Tuesday, March 14, 2017

LYRIC CRITIQUE




When I think back on different regions of time, it becomes a task to differentiate each in terms of the “standard feeling,” “the overall dimension,” “the primary cadence,” “the leading mood.” I don’t know what should be the exact phrase because I’m not sure exactly what I mean. The easy assumption is that what I am aiming to differentiate is primarily biological, that it has to do with “age”—but what, precisely, is age? If I could answer that—a tendency, a consciousness, a feeling, an appetite, an affection, a supposition, an awareness—then I might get closer to what I mean. I know that the limited perspective that shapes “a time” exists “for a time”—that’s perhaps a tautology except that the difference between the two uses of the phrase “a time” is at stake. “A time” is une durée—a period, which might be suggestible by received ideas, such as “adolescence,” “maturity,”—but such “times” have no force of lived character; they are empty formulas. “A time” is some wrinkle in the surface, some grasp of a space between two whiles, maybe a before and an after. A way of saying that “the time” of first understanding emotional life as inflected by Shakespeare exists for a certain period in youth and no matter how many times “Shakespeare” is returned to, or re-encountered, in later life, the “time” of Shakespeare dates from, and takes impetus from, those first encounters.

To follow that sense of “a time”—the time of first love, for instance—and for “a time”—the time of the space between high school and something like adulthood, the “time” of some months in 1978, for me. Bearing in mind that to elicit that “time” requires attention to what was present in the world at that time. To my thinking, which has never been particularly concerned with the particulars of “the times,” with the fashions and the fads and the “best of” the year, “a time” takes its form from how it is shaped by the passing show. Thus no slavish sense of what was popular or immediately recognizable, but still some sense—which should become more crucial as time passes—of what was inescapable, what was necessary. The point, in selecting cultural markers, is to make them speak to each other and to one’s personal “time,” not simply in the generic tones of the culture at large. We are dealing with episodes, events, “acts” which, as with theater, must be staged with a certain setting. For each moment, its necessary dramaturgy.

I do have a tendency to think in decades, to look for tendencies that are observable for “a time” –roughly 5-10 year increments. But to make more of the lived characters of such “events,” the duration is shorter, more focused. So rather than give in to my “spanning” nature (always useful for a critic), I have to concentrate on more discrete increments. The building blocks of the psyche. So, in each case, fidelity to the “event” puts it in a time for “a time.” It’s not about retrospect, ultimately, I’m just realizing, and this is key. It’s not about shaping this “me,” this speaker, by means of what has gone to build it, an edifice of the self. It’s more a question of isolating moments that would be isolated, that must be acknowledged, analyzed, unfolded, unpacked, explicated, as being moments in the “before and after and during.” At such “a time” it was necessary to feel or see according to x. At such a time, that became the causal basis of what must follow, at least “for a time.” The dialogue between moments or acts, then, is the all-in-all. It’s not to arrive at denouement but to remain “in dialogue,” and, at times,  “in camera.” To remain in place, in a time, for all time.

This, if achieved, is something other than “a history” or “an autobiography.” It is an auto-critique, perhaps, or a lyric critique. But why waste time labeling it? The object is not more attainable for being named. The requirement is a conception, is conceiving a perception, a point of view as a position arrived at via time, not static and determinate, but shaped by the pressures of memory and reflection. “Lyric critique,” though, because the process of articulation is not explanatory but evocative, not a telling but a rendering, an inhabiting, a display. Yes, a composition, as in a tableau or scene. Playing live, like a lecture. A reading.

(3/7/16)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

READING RAYMOND WILLIAMS



“And so a mood is created in which all decisions seem inevitable and in which people speaking of different solutions seem remote and impractical. It is a mood of submission, under the pressures of an effectively occupying power.”

Thus Raymond Williams, writing in 1960 in “Advertising: the Magic System.” The “occupying power” is advertising, particularly the role that advertising’s appeal has begun to play in TV land and, by extension, in politics. It’s 1960, the year that historians often point to as the moment that television affected the outcome of a presidential election, with the televised debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Williams doesn’t refer to that, but the timeliness of what he’s saying gains force through the confluence of moments. Williams sees that, in time, all will submit to advertising, and he sees that submission as giving up a certain kind of liberalism. Mainly, the liberalism of public policy, of public control of important institutions of social life. The almighty buck is having its way and that bodes ill for democracy, to say nothing of any political agency formed of those with nothing—neither money nor status nor influence. Corporate interests determine what we see and what gets said.

Williams writes of the “social failure to find means of public information and decision over a wide range of everyday economic life,” a failure that results from “allowing control of the means of production and distribution to remain in minority hands.” In our terms, it’s about privatization, and its effects are already clear to him: “political parties considering how to sell themselves to the electorate, to create a favourable brand image; education being primarily organized in terms of a graded supply of labour; culture being organized and even evaluated in terms of commercial profit.” 


This is the world I was born into—in 1960—and it’s worth traveling back in time with Williams to see, in the Trumped times we live in, how the tendency was already more than apparent. He points to the “evident fact, in the years we are living through” of the “emergence and elaboration of a social and cultural form—advertising—which responds to the gap between expectation and control by a kind of organized fantasy.” Those years are the years depicted in the popular TV show Mad Men, when the logic of advertising, as Williams sees, begins to dominate other cultural forms, like art, and to supplant them.

And, reading Williams now, it’s not really possible to overlook the extent to which government has become “organized fantasy” predicated on the control of information in a way that advertising pioneered. Advertising, like just about everything Trump (and many other politicians) says, is lies. But we live with the lies of advertising as simply the price of letting those vested corporate interests, with their incessant ads, bring us the mindless entertainment we seek. And there’s not much disjunction between the false claims of ads for detergent and the false claims of ads for campaigners. This was evident in the Sixties and became more and more so, till, in the Eighties, the Reagan presidency was nothing if not a scripted show, as far as the networks were concerned.

I found myself reading Williams not simply to remind myself of why it was nearly impossible to have any sense of art in the times of my childhood—TV, movies, comic books, pop music, yes, art, no—and why I have long abhorred commercial TV, but to find some sense of an alternative to consumerism and commodity culture. Certainly, he glances at the ubiquity of the latter: “Since consumption is within its limits a satisfactory activity, it can be plausibly offered as a commanding social purpose. At the same time, its ambiguity is such that it ratifies the subjection of society to the operations of the existing economic system.” And all effort is aimed at maintaining the existing economic system by those whom it benefits. Our participation is to consume and to mimic the satisfaction that hired actors display in using “the only available choices.”

Which brings me to what I’m trying to get a handle on, for my own purposes. And that’s the question of how one makes use of those social elements Williams calls “formations” and “structures of feeling” to arrive elsewhere, intellectually, creatively—politically? Perhaps we can’t go so far. One has not dropped out, however much one might feel oppositional. Though the trajectory I want to delineate, based on certain objects of “consumption” (if one must so term it), promotes a kind of self-formation that, as Williams stresses again and again, is social—deriving from the subject’s economic status, education, location, period, race, gender, and inherent biases—but is also “aesthetic,” as in: based in perceptions derived from exposure to certain fields of creative endeavor that open up possibilities not generally acknowledged by the utilitarian and egalitarian aspects of the culture at the time. In fact, certain social and professional satisfactions are definitely foreclosed, but not imaginative satisfactions. And that becomes the point of poetry, of writing that has no aim other than to be a record of a process, or rather let’s say of “a music.”

“Practical consciousness is almost always different from official consciousness, and this is not only a matter of relative freedom or control. For practical consciousness is what is actually being lived, and not only what it is thought is being lived. Yet the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms is not silence: not the absence, the unconscious, which bourgeois culture has mythicized. It is a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange. Its relations with the already articulate and defined are than exceptionally complex.”

He goes on to say that “no generation speaks quite the same language as its predecessors.” The point being, for my purposes, that “writing” and “reading”—which means sometimes (often) “not writing” as well—is “a matter of relative freedom or control,” and that it is “alternative” to what is “received and produced” (and sold for consumption), and, while I don’t necessarily endorse “embryonic” as any kind of useful metaphor in this case, is, at least in theory, on its way to “fully articulate and defined exchange.” What is always wanting, however, is the social and material occasions for that exchange. For the notion that there is still an intelligentsia—such as I would recognize its merits—is largely defeated by the Eighties, when I come of age. Williams is looking askance at what the Seventies will be (the afterword of the advertising essay dates from 1969), but lord-a-mercy in the Eighties.

And yet, as I’m trying to see now, the occasions for those complex relations from the Sixties to the Eighties—the period of “formations”—may well be worth articulating. To say nothing of the ensuing periods in which—well beyond anything that could be called “embryonic”—I still find myself at variance with the social and material habitus that would make my “useless and pointless knowledge” an economic asset. So reading Williams—Culture and Materialism (1980) and Marxism and Literature (1977)—not only illuminates the moment of my starting out through the views of a canny critic of the capitalist status quo, but adds ammunition to a deep dissatisfaction with “literary studies” as having any kind of purpose, other than antiquated, and with “the literary” in general, as a failure of the schoolmen. In other words, Williams takes me back to the ways in which those terms—as cultural markers—were already beside the point. And that helps me to see how the assumptions of commodity culture were there from the start, even if only as the primary antagonist. That agon, I’m afraid, is the defining one, after all.

I heard the Sermon on the Mount
And I knew it was too complex
It didn’t amount to anything more
Than what a bit of broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew
You got to pay the penalty
Somebody’s got to tell the tale
I guess it must be up to me.
--Bob Dylan, “Up to Me” (1974)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

READING ROCK STARS



Late last year I got into reading rock star memoirs. It started with Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, back around Thanksgiving, which I’d had on my shelf awhile, and then continued through Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, in early December, and Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, which I got for Christmas.

The main thing this trio of personal stories did (besides giving me some insight into the character of each of these songwriters—songwriters that each made a big impression on me before we all got out of the 1970s) was point up how privileged the rock star lifestyle is and how, to a certain telling extent, success doesn’t change anything. Granted, if any of the three had not been a success I wouldn’t be reading their books, and if any had been a mere flash in the pan—like, if their influence stopped with the 1970s, say—than it’s not so sure I’d be reading them either, unless I just wanted to go back to that heyday for purposes of jogging my own memory. (Which, by the way, was probably the biggest effect of reading these three worthies.) But, to further expound on the point about success: it made them “who they are,” so that I care, but they each maintained some quality they already had even before they made it. Which was a way of noticing that one reason all three mattered to me is that I believed in them, when I first encountered their music, and, though in each case there were later periods when I cared about their releases not much at all, I still feel tied to, even rooted by, the music of theirs that got through to me first.

And the other thing all three books have in common, on that score: None of the three talk very much about their songs or songwriting. I don’t mean the technical side of what went into the song—the guitar tuning or the chord sequence, and so on—but rather its intention as a song. Springsteen is the best of the three at that, but that’s true mostly of the more autobiographical songs that help him to talk about himself, which is the point of the memoir, mostly. In each case, it’s interesting to see how a musical artist’s career looks through his own eyes. But these books aren’t going to give you much insight into how writing certain songs at certain times clarified anything for these writers.

It’s not a complaint so much as an observation. What matters to me, as I’ve tried to show with the Song of the Day posts, is how songs become part of the listener’s psychic life. My assumption that songs, for the songwriter, were already a necessary part of the songwriter’s psychic life might be naïve, but I don’t think that’s the problem. It’s not that the songs aren’t a part of the songwriter’s psychic life, it’s that they are to such an extent that any of the three would have to be a much better writer of prose to get at that. It’s much easier to write about the surface phenomena—how you get along with band mates, the influence of collaborators on the final product, the memorable experiences with family and friends and lovers, the bad judgments, the mea culpa moments, the struggles with the career valleys, the effect of the commercial side of all this—than with the “so, you’re alone with a notebook and a guitar” moments.

As a person, Townshend is the least likeable, no surprise. He knows he’s kind of an arrogant prick, but, so what, he’s Peter Townshend, and in the big book of rock, The Who matter—then, now, and for all time. I guess the thing I learned that interested me most was how much the group was Roger Daltrey’s. It was Daltrey’s first—he’s the front man after all—and Pete was invited to join. So, much of what The Who were had to be agreed upon by Roger and John Entwhistle, the bass player, who was also in the band before Pete was. Because Pete wrote mostly all the material and was lead guitar, I always looked upon him as the leader, and because I’m biased toward writers. And I blamed him when The Who’s product became sub par, especially when he did such a great solo album, Empty Glass, while the concurrent Who album was middling. But that’s not entirely his fault. Roger’s an ass too, y’see. And Pete has had to do a lot of coping with what The Who fan base expects of the band and what the band is comfortable with doing. But then again I don't care that much about what he has done since The Who’s heyday and the Broadway version of Tommy was kind of a sell-out of what the album required, so that, of all its various incarnations, seeing The Who perform it was still closest to what it was—Ken "Excess" Russell's kitschy film version notwithstanding.

Neil is the most likeable, and that’s mainly because his prose style is so disarming. It’s like hanging out with him and getting to know him. It’s almost off-hand at times, and yet he does, in non-chronological fashion, cover most of the albums and events you expect to hear about. It’s a long, varied career and, for me, his comments kept bringing back to mind how much his music has mattered to me over the years and for many years. More than the others, he revived himself in the 1990s to an almost unprecedented extent. Of the three, only Springsteen experienced a great career upsurge in the 1980s, but he still didn’t keep my interest to quite the same degree thereafter. The other two really lost ground with me in that decade, though Young less than Townshend/The Who. But then Neil came on strong in the 90s and made it his decade. No one of a similar degree of longevity was even remotely comparable. And that matters. And Neil has gone on with some really good albums and some just so-so ones and some pretty off-hand ones into the current dearth of rock relevance. He’s a maverick, and his approach seems to be much like his personality, doing what interests him at the moment.

Springsteen’s memoir is probably the most lucid. It’s a great performance by a guy who has worked hard to develop his persona—what they like to call now “his brand.” Bruce Springsteen, as an entity, has a lot of associative affect. And that’s why I was so pleased by the amount of time he spent with his early days, before there was any “Brucers”—or Bruce fans—in the world. His long struggle to make a decent living from playing music may be familiar ground—having known, here and there, people from the same basic geographical area trying their hand at it—but I didn’t know much about it in his particular case. What his experience creates is a certain enduring humility—even after Born to Run he had to work hard just to stay financially solvent to say nothing of having to “top” it or at least not fail it too badly—and, with the huge success in the mid-Eighties, a certain wry sense of how fortuitous such success can be. It made him, yes, but he was already who he was. And he’s the kind of guy who, once he’s got the attention, can handle it but who also tries to make it useful.

All three, in that regard, have conscience about how their success brings responsibility. Maybe it’s because his greatest success came by being a band member that Townshend seems the one least concerned with giving credit to others. Springsteen and Young are both very interesting, and completely sincere, when they give credit and when they sometimes take to task the ways things didn’t go the way they could’ve. Young, not surprisingly, given his many great songs, seems to have the deepest self-knowledge, even if he’s quite willing to concede that he doesn’t really understand himself fully, at least at this point when he’s becoming an old fart. Townshend seems to have the least self-knowledge, but I think that’s more a case of not delving into much for the purposes of his narrative. There’s a rather passive sense in a lot of it, as though things happening to Pete Townshend, the rocker, are just the kind of things you’d expect and Pete Townshend, the author, has no duty other than to note them. Only Springsteen seems to be driving for the clarity that a personal account can bring. He’s trying to get how it looked to him—more than “how I did it”—on paper, and the main thing he keeps in mind is the learning curve. Like his perceptive fans, he expects each album to tell him something about who he is as an artist at that moment. While the big interpretations of that can be left to others, he does let us see how his own creativity keeps him moving—and his love of music-making, and his love of his fans and his band, and his burning desire to make better records, not lesser records.

Young has a similar conviction that the music he is a part of matters. He respects his forebears and tries not to let the franchise down. Rock made him and he tries to make it, to the best of his ability. But he’s also quite candid about the ways in which the music business and, specifically, the technology that came in with mp3s, is a disservice to the music, in evolving ways. The problem early in his career was just getting a good deal; the problem now is with the product itself and the ways in which the internet has morphed music in ways radio didn’t. He doesn’t have that much to say about what TV did to it, because, in the era of real stereos, the box didn’t matter much and now, in the era of computers and smartphones, it again doesn’t matter.

Granted, there’s a certain post mortem aspect to the whole notion: rock writers writing memoirs, if only because “the greatest is behind.” That’s true with these three because they were each a major part of the pop culture furnishings of the 1970s and, whatever one makes of the decades that have followed, that particular point in time is back there somewhere in personal and cultural history. All three have to take stock of deaths that altered, for each personally, the world they live in and who they can count on being in it with them. That aspect of the books is actually a bit moving at times. Survivors speaking of those who did not make it to this point. Danny Whitten, Clarence Clemons, Keith Moon, John Entwhistle, Danny Federici, Ben Keith ....

The odd thing about our celebrity heroes is how much we live in their world too, even if we’re just abstractions—fans, listeners, followers—in their view. But, in the memoir sense of autobiographical criticism, getting down when and how these artists make their mark is of the essence in how they shape our world, for periods of time.

On the one hand, it would be easy to make autobiography as criticism simply a record of one’s likes and dislikes, to determine how one shaped a taste and varied it, adapting it to the changing times. Or, with an eye on the latter, one could look at how the market made certain things available and how one’s identifications with certain products, certain careers furnish the dimensions of one’s own life within a cultural matrix, in this case rock—“capitalismus’s favorite boy-child” as the Mekons say. But my stress on songs a moment ago—and by extension albums as a specific collection of songs (and Young is very adamant about his records being arranged, so that he doesn’t like the easy sharing out of context on playlists)—aims, of course, at something more lyrical than historical. Because that level of identification detaches—to the extent that anything in our times can—from strict market forces with, yes, a sense of what charisma means in the old religious sense. All the bad or good advertising copy in the world doesn’t make you experience or live the song with its singer, not really. Or at least that’s a starting point for accounting for that kind of “life.” A life lived in other people’s music? A life spent choosing the soundtrack? Perhaps, but in the end you either believe that poetry and music are recognizable, knowable events—within the vast configuration of events that make a life—or else you are left only with prose. And yeah, in our lifetimes, that prose will be either ad copy or press releases or the merger of advertising and reporting into something called “media.” Or else it will be criticism. Or, maybe, the hero’s “own story in his own words!”