If a lifetime of listening to pop music has taught me anything, it’s that there is no incompatibility between intellectual aspiration and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll. You can love T S. Eliot and the New York Dolls. In fact, there’s no snob like a rock snob. I should know. I am one.
There’s an amusing scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in which a potential girlfriend is trying to pass the audition of one of the rock snob friends of the rock snob narrator:
“Richard Thompson,” [Dick] explains to Anna. “It’s a song off a Richard Thompson album. ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,’ isn’t it, Rob?”
“Richard Thompson,” Anna repeats, in a voice which suggests that over the last few days she has had to absorb a lot of information very quickly. “Now, which one was he? Dick’s been trying to educate me …“
“Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” Dick confides, emboldened by his Richard Thompson success.
“Oh, right.” I don’t know what to say. This, in our universe, is a staggering piece of information…
“But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be. Aren’t you?”
“Maybe. A bit.”
Go ahead and play that Simple Minds record. I won’t bite. But I vastly prefer Richard Thompson, and I’ll tell you why: because sometimes in its deferred gratifications and the demands it makes on the listener, his music achieves a richness beyond the scope of the wholly proficient and likeable Simple Minds. Sometimes, in fact, his music sounds very much like — oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? — art.
The glorious thing about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, is that you can have it both ways. The spectrum of pop music runs from “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen to Björk’s Medulla, and maybe the best of it is smack in the middle – The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” for instance, ostensibly another one of their melodic toe tappers but in truth a performance of such overwhelming majesty and pathos as to render all categorization meaningless. My truth, however, isn’t necessarily your truth, especially in matters as fundamentally subjective as personal taste. Nevertheless, I think there are a few things we can all agree on: that however much it may be abused and misused, music can penetrate to states of consciousness beyond the reach of words; that music deepens, enriches, and nourishes our lives; and that The Remains were the greatest garage band of the mid ’60s.
What — you haven’t heard of The Remains! I’ll try not to sound like a Nick Hornby character, but I must explain that their one and only album, released just before they broke up in 1966, is an apotheosis of garage rock, with sneering vocals, jagged guitar breaks, and irresistible hooks. What’s not to like? Well, some people didn’t and don’t like it. There will always be those who sneer at pop music as infantile pabulum for the masses. Might I have become such a stiff? Given my highbrow predispositions, that nightmare version of myself is scarily conceivable. While I don’t expect to pass the time with strangers in the airport lounge talking about poetry or cubism, I can more than hold my own if the conversation turns to Michael Jackson or Metallica — or could until about 15 years ago, when I finally abandoned all efforts to keep up with the current playlist. And if this egalitarianism sounds slightly patronizing (yes, I too enjoy the music of the common folk), I can assure you, I really don’t understand Mahler.
How in a few short years pop music got from “Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron” to “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia” is a question I can’t begin to answer. All I know is that when the change came (around the time when I was beginning high school), I was ready for it. That’s partly because much of the lyric writing preceding all this self-conscious Poetry was pretty good too. Smokey Robinson’s elegant and ingeniously constructed conceits, Chuck Berry’s marvelous wordplay and delight in the vernacular: I grew up with these words in my ears and learned from them (without realizing I was learning anything at all) to appreciate language as something precious in itself. “Jubilee,” “jamboree,” “home brew,” “wooden cup,” to cite a few choice idioms from Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music:” these words summoned multiple meanings and sounded like poems in themselves. Anyway, when John Lennon started writing songs about his dead mother, I was sufficiently sensitized to language to follow him to places where pop music had rarely gone before.
One of those places was my own consciousness. “Nowhere Man” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks and “Runnin’ Away” by Sly and the Family Stone: these songs spoke so directly to my loneliness and fear and insecurity that talking about them with my friends (it was safer to talk about guitar heroes) risked revealing the dark secret at the heart of every teenage life: I’m not as cool as I pretend to be. In truth, I was even uncooler than most, and in my increasing unhappiness and isolation, I found myself drawn to the moody lyrics as much as to the flashy fretwork. Unbeknown to me as a hapless high school geek, things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. I had four and a half years of intense undergraduate misery and a lot of Joni Mitchell songs still to come.
My parents thought the songs we listened to were barbarous, and by the standards of Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter and the Gershwins — the pop songwriters of their day — many of them were. What the best rock lyricists offered in place of the playfulness and teasing indirection of the great American show tunes were audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I’d call that a pretty fair trade off. Soul music, it’s true, seemed more outer-directed than white pop and rock, maybe because black people just had too much shit to deal with in the real world. But even Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone’s songs of social import shared the undisguised subjectivity that was the lingua franca of the period. What they didn’t share was the outright narcissism of songwriters like Laura Nyro and John Lennon and Peter Townshend. I preferred the narcissists.
Frank Zappa said somewhere that singer songwriters who bared their innermost souls in songs intended for complete strangers were in desperate need of psychiatric intervention. Well, Zappa was a remarkable composer, arranger, and guitarist, and Hot Rats is an extraordinary achievement. (Real rock snobs, however, will always prefer Trout Mask Replica by his erstwhile collaborator, Captain Beefheart.) Yet if Zappa had bared his soul a little more, his music might have had some of the warmth it so entirely lacks. It wasn’t the coldly brilliant Hot Rats that got me through my first god-awful years at college; it was the equally brilliant and madly introspective Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell that did that.
Aside from “Raised on Robbery,” which featured a sizzling guitar solo by Robbie Robertson, Court and Spark didn’t exactly kick ass. That was okay. I had plenty of other kick-ass records to listen to, but they couldn’t do for me what Court and Spark did: help me to know myself, and others, a little bit more. It wasn’t that the songs contained extractable “meanings,” which inhered at least as much in the beautiful arrangements, with their odd tunings and jazzy inflections, as in the lyrics. Line by line readings of pop songs generally fail for the obvious reason that a song lyric depends on its compositional setting. A song lyric is less like a poem than a play, the text of which awaits the interpretive skills of particular actors to bring it fully to life. Which is only to say that as fine as Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are, they pale in the glare of the printed page. But I wasn’t reading her lyrics, which didn’t have and didn’t need consistent rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms; I was hearing them through her ululating vocals and dramatic piano stylings. The totality of this experience, come to think of it, was not unlike that of coming to a great and complex poem — the song (or poem) changed slightly each time I encountered it, and maybe I changed with it. My critical faculties, whether applied to a complex poem or a far simpler pop song lyric, had a long way to go, but I knew enough to understand that parsing Mitchell’s brave and brazen lyrics wouldn’t get me very far. The heavy duty analytical stuff I could save for my term papers on Hart Crane, who did not write poems as simple and touching as Mitchell’s “People’s Parties:”
Cry for us all, Beauty
Cry for Eddie in the corner
Thinking he’s nobody
And Jack behind his joker
And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
And me in my frightened silence
Thinking I don’t understand
There wasn’t much to analyze here, but there was a lot to feel. Real feeling, the kind evoked by these songs, required a little effort. If I could open myself to the exquisite vulnerability that seemed to be Joni Mitchell’s raison d’etre, I would be living my life more fully, wouldn’t I? Not only that — I’d be entering more fully into the lives of others. Such was the paradox of artistic creation; the further Mitchell delved into her own psyche, the more she revealed about everybody else’s. Stone cold Grace and Jack behind his joker were putting on a good front, but they were as lost as the frightened songwriter and all the other carriers of Mitchell’s introspection. I didn’t even mind being Eddie in the corner thinking he’s nobody, except that I couldn’t get invited to a party in the first place.
It wasn’t all oceanic subjectivity, even on Court and Spark. In “Raised on Robbery,” a rocker about a floozy coming on to a drunk in a hotel bar, Mitchell indulged her Chuck Berry side. It’s the one song on the album openly and gleefully about people who don’t sound remotely like Joni Mitchell. (“First he bought a ’57 Biscayne / He put it in a ditch / He drunk up all the rest / That son of a bitch.”) Satire and social observation are part of the rock and pop tradition too and likewise furnished a part of my education. If Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On didn’t nail the zeitgeist as much as anything by Norman Mailer or James Baldwin, I don’t know what did.
Randy Newman composed songs in this more impersonal tradition, and in 1974 he performed some of them at Glassboro State College, the lowly teachers’ school in southwestern New Jersey where I was honing my misery and discovering — thanks to some excellent professors — that I had the rudiments of a mind and might enjoy using it. But while many of my professors were inspiring, my fellow students — except for the girls I pined for and a few deviants manifestly more intelligent than I — were rather less so. At any rate, a clutch of scholars shuffling out of the Student Union with me and passing by the artist’s waiting limousine, had not relished that night’s performance.
“That asshole gets a limousine for sitting at a piano and playing those dumbass songs?” one of them said. “Why can’t we get somebody really good, like Argent?”
We did get Argent, who performed, if memory serves, the next semester. While I’ll always love “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” I love them less than Randy Newman’s off-center, piano-based compositions that do occasionally rock the house but have other things — things like wit, irony, and chromatic shading — on their minds. I wouldn’t have had a lot to say to the student who bitterly regretted spending his five or six dollars on the sorely disappointing Randy Newman (who was wonderful, by the way). Did that make me a snob? Plenty of people would have said so, and would say so now. Truthfully, compared to the real rock snobs I’ve known, I’m a peasant. In the first place, that disgruntled student and I could have found some common ground in Argent. He might not have agreed that Rod Argent’s first band, the soulful, jazzy pop balladeers known as The Zombies, outclassed the eponymous arena rockers known as Argent, but I’ll bet he got just as hopped up as I did during the shout along chorus of “Hold Your Head Up.” Anyway, I wasn’t telling him or anyone that he must make room in his life for progressive Britpop as the expense of the crap he really liked. I’ve been tempted, admittedly. For example, I emphatically believe that P.J. Harvey is “better” in every meaningful sense than Hall & Oates, but listening to her doesn’t make me feel superior. It makes me feel alive. Which, no doubt, is exactly the way Hall & Oates fans feel when they listen to their guys.
David Hume wrote, “We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension; but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.” In other words, think twice about sneering at someone’s taste, because someone else can just as easily sneer at yours. I repent of my past as a rock ideologue in the late ’80s and early 90s, when I was “apt to call barbarous” anything to the right of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Not all that music holds up so well. Nevertheless, the punk and new wave bands of that period remain my touchstones, partly because I associate them with the gradual termination of my protracted adolescent misery and the beginning of a new life in New York, party because they were kinda, well, snobbish. What Talking Heads and R.E.M. and the Patti Smith Group and The Smiths and The Clash gave me was the best of both worlds. They rocked, all right, some more than others, but they also composed thoughtful, lyrical, mysterious, acerbic, furious, and funny songs that engaged me emotionally and intellectually. I was still pretty raw in my 20s. If Patti Smith could teach me something about spiritual experience in “Easter” or David Byrne something about media-saturated discourse in “Don’t Worry About the Government,” who was I not to listen? Mostly I learned by osmosis. (Osmosis: if that’s not the name of a band, it should be.) A lifetime of listening to relatively smart pop music might make you a relatively smarter person. And so it has gone on through the decades. Though I love meaningless, head banging rock ‘n’ roll as much as the next person, I’ve gravitated towards arty indie bands with pop sensibilities: XTC, The Replacements, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. Naturally, I became a dinosaur ages ago, but I figured I’d embarrass myself less by not pretending to care about rap or rave or whatever variants of grunge obtain at the moment. Except for The Feelies, for whom I make regular, devoted, and fanatical exception, the only live performances I attend anymore are at the Metropolitan Opera House. How’s that for creeping conservatism?
And yet I don’t find the experience of opera to be so very different from that of rock ‘n’ roll. In the former case, I might shed a few discreet tears from the privacy of my nosebleed seat in the Family Circle, in the latter case I might jump up and down a bit in front of the stage. In either case, I’m listening pretty hard. It’s never background music, even when chopping vegetables for that night’s dinner, with Mozart or The Supremes on my iPod to keep me company. How does that aria grow so subtly out of the recitative and is that a fretted or a fretless bass guitar I’m hearing on this song? Do non-snobs ask themselves these sorts of questions when they listen to music? No, they probably ask themselves better ones. I’ve never been one to let my ignorance stand in the way of a deeply personal involvement with the music. If you can’t listen closely, what’s the point?
Maybe I’ve always missed the point. Looking back on all those nights in clubland in the 1980s, I sometimes think I was the only person on the floor not expecting to get stoned or laid. I was there to hear the music, and truthfully, sometimes the music sounded better at home. But on the good nights there was something approaching communal ecstasy, and the inhuman decibel levels never failed to pump me up. Once at a show featuring X or Graham Parker or Public Image Ltd. (sorry, can’t remember who or where), some girls, noticing my aberrant dance style, asked my regular concert going companion and cousin John “Rotten” Akey what fabulous drugs I was on and where they could get some.
“What’s he on?” John replied. “He’s not ‘on’ anything. He’s never on anything. He’s just into the music.”