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Dare To Be Square 

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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Chuck Berry photo courtesy Chess archives

I always write record reviews without the benefit of the heaps of press materials that come with the discs — you know, those raves and analyses by Spin, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, etc. that accompany the records by the time I get them (often up to three months later, as if the record had been test-marketed before release). I just don’t want to be led astray. I don’t want to know what somebody feels that I need to know about what I’m about to hear, or who feels qualified to guide me to the important stuff I need to know about.

In fact, I’ve long felt there’s what I would call a mismatch of tone in much of the gasp-inducing aggrandizement of the above-mentioned writing considering the subject matter itself, which is music, which is not literature and which at core is a physiologically based art form comprising an orchestration of sensation-inducement only relative to emotion, with a small bit of something only akin to intellect thrown in; that is even true of the most serious, most highly conceptualized music of our time. Music needs, in other words, a musical way of interpreting its secrets. The writing itself requires rhythm, tone and dynamics, and a symmetry of its own devising whose terms nevertheless should be made clear enough for the reader within the first couple of paragraphs. That is the supreme challenge for the modern music critic.

In any case, nope, when it comes to understanding what I’m hearing, first I listen to the records, then sometimes I read the press material afterward, just to see how misguided the hype artists and hacks are, or possibly how right-on they were. Sometimes the art on the cover of the disc will make me want to listen to the music, I admit.

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There is so much music out now of such variety, fantastic juxtaposition and following-its-own-path righteousness (you’ll have to trust me on this, I have the aid of a super-primo mailing list) that I can pretty much guarantee you that you’re better off following your own instincts when deciding what to shell out your hard-earned bucks for, or to steal off the Internet, because if you don’t, all the words, words, words on these mountains of new music are gonna send you reeling, and you’ll find yourself lost in the universe. Not just that, but the best thing to do is follow your strongest instincts, which will be your most cringingly embarrassing ones — because it’s your guilty pleasures that are going to tell you the most about yourself, and that is most likely what music is best used for, getting to know yourself a little better.

I say this because I sincerely want you to avoid the heartache and deep, deep shame of privately feeling that you can’t “keep up,” aren’t sufficiently “with-it” or “down,” or that your friends will abandon you when they find out that you like the Moody Blues more than the White Stripes, or that if you had to choose it’d be Bob Seger over Morrissey or even, well, Britney Spears over Franz Ferdinand or . . . Your true friends shall reveal themselves like wheat from chaff; they’ll admire your integrity, your dogged individualism, because you love Toto and can stride boldly and confidently down the street proclaiming it in a very loud voice. They won’t want to be seen associating with you, but in their hearts they’ll hold you in high regard.

It’s an interesting phenomenon: The best way any fan can get deeply inside the music is most likely with no inkling of the music’s historical, sociological or even musical context; often, the musicians themselves aren’t entirely sure what they meant to convey anyway — it is a verifiable fact that much or most of the great music of our time came about via some strange confluence of inspiration and ineptitude. (I mean, musicians usually say as much in the interviews you read.) The resulting ignorance means that you’ve then got a musician’s instincts rubbing up against yours — thus the listening part is a potentially resonant, collaborative act with the artist.

And isn’t it interesting when you find yourself completely getting off on some dumb song — stomping your feet, doing the Muppet dance, shedding a tiny tear — then come to find out that that song was performed by someone you’ve been informed you simply must despise? No, I say, shout it from the rooftops! Will you dare to be square? You might consider taking your cool cues from the musicians themselves, many of whom these days are confessing to and even bragging about an increasingly uncool batch of “influences.”

The phenomenon of corruption, or mutability — call it evolution — infects the best contemporary music, has since the dawn of time been the art’s prime instigator. The best music comes about when its makers have tried to emulate their heroes and failed miserably, either through sheer incompetence or, in most cases, just the sheerly human quality of difference (of culture, more often than not). This is how new ways of playing rhythms or new ways of perceiving harmony come about. And that of course is the story of rock & roll, largely the sound of musicians mishandling the blues and jazz roots of the material, or loving the blues but not identifying too well with its slowness and gentility, or its misery — or feeling the freedom of jazz without a clue about how it works.

Sounds strange, perhaps, but related to this, what bugged me a bit about punk rock was its general tendency to imitate stupidity, so that everything ended one very long, stale joke, not to mention its quick collapse into style. Whereas I find that the music that has really stayed with me has been done in earnest, for the most part — with a genuine desire to use influences correctly, invariably with an innocence that would throw a spanner in the works. As if by magic, a new kind of sound seemed to reveal itself. Know what I mean? Maybe not. But promise me you’ll think about it.

When I was a kid, my first career ambition was to be a conductor. That’s because my mother and big brother Greg played the works of Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, etc. very loud through our brand-new, 50-watts-per-channel stereo system (thought to be quite massive at the time, and it was sufficiently massive). There was one piece in particular by Grieg, called Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, that thrilled me to the point of drenching my jodhpurs. That piece ebbs and flows then rises and swells and explodes in a sort of orgy of blissful sentimentality, and I’d find myself waving my arms and strutting about, leading, cajoling and controlling these enormous surges of emotion. This was a sensation of incredible power, and it was very similar to the one I’d feel down the road later on when I’d play “Voodoo Chile” by Jimi Hendrix (the ultimate rock star playing the ultimate rock guitar solos) and mimic his heroics in front of the mirror in my bedroom (which, of course, I outgrew long ago, didn’t I?). In retrospect, I must have been drawing on the same impulse.

But it was when Mikey Casey, the white cholo across the street, blasted his Chuck Berry and Righteous Bros. records even louder that things got really interesting, because I could actually hear these two musical extremes at the same time, and together they blended to form the musical space I’m still seeking out today. Know what I mean?

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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