Tag Archives: book review

Dr. Heidegger’s Punks

Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: California UP, 2011.

 

In one of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne sketches, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” the eponymous doctor invites four aged friends to taste a water he claims will restore their youth. After demonstrating the effect on a half-century-old rose, Heidegger expresses the (sardonic?) hope that, in their second youth, his friends would become models of virtue rather than succumbing again to dissipation. Of course, his guests assure him, clamoring for a drink. The effect of the water is immediate: all four are rejuvenated, and end up parading around the room, admiring themselves in the mirror and ridiculing their former infirmity. Heidegger himself only watches. His friends’ behavior under the “delirium” of the elixir is enough to convince him that its magical properties are not for him. He is a different kind of mirror, a moral one, as so many a Hawthorne character and narrator is. Nor is the actual mirror in Heidegger’s study devoid of said quality. As the three men vie for the attention of the newly “girl widow,” “by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have [!] reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grand-sires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shriveled grand-dam.” Just in case the reader was looking for stable footing, the narrator claims that he himself “bears the stigma of a fiction-monger.” And so—again, typical for Hawthorne—there is a delicious, crepuscular ambiguity as to whether the transformation is real, or Heidegger is watching four old fools captive of a delusion.

I thought of Hawthorne’s sketch more than once while I was reading Steve Waksman’s excellent revisionist heavy-rock history This Ain’t the Summer of Love. In Greil Marcus’s classic formulation, the arrival of punk onto the scene in ‘76 was a “pop explosion”: “a moment of anxiety and rupture that created […] a stark sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’”; the “historical slate” had been “wiped clean” (Waksman 148, 149). And yet, as Waksman shows, for “a small but vocal minority” of rock journalists, spurred by “a mix of nostalgia, narcissism, resentment, and rebellion” (65), the “explosion” of ’76 was not really an irruption of the New; it was the Second Coming. For ’76 simply fulfilled the promise of Nuggets, Lenny Kaye’s legendary 1972 compilation of mid-‘60s garage rock, that last last great moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, whose youthful energy had been dissipated by the anathema of prog-rock pretentiousness and the tuned-in, introspective listening of the audiences for psychedelia (see Waksman 30).* Nuggets, Waksman writes, “embodied the search for a way to channel the most unleashed qualities of rock in new aesthetic directions and the desire to counteract the growing hierarchies—economic and artistic—that had developed around the music during the past half-decade” (66). Despite the emphasis on the “new” here, Waksman is quite clear that Nuggets was first and foremost an act of nostalgic reclamation (69). I can’t help but see them—Lester Bangs, Greg Shaw, Lenny Kaye et al.—standing around with their fingers crossed, haranguing passers-by with their vinyl pamphlets, like Jehovah’s Witnesses on the subway platform. Never mind the messiah, here’s the Sex Pistols.

There is something deeply romantic about this vision,§ and Waksman is not slow to point it out. Shaw, a self-proclaimed “rock purist” (50), believed that by the early ‘70s rock had “lost the ability to represent youthful desires in […] a direct way” (52-3; my emphasis); and it was by this lizard brain-to-neocortex ratio that the worth of all rock was to be measured. Ideally, the denominator must approach zero, and so the ratio infinity, until the audience brushed up against the asymptote of a Maenadic orgy of self-annihilation. To live suspended between two utopias, watching, waiting for the next artist who would “save” rock ‘n’ roll—by which we can only mean ourselves from the consciousness of our own aging and imminent death—strikes me as simply the Heideggerian impulse writ large. Indeed, it is the very warp and woof of post-‘60s America.

I think it was Jello Biafra who said he hated punk nostalgia. How ironic, then, that punk should turn out to be all nostalgia; that the answer to the perennial question “How to keep rock young?” (Waksman 145) should be through periodic injections of the past. Of course, this is as much a polemical exaggeration as Shaw’s: the “new aesthetic directions” are as important as the spirit of rock revived. I will return to this later. For the moment, suffice to say that punk as “pop explosion” is a hyperbole of wish-fulfillment. The story is clearly more complicated than razing history by cultivating the barbaric yawp of hormone-addled teens, and Waksman’s task is to tell this more complicated story. How is it that this odd beast called Heavy Metal, hardly the tiny mammals of the paleontological imagination, survived that icon-shaped meteor called Punk? Why did Metal, as The Dude would say, abide?

*

The mythology of punk had to be constructed against something, and that something would be metal, wayward child of prog and the blues, the dark twin from which punk was separated at birth. Indeed, the labels—punk, metal—are historically so fractious that we’ve forgotten the days when Bangs et al. were singing the praises of early Grand Funk (and even Black Sabbath) for carrying something of the “squalid” (66) garage-rock aesthetic into the era of the stadium, and when GFR could be lumped together with MC5 and The Stooges around ideas of spontaneity, unleashed desire, and populism (67). This Ain’t the Summer of Love is a fine remedy for the cultural amnesia that has hampered our understanding of these two genres’ tangled histories.

“Metal and punk,” Waksman writes in his introduction, “have enjoyed a particularly charged, at times even intimate sort of relationship that has informed the two genres in terms of sound, image, and discourse” (7). Rather than a fixed boundary between them, he posits a “continuum,” through which “generic boundaries have been continually tested, sometimes to be remapped and other times to be reinforced” (10). Waksman is interested in re-telling the story in such a way that punk and metal mutually illuminate each other, and to highlight not just tensions and antitheses, but the reciprocity and cross-pollination of their imbricated evolutions. By redefining the relationship between overtheorized (to the point of fetish) punk, and the until recently (and perhaps still) undertheorized heavy metal, the study spurs us to “question some of the assumptions that have led to the canonization of punk as the last great moment in rock history” (17) … and as such, to hear rock history differently.

Waksman might quibble with me here (and there, and everywhere), but This Ain’t the Summer of Love strikes me as deconstructive in spirit.† By unearthing the nostalgic wish-fulfillment that impelled the “canonization of punk” as the antithesis of “dinosaur rock,” Waksman dismantles a critical binary by which the two genres have often been distinguished. The goal here is neither to invert the hierarchy (metal rules!) nor to eradicate distinctions (metal IS punk), but rather to reveal the role of ideology—where metal simply becomes the foil against which to shore up punk’s authenticity, the scapegoat onto which punk can cast anything it cannot countenance in itself, the representative of the worst excesses to which the spirit of rock can be degraded, in order for punk to believe its myths about itself—in the way the two genres are understood and understand themselves, as well as to map how each genre has impacted the other in that “charged, intimate relationship.”

For example: the desire for mass success has generally sat better with heavy metal than with punk, which repudiated the machine of rock stardom. In this formulation, heavy metal comes to represent the capitalist means of production of the “rock-industrial complex” (stadium show, major label, etc.), punk the conscious, liberated masses (however un-massed they might be) existing in authentic relation to the band. And yet, early punk bands found it difficult to spurn the crowd or the major labels when they came knocking. Were said bands therefore un-punked, “sellouts,” their authenticity just another pose? Writes Waksman about the uncategorizable Dictators: they “thumbed their noses at the terms of rock-and-roll success but still continued to struggle mightily for it” (127). It is a comment that could be applied more broadly.

Of course, binaries are like rabbits, or characters in the Pentateuch: one is continuously begetting another. Slow versus fast, pretentious/arty versus gonad-driven, spectacular versus intimate, passive versus active, hierarchical versus democratic, centralized versus decentralized, amateur versus virtuouso, etc. … I will not presume to identify the pater-binary here. While it is true that differences in musical practice and production are expressions of differing ideologies, the genre labels have the effect of exaggerating them, erecting artificial barriers along the “continuum,” distorting how we hear the music, and deafening us to points of merger and cross-influence.

I would take this one step further and argue that, from the perspective of heavy metal, music and ideology form a binary of their own. That is, metal would like to believe it has no ideology, would understand itself as a purely aesthetic phenomenon, with music and musical practice at the center of the subculture. This makes sense, given its historical love-hate relationship with the mainstream. Punk, on the other hand, was always conscious of its ideology, or of itself as ideology. The music was of a piece with it, but was never understood as an entity separate from it. For punk, the music was a sort of caulk to hold the subculture together, present in every nook and cranny, but not itself the scene. The opposite is true of metal: the music is the scene; the metalheads fit themselves into those cracks, bearing up the music together. Music creates solidarity in metal, rather than being one (perhaps the highest) expression of it. (According to this formulation, no matter how punk-influenced metal has been, the answer to the question, “Is there metal beyond metal?” which was posed at the 2013 Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference (see “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein,” 5.24.13) must be “No.”)

Perhaps, if punk is more a creature of ideology than of its aesthetic expression (e.g., anti-virtuosity and -complexity), it is as much in need of metal to give it musical life as metal needs that other thing punk has from time to time given it: attitude; energy; the dismantling spirit of noise and a dissonance edging into atonality (and anarchy) that visits rock whenever it becomes too enamored of its own edifices. Without metal, punk burns itself out; without punk, metal ossifies. Again, since metal pretends it is not ideological, it is happy to draw on punk for inspiration, including musical inspiration; whereas for punk to do the same can only appear a betrayal, since one cannot delve into metal without dragging the whole kit-and-caboodle of its (reactionary, hierarchical) ideology behind.

If we look to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) era, we are left with the fascinating and troubling suggestion that metal became metal via punk, found its voice because of punk. (It reminds me of the scene in Invisible Man where the protagonist makes white paint by stirring black paint into it …) Here, metal becomes metal not via the mirror of its Other, but by incorporation—that is, because of a certain level of “impurity.” So, just as there was no pure rock in some past utopia that we can remake in the present, so there is no pure or true genre; it is essentially contaminated, always in the process of making itself, cobbling itself together from the bric-a-brac of the musical past, subject to the forces of media and market. Its achievement is aspirational, and endlessly deferred. Ah, these quixotic attempts to redeem the sinner and refine the defiled! The “purity virus,” as we might call it, can be quite as debilitating as what Bangs called the “superstar virus” (Waksman 54). Now, in “taking in” punk, was metal paradoxically infected by the purity virus—the very same virus that leads punk to define itself against metal as ur-representative of the musical past? Perhaps. But it may have been just enough to inoculate it: to create a firm yet still-porous membrane that would allow both a relatively stable generic identity and the possibility of change … and thus the preposterous longevity which has so flummoxed its detractors. Perhaps punk was necessary to show metal that it does have an ideology, and so to help it come to consciousness of itself as a genre.

And punk? Since punk is the privileged term, it has the privilege of pretending to be sufficient unto itself: punk is punk is punk. Or: punk is pure negation, an anti-genre, nothing without the contours of the generic history it mythologizes itself razing to the ground, an energy that “infects” other genres, and that is the essence of its paradoxical purity. Or: punk is … punk is …. After a time, defining punk comes to seem as elusive as locating the proverbial True Scotsman. Punk, the fleeting utopia (was it actually ever there?), the grail-shaped elementary particle created in fiery collision, decaying at the instant of its detection.

*

There is a danger here, no matter how fine a blade one uses, of treating the genres monolithically, of re-stabilizing the very generic binary Waksman would have us think about fluidly, historically. (Notice how much of the above is written in the present tense.) All this talk about binaries is making me hungry … for history, that is. And since the above admittedly weaves far away from Waksman’s study, which is so firmly grounded, it is high time we re-grounded ourselves in the text.

Perhaps something of the foregoing discussion can help reveal why metal’s place throughout the book feels a little problematic. The idea that punk was a sort of reservoir from which metal could draw energy, “revitalizing” it during periods when it was flagging, and pushing it in ever-more-extreme directions, makes metal the dependent genre. Only when metal had developed “an underground energy of its own” (239) would the current be freed to flow in the opposite direction, helping to release hardcore from the mirror of its fetishized purity, polluting it with the dungheap sounds of Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, and AC/DC, and producing first crossover as a self-consciously hybrid genre (D.R.I., Suicidal Tendencies, C.O.C., S.O.D.), and eventually the more thoroughly-digested hybridity of grunge. Then again, perhaps the feeling of imbalance is an inevitable product of the way rock history has been written; the Standard Model always exerts a gravity on any counternarrative, be it about minority populations or minority musics.

Regardless, the history Waksman tells is compelling: nuanced in argument, deeply researched, and smartly contextualized by cultural changes in twentieth-century Britain and America, from suburban male tinkering to the changing meaning of postwar youth culture. Not surprisingly for a book about “crossover and conflict” between countergenres,** chapters are dominated by pairs—GFR and Nuggets, Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, The Runaways and The Dictators, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. “Death Trip,” the Cooper-Pop chapter, is particularly insightful about these two figures who stood at the headwaters of the generic division that would emerge over the ‘70s, initiating both aforementioned founding differences (e.g., large-scale spectacle versus intimacy and authenticity) and shared fixations (victimization, death, gender ambiguity). In the third and fourth chapters, Waksman turns his attention to early attempts at crossover. Some of the most interesting material examines the way ‘70s bands’ hybrid identities and competing agendas made them unstable. For The Runaways, for example, the tension between Joan Jett (punk) and Lita Ford (metal) tore the band apart. A few years later, Iron Maiden would more successfully navigate a similar tension by ejecting the offending matter—original singer Paul D’ianno, whose voice, stance, and look screamed punk—and consolidating their image around the operatic Bruce Dickinson (201). With D’ianno, Maiden had been touted as a crossover band; even the original Eddie, the band’s endlessly-mutable mascot, clearly bore the marks of both genres (see 196).

What happened between The Runaways and Maiden that allowed the latter to enjoy at least a few pre-thrash years straddling the two genres? One word: Motörhead. Only peerless Motörhead, mother of all crossovers, get their own chapter. They were noisier and dirtier and less bassy than other metal bands, albeit proficient enough instrumentally; in Waksman’s lovely phrase, “their music was all distorted rushing surface” (165). Both punk and metal writers in Britain claimed Motörhead as their own, whether as the fulfillment of the sound Johnny Rotten prophesied, or as stripped-down heavy rock without a political agenda and a biker look to boot (160-1). Audiences for Motörhead were motley assemblages of punks and metalheads, a phenomenon that would continue with Maiden and the NWOBHM. For Sounds writer Geoff Barton, for example, a 1979 concert of NWOBHM bands featuring Maiden “showed that punks were not so ready to leave the musical past behind as they were often portrayed, and that heavy metal retained a vital degree of currency amid the social divisions that defined the British music scene” (177; the words are Waksman’s).

Punk’s impact on metal would become increasingly transparent—and oft cited, though not without occasionally disparaging comments on punk musicianship (166)—as the ‘70s drew to a close, penetrating to all levels of musical activity: independent labels, local scenes (even if these were meant as stepping stones to stardom rather than ends in themselves), and more extreme styles. It was NWOBHM bands like Raven and Venom who would push the quest for a new, metal-specific authenticity the furthest—that first injection of “punk attitude,” as both D’ianno and Venom’s Abaddon put it (195, 199)—and so have the biggest impact on the rise of the ‘80s metal underground. Mixing a noisy, DIY sound with metal themes, Venom claimed to prefer a punk label to being classed with “unworthy” heavy metal bands (194). In their marginalization from the heavy metal mainstream, they became the genre’s “ultimate purveyors” (195), using punk to scour away any and all extravagances, and redefining the fringe as the new center.§§ A couple of years later, as the meaning of the New Wave shifted, so did the NWOBHM, toward a pop-friendlier sound of short, tight songs with catchy leads (e.g., Def Leppard). Thus, as the different sounds, fates, and degrees of influence of Motörhead, Maiden, Venom, and Leppard show, the impact of punk on metal in late ‘70s/ early ‘80s Britain is ambivalent, even contradictory. While it is true that NWOBHM was an attempt to “come to terms with the impact of punk,” “metal bands of the time were as likely to be reacting against punk as incorporating its values and features, and may have been doing both at the same time” (209).

This true-versus-mainstream divide arising from British metal’s uneasy late ‘70s/early ‘80s interaction with punk would soon take on a decidedly Atlantic cast, with the distinctly un-punk and orthographically-challenged Leppard pandering to American audiences, the same audiences who would soon be buttering the bread of SoCal proto-hair bands like Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe.†† Meanwhile, independent American labels were beginning to foster stateside underground scenes, helping to pave the way for American crossover. SST, founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, grew away from hardcore dogma so that, by the mid-‘80s, their catalog was offering a mix of punk and metal—including Black Flag’s own divisively metal-inflected My War (1982). For Waksman, SST helped “legitimate the inclusion of heavy metal in the independent realm” (228), even as he notes that metal was already creating its own version of DIY culture via its European connections (the Danish fanzine Aardschok, for example, and the NWOBHM). With the emergence of originating thrash metal bands like Slayer and Metallica further up the coast, hardcore ‘zines began to sit up and take notice; some began to call for détente between and even unity among the two scenes.*** Independent Metal Blade would go on to record crossover pioneers D.R.I. and C.O.C. Eventually, the “Seattle Sound” would be built from the bricks and mortar of these crossover tendencies, fused by the isolated and closely-knit musical culture of that city. For Waksman, SST and Metal Blade each had a role in fostering crossover, but only Seattle’s Sub Pop “made the combination of metal and punk into the basis for a broad-based youth culture that reshaped the rock music industry in the first half of the 1990s” (254); it was “the one genuinely mass-oriented music phenomenon […] predicated on the interplay between heavy metal and punk” (301).

This Ain’t the Summer of Love ends like a classic novel: in marriage (with children!). But did the couple live happily ever after? The outcry over Metallica’s headlining Lalapalooza, five years after they went “alternative,” suggests that grunge was only a partial, or momentary, resolution. Waksman’s reading of the evolution of Lalapalooza is brilliantly on-target: “It was almost as though the 1960s-70s shift from festival rock to arena rock was being replayed all over again in the context of a single annual event” (304). By beginning at the dawn of the ’70s and concluding with the Blue Öyster Cult song from which the book takes its title, Waksman suggests that, to truly understand the evolution of punk and metal, one has to go back to that very shift, to the genres’ dual emergence on the other side of the Altamont faultline. BOC’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love” is a postmortem for “the pastoral, communitarian mythos that surrounded [rock ‘n’ roll] at a particular point in time […] 1970s rock is not about going back to the garden, it’s about riding into the night noisily and with abandon” (297).

As Waksman shows, there are different kinds of gardens; garages will do quite as well for flowers as Golden Gate Park. But the anti-nostalgic impulse carries a danger as well: the fantasy that history can be scraped off of the present, and time begin anew. (Indeed, the anti-nostalgic impulse may be just cloaked nostalgia.) If punk and metal were “efforts to reinvest rock with meaning after the perceived demise of the 1960s counterculture” (18), then what meaning(s)? To what extent revived, imported, contemporary? The central question of the book may be not about the mutual influences between musical genres, but about how to engage with the past without succumbing to either nostalgia or resentment; or without, as James Baldwin once wrote, either drowning in it or replacing it with a fantasy.

*

Some twenty years later, where are we? Sometimes I wonder if, for people of my generation, the genres are as polarized as they ever were. Waksman’s personal story, which he glosses in his introduction, is familiar to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s and invested him or herself in either or both of these genres. He identified as a metalhead; his heavy metal T-shirt marked him as “other” in that epicenter of hardcore, Orange County. But he listened to some punk, and, after his punk college roommie discovered him spinning a Black Flag record, he started going to shows. I grew up three thousand miles away, but everything about Waksman’s narrative resonates with me. We grew from Led Zeppelin and Rush toward something starker, darker, heavier, filtered into punk or metal depending on a variety of social and cultural circumstances. I had metalhead friends who drew a more or less firm line between metal and punk, and others who tried to find their own positions between the two, and even among Brit-lithium bands like The Smiths and The Cure. One, a diehard Metallica fan, floated me my first hardcore: early Tendencies, D.I., and Blag Flag’s Family Man. Another, a one-time skinhead, later became an enormous influence on my taste, seeding me with Beefeater and SNFU while I did the same to him with Voivod: places where divided currents rejoined. We all have stories like these, friends like these: holes poked in the seemingly impregnable walls of genre, notes and cigarettes passed between, smoke blown through, this no matter how wedded we were to our perfectly masturbatory musical identities.

Today, I find that those who held a firm genre line tend to be nostalgic for a certain tribalism, before everything got thrown in the hopper and blended up—before, say, a band with a violin could be called metal, and kids in Brooklyn listened to country. Waksman’s point about grunge’s tangled genealogy, its deep hybridity, is borne out by the way these hard-line friends hear it, whether they subscribed to the metal or punk-cum-indie rock side of the line. Kurt Cobain, for example, is contested terrain. He is generally understood as a punk hero by indie rockers, and the antithesis (one even sees this in Waksman) of grunge’s other multiplatinum success story, Pearl Jam. My nostalgically metalhead friends (you know, the ones who think music died with the ‘80s, was briefly resurrected in Pantera, and then died for real) also have a hard time swallowing Pearl Jam … but some of them claim Nirvana for metal. Alice in Chains has always gone down a lot easier, and even Soundgarden, despite their propensity for parodying metal. But the reticence about miscegenation runs deep as identity. On my end, I love Pearl Jam—I hear not just ‘70s rock, but punk, The Beatles, and much more—and never developed much of a taste for Nirvana. Then again, listening to my iPod on shuffle in the car, I find myself increasingly skeptical of the old allegiances. The music jumps from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime to Slayer’s South of Heaven, both from ‘88. To what extent was it ever possible to understand these bands as belonging to the same all-encompassing parent genre? My beef is not with evolution per se, of course. I just sometimes marvel at the arrangement of the phyla, always a conventional frame laid over what is indeed a continuum, and—at least where the consumption of music is concerned—usually done so by forces outside of our control.

And the “kids” today, where are they at? Barring statistics about tastes and attitudes, the only evidence (once again) is anecdotal. And what anecdotal evidence I can muster is ambiguous, even contradictory. On the one hand, the taste of younger crowds seems to run the gamut—“genre be damned!” seems to be the rallying cry today—and bands post-grunge happily draw on both “energies.” Cobain himself has acquired the same legendary, common-property status that Jimi or Joplin have; he seems to be the only such figure that has currency among today’s youth audience for rock (which is also why he is contested terrain). In the local music ‘zines where I live, the same publications appeal to both metal and hardcore fans, although there is still a good deal of attention paid to which aesthetic a new local band more or less subscribes. On the other hand, genre has splintered to such a degree that micro-identities seem to isolate audiences within not just genres, but subgenres. If the resulting constellations are not always predictable and channel-able as they once were, they can be just as fiercely guarded. “Crossover” bills may make money, but perhaps only because they gather enough people from different audiences and scenes, not because the audiences themselves cross over … even if the Cro-mags fans aren’t kicking the shit out of the Slayer fans anymore (I wonder if this was the case back in ’79 in Britain as well). Add to this the retro- aspect of today’s audiences, with neo-punks and neo-metalheads digging deep into ancient catalogs, and constructing identities from the bones of their forefathers, and one begins to wonder if that nostalgia for tribalism, be it around punk or metal, propagated by music media, has been absorbed by the youth of today as a way of shoring up their own identities against the endless stream of available music. Or perhaps it is simply natural for youth to crave the sort of ready-made identity that popular music provides.

From the standpoint of contemporary politics, there is a (for me) happy payoff to Waksman’s study. For one of the great values of This Ain’t the Summer of Love is that it so well demonstrates the contingency of the border between the two genres and scenes. For the most part—and I will focus on America here—the suburban youth who patronized hardcore were as alienated from the traditional working class as they desired to be from the plastic world of their parents; the proletariat remained theoretical. Meantime, the working class was listening to arena rock/ metal; their politics were reactionary and populist. (Surely a large number of suburban youth also populated that audience, and became much of the audience for ‘80s underground metal: one that aped the working class, as Deena Weinstein showed … but was devoid of both working-class roots or a revolutionary ideology.) Between a working class that embraces capitalism aspirationally, and which finds its greatest exponent in the Horatio Alger rock star, and a disaffected suburban youth without any authentic connection to that working class, who scowl and sneer at “the system,” but are entirely impotent to effect change: “punk” and “metal,” labels that help drive the ideological wedge between the middle and working classes, pitting them against each other for the benefit of the 1%.

But to return to aesthetics, and to my beloved monoliths. Punk and metal have always needed each other to check each other’s worst excesses; they are perhaps best construed as warning labels: stay away from idealized poles, where ideology is mistaken for life. What else could have saved hardcore from drowning in the mirror of its own purity, or from the delusion that it was the vanguard of the apocalypse? And what could have saved the lumbering, masturbating spectacle of metal from itself, if not the noisy anti-energy of punk? Each of us might put our fulcrum in a different place along Waksman’s “continuum,” but some Cygnus there must be. There must be a similar balance, I think, about the way one approaches the past—between, that is, nostalgic romanticization and anti-nostalgic rebellion; between death by drowning and a life of fantasy. For Waksman, the success of grunge seems to have been its ability to negotiate both generic and generational pitfalls: “resources from the past became the means to counter the orthodoxies of the present and to create a new synthesis that melded hardcore’s radical sense of refusal with the ambivalent embrace of heavy metal excess” (298). For the artist of today, weaned on notions of the anxiety of influence and in a culture that is at once hyper-aware of the immediate past and with the technological means at its disposal to both endlessly confront and endlessly recycle it, negotiating the opposing pitfalls of nostalgia and rebellion seems the essence of the creative struggle.

*

Oh, dear. This is a ramshackle house of a “review.” Some very nice individual rooms, you will agree: so pleasantly decorated, the grillework so fastidiously done over, the wallpaper fascinatingly intricate, and mirrors, my God, mirrors everywhere, making everything appear larger than it is. But it is true that, viewed from a distance, it is a bit of a monstrosity: an amalgamation of strange, misshapen additions, as though there had never been a hearth. I won’t even tell you about the rooms left on the drawing board; the Alice Cooper-Iggy Pop one was particularly beautiful; perhaps they will become future additions, or better yet, outbuildings. For now I am running—running, abandoning the place, before I have the urge to grab my tools again, and build yet more rooms, and renovate old ones … and even to re-decorate rooms that will later fall to the sledgehammer! When I have reached a minimum safe distance in time, the great gravity of this house only enough to make my teeth sing, and my pen has turned into a pillar of salt, then, then I can begin to dream of returning.

 

* Perhaps even nostalgia about nostalgia, a Third Coming. In his third chapter, “The Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Ideal,” Waksman takes us even further back, to the lost teen utopia of the 1950s: America’s Garden of Eden, the competing figures of Gidget and The Wild One, the beach kid and the juvenile delinquent (111-112). America, Christopher Hitchens once noted, seems to have a talent for misplacing its innocence. Anyway, among the many strengths of Waksman’s book is its close attention to the pivotal role media—journalism, radio stations, record labels, and anthology recordings—play in shaping musical genres, and by extension music history.

§ Bangs may masquerade as a cynic, but … what a gloriously seductive costume. I can’t think of a rock writer I read with more pleasure. I am generally too happy getting lost in the whorls of his language to bother stepping back to disagree. N.B.: Bangs, for one, recognized the tension between what he called “The Party” and self-consciousness (see Waksman 56), and tried to solve it in typical Bangsian fashion, that is, by recourse to his methamphetamine style.

† Deconstruction itself has become (must become) an object of nostalgia. It does seem oddly apt to use an intellectual tool that came to prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s to discuss changes in music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To each time, its tool. That said, I am not sure why intellectual tools should fall out of use. If I am trying to pull nails out of the floor (of culture, in this case), a claw hammer is going to serve me as well as anything since invented, and perhaps better than anything yet invented. Interpretative frameworks—generally cobbled together from different disciplines, grafted with varying degrees of success—are as maniacally sought after, and just as prone to obsolescence, as any other commodity … and therefore, as much a product of the ideology they are ostensibly used to critique, no? Anyway, a new area for eBay to exploit.

** The term is Heather Dubrow’s; I might have done well to raise it earlier. Countergenres are genres that “work according to a set of norms that are implicitly or explicitly drawn from and at times opposed to each other” (Waksman 9). Waksman notes that relationships between genres and the transformation of genres are undertheorized.

§§ Waksman draws on the concepts of mundane and transgressive subcultural capital to analyze Venom’s role (184-5). For a fuller discussion of these concepts, see Keith Kahn-Harris, “‘You Are From Israel and that is Enough to Hate You Forever’: Racism, Globalization and Play Within the Global Extreme Metal Scene,” in Metal Rules the Globe (Duke UP, 2011); and my own discussion of Kahn-Harris’s argument in “T-Shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13).

†† One of my favorite anecdotes in Waksman’s book tells of Def Leppard’s Joe Eliott stripping off the union jack to reveal the stars and stripes. The equation of authentic or true heavy metal with Britain is nowhere better stated than by Rob Halford a few years later: “The USA still looks to Britain as the true origin of Metal […] I honestly don’t think that there has ever been a true American Heavy Metal band!” (333). Judas Priest, as Robert Walser once noted, aspires to be genre-defining. For the irregular ways in which claims to authenticity intersect with masculinity and social class, as well as with nationality, see pages 201-206 in the Waksman.

*** A shout-out to Pushead (Brian Schroeder), who wrote so passionately about punk-metal crossover for Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll: “Now the crossover has happened and the 2 underground energies are colliding. This is speedcore. There is still hardcore and metal, but in a general sense, the ferocity and quickness brings a unity for those who enjoy it” (239). Today, Pushead is best known for the artwork he produced for Metallica. He should also be remembered—fondly? disturbedly?—for fronting over-the-top speedcore band Septic Death.

Have Been There or Have Been the Product of a Number Multiplied By Itself

lgtbof

 

Hermes, Will. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. New York: Faber & Faber, 2011.

 

 

Man, am I sick of Brooklyn.

Remember that New Yorker cover from 1976 where Jersey is a brown smear and the West is a few busty bumps in an otherwise empty plain signifying the remainder of the continental United States? The purported view from the magazine’s offices, geography distorted (inevitably) by ideology: New York as the center of the universe, at once a celebration and a satire of the New Yorker’s (italicized or no) perspective.

Out of the City for two-plus years now, spiraling toward middle middle age like a winged Zero, I’m finally starting to get—not understand, but get—“why they hate[d] us,” as the Quiet Manhattanite might have put it, once upon a time. Not because we were black, or gay, or liberal, or spoke with a funny accent, or knew how to parallel park. (Well … not entirely, anyway.) No: it was the holier-than-thou sense of hipness, uptown as much as down. The oligarchy of the tastemakers. The artistic export economy, the country pillaged and sold back to itself, reflected in a broken mirror.

Yeah, I grew up in that brown smear, so fuck you, and you, and you.

Today, the cultural crosshairs have shifted a little south, a little east. Brooklyn, Brooklyn is the borough du décennie, the place where it’s all happenin’, the place the cool kids move, the place kids in Austin and Louisville dream about …

I’ve had plenty of life to cultivate a self-righteous dislike of the cool, only occasionally admitting to myself how much I craved it. Raised in the ‘burbs, how could I not think New York was the cat’s ass? And so in my twenties I moved there, like everybody else. I was in Bushwick before it became East Williamsburg—not by design; it was what a part-time teacher could afford. After leaving the City for the second time, some fifteen years later, I had to keep a foot in the Bronx for a whole year just so as not to stumble. It was always my City: the city where I dug in my heels and opened my eyes, the city that shaped the art I consume and create, the city I go on dreaming and reinventing, will go on dreaming and reinventing until the day I die. It’s still my city, goddammit, even if I don’t recognize half the sites anymore.

But Brooklyn? Ah, Brooklyn. You’re too much.

*

It took me almost a year to make it through Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Rolling Stone writer Will Hermes’s paean to the New York art and music scene 1973-1977. And maybe, were I to do it justice, I should have taken five. This is, after all, a sort of urban diary, a chronology of significant artistic events during a very tumultuous time in the City’s history, written in a voice suggesting intimate contact.

The thesis, such as it is: New York in the ‘70s was the forge in which a slew of musical styles and genres (punk, rap, salsa, disco, “loft” jazz, minimalism) were created, by artists who were listening to the City and to each other. I say “such as it is” because Hermes’s primary goal isn’t to persuade. It’s to illustrate, through extended montage and in extensive detail, the Here and Now of New York arts at the time—to make us feel and hear the City as it was.

Together, the such-as-it-is thesis and the abandonment of structure to chronology, with each entry running between half a page and two pages, sometimes grouped in related sets, invite on-again, off-again reading. At their best, the sections in aggregate can work like sympathetic strings, so that all the narrative fragments vibrate together when we read any one. At their worst, they can feel like the printed equivalent of toggling: a lot of information presented through endless cross-cutting, sometimes bubble-gummed together across the cracks, with little space for analysis or reflection. Indeed, when Hermes tells us that Blondie’s Chris Stein jammed with the nascent Heartbreakers in ’74, “but nothing came of it” (113), it’s hard not to take this as microcosm of and comment on the text: an extended, noodling jam without payoff.

It could be argued such a structure invites the reader to make his or her own connections, that this is what the white space between the sections is for. Quite possibly I am bringing the wrong (academic?) expectations: for a worked-out argument and more than just drive-by analysis … something firmer on which to string those beads of detail (to borrow from Emerson’s comment on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers), no matter how brilliant, multifaceted, and intensively-mined many of them are.

For it’s true that, as a collection of vignettes, each occupying its own radiant little present, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is sharp and vivid and enjoyable. Consider, for example, Hermes’s description of the action at The Gallery club in ’73: “[Y]ou would suddenly be dancing in utter darkness, packed into a room full of screaming hedonists already out of their minds on drugs and adrenaline, their retinas still flickering with images, lights, and colors from a few seconds earlier. Then: WHAM! The lights were on” (30-31). Everything about the language, voice, and rhythm here immerses us in the moment. Hermes’s frequent use of dialogue and streetwise diction do the same. As befits a well-traveled music writer, he can nail a sound like nobody’s business (about David Murray: “brutish yet melodic, focused, damp with emotion […] he could also puff out velvety Ben Webster-style phrases in between ferocious gospel-style shouts and honks” (149)). And then there are those brilliant shards of analysis—describing Taxi Driver as a “horror film” with “New York as the monster” (167), or session players as “honeybees” of New York music’s “cultural cross-pollination” (136). I appreciated Hermes’s treatment of salsa’s fraught relationship with the barrio, its desire “to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dance-hall soundtrack” (24). It is a comment that comes out of a discussion of ‘73’s Hommy, but really comes to fruition with Hermes’s discussion of the crossover work of Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, and Willie Colon in ’76 and ’77. It probably doesn’t need to be said that the discography at the end of the book is more valuable than the bibliography. This is as it should be.

Considered as a work of music history, though, there is something problematic about Hermes’s approach. It’s one thing to construct history with a journalist’s ear for detail, language and dialogue, and another to re-imagine history as another present—as a reflection of the historian’s inescapable subjectivity. “They,” Love Goes to Buildings on Fire seems to say, are “us.” But who are the “they” and “us” of Hermes’s universe?

In 1974, Hermes tells us, Debbie Harry caught Patti Smith kissing Tom Verlaine behind CBGB (115). At the opening night of a Heartbreakers run at the Village Gate, Johnny Thunders “chatted with his old comrade David Johansen” and “Debbie Harry gave him a kiss on the cheek” (255). “Handsome” Dick Manitoba was treated for injuries “where [his] pal Joey Ramone once spent two weeks in the psych ward” (183). At so-and-so’s performance, the following luminaries or luminaries-to-be were in the audience. Such details (and the text is rife with them) are meant, I assume, to give that I-was-there vividness of impression, and perhaps to further the idea of artistic cross-pollination. But I have a hard time distinguishing it from tabloid writing, the sort that mires us in the ins and outs of our favorite celebrities’ lives: so-and-so saw so-and-so here, kissed so-and-so there, and by the way, did you know so-and-so got his hair cut by the same barber who cut so-and-so’s hair? And they bought their weed from the same dealer! By the time we hear about Joey Ramone burning his face and coming back from the ER, his face dripping with ointment, to “deliver one of his greatest shows ever” (275), it’s difficult to suppress a sigh … unless, I guess, one is a big Ramones fan. (Bias alert: What Hermes writes about Patti Smith’s “Hey Joe”—“it’s a bit too impressed with its own transgression” (89)—nicely sums up my own feelings about much (though not all) of the CBGB music of the time.) And greatest show according to whom? I looked in vain for a footnote that would say.

Hermes’s anecdotes about growing up in New York, with which the book is seeded, also participate in creating this tone of faux intimacy.* Though often enjoyable and always well-written, they also always feel out of place. The anecdotes tend to be self-effacing, with Hermes as the geeky Queens kid. And yet, by scattering them throughout the narrative, he blurs the distinction (purposely, it seems) between himself and the artists he writes about. In the radical (punk?) democratization of fact and event to which the book seems to aspire, critic novitiate and budding artist are equals: Will is Bruce is Blondie, “he” (critic) is one of “them” (artists), and “they” are “us.” It’s a double move: On the one hand, the critic becomes a star, like the artists and scenes it is his function to help shape and legitimize.** On the other hand, the stars become “just like us”: punk everypersons and romanticized Folk. Of course, there was something of a revolving door between critics and performers—Patti Smith wrote for Creem, Lenny Kaye for Hit Parader; Lester Bangs jammed with his typewriter on stage (!). But when we hear about Smith hyping her friend’s band Television, and Bangs his own guitarist, it all does start to sound like a bit of a circle-jerk … and Hermes, a few years too young for the scenes he’s “covering,” trying to edge his way in.

One of the jacket blurbs, by Chuck (Fargo Rock City) Kloesterman, singles out the book’s section on the 1977 blackout for praise, for telling us “what (seemingly) every interesting person in New York City was doing [that] night.” I love the hedge: it’s the critic who creates the “seems.” And who is (or seems) interesting? Well, Chris and Tina and David—of the Talking Heads, of course (though we’re not on a first-name basis until the epilogue). Lester Bangs, sure. David Murray, Meredith Monk. And Will Hermes. He was there. Not surprisingly, the section on the blackout ends with him.

*

And so were you. Were you? If you weren’t, well, better luck next time. Or, better yet, move to Brooklyn. Because there’s stuff happening there right now that’s interesting, and so you can be interesting, too. In ’77 people had started buying cheap brownstones, there were “signs of cultural life” around Flatbush (228); but Brooklyn in the 2000s is “a culture as vital in its way as downtown Manhattan in the ‘70s, with clubs, galleries, and semilegal performance spaces set up in residential lofts” (304).

Only … it’s 2015. What if you’re too late? What if the scene’s moved on, and some prescient rock critic is already writing the LGTBOF equivalent about Brooklyn? Don’t you know all the cool kids are moving upstate, doing the farm-to-table thing? You’re heading my way Brooklyn, yes you are, like it or not. I don’t like it. It’s why I’ve never been able to settle down: you always come and fuck up my shit, Brooklyn, like you did in Bushwick, you make my shit uninhabitable, bitch. Standing in my overalls, I raise my middle finger at you, Brooklyn. I know you like that sort of thing. Self-consciously vulgar, just shy of cutting edge.

 

* The occasional use of “you” in the text also raises the issue of voice. When Hermes tells a story about himself, he uses “I.” By and large, when he writes about the music scenes, he uses the third person. But who is the “you”? “You” substitutes for the passive voice, but it implicates the “I” as well. When Hermes writes, describing graffiti culture, “In Queens in the mid-‘70s, you would occasionally see artful tags on the E and F trains” (37), he is likely writing from experience: he was one of the “you” who saw said grafitti. When he writes, “You could still hear Sonny Rollins searching for a sound on the Williamsburg bridge,” the “you” is more of a question: Did Hermes himself hear Rollins? Or is this the general “you” of the City? In the dance-club description quoted earlier, the “you” is at its most slippery. That description builds from the interview with groundbreaking DJ Nicky Siano … yet Hermes, who says that he was entering sixth grade in ’73, clearly wasn’t there (at least in ’73). Again, this is a way to build energy and intimacy into the prose; but here it seems to function as a way to embed the author in the action, helping create that “insider,” in-the-know tone.

** Finding or founding the critics or the ‘zines to champion you, your style and your scene is part and parcel of making music history, and a certain in-crowd dynamic is the inevitable product. But this is the sort of power the critic wields in the present, to shape the future of music—Hermes’s job at Rolling Stone. It seems out of place here.

Best Music Writing 2011

Last month I picked up a copy of the 2011 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology, partly because I wanted a smorg of top-notch contemporary writing about music to read, partly because I thought I might want to use it as a text in my Writing About Music class this spring. I was particularly enthused because this year’s guest editor is Alex Ross, whose The Rest Is Noise I have praised elsewhere on this site (as if it needed more praise). The blurb on the cover, from the New York Journal of Books, also tempted me. “These essays make the reader want to explore the music of these artists if they have not been fans before,” the Journal claims. “That is what good music writing should do—it should pull the reader into the music.”

The same might be said about the relationship between a good blurb and the book it advertises. This one makes two separate claims. Both of them are valid. I’m just not sure they should be equated.

The first claim—music writing as a path to exploring artists outside a reader’s listening habits—is certainly borne out by Best Music Writing 2011. In his introduction, Ross argues persuasively for the atomization of musical culture in the digital age, a point which he shrinkwraps, “All music is subcultural; no music is everywhere beloved.” Hence the ethos of the anthology: diversity. I’m still rooting around on YouTube for stuff by Georg Friedrich Haas, Moshen Namjoo, and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, to name but a few. Then there are those gaping holes in my knowledge of music history which an anthology like this one begins to fill. I never knew (forgive me) that Joan Jett and Lita Ford had played together, or that a band called The Runaways had existed. Of course, one point of Evelyn McDonnell’s torch song to Runaways drummer Sandy West is that the band has been overlooked by rock history—age and gender having everything to do with it.

But McDonnell can only furnish me a partial excuse. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois writes (apropos of Booker T. Washington): “It is as though Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give them force.” As a listener, I fit this description (or gloved criticism) pretty well; my habits tend to be narrow, so when I find something that grabs me, I dig. I mean, I bought every Eric Dolphy album I could get my hands on before I owned a single record by Charlie Parker. I’d rather listen to an album that intrigues me for the dozenth time than spend an hour on the internet sifting the virtual silt in the hope of finding a nugget of gold. Which is why the annual Best Music Writing, an occasional Sunday Times, and radio resources like WKCR and WSOU are invaluable: they act as sluice gates, keeping me in a happy place between desiccation and drowning. I understand that many music-writing professionals and DJs, who are expected to keep abreast or even ahead of the trends, don’t have the luxury of such restraint. I also know that recursive listening means that I miss nine-tenths of the music out there. But the only other option seems to be the Facebook equivalent of listening.*

The second, normative part of the blurb (“what good music writing should do”) is connected to the first by an unspecified “that,” which is then defined as “pull[ing] the reader into the music.” But is “pulling the reader into the music” the same as what I just described: the nudge you get from the radio, newspaper, or a friend (Facebook or otherwise) to give something new a spin? YouTube does as much when it pulls up a string of videos related to the one I searched. So does Amazon: “Customers who bought this item also bought …”

What about music writing that, rather than just pulling me into the orbit of a genre or artist, enables me to hear music, even music I thought I knew well, in a new way, in different contexts, according to different parameters? And if we expand the definition of “good music writing” to include the above, how well do the selections in Best Music Writing 2011 showcase the sort of writing that tweaks or wet-willies or even boxes my ears?

With about a third of the anthology devoted to pop music, BMW 2011 shouldn’t feel pop-heavy. And yet, it does. This may be my fault; pop rarely worms its way into my ear, let alone up to that dozenth listening, and I confess I have little patience for the nuances of celebrity-making and market synergies. Before I’m accused of a naivete I would elsewhere happily embrace: yes, I am aware that it is impossible to write about music today—popular or fringe—without addressing the music industry. I also understand that examinations of celebrity are a necessary part of the analysis of contemporary culture. But there’s a difference between addressing industry/celebrity self-fashioning, and making this the heart and soul of the writing … or the anthology. It’s not as though there was nothing else to talk about with pop; Jessica Hopper’s pitch-perfect review of M.I.A.’s  /\ /\ /\ Y /\ (yes, that’s the title of the album) proves that in spades. Even Chris Norris’s well-salted take on the commerce of the Black Eyed Peas (“Will.i.am and the Science of Global Pop Domination”—it might have been called “All Logo”) has a couple of depressing-yet-fascinating Pea insights to share about the music. (My favorite: “The whole song should be a chorus.”) Maybe it all goes back to Andy Warhol. I never got Warhol, or just never cared to; Warhol is Lady Gaga’s avatar, according to “Growing Up Gaga”; and Lady Gaga seems to be the quintessence of celebrity packaging. That’s the closest I’ll get to a syllogism today.

Focus on celebrity has an unfortunate corollary, which is a preponderance of biography. This sort of surprises me, since The Rest Is Noise does such an admirable job balancing biography, history, and theory, never losing sight of the music along the way. I don’t mind a good profile; in fact, one of the pieces included in this year’s anthology is “Giant Steps,” David Hajdu’s wonderful profile of Fred Hersch, originally published in the New York Times. But as with Ross’s writing, Hajdu uses biography to forward our understanding Hersch’s music. How do stereotypes about gays affect the way we listen to the lush, lyrical music of an out gay pianist? In what ways have Hersch’s battle with AIDS affected his personality as a composer and an improviser? But in this anthology, such connections are few and far between; for all the pontificating about one or another star’s sexual orientation, the discussion rarely moves beyond packaging.** Even a masterly article like “The Thriller Diaries,” which makes some really brilliant points about Michael Jackson, is so larded with Jacksonalia that much of it reads like a savvy, well-written gossip column. Maybe that’s what Vanity Fair readers want: gourmet cotton candy. But when Nancy Griffin can pen something like “[Jackson] radiate[d] an epicene glamour that was at once innocent and intensely erotic,” it makes me pine for the article that wasn’t.

The above points to a second issue with the anthology: some of the pieces feel too slight to merit inclusion. In his introduction, Ross puts in a word for the more expansive articles: “The long read remains, in my experience, the most potent means of musical persuasion.” His point is certainly substantiated by many of the essays here: Hajdu’s profile of Hersch, James Wood’s dissection of Keith Moon, Franklin Bruno on the Bryant duo, Lauren Wilcox Puchowski on wedding music, Kelefa Sanneh on the canonization of hip hop lyrics, Geoffrey O’Brien’s review of a new Duke Ellington bio. True, not all the “long reads” are equally persuasive, and a few of the shorter pieces, such as Jace Clayton’s “Curiosity Slowdown” and the aforementioned M.I.A. album review (“Making Pop For Capitalist Pigs”), pack a real punch. The problem is that it’s not easy to make a review last much past the sell-by date. Even a concert review by a seasoned practitioner like Wendy Lesser (“Darkness Invisible”) can’t hold up beside many of the longer, more nuanced pieces that precede it. Her conclusion—“total darkness began to seem like the ideal environment for listening to just about everything”—seems like a no-brainer. And that’s just the point: months after the generating event, without anything larger to hitch their wagons to, reviews can come across sounding pretty stale. “Searching for the Heart of Country” is another good example: it begins with a marvelously detailed rundown of where the heart of country might be (“Is it … in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Lower Broad in Nashville where the pickers will eternally play for the tip jar?”), but quickly devolves into a discussion of Taylor Swift’s record sales before arriving at another ho-hum conclusion: “the listeners” decide where the heart and soul of country is. Funny, the discussion of album sales started with the unrebutted assertion “But it’s also in marketing departments’ hands.” The diversification of country’s audience is indeed an important phenomenon; I only wish there had been a “long read” to provide a more persuasive analysis.

Maybe most varying in quality are (I dread to say it, but) the blogs. Like some of the shorter news-y pieces, much of the blog writing here feels too off-the-cuff, at least rubbing shoulders with the print articles. Jonathan Bogart writes with a lot of gusto about Ke$ha; but after the zillionth parenthetical interruption, some paragraph-length, I came to wish Ross or series editor Daphne Carr had invited him to edit, or had taken it upon themselves to do so. The single metal entry, also taken from a blog, has some great riffs (“One quick taste of the brick wall was enough for me. I retreated to safer ground, but there’s not much in the way of secure real estate at The Acheron”), but is less a stand-out than a paint-by-numbers example of how to write a metal show review (“‘Extinction’ started things off full throttle, instantly giving my neck a workout”; “Mutant Supremacy kill”; etc.). And Amy Klein’s tour diary “Rock and Roll Is Dead” is heartfelt and beautifully written … but adds nothing, so far as I can tell, to the discussion of the way rock music and rock journalism objectify women. I know this is her point: “It’s become such an old story that people frequently forget how vital it still is.” But where is the spiritual daughter of Joan Didion to wonder aloud about whether rock and roll wasn’t strangled in its cradle … or stillborn?

Of the blogs, pianist Jeremy Denk’s snarky, lyrical demolition of the program notes genre stands out. Here he is on Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto: “The main thematic material is good crusty Baroque fare: full of jagged, pointed intervals, evoking an academic abstruse fugue, food for angular counterpoint … to allow this to become roaring ‘20s jazz is a punning leap from the cloister to the cabaret.” He follows with the comment, “Perhaps you feel my description goes too far”—and then immediately contrasts his language—itself crusty, baroque, and punning—with generic program fare.

Now, I’m not asking for 300 pages of this. A paragraph of such language is exhausting. But I did want more like it: more precise attention to the music; more treating words like taffy. Nor am I saying no business, no celebrity, no biography. All these have their place, and can be done well—there are numerous examples here. But I shouldn’t get to James Wood’s “The Fun Stuff,” the fourth to last selection out of 32, wondering why a slightly less hyperactive version of Denk’s counter-manifesto was the exception rather than the rule.

It’s not like Wood eschews biography. We get the full Moon here: his practical jokes, his addictions, his whole restless personality. In fact, we get more than a little about Wood himself. But these elements are here to help us understand Moon the drummer. We hear Moon next to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, consider his life next to Glenn Gould’s. The words of Bataille and Gogol and Wallace Stevens shed light on aspects of Moon’s playing. We hear about how Wood’s own conservative musical background intersects (or fails to) with his appreciation for Moon. We get analyses of rock drumming and of The Who in performance. And we get all this bundled up in Wood’s precise, beautiful, always illuminating language: “[Moon’s] joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming”; “[Moon’s drumming] is a revolt against consistency”; “He needed not to run out of drums as he ran around them.” By the time Wood compares Moon’s drumming to “an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do”—the familiar trope of the writer admiring the ineffable that music “effs,” albeit tweaked—it is difficult not to be mad with jealousy over Wood’s own sentences.

This isn’t a matter of wanting to read about rock more and, say, pop less. There’s no reason someone couldn’t write a similarly music-driven article about Macy Gray, or Calle 13. Anyway, I’m hardly biased toward The Who. They were always my sister’s band, not mine; she, not I, went to see the first of several “final” tours in 1982; I admired them from a distance, rather like you admire your older sibling’s coolest friends. But that doesn’t matter: Wood’s piece pulled me into the music. It didn’t just make me want to pull up some Keith Moon videos. It changed the way I listen to Moon, and the way I will hear him from now on.

So … I came to this anthology looking for a book to read and maybe teach, and wound up facing some of my own preconceptions and expectations about music writing, becoming conscious of them in a way I had not been before. This is no small gift, and makes me look forward to Best Music Writing 2012.

 

* In fact, I just had an interesting conversation with a record store clerk in New Paltz, who was busy going through a box of 3” discs someone had dropped on the store’s front step. “I like the Foo Fighters and Bob Marley,” he said, “but do I ever really need to listen to them again?” He frowned and shook his head. I admire his energy, and his curiosity. I realize I spend my listening career parasitizing the labor of people like him. But I couldn’t do it myself. Besides, the argument seems to be that repeated listening is an act of nostalgia, rather than discovery. You can burn out on anything. But every time I hear “Redemption Song,” it’s another first time.

** Ironically, I’m in the midst of writing a profile of one my own favorite out gay musicians … so as I write these words I can already feel them swimming up to bite me on the ass!