Every Day We Slaughter Our Finest Impulses
Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion.
I'm here to praise Bad writing. That's not a bad opening sentence. It probably caught your attention. In Good writing the opening sentence is pretty important. In short stories it's supposed to be essential. But this isn't a short story.
I'm not here to talk about fiction, although I think Chandler's quote is applicable to music journalism. Journalism is all technique. I don't think that what's written for Tangents is 'journalism', although the dictionary definition might prove me wrong. I can't be bothered to reach across the desk for my dictionary to find out, which is one sure sign that I'm a Bad writer. Good writers make the effort to get their facts right. They do research. They do a lot of other things too, like express themselves in a coherent manner. They're concise, precise, and other things. They don't go on for too long. They back up opinion with facts. They make references to place ideas in a context which proves they are clever and they know what they're talking about. Bad writing does none of these things. Or, it may do some, but not all.
Tangents continues the tradition of the fanzine, and that's a great thing. There's no editorial brief, no editor telling us that the article is too long, or too short, or too stupid, vague, or subjective. I guess Alistair has his own limits, but that's good too, otherwise you might come across a justification for racial abuse or buying Coldplay albums. Then again, if I was an editor, I might allow for such opinions if they were funny, or ironic. Few editors have the nerve to embrace free speech, naturally. It's dangerous, and creates the impression that the editor and the publication believe whatever an individual contributor has to say. People are that stupid.
I was an editor once. I produced a fanzine called Ego. There wasn't much 'editing' involved since few people other than myself actually contributed. Fanzines are the home of Bad writing, of course, and although they weren't born in the days of Punk, that's when they truly became a part of pop culture. Except that they didn't become massively 'popular'. The threat of true popularity would have been the death of a fanzine because it then would have tried to be 'professional'. This would have meant having to consider its market and take advertising and start to fret about the contents and whether they might offend/bore/baffle the audience.
By now I should have clarified what I mean by 'Bad' writing. That's what a Good journalist would have done. But then, a Good journalist wouldn't be writing an article in praise of Bad writing. When producing Ego someone wrote to me once asking if I was a professional journalist using a pseudonym. Can you believe that? I couldn't. I was partly pleased, and partly annoyed at this backhanded compliment. After all, we all aspire to be Good somehow. What I didn't aspire to, however, was turning out an imitation of professional music journalism.
This is the common mistake made by amateur writers. They try to be Good, like the boys who get paid. This is natural. The model, after all, consists of all music journalism and then the premier division of Kent, Marcus, Murray, and Savage. Jon Savage once wrote in a review that Ego was 'streets ahead of The Wire' - ah, my greatest moment! Savage is undoubtedly a Good writer, but what saves him from being just another Good writer is his impeccable taste, possibly. Ditto David Toop, who manages to slip the personal into his professionalism. The only annoying thing about him is that he Knows It All, about everything musical at least.
It's said that only the British have a term like 'too clever for his own good', as if we dislike intelligence. Perhaps we fear the power of knowledge because we are an insecure race? Whatever the reason, I share this ambivalence towards Knowledge. Whilst appreciating the nuggets of information fed to me by an all-knowing scribe, at the same time, it irks, and I can't say why. Could it be because such learned writers are in danger of coming across as lecturers, and my personal problem with being lectured goes way back to the nightmare years of school? Possibly.
The Wire suffers from Knowledge more than any other magazine. Its writers, as supremely Good as they are, spend so much time being Clever that they constantly risk alienating readers. The Wire annoys everyone I know who reads it, and we've all struggled to put our fingers on why, exactly. The word 'anal' springs to mind. That said, and the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind', it's still one of the best magazines around. Mojo satisfies the need in the market for endless historical coverage, but as writing, it certainly doesn't inspire. My other favourite magazine is Careless Talk Costs Lives. The reason is obvious; it recaptures the spirit of the fanzine perfectly, and allows for columns about why Tom Jones is crap, or why Big Dada is a good label. Most importantly, it allows writers to express whatever they think, to deviate, to rant, to explore ideas. It also feels like it's written by fans rather than pros who care more about the cheque in the post.
The fantastically Bad writing that filled fanzines could have taken it's cue from Kerouac's 'Essential's Of Spontaneous Prose', especially the line which urges 'No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained'. Not that most writers were consciously thinking of applying Jack's methodology. They did it naturally, as all Bad writers do because they're driven by self-expression above all else.
I still haven't got around to defining Bad writing. Perhaps the word 'bad' is a bad choice. I'm bored, like so many others, of reading Good work that does the job and buggers off leaving you informed but not inspired. Bad writing inspires me in so many ways; on a personal level by making me think that I can do just as well, and as a human who connects to the thoughts of another human writing like one instead of a word machine.
Henry Miller once wrote: 'Immediately I heard my own voice I was enchanted: the fact that it was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn't matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good and bad dropped out of my vocabulary'. At this point I'd like to do the same.
Miller wrote a lot on the subject of writing, especially the art of going beyond clinical precision. He said of art critics: 'Their desire for perfection is so similar to that false religious attitude which desires only the good'. Although I'm here to criticise the critics for their art, I take his point about the art itself. This desire for only the 'good' is a common approach to most artforms, and in the loose sense of the word, this is natural. The trouble, of course, is that what's deemed 'good' becomes predetermined by a strict view of correctness in form, content, structure, execution etc. The organized minds of life, those in positions of power (i.e. editors), embrace reflections of their own logical professionalism, and since money is involved, the standards, the rules of behaviour, become less flexible and more determined by the rules.
It seems to me that although there is a natural place for 'solid' journalism (reporting news, investigating 'serious' issues etc), the space for artistically free speech is virtually non-existent. An editor would not consider writing that is unrestrained because technique is everything. Non-fiction suffers more from restriction than any other creative medium because it is supposedly about 'the truth', or 'the facts'. The aim is to impart information and level-headed analysis which, on the subject of science, seems reasonable, but on the subject of Life and Art? Music criticism has been shrink-wrapped to form sterile consumable object just as surely as supermarket meat no longer resembles, or even hints at, the living, shitting, dribbling, breathing thing it once was. Perhaps my argument is for the raw honesty of offal, hair, teeth and tongues.
Just as those objects remind us of what we're consuming because we can relate to them I would prefer more writing to do the same, to forge a connection with the writer, and hopefully his subject. There's something to be said for the mess of life and, therefore, the disorder of thought. Burroughs knew this, so too did Francis Bacon. The view need not be horrific, but must it always be perfectly focused on the sterile inhuman void? My argument against most modern jazz has always been its sterility, its overwhelming reflection of the fact that its perpetrators probably spend more time in the gym, or consuming 'health' food, than they do observing the gritty reality of life and getting wrecked.
I'm not advocating short-life addiction to hard drugs, of course, and would not say that excess in unhealthy consumption ever helped an artist achieve greatness. I just feel that this devotion to doing Good does art no good at all. The minds of these types are as tidy as their homes, I presume, and a tidy mind rarely creates fantastic art. It does, however, aid the learning of skills which are then applied with thorough rigour to the production of perfectly crafted, soulless art.
I once wrote a book about jazz. Without wishing to boast, I think it is probably the Baddest book on jazz ever written. It was so Bad that only a brave independent publisher like Stride would print it, and not one magazine or newspaper would review it. Rereading parts, I'm aware of what's so Bad about my writing, but I'm also over-joyed about the fact that it represents very much what I felt and was written as well as it could have been with no motive other than to express ideas, my ideas. It was, in short, Me.
In the front of my book I quote Sun Ra, saying 'Why don't you make a mistake and do something right'. This was partly, I confess, using the words of a wise one to support what I felt about the book itself. I knew it was full of 'mistakes', but I also knew it was right. To be unafraid of mistakes is to be free, and to fear them is to be a slave to perfection. Ironically, there's a market for 'imperfection, as The Streets album proved last year. If I were to be optimistic I would say that a lot of people crave imperfection without knowing it, but when they hear the shambolic, honest, messy truth of something, they love it. This could explain the popularity of 'reality' TV, despite its heavily mediated format. We like to see others make mistakes, for the obvious reason that they mirror our own fallibility, or perhaps even make us feel superior.
'Reality' music is more problematic in the form of hip-hop. Should gangsters really be rewarded for having lived a life of crime, even if they turn it into great music? What's being judged, their former lifestyle of what they produce as rappers? Too much reality that's dark by nature is disturbing, and as consumers, we exercise our personal right to praise or shoot the messenger for telling us the truth. I began this piece with music journalism in mind, but the question obviously applies to all art forms.
The worldwide web has created a forum for writing that far exceeds the former print medium. Here we are free, without having to worry about either the mechanics of production or, more importantly, the cost. A new article on Tangents will suddenly appear one day, as if from nowhere, but let's not forget the hard work done by its creator, without whom this outlet would not exist. In theory, as with fanzines, those of us with the technology could create our own sites, but we're reluctant to make the effort.
I have joked about 'Bad' writing (didn't you realise?), although I still come back to the word in response to the controlling force which insists on their version of Good being the only one that's valid. By Bad I mean good and by Good I mean bad. Good is so bad for writing now that it suffers, just as music does, from 'production values' and adherence to formula. If Pop suffers from misplaced idolisation, so too does writing. Music journalists are the equivalent of Will and the rest in their clean, unadventurous professionalism. To complain about the state of Pop is futile, like complaining about the weather. But unlike the weather, Pop can be changed by active participation, presumably, although the will (no pun intended) must be there in the first place. The public must be willing and the creators must work to make their voices heard.
As for writing about it, I doubt that we'll ever see a return to an age when 'crazy' scribes penned three-thousand-word articles about music, articles which captured the spirit of the times and the art. After all, just what is there to get that excited about in music today? We're awash with the Good in all forms, from 'perfect' teeny Pop to adult Rock songs, from competent electronica to calculated 'urban' sounds. Perhaps there's so much Good music around that potential artists don't bother because they can't be Better, be bolder, more brilliant, neither can they be less formulaic than the market requires, or more amazing in their ambition. We seem to be stuck in the worst possible world, of mediocrity which is not so bad as to inspire action, or so good as to lead by example.
As for music criticism (a term I use loosely to cover all writing about music) one of my favourite quotes comes from the American critic George Jean Nathan, who said: 'Impersonal criticism...is like an impersonal fist-fight, or an impersonal marriage; and just as successful'. Every day we slaughter our finest impulses to be human, to be bad, stupid, or wrong; in other words to be ourselves, to be human and free from restraint. Even those unshackled by the promise of payment stay within self-imposed limits, perhaps in the hope that they will one day actually get paid for their efforts. So they practise the art of conformist objectivity.
I am not here to criticise the personal choices of others. I wish only to express frustration at the general failure to go beyond what's considered to be 'good' writing. Perhaps I'm now repeating myself, and besides, I feel I've said enough. I leave the last words to Henry Miller: 'I write without thought or let. I take down the dictation, as it were. If there are flaws and contradictions they iron themselves out eventually. If I am wrong today I am right tomorrow. Writing is not game played according to rules'.
© 2003 Robin Tomens