Sunday, January 13, 2013

Friends With (Creative) Benefits: Ira, David, Me, Rock and the Writing of Our Time

It is a rare but happy thing to have a childhood friend with whom you not only remain in touch but still share enough personal connections to keep those early bonds from getting stale. I am fortunate to have two such people in my life - perhaps more, but two who have inspired me to write some thoughts down. Although these two friends of mine have never met, to my knowledge, I share with both of them a special relationship through two paths: rock music, and the written word.

One of them, Ira Robbins, I have know since we attended the same Brooklyn elementary school; we listened to the Beatles together in the auditorium when their first U.S. singles were released, and Ira played some of Bob Dylan's earliest songs for me in his living room. I met David Komoroff when my family moved to Manhattan; he was just slightly older than me, enough to be a major influence in my still developing appreciation for rock music. He introduced me to Jefferson Airplane, some early Stones albums, and Tommy, among many other glories of 1960's rock and roll. While at Stuyvesant High School he led me to my first rock concert - at Carnegie Hall, to see a group called Seatrain, in 1970. About a year later he insisted that we attend a concert at the Filmore East before it closed, where the highlight was a fairly new band called Mott the Hoople.

Ira went on to found the Trouser Press, through which he played a leading role in bringing awareness of the punk and New Wave movements to U.S. rock fans. I wasn't in touch with Ira then - in fact, I discovered his involvement in the early 1980's as I was standing in an Upper West Side bookstore thumbing through a thick Trouser Press record guide, and noticed the name of the editor. This was of some interest to me, since I was at that time playing in a rock band that performed at CBGB's during what was more or less the heydey of the punk era. Ira had also been in a band, and also lived at some point on the Upper West Side, but it was still many years before we would reconnect. Meanwhile, I had also been a journalist, intermittently, even writing the occasional music or film review for small political rags. Later on I spoke at conferences on the philosophical analysis of rock music (and still do this sordid kind of thing). We were leading sort of parallel lives that more or less began with trading baseball cards on a Brooklyn street corner, playing punchball and listening to "She Loves You" on a transistor radio.

When we got back in touch many years later we found that we both once again lived in Brooklyn, that we were both still deeply interested in rock music, and both also making efforts at writing fiction. That has been more than enough to keep us from blowing apart like leaves in the wind again.

David chose a quieter life, having moved many years ago to a small town in upstate New York. We rarely see each other, but from snail mail to email to Facebook we have never been out of touch for too long. David is also the main reason I make a living today as a computer professional: after I became more or less convinced that my rock band would not be the next Beatles, and indeed was not obviously on a path to making me financially self-sustaining as a musician, I looked around for an actual profession. (I was pulling in a small income as a bicycle messenger, which never really struck me as a career for some reason.) David had gone into computer programming, and after a visit to his office and some heart to heart talks I decided to pursue it too. He retired long ago; I'm still at it, for better or worse.

I don't really know David's tastes in music these days, but Ira's are on public view in the online version of the Trouser Press, as well as in his numerous other published writings, and for me in "personal communications", as human contact is euphemistically referred to in footnotes to philosophical papers. What attracted my attention recently - and partly prompted me to write this post - is his recent piece for Salon.Com. Taking a long look at his own history as a rock fan and a record reviewer, the history of Trouser Press and its decline as a print magazine, and the state of music criticism, he defends the position that "record reviews are now brief, upbeat and simple: download these songs, they’re good." By contrast, he brings back some of the more hypercritical views he voiced over the years about bands that rated high on the trendiness scale, and refuses to apologize for most of them. Right on, I say: these days there is always someone (indeed, an entire chorus of someones) ready to tout the aesthetic virtues of anything that does not stink to high heaven of incompetence or banality. Critical opinion in the era of online communication has a snowball effect, to the point where truly independent judgment is difficult at best. A critic who dissed the latest Frank Ocean or Passion Pit album might not lose his job, but he would lose respect because one critic after another lauded it in the kind of capsule reviews you find on Pitchfork and many other sites.

The same applies across the mass arts. Case in point: I just saw Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's latest effort at the socially conscious art film. "103 Academy Awards Minimum!", "One of the Year's .213 Best!", "Daniel Day-Lewis Is the Greatest Actor Since Richard Burton!" shout the critics (or some closely related pap). My reaction: a dubious portrait of a President who always speaks in a grandfatherly voice while presiding over the bloodiest war in history; Spielberg's usual faux-dramatic dialogue with the kind of packaged emotions that worked okay for the story of a stranded alien trying to phone home, but not so great for a beleaguered President trying to make history; modern slang mixed with 19th c. cliches; irrelevant subplots (what happened to the older son anyway?), an otiose epilogue (it was a year after the Senate adopted the 13th Amendment that Lincoln was murdered) etc. etc. Screw critical conformance. Most popular art today is intellectually insulting commercial crap, and even a lot of what isn't is just not artistically successful, however well-intentioned it might be.

Thus, when I see Ira reminding us how little moved he is by the Foo Fighters, a group whose recent album Wasting Light was a kind of cause celebre among critics, or by Sting's solo efforts, and a number of other iconoclastic positions he has taken, I am happy that someone has the guts to say these things so that I don't feel completely alone in the world. Indeed, I only regret seeing him partially back off some of his earlier apostasies: Patti smith's Horses is still unlistenable, IMHO; Television's Marquee Moon has one good song; the Ramones, who Ira, the apostle of punk rock, confesses he initially viewed as "a travesty", were exactly that - they just turned out to be a rather lovable, productive and influential travesty. (For updated 50's-style rock and roll I'll take the B-52's over the Ramones any day.) Okay, I'm a bitch - even punk is not sacred. I'm not sure Ira thinks it is either; he has too much integrity to give anything a pass because it's punk. I also have to admit that I never saw any of those groups live. Maybe I'd be kinder if I had.

One of Ira's main points is that many critics today seem to have barely brushed up on a band's Wikipedia entry before they mouth off about its virtues. (My way of putting it, not his.) It was one of the trademarks of Trouser Press in its day to do obsessive amounts of research about a band before writing it up (or down), and that was before Google was even a sci-fi fantasy, when it was widely accepted that a research library was a valuable asset for civilization. I like this line of thought, but I want to add a caveat: it is certainly possible for a critic to be so intimately familiar with his subject as to leave his audience without a clue what he's talking about. This is why I stopped paying attention to reviews in the Village Voice about 30 years ago - smug verbal masturbation with elusive references to obscure, fly-by-night bands that only 12 people in the world would conceivably recognize. Trouser Press reviews show considerable knowledge about the bands that are reviewed, but the references are generally within the realm of known or available rock history.

It is a little too much to ask that two friends, apart for long intervals over much of a lifetime, rediscover each other with exactly the same musical tastes after five decades of rock music, each with its own character. "Regrets, I have a few" says Ira - no doubt a nod to the famous Sid Vicious hit "My Way" (think I'm kidding?). Well, he might have one or two more regrets if I had my way. For instance, this bit of invective about The Fixx, one of my favorite bands of the 80's, where in 3 short paragraphs Ira describes them as  a "pretentious synth-heavy atmospheric English dance band" ("dance band"?) whose songs are "irritating", "trivial", "wretched", "mundane", "unpleasant" and lacking in imagination. What I miss here is some criteria that might make these judgments more than mere epithets. To take one that has perhaps the greatest appearance of plausibility, a "pretentious" band is one that pretends they have ideas worthy of your attention when they really don't (Rush and Radiohead spring to mind) whereas to me, reading and repeating the lyrics of The Fixx is well worth the effort. (Phantoms, as I have written elsewhere, is a brilliant musical exploration of the concepts of place and personal identity.) Maybe Ira is in touch with another dimension of listening that I'm not - he has, after all, a vastly wider and more intimate knowledge of rock music than I do. All I know is that I can no more think of The Fixx as a "dance band" than, say, the Psychedelic Furs, or Pink Floyd for that matter, and though I will admit that I find a very small number of their songs "irritating", most of their material is deeply satisfying and creative.

Or take this sweeping assessment of Grand Funk and their significance: "the band that killed rock 'n' roll", as Ira sees it. I have to admit, I can't stand 90% of their output. On the other hand, Ira reminds us that "lots of terrible albums have been made by wonderful people", and it's equally true that some of the greatest albums have been made by bands that were generally terrible - they found their groove, so to speak, and lost it quickly. Grand Funk's Closer to Home is high on that list for me, a spark of genius, sandwiched between a lot of really forgettable junk. (Okay, this is weird but... it was a former girlfriend of David's who first made me appreciate this album. Lack of critical distance? Perhaps.) Here I admit to being the odd man out, while Ira elaborates the standard critical opinion (as in this sympatico profile): even on that album, the band was incompetent, unoriginal and tasteless. For me, 6 out of 8 songs on the album are keepers, the other two being innocuous pseudo-soul ballads. And I could not name a song that any of those six clearly imitate. For me, the critical attitude means not only seeing the soft belly beneath the shell of popularity, but occasionally allowing that there's a lonely pearl in it.

The idea that Grand Funk were significant or influential enough to singlehandedly put an end to the Sixties is also farther than I can go. In those days there were a slew of culprits over a few short years - the James Gang, Black Sabbath, Savoy Brown, Deep Purple, and if you weren't feeling particularly generous, Iron Butterfly and Mountain to boot - soon to be followed by Bad Company and such lesser lights as Montrose, Golden Earing and Foghat - who jointly conspired to usher out acid rock and promote a sound that around 1975 began to emerge as heavy metal. There were other culprits as well, regarding the death of Sixties rock - think of Chicago taking over the jazz-rock mantle from bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears and The Soft Machine; the devolution of Fleetwood Mac from the Peter Green blues-rock band to the Buckingham/Nicks pop band; and the conversion of Motown from a vital, relevant sound to a dry disco formula. Similarly, at the end of the Seventies there was a short list - okay, a rather long list - of bands that collectively killed what was good and innovative in progressive rock and turned it into a radio-happy pop sound - think Journey, Toto, Rush, Styx, Kansas, Steve Miller, and Gary Wright, for starters. I think it takes an army to put an end to an era of musical expression, and Grand Funk were at most a highly visible unit.

Aside from that, I really wonder about the characterization of Grand Funk's musicianship as "garage-bred ineptitude" and the way Ira ties it to their working-class origin. For he does draw attention to the striking similarity of this characterization to a fair description of the origins of punk rock. What distinguishes them, he says, is Grand Funk's lack of originality. But if they were not original, I don't understand how they could have played such an outstanding role in overthrowing an era of music. A gang of imitators can't overthrow what came before them, even by doing it badly. Ira also chides them for a late-to-the-game effort at anti-war heroics. Not quite so - Closer to Home, released in the second year of their existence, already has the standard odes to revolution, freedom, love and togetherness that one would have expected in those days. Mark Farner eventually descended into a flag-waving boor, but so what - no one writes off Neil Young's or Arlo Guthrie's early work just because they tilted right later on.

Sometimes Ira's views make me wonder about the very nature of music criticism. For when he says that he doesn't think Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is even a good album, and that he thinks Abbey Road is an even worse one, I want to scream, "But this is the standard by which other albums are judged!" Then I think of Wittgenstein, a philosopher I have studied fairly closely, who says that the one thing of which we cannot say that it either is, or is not, a meter long is the standard 1-meter bar in Paris, which defines the length of a meter. And this is obviously not true of Sgt. Pepper: for although it is probably the single most universally admired piece of recorded rock music, it is certainly not logically impossible to agree or disagree with that judgment. So I guess I should thank Ira for reminding me once again that consensus is not truth and emotional attachment is the opposite of critical objectivity. Be that as it may, to get me to believe that Sgt. Pepper is not at least one of the greatest albums of all time you would probably have to hire Christopher Nolan and the entire Inception team to screw around with my brain.

The inevitable musical differences aside, when Ira rattles off a phrase like "...the schoolyard syllogisms of the 2012 election", which he does with rather frightening consistency in both musical and political contexts, I start wishing that he would publish a Little Red Book of his best lines that I can carry around with me and read when I need to remind myself what contemporary writing should look like.


Speaking of which, Ira's 2009 novel Kick It Till It Breaks is a damn good read and another reason to keep an ear out for him. David has also been a literary type as long as I've known him, and had more of a flair for writing than I did early on. A few days ago, Ira and David had a psychic confluence that I suppose I alone would have noticed: they both posted comments in response to a piece in the NY Times Magazine about the writer George Saunders. "The writer for our time", according to the writer for the Times, Joel Lovell. WTF? Ira and Dave wanted know. How did I end up with a writer for my damn time whom I've never even heard of? Personally I had almost the same reaction - actually, the very same, until a bit of free association led me in another direction.

Almost a year ago I decided that as an aspiring writer I needed to subscribe to The New Yorker, knowing full well that I wouldn't have time to read even half the issues. So I did, and I haven't had time to read even a quarter of the issues. Generally I skim the concert listings, look quickly at the cartoons, check out the poetry (ugh... Ashberry again... talk about inscrutable), see if there are any absolutely essential journalistic pieces (hopefully not, since they tend to be even longer than my blog posts), and finally, lay into the short story. This way I have managed to get through maybe ten or twelve stories. Very few of them made much of an impression as I was reading them, and even fewer stayed with me for more than a day after I'd finished. In fact, exactly one did - a very bizarre tale about a young boy and an old man who do something like exchange tragic courses of life on a winter's day. (I mean literally exchange them, not talk about them.) I wasn't sure if I liked it, and certainly could not imagine what sort of mind could have come up with it. I noted the name of the author briefly, and forgot it soon afterward.

On reading a few paragraphs of the Lovell piece I said to myself, "I'll bet that story about the boy and the old man at the lake was by this Saunders dude." Yes it was. I will not jump on the Times bandwagon about this - the bandwagon that has only recently gotten through inflating Updike after his death into a literary titan, then beating the drums over David Mitchell's latest effort, then rolling the Franzen juggernaut down a hill, and the like. But I will say this: if there is a "writer for our time" it will have to be a writer whose ideas are as complex, tormented, tragic and exuberant as our time, all at once. No other short stories since those of Paul Bowles have struck me as having this kind of depth. I feel that Saunders has some deep grasp of the tragic sense of life, and the particularly ridiculous twist that a system driven by technology and finance capital can give to that situation, as well as an idea (which I dare to claim runs through some of my own attempts at fiction) that love and humor are our only hope for maintaining a semblance of sanity.

I will almost certainly be picking up Saunders' latest story collection, Tenth of December. I will almost certainly be picking up a copy of his friend David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest too. I will almost certainly be reading all this stuff as soon as I get through Ulysses. Don't hold your breath waiting for my review. For those who want to know Saunders a little better though, The Paris Review web site has just published the autobiographical Preface to a new edition of his earlier short story collection; it is quite an inspiring read for an aspiring writer. And one of the Times blogs has an interview with Lovell that sheds a little more light on Saunders.

Well, that's enough blogging for now. Back to Ulysses, Led Zeppelin and other things that keep me from the madhouse. Back to rocking the boat, writing on rock, writing in my rocker and rocking with my typewriter. And to hoping I'll always have good buddies who will prod me with their poignant posts when I get lazy, and challenge my tastes when they start to ossify. Scratch that; my tastes in music and literature already resemble a petrified forest. Which means someone can kick them as hard as they want and do no damage. We can still be great friends.