Monthly Archives: September 2012

Learning to Sing Hours and Hours of Cover Songs

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i]  Except, of course, that it’s not.  It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing.  Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.

And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something.  For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.

For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music.  If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism.  In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful.  Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.

At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance.  Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.

Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.

And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me.  I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar.  Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself.  While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder.  For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything.  I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things.  I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.

But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures.  Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that  begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary.  Songs have too much recursion and repetition.    It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse.  And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade.  But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.

Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well.  They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940).  But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are.  And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.

What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself.  Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song.  Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic].  And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment.  Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument.  And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow  palpable because  Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.

In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music.  There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ.  On with the show.

Time: 55 minutes.


[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

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All Evidence to the Contrary, Showtime’s WEEDS Actually Has Something in Common with Real Life

 

After eight seasons, Weeds is over.  The show began well, with its premise of a young widow in a California subdivision who turns to selling marijuana to make ends meet.  Nancy Botwin fit the growing corpus of cable anti-heroes—sympathetic and striking characters whose behavior blurs ethical and moral boundaries and whose situations allow for subversive cultural critique.  For Weeds, that meant an update on Updike’s and Cheever’s soulless suburbs, hotbeds of hidden hedonism and hypocrisies, as well as forays into the ways in which post-Boomers are spectacular failures at parenting and nearly everything else.  It was funny and thoughtful, and Nancy, in her flowy dresses and high heels, Cheshire Cat smile on her face and plastic cup and straw in her hand, was a perfect portrait for audience ambivalence, often as repellant as she was attractive.

And then, over the next seven years, with the initial premise mostly run into the ground after the first few seasons, things happened.  A LOT OF THINGS.  A brief overview, with the likelihood that I’ve messed up chronologies and details, with props to Wikipedia as my cheat sheet:  the family is forced to relocate to San Diego, then Seattle, then Dearborn, then Connecticut, than New York City, than I think Connecticut again, before the very last episode, set in both the future and Pittsburg, if that’s not a contradiction. In the meantime, Nancy marries a DEA agent who dies, a Mexican drug lord who dies, and a Russian woman while they—Nancy and Zoya, the woman—are in prison.  Did I forget prison? Or that she was shot in the head and in a coma at the opening of Season 8? That she gets deeply involved with the California drug trade and Mexican cartels, former US military drug runners, the tobacco industry, and a Rabbi?  This is to say nothing of the many other characters’ own forays into crime, sex, drugs, and high comedy.

In other words, like many shows—and soap operas—before it, the show became bloated with both narrative and trauma.  Any one situation from any one season for any one character would have been potentially life-ruining, requiring years of therapy to even begin coping with the suffering .   Who gets over the multiple and escalating threats to her own life and family numbers, let alone the accumulating unnatural deaths and murders, that Nancy nonchalantly, breezily sashays around.  Even Tony Soprano suffered from panic attacks.  Yet Nancy, like a cartoon baby in a construction site, kept moving along, literally leaving a wake of devastation, including deliberately setting fire to Season 1’s original suburb, Agrestic.  The introduction to Season 8 self-mockingly underscores her dangerous shenanigans.

 

But it’s not the deaths and relocations throughout the years that have unnerved me.  It’s the disappearance of seemingly crucial main character after main character, who is then replaced by another seemingly irreplaceable character, so that only the core family—Nancy, hapless lovelorn brother-in-law Andy, and Nancy’s sons, vapid, handsome Silas and sociopathic Shane—has remained stable.  Frenemy Celia Hodes spent a few seasons as a main character only to disappear from the show as she disappeared from Nancy’s life, just as earlier, Celia’s own older daughter disappeared from the show out of narrative necessity or convenience. Sanjay was crucial to Weeds and Nancy, until he wasn’t and was gone.   Conrad? Heylia? The guy played by Matthew Modine? Caesar? Guillermo? Lupita? Jill?  Here and gone, invisible casualties in Nancy’s escalating, if metaphorical, narrative body count.

And yet, the same bursting at the seams plot-and-character accretion strikes me as a pre-Facebook, pre-Internet nostalgia for the days when we were indeed able to move, geographically, socially, and symbolically, and begin again.  The ruthless truth is that at every point in our lives, the people with whom we consider ourselves the closest—our best friends, family members, significant others, lovers, and co-workers, to say nothing of the dozens of casual acquaintances everyone constantly juggles—soon disappear, to be replaced by a new set, a new cast, and updated conflicts.

So much of Weeds was over the top, made for cable high concept and histrionics.  But in Nancy’s narrative amnesia and seemingly emotional invulnerability, we see an inadvertent truth: no matter how close we think we are to those who surround us, the only consistency in life is our immediate family.

And even then, for only eight years.

 

Time: 40 minutes.

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No One Knows What Manhood Is Yet No One Will Stop Writing about Manhood

Just as I planned to write on new books about manhood—Time’s Joel Stein and Man-Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity , and GQ’s Glenn O’Brian and How to Be A Man–The New York Times goes and publishes a magazine cover story on the same topic, “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Hanna Rosin.

Manhood, it turns out, is a deceptively elusive subject.  If the obscure definition of obscenity is “I know it when I see it,” then the definition of masculinity is even vaguer. Taking the two books and Times article together, here is a definition of manhood: We don’t know it when we see it, we don’t see it when we know it, or we don’t know when we don’t see it.  And I thought Flight of the Concords had this all sorted out in “Think About It”: “What man?/ Which man?/ Who’s the man?/ When’s a man a man? What makes a man a man?/ Am I a man?/ Yes. Technically I am.”

(see 1:18)

Take Stein’s book.  Please. [rimshot] The High Concept is this: the new father of a boy, Stein fears that his effete, metrosexual lifestyle will not allow him to raise his boy to be a real man, so he attempts all of the most stereotypically manly activities he can imagine, one per chapter—essentially hanging around with other men like Marines, day traders, hunters, and ultimate fighters—in order to learn the lessons that he’d like to pass on. Call it The Year of Living Manfully. The result is sometimes funny—“When I played Dungeons & Dragons, I was never a fighter or an assassin; I was always a magic-user.  Even in my fantasy life, I was a nerd”— and just as often not funny: “I am no human resources expert, but I believe Great Point Capital might have a much easier time recruiting female employees if it didn’t feel so much like Rape Point Capital.” But to pull off the conceit, Stein is too accepting of standard out of the box masculinity, pretending that decades of academic research into gender—across fields of sociology, psychology, literature, and entire fields of gender studies—never happened.

I guess that could be OK—this book is clearly part humor, part AJ Jacobs-stolen stunt memoir. Except that Stein keeps defining himself as an “urban intellectual” seemingly without irony (I thought post-William F Buckley, the word “intellectual” was now officially an insult) and therefore in opposition of the kind of manly adventures he chronicles here.  What kind of intellectual is this juvenile?  OK, I take that one back. But what kind of intellectual appears to have read nothing on the subject of his book, including parenting books? And while Stein will intermittently bring up race, class, and his suburban Jewish upbringing on rare occasions, he seems not to think of manhood in sociological, political, or class terms, even as they clearly, inadvertently emerge that way. As a result, the book mostly ends up supporting stereotypes about masculinity—men don’t like to talk; men like to kill things and sleep outdoors—at his own self-deprecating expense, since he isn’t like this. But the stereotypes are also at the expense of exploring, developing, and  challenging—or, if it suited him,  defending—traditional conceptions of manhood. Stein begins the book believing that driving a fast car and firing a tank will make him more of a man, and concludes that, surprise, they have.  Self-consciously calling his book a “stupid quest” does not inoculate it from the charge that it is stupid. It is.  But that’s actually OK.  My problem is that it was never even a real quest at all.

Glenn O’Brien’s book seems at first as though it is exactly what Stein did not set out to write. Stein: “I’ve decided to make a list of tasks that I hope will turn me into a man. My list will not include anything I have ever read in GQ or Esquire: I will not learn to fold a pocket square, mix cocktails, build my triceps, look up word bespoke, or get the right haircut for my face shape. That’s being a dandy. My book could beat up that book.” But it turns out that O’Brien did not write that book either, not exactly.  While there are plenty of sections on shirts, drinks, and style—not to mention that O’Brien clearly celebrates dandyism—what O’Brien has done it construct a deft collection of essays on topics related to manhood in the 21st century, while at the same times suggesting that some aspects of manhood are, indeed, timeless and archetypical.

So despite pages riffing on ties, O’Brien is far more intellectual than Stein—and therefore does not ever need to call himself one—suggesting that “A gentleman is reason personified” and referring or alluding to Socrates, Emily Post, the religious concept of acedia, Brad Pitt, Muhammad, Rocky Marciano, Andy Warhol, and hundreds more, in a way that seems erudite rather than namedroppy or shoehorned in.  So nothing about tanks, but rather, a confident book of ideas that I don’t always agree with but respect. And respect is a word that Stein reserves for his new friends but not himself—or at least the fake funny-guy persona he tries to foist on the reader.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think of the Mark Twain adage, that to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Style Guy sees manhood in style.  In Stein’s book, rich men see manhood in money; martial artists in punching; hunters in hunting; ballplayers in playing ball; firefighters in fighting fires.  But what happens when they lose their hammer?

That’s where Hanna Rosin comes in, in The Times.  Her article is about men who have not only suffered the indignity of losing their jobs, but also of SEEING THEIR WIVES SUCCEED! Which is somehow salt on their wound, as opposed to, I don’t know, “Thanks, Wife, for saving my ass.” Quote after quote reinforces their sorrow: “Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” says one; “We’re in the South,” Rosin quotes another. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”  This is Stein stripped of all humor, purpose, and self-consciousness, manhood not as fodder for jokes but just fodder, or just a joke.

Of course, manhood’s perceived strength—which is, um, strength—is its weakness.  Part of Rosin’s point is that women feel less entitled to start at the top and are more flexible employees, and therefore are better suited to contemporary employment needs. Yet Rosin also misses that man’s rigidity means that her thesis is old news, destined to spark controversy before disappearing for another few years, when suddenly it is rediscovered, kind of like John Travolta.  Previously, in April 2003, the New York Times Magazine also published “Commute to Nowhere.”  with its thesis that “By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are — or who others thought they were.”

And in light of at least one other 2011 New York Times article, “The Gender Pay Gap by Industry,” maybe the problem of manhood is overrated to begin with: “Over all, women who worked full-time in wage and salary jobs had median weekly earnings of $657 in 2009. That’s 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned.”  Women are still only earning 80% of the pants.  They wear the shorts in the family.

In the end, if manhood can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t have any meaning at all.  In some ways, that would be a very good thing, especially to Rosin’s subjects.  I recently found out that Marlboro cigarettes, of all things, were originally marketed to women, pretty much proving that, at least in some arenas, gender is a total construct and fabrication with no intrinsic truth at all.  And that cigarettes’ flavor is whatever people believe it is, since the same ones are “mild” for women and full of “flavor” for men.

But in other ways, I’d like to see manhood stick around.  For all the emphasis on the South, the men of Rosin’s Times piece don’t know the first rule of manhood, inspirited by Rhett Butler: a man doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks about his manhood.

And personally, I’d like to think that I do know it when I see it.  And technically I am.

Time: 90 minutes. And I had to force myself to stop.

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