My roommates went back to my Alma Mater a few weeks ago, and told me a story where one of my fraternity brothers “Pulled a Chuck” and refused to play music for some dame, unless she named a specific song. I was notorious for playing what I wanted to hear, and denying the attractive, dancing skirts their choice of music. This is not because I was trying to be difficult; it is because I genuinely didn’t know what they meant when they asked me to play something “with a beat” or “something we can dance to.” In the sixth grade I was big into Green Day. That is the only time in my life that my taste in music was in sync (no pun intended) with popular culture. In fact, more than once, I have thought that I was born about 30 years too late. I never knew what was popular; I was too busy listening to good music.
I love music. Love it. With a passion. Which is exactly why I can’t understand why popular music is so popular. It is drivel. It is tripe. It is garbage. I once tried to explain this to someone by comparing Vincent Van Gogh to Thomas Kincade. Van Gogh was a tortured soul that spent his entire life penniless, struggling for his art, and going crazy because of it. (Interesting side note: he didn’t cut off his ear – he lost it in a bar fight with another artist who was then banished from France. You might know the cat; his name was Gauguin.) Thomas Kincade on the other hand, is not an artist; he is a painter, certainly, but to call him an artist would be a stretch. Most of those paintings he is so well known for he never even set eyes on. He made a rough draft, and then shopped out the labor to actual (starving) artists, who can’t make a buck selling their own creations, so they mimic his style, put his name on it, and sell it to people who don’t know any better. How do I know this? Because the guy that taught my art appreciation class in high school was one of them (although I don’t think he worked for Kincade – just some other shill). The problem, though, is that the guy I was talking to LIKED Kincade. “Yea, but people like his stuff” was the response. This is when I gave up entirely on our generation.
I remember a friend of mine once called me a purist. When she said it, I thought it was an insult. To this day, I don’t know if she meant it as such, but I will tell you this: she was absolutely, 100% correct. I am a purist. I like my coffee black, my whiskey neat, my gearboxes manual, my music pressed in vinyl, and my equalizers flat. (If you don’t understand that last one, shame on you. There is as much artistry in a correctly mastered album as there is in the actual writing and performing of the music. To futz with the equalizer is to demolish the sound that the producers and engineers wanted you to hear. Bass is only a fraction of the audio spectrum, and it makes your license plate rattle against the trunk, you schmuck.)
If I remember anything correctly from the aforementioned art appreciation class, it is that Marcel Duchamp, member of the Futurist and Dada art movements, explained that if it was intended to be art at its creation, then it is, in fact, art. To say that Mr. Kincade intended for the 3,487th windmill painting to be anything other than a pocketbook liner would be a falsehood. Just like to say that the Black Eyed Peas adding Fergy was an artistic effort. Those dudes just wanted to sell more records. And they have. But at what cost? That chick from Kids, Incorporated has ruined them artistically.
Sure, I probably sound like a pretentious douche. I probably sound like one of those music critics that hate everything, unless they can use it to point out how much more they hate something else. “Yea, The Jicks are all right, but they just make me wish The Pixies were still together.” “But didn’t you say last month that Pixies were the single most over-rated unknown band in the history of ever?” “Whatever.” Fuck you, guy. Just because I know that bad music is bad, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good music when I hear it. I can’t listen to Prince of Peace by The Newgrass Revival and not wish I knew how to play the banjo. Likewise with Long Train Running by the Doobie Brothers and the harmonica. I can’t hear Watching the River Flow by Bob Dylan without trying to drive my heel through the floor from keeping the beat. When I hear the trumpet section in Friend is a Four Letter Word by Cake, my heart shatters at the sound. When I hear Make Me Smile by Chicago, it genuinely makes me smile. I get a chill up my spine every time I hear Merry Clayton’s voice crack when she sings “murder” on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. On my life, I shed a tear every single time I hear the trumpet flair as the rest of the band swells right at the end of Trombone Shorty’s rendition of Oh Holy Night.
None of this is even accounting for the rich history of music. Long before Tupac and Biggy were shot dead, Count Basie got in a gun fight in the streets of Paris. Did you know that the heroin that killed Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were sold by the same God-forsaken, son of a bitch, French asshole dealer? Tears in Heaven was written after Eric Clapton’s son was killed falling out of an apartment window at the age of 5. You just try and tell me that Apple Bottom Jeans is a work of art next to that song. (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, one of the all time greats, might never have even existed. Otis Redding finished recording that song THE DAY BEFORE HE DIED in a plane crash. February 3rd is still referred to as The Day the Music Died, because Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were victims of another plane crash. The first concert after Lynryd Skynryd’s crash, no one told the lighting guy that Freebird would be instrumental only. So, he did what he always did. He pointed the spotlight on the lead singer’s mic. Only there was no one there. By the time the 9 minute song was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Fuck every single person that ever jokingly, “ironically” requested Freebird as an encore.
And where is the dedication? The guy from Creed got so drunk he couldn’t sing to perform a concert. Stevie Ray Vaughn used to play guitar until his finger tips SHREDDED OFF. You know what he did then? He went back stage, super-glued them back on, and played an encore. The next time you hear Jimi Hendrix’ Star Spangled Banner recorded at Woodstock, listen carefully. You will hear Mitch Mitchell, drummer for The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and that day, Gypsy Suns and Rainbows, frantically, manically flailing his arms at his drum set. You know why? They were playing a concert at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning. He was just trying to keep his hands warm.
When I hear Constructive Summer by The Hold Steady, I remember shouting “Get Hammered!” in the basement of my fraternity house. “Here’s a toast to Saint Joe Strummer. He may have been our only decent teacher.” And yet, most of the rest of the music that came out the same year has less soul than an old shoe.
Fine. So you think I’m a snob. I don’t care. Mick Jagger said “I know, it’s only Rock and Roll,” but he was wrong. It isn’t ONLY Rock and Roll. It is much more than that. How much more? Let me answer that question by answering a couple questions from a song that has more meaning to me than I could ever actually express in words. “Do you believe in Rock and Roll? Can music save your mortal soul?” I do. It has; more than once. After a 10 year absence, I have begun regularly attending church again, and a not-insignificant reason for that is from the Blues Brothers 2000 Soundtrack: Taj Mahal’s recording of John the Revelator.
To sum it all up:
- Find a dark room
- Plug in some ear buds (no open air headphones – something that cuts out all other sound when you jam them in your ears)
- Crank your stereo to 11; Nigel Tufnel style
- Rock out to The W.A.N.D. by The Flaming Lips
- Tell me you aren’t a little bit of a snob, too