June 14, 2009

Shameless Revisionism: Requiem for a Music Geek

This week's Shameless Revisionism edition is dedicated to my semi-ill-fated attempts to begin writing about music again in 2008-09, from a supposedly "mature" and non-geeky perspective. That went right out the window immediately with the column's name, of course, but after a while it became much more fun to get back into the same old non-sensical babbling that so often consumed my other "official" music writing for my college paper, a local alt-weekly, and a U2 fansite. From there, it was only a few short hops to bizarre indulgences in short fiction set-pieces—which I have a long and sordid history with—and since I'm still wrapping up my first novel's first draft, that's not too illogical.

Anyway, like I said last week, all of these were fun to write—increasingly so—and they served a similar function to my undercooked political rants: warming up for writing the novel, and cooling down after. Not earth-shatteringly brilliant stuff, but good brain exercises to keep the skills sharp. Click on an entry's title to read the whole post.

It Began with a Book, and Died with a Film (Sep. 20, 2008)
With this first edition of "Music Geek" I tried to shoot the geek impulse in the heart, but I think I only ended up shooting myself in the foot. I tried to explain how the book and film versions of "High Fidelity" succeeded in shaming me into a post-geeky self-awareness, but in a mature way (my friend Mia likes to say that "if you can't geek out about at least one thing, your life is being wasted"). Like most of the other stuff I write, however, it became a great excuse for my wife to point and laugh at me. Naturally, she was right to do so—but then she's a Twilight geek herself. Takes one to know one.

The horrible realization was galvanized, as it had been so often before, with a novel. A sick, terribly brutal narrative that simultaneously blew apart my confidence and showed me the way back out of oblivious ignorance. It's a vile, simplistic, and treacly little story, but Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was a singularly destructive force when I first ingested it at 22. Naturally, it came far too late in the game; I'd been an incorrigible music nerd for as long as I could remember, foredoomed by genetics, gender, socio-economic class, environment, and every other possible predisposition for hopeless geekdom. Recovery was out of the question, even after a catalyst of that magnitude.
The Decline and Fall of Juvenile Idolatry (Nov. 12, 2008)
All great mental catharses have to begin with the tearing down of idols, so I knew I'd have to point the big guns at Sting sooner or later—an activity so commonplace that it's almost as uncool to do as actually being a Sting fan—but as a mature man of wealth and taste, that was a contradiction I could live with. It was no great feat to gather evidence, either—even a one-time Sting fan like me couldn't stomach anything the man's done since about 1993—so again, originality is not yet in massive supply. What's done is done.
[Sting's] probably not the best choice for someone like me to admit fandom for (even at some point in the distant past), but I believe one has to own up to one's personal moments of "meh," as well as larger successes and failures, so I must admit that Sting is the reason that I play a Fender Jazz bass today. He's also a contributing factor to me being a lyricist and playing in a band—and why I sometimes find it difficult to just stand back by the drummer and shut the fuck up, and why I've acquired an occasionally marvelous ability to be a self-centered, pretentious asshole—but so many other people, famous or otherwise, have reinforced that sort of behavior, so Sting can't take all the blame for it. Even so, Sting is also the reason that I wear pea coats, the reason that Nick Clemente once smacked me stupid in a movie theater (more on that later), and why Bill Fedderson nearly despaired of ever seeing eye to eye with me musically. Now, that doesn't mean I still don't enjoy every Police album—and, to skate on thin ice, three of Sting's solo discs—but that has more to do with childhood nostalgia than anything else, and as you all know, I'm always a pathetic sucker for that stuff.
Slouching Towards Sonic Domesticity (Nov. 24, 2008)
Elbow and Wilco have become sort of my Twin Pillars of Suburban Adulthood Salad Day-dom, so for this one I felt the need to blather about how much I like them and how I (really, truly, honestly!) don't care how uncool that might make me. It's nothing that someone like Chuck Klosterman hasn't already written about, say, Billy Joel or KISS or whatever—but since these columns are all about confronting and accepting the Geek Within, I figured I should take on that responsibility no matter where it led me.
For nearly fifty years now, "domesticity" has always meant the opposite of "rock." The mellow sounds of '70s singer-songwriters soothed the transatlantic sonic savagery of the '60s; the album-oriented radio and slick Philly soul of the Carter-Thatcher-Reagan era blunted the triple threat of reggae/ska, punk and hip-hop; and the fiendishly wretched "Adult Album Alternative" radio format of the mid-'90s cut off the spasms of alt-rock right as it hit the mainstream. By the turn of the 21st century, rock had become the new jazz—a niche genre of music meant for listening, not dancing; a squalid vacuum of insular sniping and revisionist desperation.
Silver-Tongued, Sharp-Toothed Snow Leopards (Jan. 31, 2009)
This one grew out of an impulse to write about the lyricists that inspired me to write my own songs, and the ones with whom I identify the most. It soon degenerated into my same-old, same-old hyperbolic fanboy rantings, however, so its permanent value is a little dubious. Which is nevertheless appropriate when placed in context, but still...
There's a certain style of pop-rock songwriting and lyricism that I've always been attracted to: the deft, acerbic expression of power that rears its sneering visage into view via two or three talented people per decade. The best singer/songwriters who work that way, of course, have never confined themselves to such a one-dimensional, silly caricature like that, but you know when you listen to their stuff that it might go sideways on you at any time—because once someone gets to the point where easily using and abusing such a frequently fucked-up language like English is second nature (let alone setting their screeds to music), they're not gonna be a dull waste of time. That such people can survive professionally and creatively on down through decades of shit-stupid pop music is no mean feat, either—but since there are so many of them (really, it's true), for now I think I'll just stick to my three main fountains of inspiration (plus one literal contemporary): Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, David Lowery, and Jenny Lewis.
The Soothing Sounds of Regression Therapy (Feb. 10, 2009)
Writing a novel that's so steeped in personal nostalgia has made it tough to be a subjective music fan. I like to listen to music when I write, but for this particular fiction project I've been highly dependent on either instrumental stuff (Mermen, Tortoise, etc), contemporaneous albums (mid-90s alt-rock), or more recent albums by younger musicians that are my relative contemporaries. These latter types found themselves on the blunt business end of my goofy prose in this particular Music Geek column, and, well...that's about it.
The more I re-read historian Peter Green, the more I think I might have some freaky-deeky past life in the Hellenistic Age. According to Green, that society was basically a three-hundred-year afterbirth of Alexander the Great's transcontinental military stompilation—a mass of neurotic and egomaniacal inadequates, constantly obsessed with analyzing and anthologizing their civilization's glorious past. Now, connecting that with my own less-than-latent self-absorption might seem a stretch, unless of course you have the occasion to, say, speak with any of my ex-girlfriends—who will undoubtedly be happy to regale you with horror stories of my near-psychotic ability to "dwell on the past," "take things too personally," and "never ever get over anything." My father might also have similar insights on this, too—but the point is the same: like many humans, I am congenitally vulnerable to the icy grip of nostalgia, and it works on my psyche in weird and warped ways. Naturally, as a lily-white rock music geek I have all sorts of sonic triggers for said nostalgic impulses, and thankfully I was able to notice and harness them as their frequency increased considerably when I passed my thirtieth birthday—which isn't really that different from what happens to many other people at this age, but so what?
A Serious Case of the Teenage Retro Virus (Apr. 5, 2009)
So initially I tried to make this one a straight take on my high school retro-Sixties phase, but that didn't work out so well—it didn't capture the true zaniness of the ride I ended up on with my friends Jon, Nick, and Kevin. A second pass at it, as half-assed fictional gonzo, luckily got a little closer to the mark:
It would appear that our patient's biggest single retroviral rock binge occurred in the year spanning March 1994 to March 1995—a period ending immediately after a certain phenomenon known as "Air Guitar"—and evidently Mr. DuBois was not alone in his behavior. His enablers are three in number, and their names are listed in the file as Jon Green, Nick Clemente, and Kevin Hessel. Their controlled substances of choice were many, but five in particular showed up most often in the contemporaneous toxicology report: the Beatles' "Past Masters II," Creedence's "Chronicle," Van Morrison's "Best Of," Jimi Hendrix's "Ultimate Experience," and the Rolling Stones' "Hot Rocks." Keep in mind, students, that everyone their age was at this time supposed to enjoy flannelly grunge or gin-and-juice G-funk. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but these boys wanted something a little more fermented, shall we say.
Blockbuster Albums and Happenin' Tunes (May 5, 2009)
Despite all my best efforts in these columns, though, I couldn't really ever escape my worst vices of geekdom. Two specific music-geeky habits I steadfastly refuse to renounce are 1) choosing an "album of the year" that I played the hell out of in a given twelve-month period (i.e. July to June), and 2) compiling a "best-of" of that same year, filled with songs from the albums I liked best. That doesn't really make for compelling copy, of course, so I went the fiction route again and sort of personalized all my inner monologues. Preposterously, it worked!
The first day of middle management began as a tough one for Russel S. O'Deen. His usual can-do, eager attitude had just been dealt a nasty blow, and as he raced upstairs to report to his superiors—like a good useless drone should—a foul idea began to percolate through his young brain, and he hoped that he hadn't stumbled on a fatal error that would bring down the entire glorious enterprise of Farm G, the music industry conglomerate to which he was enthusiastically employed. He quietly prayed to Elvis in case anyone decided to fire him today. O'Deen barely paused on the fifth-floor landing before barging into the executive suite, pushing through a power-trio of secretaries (all of whom had drunkenly shot him down at the last Christmas party) to the inner sanctum of presidential offices. He tried to compose himself, knocking briskly on the door of CEO Reg Defahi. "Sir, sir—I'm sorry to interrupt, sir—this is O'Deen from Logistics, and I need to speak to you right away!" He jerked back as one assistant wrapped her tentacles around his ankles and pulled mercilessly. "Sir, please, it's urgent!" O'Deen yelped.
For whatever reason, after that last one it was difficult to keep the Music Geek columns coming, but maybe when the novel's done I'll be able to jump back into them. Well...only if they can avoid the worst excesses of unabashed fanboy-ism—which may or may not be likely from someone like me. We shall see. Anyway, next week's edition of SR will be the first of two that continue (for good or ill) to monitor my ongoing political rant output. Amazingly, some of them are actually good this time—or at least redeemable. Tune in next week to keep me honest.

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