Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing about music

I love discovering the where-else that a song that's taken me somewhere might take me as I think and write about it, yet something essential's lost in the process. I like to explore the mystery of music, how an arrangement of notes and chords and words played by strangers sometimes half the world away from me and decades ago can come to mean so much to me personally, now, how that meaning, though urgently felt, is often difficult to describe, existing in a kind of pre-language bliss. I guess I'm as interested in the atmosphere a song creates, and is created in, as much as I am in the nuts-and-bolts of composing and playing. How Al Jackson strikes his snare in such a way to evoke both power and tenderness; how a three-chord rock and roll song banged out by kids in a basement or garage might reach emotional depths that the most dimensional literature does; how close-harmonies can drop me to my knees and make me cry, but only from some vocal pairings, not others...all of this amazes and so deeply interests me, and as a writer I try and make sense of it, failing often (to my ears, anyway).

In "To Fashion a Text" Annie Dillard says, "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them." This is true, and this is melancholy. Once I've explored a song or an album or a performance that I love, especially one that I've loved for many years—and, like any memory, have played and replayed and thus shaped and re-shaped in my head for all of those years—the mystery is replaced with the attempt to understand. The irrational with the rational, I guess, sound with sense, or ineffability with comprehension, the unknown with known. Loving a song for decades means giving over to myth it creates, and writing about that song debunks the myth. Sometimes as a music writer I feel what folks must've felt when science explained lightning.

When I write about music, I open a window and something powerful and unnameable escapes the room for good. Why bother, then? Hang on, I've got to flip the record.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Just like a Human Being

EC and the Attractions, 1978
If had to choose one song that fulfills the promises that rock and roll makes, it'd be "Lipstick Vogue," the ferocious track Elvis Costello cut with the Attractions in late 1977/early 1978 at Acton Studios, in London. Written in a flurry, the song's rhythm was inspired by Costello's rides on the Metropolitan London Underground as those journeys dovetailed with the propulsive Byrds track "I See You," from Fifth Dimension (1966). Lay the rocking to-and-fro of a tube ride over Jim McGuinn and David Crosby's raga-inflected soundscape and you have the taut sinew of "Lipstick Vogue." Costello later said, "I didn't mention this bit to [Attractions drummer] Pete Thomas at the time, so what you hear is all his own work," adding, "I stand by every word."

"Lipstick Vogue" is a remarkable performance. Thomas's driving drums, a snare-and-tom attack that ebbs and flows throughout—a pulse that quickens and slows and quickens—, Bruce Thomas's high-end worrying on bass, and Steve Nieve's paranoid organ lines amp the energy and anxiety levels of the song, and sound like nothing less than the inside of your body the moment when you're angry, resentful, proud, and vindictive, your heart racing and blood pounding. (How'd the band get a mic inside me?) The song's subject is Costelloian: a hot-temper persona rails against someone who's self- and surface-obsessed, mean, teasing, and dismissive, unable or unwilling to see the heart and depth of the man she's throwing away. The chorus suggests that the singer sees something more in her than she does, that she's more than just a prevailing fashion or style; that she can't or won't see this fill him with spite. That old story. The song features one of Costello's most biting opening verses, spat out in Elvis's signature early-career style:
Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor
Don't say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out
and other lines that have become iconic:
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
You say I've got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them

You want to throw me away but I'm not broken
But it's the Attractions' performance that elevates and adds dimension to the anger and resentment in the lyrics. As in all great rock and roll, it feels as the musicians have to catch up to the song though they're the ones playing it, creating yet chasing after something that in its eight-note urgency, blend of loud and quiet passages (the vitriolic verses and chorus, the take-a-deep-breath middle), and hurtling, forward momentum embodies what the lyrics alone can't fully. I love a song that sounds at the end as if the band was amazed at where their playing took them.

What does rock and roll promise? That a song you can never quite catch up to can say everything you're feeling in a moment of passion.


Look at this kicking garage band, from a June 21, 1978 show for Rockpalast at WDR Studio L, in Cologne, West Germany. Incendiary:



Saturday, May 12, 2018

Worth Remembering

At its best, Roger Ebert's writing was a moving blend of observation and insight. Ebert's tone was marvelous, and inspiring: he wrote accessibly about complex issues in a casual, uncluttered style that never sacrificed depth for clarity. I strive in my own writing for that mix, and fail far more often than Ebert succeeded weekly—and, later, regularly, when he turned to blogging near the end of his life. His late essays are fantastic, and are likely to be considered among the best of our age.

I'm finally getting around to reading his memoir Life Itself, published in 2011 two years before his death, a largely chronological, detail-heavy reminiscence. (I have yet to see the film.) If it in places gets bogged down by Ebert's amazing and generous memory, and threatens to go under the stream of events and the men and women he met in his amazing life, the passages where Ebert takes a wide-angle lens on larger subjects—such as as his adolescence in downstate Illinois, alcoholism, world traveling, illness, spirituality, and endless coincidences and charmed moments of serendipity—glow with humane, universal discoveries. His writing about movies is, of course, terrific. Two graphs in particular exhibit that Ebertian knack for chasing a larger subject in a narrow one, for writing generously about the democratic love for popular art, even crappy popular art, and for pleasure as an argument for itself (to paraphrase another great critic, Emily Nussbaum). Writing about his film reviewing career, which fell into his lap (he was planning on being an op-ed writer and then a novelist), Ebert acknowledges that "There is something unnatural about just...going to the movies."
Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. “Get a life,” they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as i they've gotten everybody else's. [Gene] Siskel described his job as "covering the national dream, beat," because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.

I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn’t thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.
A bit earlier, he quotes something that the film critic Pauline Kael said to him about her reviewing process, a line that was very influential to Ebert: "I go into a movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me." This is a wonderful sentiment and critical approach, putting aside agenda and bias and trusting that your response to something might have a representative quality to it, one as applicable to the viewing of great works of art as to the next Adam Sandler film. I miss reading Ebert every week describing what happened to himself in the dark.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Fascinate



Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream...The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?
    —Lou Reed

I think Lou Reed is a creep.
   —The Dictators, "Two Tub Man," Go Girl Crazy

Ezra Furman's 33 1/3 book on Reed's Transformer moves among many impulses. Furman's respectful, adoring, obsessive, overly forgiving, overly harsh, indulgent, embarrassed, knowledgeable, joyous, stubborn, and skeptical in his take on Reed's iconic second album, careful not to absolve Reed of his racism and sexism as he extols his brave, idiosyncratic navigation of his queer identity. It's a great read, equal parts autobiographical and critical, doing what the nervier books in the Series do: risking reverence and personal crushing at the expense of objectivity, and loving the friction that comes when those fanly impulses rub up among each other. (Deeply personal, the book's likely to be embraced by many, and dismissed by some.) Furman, a songwriter and musician, is at his best when he talks about the tensions in Reed's gestures. Is he gay? Queer? Straight? Or does he ignore labels and try to live among them? And is he sincere or bullshitting, anyway? The album's "gay-themed songs are hiding in plain sight," Furman writes. "Many listeners were amazed that the line 'even when she was giving head' was not censored on UK radio stations; the censors were, reportedly, not familiar with the term."
But listening forty-odd years later, with the shock value of sexual songs considerably if not totally dulled, the non-explicit lyrics are where the real intrigue lies. These songs fascinate, not for the excess and over-the-top deviance that was associated with Lou Reed in the sixties, but rather for their understatement, their partially submerged aggression, and the damaged personality they both mask and expose.

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