“Having already established that no one is going to get rich and famous, there’s bound to be the question, “What’s the point?” Other than starvation, disrespect, and endless reminders of one’s anonymity, the answer is that music is a positive activity, something for the good of all of us.”
– Eugene Chadbourne, I Hate The Man Who Runs This Bar, from the chapter “What’s Good About Music?”
Last time, I talked about all that stuff that apparently other people care about when it comes to music, that I don’t. But what do I actually want to hear? Wielding my usual blogging tools of intuition and casual profanity, let’s see if we can flesh this out. I do tend to ramble on a bit (this is why twitter is not my preferred platform), but hey, I’m going on tour, so you’ve got plenty of time to plow through it.
THE SHIT I CARE ABOUT (In no particular order)
1. Personality/distinctive qualities
One of the biggest things I’m looking for is this: when I hear it, I can tell who it is. Sounds simple and obvious, right? Then why is this so hard to come by?
In John Broven’s essential book on independent record labels, Record Makers and Breakers (required reading if you are bothering to read my stupid blog), he interviews Colonel Jim Wilson, branch manager for the mighty King records, who says:
“That was one of the great things with King. Of all the outstanding artists we worked with, you never had to ask who they were. When you listened to the songs, you knew them; they had an identifiable sound. You didn’t have to guess that was Wynonie Harris, no one else sounded like Earl Bostic on the alto saxophone, and you didn’t have to guess that was Bill Doggett or James Brown or Hank Ballard. You could listen to them, and you knew immediately who they were.”
– Colonel Jim Wilson, Record Makers and Breakers, p. 134
So much of the music made today just seems generic. I like some force of personality to come through, some distinctive quality, be it a recognizable voice, singing style, guitar tone, a drummer who doesn’t play fills like anybody else, SOMETHING.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
“Everything is different, but the same… things are more moderner than before… bigger, and yet… smaller…”
I just can’t take you seriously if you haven’t done your homework.
This is in contrast to point #4 in my last entry, regarding originality and innovation. Would you take a writer seriously who claimed he never read any other authors, or who had only read a couple of the most recent best-sellers? How about if some 20 year-old told you he was going to be a great film director, but you found out he didn’t know squat about movies, and had never seen Citizen Kane, or Stone Cold? You would think, justifiably, that these people were full of shit, and that the books they would write or the movies they would make would be steaming piles.
To all the budding musical geniuses out there: you are not a special snowflake. Music is a craft, and you learn your craft by studying the masters, and the masters all made records before you were even born. If you don’t have any knowledge of the music that came before you, what you produce is going to be as deep as a puddle. All of your great musicians had influences. Consciously or subconsciously, they learned from those who came before them.
Now, you may be thinking, “But Schooley, you like that shit on those Back From The Grave compilations! The knuckleheads who recorded those 45s weren’t music scholars! They were 16 year-olds playing in their parents’ garage, not like they had studied all the blues greats!”
True. Their musical knowledge may indeed have been as deep as a puddle. But even if you aren’t a musical scholar, you still have to have roots. You still have to have some knowledge of what came before you, even if it is a short list. The 60’s teen garage bands may have only had a couple of influences but they were all good ones. They might only have had a few Stones, Kinks, and Chuck Berry records as influences, but the key was that they were all good influences.
Take Jerry Lee Lewis, for example. Jerry Lee isn’t prone to intellectualizing his music. He has stated, “There’s only ever been four stylists: Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and Jimmie Rodgers.” But Hank, Jimmie Rodgers, and Jolson are some elemental ingredients. That is some strong stuff to make a mixture from.
Contrast that with some shitty contemporary band that has only listened to a few other shitty contemporary bands. Not only is their knowledge puddle deep, but if we were talking about food instead of music, the ingredients they are throwing in the pot are processed, mass-produced, full of high-fructose corn syrup. No way can you make something good out of that mess. I hear these bands who haven’t listened to anything older than they are, or who have only sought out the easy influences that everybody else also listens to, and it is like somebody trying to feed a family of four using food purchased at a gas station.
Given how easy it is now to find information and learn, there are NO EXCUSES. I realize that it’s a deep well, and if you are a youngster and just getting started there is a lot to get a handle on. But it is so much easier to find stuff now, if you are a listener, and especially if you are a musician, you have no excuse for not seeking out the best of the best and for learning the history of the music styles you are interested in.
HOWEVER, and this is an important distinction, while I want musicians who have a deep knowledge of their chosen style, it isn’t that I like musicians who only emulate the music of a previous era. Far from it.
Most of the bands that do that kind of thing too slavishly come across like Civil War reenactors. Contemporary rockabilly acts used to be the best example of this, but they seem to have been displaced recently by the the waistcoated and handlebar-mustachioed. Either way, I’m not looking for somebody trying to expertly copy a fossilized musical form. I want somebody who did their homework, knows about the music that came before them, and uses that knowledge to produce something that incorporates their own personality, style, and technical and physical abilities or shortcomings.
That’s why I preferred, say, Jeff Evans’ take on rockabilly, or the Dead Brothers’ take on tuba jazz, to that of their (sadly, more popular) contemporaries.
But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
– Mark, 6:4
“They’re used to bashing liberals, and don’t know what do to make of a simple old American nationalist like me. We’re getting so rare, nobody even recognizes us nationalists when they come across one of us. We’re like those damn ivory-billed woodpeckers flapping around in the swamps, except nobody’s looking for us. Hell, they’d send the exterminator if they saw one of us.”
– Gary Brecher, The War Nerd
I’m not much for American Exceptionalism. The United States has got a lot to answer for, politically. But – and I’m just talking about music, here – musically, the USA is NUMBER ONE! U-S-A! U-S-A!
It really chaps my hide to see bands that are more influenced by some British bullshit, when all the building blocks for contemporary music were hewed right here in the good ol’ US of fuckin’-A. You’ll sooner see a contemporary band ripping off the likes of David Bowie or New Order than their own American roots forebears. This has been going on forever – we had to wait for the Limeys to sell our own music back to us, in the form of the Rolling Stones and other acts, before we could appreciate our own national treasures like Muddy or Bo Diddley. It’s a goddamn crime, I tells ya.
Apologies to the lovely musical traditions of other lands, but American roots music, in the form of blues, soul, r&b, country and western, gospel, etc. etc., is the basis for all that is good in the world, musically. Sure, I love plenty of bands from other countries, but their music is often based on American music. Because it is the best!
Having said that, since I am leaving for a European tour next week, let me try to smooth things over a bit. I know lots of other countries get uptight about U.S. cultural imperialism – you had your own great local traditions, and suddenly there’s a KFC on every corner and everybody is turning into a waddling fatass. It sucks! Hey, I’m not talking about that kind of corporate culture that’s taking over the globe, I hate that as much as anybody.
The kind of music I’m talking about was frequently made by the poorest Americans – blues made by poor sharecroppers, country music made by impoverished hillbillies, rhythm and blues made to liven up a bad urban neighborhood. Music made as a method to cope with the shitty living conditions of capitalist America. Then, as frequently happens in capitalism, it was co-opted by the powerful and sold back to the people for a profit. But still, there’s a deep well of good stuff out there, and it is, in my opinion, America’s most enduring gift to world culture. So, even as we export the shittiest aspects of American corporate capitalism, we also export the best method for coping with it – American musical expression. Just like capitalism, we create a problem you didn’t know you had, and then sell you the solution (Sorry!).
This is in no way an attempt to denigrate all the other countries of the world. Ironically, we Americans owe foreigners a huge debt for making sure our own music is still available to us. Many American musicians have been more warmly accepted overseas than they are at home – look at expats like Mickey Baker or Tav Falco living it up in France, or consider the fact that I’ve played in more cities in Germany than I have in the United States. Look at labels like Bear Family and Ace Records, lovingly reissuing music that the American corporations who actually own it can’t be bothered with.
Meanwhile, in America, Professor Longhair worked as a janitor. Our university music departments are still teaching the works of European composers who have been dead for hundreds of years, while American geniuses hardly merit a mention. Where are the mandatory classes in Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Feathers? Truly, a prophet has no honor in his home country.
That’s why I like my music to make use of our American musical roots – I’m just fighting the good fight, here, and I want to hear others who are joined in my cause!
In his great book Dino, Nick Tosches talked about how the Rat Pack had audiences in stitches in their day, yet how the appeal is now difficult to grasp. “The sophisticated, white-collared, and well-heeled New York Times itself,” writes Tosches, “hailed their ‘refreshing brand of comic hysteria,’ their ‘wild and uninhibited imagination.’ And yet,” he continues, “these few years later, the nature of that appeal is as alien and difficult to translate as the language, syntax, and meter of Catullus.”
Tosches offers an explanation:
“Those days were the beginning of the end of timelessness. Homer’s Odyssey spoke through the ages; Kerouac’s American odyssey, On the Road, would have a shelf life, and would prove after a handful of years more outdated and stale than Homer after thousands. But like the detergent on the shelf in that other supermarket aisle, it was for the moment new and improved; and that is what mattered. And that is why the dead-serious pretensions of Kerouac today seem so droll while the comedy of that same neophiliac era seems so unfunny.”
– Nick Tosches, Dino
The thing about music made from quality ingredients, rather than whatever happens to be in style at the time, is that it lasts. It still sounds fresh decades later, whereas stuff that was trying to be trendy quickly turns stale.
5. Guitar riffs
I’m a guitar player. I like guitar riffs. Not that every song has to have one, but they are a nice bonus.
If you are a clarinet player, I could see how this wouldn’t be a priority for you. Fine. Write your own damn blog post.
Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?
—Fool, King Lear
I’ve already said that I don’t put a lot of weight on how intelligent music is. I make a distinction between being intelligent and being witty, though it is hard for me to articulate exactly what that is. Wit, as opposed to intelligence, is what I’m looking for. Intelligence might be math and engineering; wit is Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. Intelligence is serious, wit is funny even when the subject matter is serious. Wit can be all about the timing, the execution, even if what is being said or done is openly absurd, like the Marx Brothers.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear a good song, quite frequently my reaction is to laugh, even if the lyrical content isn’t intentionally trying to be funny. Even if it is a sad song, I can laugh just to keep from crying. Musically, a lot of things can provoke laughter for me. I’ll laugh at having another human being so perfectly and succinctly capture my feelings in musical form. I’ll laugh in admiration of good musicianship, or because a musician who came up with something I wish I’d thought of. It doesn’t require lyrics. There are some hilarious instrumentals out there.
That kind of reaction can’t be milked for cool points by a writer for Pitchfork, so you get lots of odes to po-faced indie rock instead. Modern poetry has a similar problem, in that some forms of expression are more acceptable than others. David Yezzi’s recent article The Bitter Fool discussed this, and I thoroughly enjoyed it: “Perhaps I suffer from a chemical imbalance or a fatal flaw in sensibility, but I find all this good will in poetry positively hard going,” Yezzi states.
“What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.”
– David Yezzi, The Bitter Fool
That same excruciating take on the world exists in a lot of music, and it grates on me. I lean toward bitter fool myself, and like Yezzi, I glory in the company of others of similar mind. The thing is, calling them “ bitter fools,” after King Lear, makes it sound like they’d be bad company. In fact, they’re hilarious. I’ve seldom laughed as hard as I have in the company of the likes of Tim Warren, Monty Buckles, or James Arthur. Those are some funny bastards. The between-song banter of Jeff Evans and Ross Johnson was funnier than any standup routine I’ve ever seen. Bitter fools all, perhaps – but bitter and HILARIOUS!
“When I was young, I would read interviews of musicians and visual artists that I admired. Besides GENIUS, the one quality that they all had was that they were all bitter. Some more than others, but it was there!”
– Jeff Evans, liner notes to A Bridge Too Fuckin’ Far
I think there are a lot of parallels between music and stand-up comedy. The greats, like Carlin and Louie CK, can take dark, serious subject matter and somehow and make it funny. Like musicians, comedians spend lifetimes honing their craft, while most people don’t appreciate how much work went into the act. Many comedians are dark, tortured bastards, yet they spend their time making people laugh. A lot of the musicians I appreciate, or the music that resonates with me, seems to share this sensibility.
Lee Hazlewood, trying to explain his song Dolly Parton’s Guitar:
“Most of my friends loved Dolly for how she was constructed. I loved her for her songwriting. I’ve put a lot of obscure Dolly Parton songs in some pretty good albums that sold a bunch. But I don’t know, somewhere in my idiocy, I thought none of us can really enjoy Dolly, but some inanimate object must really enjoy Dolly a lot, the inanimate object being Dolly’s guitar. ‘Cause where does the guitar stay when she plays it? A very interesting place.
And all I got was criticism for that song, not because of Dolly’s chest or anything else, but because the first part is serious, and the second part is a joke about Dolly. “All right Lee, if you’re going to write a song, write it serious or write a joke, but don’t write a serious joke, which this song is.” I took it around to people, and no one recorded it… Oh, well.”
If you can’t appreciate a serious joke, you probably won’t dig Lee Hazlewood the same way I do. You also probably won’t appreciate one of my other all-time favorite songwriters, Spike Penetrator, for one of my all-time favorite lyrical couplets:
Drivin’ your car, smash in the street
no one will stop, you lie in debris
Genius. Cracks me up every time.
And let’s not forget that epic chorus:
Life stinks, so do you
ain’t nuthin’ you can do
For me, the best music, like the best comedy, combines honesty, wit, and humor, sometimes absurdity, without denying the darkness. As a songwriter I don’t know that I have ever achieved this combo myself, but I try.
7. Time travel/guys playing together in a room/chemistry/performance under pressure
This one is kind of hard for me to explain, hence the convoluted title. Yet I know exactly what I’m talking about, and I know it when I hear it. What I love about older recordings is that you get a fleeting moment, captured in time, of a group of musicians (or one person, solo) playing in a room in real time. They had to step up to the plate, and pull off the performance.
Modern recordings with click tracks, pitch correction, endless overdubs, everything polished to perfection – that shit ruins everything. It removes the very elements that make music interesting to me in the first place. I think this is one of the things that makes my own bullshit one man band recordings interesting to modern ears – at least I have to actually do it. And that moment is then captured forever in a recording. Music which lacks these characteristics doesn’t do much for me, this being why electronic music and the majority of hip hop leave me cold.
Even if it is a solo performer, and not a band, they have to actually be able to pull it off. Hearing somebody execute a difficult instrumental passage can be invigorating even if it is just one dude with a guitar.
There is also a certain chemistry, from a certain combination of people playing together, that makes for compelling listening. Musicians will play off of each other, anticipate what the other will do, move in unison, bob and weave – hearing it happen can be a lot of fun. Check out Django and Stefan on the solo breaks here – more exciting than watching a trapeze act. And what about that rhythm section, pumping out la pompe – what an unstoppable machine this group of men was. Listening to this recording, you are magically transported to a room in Paris in 1935 when some dudes actually did this. Wow!
I’ve seen so many shitty contemporary bands that it seems almost impossible that this level of musicianship once existed.
Primitive recording conditions, rather than being a detriment, are what make so many early recordings more interesting than contemporary ones. The earliest Starday Records studio was just Jack Stearn’s living room. There was a single light bulb in the middle of the room, and they would signal the musicians that they were recording by turning the light on and off. I can picture George Jones, standing in the darkness as the light dims and then brightens, and then the band launching into Why Baby, Why. And you are right there with them.
What about somebody like Sinatra, cutting a vocal track live in a room with a whole orchestra? No pressure there. A whole room filled with dozens of musicians and you have to walk up to the mic and nail the performance in one take. That takes a serious degree of professionalism (and balls!).
Even if the musicianship isn’t at that level, just the time travel element is interesting in and of itself. The past is a weird place. People recorded weird things, and somebody thought they would sell, and pressed them up onto records, and then people bought them or didn’t, and then they survived the passage of time, and you can hear them today and wonder what the hell was going on in that room? Or in that person’s mind?
8. Some kind of human connection in this goddamn fucked up world before we all fucking die!
My woman left me, my dog just died/I’m unemployed, mother lied/Life ain’t easy, it makes you insane/but rock n’ roll eases that pain
-The Penetrators, Rock and Roll Face
“Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”
The discovery of the Higgs Boson has indicated to scientists the probability that the universe has a finite lifespan.
“”It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable and at some point billions of years from now it’s all going to get wiped out,” said Lykken, who is also on the science team at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.”
Really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? It’s too much fuckin’ perspective!
Before that even happens, we’re all gonna to die. Everything and everyone you know will perish from this earth. Holy shit!
Knowing all that, goddamn, how can you fuck around with any half-assed indie rock bullshit? You want me to face oblivion and contemplate the end of existence with some Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti? I’m slumped on the bar asking for straight bourbon and you’re pouring me a fluted glass of Grizzly Bear or Japandroids? Dafuckisthisshit! I can smell bullshit a mile away, and I don’t have fucking time for it.
I’m looking for some genuine human feeling – love, hate, fear, loathing, pain, anger, laughter, mild annoyance, give me something. It can save souls!
As a sentient ape, sloshing around in this meatbag along with my internal organs, on this solitary planet in an isolated corner of the galaxy… what the hell… how are you gonna relate to your fellow man? Actually go walk amongst them? Talk to them? Yeesh, what a hassle.
I’m a big weirdo, and I don’t seem to be on the same page as most of humanity. They’re standing in line for Black Friday deals, or watching some millionaires throw a ball around. They don’t think like I think. Maybe you have the same problem. How are you gonna find like-minded individuals, when maybe your mind ain’t right? Hear some music, and you can commune with other weirdos across the boundaries of space and time.
What’s your meaning Larry?
Ahh, you think like I think!
You’re a monk, I’m a monk, we’re all monks!
Dave, Larry, Eddie, Roger, everybody, let’s go!
Music serves as a shortcut, an emotional and spiritual shorthand for what we’re all feeling. That’s why you can listen to a hundred year-old recording, or a live band today, and either way it can hit you where you live. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t have to be profound, it just has to be right. And that’s what I want. Yeah, yeah, not a very articulate explanation, I know. Luckily, the music doesn’t have to be articulate.
I know that great minds have given these matters much thought. There are books you can read, and spiritual paths you can explore, if you are looking for the answers to life’s great questions. But my path to enlightenment is repeated spins of Saturday Night Fever by the Devil Dogs.