Friday, May 14, 2010

Confessions of a music snob

Being a music lover, I can tell you that there is no greater feeling than to discover some new music you’ve never heard or appreciated before. It’s a feeling of fulfillment or completeness, as if there is a slot in your brain with a distinct size and shape and only one kind of musical experience fits cleanly, and once it does there’s an undeniable sense of rightness that hadn’t existed before, like when your ears pop or a satisfying meal has placated a craving stomach, or even when an urgent need to relieve yourself is finally consummated.

My newest musical obsession may surprise you, especially if you know that I own several thousand units of music (LP, CD, cassette): it’s the Rolling Stones. Not exactly a new or obscure outfit. But I’m no ordinary music lover; I’m a music snob. Being a snob means that I love music so much I can’t help finding fault with most of the music that exists in the world (or at least in the marketplace).

Again, if you know me well, you’ve probably used the phrase “Jason’s music” before. It implies that the music I favor is either intrinsically weird or just out of fashion. It’s true that I’m an admitted ‘70s guy and that some musical trends and genres from that much-maligned decade are easy prey for those who don’t know any better (such as progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, concept albums, vocoders, and lyricons). But it’s not that I gravitate towards the noncommercial or the complex, I simply am suspicious of anything that is too popular.

For example, I didn’t own Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band until about 2005, and I almost never play it. I have no use for U2. Billy Joel’s music brings on a facial tic. I do like Bruce Springsteen but only when he was skinny and hungry, not his most popular years as a buff hunk with a hot butt. After he painstakingly brought me into his desperate, rambling wooing of Sandy on the 4th of July in Asbury Park, I should care that he’s dancing in the dark with Monica from Friends?

I’m much more drawn to musicians who aren’t necessarily physically attractive but who are staggeringly talented yet have never become household names. Artists like Al Kooper, who played the organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and was also in his band for that fateful electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. He later joined the Blues Project and founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, then he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced The Tubes. Along the way, he recorded a strong of little-heard solo albums that show off his deft arranging skills and white soul ambitions. And still, if I mention his name, most people think I’m talking about Alice Cooper.

Or Ian Hunter, whose name is even less known than his former band’s odd moniker, Mott the Hoople. Still rocking with full tanks of talent and integrity at age 70, Hunter rarely registers with people until you tell them that he was the singer on Mott’s “All The Young Dudes” and that he was the author and original recorder of “Cleveland Rocks” (the theme from The Drew Carey Show) and “Ships” (mawkishly taken to hitsville by Barry Manilow). He also wrote and originally recorded “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” a hit for ‘80s headbangers Great White, who will forever be known as the band whose pyrotechnic show burned down The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, killing 100 concert-goers who would have been better off following Hunter.

Or the Waterboys, helmed by Mike Scott, a highly literate, passionate, and spiritual Scot whose brilliant writing and emotionally forceful singing and playing are largely unknown in the country, with the possible exception of one song, “Fisherman’s Blues.” I am firmly convinced that “Waterboys” must somehow rhyme with the name of Pete Townshend’s band, because every time I tell someone about the Waterboys, the response is always, “The who?”

And then there’s Andy Pratt. Like my all-time musical hero, Brian Wilson, Pratt is only comfortable and socially engaging when he’s performing his music. He had one minor hit in 1973 called “Avenging Annie” (you’d only know it if you heard it, not by the title alone); the marketplace’s indifference to his unmistakable voice and gorgeous music is well beyond my ability to comprehend.

The last example I’ll give is a big favorite of mine, the progressive group Gentle Giant. People are surprised when I tell them that Giant released 10 albums from 1970 to 1980, because virtually no one has heard a single note of their music. Which may not be that surprising, since their musical arsenal includes such radio-unfriendly instruments as violin, cello, vibraphone, and recorder, in addition to the standard progressive gear (multiple keyboards and synthesizers, electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars, puffy shirts, and boots). The only people I can talk to about Giant are people who probably could have written this exact same post themselves.

So what about the Rolling Stones? Certainly not a group whose name elicits blank stares. Indeed, they are so popular, so consensually acclaimed, that they should never be able to occupy a place in the heart of a man who has never seen any Star Wars film in its entirety or read a single syllable of any Harry Potter book, purely out of stubborn refusal to be like everyone else. How is it that my snobbishness let them through after decades of turning my back on them?

As it turns out, it was purely happenstance, as I suppose it would have to be because I wouldn’t have purchased Ronnie Wood’s autobiography, cleverly titled Ronnie, on my own initiative. It was, in fact, given to a friend who offered it to me because he was even less inclined to want to learn more about the Stones’ third second guitarist (after Brian Jones and Mick Taylor) that was I, who at least is a ‘70s guy and who already owns the memoirs of such musical personalities of the era as David Crosby, Al Kooper, Ian Hunter, and Brian Wilson (who has admitted he didn’t write his).

I took the book because I was looking for new bathroom reading. I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a paperback by the toilet for those times when I sit and feel like I might be there for a while. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working my way through and it even though it’s horribly written (along with passing a urine test, writing a memoir is just not something he can do successfully), and even though he is an unreliable reporter (among his drug-addled contentions is that his pre-Stones band the Faces were the second-most popular British band of the early ‘70s – after the Stones themselves – conveniently forgetting that Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Elton John outsold the Faces infinity to one during that era), it still is a compelling glimpse into the musical history and moral debauchery of 1970s rock and roll.

Since reading Woods’ more or less accurate recollections of his life and career, I’ve become much more interested in the Faces, Rolling Stones, and even Faces vocalist Rod Stewart, whose solo career (at least since 1978) I had always judged to be something akin to a crime against humanity. But in retrospect, listening with some sense of the back story, I’ve come to a new appreciation for Woods’ place in rock history. (This is not a new dynamic for me. In college, I was completely confounded by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It was only years later, after reading a biography of Faulkner that served to contextualize where, how, and from what sources that story came, that a rereading of the book brought me the rewards the author had intended.)

The Faces are an easy band to like because they never took themselves seriously. Competent musicians armed with a love of American blues and soul – and plenty of drink – they rocked with true spirit. Aside from Wood and Stewart, the band included keyboardist Ian McLagan, who became an in-demand session player; Kenney Jones, who became the inadequate replacement for Keith Moon in the Who (to be fair, Moon was irreplaceable); and bassist Ronnie Lane, a wonderful songwriter with a plaintive voice whose career and life were cut tragically short by multiple sclerosis.

As for Stewart, when I went back through his catalog, I realized he actually had a number of fine songs. In fact, his solo career began just months before joining the Faces, and his emerging stardom was one reason why the band disbanded after only four albums (according to Wood, the Stones’ courtship of the guitarist – in 1975, Wood toured with the Stones in between Faces tours – was another reason for the Faces’ demise). Despite his image as a Casanova, Stewart is at his best when he’s being sentimental or philosophical (such as my favorite of his solo songs, “Handbags and Gladrags,” where he chastises a shallow, self-absorbed girl that clothes, earned by the sweat of her grandfather, don’t make the woman). In comparison, the songs by the horny Rod bursting with bravado (“Tonight’s the Night,” where he deflowers some poor virgin; “Hot Legs”; and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) fail on every aesthetic level yet were among his biggest hits (supporting my suspicion of anything that’s popular).

And now, back again to the Rolling Stones, whom I’ve long hated for at least three reasons: 1) they had the unmitigated gall to call themselves the world’s greatest rock and roll band; 2) they tended to co-opt rather than create musical trends (cf. their brief forays into psychedelia, reggae, and disco); and 3) they were universally loved. While I still don’t like the idea of the band – let’s face it, they all seem a little too much in love with themselves – I am now able to admit that their music (most of it, anyway) does indeed not suck.

That said, given that I’m a music snob, it behooves me to note that I think I like the Stones on a different level than most people. While the Budweiser-swilling masses no doubt enjoy the Stones for their raucous, raunchy image and quintessentially bad-ass rock and roll – a personality-driven musical style that’s none too complex, none too tight, and all too catchy – I’m attracted to subtler, deeper aspects of their art.

For example, the Stones are peerless at integrating lead and rhythm guitar parts, what Wood reports he and Keith Richards call “weaving.” The art of rhythm guitar has been lost over the years, largely due to the number of unheralded rhythm guitarists overshadowed by their showier lead counterparts. For example, if I were to ask you to name a member of the Beach Boys, you’d probably never come up with the name of rhythm guitarist Al Jardine. If I asked you who played rhythm guitar in the Beatles, you might have to pause before answering John Lennon, because that was not his claim to fame.

At the same time, lots of bands have eschewed the traditional rhythm/lead pairing by accommodating multiple lead guitarists, like Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose guitarists switch roles from time to time. And latter-day King Crimson successfully did the unthinkable by pairing another lead guitarist, Adrian Belew, with rock and roll’s version of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s sentient android Data, Robert Fripp. But if you had a band with two rhythm players, you’d be Seals and Crofts; it just doesn’t work.

The Stones, on the other hand, have developed and perfected a true union of guitar souls, a musical innovation so potent that it worked equally well no matter who was slinging along with Richards. Sometimes it’s hard to know which parts are which because they’re both integral to the overall sound. But for a band that doesn’t do a lot of soloing and has some, but not a ton, of classic riffs (“Bitch” and “Brown Sugar,” both from Sticky Fingers, are my favorite), it’s that weaving that makes Richards and any guitarist he’s playing with a guitar god.

I also think the Stones have done some of the best ballads in rock and roll. You don’t expect a lot of sentiment from Mick Jagger but when he goes for the heart instead of the labia he’s not only effective but very convincing. On “Play with Fire,” there’s a vulnerability behind the bravado that another singer may not have been able to reach. His ability to churn out bluesy testimony while also getting across a heartfelt falsetto on “Fool to Cry” is impressive, and whenever Jagger twangs on the country-ish songs like “Wild Horses” – has to be one of the top two or three ballads ever written – it never sounds false or forced.

To me, a quintessential Stones song is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This is a song I liked even when I didn’t like the Stones. Even though the main riff of the song is actually Charlie Watts’ machine gun drum pattern, it’s full of hooks that get the heart pumping, the fists waving, and the hips moving. It has the urban pathos one expects from the group (“I live in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of my block/And I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped.”) It has the cocksure machismo they’re famous for (“Hey! You! Get off of my cloud”). The repeated heys and yous in the chorus enable the audience to participate in the hero’s fight for independence, not realizing that his rejection of others will lead to a loneliness that won’t be expressed until another song. And those guitars are not playing single-string wailing solos but rather strummed chordal licks, all rhythm, ably supported and punctuated by Bill Wyman’s reliable bass.

Ultimately, what I appreciate the most about the Rolling Stones is that they’re the last band standing that draws direct connections to Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Holly, that understands that rock and roll is more about feeling than finesse, and that despite the whole Glimmer Twins cult of personality, despite the jet-setting ego trips, high-profile romances, drug busts and binges, despite all the SHIT that surrounds the Stones, good honest simple hip-shakin’, butt-kickin’ music remains at their core.

World’s greatest rock and roll band? Hell, they’re the only rock and roll band left. For that reason alone, I’m proud to be a fan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check out Keith Richard's solo work (1. Talk Is Cheap 2. Main Offender).

You obviously should have been an English major, not a Journalism major, Jason! All my old friends know Gentle Giant (only referred to on FB as GG). And you know how I feel about The Waterboys.

For something interesting that is current, check out Cake, or maybe Wilco?

Curious about your thoughts on some of the feminine masters---Kate Bush? Cat Power? Late night music.