For whatever reason, I get lots of questions e-mailed to me from loyal readers, yet very few posted comments from those same readers. Yes, YOU. No, wait, don't leave...th-...ok, here's a folding chair. (cough) Anyway, because I feel some questions merit a public airing, I now present the first installment of The Tarfumes Mailbag™. Confetti is optional. For now.
Q: what's with the Steely Dan album on your list?? did someone hack into your blog and put it there as a joke??
A: I appreciate your concern. In fact, against all reasonable expectations, that Steely Dan record is there on purpose. From age 9 to about a month ago they represented just about everything I despised in music. It took me that long to get over the earth-shattering boredom of hearing the fuzak* of "Hey Nineteen" and "Time Out Of Mind" every 12 minutes on the radio in 1981. Everything on their records sounded horribly claustrophobic and deadened, like the instruments and amps were covered with down comforters. Down comforters filled with quaaludes. It was precision and accuracy combined with absolute listlessness, like some form of sleep-playing. I also have painful memories of attempting to play "Home At Last" in my high school's jazz band. I was playing bass guitar, and it felt like one of those songs that would be described as "tasteful" above all else. And anyone who knows me knows that I try to avoid tastefulness at all costs. But I always thought "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" was improbably beautiful, one of those songs that happened by accident to a band that didn't deserve it (kind of like what "Gigantic" was to the Pixies, who were the Steely Dan of the 80s/90s). To my surprise, Pretzel Logic isn't the least bit in-jokey or condescending, and the sterility of the playing doesn't overpower the songs. There's a ringing endorsement. Although Donald Fagen was one of the least-jive vocalists in an area of music that was teeming with jiviness. But it still represents everything I ever fought against as a percussionist, what Greil Marcus called "...the muffled flumpf of L.A. studio drummers. ... the sound of stupidity, of retreat, of coldness."** I never understood how or why that became any kind of standard in music, or how a complete lack of dynamics/tension/danger could possibly be heard as something that should be aspired to. Didn't Elvin Jones teach us anything? Anyway, there's a monolith in my back yard which is my hatred of Steely Dan (it was already there when I moved in to my new place last week, creepily enough). But every once in a while, when I'm not looking, they sneak in and chip little pieces away.
*fuzak = fusion + muzak **actually, Marcus was comparing this style to Keith Moon, as unfair a comparison as has ever existed in the world. Like comparing a slowly leaking tire to John Coltrane.
I first heard Love when I was 12. My brother and I picked up copies of the then-new Nuggets compilations. I got "the Hits" and my brother got "Punk" (and I think a couple of others). Love's "My Little Red Book" was on the "Punk" compilation; even though it was a hit, it wasn't on "the Hits", and the pointlessness of categorization gets more obvious with its absence from the "Pop" compilation (what made it "punk" instead of "pop"? Or vice-versa? How could it possibly matter?). Anyway, I'd heard "My Little Red Book" on the radio, so I was familiar with it already once I heard it on Nuggets. The contrast between the sinister desperation of Lee's vocals and the band's driving optimism was too much. I think I was a little frightened of them, so I never investigated their other work.
But I kept seeing their name crop up in music history books and on top-100-albums-of-all-time-this-week lists. So I borrowed my brother's copy of Forever Changes, listened to it once, couldn't get into it, and more-or-less forgot about it. But it kept stalking me. So a few years later I bought my own copy and was physically incapable of listening to anything else (music and other people) for the next few months. It was sad without trying to be sad, and whenever it threatened to become maudlin, it did an about-face to save itself; at the end of "The Red Telephone" where Arthur Lee says "We're all normal, and we want our freedom," he lets the line sink in before pulling the rug out from under it with a comically exaggerrated faux-minstrel "All of god's childrens gotta have their freedom!"
When I loaned the record to a friend of mine she said, "Why do you like this? Why would you like this?" I still don't know. It doesn't contain any elements of anything that I would necessarily look for in a record. I remember I bought this around the same time I bought the Archers of Loaf's Vee Vee; I thought, "It feels like I should like this, but I don't; and it feels like I should dislike Forever Changes, but I love it." I can't think of any other record that I'm more at a loss to explain or understand the appeal of. But at this point it's pretty much a part of my subconscious, so fortunately I don't have to worry about it. Despite that, it still stalks me, sometimes in the form of a Maria McKee record (her half-brother was Love's Bryan MacLean), sometimes in the form of a Madonna song (the bridge of "Beautiful Stranger" is a direct rip from the bridge of Love's "She Comes In Colors"), sometimes in the form of a TV musical, of all things: the finale to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical ("Something To Sing About") is essentially an homage to Love's "You Set The Scene".
I had one chance to see him perform live, but I was away on tour. When I returned I found out that his show had been cancelled. Apparently he'd fired his backing band (or they'd fired him, depending on the source) and the tour was cancelled. Reports that he was rehearsing a new band gave me hope that I'd be able to see him someday. Yesterday Arthur Lee died of leukemia.
I hate being constantly reminded of this. But I keep getting constantly reminded of this.
From an interview with music journalist Ira Robbins:
There's an astonishing amount of mediocrity in music journalism
nowadays -- a shocking lack of history and context combined with a
congenital audience-pleasing inability to express an independent
critical view. I think bad editors have, for good reasons, encouraged a
lot of weak writers who have become even worse editors, propagating a
downward cycle of incompetence.
Robbins was never my favorite music writer; while I generally agreed with his views, I always found his writing style to be somewhat forced (although "lapel-yanking melodies" has always stuck in my mind, but more as a clever turn of phrase than as perceptive music writing). But he's ridiculously (and depressingly) on the money with his assessment of the current (which is to say, the last 20 years or so) state of music journalism. Editors seem to think that all that's necessary for someone to be a music journalist is enthusiasm for the subject matter, no matter how shallow or unfocused that enthusiasm might be -- it's like reading reviews of Fruit Roll-Ups. More distressing than the lack of history and context is a complete absence of curiosity regarding history and context; most music journalists aren't even interested in taking the first steps towards truly investigating the work they review.
Then again, maybe it's just that they're all drunk. From a recent Pete Townshend diary entry (he's talking about writing his autobiography):
I've written only as far as the baying, drunken press launch of Tommy
Live at Ronnie Scott's Club in London in 1969 at which the press showed
their true colours - plied with enough free booze, and faced with the
sheer comic audacity of the Who, our brilliance and astonishing
performing power, they shifted from calling us sick to calling us
giants. It seems as though the press never really change their
principle habit - which is to first judge on the basis of facts that
are always, inevitably, incomplete. Some of them are so pickled most of
the time their opinions are worthless. ...
Journalism is a noble calling that the truly noble rarely hear.