Showing posts with label Heroes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Heroes. Show all posts

Friday, July 26, 2013

It used to be that "hero" and "jerk" meant the same thing...

Truthfully, I used to like Aerosmith quite a bit and still get an adrenaline rush when I hear their best tunes. Guitar-centric rock was my preference in the Sports Arena days, but where other bands of the era now bore me and dated themselves badly, AS were pretty much the best at catchy riffs, savage, terse guitar solos and absurdly clever double -signifying lyrics. The words “hero” and “jerk” meant pretty much the same thing, a person, usually male, who lacked social grace and /awareness and would subject the surrounding community to eruptive demonstrations of a personality that  was the breathing variety of spray-can graffiti, bold, smeared, runny, jagged and stupid as a bag of wood chips. Luckily, yes, luckily, I survived the  best I could do in those days and learned that there were more interesting ways to make art, to have a conversation and woo a potential lover, subtler forms of conversation and chatter, smarter ways of making your presence known. But we all have to start somewhere; I was lucky enough to have wanted to aspire to being somewhat more than a farm-league lout.  

The combination of riff -craft and professed cocksmanship was made to order for any frustrated 20-year-old genius yearning to abandon his book learning' and take up the microphone, center stage, instead.  As you know, my tastes have gravitated, gratefully, towards mainstream jazz and blues over the last thirty five years--classic Miles, Coltrane, Mel Lewis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, lots of Blue Note, Atlantic, ECM, Pacific Jazz, Verve, Impulse, Fantasy record releases--and rock and roll no longer interests me in large measure. But I still get a charge when a good AS is played--I rather like Tyler's rusty drain pipe screaming and I believe Joe Perry is one heck of a good chunk-chording guitarist. It helps, I guess, that these guys never got far from some rhythm and blues roots, even if those roots come from the Stones and not Motown or Stax. This may be damning with faint praise, but they were a brilliant expression of a young glandular confusion. 

What makes this art is this band's skill at sounding like they never learned anything fifty feet past the school yard and not much else beyond the age of 25. As we age and suffer the sprains  , creaks and cancer symptoms, inherited and self-inflicted,  our past gets more gloriously delinquent more we talk about it and we find ourselves gravitating to those acts of yore who seemed to maintain a genuine scowl and foul attitude.  Nearly any rock band based on rebellion and extreme bouts of immaturity just seems ridiculous after awhile--Peter Townsend is lucky enough to have had more ambition in his songwriting with Tommy and Who's Next to have lived down the dubious distinction of having written the lyric that exclaimed that he would rather die before he got old.  Aerosmith, in turn, still sounds good and rocking as often as not simply because they have mastered their formula. The sound a generation of us newly minted seniors occasionally pined for  remains the audio clue to an idea of integrity and idealism; what is disheartening, if only for a moment, is that this band's skill at sounding 21 and collectively wasted is a matter of professionalism and not an impulse to smash The State.

Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audiences expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied backbeat. It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, story goes, turn off the power in middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oooopha. The 5 would get the crowd into a frenzy, making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in a sufficient ranting lather. At that point Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs. This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integetity, and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger , and what kept their fan base loyal .

 All I would say is that it's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time , through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand.

It was always a brand once it was removed from the the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention , in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor.

Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe , created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in muisic--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly , indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music , but it was also a Career change. All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles , Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys --false , dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired , being fair to middlin', or seem out of ideas, winded; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine , real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable, and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. 

What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides--criticism , on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself , it can also be dull, boring, stupid, pedestrian. The quality of the critics vary; their function relates art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise we'd be treating artists like they were priests

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Michael Jackson and the fatal spirit of the true artist

A telling side effect of a celebrity's death is the degree to which it prompts some people towards autobiography, memoir, or to indulge the urge to examine their own history as a parallel course to the trajectory of the more famously deceased. Those of us over fifty have only to recall the unending tide of essays and books where Americans recalled where they were, precisely, the day and moment that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The effort, of course, was more than merely paying tribute the brilliance the departed embodied; more than that, it is a recollection of how they'd been made to imagine greater possibilities for a  world they otherwise couldn't challenge.It's the tiresome ode to a dream deferred . There is something to the notion that celebrities cease to  be human in our estimations once they acquire certain saturation in the culture--they become, in a sense, a personal god one measures their best and worst qualities against. It is a tendency that can become pathology  Patti Davis, daughter of the departed President Ronald Reagan and someone who knows something about growing up in a fishbowl, weighed in with a brief commentary in Newsweek last year  about the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. The piece isn’t as cloying as one would have suspected—she notes the similarities between Jackson and another child star, Judy Garland, reasonably speculating reasonable that these talents were essentially raised in a bubble by a horde of managers, executives and an unlimited variety of sycophants whose interests weren’t those of their nominal employer, but rather their livelihoods. There’s more than enough evidence to support for Davis to make her case, which we find in the case of Jimi Hendrix and certainly Elvis Presley, two major talents and money makers who , it seems, lacked the discerning voice in their midst to say “no”, or to give advice that was free of enabling. Davis, though, spoils her entry with a rationalization that absolves Jackson and a host of other bright unfortunates who’ve met with untimely demises of any responsibility for the odd choices they’ve made.

Michael Jackson, Jack Kerouac, , Jack Kennedy, Charlie Parker, Sylvia Plath, Jimi Hendrix, and the lot died of causes that had nothing to do with the fact that each of them had varying degrees of talent. People die daily who haven't distinguished themselves as singers, dancers, writers, poets, jazz improvisers; they drank themselves to death, they overdosed, they committed suicide due to untreated clinical depression, they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one, though, latches on to a single name of the average anonymous drug casualty or suicide and speculates as to the nature of the sad, early death, no one really wonders about the soul of the everyman that just might be too sensitive to deal with the harsh facts of life and is driven to end the endless pain. Rather, we shrug, we say”ain't that shame" and then go about our business, mildly annoyed. We love celebrity hood, though, we are obsessed with as a culture, and indeed celebrity has become our religion--we create a mythology about the doings of the famous Gods and wonder about their inner lives, their moods, and their ability to cope.

Davis, a marginally well known artist/writer herself, picks up the stalest cliches around, the most exhausted of all tired tropes, the most insipid of perspectives by wondering aloud if there is something in the tortured psyches that compels the brilliant and the intensely gifted to short circuit themselves and bring an end to their lives. The implication is that sensitive artist types are sentenced fates even an enemy shouldn't suffer, an especially perverse elaboration that artists are not really the source of their talents and the inspiration that comes with it, but rather a channel of a Higher Power's wisdom and good graces. Davis not only gives absolution to doomed geniuses and near geniuses,but offers up the notion that for them Free Will is impossible. One always has a choice, though, and anyone of the people named in the second paragraph, not least of all Jackson, all the the ability to choose what their circumstances would be and the company they could keep; brilliant or not, they, like the rest of us, make bad decisions and they, like some of us, make choices that sooner or later prove fatal. Assuming without question that the tragedy was inevitable due to predestination only makes the tragedy deeper. What freedoms and insight the work might have provided us is negated by an overwhelming assumption that divine forces were at play. The circumstances, though, are human, all too human.

It's  irritating  enough that Davis concludes her commentary so insipidly, but it is also aggravating she's given such a big microphone from which to entertain her morbid hero worship. This is the same worship of the Celebrity Dead that had surrounded the discussion of the Confessional Poets for so many years, the not-so-subtly disguised attitude that a poet so categorized would only be regarded as great if they met with a tragic death, preferably by their own hand. Only in that instance do they become poets worth taking seriously. Serious as in examples to avoid , I think, and what's to be avoided as well is Davis' unfortunate comment, in a subordinate clause, that " true artists", by in large, are burdened by the creativity God or may not have blessed them with and lack the stamina to survive a life in any of the metaphorical food chains the celebrity culture creates. Davis handily enfeebles artists in general, poses no counter argument that art is more likely to make the artist more resilient in their daily struggles, and she seems willing to let the issue rest in a bed of sighing fatalism. This won't do.