Alchemical Connections at the Hi-Fi
My favorite music writers are the ones that can create compelling connections between different albums and artists, providing a framework from which to appreciate or gain special insight into a particular band, album, time period or genre. It's usually just a line or two that provides a point of entry into an alternate universe in which certain albums or artists dwell. It's the lines that stick in your head, for instance, Lester Bangs had one about how if he needed an adrenaline kick he could always drink a pot of coffee and listen to the first Clash album with the treble turned all the way up. I love that, and most of us have probably felt that same adrenaline rush from first UK Clash l.p.. It also reminds me of the time in high school that I first heard Minor Threat. Like some scene from a suburban teen exploitation flick, I was stoned on high-powered grass lifted from the stash of the lawyer for whom my girlfriend was babysitting. The music was like a pure jolt of electricity shooting through me, literally finger in the wall socket. My whole body was vibrating, I felt carbonated. Later, bodies still tingling, we fucked on their couch (most of my adolescence wasn't this good). The irony of appreciating this straight edge band through chemical assistance in a posh lawyer's home didn't occur to me then and other than being vaguely amusing, doesn't matter much to me now. I never liked all that D.C. scene rhetoric anyway; rich kids make the most uptight communists.
But to get back to the issue at hand, writing. Lester also drew interesting and less obvious connections between the emotional landscape of PIL's Metal Box and Miles Davis's Get Up With It; a darkness, a horror in response to the loss of feeling, an ugly up for days delirium, amphetamine burn out. To quote one line in the piece "this is music from the other side of something I feel, but I don't want to cross to". I'm not sure if I would have spotted this connection on my own, but I certainly hear it now and these two albums are forever linked in my mind due to his writing. I like to listen to the two of them together with the c.d. changer on random while reading J. G. Ballard. Pure climate control.
Even when the connections seem somewhat spurious or the passion doesn't immediately reveal itself in your own listening, the power of the writing can keep you coming back. I've yet to be really moved by Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady but Lester's passionate scrawl ensures that I periodically return to give it a listen. And this is a good thing, cause we all have records and artists that, for whatever reason, require time or the right combination of circumstances before they click. I remember when I first heard Belle and Sebastian having trouble focusing my attention on them. It was pleasant enough but not really captivating. I must confess; I didn't get it. This was probably because I was heavily immersed in the raw energy of the Stooges at the time and B&S just didn't reach out and grab me with sufficient power. But then one quiet night alone I listened again and was blindsided by their brilliance. I was breathless with excitement. It's a pleasant memory that can still rekindle traces of that euphoria. I maintain hope that my good editor will one day experience a similar Beatles eureka and realize all the wonderful pop songwriting he's been missing out on, they being the rare case of something truly exceptional that's also very popular. Their popularity and hence obviousness being what I feel is the main stumbling block for him. And I'll be there smiling like the priest who knows you'll eventually come to Jesus!
Speaking of Alistair, he and many of the other writers here at Tangents have done more than their fair share in forging connections and associations, some obvious some not, between scenes and sounds. Particularly those from the still historically neglected decade, the 1980's, which gave rise to so much great music: post-punk, hip-hop, hardcore, underground pop, house etc.. Almost all of which was grassroots and regional: wonderfully unconcerned with the world at large. The circumstances that allowed the fruition of all that great music made in the 1980's (I know the decade thing is tired and arbitrary but it's handy) unfortunately no longer exist, with the clampdown and ever increasing intrusiveness of marketing and media. You really had to seek things out then and often the visual element of the band was largely unknown (or at least very subtle) unless you had the opportunity to see a group live. This degree of isolation from mainstream media and marketplace, was perhaps the number one ingredient in making so much of the music of the 1980's vital and interesting. Also coupled and perhaps contradicted by an increased exposure to and cross mingling of various styles, but again all happening for the most part in regional isolation. Things had time to develop without much outside interference. That was key.
But it's not just positive connections that are forged by these writers, sometimes they sum up something you feel skeptical or ambivalent about in just as memorable a fashion. Richard Meltzer penned the most succinct put-down of Eric Clapton's music I've heard with the simple observation "It's too English Protestant". That's it! He nailed it. And it's all the better for what it leaves the reader to infer. Bangs again, this time on the Grateful Dead, I'm paraphrasing, they have only one idea regarding improvisation and it's not that good to begin with. What else need be said concerning the countless rolls of bootlegged audio tape containing the under whelming and seemingly endless noodling that too many of us have had the displeasure of being subjected to at some point in our lives.
Patti Smith wrote a handful of great impressionistic pieces for Creem magazine back in the 1970's. My favorite, details her obsession with the Rolling Stones http://www.oceanstar.com/patti/poetry/jagarr.htm . She clearly gets how their image was equal to and in fact went hand in hand with their sound. Witness her description of Brian Jones looking like a "doomed albino racoon" on the cover of Between the Buttons and how you can "stick your nose in the speaker and get frostbite" from Sticky Fingers and Exile. It makes me wish she wrote more prose and less poetry. That she makes special note of the "soft white low heeled leather shoes" that a couple of the Stones are wearing on the cover of High Tide and Green Grass (Brian and Mick I think, maybe Keith too) is personally gratifying. I too had obsessed on how hip those shoes were. That cover (from a shoot originally intended for an album titled Could You Walk on the Water?) I think served to mythologize the Stones quite a bit here in the States. I remember this older cat who mastered my band's c.d. telling me how knocked out he and his friends were by the bright red pair of corduroys that Brian sports on the front cover.
Then there's Wayne McGuire who has one of THE great speed freak raps (for crap speed freak raps check your copy of The Boy Looked at Johnny, anybody up for some Tom Robinson?) on the Velvets in his piece, 'The Boston Sound', which is included in the Velvet Underground Companion. McGuire, exhibiting an `alternately terrifying, paranoid, and humorous fundamentalist/fascist type furor, places the Velvets, as evidenced by the White Light White Heat lp, on the same plane of musical break through as Coltrane, Ayler, and Taylor. Envisioning them as "prophets of a new age" concerned with "spirit, energy, presence and nervous systems" (as opposed to "notes and pretty structures") and responsible for a complete interface of human consciousness with technology, demonstrated by their mastery of feedback. The best part is when he describes a friend's dream in which John Lennon, as "master of the Western World" attempts to ward off attacks on the "western citadel" and western man's consciousness with his own more flimsy "mastery of technology" and "powerful psychedelic tranquilizers" and "thought control images". Sure it's nuts, but it sure is fun and he provides some great insight into the actual sound of the Velvets, particularly Cale's bass playing on White Light/White Heat.
This kind of mythological and impressionistic writing has more recently been taken up by Julian Cope who despite his, at times, questionable taste demonstrates a real flair for passionate and imaginative music writing. He's particularly adept at mapping the actual sound of the music he loves, a rare trait in a music writer. His Kraut Rock Companion is the the most exciting prose I've read on that whole bag, even if it misleads you into thinking you need a Guru Guru album. There's a part in the introduction that really made me sit up, where he's describing Johnny Rotten's vision of punk as being more of a Can influenced, Gnostic freak out than it ultimately panned out. Though I get the impression, with his interests in Druids and such, that Cope's idea of the Gnostics is very different from mine, its still an exciting allusion to what might have been. I had already noted a Gnostic worldview in the Pistols' song 'Bodies', which I interpreted as more an expression of disgust with the body as yet another flawed creation of the Demiurge (creator God) than a literal anti-abortion song.
With all the writings I've mentioned, whether or not the insights or associations are demonstrably "true" is not important, it's whether they enhance your enjoyment of the work. Its whether they work for you. It's the creation of associations and connections, by your self and others, that are resonant and exciting, this is the fun part. Making connections that pop, get your blood up, hotwire your synapses. The same inspiration that leads to great music and mix tapes; juxtaposing, framing things to reveal new levels, interpretations and associations. Listen to music that really moves you and try to capture in words what it is that does it, the sound, the words, whatever it is that puts it right over the top and try to describe the feelings that arise. We could stand a lot more of this type of passionate impressionistic writing and a lot less of the bland consumer guide style that has come to dominate the music press in the last twenty odd years.
© 2003 William Crain