Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rock and Roll: pass on or pass it on?

What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging withthis tenuous thesis, weren’t rock critics, but rather fans that bought therecords and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buythe newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than Iam--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listener’sretro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seemsugly to an audience who's tastes are entrenched and internalized.
Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknowncomprehensible or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers,though, for the murder of music gives them too much power--it's doubtful thatthe history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice,let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to makealbum go double platinum. That stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty inthe use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in myexperience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath ofcredible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact,and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweepis anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited,engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original.
If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.
I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not alreadydeceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to becoming agossip magazine, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for thescads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind fauxpost- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at handwithin an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead,again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words andlyrics can be about anything.
But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit thatmoves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstrusewriting can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivialexercise.
My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm aharmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some timesbands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between techniques versustalent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to getyour fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent,though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is aninstinct that, or ,say, an intelligence that knows how to make the best use outthe sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that'sexpressive and new.
Rock, like the blues, the closest elder relative, isprincipally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others asgreat musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musicalelements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bassand guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice thatseeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth ofLiterary Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitarlick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyricsconvey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel,or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, asense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when towith hold. Feel.
Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressiblein terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau,Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, atleast, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again,so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, beit music or other wise. One sometimes assumes the Garden of Eden was so muchnicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, andthat, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over alumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that isdemonstrably empty of content.
Reading any good history of rock and roll music will havethe music develop along side the growth of an industry that started recordingand distributing increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen marketshares. The hand of the business man, the soul of the capitalist machine hasalways been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and rollgenius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire toget paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travailsavail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselvesstill as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and financetheir wants, like the rest of us.
There has always been a market place where the music isplayed, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, themarketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and newtechnologies.  Something inside me pinesfor that innocence as well, but innocence is the same currency as naïveté, and consciouslyarguing that the way I formerly perceived the world was the way it actuallyworked would be an exorcise in ignorance, as in the willful choice to ignoreavailable facts that are contrary to a paradigm that's sinking into its looselypacked foundation.
Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being anartist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity ofborrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, rightup and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities forBorg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have nomusic to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may belocked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but ourcultural forms mix together freely and easily.
I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of aninstrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops,but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new artseems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader mediabrings itself up to speed. I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is anentrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll,and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. Asmusic and musicians have always done.
Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehowresponsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in thenarrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, thisis where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what theygather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general.Neither the quacking vulgarisms of the left nor the quaking apostles of theright like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarilyreasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was tofall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists'responsibility" for the de-familiarizing "aestheticization" ofreal social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousnessand maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.
Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a Ilistened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s'portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upontheir canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, thatbabies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn,finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bibleor in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involvesa tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errantneed for self-expression.
Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, andagain, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocativeto bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth thatstirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to wantto fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenetthat artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so manyconditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless.We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bakesales. 
How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with anyartist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible interms that extend our notions of what the human experience is.  Parenting is part of that profound experience.Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what theirsons were up to? Marylyn Manson is only the messenger of what's already inplace: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is,at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.


  1. This is what we have come to:

    Pandora is poised to be "the Kleenex of music discovery".

  2. Bar Lee Gneest4:58 PM PST

    Down at the Burn Haus they got a real ball-scalder going, a total sac-snipper that'll get yer dogs off the table and make your schnowzer do the duck, right HERE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bru6amZcj8Q&feature=related


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