson answers Peart with parallel chordal passages. And then the break returns, though the guitar’s approach shifts, mixing notes with delicately-strummed chords and arpeggios, alternating poignancy and anger, feeling out each moment, until a full bar of assertive strumming calls back the beat. In good pop form, the song climaxes here, and transitions back into the pre-chorus, but with a new urgency: Lifeson’s heavier attack, Peart’s fills, and above all Lee’s voice. The nuanced emotional tableau—the mix of horror, despair, resignation, and hope of life in the camps—is carried by Lifeson’s rich and evocative playing, and the way he both responds to and participates in creating the overall composition. Again, there are inklings of all this on Signals, but no real precedents. It was what needed to happen in the musical context of Grace Under Pressure.

Other songs on this record show a similar shift in approach, if a little less dramatically. In “Afterimage,” an upbeat rocker about loss, Lifeson’s solo emerges piecemeally from an extended bass-and-drum crescendo, which, for a time, the guitar does little more than rupture with splashing, reverberating chords that fade, as per “Digital Man,” inflected with vibrato. Whistling synths slowly rise in pitch and volume; Peart doubles up on the snare; the listener waits for the guitar to arrive and fill out the sonic space it has repeatedly approached and abandoned. When it does, it is almost anticlimactic: a rather resigned chord progression, played over a more fully fleshed-out beat. The second time through the chord voicings change, ornamented with added notes and rhythmic flourishes, slowly climbing the neck into “Red Sector A” territory until, on the third and final chorus (to borrow the jazz term) the guitar emits one strangled, descending phrase—the only single notes in this “solo”—before a final chordal scream. The whole is little more than an embellishment of the underlying progression, a recycling of the musical materials at hand; and yet, its power is its restraint, its refusal to abandon the song’s modest framework.  “Distant Early Warning” follows a similar pattern. In fact, both songs alternate between repeat-note riffs and traditional hard-rock chording, though “Warning” moves the reverberating chords into its reggae-infused verses. The bridge opens with a transitional passage of ornamented chordwork much like “Afterimage”’s that, after one repetition, gives way to an eight-bar “break,” Lifeson playing a descending five-note, minor-key phrase punctuated by the bass and drums, repeated, transposed up the neck—and then another eight-bar section, cool to the former’s hot, where the full band “cruises” over the music of the verses, now driven along by a steady rock beat, the guitar playing a combination of single-note phrases and high triads. Much like “Red Sector A,” the section flows naturally into climactic pre-chorus, chorus, and finale.

There’s often a playfulness about Lifeson’s guitar that, in the midst of all this high seriousness—a high seriousness that often overcomes me when I try to write about music—I would be remiss not to mention. The wonderfully raucous solo of “The Body Electric,” for example, reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s second excursus on “Blue Wind”; “Kid Gloves”’s 5:4 campfire-song main riff, and solo as manic as anything Lifeson ever put on record—a running game of tag between self-comping and free-association-riffing; the moment where he leaps from a squiggle false-harmonics to a series of open-string harmonics that he lets ring together before stamping on the whammy bar is like the ethos of the whole song, condensed into a single bar. It’s miraculous, in part, for the way it manages to both do justice to and transcend the inherent limits of the material. For almost alone on this record, “Kid Gloves” has a stunted, preserved-in-amber feel. As much as “Subdivisions,” it is about the alienation and struggles of suburban teens. But how stark the difference in tone, and effect. “Subdivisions”’s power comes from simultaneously embedding us in the teen outcast’s drama and rising above it, to encompass the broader, suffocating Levittown pattern and “you are here” (and nowhere else) mall map: middle-class alientation as tragic fate. Despite “Kid Gloves”’s dark themes of scrums and bullying, the air of schoolyard naivete it captures so well never quite gives it space to breathe—except, that is, when Lifeson takes the gloves off to solo. Then again, maybe like “Analog Kid,” a more riff-centric rocker like “Kid Gloves” wants to take us back in another way: it feels weirdly nostalgic for “old Rush.” Maybe Peart’s warning here was at least partly self-referential, about the bare-knuckle infighting that had left the band producerless, and unsure about where to put the new fulcrum for their sound.

The importance of The Police to the band’s sound at this time can’t be overstated; it comes out particularly strong in the Police-inspired—almost Police-pastiche—“The Enemy Within.” But the whole record bears The Police’s fingerprints, and so it might be worth thinking a little about Lifeson’s style on Grace in relation to Andy Summers. It’s actually a pretty short step from “Vital Signs” to (leaping over Signals) the ska-infused “Enemy”: the staccato wank-wank-wank “Roxanne” chords punctuating a frenetic bass line and tight, static, Stewart Copeland-style beat. With Signals and GraceLifeson had definitely moved in Summers’s direction of muted mid-range ostinatos, arpeggios, repeat-note phrases, and a combination of shimmering/sustained and stacatto chords. And yet, there is nothing in The Police’s ouevre that sounds anything like “Red Sector A,” or the bridges and solos of any of the songs discussed—let alone the power-chord rocking that dominates sections of much of the material on Grace. Lifeson, more accustomed to playing a leading role (like everyone in this band), continued to give himself more liberty to move around; he was much more prone than Summers to announce his presence by altering his chord voicings and rhythmic patterns, to inflect his sustained chords with wah and flange, and, of course, to solo. (Even on the verses of “The Enemy Within,” each first chord Lifeson lets ring out; the other three he clips like a ska player. Would Summers have clipped all four chords? I think so.) In a 1984 interview with Free Music’s Andrew McNaughtan (retrieved from the website Power Windows), Lifeson cited Summers together with Midge and the Edge as guitarists he admired. His reason: “I think he [Summers] plays a really good role in that band. The guitar is just where it should be.” Fitting words to close with, this sense of Lifeson trying to find the place “where the guitar should be.” Perhaps that is what makes this period of his playing, and this period in the band’s history, so rich: as he (and really the whole band) retreated from the shoulder-jostling virtuosity on which they had cut their teeth and made their name, they were all working to find where they should be relative to each other; and this tension—this pressure—in Lifeson’s case between soloing and accompanying, and what that would sound like circa 1982-4, created a sort of musical estuary: the border between river and sea that teems with creation.


There is a wonderfully comic moment in Beyond the Lighted Stage where a woman recognizes Geddy Lee in a diner and asks him for his autograph. Lifeson is with him at the table; Lee stammers something like, “He’s in the band, too.” But the woman keeps gushing about Lee. The exchange speaks to something every fan sort of knows: Lifeson is the underdog. He is the least recognized, and (arguably) the least accomplished member of the band—the least likely to be voted onto one of those rock “best” lists. The competition was always stiffer in the guitar category. For bass and drums, the pantheons remained relatively stable, even stagnant. But rock, a guitar-driven genre for at least its first few decades, used to squeeze out a bushel of new guitar virtuosos every year, with every year marking new milestones in speed and technique. As a professor of mine once memorably imagined it, riffing on Emerson’s critique of talent: they pushed their elephantine testicles around in a wheelbarrow.

Lifeson was thus pressured to play the role of jester among kings; and, happily for him, it suited his personality. He may indeed be (as the band notes) the funniest man alive; he certainly comes across that way in interviews. It may be a reason the band’s chemistry worked for as long as it did. Another dour Peart, another workaholic Lee, would surely have broken them—never mind some testicles-in-the-wheelbarrow, arpeggio-perspiring Yngwieite. But from a technical standpoint, it also means that Lifeson was never taken as seriously as a musician. He’s written some marvelous songs, some wonderful chord progressions, some indelible riffs. But because it’s Rush, he’s expected to excel as a soloist as well, to be a putative virtuoso in his own right. It’s part of the band’s image and mystique, which McDonald suggestively compares to the integrated competitiveness of a string quartet. Of course, one can be a great guitarist without being a virtuoso in the narrow, classical sense.†† But not in a band like Rush.

Maybe a year or two after I started taking private guitar lessons, I brought A Farewell to Kings to my lesson and played my teacher the solo from the title track. The lessons were always structured so that third first two-thirds or so we worked on sight reading, theory, chords, and so on, and the last ten minutes or so were dedicated to stuff we brought in—the sugar to the help the medicine go down. And so these poor martyrs to the Vanhalenization of the suburbs were reduced to trying to figure out crappy rock riffs and solos for their teenage would-be jukebox heroes, so that the parents paying for the lessons wouldn’t come in and give the studio’s proprietor an earful about how disappointed their kid was, the studio would remain solvent, and the teachers would remain gainfully employed, or at least as gainfully employed as was possible for those dedicated to pursuing a career in music. Sad but true: when my original teacher left, my new teacher proved uninterested in helping me figure out the latest Iron Maiden solo, and I didn’t last very long after that. I thought he was sort of an asshole, but I probably should have spent more time looking in the mirror.

Anyway, I can’t say that Matt, my first teacher, had it all bad. He was the guy who introduced me to DiMeola and Holdsworth and McLaughlin (“You want fast?”). He introduced me to Jeff Beck, too, and he wrote out the chord progression to McLaughlin’s “Thousand Island Park.” We learned Steve Howe’s “The Clap” together—I can’t imagine that wasn’t fun for him—and DiMeola’s “Vertigo Shadow,” one of the master’s finest early-eighties acoustic compositions. He planted in me the seed of Wes Montgomery. He was the guy who pushed me, chided me, when I brought stuff in that I should be able to figure out myself. And he was right: it was easy, if I just leaned in and listened.

And when I played him the solo from “A Farewell to Kings,” he said just one word under his breath: “Sloppy.” I asked him what he had said. He said he hadn’t said anything. But we were both pretending. It’s what Mako says to Chuck Norris in An Eye for an Eye, after he knocks out some Bad Guy with a telephone. Sloppy.

If I’ve never forgotten that sotto voce takedown, it’s probably because I’ve always wondered if my lionizing of Lifeson was warranted; if what I really liked was the band, and my liking for the band prompted me to inflate his ability. And then maybe the fact that I liked the band so much prompted me to inflate all of them. And if it’s easy enough to harbor such doubts about our greatest infatuations, it is particularly easy with a band like Rush, about whom so many rock writers, and later so many of my peers, would tell me over and over that they (Rush) were among such childish things it would be best for me to put away. Of course, as Deena Weinstein wrote long ago about metal, the idea of being part of a beset minority is just the sort of thing that nurtures hardcore fandom. (Come to think of it, it might be this as much as musical affinities—the idea of being part of an oppressed, frenziedly devout minority—that accounts for the significant overlaps between the audiences for Rush and heavy metal.) If Rush is already a cultural underdog—and the band certainly cultivated this image with a virtuosity that outpaced even their musicianship—then Lifeson is the underdogs’ underdog, about whom I must double down on my devotion.

And so the constant argument with myself. No, Helldriver, Lifeson never quite reached the level of maturity as a composer that Summers did on that haunting, ethereal accompaniment to “Spirits in the Material World.” (But neither did Summers, before or again. Sometimes one song, like a short story, has an incandescence the author never touches again. This is cause for celebration, not despair.) Lifeson’s chording was never as sophisticated as Jimmy Page’s, nor was he so adventurous about exploring different styles and sounds. (But then why should that be the marker of greatness. I do not ask this of many of my favorite writers, like Genet or (Flannery) O’Connor or (Cormac) McCarthy. Their own voices are enough.) Lifeson never quite constructed a solo as beautiful as some of David Gilmour’s. (But then

It’s little silly, isn’t it, these who-is-greater rankings? Like browser clickbait creeping into the workings of our aesthetic consciousness. Maybe this paean to the underdogs’ underdog is just another attempt to shore up my faith. But let me be at least a little charitable, with both Mr. Lifeson and myself: an attempt to give the underdog his due, by shedding a little light (I hope) on a moment in his career that, to my mind at least, has been inadequately considered, and too-scantly praised. There’s a lot more going on here than “he’s louder in the mix”; rather, there is a full-scale reinvention of his playing. The distance Lifeson traveled, the ways he responded to the currents of his time and his fellow musicians, his bandmates first and foremost: these things seems to me like the essence of conscious musicianship, of conscious artistry.

Anyway, if I can’t speak about this in aesthetic terms, I have little desire to speak about it at all. The frustrating thing about the social-science turn in the humanities is that it has constricted and even eroded our language for talking about aesthetic experience, or at least for doing so in ways that are not immediately judged as naïve, often in the mind of the very person going out on a linguistic limb to say them. It’s a good thing, of course, to be conscious of the limits and blindnesses of our ingrained language. Then again, as Scott Burnham as noted, we may simply not have a language adequate to really say what music does; the social sciences have simply rushed in to fill the discursive vacuum. In doing so they have tended to disenchant the experience. We second guess our response to everything; the very language we would use to try to describe it is continually pulled away from us; and all the while, the music remains that something “out there” our academic writing can’t touch. Somehow, our language to speak about music must re-enchant the experience. It cannot be the language of besotted fandom. But it has to, through a trick of consciousness, double back on that experience if we are to have any hope of understanding it, not in terms of the arid language of ever-proliferating mediation, but as the soul-enriching and transcendent experience of contact. There is a poetry out there somewhere that can do this; there is a language awaiting invention. Maybe this is why the language on this blog tends to go on and on, a continuing thrust and parry with—and perhaps dodging of—truth. I admire Coltrane for this very reason: he goes on and on and on because he can’t quite get there. I always listen to him with a slight but nagging disappointment which, in hindsight, becomes a weirdly hollow satisfaction. Then I want to listen again.

I never particularly resented the sound Rush adopted over the course of the ‘80s—I say this as a guitarist—though I do think their compositions lost quality toward the end of that decade. To my mind, as they tried so hard to color within the lines of the standard pop song (a worthy, though perhaps not noble, goal), the colors themselves lost vibrancy; the eccentricity of their sound, its rougher edges in all senses—time, timbre, melody—slowly disappeared. As their songwriting focus shifted from riff and instrumental counterpoint to vocal melodies and texture, the juxtapositions of their three voices, so much the meat of what I’d listened for—what, that is, I’d been culturally prepared to listen for—and the bizarre and wonderful vocal lines as Lee tried to wrap himself around Peart’s cerebralisms, mostly vanished. If I am an “old Rush” fan, I am so with this difference: I think some of the material on their poppiest, synth-heavy records stands comfortably with their best music up through Moving Pictures; it’s just fewer and farther between, a case of diminishing returns.

Such an assessment leads me back to the uncomfortable questions asked above. After all, one way to manage one’s fandom is to periodize it. I am the most statistically average Rush fan: a white, middle-class, male professional, and an amateur musician, born circa 1970 (1969, in my case). I was fifteen when Grace Under Pressure appeared. This steady disenchantment and sunsetting of my fandom over the latter half of the eighties: was it a coping mechanism? We seldom stop to think about the way our feelings for artists are caught up with our emotional responses at certain ages, let alone the way these responses are mediated, not just by the juggernaut of the pop-music industry, but by a variety of other cultural factors. This band, which for a time was everything to me, has shrunk over the years to occupy a small but significant place in my musical pantheon. Sometimes I listen to them the way I might look at a Disneyworld ride: less swept up in the world than admiring the craftsmanship. Other times I am caught off guard. (A strange expression to use about listening to music; for what is music for, if not to catch us off guard?) A song that never spoke to me thirty years ago might take on an unexpected resonance based on the way my taste has shifted since, and vice-versa with those songs that become the equivalents of things we wrap in gauze and put in the back of a dresser drawer, the ones I can only view through the lens of craft or the haze of nostalgia. I suppose we look at all youthful loves in a similar way. Maybe all human endeavor looks paltry in the pitiless gaze of hindsight. I am comfortable with the illusion of contact, if illusion it is—and I can’t know—and nobody can—and this is a terrible thing, isn’t it, this—if we are to be honest with ourselves, I mean—absolute and total lack of certainty. I am on the one hand unable to convince myself that my continuing love is just nostalgia, and on the other equally unable to convince myself that it is not; and this is true, to a greater or lesser degree, of all the music from that period in my life, an uncertainty exacerbated by the changing attitudes of the surrounding culture. “He can neither believe,” Hawthorne once wrote about Melville, “nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” I wonder if it has a name, this suspension between two equally-inaccessible peaks, both natural, inevitable, and yet unable to be joined, any more than two moments in time.

Maybe we each give it our own secret name. By writing it, I have decided to make mine public.


*  See Chris McDonald, Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, p. 182. McDonald himself focuses less on keyboards than on “Rush’s [declining] emphasis on its original heavy metal and progressive influences,” noting that, so long as “Lee was actually playing chords and melodic figures on synthesizers with his own fingers, fans generally accepted the instrument’s role”; he contrasts this with the rise of “pre-sequenced patterns” beginning with Power Windows (1986), which clashed with fans’ “conservative” definition of musicianship. I think McDonald would agree that it is difficult to separate the infusion of keyboards from the bands and genres that influenced Rush at the time. Anyway, his point is well-taken.

†  That said, it is tempting to think teleologically: the band’s own well-publicized perception of its evolution, as well as Peart’s comments about their records working in cycles between “experimental” and “definitive” records, the “chapter” idea, with the fourth record in ever set serving as a coalescing statement for the period (2112, Moving PicturesHold Your Fire?). Then again, while Peart saw Grace Under Pressure as definitive, at least at the time, Popoff sees it as preparatory, the first glimmerings of their later ‘80s sound. It’s difficult in hindsight to see any record as definitive; they feel more like functions in Vladimir Propp’s morphology of folktales, each fitting into the next, logical only from the vantage point of the future links in the chain. (N.B.: I’m aware that “evolution” is a fan buzz-word, or “discursive mantra.” The term belongs to Matt Hills, from Fan Cultures; McDonald adopts it for his monograph on Rush. Where Rush is concerned, these “well-worn discursive mantras” (158) cite “the band’s integrity, its willingness to change and evolve” and their “down-to-earth attitudes” (159). More on the last of these below.)

‡  John J. Scheinbaum once observed that, for all its classical pretensions, progressive rock “is still a subgenre of rock,” one that “highlight[s] the tensions, frictions, and incompatibilities among these very different musical value systems [i.e., of classical and rock music]. The progressive rock repertory does not construct a synthesis at all, but instead occupies the spaces between the value systems” (in Progressive Rock Reconsidered, ed. Kevin Holm-Hudson, ps. 29-30). His observation might be applied to Rush’s incorporation of keys in the 80s, less synthesis than “occupying the spaces between the value systems,” in this case mediating their roots in prog- and hard rock with the accretion (and perhaps layering) of later influences and styles.

**  According to band history, or legend, inasmuch as we can distinguish one from the other, this is the song over which the band broke with longtime producer Terry Brown. It couldn’t have been the keys per se that got up Brown’s nose; “Digital Man” is one of the least keys-infused songs on the record. Was it the growing tendency toward a groove, which, for this band, had always been a bumpy, angular proposition? If it was the groove that threw Brown from the pommels of Rush’s horse, then why wasn’t the deal-breaker the eminently danceable “Weapon”? As Peart tells it, the band had been struggling with the song’s chorus, which they eventually resolved by hitting on a sequencer pattern everybody but Brown liked. Clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back, even if, as a rebellion against the band’s use of pre-recording, it can be seen as symbolic of a break with the whole direction the music was tending. Just as it is revealing to contrast Lifeson’s guitar on “Digital Man” with “Analog Kid,” so with sequencers as well: that wub-wub-wub moved from a brief transitional passage and outro to the very heart of the song.

Clearly the loss of their long-time producer after Signals, and then the trials of trying to find someone who would fit, was one of the “pressures” to which Grace Under Pressure alludes. From Lifeson’s perspective, we might say the band was looking for someone to restore the balance he felt had been lost—and “balance” is a term that weighs heavily in the band’s mythology (cf. the climactic lyric from “Hemispheres”: “We will call you Cygnus/ The god of balance you shall be”: who would this new Cygnus be?). It’s funny to contrast Peart’s writeup for the Grace Under Pressure tour book—in which Peter Henderson is lauded as the right man for the job—with later revelations that he was actually a disaster. The band was clearly used to a strong-willed producer, one who acted as a sort of fourth member; the long-term relationship with Brown had clearly enabled him to play that role. Henderson turned out to be a fine engineer but terrible producer, at least by these criteria, and the band was very much set adrift to make their own decisions. Lee was apparently as disappointed with Pressure and Lifeson was with Signals; he felt the guitar was too prevalent in the mix, which “smothered the record’s melodies” (qtd. in Popoff 112; my emphasis); and it may have been their experience with the singularly unhelpful Henderson that led to Lee’s long-range assessment of the band’s changing in the ‘80s from “players” to “producers.” (Somebody’s always smothering somebody; isn’t that the way of the world? Segue the lyrics to “The Trees.”) But if Henderson was a non-starter, I can’t help but thank him for the producerly vacuum that allowed Lifeson to come back to the fore, and blossom there. It reminds me a little of the production on P.J. Harvey’s first record, Dry: super bass-heavy; the drums sound like rattled cans; I can’t help but think some producers listen to it and think it sounds like shit. I mean, none of her later albums sound anything like that. But to my ear, it is absolutely, daringly perfect. Only such rare sonic catastrophes become masterpieces! By God, if it’s ever “remastered” I’ll storm the winter palace of Island Records. Fair warning.

††  I mean, isn’t that what those romantics-in-cynics’-clothes, the illuminati of the Rock Critical-Industrial Complex, are always telling us—that technique is a liability, a gag on the barbaric yawp? As has probably been clear from many a post on this blog, I have a bone to pick with the Rousseauvian school of rock criticism that equates authenticity and expressive capability with an absence of technique. I will desist from listing the Four Chief Fallacies of this position; this post has already gone on far, far, far, far, far too long. (Really, Helldriver? You? Really?) If you want to hear ‘em, post a comment that says, “Helldriver, DO share,” and I’ll be happy to oblige. Then we can argue about it. Or not.

By the way: “mantra” or no, I always found it refreshing that, in the teeth of an industry that valorizes self-promotion above all else, Rush always came across as pretty humble about their musicianship. I remember reading an interview with Lee many years ago where he said that if I wanted to hear a real bass player, I should listen to Jaco Pastorius. It wasn’t hard to take my guitar teacher’s advice about listening to fusion when he was echoing the bass player for my favorite band. It may leave a funny taste, coming from a rock star whose catalog is replete with look-at-me soloing. But at least it’s a positive message, one befitting the overall wholesomeness of the band’s image, so well captured in the controversial photo on the back of Grace Under Pressure: the conventional middle-class appeal, the themes of integrity and honesty and romantic individualism, the Protestant-work-ethic musicianship, the intellectual airs, the relative restraint of their proverbially rock-and-roll lifestyle. Maybe being a fan means an inability to fully divide that feeling of kinship from the rational understanding that it is part of a constructed public persona, the ability, that is, to bear that cognitive dissonance. The music should be enough, and yet it comes entangled in all these accessory media. Maybe this should be the goal of writing about music: to disentangle the one from the other, to undo this Gordian knot. No one has yet convinced me that, if we could undo the knot, there would be nothing else. And no one has yet convinced me the knot cannot be undone. The question is finding a language to help us cut through it, to the hidden heart.

Two Saints

After the uncollected diptychs of Herman Melville.

I. Saint Nick’s

It lay not far from the northwest entrance to the 145th Street station of the A-B-C-D trains.

A nondescript brown door, open dusk to gloam, a few up from the fish-n-chips place, Devlin’s, I think it was called. You heard it before you saw it. Then the light coming from inside. A few steps down. Always down.

The whole place blinked like a jukebox. Smelled like a warmed-up tube amp. (I also smelled: gasoline, perfume, leather, piss, cigarettes.) People, rubbing against you like starving cats. Nobody could help it; the place was too small; there were too many of us; there was no fire code to speak of.

There was no no-talking policy. There was an anti-no-talking policy. The music had to fight its way into the here and now or it wasn’t heard at all. It was never given carte blanche, the way it is in the shrines to the south. The legendary toughness of the Harlem crowd: Show me. Prove it.

The tables between the bar and the band were mostly (though never entirely) occupied by tourists. The foremost tables were pushed right up against the musicians. There was no bandstand, of course.

Oh, hell, I give up. I have no coherent memory of this place anymore. Only bits and pieces. And I can’t go back. It must be almost a decade since they shut the door of the St. Nick’s Pub. Maybe I should abandon Melville and write more like Joe Brainerd, even if that means the memories are mixed up with other memories from the eight years I lived in Harlem. Like this:

I remember the talking drummer dancing while he played, one hand fluttering against the drumhead. The bass player had a small gap between his front teeth, and hair I envied.

I remember the paunchy geek dancing by the bar, all sharp elbows and sharp chin and Fabio hair. When the percussionist headed for the door between sets, the geek gave him such a good-natured whack on the arm you’d have thought they were old friends. I only heard the last words the percussionist said: “Just don’t hit me again.”

I remember the bandleader walking around with a collection plate, people talking into his ear.

I remember the harmonica player in the D.R. wifebeater pumping his arm like he was blowing a train whistle, the women shimmying at the table in front of him.

I remember the drunk airline pilot trying to pick up a woman by the door.

I remember the bartender made me a special whiskey sour one night. It took him a good five minutes, walking from one end of the bar to the other, for this and that. I have no idea what he put in there. Maybe he was taking me for a ride. It tasted good.

I remember the Japanese barmaid. And wondering what the connection was between the Japanese and Harlem. There was a Japanese sax player one night, too.

I remember my neighbor, telling me the dresser we were thinking of buying in one of the other apartments in our building had belonged to the Japanese woman seen cradling Malcolm X’s head in the famous photo from his assassination. Possible, but I wish my neighbor’s wife had been there; she was good at calling him on his bullshit.*

I remember standing at the bar hearing Greg Porter sing “1960what?” for the first time over the PA, and somebody saying he was a St. Nick’s regular made good.

I remember the jazz pictures tacked or taped up around the pipes and such. Bird next to the fire extinguisher. Lady Day over the payphone. There was a picture of Lionel Ritchie, too, and a painting, “The Man,” though I’ve forgotten who The Man was, or what He looked like. Just that He was present.

I remember the cutout H-A-P-P-Y  B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y on a string behind the bar. The bibs made of napkins they tied around the neck of your Sugar Hill beer. And Christmas lights, of course.

I remember the food, on a table just past the bar. Paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth. You can only really hear the music if you know there were paper plates and a checkered plastic tablecloth.

I remember a horn solo. A broken diva. And a keyboard player who moved his body like a marionette, rolling his shoulders, flattening his hands against the keys …

I have no coherent memory of this place. But I do have the distinct impression I heard better music here than anyplace else in the City. Maybe anyplace else period. That this place was closer to the spirit of music, closer to the essence of what music is. Even with Sugar Hill turning to salt, the bitter taste of highrises going up over bulldozed lots, the gut-renovated brownstones, the lives cast into dumpsters up and down 145th Street (“you can fit a whole neighborhood in a dumpster,/ if you really try”), all the real-estate bullshit that throttled and continues to throttle the spirit of music (and pretty much everything else) in the City, there was still this little unvanquishable mecca.

I’m know, I’m romanticizing. I don’t care.

It may be history now, but it was so adamantly not historical—not a place interested in preserving some PBS image of jazz, but present and vital, there in the African diaspora community that I have now been away from for as long as I lived there.

I was holding these notes for a celebration, a reopening. Instead, they have become a piecemeal elegy. I had to dig them out of old journals. Some of them were no longer legible. They’re not enough. They’re all I have. They don’t add up to anything. They ease my longing, a little.


* E.g.: “Jimmy Baldwin! Jimmy! Honey, remember when I introduced you to Jimmy?” “I remember you pointing him out to me from across the room.”




II. Saint Vitus

It lies not far from Gowanus Canal. But that is immaterial.

“Meet Me at St. Vitus.” An anthem, & a bit of Satanic doggerel, in honor of St. Vitus Bar’s successful Kickstarter campaign and impending not-really-post-pandemic resurrection. Sung, obviously enough, to the tune of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Music by Kerry Mills. Lyrics by Helldriver, who would like to acknowledge the assistance of Profs. Hafen S. Bergius and Baciyelmo in preparing this authoritative edition.



When Vitus got home from the pub

To dismember the corpse in his tub

He called Apollyon

But his wifey was gone

Without leaving him one shred of grub.


A note had been stuck by his wifey

To the door with an old butcher knifey

It ran, “Vitus, my dear, a demon growled in my ear,

Said he would buy me a shot and a beer,

So I’m off now to start my new lifey.”


“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below


“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

Till our feet swell with elephantitus

the blood runs from our eyes

and our flesh liquefies

If you meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”


Vitus grabbed his spikes and his leather

And an umbrella for the balmy weather

Abbath drove the train

Through the gaslit subterrane

Of the region referred to as nether.


Some hell-wench was working the door

her forearms all slathered with gore

She said, “What’s that? The show?

It’s as sold as my soul,

And don’t try that I’m-on-the-guest-list shit, either.”


So he showed her three sixes branded

To the top of his behornéd head

Said she with a grin,

“Why didn’tcha say so? C’mon in!

Elevator’s on the left. Push nine.”


He’d gone four, five, six circles down

When he cried, “What on earth is that sound?

Like a Cerebus-pound

Or some cursed Injun mound

Where the infants are ground

Where the demons are crowned

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round, all year round,

And the fire’s kept stoked all year round.

(And what’d she write on that note that I found?)”


“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub

Don’t tell me there’s a finer partner

For drinking than ol’ Beelzebub


He’s got a hollow leg—or three—

And cheeks as red as a cherub

So meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the pub.”


Then opened the door on a scene

From a nightmare well-leavened with spleen

The sludge-stench of unguents

Crotchless-Todd-Rundgren pungent

And the nuts of Ted Nugent

Roasted more than was prudent

By enslaved, undead culinary students

Told the presence of all things unclean.


In a booth was his dear wifey pressed

In a bodice of leather was she dressed

Asmodeus to her left

His hoofage all cleft

With Jaeger her invertedly blessed.


Took Vitus his Jaeger sans chaser

When the music hit him like a Taser

The bartenders all carved

“SLAYER” into their arms

With the blade of a dull, rusty razor.


Said he, “Well, it’s not what I’d planned …

But can you beat that motherfucking band?

I’m shutting my Bible

For if I don’t, I’m liable

To wind up worse off than the damned.”


Now he’s stuck in this place all eternity

For the devil has proved his paternity

And the music’s sure fine

be it punk, thrash, or grind

Or sui generis a-reek with slatternity.


Soooooooooo … [everybody!!]


“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me at the show

Don’t tell me there’s a darker place

A hundred miles below


“We’ll dance the selfsame Vitus

till the angels all spite us

the demons be-(k)night us

to acts of violence incite us

like Andronicus Titus

to executions invite us

rabid mambas to bite us

pestilence to blight us

If you’ll meet me at St Vitus, Vitus

Meet me at the show.”


[de rigeur blistering electric something-or-other solo; then, climactic reprise:]


“Meet me at St Vitus, Vitus,

meet me for a beer

don’t tell me bangers are banging

thrashers are thrashing

moshers are moshing

eyeballs a-popping

bunnies a-hopping

Azathoth a-flopping

anyplace but here, but here,

anyplace but heeeeeeeeeere!”


[Clap. Clap. Clap.]


[follows a list of variants from previously published versions]


1-5] VX(+((0))): When Vitus awoke all hungover/ Looking like death unwarmedover/ He rolled over in bed/ Kissed a severed head/ And cried out, “Who bisected my lover?”

8-9] R!sq&i: Vitus, by goll,/ Quart’ring corpses is dull,

54-60] ^^^ugh^^^: Here be rituals dominated by victuals/ Unidentifiable meat-substitutes on the griddles/ While Norman Castavets/ Plays his bone castanets/ To a tune on thirteen out-of-tune fiddles.

92-95] sNogg?eeeeee: Call up the demons/ And theorems by Riemann/ Pour out our libations/ With baskets of crustaceans


[follows a comment box for suggested new verses, as per the original. don’t be shy, now. and don’t be f—-d, either, writing doggerel is d—-d hard!]

[In fact, here is a little story perfect for a new verse, open to the first versifier who dares: “It was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady (who had a fine collection of similar wonders wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visitors), containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration that they would have a fiddler even if they had to send to the lower regions for him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude woodcut represented the Demon Fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in ‘cotillions, jigs, strathspeys and reels.’” (John Greenleaf Whittier, The Supernaturalism of New England, 1847 (Oklahoma UP, 1969), p. 50; Whittier’s emphasis)]


a repurposing*


Keep your ticket in your pocket, that way you won’t lose it. Take it out before you get to the door so you don’t hold up the whole line. The elevators are for the elderly and handicapped, take the stairs. If you get out of breath, rest on the landings, nobody likes to have to sit next to someone sweaty and panting. Use the restroom before the concert, not during. Wash your hands with soap, and for God’s sake don’t dry them on your nice clothes. We may not go to church, but your concert clothes are what your friends would call your Sunday best. Don’t forget to take a handful of lozenges from the bin in the lobby. Show your ticket to the ushers, and let them direct you to your seat, even if you think you know where it is. Nobody likes arrogance, particularly in the young. Get here early enough you don’t have to ask people to stand up. If you’re late, tell them not to stand up, even though you don’t really mean it. Say excuse me, never pardon, and for God’s sake don’t try to step over anybody’s bag, ask them politely to move it. This is how to get down the aisle without sticking your rear end in the faces of the philistines who refuse to stand up for you. This is how to fold your good coat behind you so that the sleeves don’t get stepped on. You have plenty of time to look at your clothes at home, I didn’t buy you that ticket to stare at your clothes. Don’t fidget. Are you listening? Then stop fidgeting. Nobody wants to listen to your chair. Or the paper in your program. The program is for before the concert and during the intermission, nobody likes to sit next to somebody reading during a performance. But I’m not fidgeting. Don’t rustle the paper like that, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Put your program in your bag when the lights go down, not on your lap, it can fall off and ruin the concert for everybody. Put your phone in your bag. Make sure it’s turned off first. On second thought, give it to me. This is how to stow your umbrella under your seat so that it doesn’t fall over and ruin the concert for everybody. This is how to sit with your elbows in, so you don’t usurp your neighbor’s armrest. This is how to cross your legs without kicking the seat in front of you. Don’t uncross your legs during the concert, nobody likes to listen to your pants crinkle in the middle of the Adagio. If you absolutely have to move, do it during the noisy parts, and for God’s sake don’t try to do anything during the Adagio. This is how to sit so the people behind you can see without having to lean to one side. This is how to politely snub your neighbor if they talk to you during the performance. This is how to sit so that others around you know you’re listening attentively. This is how to fold your hands on your lap so you won’t be tempted to drum your fingers. Nobody paid good money to listen to your fingers. Or your feet. But what if my leg falls asleep during the Adagio? Don’t look around at the balconies or the ceiling, the concert is on the stage, I didn’t buy you that ticket to gawk at the auditorium. You can think about boys at school, here you should be thinking about the music. Don’t yawn. If you’re paying attention you won’t get bored. If you have to yawn, do it with your mouth closed, into your fist, like you’re suppressing a cough. Don’t cough. If you have to cough, cough in the rests between movements. But for God’s sake, cough discreetly, not like your father, he sounds like he should be in the hospital. Didn’t I tell you to take some lozenges? If you can’t finish unwrapping a lozenge in the rest between movements, wait until the end of the next movement. If you want the binoculars, tap once lightly on my shoulder. If I don’t hand them to you, I’m telling you I’ve been swept up in the performance, like you could be, if only you stopped thinking about your clothes and boys and stopped gawking at the ceiling and really paid attention. But I did take lozenges. See? Put the strap around your neck so you don’t drop them and ruin the concert for everybody. Don’t hog them, it’s one of your sister’s least-attractive qualities. One pair of binoculars is enough for a family, if we all understand how to share. Don’t applaud between movements, and for God’s sake don’t get up until the intermission. These are just the sorts of things that will announce you as the rock-and-roll fan I can’t seem to stop you from becoming. This is how to applaud with a combination of enthusiasm and discreetness. This is how to applaud with your coat over your arm. This is when to stop. This is how to sit for the encore if you’ve already gathered your things. Don’t stand up unless everyone around you does, and for God’s sake don’t stamp your feet. This isn’t Madison Square Garden. Never shout encore. Never shout bravo. Never shout anything. Are you listening?


* of “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid, The New Yorker, 26 June 1978. Maybe because I just finished posting about pedagogy, in hindsight it struck me that this might make an interesting exercise for students to do with another genre of music.

Postmortem III

Here it is, the much-unanticipated and long-overdue third installment in the postmortem franchise. The main reason for the wait? My five-year break from teaching Writing About Music. While I might not have felt compelled to write a third postmortem after the odd experience of teaching the course back-to-back semesters before the gap, I was supposed to write something about the variety of research projects I had tried. Alas, as so much in the Pit Stop, plans went up in a puff of smoke. I may get around to writing about research here; if not, expect a Postmortem IV … someday.

But what am I doing, envisioning sequels of sequels before the present post has even been written? What is this, a summer blockbuster? A bestselling young-adult dystopian “novel”?

The reason for the hiatus, by the way, is that other faculty members expressed interest in teaching the course. Needless to say, this is a wonderful thing; you really feel like you’ve contributed to a department’s culture when you design (or co-design, in this case) a course that other faculty want to teach. These faculty then go on to create their own versions of the course, which may in turn influence the shape and direction of one’s own version, &c. So, for examples: Prof. Elyse Zucker structured the course entirely around jazz; Prof. Anne Rounds used the course to explore issues of music and culture (exercise, consumption, education, social space more generally). I’ll have a bit more to say about Prof. Rounds’s syllabus later on.

Anyway, it was good to have fresh bodies to work on, or at least the ears and the parts of the brains connected to them, the rest hardly concerns me, except insofar as it enables them to talk, walk in and out of my classroom, etc. A lot of water has passed under the bridge vis-à-vis reading and listening between Fall ‘12 and Spring ’18 (yes, it has been a year since I taught the course—again, puffs of smoke), much of it during my sabbatical over the 2016-17 academic year, and this meant a flood of new ideas for teaching—new texts to read, new assignments to write, new possible approaches to the material. In fact, I originally had in mind to do something quite different from what I’d done before. Part of the reason for this was my deteriorating hearing: I thought it might be impossible to teach the course with the sort of close attention to listening that I had in the past, and as such that it might be easier to structure the course more like I do my other electives (such as my historically-organized short fiction curriculum for Studies in Fiction), with students investigating a few longer texts that raise a variety of issues about music. I thought about using Geoff Dyer’s jazz book But Beautiful, and Carl Wilson’s contribution to the 33.3 series Let’s Talk About Love, both of which I read on sabbatical, and perhaps one or two others (David Byrne’s How Music Worksoccurred to me as well, but I’ve only read a piece of it thus far). But I wasn’t sure what framework I could use to bring them together—it’s easier to do with a genre course like Studies in Fiction, or even Latin American Literature in Translation, the other two sophomore-level English electives I regularly teach.

Maybe it was laziness. Maybe it was nostalgia. Or maybe it was some last hurrah before the ship of my hearing careens over the horizon of the audible. But it was also at least partly a result of looking over the reams of material I’d already created, and all the other work I’d done for the class over its three previous incarnations, and deciding there was quite a bit worth holding onto. I ultimately opted to keep the original framework of the course, update and expand the materials in the first three units, and replace the last two units with new materials and assignments, including excerpts from But Beautiful, the sole required text. What follows, then, is a tour through these changes, what seemed to work and what didn’t, and what I think is still left to be done, should I have the opportunity to teach the course again. One more time would do my heart good.

Now, if you’re new to this blog or these quasi-public teaching journals, you’ll probably want to go back and read the first two installments, “Postmortem I” (3.13.11) and “Postmortem II” (2.24.12), since the groundwork for the philosophy of the course, its general shape, and the assignments I’ve used are all discussed there, and I’ll be alluding to these throughout, hurdling most repetition to focus on new stuff. (Or, as the Japanese softcore producers say to Max Renn (in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome) when he asks to see just the climactic episode: “But Max! You won’t understand a thing! It’s all set up in the first two!”)

Words to listen by

To introduce the course, I went back to using excerpts from My Music (Wesleyan UP, 1990), the book composed of transcribed interviews from the Music in Everyday Life Project, for an icebreaker, and for the first, ungraded “My Music” essay. I’d tried a couple of other things the previous two times I taught the course, but I think this works best as a general introduction, allowing students to access music on a personal level before they are asked—as they will be for the remainder of the semester—to do more. The only problem was that I also threw them a couple of quotes by Jacques Barzun and Leonard Bernstein from longer pieces I’d used in previous semesters (as the Spanish say, me fue la mano, i.e., I got carried away), and these opened up some very large and muddy cans of worms I hadn’t intended to open until later in the semester. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to preview some knottier Big Concepts with the promise of returning to them later. The caveat, for me as much as for all teachers working to (gently) prod students out of their comfort zones: when we overload our syllabi (and overloading has been a perennial problem for me, as I’m sure it is for other teachers: our community college students need so much in the way of background knowledge, and we want to give them so much), there is a point after which the returns diminish; the more we try to do, the less we actually accomplish.

As in previous semesters, from here the course moved into a listening-focused unit, with a description of a piece of music as the capstone assignment. With some minor tweaks, I used to same assignment as before. What I expanded, however, was the manner in which I approached listening. Here I was inspired by Prof. Rounds’s syllabus (which she was gracious enough to share with me) to break down the listening unit into the elements of music. I’d always been rather scattershot before: an in-class exercise where I fired random bits of unfamiliar music at them, and had them work in groups to think about how they would describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it before; a class on basic song structure, cropped from the first of two music theory courses I audited at City College, to help them think about organization; and a few standout examples of musical description for models and strategies. Back during my last semester teaching the course (that is, in Fall 2012), I’d begun to move in the direction of formalizing this unit, and had even gone so far as drafting a multi-page handout on the elements. I hadn’t made it past melody and timbre, but I did share what I had with a Writing Fellow at the time, who gave me useful feedback and—perhaps most important—did not seem to think what I had thus far was entirely ridiculous. (I think I’ve had three different opportunities to kidnap CUNY grad center music doctoral student Writing Fellows, and every time they’ve given me great feedback and support. A thank-you to them and to our WAC coordinators for their generosity.) As I belatedly turned myself back to this work for Spring ‘18, that original four-page draft ballooned into a ten-page behemoth (twelve if you include the last part, “Other Strategies, Advice, and Caveats”), a bona fidepacket of listening exercises that formed the core of the classwork and homework for the three weeks leading up to the assignment … and only about two-thirds of which we were able to complete in any depth before moving forward.

There are a few questions buried here. The first is how much one can hope to achieve in five or six classes for students most of whom haven’t the faintest idea how to analyze music. It is, as I’ve noted in previous Postmortems, at once a central element and a quixotic fantasy, at least without some sort of music pre- or co-requisite for the course, which does not seem to be forthcoming. At the same time, frontloading the course with formal listening exercises is also an opportunity for them get a toehold in concepts and language they will continue exploring and potentially applying for the rest of the semester, as every succeeding assignment either mandates or invites them to do. Hence, what may seem impossible to do in a few weeks may actually form a substrate on which they (hopefully) grow for the ten or so weeks that follow, drawing on these nascent skills, and further developing them through application. Indeed, the goal of the course has always been to build outward from this “raw” approach to listening, so that describing becomes one element in a bigger toolkit for apprehending music in language.* As for this mini listening boot-camp, the goals were to (a) give students enough to work with, which in the context of the class means enough that they feel like they can approach writing a description of a piece of music they like, try to apply some basic vocabulary, and feel that developing 600-900 words is challenging, but not impossible; and (b) make doing so accessible, and potentially even enjoyable. In the end, I want them to think about the music they love but take for granted in a more formal way; to become more conscious about how it works, and why.

It was very much a feeling-out process, as can probably be imagined. I actually stole Rounds’s opening gambit: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and the assignment that students come to class with a song they could hum—a really wonderful idea. After reflecting on how best to approach this, I remembered earworms, which I first encountered reading Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia a number of years ago; I thought it might be a good topic of discussion for introducing melody: a song that they not only could hum, but that insists on being hummed! In hindsight, I think the Sacks chapter on earworms, which is only about ten pages long, would have made for better reading than the CNN and NPR pieces I ended up finding on-line. That said, there was something instructive about these articles. Researchers’ attempts to describe what makes an earworm are so vague as to lose any explanatory power: simple, but not too simple; should go up, but also go down; contains an interesting (??) interval …. one ends up with the impression that psychologists really have no clue what makes a melody an earworm. As one of my students quipped, if they ever did manage to figure out a formula, they’d be millionaires. (N.B.: Also potentially useful here is Mark Twain’s entertaining earworm story “Punch, Brothers, Punch,” which I posted on Blackboard but did not require students to read.)

“Twinkle” was indeed a great melody to begin with; I even found an instructional video on YouTube with Space Invaders-like blobs landing on the appropriate keys of an animated keyboard, the tempo at a wounded crawl. (What I wouldn’t give to have an actual, physical keyboard in the classroom for even just a few days … ah well. As my union puts it, our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions.) I ended up pairing “Twinkle” with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; the two worked beautifully together to think about similarities and differences between how melodies are shaped (ascent and descent, leaps and steps, range, repetition, question and answer, and so on). My coda was Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard.” As I wrote many moons ago on this blog (see “Underground Man,” 5.27.10), Dolphy’s melodies sound like they should be hummable … but reproducing them when they’re gone, even after you’ve heard them a number of times, is enormously difficult. Dolphy’s melodies recall what the man himself (and others before and after him) said about music more generally: “You hear it, and it’s gone.”

In the process of constructing the packet, I also realized (or perhaps better resolved on) something else: given in part that this is an English course, making analogies—even sometimes rather strained ones—between the sorts of things students would have encountered in the writing-sequence courses and music could be a viable way for them to make potentially enlightening connections. Every art can serve as an analogical reference-point for any other, with music perhaps the one that most depends on such analogies. So, for example, I compared melodies to summaries—the “gist” of a song; the thing we can abstract from the broader sonic information. I used the relationship between dependent and independent clauses (which at least some of them suffered through, particularly if they started the writing sequence at the developmental level) to try to elucidate the role of tension and resolution in melody.† I also tried to illustrate tension-resolution by applying a technique we sometimes use in teaching poetry and description to highlight the importance of a writer’s word choice: How would the meaning change if word Xwere replaced by word Y? The same might be asked of a melody. I sang the first part of “Rainbow” and, on the “high,” the unresolved ending of the antecedent phrase, I replaced it with the octave (“way … up … high!”). I’m not sure it helped, but the idea seems right: they could compare a clearly resolving note with one that suspends, that expects an answer, in the context of a single melody. (It also (hilariously) made the song sound like a TV jingle selling, I don’t know, sofas—which is probably right, since a jingle, as opposed to a song, seeks immediate resolution.)

At the same time, developing students’ music-writing skills is a matter not just of more careful and analytical listening, but linguistic precision. After suffering through a few semesters of the blandest and most generic language to describe music’s affective character, parts of the packet forced them to expand their vocabulary in the pedagogically-dreaded abstract: to create a palette like a painter’s, but of words; to find stronger, more specific, more evocative terms for describing the shades and complexities of emotional states to which music can give us access. That’s right: I actually asked them to make lists of synonyms, and we discussed shades of difference between, say, angry and enraged (quantity), or chipper and pleased (quality), and then how these words might be applied to different music selections. Compare, for example, Peter’s theme in Peter and the Wolf to the beginning of the Pastorale symphony. If we agree both of these are “happy,” how can we distinguish the quality and intensity of happiness? We also discussed adjective-adverb combos, Roland Barthes be damned (e.g., “resignedly happy,” which may describe how I feel reading Barthes). I was taking off here from a moment in the opening chapter of Aaron Copland’s What To Listen For in Music, plane #2 of his planes of listening, the expressive plane. I should add that it was also a fine opportunity to undercut such approaches, and to make students wary of clichés. In case you don’t know or remember them, Simpsons creator Matt Groenig’s ‘80s Life In Hell comics featured the “Feisty Film Critic” and “So You Wanna Be a Rock Critic,” both extremely funny parodies of the critical enterprise. One includes a matching exercise where the critic selects an adjective from column one and an adverb from column two, and ends up with a ridiculously clichéd pair (e.g., “hauntingly evocative”). Touchee, Copland!

Now, is there something too rote, even pedagocally unsound, about this approach? Are you sure? How sure are you? I have the feeling many of my students have never been asked to think consciously about the way language parses emotional experiences, not even in poetry.

From melody we moved into timbre. I think this section of the packet also had much that worked well. I still follow the advice of an intro-to-music syllabus I found on-line a number of years ago: start with voice. Not only, as has been much written about, because the voice (together with the beat of the heart) is the basis of all music, but also because it’s what students feel most comfortable talking about. Voice, together with the words sung or rapped, allowed us to focus on three things: the story or emotion being communicated by the words; the physical qualities of the singer’s voice and the words we might use to describe them (breathy, raspy, gruff, that sort of thing); and the attitude (as part of their artistic persona) they projected, the last of which again draws on a concept they should be familiar with from their earlier English classes, tone. Thus, voice forms an entry-point for thinking about timbre more broadly; tone becomes a bridge to tone quality, something we use to distinguish one person’s speaking voice from another’s; and considering the voice as an instrument becomes a bridge to the timbre of instruments. For the latter, I confess—I have already obliquely done so—I used “Peter in the Wolf,” and another lovely educational video I found on YouTube. (I’m only rhetorically ashamed; I listened to this piece growing up and have always loved it, and I can’t think of a composer with a more robust and evocative melodic imagination than Prokofiev.) The focus on voice also allowed me to re-use several of the tracks I had used in my previous “scattershot” semesters (2010 and 12) for opening listening exercises, including Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday,” Tom Waits’s barroom “Innocent When You Dream,” Alberta Hunter, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Perla de Cadiz, and Pantera.

Any attempt to try to explain music’s affective meaning raises a host of issues. For example: how to speak about any one element in isolation from the others? Of course, this is true of any analysis. (Given that I have largely abandoned a formal approach to the elements of fiction and poetry, I should ask myself here, publicly, why am I attempting it with music. Naivete?) In giving students, say, the opening section of the Pastorale symphony, or Peter’s theme, one can’t help but notice that the affective character of the music is as much a product of instrumentation and arrangement as of melody—and before long the whole kit and caboodle is dragged into the discussion. (We were actually able to capitalize on this by listening to a selection from Swan Lake, in which the central theme radically changes its character when it re-appears in a new arrangement.) In hindsight, it makes me wonder if this formalized listening unit might be turned ninety degrees, so that, rather than foregrounding the elements, it foregrounded instead the physical aspects of timbre and melody on the one hand, and its affective character on the other. In this way, one might begin with emotional response—what the music makes us feel, often the first impression of a piece—before asking students whatthey are hearing in the music that provokes this response. This would allow the elements to emerge more naturally from a discussion of the way we respond to the music we hear. Something to think about.

Something else worth considering: as noted, by the time they take this course, students will have completed the foundational courses in the English sequence (Comp 1 and 2); they will have been trained throughout those two semesters to find main ideas, paragraph topics, and (God forbid) that elusive-reductive something called the meaning of a poem or story. But in this course, students are pushed up against texts where they’re asked to think less about meaning than texture: to describe what it is they hear, and from this to consider how and why it provokes certain responses in a listener. Of course, we try to do this in Comp as well, particularly in the second semester, which, at Hostos, is literature-based. But we know, as per Billy Collins’s hilarious “Introduction to Poetry,” that resisting this desire to ferret out meaning is an uphill battle (cf. “They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means”). I know that my students have always had a wretched time with prosody—ironic, given that prosody fills their lives in the form of the music most of them listen to (or maybe not so ironic; see below). But if they have so much difficulty parsing the music of a poetic line or stanza, why would I imagine they could do it with melodies, with sound? Of course, resisting this trampling the text in the quest for meaning, the violence of it, the consumer mentality behind it, and teaching students to luxuriate in the sensual thereness of the text, might itself be a justification for a class like Writing About Music: without the ability to jump right to meaning, students are forced to confront the physicality of the musical “text” … and this might have a payoff for their ability to appreciate the sensual there-ness of any text: linguistic, visual, etc.

Speaking of texture … I won’t, not very much, because I didn’t, not very much. It is in some ways the most difficult element to teach to non-music students, so it was somewhat fortuituous that we ran out of time to really do it justice. A couple of years back, Prof. Rounds introduced me to a Steve Reich piece called “Clapping Hands.” It begins with a synchronized 12-beat pattern, repeated eight times; after each set of eight, one person begins the pattern a beat ahead of the other, and, as in a classic Reich tape-loop composition (e.g., “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Come Out”), the two clappers fall further and further out of phase with each other, until they wrap around again. As “the rhythmic corollary to the harmonic idea of imitative polyphony” (as I have called it elsewhere on this blog), the piece seemed like a perfect way to introduce the concept of texture. And so long as we were singing and/or listening to “Happy Birthday” (Monroe) and “Twinkle, Twinkle” (Space Invaders), we simply hadto try “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which was actually the piece cited in my first-semester music theory textbook to introduce the concept of polyphony.

But I also realized that a rigorous, formal understanding of polyphony wasn’t necessary for students working at this level of music appreciation. Non-musicians (a category which would include many, if not most, music writers/critics) tend to use the concept much more generally—not to say vaguely/sloppily—to mean something more like the overall sonic density of a piece, with an ear toward the way voices and timbres bleed together as well as stand apart. In this way, texture becomes a variant of signal-to-noise: To what extent do the various sonic components of a piece of music blend into a single mass of sound? To what extent can we hear individual voices braiding together, or pulling apart? To what extent does a single voice predominate? To illustrate, I used the very New York analogy (which I think I might’ve read somewhere) of sitting in a noisy public place—a park, a bar, whatever. I wanted students to be able to think about the overall ambient quality of a piece, the way the combination of sounds, of timbres and melodies and rhythms, sometimes pull away from each other, sometimes bleed into each other, to create music’s Gestalt effect. The problem: it’s difficult to articulate this without entering into a basic discussion of harmony, of consonance and dissonance, without exploring a few basic intervals … and given the overall trajectory of the course, where I want students to be for their first graded assignment, opening this Pandora’s box might be the straw that … broke … opening this straw camel might be the box … shit. Let me come back to this a little later.

Of all the elements we explored, it was rhythm that snookered me. I was very much a victim of my own assumptions here. As an amateur musician who always felt more comfortable with rhythm than melody or harmony, I thought I had some intuitive grasp of the topic; perhaps I even thought that rhythm was somehow “easier” to explain than the other elements; and that these two things together meant I already had the resources to make it clear. An embarrassing admission for a veteran teacher, but there it is. These assumptions led to a number of confusions as we tried to parse the rhythms of the various assigned pieces. It was most an issue when we listened to a baroque piece together: without percussion or bass to provide a clear backbeat, and what with all the fluctuations in dynamics and tempo that accompany classical performance, students had difficulty finding the regular pulse (so-called “motoric rhythm”); tempo, meter, and texture (in the shape of other voices ornamenting the melodic line without changing the pulse) ended up all balled together, and were only partly untangled by taking a few steps back. The upshot here is that I need to rethink my lesson on rhythm to find the sorts of handholds I’ve found for melody and timbre. Perhaps, given how beautifully “Clapping Hands” introduces the idea of polyphony, re-ordering the elements—even putting rhythm first—would make sense.

I did have at least one idea worth revisiting and revising: dance as a means of imagining rhythm (and to be sure, music more generally). Even just by tapping a foot or hand, or clapping along, rhythm becomes visible, tangible: we see/feel the way the body translates it. Unlike my mostly failed attempts to get students to hum their hummable melodies, a couple of students did get up and dance a merengue to Joseito Mateo. (The humming was very early in the semester … so maybe they were just beginning to feel more comfortable in the oddballness that is this class, and more importantly, with each other.) My epiphany here for future semesters was to ask students to find/watch a video of the dance associated with the rhythm in question (the two may be synonymous), and write. What does the way in which the body (and perhaps pairs or groups of bodies) translate rhythm reveal about the characteristics of that particular rhythm? And perhaps, though more carefully: What elements of the associated culture might this rhythm/dance express?

As noted above, for song structure I partly reduxed the adapted lesson on Cake’s “Stickshifts and Safety Belts”; I thought it worked better this semester with the addition of Beyonce’s “Halo” for comparison and contrast. Structure is a great example of something students “know” from listening to so much popular music, but aren’t necessarily conscious of knowing. It was a good opportunity for me to take basic verse-chorus-bridge song structure and algebraically boil it down to 32-bar structure, allowing me to make a connection back to “Rainbow” and forward to the jazz we would listen to later in the semester, and hence maximize the recursive use of the assigned listenings. It was a similarly good opportunity to again make connections to both the English sequence and the just-studied elements, here by thinking of a song as a story independent of its lyrical content: Does it have a climax? If so, where? And how do you know?

Ending the unit with structure makes for a nice segue into the formal assignment, since it provides one possible model for how to structure the description essay. But this semester I also provided a second, more direct model: a model description essay using the Judas Priest song “Fever,” which I posted and annotated to show the different techniques I had used to organize and develop. Making models for the graded assignments was actually a big overall upgrade in the course as a whole this semester. I had good a student performance review from a previous semester which I also annotated and posted; I also linked to a couple of performance reviews on the Pit Stop. For the photo-bio assignment (see below), I annotated and posted a current student’s “A” paper, for those who needed or wanted to revise. And for the final assignment, which asked students to analyze song lyrics in terms of their musical components (below, below), I again wrote and annotated a model, this one using Dr Octagon’s “Earth People.”

Given all of the above, and the new ideas that occurred to me during the semester about how to approach some of this material, I did begin to wonder whether the time devoted to introducing the elements of music should be extended to seven classes, that is, fully one-quarter of the semester. But at what point does this “close listening” component begin to take over the course, and turn it away from the writing that is its ostensible focus? At what point, given that I am not a music instructor but rather play one on CUNY-TV, am I doing students a disservice by not transitioning more quickly into reading and writing? Re-organizing this unit, as per the notes above, might help me re-think how much time I want to devote to the elements/analytical listening next time I teach the course. Perhaps the goal here should be—particularly since this is a writing-intensive course—to make sure each element has a language/writing payoff in the way the description of timbre does (and, prospectively, rhythm). These are the sorts of questions raised by interdisciplinarity, particularly when one is trying to build a bridge from one’s own discipline to the mare ignotum of another. There are other possibilities: continuing to explore the “other” discipline via reading, auditing classes, and talking with teachers; co-teaching or co-developing materials with music professors, as I have done with WAC fellows. (Unfortunately, the pecuniary environment (austerity) doesn’t reward educators who want to team-teach.)

One constant of music appreciation textbooks is that students should get a broad range of things to listen to—sort of a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. We want them to open their ears to different sounds and forms of expression. We want them to create new synaptic connections, push their brains to fire in new ways—I can’t think of a better way to describe what happened to me when I first heard Bartok’s string quartets, or Ligeti’s etudes, or Messiaen’s Catalog of Birds, or John Zorn with Milford Graves, and so on, and so on. That said, there is a fine line between opening and overwhelming; and, when the task at hand is analysis, focus might be more important than breadth. All this is to say that I most definitely overkilled on the number musical examples I assigned. It is part of the seduction of having so much available. As I write this, I wonder if there might be a way to synthesize what I tried this semester with what I have done before: spend that first day firing a bunch of random, broadly-selected pieces of music at them; in the subsequent classes, turn to parsing the elements, focusing mostly on pieces they were exposed to in that first class. This way, studying the elements would become in part an investigation of why they wrote some of the things they did on that first day … and how they might use the elements to approach listening on a different level.

That said, as I’ve noted several times above, recursivity was indeed something I have tried to build into the course since teaching it for the first time; the issue is continuing to find moreopportunities to make connections, while at the same time not allowing the evolution of the course to stagnate (via the possibility that each element becomes so essential to every other that one is loathe to change absolutely anything). For example, giving students “The Augurs of Spring” to listen to when we examined rhythm, and “Free Jazz” for texture, means that, when we got to the question of the importance of historical context for determining the meaning of performance (see “Postmortem II”), together with the excellent reading “Beethoven’s Kapow” (about the first performance of the Eroica symphony), we will look at similar historical responses to the first performance of the Stravinsky (excerpted from Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise) and—in our modern context—the rift in the jazz community created by the arrival of Ornette Coleman, and again with the release of Free Jazz (captured in the divergent reviews the greeted the album’s arrival in Down Beat) as other examples of ruptures—moments when audiences were (at least in some versions of the events) unprepared for the sonic experiences that awaited them … when, just like my students encountering some of the strange music assigned in this class, they, too, were overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, shocked … enraptured.

Where’s that confounded bridge?

I admit it: I didn’t get the joke of Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge” until a couple of years ago. Now I’m hip enough to use it as a section title. I’ve come a long way, baby! My “bridge” here will consist of a few notes on the units of the class that changed the least—comparison-contrast and performance review—and maybe even a fourth chord.

The more formal listening unit made it possible to treat my old lesson on “Born in the USA” (see “Postmortem II”) as at once capstone and step forward. The unit, which segues nicely into the comparison-contrast assignment between covers and “originals,” didn’t change too too much: a few new choices for song pairs, and some new readings. I never much cared for the old ones, but had never been able to find anything better. I had already assembled a handout of provocative quotes for in-class writing from those two articles, and realized this semester they’d actually work fine without the articles themselves. Together with these quotes, I assigned new material from a critical anthology about cover songs, Play It Again: a short excerpt from the introduction, and a longer, denser one from an article by pioneering metal theoretician Deena Weinstein. In “Stereophony,” Weinstein introduces the title concept to explain how we listen to covers, and the way that this listening practice differs from the romantic assumptions that accompanied the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Overall, the combination of excerpts gave a much fuller set of ideas to play with, and helped pave the way for a richer discussion of today’s musical landscape of samples, mash-ups, and plunderphonics. Again, I’m embarrassed by the sheer quantity of the riches of YouTubeLandia I mined for my class: from Will Smith’s recasting of “Just the Two of Us” and Puff Daddy rapping over a loop from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” to Evolution Control Committee’s seminal mash-up of Herb Alpert and Public Enemy, etc., etc.§

Something else happened in this “covers” unit that is worth mentioning, in this case because it strikes me as so indicative of the musical-cultural moment our students inhabit. One song pair I wanted to assign was Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’” and PM Dawn’s wonderful re-invention (on the Hendrix tribute album Stone Free). The problem? I couldn’t find Hendrix’s “You Got Me Floatin’” on YouTube. WTF? I wasn’t aware we had entered a new era of YouTube: the combination of listener reviews (I believe they’re called “vlogs”) and amateur covers buries the originals so deep that they become unrecoverable. (I have the feeling this is also a matter of copyright protection: as songs are continuously removed and re-posted, they do not generate the number of views to compete with popular vlogs and covers, and so grow increasingly invisible as viewings of the latter, “parasitic” texts increase.) Annoying? You betcha! Here I was, nervous that we had moved beyond the age of covers, into an age when only samples and mash-ups make sense anymore … and what I discovered was quite the opposite: we have never been more in an age of covers than we are now. And then the teacher in me started to wonder if this might be an opportunity, a platform for a new assignment. Thus far, the four times I have taught the course, the song pairs have been assigned by me. (In fact, in this last semester, it was the only one of the five graded assignments where students didn’t get to choose their own piece. My reasoning: the cover and original have to “work” together to produce a successful assignment; the added variable makes it that much less likely that students will choose viable material.) Instead, what if students picked a song they liked, and then a variety of amateur covers, listening for what changes between them, and judged which cover version was “best” based on criteria developed through class discussion of the assigned reading—the most creative re-invention, the truest to the original’s “essence,” or whatever? This would have the added virtue of giving students the opportunity to push the “evaluation” button they’re so desperate to push with everything they listen to (see “Postmortem”) … but only after doing the initial legwork of close listening, analysis, and comparison.

As for the performance unit, very little changed in terms of reading selections or assignments. That said, as noted in my introduction, my ability to speak to and organize discussions about some of this and other topics was deepened by the reading I have done over the last half-decade, most of all during my sabbatical; the example that pops to mind is Steve Waksman’s discussion of the contrasting significance of stadiums and festivals, which helped inform our discussion of Hendrix at Woodstock versus Houston at the Superbowl.

Pictures worth a thousand notes

In the last two units of the semester I departed entirely, or almost entirely, from what I’d done in the course before. The fourth unit, focused around jazz and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, built nicely from the gallery walk lesson (see “Postmortem II”), for reasons to be explored in a moment. As it turned out, the bridge between the two African American musical forms that were the focus of these last two units, jazz and hip hop, was created by the students themselves, since hip hop came up in the initial discussion of jazz, and allowed students to use a contemporary context as a way to help them make sense of the earlier form, with which they had little if any direct contact.

Before jumping into the Dyer, it made sense to take a week to give students a brief historical and cultural grounding in jazz. Many of the short reading selections were taken from Robert Walser’s excellent anthology Keeping Time, with a couple of other tidbits thrown in (from the introductions to Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is and Ted Gioia’s brand-new (at the time) How To Listen To Jazz, and Bill Evans’s justly famous liner notes to Kind of Blue). Musical selections were paired with the Walser readings: Satchmo and Gershwin and Duke; Bird and Diz; and two examples of the contemporary moment, the more provocative of which was Esperanza Spalding’s “Jazz Is Soul”—so great to see a contemporary performer whose range spans jazz and a variety of popular forms defining what jazz is, in performance! We then spent two weeks on the introduction plus four chapters of the Dyer, each about a different musician—Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus, and each of which was paired with a couple of musical selections. We discussed what these different chapters said about jazz, about art and the perils and beauties of its creation, about African American history and musical forms … and, of course, about how we approach that elusive thing called music in words.

If anything, I think I was blinded to the possibilities for this unit—and this text—by the fact that I was suddenly holding a book in my hand, and was able to look around the room and see students (most of them, anyway) holding books in their hands, too! How comforting for an English teacher! I was suddenly back in a literature class, and breathed deeply the familiar air. As a result, the text’s potential for this class remained untapped, in at least two ways. First, as Dyer says in his introductory note, what was most inspiring to him as a writer—more than biographies or even the music—were photographs. He goes on to make a number of (highly debatable) points as to why. Dyer includes a few such photos in the text, and mentions a few others in the bibliography, some of which I posted; we took some time to examine them in class. But how much more we could have done! In hindsight, I realized that each of the four classes about each of the four musicians should begin with a much more extensive analysis of a photograph—or, better yet, the students could write about those photographs, either before coming to class or in the first ten minutes. Doing so would help (a) once again weld elements of the class together, in this case by drawing forward insights and practices from the just-completed gallery walk; (b) give students a visual foothold for discussing the fictive aspects of the text, i.e., the details and scenes via which Dyer brings the musicians to life as characters; and (c) create a much firmer segue into the graded assignment.

Connection between the reading and writing: that’s what was most missing from the jazz unit. Students had a choice between writing an essay on jazz based on a couple of prompts, drawing in But Beautiful and/or the introductory readings; or writing a photo analysis based on an artist of their choice. Not surprisingly for this one—as opposed to the other assignments—literally no one chose the straight essay. This was my second revelation-in-hindsight for this unit, one that applies equally to the next unit (see below), and possibly to other assignments where the text serves as generating point rather than sole focus. The key here is to work the introductory material, in which Dyer discusses the use of photographs in his own creative work, into the instructions for the assignment. The assignment would thus ask them to begin with a discussion of Dyer’s preface, probably with some suggested questions to help develop; they would go on to analyze their own photographs of their own artists, drawing in part on the ideas from Dyer they had presented and discussed in the first part of their essay.

Words ARE music

As noted, for the final unit, Sounds, Words … Voices, we turned our attention to poetry and lyrics, and the way poets, singers and rappers encourage us to hear words not just as empty nodes of meaning, but as musical objects in themselves. We segued into the unit by examining poetry that gives particular attention to the sounds of words. Some of these poems I’d taught in Writing About Music before, though without thinking of them as a segue into considering lyrics. This semester, the idea was to make a transition from poetry that foregrounds sound (whether over & above/in lieu of sense, or as an emphatic adjunct to it) to song lyrics, with a particular focus on hip hop. I allowed myself a day-plus to once again try to bridge back to the terminology for analyzing rhyme and meter they would have at least touched on in their second semester writing classes. Although the packet also contained poems by Poe, Hopkins, Carroll, Hughes, Roethke, cummings, and Lorca, I ended up focusing on Frances Conford’s “The Watch,” John Updike’s “Winter Ocean,” and Michael Stillman’s “In Memorium, John Coltrane” for our full-class discussion. The Conford made a nice departure point for the way regular rhyme, meter, and onomatapeia help to create a poem’s meaning and tone. The Updike and Stillman made their own perfect pair: each is a flash musical composition, but with antithetical feels: Updike’s is indeed a winter ocean, all clashing stresses and jumbled images, whereas Stillman’s is pure flow—the relentless drive of a Coltrane solo.** Reciting—really performing these poems was indeed key; and I think that in the future a more formal performance component might be woven into this lesson—perhaps even as a competition? (By the way, if “poetry slam” just popped into your mind, or more broadly the way that spoken-word poetry might fit with this unit, rest assured it has occurred to me as well. It is so much the poetic ambience in which our students live today. Doing so would mean expanding and/or revamping this unit, as well as delving into the culture and practice of spoken-word poetry, about which I am largely ignorant.)

The articles about rap, John McWhorter’s “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More … They Just Call It Rap” and Kelefa Sanneh’s “Word,” a review of Jay-Z’s Decoded and the Yale Anthology of Hip Hop Lyrics, nestled together beautifully. McWhorter, like the Yale editors, makes the case that rap is poetry. But Sanneh points out—correctly, in my opinion—not only that such claims are more than anything about cachet, but also—and this is really the crux of it—that such a claim ignores hip hop’s actual contribution, its “genius”: “to make us hear words as music.” In this way, the McWhorter-Sanneh “debate” also dovetails beautifully with the jazz unit, which included an excerpt from Billy Taylor’s “Jazz: America’s Classical Music.” What is gained by asserting such equivalencies, Walser asks in his intro blurb, and what is sacrificed? In effect, Sanneh asks—and answers—precisely this question about rap: When rap is equated with poetry, is not something—in fact, its very essence—lost—even in its translation to the printed page, where “literature” is supposed to exist? (What a long way we’ve come since Newsweek’s notorious 1990 attack on rap, which, sadly, does not seem to be available on-line; it might have made a nice counterpoint.) In this context, it was also useful to recall the kerfuffle around the Dylan Nobel Prize a couple of years back—though the connection occurred to me too late to try to find/work in an article; such an article might work well with the McWhorter and Sanneh, demonstrating the way hip hop and folk music are both reference points in broader cultural conversations about and anxieties over art and value: what is literature, who gets to say so, whether lyrics should be valorized as such, and whether what works on the page works orally, and vice-versa.

As always, the sound-based poetry, and then the discussion of the rap articles that followed, was partly intended to serve as a platform for the assignment to come, which asked them to analyze a snippet of hip hop lyrics (or other lyrics, in the case they didn’t listen to hip hop) both “on the page” and in performance, in terms of their sound—rhyme, rhythm, and vocal quality (timbre, delivery, etc.). One of the best things that came out of this—the best things are always unanticipated—was a discussion of the concept of “flow,” which Sanneh raises in his article, quoting Jay-Z. It’s one of the few moments I can remember that I was able to capitalize on a “teaching moment”: I told students to go find the definition in a credible source. It became an extra credit paper-chase. Two sent me personal definitions—they clearly believed themselves authoritative!—although one of them added three wonderful links to freestyle rappers that I was then able to turn around and use in our next class. Interestingly, one student found a blog associated with Oregon State University, but it turned out to be by a student—not strictly authoritative, but with some worthwhile ideas, and good fodder for a discussion of .edu sites and credibility. Finally, one hit the goldmine: Oxford Music Online, the same source they were supposed to visit for the research project, and whose entry on rap from 2013 contained a lovely and very academic definition of “flow.” It also presented a great opportunity to consider why the 2001 OMO entry for rap did not contain “flow” at all, and why the term was not itself an entry … though, as one student rightly noted, it might become one in the future.

Though students had the option to write an original verse in someone else’s style (together with an analysis) or an annotation, the vast majority chose the college essay analyzing lyrics (according to the model provided about “Earth People,” noted above). In this regard, the discussion of “flow,” together with the assigned articles, should allow me to do for this assignment what I intend to do with the Dyer text in the jazz unit: students would draw on concepts and ideas presented in the readings in their introductions, and potentially to help them develop their analyses. This will help (once again) balance the reading and literary element of the class (using expository writing to discuss a text) and the creative and listening element (selecting their own musical text to work with and applying ideas from the class to help parse it).

One bonus of this final unit was that it provided an opportunity to flesh out an idea I had unwittingly raised at the very beginning of the semester, by introducing those quotes from Barzun and Bernstein: music as a circuit that bypasses representation, seeming to appeal to the emotions without recourse to image or concept. In this light I thought to bring in some concrete poetry, though the cummings served well enough to show how the page, as a visual artifact, also communicates outside the meaning structure of grammar. In this regard, it might be nice to also bring back the broader question about how listeners relate to their music—a question that also arises at the very beginning of the semester around My Music. How do they, as listeners, weigh the relationship between words and music? To what extent do, say, racist, or misogynist, or politically-obnoxious lyrics change our relationship to a song?


Well, here I am at the end of another extensive postmortem—the most extensive yet: the organs all in their proper little trays, the body splayed & evacuated … but there, just under where the gallbladder once was, the research project, once again left behind. Like Gary Larsen’s cows, who sit there without opposable thumbs, unable to answer the phone: so I sit. This semester I actually used Prof. Rounds’s research project—I mean wholesale, just took it and jimmied the damn thing into my course, with hardly an edit—I shouted, “There ye are; and make the best of it!”—and so maybe, in my above-threatened Postmortem IV: The Revenge, I will have an opportunity to talk about in what ways it kicks the crap out of the research assignments I’ve tried in the past. As it is, I’d rather spend the remainder of this post(mortem, ha ha, punny punny) discussing what IS here, and what might be.

What IS it, man? A sort of chimera, a hybrid between a very writing-intensive music appreciation course and an advanced composition course that takes music as its semester-long theme. And that is, I think, the right interdisciplinary space for it. The question for me moving forward, then, is not how to change the identity of the course, but how to fully capitalize on this interdisciplinary niche, in such a way that students find and keep their bearings through the semester-long ride.

One way, as noted, is to rein in the assigned listenings (see above). The increasingly extensive use I’ve made of the Blackboard site is obviously a good thing—particularly as this is one of the few courses I teach that I could imagine in an asynchronous environment. But after preparing a hybrid course last year (for second-semester comp), my weaknesseses with Blackboard became that much more apparent. And it’s not just the sheer quantity of material. Why, for example, did I keep the oldest stuff on top, burying the new at the bottom of a Course Content page deep as a well? Scroll, scroll, scroll … So the hybrid training helped me become conscious of stuff like this. But I’m still going to have to start with a judicious pruning of the amount of material; only then will the recursive elements of the course really stand out to the students.

In terms of developing the course further, as I look back particularly on my attempts to make the listening portion more robust, I have started to fantasize about auditing another class—but this time, rather than theory (which, I admit, I partly did for my own pleasure), music education. I actually got this idea by way of my niece, who, as a euphonium player studying music at Northwestern, with an eye toward possibly becoming a music educator, was assigned to visit music classrooms in area high schools. I think a similar endeavor would help me to consolidate the changes I’ve made in the “elements” portion of the class. The trick will be finding a place where I can do it, as I am longer blessed to be living a five-minute walk from City College’s Shepard Hall (cf. “Goodbye, Music Library!” 12.31.12)!

At the end of the semester I gave my students my own evaluation. In addition to asking them about the best, worst, and most difficult readings, listenings, and assignments, and memorable lessons, all of which I’ve done in the past, this semester I asked a series of true-or-false questions: (1) This class exposed me to music with which I was not familiar; (2) This class enabled me to notice things about music I hadn’t before; (3) This class helped me think about the music I like in a new way; (4) I’m now sort of interested in exploring jazz; (5) I’m going to stop listening to everything I used to listen to and, from this point forward, listen only to death metal.

My reasoning was as follows: #1 has to be true; anyone who answers “no” is clearly doing so from either ill will or lack of attention; an “F” answer would would help me rule out corrupt surveys. #5 is obviously facetious. The core questions, then, are #2-4; #2 and #3 are broad goals for the course, while with #4 I just wanted to know if the jazz unit had piqued any interest. I can’t, of course, put too much stock in such a survey; even though I kept them turned over and asked for anoynymity, it does not have the sort of safeguards of a regular evaluation. Still, I thought whatever information I might glean could be useful.

As it turned out, I was wrong about question #1: the only student who marked “F” actually wrote a thoughtful closing note (in a space I had marked for “closing thoughts”); how he or she already knew all this music I can’t say. The only survey I discounted was the one marked “T” for every question … including listening to death metal for the rest of his (or her) life. (Someone else wrote in the closing comment box, “I will never listen to death metal.”) Discounting the all-T survey, the answers were as follows, T’s first: 1, 12-1; 2, 12-1; 3, 9-4; 4, 7-6; and 5, 0-13. Obviously, I’m happy with #2, and moderately so with #3; I really like the idea of students turning a new sort of attention on “their” music. There might be cause for a tiny celebration about #4; some students even marked But Beautifulas their favorite reading, and expressed the wish that the jazz unit had been longer.

And finally. In the academic-political context of our time, it’s hard not to see this long-ass post as a bit of a protest. Perhaps the most dispiriting transformation in academia since I began teaching has been the move to outsource curriculum. Faculty become content-delivery machines, education allocators. Chevron writes my curriculum; I just stick the nozzle in my students’ ears and pump that good ol’ Chevron-knowledge in. I become a glorified TA, really just there to do the grunt work of grading papers, and of course AI is slowly catching up with us there (hilariously, at least for the time being). Frankly, I think we’re in danger of outsourcing ourselves out of a profession. To me, the two most exciting things about teaching are developing curricula and being in the classroom, and my hearing issues are rapidly making the latter a thing of the past. Why on earth would we allow a network of increasingly-corporatized schools and for-profit companies to rob us of the best part of our profession? I love that little feature on Blackboard called “teaching style,” which enables you to select a course theme (rocket! legal pad! ocean!), and the shapes of the buttons. Pretty soon that’s what we’ll be reduced to—what we’ll reduce ourselves to. See ya, birthright! Hello, mess o’ pottage! Every such platform shapes the way we teach, and “education corporations” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) clearly want to control this, in the same way textbook publishers want their products to get adopted, and database companies want to gouge colleges (and use faculty for free labor too boot). Curriculum is the hard-fought product of the reading and study and teaching teachers do, and the dialogue and sharing they engage in: the collective creativity of the professoriate. Why teach otherwise? When I developed my first hybrid course earlier this year, as noted above (to help mitigate my hearing problems), I was given the opportunity (but not mandated—please don’t misunderstand me here) to look at the products offered by one such company; I could, like, link to their dude giving his American lit survey lecture. And then I wouldn’t have to do all that work myself, would I? I, or rather my institution, could just buy it instead. It’s seductive, isn’t it? Being a kept man. Colleges maximize the number of classes we teach, and the number of students in our classrooms; the grind takes away from the time we have for developing course materials; we all went to get our scholarship done, or write insanely long blog posts … and voila, like a little wish-granting fairy, Edukation-R-Us appears to sell us the stuff we need, so colleges can keep stuffing more students into our classrooms, more classes into our schedule. But why would I use that when I’ve already made my own? I like my lectures. I keep refining them as I keep reading and learning. I’m not against the cornucopia of wonderful material available on the web; in my American-themed Literature and Composition course, I always post several of the Annenberg “American Promise” videos and encourage students to watch them. I also post several links about every author I teach, generally ones created by colleagues at other colleges, some by government organizations doing state history, some by independent scholars. That’s a creative commons, like the smaller one we have here at CUNY, onto which, when I am done writing, I will upload this, in the hopes that someone may find it as useful as me, and for the karmic responsibility to others doing the same. But a ready-made template provided by some poor underpaid sop probably burned out from adjuncting, unable to secure tenure-track work in our current academic inferno? Really?

Oh, Henry David! H.D.! Help me! (Thoreau appears from a wisp in the air, dressed as a shrub oak, knocks out the Edukation-R-Us fairy with a two-by-four, and says:) “It is no worse than a thousand other practices which custom [i.e., capitalism] has sanctioned; but that is the worst of it, for it suggests how bad the rest are and to what result our civilization and division of labor naturally tend.”††


* Cadences aren’t always easy for students to hear, particularly if they don’t have a musical background. Then again, if Peter Manuel is correct in his analysis of fandangos as heard by audiences with different cultural backgrounds, what counts as resolution is at least partly culturally specific (see Peter Manuel, “From Scarlatti to ‘Guantanamera’: Dual Tonicity in Spanish and Latin American Musics.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 55:2 (Summer 2002), 311-336). I wonder: If one plays the leading tone (in the proper harmonic context), will all people, irrespective of their origins, and based solely on the cognition of hearing, expect resolution on the tonic? It does seem like the academic pendulum is swinging back toward neurobiology. Those last three notes of the antedent phrase of “Rainbow” (“way up high”) are actually the same last three notes of the old six-note jingle in National Brand Outlets commercial (“N, B, O!”). (Is the jingle in a different key? I think so.)

† I realize this is ass-backwards to the way music is thought about today, i.e., not in terms of its elements, but in terms of cultural contexts; there is no such thing as “raw listening.” This is me nodding; this is you waiting for me to say something intelligent in response. This is me going on and talking anyway. This is you, sighing and reading on.

§ The old song pairs I used can be found in the original “Postmortem” post. This semester, I deleted the Beatles Cubanos and the Stones/Devo “Satisfaction” and added three new pairs: “Take Me To the River” by Al Green/The Talking Heads; “Me and Bobby McGee” by Roger Miller/Janis Joplin, and “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce/Antony and the Johnsons. Not surprisingly, the Beyonce had several takers, though I got better work out of “Me and Bobby McGee.”

** Together with John Sinclair’s brilliant Monk poem “humphf,” Stillman’s is my favorite jazz poem. Why does jazz poetry have a tendency to be so elegaic, so heavy? So much jazz poetry seems to miss the breath and hop and light beauty of the music—and what Art Blakey called “goofin’.” They intone rather than sing. Not that there aren’t a number of other poets whose jazz-themed poetry I admire: Baraka’s, much of Komunyakaa’s, O’Hara’s beautiful elegy for Billie Holiday …

†† From “Black Huckleberries,” an excerpt from Wild Fruits, left unfinished at the time of Thoreau’s death, published by W.W. Norton in 2000. The excerpt appeared in Harper’s.

Eight Years in the Pit

Maybe I’m still hungover from my last posting binge, or maybe it’s just gotten to the point that my posts are so ungodly long I have to break them in two. Whatever the case, the two books I “reviewed” in my last post (“Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18), and particularly Travis Jackson’s Blowin’ the Blues Away, raised for me some questions about who music writers write for—that is, questions of audience—which is just the sort of meta-critical stuff I like to ponder in these year-end roundups. So, with your permission.

According to Jackson, jazz musicians don’t think much of jazz criticism, with one exception: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues (131). If and when musicians do read about jazz, they tend toward biographies of major figures—and even here, the text’s credibility may be questioned. These observations form part of a broader discussion about the channels through which musicians gain knowledge about their craft; by and large, jazz criticism, and writing about jazz more generally, ain’t one of them. Instead, Jackson writes, “other musicians and performers” are regarded as “the most trustworthy repository of knowledge” (131).

Given the above, two questions: Do music writers write for musicians? And: Is music writing somehow vindicated when it carries the imprimatur of a musician? My answers: No; and God, I hope not.

There is much musicians can add to the discussion of music, just as there is much writers can add to the discussion of literature. Writers and critics approach texts from different ends, so to speak. It makes sense that writers would most want to know what other writers have to say, and musicians other musicians. Artists’ comments tend to address craft first and foremost. But discussions of texts, literary or musical, are hardly limited to the how; beyond this, there is no reason to assume a musician’s words are any more valid or illuminating than those of a critic with a sharp ear and sharper pen. In fact, the opposite is often true. And so it should be: a musician’s job is to play music, not write about it, although he or she may occasionally be paid to do the latter, and may occasionally do it very well. I should add that this is true whether the music in question is their own or another’s. In literary studies, we have long since acknowledged that the author is not the final arbiter of meaning.* Rather, he or she is one of a number of frames that can be put around the text; others include the culture from which the text emerged (as per Jackson’s “blues aesthetic,” and which may be partly approached through the artist) and the interpretative community (as per Greenland’s arguments about the criteria of jazz audiences; see Chapter 1 of Jazzing). With this in mind, and particularly given the different medium in which musicians work, it’s not entirely clear to me why musicians’ words would be valued above those of other careful, knowledgeable, and passionate listeners, above all those who have worked to hone their craft within their own profession.

All this is not to say there aren’t errors in music criticism or bad music writing—read around my blog, I’m sure you’ll find examples of both. Where the profession is concerned, Jackson notes that this is sometimes due to things like space constraints, looming deadlines, the absence of clear criteria (a problem Ted Gioia takes head-on in his latest book, How to Listen to Jazz), and the question of what credentials, if any, are required (cf. the long-standing question of how much theory a critic should know). Greenland adds competition from amateurs on the web (!), and problems of oversaturation, burnout, and critics’ positions with respect to the scene (i.e., the thin line between review and promotion, and the potential disinclination to lose “access” because one writes bad reviews). Jackson actually mentions a few scuffles: between Joshua Redman and New York Times jazz writer Ben Watrous (for whom Jackson worked for a time) over a Vanguard performance where Watrous felt Redman was pandering, and between Wynton Marsalis and Village Voice writer Kevin Whitehead over a bad review the former received. (Marsalis’s reply is telling: “Who has this writer studied or played with, and what is the source of his authority other than poor editorial decisions?” (100)). We also learn, via an interview with Redman, that Sonny Rollins disliked Gunther Schuller’s seminal essay about him (Jackson 131)—that is, a laudatory essay written by a fellow musician.

Rollins, Marsalis, Redman … Were I a professional critic, rather than a homely blogger, such a junta would be enough to scare the bejeezus out of me. I would bury my pen in the same place as the bullets once meant for the workers’ uprising, and the ashes of old pets.

Scuffles and disagreements like these also put on the table the question of how much power critics actually have. Gary Giddins, who I would agree to call the dean of American jazz criticism if I had a higher opinion of deans, believes his words have the power to help but not hinder, since those musicians jazz critics tend to dislike generally have careers and audiences that care not a whit about their opinions (Greenland 127). But does this really mean a poor review can’t harm an up-and-coming musician, particularly from someone of Giddins’s stature? Or is it the case that, as I noted in a recent post, Giddins has to feel inspired by a musician—and inspired as a writer—to write about him or her, so that he tends not to write broadsides? The latter is probably true, and certainly resonates with me. Regardless, in a competitive environment like New York, where a prominent critic’s pick in a widely-read news source can make the difference between a sold-out engagement and an audience of crickets (Jackson 101), any musician who receives good press has to be stealing from another. Silence can kill as effectively as words.

Anyway, if it were true that critics had no capacity to hurt, why did Marsalis bother to respond to Whitehead in the first place? The power dynamic would seem to run the other direction, since Marsalis could surely do much more to hurt Whitehead’s career than vice-versa. (Did he do the same to Giddins, another Voice writer and Wynton skeptic? If not, why not?) But I guess hurt feelings isn’t quite the same thing as a hurt career.

The question of who we write for might be partly illuminated by trying to answer the related question of why we write. For me, in its highest incarnation, music writing is an attempt to translate something important, even something essential, about one’s experience of listening to music for a reader. (I love how Carl Wilson puts it about an imagined better music criticism: “What it is like for me to like it.”) This is obviously not the only thing we do. But even when we are synthesizing factual information about the culture and musicians and history (and I want to emphasize synthesis here, that is, orchestrating these facts and ideas in a novel way, which depends much on the analytical and creative powers of the writer—most non-writers tend not to realize both the labor and creativity involved), it should be with that goal in mind.

Among other things, this means valuing the language for what it is. And here I need to return to Blowin’ the Blues Away. In his discussion of the critical reception of jazz criticism, Jackson writes the following: “Critics […] display a great deal of passion and erudition, though their engagement with or understanding of the music is not always apparent. As many of the commentators on jazz criticism have acknowledged, many of these individuals are first and foremost writers, capable of devising elaborate metaphors and choosing piquant adjectives, but few are adept at sustained argument” (100). “First and foremost writers,” indeed. And again, so it should be. Because in the end, “elaborate metaphors” and “piquant adjectives” are our instrument; to fault music criticism for this is like blaming a musician, not for their particular phrasing or sense of harmony, but for picking up the horn in the first place. If the emphasis here is on the word “elaborate,” then point taken: any critic can let the language run away from them. But the force of the quote seems to be on metaphors and adjectives per se. These things—along with all the other parts of speech, down to the lowliest preposition, and every other tool in the rhetorician’s well-stocked arsenal—are what we’ve got to work with, what do all the work. They’re the only things than can possibly make anyone understand what Jackson’s “taking it to the next level” means (see “Vasudeva”).**

Given Jackson’s focus on a “blues aesthetic,” this is somewhat ironic. For if the African American elements according to which jazz “needs” to be understood are precisely those which harmony and theory can’t parse, they are also, not surprisingly, the things most difficult to express in language. Greenland notes as much, though with other issues in mind: “Musical elements that resist analysis and classification include timbre (the “color” of sound), nonstandard pitches and tunings, and rhythmic flexibility […] [timbre] is usually defined in metaphorical terms that are, by definition, imprecise and highly subjective” (22). Imprecise and subjective, yes … and so, so rich. It is, of course, the reason “color” is in quotes. All music writing belongs in quotes; it’s the force of that first “like” in the Wilson quote above. That is at once its greatest strength and the signature of its eternal failure. As for the other two elements Greenland lists, the ability to “objectively measure” them tells us little to nothing about them. And so, particularly with musics that don’t fit squarely into the Western canon, we are forced more than ever into elaborate and not-so-elaborate metaphors, piquant and not-so-piquant adjectives, and the whole kit and caboodle of nouns, verbs, synechdoches, parataxes, &c., &c.

A useful analogy might be made to the art of literary translation. When I teach Latin American Literature, I spend a week or two looking at excerpts from seminal writings on the philosophy of translation, and the different approaches to translating they imply. On one end of the spectrum is Vladimir Nabokov, who much preferred word-by-word accuracy to any attempt to remake the original as literature in the new language; he calls for mountains of footnotes, not (specious) beauty. Such a Nabokovian translator is a little like a traditional musicologist: he or she can parse all the technical parameters of a piece, explain what is happening harmonically very clearly, but will not able to move past this, at least in this discourse; his or her writing will be read by other experts, but very few laypersons will gain much from it. Little to none of the pleasure or beauty of the musical experience will be communicated, except perhaps to that narrow community of scholars (although the analysis may take on a logical beauty of its own). It’s a bit like having a joke explained: clever, but not funny. If jazz is the sound of surprise, then in such writing jazz disappears.

The other side of the coin might be best exemplified by John Dryden, for whom the goal of the translator is not to capture the original word for word in a literal or “servile” (Spanish servil; Octavio Paz makes much of this) translation, but its “spirit” or “essence.” Nabokov complains that too many such “literary” translators are inadequate in the original language, and so make botches. He was also pretty displeased with the “literary” quality of the results.*** For Nabokov, literary translation is an oxymoron. It should be noted that even the most liberal of writers about translation are not far behind him in terms of throwing up their hands at the challenges faced by translators. But when they consider the rewards of even a moderate failure—that translation enriches the literature of the world by bringing vast new audiences to works in other languages—even such a quixotic task seems worthwhile.

As for writers translating, Paz argues that, while this is seductive in theory, “poets are rarely good translators.” Why? Because “they almost invariably use the foreign poem as a point of departure toward their own. A good translator moves in the opposite direction. […] Poetic translation […] is a procedure analogous to poetic creation, but it unfolds in the opposite direction.”

And so with music writing. An impossible task, to be sure. A worthwhile one? I’m not sure. We certainly can’t make the grand claims made for translation, since the gift of music is precisely that translation isn’t necessary, that it crosses borders without needing a passport, and so on. Or so we are told. But in those instances music writing really works, I think it does enrich the musical experience, opening doors to what we hear and the way we understand. For whom, I don’t know. For me, certainly, both by reading great writing about music and by attempting it myself. I’m content to fall flat on my face if I’ve gotten a few steps closer. Why would I bother to write about music if I wasn’t seeking to understand and appreciate it better? But then that’s a given. The author is his or her own best audience … and as such, worst enemy.

I know the analogy to literary translation is far from perfect, but the echoes are highly suggestive. If it is supposed to be a cliché that the best music criticism reproduces what it writes about, why is it so often forgotten? If Dyer, a jazz writer who disparages jazz writing in his closing essay to But Beautiful (which also serves as his case in point, since the rest of the book, his fictionalized portraits of jazz artists, is so much better), believes, as Bernstein did before him, that only art can answer art, and that indeed the music of jazz is a history of critical commentary, and hence that jazz criticism is superfluous (which I guess is the point of his conclusion: an essay to end all essays), then clearly criticism must aspire to art, and music criticism above all. Which means, again, “piquant adjectives” etc. are indeed the stuff and the only stuff of music writing—the very stuff that makes reading music writing worth our while.

But then that Paz quotation calls me back, admonishes me, builds the walls of the little room where I can dance. Clearly, if the goal is literary translation, we need to have translators at once sensitive to the original language (music) and the translated one (words). It isn’t only Paz who speaks to the dangers of a translator getting too far from the original, projecting their own ideas onto the text—precisely what a fan Jackson interviewed felt about music reviewers. Obviously, we want writers who “understand” the music and can use words in such a way as to enrich our understanding of it. But where music is concerned, “understand” is a fraught term. Does it mean being able to hear a chord substitution? To be able to hear the music in the fullness of its historical, generic, and/or cultural context? To be able to feel the music on a deep level (other fraught terms: feeldeep)? All or some combination of the above? Is any one more important than the others? Can a strength in one make up for deficiencies in the others? To what extent can cross-generic and even cross-disciplinary observations result in meaningful writing? Feeling certainly opens us up to projection and nonsense … but it’s also difficult to imagine really good music criticism without it. It does tilt the balance decidedly toward the reflection of the musical experience in language. If we all experience music differently, and music resonates with each of us differently, in a way a literary text does as well, but in a much more limited sense (because language still signifies), then what matters is not whether Rollins liked it, or who so-and-so studied with, or whether, God forbid, they have a bunch of little letters after their names, but whether that writer can explore the musical experience sensitively in language.

I’ll conclude this discussion with a paean to nonfiction. I’ve been really blown away by the quality of some of the nonfiction I’ve read in the last couple of years, some of which I’ve mentioned on this blog (The New Jim Crow, for example, and Between the World and Me), and some of which I haven’t (The Sixth Extinction and Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon spring to mind). It shouldn’t surprise me, being such a James Baldwin fan, and always believing his nonfiction was a yet-greater achievement than his fiction. But we do, as a culture, tend to value fiction and poetry over nonfiction, imagining the latter to be a servil translation of facts, except when we attach the prefix “creative” to it, as if the imagination played no role in the former. I think this is a mistake. I’m not arguing for the collapse of distinctions, but rather for equal recognition of achievement in both categories, and perhaps as well that all genres of writing should aspire to transcend their categories and be called literature, music criticism among them. We—music writers; all writers—should be so bold as to make these claims, and to have these aspirations. (You can call them pretensions if you like; I am happy to acknowledge them as such.) As readers, too, we should have these expectations. And we should all lament the constraints of space, time, and attention span on music critics who would be best left alone to develop their skills, and their tastes, at their leisure.

So. Giddins or Rollins? Gary might demure, even scold me, but I wouldn’t want to do without either.


As always, a look back at the year in words.

Besides simply wanting to have more content to make it feel like a year, I think the reason I waited until November (now December) to write a reflection is because I needed to convince myself this blog hadn’t entered The Ironic Zone, decadence and exhaustion: the Fall of the Pit of Helldriver. (A cartoon I used to have up over my desk showed a guy at a hot dog cart telling his customer, “Sorry, we’re out of everything but irony.” I think it was by Gahan Wilson.) I seemed to be writing nothing but satirical pieces (“The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” “Classic Rock Radio,” “Crash Course in Auto-Drumming”), and that after a half-year without blogging at all. Now that I’ve managed to produce a couple of posts as long and torturous as anything on this blog, with “Refined” serving as a sort of transition, I feel like I can close the “year” on a higher note. But as long as I’m on the subject of eschatologies, I will take this opportunity to mention that I have a year left in this blog—year again in quotation marks—at which point I will take a more extended break … perhaps a permanent one. I have much work to do to make it to that imaginary finish line.

Before painting over this mirror, I want to go back to a somewhat earlier post, “Un/coiffed” (12.8.16), which reading Blowin’ the Blues Away did much to thrust back into the forefront of my conscousness. In his history of the debate over jazz’s racial identity (see, again, “Vasudeva”), Jackson recounts a particularly ugly moment in the neoconservative ‘80s. Young African American players were coming to the music newly enthused about its tradition, and one of the ways this manifested itself was in their very formal attire. Apparently, there was a backlash against these new young sophisticates for being too traditional, and too fashion-conscious (and hence superficial): a “sneering, hostile” jazz press baptized them “young black men in suits” (Tom Piazza, qtd. in Jackson 31).

Reading this, I wondered if the “odd racial overtones” of these “sneering, hostile” critics were also present in my post; I did, after all, make much of the sartorial decorousness of the young mixed-race band that played at the Jazz Gallery that evening, and compared them, somewhat unfavorably, to the frumpy old white guys at The Stone later the same night. It was all a bit glib. I hope that my closing discussion in that post is more nuanced than that, and my criticisms of the younger band more generous, more about age than anything else. I was, after all, innocent of this episode in the annals of jazz criticism. But “innocent” is a relative term when one was born and raised in a country where racism is so deeply enmeshed in its history and culture. Anyway, the reader can judge for him- or herself. I am grateful to Jackson for calling the whole thing to my attention; knowing the history of one’s craft makes one, I hope, more conscious of one’s words and opinions, and a more reflective writer overall.

It’s funny, I’ve seen creative writers talk about the blogging they do as a time suck, the way Facebook posting is: a way to avoid doing other, more important work. I’ve never felt that way about this blog. Frankly, I think that if you’re seeing blogging as a time-suck, that means it’s a time-suck for your readers as well. I have no interest in writing time-sucks, just as I have no interest in reading them, though I do occasionally succumb in the minutes before bedtime to that sort of attentionless browsing. I do regard making time to write stories and creative nonfiction as more important, which is one of the reasons keeping up with the blog has been challenging, and the hiatuses have occasionally been extended. Music criticism is a genre I enjoy writing (and reading), but it obviously falls somewhere on the outskirts of my professional background and abilities, whatever they might be. I occasionally write poetry, too; blogging is a little like that: working in a genre that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but that I sometimes find necessary and pleasurable to write in, and where I feel like I can sometimes do valuable work—posit a good idea, or capture something in sound with the right word or phrase. So I like to think these things fall along a continuum, rather than the either-or “serious work” and “time suck.” Some days I feel just that way about writing fiction, anyway: there I am, up in my office, building my ridiculous model airplanes as though they’d already crashed. How can I really call it anything different from what I do here on my blog?

And what the fuck else is there to do? My partner is out digging holes in frozen ground. My dogs are tearing an old sock apart between them. The days pass. I sleep better for it.


* I wonder to what extent this is still true. Grad school in English is a bit like one’s musical adolescence, in the sense that the theory one learns there tends to become the lens one reads through for the rest of one’s professional life, because, I think, one’s first contact with the power of theory, of raw ideas, their ability to describe the world and problematize things we had taken for granted, creates a powerful impression that serves as an intellectual analogue to our early encounters with music, and the deep furrows our first musical loves make on our lives. I don’t think the analogy is farfetched; graduate school is a sort of intellectual adolescence, a first enamoring with ideas, so that they almost become hormone-charged. Anyway, it is true that, like the record shelves of many people which remain stranded in the music of their adolescence, so the bookshelves of those with higher education and their books. I understand that today in English grad programs people are studying brains, and animals, and perhaps the brains of animals; and were I teaching in a school with a graduate program, or even a serious senior-level seminar or theory class, rather than at a community college, I suppose it would be my professional responsibility to keep up with such things (hence the shudder-making difference between my profs in grad school who did and those who didn’t; whether or not they accepted the current paradigms, they were at least conversant with them). Since I don’t, I’m much more comfortable going back to reading all the Barthes et al. I haven’t read. Anyway, we may or may not have resurrected the author, but I hope we still know better than to trust him or her; and I don’t see why that should be any different when the author is a musician, speaking a language that comes to us as through the bubble of another dimension.

** A few other thoughts here. First, I’m bewildered here by the implied antithesis between “writer” and “sustained argument.” I thought one of the things writers did was write arguments. Is the issue here creative writers? That poets can’t write arguments? I have no clue. Second: To what extent does the teaching of music unfold a capability with language about music that didn’t necessarily exist when school was primarily or entirely the bandstand? I know, there was always high school—but those teachers were teachers first, musicians second (Cannonball notwithstanding), unlike those employed by music conservatories and departments today.

Finally, an anecdote. I was reminded by all this of a wonderful poet I went to graduate school with. I think he might have dropped out—I wasn’t close with him—but I did take a class in Medieval Literature with him. I remember, when he had to present on a poem about a rose, he claimed that he liked the poem’s “delicacy” … but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go further than that. Here’s the punch line: I was never in his apartment, but a friend of mine who was says he had almost no books. Instead, his apartment was filled, wall to wall, with jazz records.

*** It’s a pity Nabokov was such a pedant and cynic when it came to translation. I can only imagine what his cross-linguistic genius could have done had he applied himself to writing literary translations. I remember seeing an exhibit of his papers once at the New York Public Library; the edits he had made on the manuscripts of his own son’s translations of his early novels into English were revelatory. By the way, my sources for the philosophy of translation come from the excellent anthology Theories of Translation (Chicago UP, 1992). There is also a companion volume, The Craft of Translation, which I have not read.

Vasudeva on the Hudson

The first or maybe second time I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I became enamored of the character of Vasudeva, the ferryman. The ferryman, as you may remember, has learned from the river how to listen. “Without his saying a word,” Hesse writes, “the speaker felt that Vasudeva took in every word, quietly, expectantly, that he missed nothing. He did not await anything with impatience and gave neither praise nor blame—he only listened […] with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions” (ps. 85, 87). I wanted to emulate Vasudeva: I, too, wanted to master the art of listening. Whenever my students tell me, as they have occasionally, that they liked my class because they felt I was invested in the conversations and truly interested in what they had to say—and whatever my reservations today about the novel’s philosophy—I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to Hesse and Siddhartha.

There is no music in Siddhartha, at least that I recall. Others of Hesse’s novels—Steppenwolf, The Glass-Bead Game—are steeped in music. But Siddhartha comes to me from the farther reaches of memory as a silent book, or no more aural than the soundscape of, say, the river itself. The ferryman has mastered the art of listening to others speak. Would the same hold true for music? If so, would it not be lovely for a fiddler to bring his fiddle onto that ferry, a guitarist her guitar? There he would be, the one true listener, a sufficient audience unto himself.

Hesse’s ferryman came back to me as I was reading Thomas Greenland’s Jazzing: New York City’s Unseen Scene (Illinois UP, 2016), one of two ethnographies of jazz I read this year; the second, which I read first, was Travis Jackson’s Blowin’ the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene (California UP, 2012). Both studies examine New York jazz in the ‘90s and ‘00s, with Jackson’s concentrating on traditional (“WBGO”) jazz, and Greenland’s on a combination of “trad” and “downtown,” or avant-garde. Both authors stress the need to understand jazz by looking beyond the music itself, to the contexts of its production and consumption. For Jackson, this context mostly means African American culture as it is revealed through attending performances and recording sessions, and interviewing musicians. For Greenland, it mostly means the way different actors—musicians, fans, club owners, journalists, and so on—interact to make New York jazz possible and meaningful. (I say “mostly” because Jackson does consider the different actors in the scene, and Greenland does cite some interviews with musicians; but the bulk of their attention, respectively, lies elsewhere.) It was Greenland’s attention to jazz fans, whom he compares to sammi’ahs (of tarab music) and cabales (of flamenco), “dedicated connossieurs who think and feel music on a deep level” (48; Greenland’s emphasis), and who inspire others, including the musicians who perform for them, that recalled the ferryman to me. I like the colloquial term for these Vasudevian listeners, too: they have “big ears.”

Before going any further, I should admit a narcissistic attraction to these texts. I was active on the scene during the periods Jackson and Greenland study. As a fan, I was eager to see myself in the mirror of these texts, to imagine the authors as phantom patrons who might once have sat at the table next to mine, and to nostalgically identify with the places described—to murmur to myself, “I was there.” Indeed, by Scott DeVeaux’s definition (cited in Greenland), I was, for almost two decades of my life, a hard-core fan, one among only about half a per cent of jazz listeners who attend at least one set per month (more like one or two sets a week). I was—to use another lovely colloquialism from Greenland—“chasing the dog.” (A colleague of mine, who is still chasing the dog in his early seventies, describes himself as “a geriatric club-rat.”)*

What this means is that, in gleaning what I could from these books, I also had the expectation that I would learn something about myself. Not just, that is, how scenes function to create meaning, which would have repercussions for the way I understand other popular musics that I think and write about on this blog, or any other nuggets of wisdom I might acquire about jazz history or the recording industry or music per se (and there were plenty); but also about the musical history and context of the city in which I came of artistic age. I can’t help but see music through the lens of New York; and, musically speaking, I can’t help but see myself through that same lens. What might these studies reveal to me about the lens itself?


The goal of Jackson’s project is to understand “how participants in the jazz scene, and especially musicians, construct and construe meaning in musical events” (6-7; Jackson’s emphasis). As noted, for Jackson you get the most out of analyzing jazz in the context of the scene and, more broadly, the culture from which it arises. In fact, trying to examine the music outside of its cultural context reflects a bias imported from the study of Western (classical) music; and this bias has historically hampered our understanding of jazz. White critics who have told the story of jazz have tended to “whitewash”—Dizzy’s term, which Jackson uses as a chapter epigraph; they have “molded what they saw as primarily African American musical practices in the image of Western literary and musical traditions” (28). But jazz, Jackson asserts, can’t be just “about itself”; it is inseparable from African American tradition; it comes out of, and feeds back into, African American culture (212). Part of Jackson’s project, then, is to bring to bear on the music the specifically African American cultural context of jazz that many earlier studies had erased.

Jackson calls jazz “a spiritually oriented ritualized activity” (22) governed by a “blues aesthetic,” an “African American approach to music-making” whose elements he begins to describe via the scholarly writing of composer Olly Wilson: “use of (overlapping) call-and-response techniques, off-beat phrasing of melodic accents, percussive approaches to performance, timbral heterogeneity, use of polymetric frameworks, and the integration of environmental factors into performance” (Jackson 47). Overall, if jazz music and performance are deeply rooted in African American experience, which itself feeds back into said culture, then to consider jazz from a traditional musicological framework not only misses all the subtleties that can’t be notated by Western scorekeeping and analysis, but the very thing that makes jazz jazz.

Among other things, the above conclusions mean that Jackson must grapple with the knotty and contentious relationship between jazz and race: between, that is, jazz as American music (e.g., “America’s classical music”) and jazz as African American music. He traces the history of this controversy back to the emergence of the neoclassicism of the ‘70s and ‘80s, through the eventual institutionalization of Wynton Marsalis et al. at Lincoln Center, and the predictable backlash—particularly predictable against the backdrop of concurrent debates over affirmative action. White critics lamented that whites’ contributions to jazz were being overlooked, and argued that jazz was “supposed” to be about integration, a point Jackson legitimately questions (32-3). For Marsalis, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch, jazz was all about “blues feeling, timbral nuance, and rhythmic swing” (34)— that is to say, elements it derived from African American musical tradition.

Jackson consistently emphasizes that this is a question culture, not color, even as he acknowledges how much race and culture share. “Musicians of varying backgrounds,” he writes, “have learned to perform the music. Each of them has had to marry whatever musical skills they had […] with the conventions and aesthetic priorities of jazz performance, which remain consistent with the aesthetic imperatives of other African American and African-derived musical forms” (48; Jackson’s emphasis). The same, one imagines, should hold true for audiences: listeners “of varying backgrounds” can learn to listen to jazz. But the way race and culture shade into each other in the popular imagination and discourse makes me wonder. For the Marsalis camp, it is far from clear that racial/cultural others are capable of mastering the requisite elements of African American tradition as players (cf. Crouch’s comments on trumpeter Dave Douglas; Jackson himself notes that Crouch is “harder to defend” than Marsalis or Murray, and treats him, I think, rather too gently). The same seems to be true for listeners, at least based on some of the interviews Jackson foregrounds in his study. Any music, Joshua Redman opines, can be played with soul; and anyone can connect with music on a spiritual level. But there’s soul and there’s soul, “a certain kind of emoting which is associated with the blues idiom and blues expression” (qtd. in Jackson 115). For saxophonist Sam Newsome, for example, a black audience member who is familiar with the music—and possibly one who isn’t—hears the “soulful” side of his playing; a black audience member hears and appreciates what white audiences can’t. Others might connect intellectually, and perhaps “spiritually,” but not on that “deeper” level (Jackson 118-9). Again, Jackson himself calls this “learned cultural knowledge.” But is the spiritual learned? Or perhaps it’s the appeal to the spirit, the path to it, that is learned? If so, is there a point at which this learning must start, if we’re to imagine a listener able to connect on that “deeper” level? Is “deeper” a question of quantity or quality, degree or kind? However we slice it, in Newsome’s formulation, culture—and again, it is difficult not to project race onto the term—does determine how near an audience member can get to a music’s essence. By this logic, Newsome would presumably never hear Beethoven’s “Tempest” piano sonata the way I do.† There is always a residue of culture/race that will prevent the Other from reaching the citadel of “deep” connection, from hearing the way a musician “work[s] through and re-present[s] that culture for the benefit of ritualized performers and listeners” (Jackson 140).

As I struggled with these questions, I couldn’t help but think of Henry Louis Gates’s Jefferson lecture on Phillis Wheatley, the revolutionary-era African American poet I mentioned in a recent post (“Refined,” 5.30.18). According to Gates, when news of her poetic capabilities reached Jefferson’s ears, he took it upon himself to review her work (just as earlier an august committee of white men had taken it upon themselves to cross-examine her, to determine whether she could possibly be its author). In a letter to a friend, Jefferson basically makes the case that, while hers might look like poetry, it isn’t really poetry. Wheatley, like a monkey or parrot, had learned to mimic poetic form, poetic speech—this much was true; but the essence of poetry, the thing that makes poetry poetry, was absent. And so with the (culturally?) “white” player of jazz: he or she can, like parrot or monkey, copy what is played—can do, in other words, all those things that Western music recognizes in jazz (harmony above all; melody, less so; rhythm, not sure); but “timbral nuance, swing, and blues feeling” remain the exclusive property of the cultural other. And so for the listener. What I myself love isn’t quite jazz, but rather some watered-down version of it. Like a virtuous pagan, I remain forever on the outside of the circle of the elect, full of desire but without hope, as Dante had it. As the night of Wheatley’s blackness forever blots out the sun of true Poetry, so the suburban middle-class whiteness I carry with me like the mark of Cain forever sequesters from me true Jazz. No matter how much I learn or how deeply I listen, I am condemned to listen impoverishedly.

Miles touches on this whole issue of cultural learning beautifully in his autobiography. Visiting his grandfather in Arkansas, walking country roads at night, hearing music out of nowhere: he was the middle-class son of a dentist; but his skin color, and his contact with earlier generations, made it possible for him to be exposed to something that forever inflected his musical voice: “that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm” (Autobiography, p. 29; shades of “Sonny’s Blues” here, no?). A similar point was made in one of the roundtables Down Beat devoted to the question of jazz and race in the early ‘60s. Needless to say I don’t have any good answers here, and I’m wary of going on so long about a point which, after all, Jackson works mightily to contextualize. But I will throw out what are hopefully a few useful questions. If it’s true that African American culture has, through the agency of hip hop (one of the post-bebop Black popular musics Jackson notes have interacted with jazz in the last half-century), “become” American culture—or, perhaps better, white youth culture has more intimate contact with a particular strain of African American music-making than it ever has before—then to what extent does it still make sense to talk about a separate African American musical culture, as opposed to, say, a youth (urban?) musical culture deeply inflected by that of African America? (N.B.: This is not to say that we’re living in anything close to a post-racial society … which means I’m probably contradicting myself. Since it’s a question, I’ll let it stand and just move on.) Indeed, Jackson himself alludes to how much has changed in jazz over the last thirty years: the way the music has entrenched itself in conservatories;§ the way the scene, and the blues aesthetic itself, can change over history—indeed must, by his very definition of the music feeding back into and transforming Black culture. And then musicians today—like their audiences—are steeped in a wide variety of genres, some of them African American, from which they draw liberally, and which certainly impacts the way a listener hears jazz. “One might only guess,” Jackson writes, “what kind of impact such shifts will have” (213). But haven’t they already? And so what do these shifts mean vis-à-vis the “essence” of jazz and the relationship between “race”/culture and the music?

Conversely, if jazz has become, in the last half-century-plus, a music played and adored by European and Asian musicians and audiences—and if at least Europeans have remade jazz into something that blends their own tradition with African American music (see, for example, Northern Sun, Southern Moon, Yale UP, 2005)—not to mention the way jazz has inflected the music of other parts of the world, particularly (but not solely) those within the African diaspora—then to what extent does it still make sense to say that only those with cultural know-how about African American music-making can understand the “essence” of jazz, or to claim that the music’s essence is somehow restricted to “timbral nuance,” etc.? Should we give the music another name? Wouldn’t it sound as sweet? Or should we simply accept that this astonishingly brilliant cultural property (that word!) African Americans developed over the first half-plus of the twentieth century was a gift to world culture, and that part of giving this gift is the expectation that others will make it their own? Indeed, if the gift was anything, it was perhaps a recognition of possibilities, of a sheer openness about music-making. (I should probably remind readers that Jackson states at the outset that he is working with mainstream jazz, so the appeal to African American culture pace Crouch et al. makes sense. Then again, mainstream is an incredibly fraught term.)

Oh, you’re probably rankled now. African Americans already “gifted” their labor to the world—that is to say, it was stolen from them—and now they must gift their arts as well? Is what rankles the lack of recognition and recompense, the long history of appropriation and exploitation of black cultural forms by white artists and entrepreneurs? If it’s any consolation, jazz makes up an idiotically miniscule fraction of the music industry. It’s not like Led Zeppelin not paying royalties for “Bring It On Home,” or whatever. In fact, Jackson himself documents the economic insignificance of jazz: the way major labels’ jazz divisions, no longer profitable but once important for prestige purposes, folded and artists were dropped as these labels moved to a portfolio model (cf. the 1976 film Network).**

In all this hand-wringing, I find myself a little flummoxed about the source of my own anxiety. It seems disproportionate to the issue. On the face of it, the idea of a style of music being a group’s cultural property that others can neither appreciate fully nor perform sensitively, at least without enormous labor and attempted immersion into said culture (and perhaps not even then), seems like common sense. I learned the lesson well enough from living in Andalucia and dilettantishly “studying” flamenco (which really meant reading and watching vids at the wonderful Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, and taking some lessons in guitar and compas). The andaluces are weaned on it; I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the level to which the rhythms, the palos, the whole ethos of the music, had been absorbed. So why my hand-wringing at the idea that jazz belongs to a cultural other, and is a form for which my appreciation remains limited? Is it because, whatever I might mouth about jazz being African American music, I still believe in my gut that jazz is an authentically American expression, and thus belongs to me, too? Or, as I noted above, that it might have begun as African American music, but now belongs to all citizens of the world? Is it that I still want to believe, in my core, that music is indeed a universal language, that its cultural specificities are a surface feature beneath which lies the pan-human experience; that, as such, it creates bridges in deep places; and that this is true, not just of classical music, as its one-time missionaries believed, but all music? I might note that my flamenco example is somewhat extreme, if less so than thirty years ago, given the difficulty of successfully translating it into other contexts. Some musics are harder to adapt, and so have remained sheltered and rooted in one place, while others have spread around the globe. Of course, such globalization (and “art-ification”) may also dilute a music’s cultural essence (whatever that is), just as a classical composer’s use of folk tunes may. Or would it be more correct, or at least more hopeful, to say—depending on the particular pattern of diffusion a music undergoes—that globalization simply shifts the center of that music, finds new essences, that these losses are compensated for by other gains?

I am perhaps particularly sensitive to this question right now, living through a historical moment where certain elements of the literary culture take offense at fiction writers “writing about experiences not their own,” which seems to me the yet-more-pernicious obverse of that spurious old coin “write what you know.” (So much for Siddhartha’s ferryman!) Perhaps we need to consider—as I have argued on this blog before, but here with Vasudeva in mind—that every act of listening, like every act of reading, is an imaginative act, an opening to an Other; that, for example, when Hester Prynne, pleading with the authorities Hawthorne describes as wise but utterly incapable of sympathy, to keep her child, and she turns to the child’s unacknowledged father and basically loses her shit at him, a young black or Hispanic woman in my class who has ever had to deal with CPS, or who simply has had struggled to raise children, might be able to see across the wide swath of history and culture and feel her words as deeply as any reader ever has; just as I, white, male and childless, am somehow always moved to near-tears every time I read this passage; because, somehow, Hawthorne, in his intermittent and fickle genius, has managed to capture something of her rage and despair so perfectly that the screen of years and the stilted, antiquated language and the alien culture in which the events are set suddenly drops away, and I feel, somehow, that the text becomes utterly and magically transparent. Probably I’m just deluded—you know, one white guy foisting another white guy—a dead one—on my black female (and male) students, and asking them to weep with me. Ugh. (It’s not like I’m not problematizing Hawthorne’s own status as a male writer and his constructions of femininity, of the “mysteries of an erring woman’s heart” that he claims to be able to fathom. Maybe we should be asking Suzan-Lori Parks why she wrote In the Blood?)

Basta. For me, it always comes back to the same questions. Have I listened closely? Have I really listened? How do I construct myself as a listener so that I really hear? That is, it always comes back to that ferryman, just as the ferry does, crossing the river over and over again, and always landing in the same spot. It is always the same river and always a different one; it is always the same spot and always a different one.


To formulate what he calls the “blues aesthetic” that governs jazz performance, Jackson mines his interviews and comes up with the following elements: “having an individual voice; developing the ability to balance and play with a number of different musical parameters in performance; understanding the cultural foundations of the music; being able onself to ‘bring something to the music’; creating music that is ‘open enough’ to allow other musicians to bring something …; and being open for transcendence to ‘the next level’ of performance, the spiritual level” (110). There’s nothing wrong with lists per se … but after the rather lengthy theoretical discussions that precede it, it feels a little reductive.†† The problem may stem from an overreliance on musicians as his source. Ironic that Jackson, who, pace Amiri Baraka, questioned twentieth-century writing on jazz for being overly influenced by the New Critical idea of the centrality of the text (and, more broadly, for too many doltish literary types trying to write about something they don’t understand (101)), seems to have reacted by resurrecting the artist from the ashes of Romanticism. The problem—one problem—is that musicians, like most artists, have a tendency to speak in tongues. Music, their true language, is at once utterly candid and maddeningly oblique. Like Socrates’s poets, they speak according to the inspiration of their god; their knowledge, their consciousness about what they do, is as the haze on a horizon after sundown. (There are of course exceptions to this rule; Joshua Redman, one of Jackson’s sources, is preternaturally articulate.) Now, Jackson himself does call attention to this. Discussing musicians’ difficulties in trying to explain the role that tradition plays in their music, he writes, “The silence […] is perhaps an indicator not of the illegitimacy of the concept, but of the difficulty of verbalizing experiential and musical concepts that are deeply felt” (120). True enough; but it puts a bit of a dent in his methodology, and, I think, points to a broader weakness of this study. Jackson seems to regard language as a transparent means of communication that, unlike music, well, anyone can do, rather than a craft that, like music, attempts to unfold one’s feelings and ideas—including feelings about music—via the messy, gummy medium that is words. It helps account, I think, for a certain flatness in his writing, a certain obtuseness about his argument. It most impacts his book when he moves from competently synthesizing the materials of other scholars and his interviewees to trying to describe the aesthetics and interactions of performances and recording sessions. (I will return to this question of language more extensively in my “year”-end post.)

Reading Jackson’s take on the Greenwich Village of the ‘90s, I found myself wishing, page after page, that he had more to say. A “jazz-related understanding of the neighborhood” (52)—yes; that a venue isn’t just, as it’s often been understood, “a scrim in front of which [jazz musicians] marched on their way to making history” (52)—yes again. As per Jackson’s thesis, you need a scene to facilitate and create meaning, and scenes include musicians, venues, and record stores, as well as changes in things like zoning and rent laws. But beyond these generalizations, I get little sense of what changes made what differences in the ‘90s Greenwich Village that purports to be his subject. We get a general description of clubs, their importance to the scene, their typical layout, and the way that they can en- or discourage audience-musician interaction, and camaraderie among fans. But what about, say, Smalls, or Smalls versus the Vanguard, the Vanguard versus Sweet Basil, in terms of, well, pretty much everything: how they’re set up, the relationship between audience and performer, the pictures they have on their walls, etc.? Jackson also mentions the perennial problem of staying in business, the way rent hikes drive up cover charges, which also tends to make clubs risk-averse, and to favor big-name artists with major-label contracts rather than allowing such decisions to be made in the more intimate, autochthonous interaction between artists, club owners, and audiences. That’s great; but again, there’s ne’er an example to illustrate this, to engage the reader, or to probe the way that particular venues or particular changes participate in the creation of particular meanings. What is Jackson’s jazz-related understanding of the Village, based on all his footwork and interviews? Where’s Gaston Bachelard when you need him?

When he gets to music and the mechanics of performance, Jackson seems to have even less to say. He discusses how performances are framed and organized, and how jazz tunes work, perhaps on the assumption that another ethnographer reading this text will have little to no understanding of jazz, or that a musicologist coming from another genre will need a crash-course. Perhaps my own fan status—spiritual deficiencies aside—blinds me to what other readers would need to know. After reading Jackson’s clear and complex theoretical underpinning to jazz as a ritual activity, and ritual activities like jazz performances producing “ritualized bodies,” I wanted to see these ritualized bodies—isn’t that the point of ethnographic fieldwork, of attending jazz sets with one’s anthro-cap on? But I never get more than a hint of them—certainly no fleshed-out portraits. As a result, although Jackson argues that observing performance in terms of its visual, proxemic and kinesthetic dimensions is essential for understanding (and that, conversely, recordings are biased and partial representations of musical events),§§ I never got the sense from his study that the recording sessions or sets he observed added much of anything. He notes, for example, the significance of body movement, and of glances exchanged among and between musicians and audience members. But his descriptions are too rote to be in any way revealing. A typical example: “One of my table companions […] was moving her head up and down in time, entrained to the groove in the same way I was” (152). Another: “Teekens, Bolleman, and I were glancing at each other briefly during these interactions, as if to say, ‘Did you hear/see that?’” (176). Again: “[The music of Meldhau, Hutchinson, and McBride] pulled everyone in the control room … into the performance, leaving us mesmerized” (184). (If this were music journalism, rather than academic anthropology, that’s the sort of bland generalization that would never make it into a magazine or newspaper.) Yet again: “Audience members were shaking heads as if to say, Wow!” (195). The smiles recorded between different participants come so fast and furious that I began to wonder if “smile” would be an entry on the index. (It was not.) The upshot: either Jackson’s own lack of data torpedoes his thesis that these other dimensions of performance are essential (i.e., there is simply little to nothing to observe); or his field observations were not sufficiently detailed to lead to any persuasive conclusions; or he is unable (as a writer) to communicate the nuances of his data. If the last, it’s a fitting reminder that the words aren’t just something; they’re the only thing.***

My frustration fairly boiled over with the recurring phrase “taking it to the next level.” It’s a colloquialism he adopts from an interview with Steve Wilson, if I remember correctly; but after a number of iterations it began to sound just plain silly. It also moved in and out of quotes willy-nilly, as if Jackson himself were unsure how to consider it. He writes, “When performers successfully synthesize and work with all the materials of a performance (space, time, tune, form, other performers. and other participants)—when they exhibit ritual mastery—that is when a performance is most likely to proceed to the next level” (151). Later, the music of Meldhau, McBride and Hutchinson “made it clear that they indeed ‘took it to the next level’” (187). (Did they, indeed?) Later, “The tunes were well played but never really moved to the next level” (197). And so on. I can just hear an audience in postgame analysis: “Was it on the next level?” “I think it was on the next level.” “No, wait: maybe it was on the same level.”

And so with this study: it never “proceeds” to the next level. A shame, because Jackson is incredibly knowledgeable about the music; he is well-versed in theory and thoughtful about the issues of race, culture, and history, whatever my penchant for hand-wringing. Perhaps it’s a problem of autoethnography, or its obverse; that is, perhaps Jackson thought that too much description and reflection, too much a book written not just about but according to a blues aesthetic, would make it appear he had sacrificed objectivity on the altar of navel-gazing. Or perhaps it’s the perennial problem of the reticence of the social sciences, at least when the reader is from the humanities. What else did you see? What’s it all mean? Can’t you speculate? Where does the language take you? Where is your imagination in all of this? (Chomping at the bit to talk about the “Sokal squared” scandal, I restrain myself, even from a footnote.) If jazz is a “synechdoche for African American culture,” does that mean we stop or start hearing it as jazz? What is lost, and what is gained? Is there only an anthropology of music today? Am I just a victim of my own narcissism, wanting to see myself in a text that, finally, doesn’t let me see much of anything?


Greenland’s Jazzing suggests not. Of the two, it’s the more satisfying contribution to the ethnography of New York jazz. I don’t think it’s just because the book comes half a decade later, so that Greenland has the opportunity to build on the work of Jackson and others in what, after all, is still a sub-field under construction. I don’t think it’s because Greenland is a particularly better writer, either—in fact, his paragraph conclusions are so clunky they made me rethink the standard pedagogy on paragraph structure. Rather, I think it’s because (1) he narrows much of his work to the New York avant-garde scene, and this allows him to speak with greater specificity and density about how this scene is organized and operates; and (2) his mosaic of interviews with critics, club owners, jazz-inspired visual artists, and fans gives a more well-rounded and grounded sense of how scene creates meaning.

Some of my favorite stuff in this book comes from his interviews with club owners. It certainly gave me a new, more humble perspective on going out to hear jazz. God knows I’ve kvetched about prices, and I’ve thrown more than one crusty look at a loud talker or phone addict during a set. The irony had never quite dawned on me: were it not for liquor and assholes—and expanded and diversified musical offerings, something else that sets off hard-core fans—these clubs simply couldn’t survive. Not that I was ever the sort to nurse a soda or anything; but it does make me feel like a huge churl to have complained to a friend that Smalls was now charging sixteen dollars for a Brooklyn Lager (or was it eighteen?)—to recollect that I had in fact refused to order a drink in silent protest over such ridiculously inflated prices. And I cringe within myself to remember the night I stood at the door of Smoke and declined to take the last cramped bar seat because, in my mind, it was unreasonable to charge the same as for a table. I mean, I had every right not to go in—where the hell was I going to put my backpack overstuffed with NYC loot for starters? It’s the self-righteous anger of the oblivious consumer I cringe at, the one for whom jazz has become another fetishized commodity. Anyway, there are a number of great vignettes in his chapter, and one diatribe, by Smoke owner Frank Christopher, is so hiliariously dead-on that I was tempted to type the whole two pages into this post. (Conscious of the length to which this double review has grown, I demure.) It might be argued that cheap talent is the perennial New York problem. But that would be to ignore the elephant in the room, one that comes up over and over in this chapter, as it did in Jackson’s study: if it was always hard as hell to run a moderately profitable jazz club in New York, in the Trump era it’s become pretty much impossible. (Sometimes, when I look around at my beloved city, I can’t help but see the skyline wearing a cheesy yellow toupee, like a smog.) Smoke’s Christopher sums it up beautifully: “The musicians play for less than what they deserve and more than we can afford” (108).

It was also nice to get some horse’s-mouth downtown history, particularly the backstory of the kerfuffle around The Knitting Factory, the one-time center of avant-jazz in New York. Musicians who had performed regularly at “The Knit” up through the mid-‘90s ended up defecting over their perceived exploitation by owner Michael Dorf. Chief among them was John Zorn—apparently the whole thing finally blew up over taping a Zorn rehearsal—who then went on to open Tonic, in 1998; and, when Tonic fell victim to the Lower East Side real estate boom a decade later (and that big fugly blue hotel that opened up across the street), the spartan avant-gallery The Stone, now become a ward of academia via The New School. (I’ve written about both the latter venues in earlier posts: Tonic in “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs,” 12.7.12, and The Stone most specifically in “Master/Class” (11.23.12) and “Un/coiffed”). Nor did I know that The Stone was named after Irving and Stephanie Stone, godparents of the downtown scene. Like club owners, hard-core fans like the Stones were a rich vein for stories, observations, and commentary for Greenland, both in terms of the history of the scene and the philosophy of jazz-loving.

I similarly appreciated Greenland’s discussion of the phenomen of transcendence, which is enriched by the attention his study devotes to audience. Jackson’s, while also fascinating, is largely limited to musicians’ descriptions of the feeling, when a performance is going well, that he or she is in touch with a higher power, variously described as channeling, becoming a vessel, or the sense that “the instrument is playing itself.” Jackson also draws important cultural connections to the Black church, and the concominant role of venue and audience to creating the proper ambience. Greenland’s study takes off from here, drawing out the role his “big-eared” audiences play in facilitating transcendence. “The collective act of serious listening,” he writes, “generates palpable energy that galvanizes and guides the creative efforts of improvising musicians” (156); the audience members become “vessels for mediated transcendence” (155; my emphasis). He cites saxophonist Sedric Choukroun on the chemistry between performer and audience, “reflecting your music and surrounding you with its attention,” that allows the performer to forget him or herself, to surender the ego (165). This connection, Greenland notes, creates a “synergistic feedback loop” that “dissolves” the boundary between audience and musicians (165). (Or, as the saxophonist Joe Maneri put it, the audience becomes “another instrument” (Otumo, qtd. in Greenland 166).) The audience’s experience of transcendence similarly depends on the communal nature of the event, as Greenland sediments in a lovely quote from Matthew Somoroff: audience members “want to bring their interiority into contact with those of the musicians and other listeners, to experience an interiority that paradoxically gains intensity from its grounding in public and/or social situations of performance and audition that enable a shared feeling of ‘we-ness’” (62). There is something at once exhilirating and terrifying in this, as there is in all acts of ecstatic worship to which the practices of free jazz bring us closest (see, again, “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs”): the intensity of the tongue of flame and the bacchanal; the sacrifice, the blood ritual that lies just beneath the mask of institutionalized religion or art, straining at its boundaries, and which comes through quite clearly in the words of Irving Stone: “I’m for blood” (166).


For all I appreciated the depth and detail of Greenland’s work, and the space he gives to different scene members—and even as I find this mosaic view more compelling and satisfying than Jackson’s—I am not entirely persuaded, and perhaps even a little troubled, by his foregrounding of audience … which is to say, his thesis, into which I will now back the belching tractor-trailer that is this “review.” From the outset, Greenland refers to audience members as “offstage participants” who are “‘performing’ jazz”; “they constitute the unseen jazz scene, the silent and not-so-silent majority that forms an integral part of communal music-making” (34). His goal, like Jackson’s, is to broaden the musicological lens, here to the audience, who he feels has been marginalized, just as, for Jackson, African American culture has been in jazz studies. In doing so, I wonder whether he swings the pendulum too far away from the stage. It reminded me of—and perhaps my reservations are based on—the postmodern “active audience” tradition in popular music studies: the idea that the audience is not a passive vessel for whatever the culture industry wishes to pour into it, as per the Frankfurt School, but rather active creators of their own meanings from the bits and pieces said industry proffers. Admittedly, this analogy doesn’t work very well for jazz, and is particularly ill-suited to the downtown scene, where labels are tiny, musicians and venues hawk their wares after sets, and many musicians and hard-core fans are on a first-name basis. Here, industry mediation shrivels to almost nothing. Such a scene permits an intimacy and a sense of community impossible in the world of pop music.

It’s not just a question of the size of the scene. As improvised music, Greenland notes, jazz in performance is uniquely susceptible to audience influence; audience response, or merely the so-called “energy in the room” brought by a particular crowd, can shape how musicians perform, and with what sort of intensity, both of which find their way into musical parameters like duration, tempo, repetition and dynamics.

Based on these criteria, to say that the audience is part of the performance is warranted. Even in stadiums, audiences do shape performances; and both the intimacy of this scene and the nature of this music gives them an agency perhaps unparalleled in other genres of music. A musician needs sympathetic, knowledgeable, and well-trained (i.e., “big-eared”) audiences who “play their part” in the “ongoing performance” that is a music scene, just as the musicians (and club owners, and music critics, and so on) do. They (musicians) might even speak in inflated terms about the music not “being there” if not for the audience. And all this may help us to re-imagine audiences, and give them their due in a scene. It may even help us to understand more fully certain nuances of how scenes operate. But if we take such statements too literally, we end up with absurd propositions about notes falling silently because no one’s there to applaud. And to call audience members performers seems to me to speak in postmodern generalities that do more to muddle than to clarify. An audience’s role is, finally, subordinate to and tightly circumscribed by the musicians and the music. I found myself bristling at the term.

What is performance, beyond that postmodern urchin we find begging on the corner of every humanistic discipline? Jeff Schlager, the jazz “action painter” who paints two-handed during performances at the Vision Festival, and thus himself becomes an object of attention, is quite obviously performing in the traditional sense of the word, even as his product is different, its mode of consumption bifurcated. We might even extend the idea of performance to the music critic, if we want to think about writing-as-performance—though here we are getting into murkier territory. This isn’t, after all, Lester Bangs beating up his typewriter on stage at a rock concert, though my first drafts often make me feel that way. When we extend the circle wider, to people like me, who show up and put their coats on the back of their chairs, their backpacks on the floor, and open their ears … can I really claim to be performing? Yes, I am “performing” my role in the scene. I may applaud a solo I like vigorously. I may even muster a “whoo!” or “yeah!” if things are going particularly well. And I do hope the attention and energy I bring as a listener combines, in some metaphysical way, with other listeners’, and that it is captured, somehow, by the musicians. But the level of activity is at once so much less integral and so different from the music-making, that I fear lumping everything together under the rubric “performance” is to empty the word of meaning, and does a disservice to both audiences and musicians.

“When listeners perform,” Greenland writes, “and performers listen, the imaginary boundary between them dissolves, clearing the way for mutually mediated collective improvisations” (156). And, elsewhere: “Attending live concerts allows audiences to become coauthors of collective improvisations in a living jazz scene” (49). Collective improvisations? Co-authors? Really? It’s just this sort of hyperbole that makes me suspicious of the whole framework of audience agency. In other places, Greenland hedges: “By closely following artists for an extended period, fans feel they are part of history in the making, witnesses to and participants in a voyage of discovery” (52; my emphasis). Aye, there’s the rub: do we “feel” it, or are we? Are witnesses “part of history in the making,” and if so, to what degree? To what extent can witnesses be participants? How much, if at all, do we really matter?

As with the question of cultural learning, I shouldn’t leave this point without turning the analysis back on myself. I think part of what rankles me is that, as a literature person, I associate it with the rise of the “new novel” in the mid-twentieth century, a novel that was supposed to break down the wall between writer and reader, and make readers co-authors, or something like that. I always found such experiments in “breaking the wall” much more manipulative than classic fiction; instead of revolutionary, they seemed to reify the existing ideology, making audiences believe they had powers they do not. And so with music. Like certain elements of the punk scene, the downtown jazz scene may bring us closer to a differently-imagined society than any other; but we’re deluding ourselves if we think it doesn’t still largely operate according to the rules of said system, even as it tries to carve out a different niche from within. When I pick a night to go to Vision, I’m looking for Hamid Drake, and Rob Brown, and then anyone else I can fit in. Of course, the more music I want to go hear, the more I have to oil the gears of capitalism. The musicians, as Greenland quite viscerally reminds us, also need to eat.

Maybe, though, I’m blinded by the prejudices of my own discipline, and would do well to tread more lightly on the paradigms by which another organizes itself. Maybe music is something else. For what has often troubled me about all of this active-audience stuff is how it plays into the contemporary moment. It’s the disease of the internet, of the cell phone, of connectivity. Today, it seems a listener can only imagine him- or herself as a co-creator, an author, an actor … never just a listener, a reader. We have become even more the people we always were. We are bewildered by the things Siddhartha learned when he was a samana (ascetic): to think, to wait, and to fast. (Well … I’d drop fasting. For me, fasting means thinking about eating. Two out of three ain’t bad.) But if the musician, as Jackson heard from his sources, has to learn to abandon his or her own ego, and the audience, as Greenland also records, does as well—if both musician and audience are conceived as parabolic mirrors in which Music can find its perfect echo, then perhaps in music is a way out of our postmodern madness. The terms—active, agency, co-author—are illusive; it is actually an abandonment of agency by all involved. In a world almost devoid of ferrymen, everyone who gathers in such spaces to listen, including the musicians themselves, are hearing the great river of Music flowing out of Time and back into Time.

We have much to learn from that river, today more than ever!


* Another wonderfully resonant moment from Greenland: the old NYC dilemma of too much going on at once. Downtown stalwart Steve Dalachinsky’s quip that “it’s always the best show when you’re not there” (79) was hilariously resonant, as was Stephanie Stone’s chiding him: “He’s afraid to miss anything, so he misses a lot.” (80) My jazzhead friends have occasionally lauded me for the way I succeed in jigsawing together two sets in an evening, trying to figure out, say, if I can walk across the Village in the probable downtime between sets. But then I spent years working as a part-timer, cobbling together complex calendars of cheap and free music around the City, particularly in the summers. By the time I had a full-time job and disposable income, I was an old hand.

† Except, perhaps, by the idea that Beethoven was “black,” which a student was finally able to source for me, a documentary called Hidden Colors, which I have not found time to watch yet. It seems to imagine a Beethoven who lived in the antebellum South instead of Vienna, and who was hence subject to the one-drop rule—so much for the distinction between race and culture Jackson is so at pains to make—; this tainting of the hemoglobin presumably connects Beethoven to contemporary Black America. I understand a certain protectiveness about one’s cultural property when it has been robbed for generations. But this is a strange fantasy to be sure. It reminds me of those Mormons who find the ancestors of people who have converted to Mormonism, and then convert them (or rather, their remains) posthumously on their gravesites. I imagine these poor souls, who now have to pack up their harps and such, and move to another heavenly condo, are not terribly grateful, unless what the Mormons say is true, that their condos have all sorts of amenities the other ones don’t. I guess I would feel about the whole race-of-Beethoven argument the way at least some Jews feel about these posthumous conversions, if I didn’t find the whole thing so silly. (It also strikes me as too much beneath the spirit of Judaism for Jews to even bother kvetching about.) And anyway, what would happen to my poor Black Beethoven living in the antebellum South? I either have to imagine that he would have held his tongue when ol’ massa came by, and so was not Beethoven at all—that is, the Beethoven who told a prince there would be thousands of others like him, but only one Beethoven; who refused to bow to royalty when Goethe did, but rather pulled down his cap and kept walking; and who gave the world music as earth-shattering as the Eroica—that is, a Beethoven without ‘tude; or I have to imagine my Black Beethoven scourged to death before he published even his first piano sonatas; for he was no br’er rabbit. (He might, for all that, have passed, just as he apparently did in Vienna.) Or should I imagine my Black Beethoven as Frederick Douglass—the hair, the hair!—who, when he finally had enough, fought back against Mr Covey, and became, as Douglass puts it, a man?

I should backtrack a little and note this represents an interesting pendulum-swing. Once upon a time (and perhaps still, for some), it was presumed that Western classical music was the pinnacle of musical achievement, and the expectation was that anyone from any culture would appreciate its greatness (and, by extension, the relative inferiority of their “own” music) if they were properly educated. Today, the paradigm seems to be that musics can only be fully appreciated by members of the culture that produced them, and remain partly or wholly inaccessible to everyone else: a matter of degree, to a point; a matter of kind, possibly, beyond that point. By the old universalist idea, Newsome would have access to the “Tempest” to the degree that he abandoned (or ignored) the tenets of his own culture.

Another way to think about the same problem: As Western classical music aspires toward universalism, it sheds its cultural markers, and by doing so its essence (embedded, I presume, in some romantic notion of the European folk musics from which it evolved). Of course, aspiration is not reality. A conundrum: either classical music is as culturally specific as any other music, and hence as accessible or inaccessible as, say, jazz, or any other “art” music that draws on culturally-specific materials; or it is drained of any cultural specificity, and hence accessible to everyone, but only at the price of what it has lost, to become what Miles, in one of his stupider comments, called “robot shit” (and the people who play it “robots”), that is, the mechanical reproduction of a score. So: either Miles in his time at Julliard couldn’t grasp the essence of this music, which belonged to a culture to which he was incompletely assimilated or wholly unassimilated; or classical music is indeed universal or trans-cultural, but at the price of some cultural essence that gave it life.

Before leaving Newsome, I should relate a wonderful anecdote that speaks to this very question. The Jazz Museum of Harlem organized a series of performances-discussions at the Maysles Theater maybe a decade ago. For one of them, Newsome performed solo soprano sax, and then spoke and answered questions. A woman in the row in front of mine noted the variety of sounds he got out of his instrument, and that, at one point, he was mimicking the drawing of a bow across strings. I don’t remember Newsome’s words, but I do remember his smile. Was it that the woman, who was “white,” came to the music with a different cultural preparation, and this allowed her to hear something in Newsome’s playing that many African American audience members might not? (Even when the bow comes out in traditional jazz, it is used with much more pluck than draw; my ignorance about other/later Black American music prevents me from generalizing.) Suffice to say the more widely and deeply we have listened, the more resonant any music will become to us; and the more we listen to what each of us has to say about what we hear, more still.

One last note: my cultural familiarity with the “Tempest” comes via the circuitous route of the Europeanized Argentinian intellectualism of the mid-twentieth century in which my parents were acculturated, and my father’s training as a pianist. Does that get me any “closer” to early nineteenth-century Vienna than Newsome? If so, how much? And why do I presume, based on Newsome’s skin color, that he himself didn’t come from a household in which classical music was listened to and/or performed? If either of us wants to really hear Beethoven, we still have to open ourselves, to make the imaginative leap, to listen. (By the time you’ve read the end of this footnote, you’ve probably read the bit about Hawthorne above, so … I’m being redundant.)

Footnote to the footnote: While I’m capable of imagining an affinity with jazz based on cultural origins regardless of whether the listener is “familiar with the music,” as Newsome suggests, I do have to point to the irony captured so well in #116 of Stuff White People Like: “Black music that black people no longer listen to.”

§ Interestingly, many players noted you have to be apprenticed to a master musician to really “get” the music. I am unclear why this wouldn’t happen inside conservatories, where so many master musicians now reside, though it’s true some of Jackson’s interviewees argue that conservatories, like the scholarly writing on jazz, have downplayed the role of African Americans. That acknowledged, there seems to be a weird romantic holdover about jazz being about the road and the speakeasy, just like hip hop is supposed to be about the ghetto.

** Based on record sales, European jazz musicians should live as hand-to-mouth as their American jazz counterparts. The difference is that European countries are more generous about funding their arts. I remember seeing a depressing article in the Times about this some years ago, suggesting the Euro jazz artists are pampered by their governments. As usual, the mainstream of American thought can only imagine extending American austerity for arts and culture to other countries, rather than trying to adopt a more robust approach to funding our own—a perfect example of the blindness of ideology.

†† In this regard, it might be helpful if Jackson noted what elements of the “blues aesthetic” are shared by music more generally. Transcendence is a big one. I still remember a story told by my junior high school music teacher, Mr Babbitt. (My parents thought he was beneath us because he liked The Beatles, which is probably a better indicator than anything else I could ever say of the musical environment in which I was raised.) In the story, a conductor was using a cane or staff to beat time with the music. This man was so enraptured that he didn’t realize until after the symphony was over that he was driving the cane through his own foot. Apocryphal? Probably. But that such a story exists—and dozens, if not hundreds of poems, and philosophical treatises about the sublimity of the musical experience—makes me wonder how this particular aesthetic might overlap with aesthetics more broadly.

§§ It’s true that audio recordings are a partial and biased representation of musical events which leave out much of what is most central to the musical experience. But how much less mediated are live performances? How “authentic” are they, and how much that happens there is really spontaneous? There seems to be a festishization of spontaneity here, which is imagined to happen in live performance. It may be more likely to happen live than in a soundbooth, but …. As Miles once noted, it was rare that he came up with something entirely new when he played live.

*** I still remember a set I went to in the late ‘90s, during the year or two Ron Affif’s Monday night sets at the Zinc (when the Zinc was still on Houston) were the preferred venue for passing musicians to sit in with him and Essiet Essiet and Jeff “Tain” Watts. There was one night that was so insanely good—I can’t remember who else showed up, or if it was just the three of them, which was usually more than enough—that I walked up the stairs to Houston Street, and Essiet was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk saying, “That was a great set. That was a great set,” as if he hadn’t yet figured out a way to come back down to the quotidian reality of New York: the honking traffic, the groups of Jerseyites going from bar to bar, the night breeze swaying the branches of the few sidewalk trees. And we were only a few steps beneath him in feeling the un-reality of the New York night, compared to the intensity of what we had just experienced. We thanked him. He looked at us. I am not sure he even registered us. I think he did. It hardly matters. The point: Jackson went to zillions of shows in the nineties, and I’m sure was lucky enough to see more than a handful of sets like this one. Where are they? Where are the musicians and audience members whose experiences are written on their faces, in their bodies, in their gestures, imprinted on the city around them?

Punch, Annie

St VincentPhoto by Dana Distortion (https://www.instagram.com/danadistortion/)

It went down like this: a friend I was going to see in North Carolina happened to mention that Esperanza Spalding was playing in Asheville. I said, Esperanza who? I toggled over to YouTube, and before I knew it the night was old and I was on Amazon, ordering CDs. A few months later, seeing another friend in Baltimore, I played him my favorite track from Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), “Ebony and Ivy.” He noted that her voice, at least on this song, sounded like St Vincent’s. I said, Saint Who? (Cue “ignorance” leitmotif.) He put on “Black Rainbow,” from Actor (2009).*

One thing about friends: they know your taste. They know the chinks in your armor, your Achilles’ heels. They know the things that’ll make your cochlea sit up and beg. I could blame my friend here, either, or both, just as much as I could blame Esperanza, or St Vincent herself; but pretty soon we’d be having a philosophical debate about efficient and final causes, free will and determinism, and so on, rather than talking about music.

If you don’t know “Black Rainbow,” or Actor, or St Vincent, let me describe the first for you, and use it, as it was for me, as a gateway to the other two. The song is built around a single four-minute-long crescendo, but it feels more like a gigantic sucker punch. An innocuous beginning, led, as is so much of St Vincent’s music, by her musing, quietly seductive voice, accompanied by a sort of minstrel troupe of string players, and something that sounds like a carny organ. The troupe is only active when she’s not singing, that is, as commentary; when she is, the organ carries the harmony in a fretting ostinato. The chorus, again like much of St Vincent’s music (and many pop songs besides), comprises two parallel phrases and a tag, the whole repeated once. In hindsight at least, one recognizes it as a harbinger: the voice tumbling forward and pulling back, the tag pitched higher, unresolved. But then the whole song looks forward in this way; the sense of expectation has been building from the first note. New sounds appear, layer: in the second part of the first verse, a peep on every second pulse, tracking between channels before lodging itself in both; a fuzzbox dud on every fourth pulse of the first chorus, every second of the second chorus; something that sounds like a saw (a theremin, perhaps?) follows the melody through both choruses, and then pursues our heroine into the bridge. The minstrels introduce more and more shades of dissonance into their commentary. And all the while, the dynamic level has been rising, almost imperceptibly.

Thus, while the song cycles through a typical verse-chorus-bridge structure, all the other elements ignore it, pursuing their own linear objective. Whatever the garden in which things started, whatever clouds were there to begin with, the day has certainly gotten darker.

The bridge is a small masterpiece of rising tension. Still there is no resolution; the last word, fittingly enough, is “louder.” Had I been interrupted here, I probably would have ended up intrigued, and filed St Vincent away, to come back to at some later date (or not, as so often happens). But oh, that ending, or outro, or whatever. The word “louder” having rung out, the fuzzbox pulse suddenly (and noticeably) steps up in intensity, and the song never looks back. Pounding, ascending absurdly stepwise, the strings getting at once louder and more strident, the bass crunchier, heavier. An analogy I made a few years ago on this blog to try to describe the sound of High on Fire’s early records (see “Arcless,” 12.29.14), particularly Surrounded by Thieves, applies equally well here: that movie of the bridge being shaken apart that so many of us watched (gleefully, it must be said) in our high school science classes. And indeed, while it’s true that metal forms one lens through which I hear all my music, the feint to metal—the reason the sucker punch really connected with me—is hardly out of place: he (my friend) knew what he was doing, though he slunk around the kitchen as though he didn’t, just as much as she (St Vincent) did. To my ear, it sounded like the heavier parts of the bridge of Metallica’s “Phantom Lord,” or “Master of Puppets.” But it wasn’t just the incredibly overdriven sound that grabbed me, or the pounding of it; it was the relentlessness of the repetition, the daring of saying, We’re going to do this for like two fuckin’ minutes, longer than these little songs are supposed to do anything, longer than many pop songs themselves—it’s gonna feel a whole lot longer—and heavier than half my fans might care to hear; and then some, and then some, and then some. It sounded like heavy artillery against pop’s aesthetic logic, in particular that cliché of transposing the chorus up a step at fade-out. Sure, I’ll transpose, just like I’m supposed to; and then I’ll keep transposing, one step at a time, louder instead of softer, until you choke on it. And right when I’d begun asking myself those Burkean-sublime questions—when does it end? does it ever end? were the brownies “special”?—it ends, drops—no fade out—it has to; there’s nowhere else for it to go.

The best musicians, I’ve noticed, have an intuitive grasp of how to manage excess.

My love for St Vincent was born at that moment, the moment, that is, the song relinquished me. Not just because the first half of “Black Rainbow” is quite good in its own right, but because the second half—the black part, as in sabbath, as in fade to—rewrote my expectations about what this particular artist was willing to do with form and sound. When it works, it can make a pinhole in your carefully-groomed generic identity; and, if you fall through it, you find yourself in a wonderful new universe, like one of those sea caves under the ocean floor. All of this is not to say that St Vincent can do no wrong. Rather, because of this initiation, she becomes that rarest of artists: the sort to whom you always gives the benefit of the doubt, in whose darkest clouds you always look for the outline of a (black) rainbow.


It’s indicative of the strength of St Vincent’s catalog that I came to this post wanting to write about “The Party,” another song on Actor that I find remarkable, and ended up wanting to write about everything, at least everything I’ve made time to dig (into) so far.

I should begin, as she so often does, with her voice.

It’s a voice that achieves a paradoxical balance between distance and intimacy. Raw, naked, direct; it groans, cracks, gasps, drags; it’s breathy, gravelly, and sometimes sounds so lethargic that the music, with its usually static pulse, feels like the only thing pulling her along: she sings as if she’s just turned over in bed. It’s a voice firmly lodged in the body, like the slurs and smears of a jazzing horn. And yet, particularly as one moves forward from Actor through Strange Mercy (2011) to St Vincent (2014), it’s a voice that seems to be at its most confessional when it’s most produced. A processed intimacy. You can reach out and touch it … and then again you can’t. A voice that seems unable to exist except in extreme close-up, an intimacy that can only exist because of technology. Think those nature programs where the actions of flora and fauna, invisible to the naked eye, are slowed down and magnified. There is a J.G. Ballard story about a scientist who does what those nature cams do with the audio recording of a kiss: to the colleague for whom he plays it, it is unrecognizable, horrific. So the “intimacy” of St Vincent, the seductiveness of her voice, of her music: even as she invites us closer and closer, until we can hear every pore, she remains inaccessible; our contact with her is always mediated. We never quite feel the eros of the artist who has flayed herself for our delectation and catharsis. The power dynamic runs the other way. (Is this the paradox of pop stardom, of stardom period? Perhaps St Vincent has merely crystallized this.) “Rattlesnake,” the opening track on St. Vincent (2014), is a great example: at once so hooky, so sexy (almost the first thing she says is that she takes off her clothes), and so mocking (the post-verse/pre-chorus). When she says that the only sound she hears “out here” is her own breath, it’s hard not to think of her mocking even her own style—here, the choruses (“running, running, rattle behind me”) are half-gasped, or hiccoughed. And yet, for all the anxiety of this frenetic plena, and whatever the words she sings, she never loses her teasing poise, never allows herself the overwroughtness of a Kate Bush, whom she sometimes seems to emulate, or the tantrums of a PJ Harvey, who lets us hear the violence her emotions do to her (admittedly rougher) voice. Anyway, unlike PJ, St Vincent doesn’t bring her love to anyone: it’s you—all of us—who have to bring your “loves” to her, enthroned on the eponymous album’s cover.

At the same time there’s something girlish, something sweet and thin and too-pretty about her voice; like the intimacy, it verges on caricature, on the grotesque. This is where the guitar, in all its textures and timbres and odd phrasings, becomes so crucial. Because there’s a danger that such a voice—and sometimes such melodies, as I’ll discuss shortly—could become insipid. But then she’s holding that guitar behind her back like a fuggin’ lead pipe, ready to club the shit out of you. Just one more step. Right there. She keeps it always with her, shadowing her voice, or vice-versa, guitar and voice working in tandem to propel the music, though often running in opposite directions. In this way the guitar reinforces the fractures in the voice, exposing the rough, wounding edge of that “sweetness.” So “Dilettante,” perhaps my favorite track on Strange Mercy, shuttles back and forth between the enormous seductiveness of her voice, accompanied only by alternating bass drum and snare (and those words: “Don’t make me wait …”), and a heavily overdriven guitar riff, cluttering that space, and opening a canyon around her each time it pauses. The guitar follows, commenting, like the minstrels in “Black Rainbow,” and is eventually brought into sync with her voice. Perhaps she’s domesticated it, or perhaps she’s let its roughness possess her—or perhaps it’s a little of both. It’s not just the caricature of intimacy, then, but the danger of it. For the straight male listener, there may be something of the misogynist Rousseau here, the desire to be courted and resisted. And yet, hers is not the fait accompli of affected weakness stroking the male ego, but rather strength masquerading as / mocking weakness—the sucker punch again. I wonder if something of all this is intimated in the images on her record covers as well: the starkness of the photography on Actor, at the same time that the album title calls attention to a faux intimacy; the cover resembles a head shot, like she’s auditioning for our ear. Or the open (screaming? biting?) mouth teething the milk-white plastic (?) to which it is half-molded on the cover of Strange Mercy

That guitar, is it the violence of the bared soul, displaced from the voice? Or is it the force of recoil against us, the voyeurs who would presume to have access to that soul—presume that the role of the artist, above all the female artist, is just such an emotional disrobing? I think the latter. After all, the guitar is just as artfully crafted as the voice. An unlikely guitar hero to be sure, if only because of the way the label has been traditionally conceived.† There she is, thin as a flapper, coaxing this enormous sound out of her guitar—not to mention any number of bizarre, monstrous timbres, and gobs and gobs of Frisellish noise. A pixie riding a dragon; David with a Goliath strap-on. The list of guitarists bundled into her sound is eclectic and impressive: here Bill Frisell (and John Scofield), there Mark Knopfler (I’m thinking of the fourths and open strings on “Neutered Fruit” vis-à-vis “Money For Nothing”); she has cited Adrian Belew and Mark Ribot, fairly enough (what couldn’t she do with Tom Waits?); and of course Hendrix, Hendrix, Hendrix. For even more than the lovely riffs, St Vincent is about making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar. And yet, just as her voice manages a paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, so in the guitar, no matter how drowned in effects, we can in all but a few cases (the very blue fuzzed-out distortion on “Rattlesnake,” reminiscent of Hendrix’s sound in some versions of “Red House,” and maybe “Bring Me Your Loves”—both of these on St Vincent), hear her, hear the contact between body and instrument. Her sound is all attack. It’s a perfect word: the violence inherent in sound-making; the rending of air. When she really unleashes it, when she goes all PJ on our asses, as she does, say, in the second half of “Huey Newton” … watch the fuck out.

It’s to the guitar we owe the dirtiest, heaviest textures; but it’s also just one element of her music’s overall density—although with the sounds she gets, and all the layering and processing, it’s not always easy to tell what’s guitar and what isn’t. Amazing, too, how much each brief little song packs in—not in terms of development or melodic fecundity, but in sheer quantity of sonic resources employed, serially and simultaneously; the breadth of her sonic palette, built from deep reconnaissance into music history’s musty warehouse: moogs and wurlitzers (that cheesy run filling out the absurd exotic on “Year of the Tiger”); sequences of tones like cassettes used to make at the end of the lead (“Digital Witness” … analog noise); clicks and beeps and whistles (think R2D2 going apeshit); pings and blurps, chimes, blocks, blips … I’ll stop before I end up sounding like a brawl in the old Batman TV series. As my discussion of “Dilettante” suggests, the perception of density also arises from contrast between moments of fullness and emptiness. What has been noted about tempo—that shifts are more effective than a steady pulse for creating an impression of speed or slowness—is as true of dynamics and texture. So, in “Strange Mercy,, at that beautiful “Ten Years Gone” iteration of the verse at its climax, the Page-inspired strums, already big, are rendered God-huge by contrast with what comes before and after. It’s just these sorts of contrasts that a “Black Rainbow” or “Huey Newton” capitalizes on; their second movements are rendered that much fuller by the relative thinness of their first. The same thing can happen between choruses and verses: “Save Me From What I Want”’s pause to all but the barest pulse (and a wonderfully unsettling chime) for the second chorus’s prayer; or conversely, “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” her voice alone in the midrange, like on “Mercy,” the keys providing intermittent splashes of color, before giving way to a heavy guitar in the chorus. And then in so many songs she appears alone—that is, her voice—wearing only a soft halo of noise: the choral synth accompaniment to her quiet torch-song crooning in “Prince Johnny”; or the ambient, reverberant ballad “I Prefer Your Love,” sung through a haze, her voice set off with pings: the contrast appears not within the songs, but between them.**

The heaviness and noisiness, amplified by contrast, do make a nice scratching-post for this old metalhead. But it’s also the eeriness of her sound that attracts me. In fact, like the guitar and voice, the two often work together to produce a dark ambience. If this is, as noted, pop with a (pleasantly) abrasive edge, created and perpetuated in no small part by her cat’s-tongue guitar sound, it’s also some of the most gothic damn dance music I’ve ever heard.§§ Sometimes it’s the synths alone that do it (“Champagne Year”); other times, the keys and guitar work together, even bleed into each other. In “Marrow,” for example, her dissonant, clanging guitar goes hand-in-hand with the grisly textures and overdriven production; a dry bass thuds along at mid-tempo, too heavy to lift your feet to. In “Cheerleader,” it’s the combined keys-guitar snarl of the choruses (but how do you really feel, Ms Vincent?). Her voice, too, can be enlisted in creating this eerie atmosphere, sometimes floating over the music like Miles’s horn, sometimes becoming absorbed in the overall texture. So “Chloe in the Afternoon,” where the throttled, metallic, percussive guitar line and wub-wubbing heartbeat, all the noise of the verses, empties out—that contrast again—in the choruses to just her ghostly voice and synth line … and this other, sludgy, trailing thing. Or “Save Me”: the aforementioned chime as a bass riptide pulls her away, and she cries, teasingly, her voice doubled, “Save me … save me … save me from what I want.” Those four words, like the whip-epigram at the end of a sonnet, may be another sucker punch, but they can’t dispel the unsettling feeling of that cry; even the top-down cruising of the verses seems infected by it. The whole thing starts to sound like a bad trip.

Although the shifting, sculpted textures contribute enormously to the appeal of the music, it’s worth noting that she almost never abandons herself to ambience as an end in itself; there’s always a groove, a pulse, just as she always fleshes out that groove with her arrangements. (The sole pulseless example that comes to mind, “The Sequel,” is more coda to Actor than stand-alone tune.) Sometimes it’s the mellow H-band groove and/or slow clop/loop beat/steady funk plus synths of a Portishead, though her range is greater, her voice, as noted, closer-up (“Save Me” jumps to mind, as do “Champagne Year” and “Surgeon”). Sometimes, though, it’s the floored accelerator of “Actor Out of Work,” a song that matches Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers” for sheer forward momentum. But here, as with “Black Rainbow” and so many others, texture—the “Live and Let Die” feel of the strings—combines with pulse and dynamics to amp up the song. All the elements similarly work together in the crescendos, catastrophic endings, and edge-of-the-earth silences that form the predicates / apocalypses so many of her songs—songs that get thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, meaner and meaner, before ultimately blowing themselves apart.

I promised to say something about melodies before moving on; particularly in the verses, they tend to be short, constrained in range, and repetitive: music boxes, children’s and campfire songs. But every melody, no matter how slight, is also an opportunity for excursion into noise, for her voice or axe or laptop or God-knows-what to hack it up into lit-tle pie-ces, to bleed some darkness from it we didn’t know was there. I’ve made much of contrast and tension as the motor of St. Vincent’s music, and this one—between melody and noise, earworm and Conqueror Worm, pop and anti-pop, nodded to in my initial discussion of “Black Rainbow”—seems to me the generative one, the one that sets her at odds with all the labels to which music critics and customers-also-bought algorithms might unhappily marry her (and that makes of the label “alternative” a sort of basin to catch everything that falls through the cracks). One last example should suffice, from “Cheerleader.” The title, not surprisingly, is undermined in the choruses: over the snarling keys-guitar combo, set off by four hard punches on a stuttered “I” to knock the verses flat, her pouting “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.” I love the narcissistic high drama: the world is just as big as her room; her “no” is earth-shattering. This is St Vincent: “Hey, Mickey … go fuck yourself!”


Not a bad segue into “The Party,” if only because the two songs share melodic material in their verses, even as their choruses pull in opposite directions. “The Party” is like “Cheerleader” without the “go fuck yourself”; and, as I’ve noted, it’s the go-fuck-yourself that first grabbed me about St Vincent. “Black Rainbow” had to grab me because of the way it jives with what I already love. But I think that if an artist is to have sustaining power, it’s going to have to be because something about his or her music captures you that is different from what you traditionally listen to, something about his or her own identity as an artist. “The Party” is that song for me. It is comparatively quiet, comparatively spare—compared, that is, to the guitar-driven noisiness I usually covet—yet still very much within the idiom I’ve tried to outline above. Her voice is at the height of seductiveness, delightfully strained, tempo rubato, either dragging a fraction behind the beat, or entering on beat but sliding or cracking to the melody note (think bent guitar strings, false harmonics). How small that voice is, spare, half-spoken, for our ears only; and yet, how much sonic space it occupies, how much of our attention.

As for the melody itself, the verses, it’s in the slight, simple mold of so many others, though with an interesting twist. The 2 + 1 structure is based on a fulcrum note around which its two parts seesaw. The whole sequence is transposed down, and then this whole is repeated once, with the small but significant variation of a sharper leap, her voice cracking at the high note.†† The piano then repeats the vocal melody, though only the two higher parts. (I.e., if we describe the vocal melody as A-B-A’-B, the piano plays only A-A’. Interestingly, when this song first subjugated me, I would hum the piano melody, but hear her voice in my head; my brain elided the lower part.) The opening interval is the same as “This Old Man,” and in fact it’s the sort of thing that would sound lovely sung in imitative polyphony (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

Unlike, say, “Black Rainbow,” where the chorus continues the work/walk of the verses, amping up the tension, “The Party”’s chorus provides the answer “Black Rainbow” never does; and the song as a whole is a beautiful example of antithetically-constructed parts joined in a magical synthesis. Where the cadence of the verses is half-spoken (aided by the talky lyrics), the choruses, sung in falsetto, abandon words entirely, and showcase the voice as an instrument; where the melody of the verse zig-zags around a fulcrum, repetitive and playful, the chorus is two long rolling sequences, much more complex and ornate than the verses. There is a parallel shift in the use of the piano: rather than repeat the A-A’ of the vocal melody, in the choruses the keys become a romantic background swirl that further ornaments the vocal melody. Finally, the rhythm of the chorus shifts radically, from an easy 4:4 into waltz time. It’s as if the voice had suddenly grown up between verse and chorus (and then regressed again at the next verse); or perhaps better, had dreamed of growing up. The choruses pull us out of the draggy lethargy of the verses, up, into an ideal haze … precisely the opposite of “Cheerleader,” whose similarly antithetical choruses drag us down into the grunge, negating the verses (“I don’t wanna …”) instead of sublimating them.

Given the myriad differences, how are the two parts made to fit together so well—again as opposed to “Cheerleader,” which quite deliberately leaves a gaping wound between its verse and chorus? I’m not sure, but a couple of possibilities. First, the opening note of the chorus resolves the sequence of high notes of the vocal melody, rising first a step (from A to A’), then a step and a half (from A’ to the first note of the chorus); we are thus primed for it by the logic of the melody in the verse. Second, even as the rhythm is completely altered, the tempo of verse and choruses is identical: the pulse, as so often in St Vincent, stays even.

After the second chorus the song pauses; a densely-layered arrangement of voice and instruments enters, reprising the chorus, over and over; they are soon joined by a stuttering snare and flubby bass drum, retarding, retarding. “The Party” ends like a carousel winding down, as though we were slowly moving away from it, or it from us; our vision of it seems to become more obscure, or blurred, as though we were looking at it through a mottled pane. This is the slow braking/ breaking of the night, St Vincent’s aurora. Rather than building to that “Rainbow” zero-point, here the density seems to weigh the song down, and then stop it entirely, releasing us from the retarding cycle of the choral melody on a lydian #4, a note that seems more to suspend (and does, in fact, only slowly fade) instead of resolve. For once, we’ve been brought gently down; the sun’s come gently up. But where are we? And how on earth do we get back?


With 2014’s St Vincent St Vincent seemed to arrive at a crossroads. As per the title, this should have been her coalescing moment, the record that brought together all the elements that make her her. But if my reading is correct, it actually does the reverse: it separates out those elements, foregrounding the dissonances between them; it is an anti-coalescing record, an exercise in self-analysis rather than the intuitive construction of a new whole … perhaps even the sonic equivalent of the sloughing of skin. That is: even as it veers more fully into pure dance/pop than its predecessors, it is also—as if in compensation—the most crunchy, dissonant, distorted, guitar- and riff-heavy of her records. When she is able to synthesize these competing drives, the result is some of her best material. “Rattlesnake,” unlike “The Strangers” or “Chloe in the Afternoon” (the opening tracks on the preceding records), is a dance tune through and through, though, as noted above, an awesomely mean one: frenetic, mocking, seductive, violent, and paranoid. “Bring Me Your Loves” is another dance-floor anthem, complete with breaks (“I took you off your leash”), synthed out, her voice quasi-autotuned on the choruses … yet once again, an eerie, gothic dance tune, with a hyper-distorted touchstone melody and a Phantom of the Opera synth track competing with the dance-floor feel; at its peak, it sounds like an overworked motor flying to pieces. There’s “Birth in Reverse,” with its strummed dissonances, and the much-discussed “Huey Newton,” which a little like “Black Rainbow” analyzes the (in this case) dance-funk and metal elements into separate movements. More generally, there’s an interesting new fracture between vocal melodies and music, which, on the earlier records, tended to work in lockstep, distinguished solely by rhythm and timbre (cf. “The Party” above; hear also “The Strangers”).

But then there are a number of songs that seem to delight in pure pop, with little else for the ear, at least mine, to crunch on: “Northern Lights,” “Every Tear Disappears”; “Hysterical Strength”’s Berlin-sounding 80s pastiche; “Psychopath”’s any-rock-song guitar sound and warm and fuzzy choruses, words notwithstanding. Well … okay. Maybe it’s time to move on, or go back and listen to Marry Me (2006). Maybe, as so often happens when artists move in directions we don’t care for, I’ll find someone to fill her shoes. She did this much for me, after all. PJ Harvey left a gaping hole in the early ‘00s. Is This Desire? (1998) was for me the end of her great period, the counterpart to (though so different from) the ineffably brilliant Dry (1992). (There are a few great tunes on Stories of the City and Uh Huh Her and White Chalk as well; after that I lost track.) As far back as Desire her trajectory was similar to St Vincent’s, into more electronica, dance, and ambient music. I admit it: STV is my long-awaited PJ surrogate, differences be damned. I’m only sad that, unlike with PJ, whose Dry I got on a tape from a friend the year after it came out, and whose career I was able to follow until we parted ways, with St Vincent I seem to have discovered her just as she began to drop over my aesthetic horizon.

Or perhaps not. After all, the eponymous record has grown on me. They all have. And I haven’t even delved into her new (2017) one … though what little I know (reports, a video) suggests the needle has moved in the direction of the less-Helldriver-friendly material on St Vincent. Now, I could have listed “Digital Witness” among those weak tracks … except that it’s not. It’s so perfectly pitched and grabby that I like it, quite helplessly; and who’s to say but that a track like this, like “Black Rainbow” did a couple of years ago, might be the next pinhole, the cave under the cave under the ocean, the song that pulls me so far outside of my original aesthetic universe that I never find my way back? When do I run out of air? I should add that this is partly a function of age: the older one gets, the more difficult it is to find the pulse of the present (or any pulse at all!); one compensates, I think, by being more reflective, which implies greater and more consistent retrospection. In this sense, the “wisdom” of age is less synthesized knowledge than something to fill the temporal lags created by a decelerating biology. Then again, this might also be a function of a historical moment (i.e., today) when the present seems to have lost all duration, and all reality, pace Faulkner, something we watch receding behind us from the window of a train. In such a time, at such a moment, the only way to construct a durable present is retrospectively.

A post like this one is a clear expression of love for a musician, and a labor of love it has been—more than any in recent memory, perhaps because I’m working in a genre with which I am largely unfamiliar, and perhaps because, the longer this blog goes on, the more I feel the need to account for absolutely everything. And so posts bloat like drowned corpses, until the body they once pretended to be effigies of becomes unidentifiable. Whatever the case, I bring my love(s) to these musicians by going through the excrutiating, and always ultimately dissatisfying (this one, once again, moreso than most), process of trying to find correlates in words for their personas in sound. It’s similar to a painter painting his or her beloved—trying to find the posture, color, expression, tone, etc. that will speak them—or a sonneteer writing the same. Or perhaps the opposite is true: I love musicians the most about whom I can, or desire to, find the words to speak; about whom, when I listen, something in my (linguistic) imagination is set going; and this sense, a sort of premonition, is what compels both my love for them, and for writing.***

I should probably touch on gender before calling it a day. I’ve written around 90 posts about music since this blog started, many of them idiotically long, with perhaps two-thirds of these about individual artists or bands, and precious few women among them. There’s one about Linda Oh somewhere back there, another about Kazzrie Jaxen; there are a few female classical pianists, such as Helene Grimaud, bundled into concert reviews, as well as mixed-gender ensembles, and one “hidden” woman (in “Dreaming American,” the unnamed jazz pianist is Mamiko Wantanabe). All in all, a negligible percentage of the whole. There’s notes for an extended piece on Irene Schweitzer, and a fantasized magnum opus on Dry … but these are two among myriad prospective pieces, many of which will never be written. And now that I’ve added another actual post about a female artist, it seems I can’t refrain from speaking the language of eros. Not that I’ve ever been shy about expressing love for music and musicians throughout the history of this blog; but I don’t generally resort to such language to do so. In fact, the only other time I can think of that I spoke in such unabashedly erotic terms about an artist, it was … Goatwhore.

Okay. I’m going to call my analyst now. Or a priest?


* My friend disputes this anecdote, claims he never plays individual songs, only whole albums. This sounds like him—the album as integral work. It’s possible he put the whole record on and “Black Rainbow” was simply the first song that caught my ear. Still, that’s not the way I remember it. And my version makes the better story.

§ Like St Vincent but moreso, Harvey tends to make herself the subject of her album covers, which tend to the grotesque and/or to Cindy Sherman-like stagings.

† But then she seems as radically unfit for the label of singer-songwriter, or, for that matter, pop diva, again, as these have been traditionally conceived. But then all such categories evolve. Have these sorts of mismatches become part of women’s alternative today? I’m thinking of Mitski, by the way, who I discovered poking about (me, I was the one poking) on Ben Ratliff’s 2016 top ten list.

** This is perhaps most clear on the eponymous record. Take, for example, the move from the end of “Huey Newton,” which achieves as heavy and distorted a climax as “Black Rainbow” does, to the bubbliness of “Digital Witness.” The feel of those guttural “faithless”‘s at the end of crunching “Newton” couldn’t be more different from the leap to falsetto and horns that opens “Witness.” “Newton” is rendered that much more heavy in hindsight, “Witness” that much more bubbly.

§ In case there’s any question about whether this is me projecting something onto her music, watch the horror anthology XX (2015), to which St Vincent contributed the second, and stand-out, segment—too snarky for my taste, but wonderfully dark, and with a memorably horrific ending.

†† I don’t know but that STV would disavow any interest in Pearl Jam, but I have to pause to note some melodic similarities: the A-A’ of “The Party” with “Better Man,” and “Strange Mercy,” less perfectly, with “No Way,” from Yield (1998).

*** I’m reminded of a wonderful moment in a Gary Giddins interview (recorded in the book Jazzing, by Thomas Greenland, which I should be reviewing presently): “Oh, I could really go to town on this!” Giddins is talking about how the decision to write about a particular artist or work presents itself to him. He doesn’t explicitly state that his love for an artist presupposes his ability to access them in language, but the excitement of finding an artist whose music makes the synapses start firing is palpable. His enthusiasm strongly resonates with me.


Some months ago, on my way home from the animal shelter where I volunteer, I was listening to Boris and Robyn, the morning DJs on my local classic rock station, WPDH. With the way I’ve paid out on classic rock radio in the Pit Stop recently (“Classic Rock Radio,” 1.27.18), and on classic rock more generally (e.g., “The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” 1.11.18; “Dry Hump,” 7.3.15), you’d think I could find something more congenial to listen to. But the truth is I like a fair amount of classic rock, and I like radio, too, and there’s precious little of it that’s even halfway decent once you move outside a certain radius of New York. There are actually two classic rock stations almost back to back on the dial, and a meh alternative rock station a little further down. In the upper-eighties ghetto there’s an excrutiatingly dull classical music station, and a “jazz” station that plays something that sounds more like adult contemporary. There are a few bright spots, of course, in the borderlands of the low nineties: 90.7 WFUV plays a decent assortment of pop, though it goes out the closer I get to the Hudson; and there’s Vassar College’s station, 91.3, whose eclecticism almost makes up for how mediocre-to-bad everything else is. [N.B.: For an addendum on area radio, see the end of this post.] One day, in the parking lot of the Adams Fairacre Farms store on Route 9, I tapped into a crackling signal playing … death metal. It was like a beacon from another world; I’ve never been able to find it again. WBAI actually comes in a few places, but the signal is more fickle than FUV’s, and anyway, BAI’s, political programming feels about as realistic in upstate New York as stories of kidnappings by space aliens. I love driving down the Taconic and, when I get past Peekskill Hollow, WKCR and WSOU and WFDU start to peek around the corners of the hills, their signals growing in strength with every mile covered.

Years ago, on a cross-country trip, I came up with the following formula for civilization:

FM/AM > 1

If the ratio of FM to AM is less than one, you know you’re in the middle of nowhere. If it equals one, well, proceed with caution: the barbarians may be at the gates, or the zombies at the sandbags, or the real estate tycoons in the White House, or whatever your preferred metaphor for the decline of empire happens to be. That said, with the hindsight of age and six years upstate, I must admit that any such attempt to quantify civilization, appealing as it might be to a budding young technocrat, ultimately falls short. Quantity may be a necessary precursor, but it’s hardly sufficient, at least for what I think of when I think of civilization.

Anyway, like I said, I was driving home that morning listening to The Boris and Robyn Show, which, if you’re reading this anywhere in the United States, sounds pretty much like every other morning DJ team on a classic rock station. They play juvenile call-in games with listeners for prizes, manage the local news and traffic reports and weather, quip about strange goings-on in the world (read: Hudson Valley), and take care not to be too controversial (this is New York). They also recite advertising jingles and make guest appearances at local events and businesses for charity. The show’s producer and sometime-game participant is called Meat Sandwich; he also “reviews” new movies by reading from the Rotten Tomatoes website. The traffic report is brought to me by some fabricator of chips, potato or micro. Believe it or not, all of this makes for good company during my near-daily twenty-minute jaunts to shelter, hike, café, supermarket, or train. What with my hearing going out like those NYC radio signals around Peekskill Hollow, and what with how loud my old Corolla is, particularly now that the bearings are shot—it sounds (and feels) like I’m driving a dryer with a cinder block in it—listening to human voices, however snarky, silly or reactionary, can be more tolerable than muddled music, at least until the commercials start pummeling. Oddly enough for someone with my politics, I’ll take The Boris and Robyn Show a million times over the nasal autotune of NPR; a mere five minutes of exposure and I feel like buying a pick-up truck with a gun rack, and flying a bedsheet-size American flag off the tailgate.

I know I’m going pretty far afield, but hey baby, I’m broadcasting.

On the thrice-mentioned morning in question I was (as noted) driving home listening to Boris and Robyn and the phone line was open for requests. The caller was a construction worker or day-laborer of some sort. Boris asked him where he was calling from. “Newburgh,” the man said. This is the town right across the Hudson from Beacon, where I volunteer; I believe it still has the distinction of having the highest per-capita murder rate in the state, though recent reports suggest crime is down somewhat. Following on the art-ification of Beacon (which now houses Dia), there has been some development around the Newburgh waterfront; but such gentrification projects, as all of us who have lived in New York know, do much more in the way of relocating poor people than solving issues related to poverty.

It turned out the caller wasn’t a Newburgh resident. He was working a job there. As he put it, he was “in the ‘hood” for the day. Boris asked him for his exact location, which the man gave—the corner of two streets. “Oooh,” Boris sympathized. “Not a good area.” And what did he want to hear? Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

A fascinating exchange, yes? And in so many ways. Music-oriented as it is, I thought this quasi-public venue a fit place to unpack it, or perhaps lance it, if I may borrow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s metaphor about Birmingham boils.

First, there is the quite obvious racial text—you can’t really call it subtext. The caller, like the vast majority of classic rock listeners, was quite obviously white. “The ‘hood,” the place where he was working and, apparently, taking his life in his hands, was not. If I could remember the names of the streets at whose dangerous crossroads he was meeting the devil that morning, I could verify this assertion … but do I really need to? That race was never explicitly mentioned in the conversation only made it more present.*

And so the purpose of the call, the request, during which conversation the caller felt the need to answer the question “Where are you calling from?” the way he did: What was Def Leppard (and by extension, “classic” rock) to this man but a shield, a magic circle of whiteness, that the dangerous blackness of the ‘hood could not penetrate? What was cranking Def Leppard there but an act of sonic flag-planting—the white standard borne by the army of an invading culture, an adjunct to the police siren? No wonder composer and soundscape studies-originator R. Murray Schafer called it sound imperialism. “A man with a loudspeaker,” he wrote in The Soundscape, “is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (77). And so a man with a radio … not to mention a Caterpillar, a backhoe, a jackhammer, a concrete mixer, etc.

All, that is, the artillery of gentrification. How is a ghetto blaster (or whatever it’s called today, whatever its current incarnation) supposed to compete? I will not be forgiven, perhaps, for extending this scenario imaginatively. But like The Who, authors of the greatest classic rock song of all time, I don’t need to be forgiven. I think back to the gentrifying neighborhoods I have lived in or near—Bushwick ’02-‘04, the fringes of Sugar Hill ’04-‘12—and about the fledgling gentrification of Newburgh. It’s not hard to imagine the white construction worker engaged in just such a project. Blaring classic rock, the first sonic shockwave that razes some buildings, guts others, leaving just their shells standing. It is the pre-soundtrack of gentrification, the prow before the Tiny Desk Concerts of the genteel class arrives. It reminds me of those pioneer log cabins that precede the respectable middle-class farmers in Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s vision of the settlement of America: the underclass that logs, hunts, and moves on, pushing the Indians back and back as they go.

That this task, to be the prow of oncoming civilization, should fall to Def Leppard is … is … well, if you laughed when you read the title of the song requested, then we’re probably operating on the same wavelength. I mean, it couldn’t even be decent Def Leppard, could it—you know, the better hits on Pyromania, or “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” at least before they added that dud keyboard riff? No, it had to be the most sugar-pop cotton-candy shit Def Leppard.

I remember the bodybuilder who used to manage the community pool where I lifeguarded walking around singing this song; he looked like Hulk Hogan without the mustache. Today, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” makes me think of burly construction workers standing underneath dumptruck chutes pouring the sweet white stuff all over the streets and the people living there, all over themselves. My brain automatically toggles to that Simpsons where the Duff (Leppard?) workers douse protesting feminists with beer; when the spray vanishes they’re wearing bikinis and their signs say “Get me drunk.”

Need I add that this lunkheaded anthem finds its perfect architectural equivalent in the White House, as it is molded to fit its current occupant?

I digress, again. But I write to digress. In case no one’s ever told you, all writing, down to the tiniest metaphor, that vibrating quark of language, is controlled digression. The vehicle of a metaphor is a digression from its tenor. A sentence is a digression from its subject, a paragraph from its topic. Face it, without digression, we would live dull lives encased in substantives. There would be no movement. No music!

Okay. This is not a post about how the Leppard lost its spots. Or perhaps it is. Because in some ways, the whole dynamic of this call-in story simply recapitulates the history of rock, and of popular music in the twentieth century: the whitewashing of jazz for downtown audiences, the white “blues scholars” who made the blues palatable to white audiences as rock, not to mention profitable for themselves. All these are acts of cultural gentrification. And so with Def Leppard. We might call their devolution from hard rock/NWOBHM to pop metal to pop pure and simple a process of refinement. The irony is the way that, by the end of this process, the origins, even this band’s own origins in the blues-infused classic rock of the British ‘60s and ‘70s, had become so obscured, or so repressed, that the product can now be turned back like a firehose against the population whose culture birthed it.

At this juncture it’s impossible not to cite what Henry Louis Gates (I believe it was) called “the most reviled poem in the African American canon,” Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” Here is the closing couplet of this notorious octet: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/ May be refined, and join th’angelic train.”

The blackness of Cain; the blackness of cane. The raw stuff, the stuff the slaves picked. Mingus’s Wednesday night prayer meeting, Coltrane shrieking for God’s attention, work songs and spirituals and dirty brass.** It’s the stuff of rock, too, it has to be, the tether that makes even the most classical-inflected prog still worthy of the name. Some of us like our tethers longer, our orbits wider, comets instead of asteroids, Pluto not Mercury, the competing pull of other great masses, breathing their own unrefined life into our music. But that dark sun remains the same.

One wants to ask Wheatley, “But will there be anything left of these Negroes? What is the price of your refinement?” Perhaps the answer is in the poem. After all, to join th’angelic train, one must lose one’s life, the blood must all be drained. Those Christians to whom she appeals, they’re like Aylmer, Hawthorne’s mad scientist, trying to remove his wife’s birthmark, her only flaw, and finding out too late it’s called humanity. The mark of Cain: not a patina that contact with white civilization can buff out, but the core of one’s humanity. And not, finally, the beating wild heart of darkness, but one’s culture, one’s … civilization.

Considered this way, th’angelic train starts to look like a loaf of Wonder Bread, each tasteless slice a seraphim. Hark—aim your ear at the sky! What are they singing! Yes, it’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”! The ultimate in processed music!

(Thank God rock is haunted by its origins. It’s always had the power to renew itself at any number of generic wells, whether it consciously acknowledges them (and pays them) or not. Something of it always manages to escape the corporate stranglehold.)

The problem is that I live in an area now where people don’t seem to understand that refinement isn’t bleaching. It’s a coloring process. And that means grabbing your radio dial and turning it, turning it and turning it, ever more finely, until you find the heart of the radio’s ‘hood.


* A few disclaimers are in order. (1) I don’t mean to minimize the problems of economically depressed neighborhoods, or the struggles such communities routinely face with drugs and violence and environmental quality. I simply question how we respond to these problems as a society. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—a book I wish every American would read—puts it eloquently: “It is perfectly understandable that some African Americans would be complicit with [as opposed to supportive of] the system of mass incarceration, even as they oppose, as a matter of social policy, the creation of racially isolated ghettos and the subsequent transfer of black youth from underfunded, crumbling schools to brand-new, hi-tech prisons. In the era of mass incarceration, poor African Americans are not given the option of great schools, community investment, and job training. Instead, they are offered police and prisons” (210). (2) I understand, of course, that I am privileged to be volunteering on a Tuesday while this man is earning his bread and butter, and that my sneering tone in this post bespeaks a life of privilege and Sundays spent grading papers. I have no good answer for this. Oh, wait, I do: UNIONIZE. (3) I also understand that, at least initially, I am in danger of reifying the binaries through which black music has been understood, and what made it historically attractive to the white middle class: black music as wild, primitive, libidinal, authentic, etc., and white music as civilized, sophisticated, desexualized, corporate, etc. I’m even calling in the old gendered rock-pop binary. Though I draw on this binary to understand the role of race here, I do hope the end of my analysis manages to see beyond it. While I’m hoping, I’ll quote, at loving length, my beloved James Baldwin. This is from The Fire Next Time, another book every American should read (and that I would guess quite a few more have read since I Am Not Your Negro): “In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which [singer Big Bill Broonzy’s] ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread … [Baldwin goes on about lousy bread, then:] Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves as the fountains of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone the elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can only be oneself” (55-7). You can say we’re living a half-century after Baldwin wrote these words. I would answer, yes, but we’ve just made America great again.

** I’m riffing on Geoff Dyer’s chapter on Charles Mingus here, from his beautiful But Beautiful (North Point Press, 1996), yet another book every American et cetera.

ADDENDUM, 8.1.18. There’s nothing like publicly staking a claim for inspiring one to do research. After kvetching about area radio, I’ve been spending a little more of my drive time digging in. FUV, it turns out, is not local at all; it’s Fordham University’s station. Maybe it’s the antenna on Montefiore that fooled me; it does come in a tad better than other New York stations. How surprising, too, that the only other halfway-decent station I’ve turned up should be (a) college-based/non-commercial and (b) not local. That still leaves WVKR, the Vassar station … and this one is turning out to be a real gem. Some of the music programming is spectacularly good (if only they’d interrupt a little more often to tell me what I was listening to!). They also play Democracy Now on weekday mornings (though this doesn’t much change my perception of area politics, or, for that matter, kidnapping space aliens). There’s even a lady who reads from books about labor history on Tuesday afternoons. This week, it was Kellogg’s 6-hour day; last week, the IWW. Finally, there’s a station at 106.3, WJZZ, that bills itself as “real jazz.” I can’t vouch for it yet, because my reception, once again, has been spotty. But it does seem promising, at least BGO-level promising; it would be churlish to ask for anything more up around here. Plus it’s only a few years old, a public station … the sort of thing that needs all the support we, the local folks, can give it. (If I’m going to write about radio, maybe I should invest in … an antenna?)

Crash Course in Auto-Drumming


Hello! Thank you for purchasing product number 99A/ToyCo, Crash Course in Auto-Drumming for the Toyota Corolla. My name is Helldriver, and I will be your instructor for this brief introduction to the fine art of auto-drumming. Before we embark on our journey together, let me tell you a little about myself, and about the philosophy of the course.

I come to you today with more than two decades of experience in auto-drumming. Each of my cars—the ’73 Firebird where I began my studies, the ’81 Citation and ’77 LeSabre where I came of age, and the two Corollas (2005 and 2015) where I achieved mastery—had a profound impact on my development; and each had as unique, as characteristic a sound as if their hood ornaments had said, not Chevrolet or Toyota, but Tama, Pearl, or Paste. I am, if I may be so bold, the consummate auto-didact: everything on offer in this crash course comes by way of yours truly, the fruit of my twenty-odd years driving and drumming, drumming and driving.

Before going any further, an important admission. I’m not a drummer; I’m an auto-drummer. Put me behind an actual kit, and quite probably your little brother, who plays in his junior high school ensemble, would wipe the floor with me. But put me behind the wheel of a car, and I’m Neil Peart, Lenny White, and Dave Lombardo all rolled into one. In fact, were any of these Hector-sized heroes to bum a ride on my horseless chariot, and then have the audacity to challenge me in this, my domain … rest assured they’d arrive at their destinations with new assholes well-torn.

Of all the myriad technologies that inundate American culture, the car is the one best understood as an extension of the human body. (If you have not read J.G. Ballard’s Crash, I would recommend you do so concurrently with taking this course.) So it’s little wonder that I, like many of you no doubt, began by drumming on my body, or that I continue to do so, sometimes in lieu of anything else to drum on, sometimes out of sheer pleasure. For what is the body, but a hide stretched over a bony frame? And what is the chest, but a resonating chamber, a sounding-box for the voice? It is thus but a small step—and a giant leap!—from yourself to your car.

Just as there are many of you who would not publicly admit to deriving pleasure from drumming on yourselves, so there are a fair number of you out there you who hide, as best you can, your proclivity to drum while driving. I understand. But consider, if you will, the central, indeed, the godlike place of the car in our auto-saturated culture of gas-guzzling individualism. How can there possibly be any shame in being an auto-drummer? At least, there should be far less shame in being an auto-drummer than there is being, say, an air-guitarist. At least in auto-drumming one makes actual physical sounds analogous to the instrument emulated, rather than just imitating the gestures of playing that instrument (cf. that embarrassing Journey video). Think of it as percussion karaoke, done in one of those private rooms with only a few people present … perhaps only you. Or like singing in the shower. You may be performing just for yourself, if you’re the sort that showers alone, but make no mistake: you are performing. Once you acknowledge these things, I think you’ll see why auto-drum-shaming should go the way of fat-shaming, second-hand-smoke shaming, and relentless-gutter-ball shaming.

In establishing my credentials, I should note that, in confronting the many obstacles I faced on the road to becoming a master auto-drummer, I have only had one serious at-fault accident. It was more than twenty-five years ago, and it came from screwing with the radio, NOT from drumming. On the contrary: I have found that drumming actually helps keep me time with driving, imparting it a rhythm, making the driving, too, part of the art; making driving itself musical, like those bartenders who juggle glasses. (Yes, I’m aware they occasionally drop them.) I learned to drum by driving; I learned to drive by drumming: for me, both statements are equally true.

Okay. Enough tooting my own horn. Are you ready to start? Good! Vroom vroom! Let’s do some preliminary exercises together, and then touch on our route and destination before calling it a day.

First things first. Get comfortable. That’s the first key to being a great auto-drummer: comfort. Ahhhhh. There. Let’s do some ergonomic, ambiental exercises. You should consider beginning every practice session with them for the entirety of the time you are taking this course. Put on your choice of music, by which I mean your choice of prog rock, hard rock, heavy metal, or heavy alternative, and not some lame shit I can’t take seriously (if you need to consult your brochure for examples, please pause the podcast to do so now). Pick a song you’re comfortable with, that you know every beat to, that you’ve drummed a thousand times, on kitchen countertops, on school desks, on close friends, on lovers, on yourself, in your head. But don’t go anywhere yet, and for God’s sake, don’t beat on anything! Move the seat up or down, backwards or forwards, until you achieve what feels like an ergonomically satisfying distance from the key elements of the car interior. Distance to the steering wheel is of particular importance; it may be slightly different from the distance you use for driving. That’s okay. We’ll come back to this in Lesson One. Run your hands over the console, the wheel, the dash, the mirror, and the side window; shuffle your feet on the floor. Touch every part of the interior of the car that you can reach comfortably from the driver’s side seat. Use the different parts of your hands to do so: nails, tips, knuckles, balls (i.e., the top of the palm, directly beneath the fingers), palms, and heels. Pause this recording until you’ve done so. Back already? Okay. Now, put your right elbow on the armrest between the seats and your left one on the armrest of the door. Move your forearms up and down; feel the way your elbows become pivot-points for your forearms and hands. Close your eyes. Consider the immense possibility of timbres around you. Visualize a common route in your head; visualize yourself, driving, drumming, along this route. Take a few deep breaths. Smell that? That’s the cairn of mouse shit on the air filter. The mouse piss, soaking it.


Do these preparatory exercises at least three times before attempting Lesson One. Next up: the anatomy of the interior; or, I didn’t know you could make that noise here!

Honk! Honk! I’ll see you there!



Hello! Thank you for continuing to listen to me! I intuit by your continued interest that you have not had a massive accident, your sternum impaled on the steering column, your ribs and spine ground like peppercorns in the mortar of your hips, yourself pinned together like a dinosaur skeleton, with a bevy of nurses making a gamelan on your poor plaster frame!

But then you haven’t even made it out of the driveway, have you? There’s still time! Ready to move forward? No? Good! Terrified? Think how the other drivers must feel!

Today, we’re going to go through the parts of the driver’s-side interior for their common analogues to the traditional drum kit. Lesson One is parts.

Paaarts! Paaaaaaaarts!!!

Like our bodies, the interior of the average automobile provides manifold opportunities for different resonances, a plethora of timbres that mimic the variety available on a drum kit, a rich palette of possibilities. Even the shittiest tin-can of a car is thus the equivalent of the greatest prog rock drummer’s bloated surround-kit, imaginatively speaking.

It will hardly surprise you to learn that the steering wheel is the main place where auto-drumming happens. The wheel is thus much as Neil Peart once described the snare: no matter how big your kit gets, the snare remains the center, the focus. Keeping in mind the analogy to the automobile, we might call the steering wheel the point of departure and place of return: no matter where our hands putter off to, the wheel calls to us back, like a beacon from home. The journey to and from the wheel is thus the equivalent, perhaps a microcosm, of the journey we make in our car, played out many times in the course of a single voyage.

Unlike the snare, however, which in rock drumming is often used for a single, steady timbre to hold the beat, the steering wheel presents multiple possibilities for mimicking different parts of the kit; indeed, one can become a proficient auto-drummer without ever looking outside the steering wheel. This is one advantage of newer cars over older ones, whose single-piece, instrumentless wheels (such as that in the Firebird of my novitiate) tended toward a poverty of timbres, and had little resonance. The drum-gods have clearly smiled upon auto designers and manufacturers since then. That said, the number of timbres available is partly due to the wheel itself, and partly to the hand that strikes it, since, unlike the kit, auto-drumming is done entirely by hand (unless, that is, you would like to imagine someone driving using sticks, mallets, or brushes: a frightening proposition, a horror movie on wheels). Just like when we drum on our bodies, sound is not just a matter of where we strike, but what part of the hand we use.

So, let’s drive thru the parts of the wheel and the timbres they best approximate when struck with different parts of the hand.

The TOP RIM OF THE STEERING WHEEL, roughly between the proverbial ten and two o’clock of the conscientious driver, struck with the ball of the hand, produces a dry thud perfect for mimicking toms, including the floor tom, as well as the bass drum(s). This is so because of the way the wheel shudders when properly struck. Bear in mind that, the closer one plays to the wrist, the deeper the resonance. As such, fingers are better for higher-pitched toms, heels for bass drums. Even struck with the fingers, however, the top of the wheel can make an adequate bass thud; it can even, in some cases, serve for a snare. We’ll consider the ramifications of these multiple uses in just a moment. In the meantime, please note that, in order to strike the top of the wheel properly, you will have to raise your elbows from the aforementioned pivot-points on the arm rests.

Properly struck, the PLASTIC HOUSING AROUND THE HUB, which in newer-model Corollas extends and widens bilaterally into two spokes that serve as a second instrument panel, produce a flat, “clacking” tone that makes for a gratifying snare-equivalent. The most effective way to get this snare-like timbre is to hook your thumbs around wheel at the end of each spoke (e.g., three and nine o’clock); this stabilizes your hands (and, potentially, the car), and gives you a powerful base from which to slap the back of the housing with the tips of your index and middle fingers. As you get more comfortable, first with making a good snare sound and then with drumming while driving, you will find yourself lifting your hand (usually the left) entirely off the wheel to smack the rear of the housing, only hooking the thumb back around when it is absolutely necessary to stabilize the vehicle. Generally, the right hand will be used for accenting beats off the main one. Alternatively, for a snare you can play the top of the housing with the outside of the first knuckle of the thumbs, or with the ends of your middle three fingers, here again lifting the hand entirely off the wheel. In all cases, remember to keep your elbows locked on the arm-rests.

Finally, the BOTTOM RIM (roughly five to seven o’clock) struck with the tips of the fingers creates a rather neutral tone that can go in many directions: not as resonant as the top of the wheel’s shudder, but not as flat as the plastic console in the middle. This is useful, since it can represent any number of percussive sounds, measured against the other timbres of the wheel. Think of the bottom rim as a “wild card,” or perhaps a wilder card than the other standard sections of the geography of the wheel.

This last point re-raises a key issue: any and all analogies—between car and kit, imagination and song—will be decided by the exigencies of the individual song, and occasionally the exigencies of the road, so that the same strike on the same part of the car with the same part of the hand may stand in for different drums in different songs, or different parts of the same song. This, too, is part of the invention, the imagination, the improvisation that is behind all true auto-drumming. An example: we can and often must mimic double-bass runs with both hands on the top rim of the wheel; as such, tom rolls and double-bass runs can only really be distinguished by the musics against which they are set. Although we’re getting ahead of ourselves—these crossovers will only really come to fruition in Lesson Three—the point bears mentioning now, if only to avoid future confusion.

By the way, this is NOT to say that any timbre works to represent any drum. For example, one would never mimic a bass drum with a nail on the window, or, conversely, mimic a ride or hi-hat by striking with the heel of the hand. (Would you ever play “Iron Man” on a piccolo? Seriously? I thought not.) What it IS to say is that, in light of the limitations imposed by the automobile and by the act of driving, more closely-related timbres have a certain interchangeability. Or, put differently: one must always consider not only the sound of the individual part, but how it stands in relation to the other resonances one seeks from the car’s interior.

The next and most obvious component available to the car drummer is the DASHBOARD over the wheel—that is, the horizontal surface under the windshield, or its near edge. The dashboard actually presents fewer possibilities for tone-colors than we might imagine. (Note that, for passenger-side drumming, the dashboard directly over the glove compartment presents an entirely different scenario. See product 99B/ToyCo, which can be purchased at a discount with proof of purchase of any of my other auto-drumming products.) Like the bottom of the wheel, it produces a flat, neutral tone that can go in a variety of directions when struck with the fingertips (e.g., toms). When struck with the nail of the index finger, for example, I have found it most useful for mimicking either the snare (with the top of the wheel used as a bass drum; see “Blast Beats” in Lesson Two), or the hub of a ride cymbal or closed hi-hat.

Given that we’re in 2018 and you’re not a cavedweller, I am going to assume you drive an automatic; and if you don’t drive an automatic, you should consider the negative impact this has on your ability to achieve anything like minimal proficiency as an auto-drummer. For the sole purpose of your left foot should be to play the bass drum. (I should note that I owe the independence of my feet, one from the other, and the dexterity of my left foot itself, often the less-developed one in kit drummers, to auto-drumming.) The right foot is generally trapped on the accelerator or brake, and so is much less mobile. This does not rule it out entirely; it’s okay to create off-beat accents, and the occasional bass-drum roll leading into a hard left-foot kick, or a snare hit. You can do this by lifting your foot off the pedal and smacking the toe down, lightly enough that the car doesn’t spurt forward or screech to a halt. But that’s just the problem: you can’t get much volume from a light tap; and the pedals are actually less forgiving than the wheel, for which, after all, you have two hands. Thus, the effect of the right foot remains almost inaudible, and tends to interrupt auto-drumming by forcing the brain to focus overly much on the act of driving. But the left foot is free to drum to your heart’s content, and I suggest you content your heart as much as possible in this regard. Here I must say I find the newer-model Corollas to be somewhat deficient, as in the older models the FOOT REST or so-called DEAD PEDAL was a corrugated plastic pad lifted at an angle from the floor, which, though the timbre is a bit too dry to mimic a bass drum, was quite more audible than the flat, carpeted version of the same in the newer model. (Perhaps this is one reason I have sometimes dreamed of an ideal auto-drum interior, one which combines features of the several cars I have driven.) To get the requisite left-foot sound, again, simply lift up the toe and slap it down again. As you practice this while driving, you, too, will gain independence in your left foot, and be able to carry on relatively more and more complex bass-drum beats without interrupting the subtle gradations in acceleration and deceleration of the car with the right foot, any more than the hands interrupt the changing of the car’s direction.

These three components of the interior—steering wheel in all its manifold possibilities, the dashboard above the wheel, and the dead pedal—will, or should, occupy about 95% of your auto-drumming attention, with the steering wheel itself occuping roughly 70-75%, the dead pedal 15-20%, and the dashboard 10%. The upshot: Get to know the wheel!

And the remaining five per cent? Here are a few other, minor components that are also occasionally useful, and that I would be remiss not to mention.

The ARM REST (the one located between the driver’s and passenger-side seats) presents some interesting possibilities, since the STORAGE COMPARTMENT located beneath it makes a natural sounding box, and the sound produced can vary depending on the objects stored inside it. Newer Corollas have the advantage of an added CHANGE TRAY just under the lid, so that, for example, a handful of coins jump around when the lid is struck, like the beads in a snare, or the spangles on a tambourine, while the bottom chamber gives the whole a powerful resonance. If the change tray is empty, the compartment itself produces a low thud more equivalent to the deeper toms, particularly when struck with the heel of the hand or the hammer of the fist. Treating the arm rest as a sort of prepared piano by manipulating the contents of the aptly-named change tray can add exciting new timbres to one’s auto-drumming palette. The problem: reaching it is ergonomically challenging, since, as noted above, the arm rest is the ideal place to stabilize the right elbow. It is actually much more useful for the passenger-side auto-drummer (again, see 99B for full details).

The dry clack produced by the SIDE WINDOW when struck with the nail of the index finger or with the tips of the middle and index finger also makes a viable ride-hub or closed hi-hat (passengers will sometimes use their window as a viable snare-substitute, since they do not generally want to beat on the steering wheel when someone else is driving). The REARVIEW MIRROR, again struck with the fingernail, also makes a good ride; just be aware this can jar the mirror, and so require repositioning. But then you’ve seen this happen to actual drummers with their cymbals, even when they put strips of carpet under the stands.

Cymbals present a perplexing difficulty for the auto-drummer. Simply put, nothing in the car comes close to the timbre or sustain of an unmuted cymbal. Nothing rings, and if anything does, I would suggest you take your car to a mechanic. As a result, even though auto-drumming is not “airing,” the occasional cymbal crash is (regrettably) best approximated purely imaginatively, that is, by the hand striking an invisible object somewhere above the wheel, in the place an “actual” cymbal would hang. Better this, I believe, than ruin your whole auto-performance with an unsuitable timbre. I might add that it helps that cymbal crashes are often coupled with bass drum or other drum strikes easily achieved on the wheel or dead pedal.

There is, of course, the possibility of hanging an actual cymbal from the rearview mirror, as some people hang, or perhaps used to hang: fuzzy dice; disco balls; air fresheners; dream catchers; plastic gnomes; et cetera. It would be no more obstructive, and quite possibly the police won’t know what to make of it. But in this I would suggest you take my advice: avoid the temptation to hang an actual piece of percussion from the mirror, or anywhere else in the car. Why? Because its reality would clash with the rest of the automobile’s timbres, which only function analogously, as representations of the pieces of a drum kit. Quite possibly, the actual cymbal would make the rest of the car sound like exactly what it is: a car. It would say: Hey asshole. You’re not Bill Bruford. You’re not even Meg White. Put both your hands on the wheel. That’s what the cymbal would say. It would mock you, just like that.

Whew! Okay. That’s a lot. To conclude this lesson, I want to say a quick word about “dropped” beats. Then, to the homework.

As you speed toward proficiency in the coming weeks, you will probably ask yourself more than once: What about driving? What, that is, about having to pay attention to the road, other vehicles, and pedestrians? Will I not have to occasionally “drop” a beat to readjust the alignment and trajectory of the automobile? And the more skilled I become, won’t the occasional necessity of missing a hit to attend to the quotidian tasks of driving become all the more frustrating?

Here is a somewhat philosophical and forward-looking answer: In mastering the fine art of auto-drumming, the difficulty is not missing occasional beats—that’s a given—but moving in and out of the beat to attend to the necessity of driving in a natural, artistic way; as though it were not some distraction of driving that mattered, but your own whim about when to drum and when not to; as if, that is, it were a matter of choice rather than necessity; or, to think of it differently, as if the necessity were the pre-scripted, God-plan of the universe to which your individual will-to-expression perfectly conforms, so in tune are you with the music of the spheres. This way, whether part of the Plan or Muse-toodling whim, it becomes, not a miss, not a “dropped beat,” but a break. And this way, too, your performance becomes not a perfect reproduction of some drum recording (it never was that to begin with) but a conversation with said recording.

Alternatively, you can simply imagine you’ve dropped your stick, as even the best drummers do from time to time, and the show must go on, at least the snare beat, until you or your roadie can finagle another. You are a professional. Smile at the crowd. Wave. Elicit enthusiasm.

As your ability improves and drumming in the car becomes second nature, the goal is to alternate steering and drumming hands without dropping the beat, or with only the most deliberate decisions about when to do so. For example, you might be hitting the snare with your right hand, steering with the left; but in order to move the car in another direction, the left hand must momentarily take over. Or, you might steer with your thumbs and drum with your fingers on the back of the wheel. The drumming is now a natural part of the driving, and the driving a natural part of the drumming; they are a single, continuous effort, so that the one always augments, shapes, and speaks to, rather than interrupts, the other. Of course, these are masterful moves not to be attempted by the novice; they represent some of the most exciting achievements in the form, the endpoint of decades of practice. But once you realize such possibilities exist, such achievements possible, you will also overcome the temptation not to steer at all, or to steer with some ridiculous part of your body. A friend of mine’s brother, for example, could drive for many miles with his knees—he had quite long legs and bony knees. It is true, of course, that the whole ten o’clock-two o’clock thing is hugely overrated, and that, the sooner you realize this, the better auto-drummer you will become. Indeed, you will advance by leaps and bounds, accident by accident, with every fender-bender finding you a more proficient percussionist of the horseless carriage variety. But let’s not confuse the freedom and artistry of the auto-drum master with clownish and needlessly dangerous spectacles, shall we? Besides, what did my friend’s bony-kneed brother do when he needed to play the bass drum?

Okay. Homework! Homework!!! Ready? One hundred practice hits per day per each above-mentioned part of the console on the wheel, dash and floor for one full week before moving on to Lesson Two. I can’t be your backseat driver here—promise me a hundred! That number again is one hundred! 1-0-0!!! Ten raised to the second power! A ton of pounds! A Benny! Make sure to try them out against a variety of soundtracks, too, as this will begin to get you used to to the way parts of the console can take on different meanings for different songs.

And once you’ve begun to get comfortable with the hits, it’s time to put on that choice cut and take this puppy out for a spin. Just around the neighborhood; you might even drive in circles around your son’s or daughter’s high school parking lot, if it’s a weekend. Don’t leave your vicinity, and for God’s sake, do not attempt to head out to the highway. And yet … don’t just stay still! Drive! Drive!!! It all means nothin’ if you don’t get out and DRIVE!

Good luck! Break a leg, preferably someone else’s!

* * * * *


LESSON TWO: BEATS AND COMBOS. “Beats and Combos” takes the learner through four basic patterns familiar to rock listeners, common variations on these basic beats, and beginning polyrhythms. Each beat comes with suggested song pairings for both the novice and the more experienced auto-drummer.

LESSON THREE: FILLS AND VARIATIONS. “Fills and Variations” guides the journeyman auto-drummer through fill patterns combining different parts of the car interior (such as the rim and hub of the wheel), fills using alternating parts of the same hand (heel-fingertips, thumb-fingertips), tremolos (rolling finger strikes), and composite strikes with the same hand (such as the dashboard struck with the fingertips and the wheel with the heel). Move beyond those endless, annoying tom-rolls along the 10-2 axis of the wheel’s top rim! These are the sorts of fills all true auto-drummers must master, and without which you will continue to suck utterly!

LESSON FOUR: FLOURISHES AND “DWD” PROTOCOLS. Combinations and added technical flourishes for the advanced auto-drummer—intended only for those who feel ready to head out to the highway—as well as basic protocols for the would-be professional. Suggestions for ways in which auto-drummers may develop their own unique voice and style, and translate their Corolla-based skills to other vehicles. Also contains auto-drum tabulature for “Red Barchetta,” “Raining Blood,” “Fool in the Rain,” “Headin’ Out to the Highway,” “Helldriver,” and 10 other acknowledged auto-drum classics!



DISCLAIMER: By purchasing, downloading, reading, or coming into any sort of contact, deliberate or accidental, with this product (“THE PRODUCT”), you have agreed to absolve HELLDRIVER of any and all liability for whatever accident or injury might be incurred. Please note that HELLDRIVER has never been successfully sued, whether by personal injury attorneys over the accidental or intentional damage to vehicle or person, or for the maiming, crushing, or killing of passengers, other drivers, and/or pedestrians; or by divorce attorneys for any relationship strains which might be produced as a result of using THE PRODUCT.



“I know that when you’re looking to buy a car, you’re supposed to care about things like sight-lines and handling, safety ratings, resale value, comfort and roominess and trunk space and, of course, gas mileage. But for the auto-drummer, that only gets you so far. Because once you’ve narrowed your choices down to a few viable models, when you go to test drive them with the salesperson, the only question you should really be asking yourself is: How good is it for a drum? Me, I’ll drive the car slooooowly out of the lot, and after a block or two I’ll say, “May I turn on the radio?” or, “Can I put on some music?” Then I turn it slightly louder than what would be considered comfortable for conversation, at least with someone who didn’t make their living in sales. Every once in a while, as discreetly as I can muster, I’ll smack the steering wheel, dash, or window, or stomp the floor with the toe of my left shoe. The salesperson probably thinks I’m testing the car to see if it’s solid, like the proverbial used-car salesman kicking a tire. It’s okay: your salesperson has seen customers do much weirder things …”

Classic Rock Radio

An Epic in Verse*


Boston.                                                                                                                                                        Foreigner, Van Halen, Steve Miller,                                                                                                        Boston.                                                                                                                                                          ZZ Top, The Who, Led Zeppelin,                                                                                                                 Foreigner,                                                                                                                                                   Boston.







The Rolling Stones, Boston.                                                                                                                         Billy Squier, Boston.                                                                                                                                    Bad Company, Boston.                                                                                                                       AC/DC, Boston.                                                                                                                                             ZZ Top, Boston.                                                                                                                                        Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                                       Boston, Boston, Boston.                                                                                                                          Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston.                                                                                                Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Boston Bos                                                                                                                      The Who.

Van Halen, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                  ZZ Top, Foreigner.                                                                                                                                     Led Zeppelin, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner.

Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner, Boston, Foreigner,Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner                 Boston

Foreigner                                             Boston

Foreigner                                                                                             Boston

Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner Boston Foreigner

Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner         Foreigner.

Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston             Boston

Boston. Foreigner.




Led Foreigner.                                                                                                                                            Bad Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Rolling Foreigner                                                                                                                                       Foreigner Foreigner

Van Foreigner                                                                                                                                             Van Foreigntop                                                                                                                                          Van Squiertop                                                                                                                                            Van Toppentop                                                                                                                                          Van Fuckyourself

Top Halen Van Billy Who ZZ Miller Company Tramp Bad Led AC Van Bostontop                          Zep Van Bostonsquier

Miller Van Toppentop

Billy Van Millercamp

ToppenCompany ZZ Van Billy Company BadTop HalenDC Foreigntramp

ZZ                                                       ZZ                                                       ZZ




Foreignton. Bosener.

Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton Boseigner Forton



Whobadbozzener Led ZanVVHalentopper

Bosled Zan vivvy doopspil ungletracken bongwasser spllindurnas












Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                            Commercial.                                                                                                                                                     Boston.

Commercial Boston.

Commercial Foreigner.

Van Commercial                                                                                                                                           ZZ Commercial                                                                                                                                          Billy Commercial                                                                                                                                          AC Commercial                                                                                                                                       Miller Commercial                                                                                                                                     Bad Commercial                                                                                                                                        Led Commercial                                                                                                                                       Who Commercial                                                                                                                                  Commercial Commercial                                                                                                                          Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                                                   Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial                                                                             Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial           Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Commercial Co

























































* Besides WPDH, my “local” classic rock station, I should cite as an inspiration for this poem the random poetry generator developed by Dr Angus Forbes (early in his programming studies) at Metalab Communications, an internet start-up in the Tribeca of old (my old, 1997), where I worked as office manager. The most primitive version of the program simply asked the user to input words, and then randomly generated poems—no syntax, no grammar, just the words selected. It was hours of fun to play with, and produced some of the funniest poems I’ve ever read. (One other note: the formatting is wonky because the WordPress template does not match what appears published on the blog. I was reduced to using the space bar and toggling between template and preview to even get close. Argh! Talk about primitive!)