Friday, February 29, 2008

The Quintessential American Rock Band

This Faces binge (especially the Five Guys Walk Into a Bar box) was brought about, in part, by a friend asking me what I thought the quintessential rock and roll band was.

Not the best, or the most important, or most ambitious, or most intelligent, or whatever other critical tag you want to affix, but the quintessential. The one that, in its existence and its music, summed up and pushed forward not only rock and roll, but also the country of its origin.

And I couldn’t come up with one.

Plenty of American solo artists could define rock and roll, and most of those artists had significant bands behind them, but I couldn’t come up with a band.

With the Brits, it’s easy. They’ve got the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, the Faces. Take your pick, right? Any one of them, one way or another, could be argued as representing what’s quintessential about the form. Even if you don’t like one of them, you have to concede their status as fundamentally Rock. Like, most of the time, I have little to no use for Zeppelin, but I have to admit that there are few bands who might be said to so strongly for the ridiculous middle-school machismo of rock and roll. (And, sure, maybe the Kinks are the odd bunch out, but, they’re so damn good that I had to include them anyway).

So, the Brits have those, and we’ve got the Beach Boys.

And Grand Funk Railroad, for God’s sake.

And there’s no quintessence there.

Yes, we’ve got Muddy, Buddy, Elvis, Dylan, and Bruce. But those aren’t bands.

We’ve got “River Deep, Mountain High” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder Road” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” but we don’t have the band.

I mean, we’ve got The Band, and, for one or two albums, they were the best ever, but they were mostly Canadian. And Canada, obviously, ain’t the U.S.

I thought maybe REM or the Replacements, but REM has now officially sucked for more than 50% of their time in existence, and, as for the Replacements, I just don’t think enough people ever listened to them. (The future issue with the Hold Steady, I suspect).

So, who is it?

Who can define rock and roll in that quintessential way, that way that leaves no question, when you hear it, that leaves no doubt that, you know, that’s frickin’ rock ‘n’ roll, man.

Cheap Trick? Closer than Grand Funk Railroad, that’s for sure, but not close enough.

Guns ‘n’ Roses? Could be, but I don’t think a single album can get you there.

Who am I missing? Tupelo? They fit the bill in that they can, like the Stones, even make a fiddle sound completely badass when necessary (has there been a straightup nastier fiddle than on “Factory Girl”?), but, like the Replacements, they never sold. And being Rock means having an audience.

The Byrds? Never as good as they thought they were. And they never made an album without a ridiculous amount of filler.

The Doors? Honky, please.

Creedence? Velvet Underground? The Stooges? The Ramones? Nirvana?

I kept turning the question, sure that I was forgetting someone, sure that there was some big ol’ obvious elephant that I couldn’t see, some big ol’ pachyderm hiding in plain sight.

So, yes, I felt pretty dumb when I realized it was Aerosmith.

Like Zeppelin, it’s not a band that I necessarily want to listen to with any frequency (though, let’s face it, Toys in the Attic will outlive us – as will, I suspect, Pump), but, for the sake of that bizarre, wonderful mixture of machismo and melody, of homage and growth, of hurt and celebration, of, yes, guitars, bass, and drums, that, together, are capital-R-rock.

If it’s actually some other band, please let me know.

Rod Stewart

Haven't you always wanted, secretly wanted, to title a post such?

As part of a recent binge on the Faces, I’ve been thinking about Greil Marcus’ claim, speaking about Rod Stewart, that – a rough paraphrase here – rarely has a singer betrayed his talent so completely. And that’s a wonderfully perfect statement. It’s pure rock criticism, and, it’s in its purity that it achieves perfection.

It single-handedly and in one stroke obliterates an entire segment of a man’s career, purely because the speaker takes issue with it. Takes everything a man has done, everything a man has become, after some given point, and labels it betrayal. Deems it worthless.

It positions the speaker as superior, as omniscient, as he who is capable of true sight, of true hearing, of true understanding, of cutting through all the bullshit of headlines and advertising. It makes the speaker, the critic, just as important as the performer.

And it’s right.

Because Stewart, with the Jeff Beck Group, with the Faces, with the loose, wild backing on his first three solo albums, was, honestly, amazing, capable in his best moments of embodying, even only as an act, everything that the male rock star could be: fun, hurt, macho, sensitive, a little drunk, boorish, in love with the world around him even as he recognizes its capacity for pain, and with a voice that could ache simultaneously with fragility and whiskey.

Or, at the very least, he, with those others, made good records. Not perfect, not consistent, not particularly tight, but always spirited, always human, always blending so well the joy and hurt that the best rock and roll represents.

And that’s why it’s perfect rock criticism. And why Marcus can feel free to argue – as ridiculous and grandiose and self-important as the claim might be – that “Hot Legs,” “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” etc, represent not just an artist in decline, but a fundamental betrayal.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to claim, even implicitly, that there is such a thing as behavior traitorous to the founding principles of rock and roll, to the constitution of rock and roll, or that it might have been better, somehow, to keep making, ad infinitum, the same three or four records for the next thirty years, but that’s what’s so great about the best pop culture criticism: it elevates something fundamentally trivial and yet of such day-to-day importance into issues of living, national importance.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ipod Statistics

You know that "Play Count" column for your iPod? Out of curiosity, I sorted for it today, and here's my top three:

Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" -- 22 times. Jeebus.
The Smiths' "Please Let Me Get What I Want" -- 21 times.
The Persuasions' "I'm So Glad" -- 13 times.

Those are all Harper's fault, either from car trips or from times when he's felt like sitting on the couch with headphones on. Rounding out the top five -- with ten plays each -- are two songs with no relationship to Harper:

"My Baby Crying," by Bill Fox and "Birds," by Neil Young.

I feel okay about that.

But twenty-one plays for The Smiths. Jeebus. I'm not sure whether to be ashamed, or just happy that the song less than two minutes long.

What's interesting -- at least to me -- is that, with the exception of Harper's requests (and other examples of those, like James Brown's "I Got the Feelin," are scattered through the top twenty), these numbers are essentially the result of only using the iPod as a shuffling device. I rarely take the time to scroll and select an individual song. I might create and move randomly through playlists, or occasionally select an entire album, but, by and large, I simply let the shuffle do its work. (And maybe that is its own source of shame; I'm not sure).

So, "Birds" has shuffled up ten times and been listened to ten times. Go figure.

Al Green's version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" has seven plays, tying it with "Bugs Are Really Swell" (Harper) and "Rudie Can't Fail" (not-Harper).

On the flip side of the coin, Tom Waits' "Singapore" still, unfortunately, has zero plays. We'll remedy that on the way home today.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Still Catching Up

Way too much reading and listening to try to deal with after months away from this, but here are a few quick (I promise) thoughts:

Joe Henry's Civilians is brilliant. I've listened to it already much more than Scar or Tiny Voices.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had great moments. But a lousy ending (in the sense that it was both cheap and predictable).

Tree of Smoke is fantastic, but more in the abstract of its writing, its chaos, and its scope, than in the reality of its characters or coming to care about any of them.

Pinker's The Stuff of Thought was interesting. And it held together better than a lot of contemporary "accessible" science literature, most of which sets out a great introduction, a fascinating first chapter, and then a disheartening series of iterations and reiterations, each of less interest and relevance than the one before. Whatever that means.

George Saunders makes me laugh. And despite the weight of what he sometimes addresses, his style is light enough to make for acceptable three a.m. rocking a baby to sleep reading.

Thanks to Zach's recommendation, I read Cavell's Must We Mean What We Say, which was great. Especially in its discussion of films.

The Coen Brothers' adaptation of No Country for Old Men gets less impressive on repeated viewings. And it becomes more and more a betrayal of the heart of the text, too.

Six discs of Miles Davis On the Corner is overkill, but hearing the original album with more depth, if not more clarity, brings the fear in a way that the previous CD couldn't. Plus, if you buy the whole box, you get another excuse to listen to "He Loved Him Madly," which is one of the most brilliant (or at least entertaining) explorations of nothing happening quickly that I can think of. It's like "Once Upon a Time in the West." And just as Greg Lawson insisted that if you don't like that movie, then you don't like movies, I would argue that if you don't like that song, then you don't like music. Or not. Maybe "Gimme Shelter" is a better example of such a dichotomy.

And, having used the word dichotomy, I am forced to publish.

Maya Joyce

Right. In December, we went from a family of three to a full-scale, full-size, full-force family of four when we adopted Maya Joyce, born on November 2, and, as you can see, beautiful.

Harper says he loves her.

But, then, he does seem to time his loudest renditions of "I Walk the Line" or his loudest imitations of brachiosauri for when she has just fallen asleep.

Whither Goest Honky?

Some lessons of the last season and a half:

1. Never take an extra class. Sure, your department may offer one to you. Sure, it might help your colleagues to take it. Sure, overall class sizes will decrease. Sure, your district will probably pay you a little more. Sure, you might think you're man (or wo-) enough to handle it. Nonetheless, don't do it.

2. Never decide to try for National Board Certification in the same year that you take on an extra teaching responsibility. Sure, you can get through it, but only in the sense that you can get through a marathon without training, in the sense that you can survive just about anything. Surviving, of course, ain't living.

3. Never take an extra class and try for National Board Certification if there's any possibility that the number of children in your family might double during the year.

4. You can survive on very little sleep (and catch up 75 seconds at a time at stoplights, too), but, as I said, surviving ain't the same as living. Plus, going without sleep has removed the already-tenuously-attached filter from my mouth, allowing way too many things to be said that shouldn't be said. Not in class, anyway. (I'm proud, though, that earlier today I resisted the urge, when asked whether I considered myself a master of anything (in the context of higher education, for what it's worth), to reply that I'm actually pretty good at putting worms on hooks. To say nothing of crafting stupidly complicated sentences).

The next post shall address #3.