“Fifth Dimension” by the Byrds – Review

Byrds

Ah, history. Few are the students, many the volumes; everyone’s got a contribution they want to make to the written and visual and sonic record of “what people do.” With the advent of the Internet the masses have been enabled to make such contributions — witness the proliferation of new music of variable quality on SoundCloud and Bandcamp and YouTube. The massive whoompf of content that worried analysts predict will turn the Internet into a jungle of human output (whaddaya mean “will,” ya fuckin’ egghead?) has swamped me and everyone else seeking to connect, superficially or deeply, through the traditionally recognized arts, and at some point the average observer will be sorely tempted to light his hair on fire and run screaming from the three hundred hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube alone.

Let’s step back for a minute. Who says there’s any sifting to be done? Why do we treat this profusion of content as something to be waded into a la the Ganges River, or a sewage pond? We despair at the idea of finding good music in the swamp — not for nothing are SoundCloud rappers a national punchline. What we need is a new philosophy by which to guide our search for “the good stuff,” as nebulous a term as that may be, and wide-netted besides; we need to accept one thing first of all: that we are bound to miss some great music. It sounds painful, and it is, to realize that this is the truth we live with, but it is a necessary realization to preserve one’s sanity in this kind of frenzied productive climate. It’s like dating, in a way, because we must learn not to drown in the opportunity costs of unknown prospects; even Julian Cope had barely any idea of what his favorite band would sound like, only that “it would have to be the Sensational Alice Ra Pop & his MC Cheer, when Damo ‘Ozzy’ Morrison was still on vocals, and before Manuel ‘Sonic’ Van Halen had sold his FX pedals.” (For those who don’t get it, that band is a composite of different names and doesn’t exist; in short, there is no such thing as PERFECT MUSIC.)

If we miss out on some terrific stuff, the reasoning goes, then we should concentrate on two things: one, the music we love, which we have discovered ourselves and are permitted to love like our own spouses, the music without which we would have never become the people we are today — we shudder to imagine a world without it. This is acceptable and healthy, because we know that we love the music that we know of absolutely; we can’t pine after something unless we’ve heard and then forgotten it. Secondly, we should concentrate further on our collection of new music, and work ahead steadily to increase its size and quality. Here we can focus our attention on what we read about, what we hear online, what friends tell us about, what we find in shops, what we discover in a distant relative’s cabinet. Lewis and Clark didn’t pole-vault to the Columbia River — they made a fucking journey out of getting there, and that was where they found prairie dogs and shrikes and coyotes and dozens of wildflowers for the first time. They didn’t find mammoths on their way, which is probably important to the metaphor too; but they found a lot more than what they were looking for.

Treat collecting like a journey, in other words, and celebrate all your specimens. In the past the big labels acted as our tastemakers, and took it upon themselves to conform to what they believed “the people” would want from music’s vast talent pool; of course they ended up passing over Captain Beefheart and the Ninth Amendment and Earth and dozens of the great punk and pre-punk and post-punk and kraut-rock groups in the process, and ended up becoming so unhip that people really didn’t feel too obligated to keep feeding them money in the late ’90’s when piracy started to eat away at the major-league record companies. No one cries for Atlantic or RCA or Columbia (though maybe Columbia kind of deserves some tears, after they bankrolled some of the better acts of the twentieth century [the Byrds, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, the Hampton Grease Band, etc]). We can’t accede our newfound power to labels once again, just so that they can promote a couple of big-ticket groups and make shitloads of money to waste on promotion; see Steve Albini’s commencement address for the history of this kind of horseshit. WE are the gatekeepers now, and it’s going to stay that way. Therefore I suggest you follow my ideas for collecting in the Internet age.

As I mentioned, the big record companies were often heavy-handed and sloppy in their selection of artists; on occasion, however, they got their picks exceedingly right. Buddah Records would have had a bona fide success in Captain Beefheart, but they kicked him to the curb before he peaked; their loss, I guess. Columbia, on the other hand, had the wrong idea when they signed the Byrds, in hoping that they would remain the electric counterparts to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Weavers by covering Bob Dylan songs which were somehow too raw for contemporary teenagers. Apparently the group had other ideas, and in 1966 they completed work on Fifth Dimension, in my experience their best album and one of the most wonderful I’ve ever heard. I picked it up by fleeting chance in a musical-instruments shop in Portland, when we stopped over because my sister wanted clarinet reeds. My copy sounds played unto oblivion, crackly and distorted throughout and with a skip that interrupts the very end of “Eight Miles High” right as the cymbals fade from the flailing outro and the guitars simply hum out. I still adore the album, though — I would say that parts of it are beyond words, but I’m writing a fucking review. Come on.

Some of it takes longer to grow on me than the rest, of course. “5D” was hard to assimilate before a few listens hammered it into my memory; I was wary of the string-laden folk-rock tracks too, and of course the novelty songs (“Captain Soul,” “2-4-2 Foxtrot”) were a tougher sell. I grew to enjoy all of them, however, and the rest of the album was a seamless piece of wonderful work that gives me an almost matchless pleasure. Only a few times have I heard rock musicians approach harmony so in such strange and compelling ways, while yoking the music to a badass rock beat; Jack Endino’s solo work plays with similar ideas, as do Keith Levene’s hilarious and fascinating reharmonizations throughout Metal Box. The Byrds’ guitars play with musicality itself, sending a steel-wool lead guitar scurrying through the chords of “I See You” and “Eight Miles High” and consequently propelling each song into a breathtaking frenzy. The dissonances don’t kill the songs, I eventually figured out; they sting them, antagonize the rhythm players until the songs seem to physically burst from the record. Witness the last verse of “I See You” and how Michael Clarke and David Crosby are compelled by the Roger McGuinn’s flaming, flitting leads (birds of fire?) to attack the song with unanticipated strength. These new Byrds no longer cover Bob Dylan, whose songs are refreshingly absent from Fifth Dimension; they are a sensitive and adventurous war party who can coax unprecedented performances from the traditional rock instruments. We will ignore the full-on fury of the Sonics and the Monks from the year before, and the tepid avant-garbage of the Velvet Underground a year later; in the 1966 mainstream, the Byrds were the most ferocious and outward-facing group around.

If it’s not already clear, I adore the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension record, and believe that it’s their best album; it is complex, energetic, adolescent rock music at its apex. Make it a priority to find a copy somewhere soon — you will not regret it, I promise, whomever you are. Fate or recommendations, I noted above, will bring you to as much good music as you could ever hope to hear, and no matter how much listening you do or how much crap you will probably hear there will always be the Byrds around to appreciate and celebrate. Now go keep collecting, and don’t forget to cherish all the precious things you have — in love, in music and in life.

“Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Review

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The most common mistake I make when approaching strange music nowadays is to assume that I’ll get it because of my triumph over Trout Mask Replica. Everything — the Fall, Earth, LaMonte Young, Public Image Ltd., Ornette Coleman — is still difficult to listen to at first, until I hear it several times and eventually absorb and begin to enjoy the stuff. And it’s pretty much always worth it.

Those familiar with Beefheart’s most interesting and genuine album, though, would probably understand my misguided expectation. It took me a long time to warm up to Trout Mask Replica, it being the first “experimental” work of music that I tried to get, and for the past three years I have spent dozens of hours taking it in. Mine was a typical progressive arc: at first it was abrasive and nonsensical; then I listened to a few tracks which were appealing, songs like “Ella Guru” and “Moonlight on Vermont”; then I broadened my attack and listened to the whole thing in uninterrupted stretches which left me absolutely exhausted. I was convinced I would never enjoy this stuff — perhaps I would find it interesting and continue to pull it out when I wanted to scare the piss outta my friends, but it would never pop into my head and compel me to listen to the CD.

Boy, was I wrong.

After giving up TMR for about a year I returned to it last month. One day as I was driving down up 101 from San Martin to San Juan Bautista I felt an urge to put it on after the end of Agharta, having played out much of my other music. I called up Beefheart on my iPod and linked it to the car stereo and settled back to listen as traffic slowed to a crawl. Maybe I would like it more this time.

I put it on and experienced a brief epiphany. “Frownland” was as horrid and unappealing as ever — one of the worst Beefheart songs, really — but I was stunned by my re-entry into “Ella Guru.” The guitars which had years before sounded so scratchy and insubstantial now rang like twelve-strings from the shrine of Roger McGuinn, and they pounded out beautiful blues and pop melodies and cranky keyless dissonance in nearly equal measure. The songs were suddenly appealing and entertaining. I returned to the fold of Beefheart enthusiasts a true convert, a real fan of the man behind the fish mask; I was for real now.

Since then I have spent some brain cells on the obvious question: why have I come to enjoy Trout Mask Replica? It feels subtly different from other experimental works that I don’t enjoy as much — Weasels Ripped My Flesh, say, or The Well-Tuned Piano — and for a while I could not put my finger on what distinguished it from such head games. I’ve come to realize that the most prominent difference is in the mood, that the prominent feeling in this album is one of… joy. Once the barbed wire is peeled away from tracks like “Pachuco Cadaver” and “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” and “Fallin’ Ditch,” what’s left is a brilliant organic core of joy that imbues the songs with life and makes them more timeless and universal than any cloistered twelve-tone exercise. Beefheart tries to circumscribe human experience in his own garbled way, advocating for acceptance and tolerance (“When Big Joan Sets Up,” “My Human Gets Me Blues”), escaping dehumanizing modernity (“Wild Life,” “Frownland,” “Sweet Sweet Bulbs”), telling bittersweet campfire stories (the spoken poems, “Steal Softly Through Snow”), howling anti-Vietnam protest songs (“Bills Corpse,” “Veteran’s Day Poppy,” “Dachau Blues”), talkin’ depressive fixin’ to die blues (“Fallin’ Ditch”) and singing good old-fashioned love songs (tracks 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 15, and 17). He runs the gamut of emotions and often gets the music to brilliantly complement his poetry — listen to the beauty as “Steal Softly Thru Snow”‘s verse riff underscores the line “the black paper between a mirror breaks my heart,” or the life-affirmation of Beefheart’s plaintive lonesome howl in conjunction with the first section of “Fallin’ Ditch.” (The bass countermelodies in many of these songs are nothing short of astonishing.) John French’s arrangements of eight hours of piano ramblings deserve much of the credit here, but Beefheart had such an excellent grasp of symbolism and mind-bending imagery that he is undoubtedly the player who puts this collection over the top and elevates Trout Mask Replica‘s appeal from intellectual to visceral at many moments. It’s not a perfect album — rarely are shifting multipartite songs consistently pleasing, and TMR is no exception — but its highs are so wonderful that the appreciative listener is really left with no choice but to give credit to its creators, if only for attempting to make an album this ambitious. I disagree with those who insist that it should have been a single record — too much of it is brilliant and hilarious to discount. Cut all you want from Double Nickels on the Dime, but leave Trout Mask Replica alone — this is as good as it’s gonna get. The best weird-out in rock history has worked its magic upon me; maybe it will work on you too. Good luck.

Cabin Man, the Best New Rock and Roll Band In a Long Time

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Yes, I’m probably being a little dramatic. But Cabin Man pretty much deserves it.

Band members Andrew and Alan (surnames, instruments unknown) are two dudes who sound totally in tune with one another. Obviously the band’s riffs, which recall the queasy addition problems of Soundgarden and good King Crimson, are composed for guitar, but the drummer is a tremendously dynamic player who seems to know the needs of each song and plays exactly the right fills to dress it up. Listen to the evolution of “Dinner Party,” which appears on both The Possession Sessions and Demons, and the new polyrhythmic six-count which underlies the primary riff — it still gives me the air-drums every time I hear it.

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Of course, like any good band, they too seem to be evolving. The songwriting on their latest offering, the Split Shins EP, is a definite improvement over that on Demons (which was almost exclusively an instrumental offering and only occasionally offered up vocals on short, ironic tracks like “Snake Oil”) and exhibits a better ear for tunes and sung melodies. I’m lucky to have caught them at this juncture in their development, when they seem to have potential even after their decent but sometimes undercooked early stuff. I mean, my band did a lot of pointless stuff in the beginning, and we’re starting to turn out OK. Cabin Man seems more than OK by now — I suspect that they’re on their way to being really good.

I must say that if my band ever brings an opening act on tour, Cabin Man is a strong contender for the slot. I have a strong interest in seeing them perform, this band who listed Yanni on Facebook as a “primary influence” and their genders as “plural.” (They seem to share my sense of humor.)  Of course they are intrinsically suspect, placed on probation by their origins in the fetidly hip stew of Austin, TX, but perhaps they are members of that rare species of authentically weird dudes who make great basement-rock out of love and alienation. Who knows. (Maybe I will if I get to see them play live.) But anyday you can give me the shoddy scratchy songcraft of Cabin Man over the slick digital effects, over the moaned/cried vocals and soporific tasteless purple-hued composition of modern “indie rock” and popular music and I will not bat an eyelash. Give us a freak or two! cry the people. Cabin Man, I think, will do.

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“Monoliths and Dimensions” by Sunn O))) – Review

MonolithsIt isn’t just me — all metal albums sound the same. Especially the “hardcore” ones. Greg Anderson was onto something more than a gag when he named his publishing company Sabbath Rehash. The more “out there” people proclaim a metal work to be, the more disappointed I always am when I digest it. Morbid Tales — speedy bass-metal with a questionable vocalist. Burzum — speedier chromatic metal with an atrocious vocalist. Sunn O))) — wait a minute.

I seem to have made a mistake. The first time I heard a Sunn O))) record it was Monoliths and Dimensions, as I blasted “Aghartha” in my dad’s car and just kinda sat there and took it. No one else was around, though I got the nod from a couple metal guys who walked past the driveway. (Forgot to mention — I never turned the engine on, and when the song was over I panicked regarding my newfound inability to start the car and called my dad outside to show me what the hell happened.) It was an experience more than a song or a composition, a kind of voidal abstraction whose astonishing waves of noise left me almost physically battered. All these things occurred during my “I hate Earth 2” phase, but this bizarre new twist on metal left me awestruck.

Of course when I revisited it I found much of it difficult to enjoy. Headphones have a way of sucking the chest-compressing belligerence from the lower-hertz frequencies, and even my nice Bose skullwrappers (also belonging to my dad) were unfit to broadcast the airless suck of Stephen O’Malley’s guitar; I gave up on M&D momentarily. Luckily, however, I had experienced the same phenomenon with Generic Flipper and was beginning to understand that the problem lay not with the music, but the technology. So I plugged the thing into the home system (please understand that all the nice shit in our house belongs to my dad) and in that split revelatory second when “Aghartha” begins, I devised the Stereo Test. My longtime fans will know that this involves playing albums I find too noisy or lo-fi on a great big out-loud set of speakers, which usually improves the experience a thousandfold; if this doesn’t work after at least a couple of times, I will know for certain that I’m listening to joyless garbage like the Stooges’ Fun House. I do like Earth 2 now, though. Strike that one from the list.

Monoliths and Dimensions, despite its spacey aspirations on sides 1 and 4, is really a medieval record. You’ve heard those somber monk chants and the martial flourishes of fife and drum and zither that adorn every court appearance in period-piece knights & kings movies; Sunn O))), if it can be believed, have squeezed the cheese from these oft-corny idioms and issued two discs’ worth of brutal devotionals, pure and upward facing chants directed at the pulsating nothin’ness on the cover. (The addition of non-metal instruments emphasizes, but is not responsible for, the ancient and stately mood.) Only “Hunting and Gathering” embraces the hypnotic power of a good riff outright, but the others spew and froth as entropic vortices with a power akin to the vibrations of the Perseid black hole expulsions; one imagines that the band were subject once, by some psychedelic or scientific agency, to the barest vision of one of the black holes at the fulcra of each heavenly body, and were so obliterated by the incinerating vibrations that they retreated immediately to Earth. Of course it’s equally likely that they were just fuckin’ around in the studio with the feedback from some absolutely massive stacks, but the imagination wanders so under the spell of Monoliths and Dimensions.

“Alice” is probably the sweetest diversion of all from the furnace blast which Sunn O))) normally plays. The bluesy chords in the beginning are a thing of beauty, and even though there are absolutely no heavy guitars at all in the last three or four minutes it remains engaging and expansive. I think, too, that I’ve glimpsed the navel into which they so often gaze — in emulating ancient Christian music they slyly parody it, pointing out its fragilities and the small-mindedness that allows humans to believe that a race of bacterial apes breeding across the surface of the universe’s pebble are the sole and precious priority of the man who done it all. They manipulate the paganically subconscious feel to draw from us like milk out of a sponge our innate love of the wild and mysterious. We need Sunn O))) to remind us all of the great big Nothing out there; we realize that we’re not all that important when we stare into the blackness. We are the exception that proves the universe’s ultimate hostility to every atom that breathes, wants, requires anything but the basest pittance of energy and matter to continue existing. So let’s back off a little and get our bearings straight on this whole god thing — if he’s got problems they’re much bigger than the self-inflicted shtuff which disturbs us apes. Relax and enjoy yourselves; pick out a nice Merlot, crack it open, shove the bottle up your ass, and rest assured that no one cares. That, as Monoliths and Dimensions reminds us, is the ultimate freedom, and the one you would be a fool not to take. Christianity is small and petty in its aims; for enlightenment stare into the void.

P.S. Bonus points for finding the Cormac McCarthy style parody in paragraph 4.

“Leviathan” by Mastodon – Review

Leviathan

I’m not a huge metal guy; I find that it often lacks dynamics (constant blast of compressed grindcore noise) and songcraft (eight artless riffs crammed into a song), rendering it monotonous and unbearable over the course of a full album. It resembles jazz or modern hip-hop in this way — I start out consciously trying to enjoy the songs, and in the beginning I succeed, but by the end of forty or seventy minutes I feel drained and brutalized. And no, Bob Ludwig, it’s not the loudness war — I feel the same way about  Kind of Blue, To Pimp a Butterfly and the “full dynamic range” edition of Heartwork. None of these styles are really “my thing.”

Mastodon’s Leviathan provides at least some welcome diversion from the exhaustive cycle I think of as “trying to like metal.” Guitarist Brent Hinds has professed to love the Melvins’ Stag album, and its digitally massive bass and trebly, slightly atonal riffs are appropriately ripped off in the album under discussion. Notable bits include the blinding riff from “Island,” the intro to “Aqua Dementia” (does anyone else think it sounds like a serious hoedown?) and track A1 “Blood and Thunder,” as featured in the movie The Big Short.

There are still, of course, some problems with Leviathan. Chief among these is the preponderance of 3/4 rhythms, which dominate several of the songs which include them and lend a wheeling, inappropriately wagon-ish feel to an album that professes to concern itself with the world’s most fearsome boat ride. The music is usually effective at conjuring the raging tides, thanks to Brann Dailor’s swishy wave-like cymbals, but the clomping three-beats (think “Am I Demon” or “The Thrill Is Gone”) lends itself to an unappealing feel of rhythmic flailing. “I Am Ahab” suffers for it.

As with my Pat Travers review, however, I decided to write this because I wished to promote the breathtaking final track. No, not “Joseph Merrick,” though it’s harmonically interesting and comparatively mellow — I mean “Hearts Alive,” the single best track on the album. Experience tells me to beware thirteen-minute metal suites; often they’re stuffed with even more useless ideas than the positively zippy four-minute trudgers they stand alongside. “Hearts Alive,” despite its seemingly unsustainable length, is a fucking masterpiece, coasting along for two minutes on an unsettling acoustic motif before crashing into rock-epic mode and deploying a series of brain-melting riffs. It’s the only song on Leviathan with a truly narrative feel to match the novel on which it’s based. Here Mastodon seems to realize the limitations of strict musical adherence to a story and go full-tone poem in the last half, even deigning to kick out a screaming solo for inattentive tune-whores like me who remained slightly skeptical of the pure-riff basis on which the last eight songs were built. They were smart to put their best songs at the beginning and the end of the album, ensuring both immediate interest and fond memories. I’m not familiar with the rest of their stuff, and I might continue to explore the work of Mastodon; I keep hearing, though, that Leviathan, flawed as it may be, is their best album, and I will be very cautious. Metal is still, after all, kind of exhausting to listen to.

“Romantic Warrior” by Return to Forever – The Worst Album Ever and Why

Romantic Warrior

Never let it be said that I do not go absolutely nuts for jazz fusion. My collection is steeped in the cheap yet often creatively fertile chief exports of the field — the Mahavishnu Orchestra, late Miles, the Tony Williams Lifetime, Jaco Pastorius pre-Birdland Weather Report all come down regularly from my shelf. Jazz fusion is likely the last trend in twentieth-century music that almost no one in the twenty-first century seems to have caught onto and plundered for stylistic cues. Punk, rockabilly, Motown, “grunge,” garage rock, synth-pop, progressive rock, glam/hair metal — all have been forgiven by the critical establishment or endorsed by a substantial number of grown-up fans, the people who have inflated record prices to jaw-dropping heights in order use them as nostalgic souvenirs and the preferred listening format of rich people. On one hand it’s very easy to abhor the “vinyl consumer” for his/her bourgeois lack of discrimination and imagination, and to shit on the demographic in college-Marxist fashion; on the other hand, I suppose we music lovers are partly to blame for so heavy-handedly basking in our own cool and culturally elevating the LP to the status of Only Acceptable Listening Format. Look at hip-hop and post-punk — whatever a subgroup declares its own eventually gets bought out by the middle class and its children, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before the same happened to the relatively harmless music fanatic community, which always had much more than its share of posers anyhow. And who am I, a prospective white college student blowing fuckloads of cash on music I wasn’t born in time for, to talk about authenticity?

Fuck Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, Lenny White and Stanley Clarke. And L. Ron Hubbard, too. Double servings of fuckitude for that shrink-trashing Jim Jones wannabe. If he had as much influence on the recording as the sleeve claims then I hope there is a hell specifically for his ass where he has to listen for eternity to Romantic Warrior and those terrifying “Scientology for Kids” albums.

The album, now that I think about it, really sucks. The playing is highly proficient, yes — one need only stare into the arrogant blue-steel gaze of Al DiMeola on the cover of Elegant Gypsy to guess at the enormous skill of the musicians who set to work upon this gleaming behemoth of plastic spirituality. The instrument intertwine like the legs of a mechanical insect, working at blinding speed towards nothing in particular; they land momentarily on beats and scurry on without pause. They sound like an elaborate click track.

The production, to be fair to the musicians, is the worst part of the record; even the first time I heard it I wondered whether it had been intended for a video-game soundtrack. (Of course I now realize, after taking in the Sideways video on game composition, that the comparison is unfair to the hardworking, ambitious artists who earnestly score video games; Romantic Warrior is simply insubstantial and aimless and fake.)

The second-worst aspect of Romantic Warrior is its concept. Anyone who has paid attention to major-label 1970’s progressive rock knows why. Anyone who still has PTSD from trying to sit through the three-record live Emerson, Lake & Palmer set (or, alternately and even more fittingly, the four-record live Return to Forever set) should probably stay away from high-rise buildings and firearm shops after listening to this record. Medieval themes abound, as the hilarious cover may evince; the group appears to be trying to associate loungy digital pseudo-funk with fan-art images of knights-errant, constipated dragons and distressed damsels, throwing this record as either a repulsively cynical or a repulsively earnest bone to the technique-obsessed philistines who seem to make up their YouTube comments section. My guitar teacher had a lot going for him — he showed me a lot of useful scales and introduced me to Allan Holdsworth, for Chrissakes — but his professed affection for Al DiMeola set the friendship back a little.

(Nah, just kidding. Hi, Bruce!)

Why, though, would such a dumb and trivial album make my “worst ever” spot? A good deal of my extreme dislike stems from its symbolic value. Records like Romantic Warrior are the reason Lester Bangs went from including The Inner Mounting Flame on his 1971* Pazz & Jop best-of list to slamming Visions of the Emerald Beyond in his 1979 hymn to Astral Weeks. Everything the jazz-fusion guys had built up between 1967 and 1975 was smashed to unrecognizable pieces by the likes of this shit. The harmonic complexity and sophisticated feel of jazz (warning — cliches approaching) had, in those short years, found brilliant ways to coexist with the gut-level drive of rock and roll, of funk, of world music and exotic classical shit. Popular music was on a fucking roll back then, and you can hear it everywhere. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of terrific albums were recorded in that span, and all the best were imbued with an idealistic sense of possibility and fun and freedom; you can hear it in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Tribute to Jack Johnson and Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Fifth Dimension and The Velvet Underground and Music to Eat and all those other wonderful records that professed a love of life and the belief that yes, things were gonna get even better, and we’re gonna be the ones to do it. Maybe they were misguided and a lot of the hippies were fatuous and careless and fleeting and distressingly homogeneous in all those qualities, but the hope was there in a lot of the right minds. It could have been the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate weariness setting in which ultimately obliterated the liberating feel of the best, most sincere Sixties rock, but the alternately nihilistic and zonked-out rabbit holes down which jazz fusionists and prog groups retreated in the second half of the Seventies served as effective musical markers that no, that’s not going to happen again in our lifetimes. And it makes me wanna cry. This crap is half of what turned the world off to great big ideas and wide-eyed exploration, poisoned people on the idea that improving the world was possible and that we could really live in tolerance and harmony: self-indulgent, spiritually empty garbage with no self-consciousness or substance. The mode of the brainless hippies, a worthless and vapid counterweight to the easy cynicism of the bitter Steely Dan scumbags who spent the next fifteen years dusting the world in a fine layer of cocaine and landsliding Ronald Reagan. God damn and blast it all to hell — just when we were starting out. Progress in fits and starts, I guess, but it wears ya down. All that baggage probably doesn’t deserve to be hung on one measly record, but Romantic Warrior is so singular in its pathetic pretense that I think I’ll leave this article be, as an acceptable introduction to my long and righteous opinions on the diametric evils of fanaticism and nihilism. Give my love to Chick Corea.

A Save-Worthy Response to an Unenlightened YouTube Comment

From the comments section of the School of Life’s YouTube video on “Why Arts Graduates Are Underemployed

Ben Rodriguez: Not really, I”m in the second half [of the video] right now. They thus far haven’t addressed the current state of these arts. These arts that are shown so little respect. That the “artists” in question expect the rest of society to fund their nihilistic post-modernism. The current state of the arts & philosophies aren’t a bust of Plato, or Shakespeare, or Dickens or Fielding or Degas or Michelangelo or Raphael. It’s a Milo Moire shoving painted filled eggs into her vagina. It’s “interior semiotics” It’s degradation, reprobation and accusatory disgust shown to the normies whom the “artists” expect to supply them with the means to a living as an artist. Let such “artists” starve.

Me: If you’re saying that society shouldn’t subsidize “art” which challenges or rejects its (your) personal values, then let the record show that society has never really appreciated the agreeable arts either. Stephen Foster, for example, died a forty-year-old alcoholic without a single dime in his pocket, even as his songs were sung in parlors across America. Mozart, the beloved pet composer of the Emperor of Vienna, took up work as a cut-rate music teacher for the children of nobles, to make up for a court salary that was a little over half of what an entry-level clerk made in the Austrian government. And we all know what the bastards did to Socrates. The rest of the artists on your list, with the exception of the independently wealthy ones who could take advantage of their mass popularity (Degas, Fielding, Dickens), were on the capricious payroll of the upper crust, and worked primarily for the pleasure of their rich patrons. They might have used their own insights to reject or challenge the societies they lived in, but they couldn’t have done so without losing their livelihoods.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I get absolutely stir-crazy when I don’t have to reaffirm my beliefs in the face of a challenge, because I’ve reached into the fire and taken them up myself. People who are horrified by modern art obviously don’t have very strong values, if the spectacle of one inserting objects into one’s vagina is all it takes to send them over the edge. “Modern” (true) artists are trying to get you to question your shit. They despise the human tendency to ascribe dire importance to ultimately meaningless gestures and rituals, and so they transgress against them until it becomes clear that there are much more important things in life than decorum and modesty, and that shock without substance is a much better way of getting (and often monetizing) attention from shallow people than it is of getting a point across.

Of course, a lot of them could also just be shallow people trying to get attention without thinking much about it. But you know what I mean. 🙂 Bear with me.

Anyway, the needs that art fulfills are at face very different from the needs fulfilled by the production of commercial goods, which are the province of people with so-called “practical” degrees. There is little material value in art and its appreciation, and so there’s not much material demand for them — thus, the low salaries and stigmatized jobs for those with especial interests therein. We live in a pretty strictly material society, after all. Artists and philosophers, however, and other people who have critical thought and self-knowledge in their toolboxes, are always working on their personal masterpieces: THEMSELVES. As cliched as it may be, you can’t buy yourself a soul. And at the end of the day, what you want out of life is a symbol of your progress and success. Some people genuinely want wealth and what it represents; some people think it’s what they ought to get, because they don’t really know what their desires are. Myself I don’t know exactly what I want yet, but I sure as hell know I’m not gonna get it by seeking validation for what I already understand, by armchair preaching about why X is bad and Y is better. Any way of thinking, anything from the most ancient fundamentalism to post-modern nihilism, even if I don’t accept it, can teach me something about myself and my perception of the universe. And if the arts can’t help me to learn anything about that, I suppose I ought to just do construction work or learn C++ and zone out in front of cat videos like everybody else who thinks that they’ve already been told the answer to the big questions. Big answers aren’t given — they’re inferred or realized, and people who pursue the states in which they can experience, exist in the midst of their most deeply cherished truths (artists and philosophers) should probably come to expect that not everybody wants the truth in an American society where entertainment looks like art which leads people to figure that it’s all the same, so therefore they can rent the truth for a buck ninety-nine and watch it with popcorn and beer on Friday night. Hell, people won’t even pay for music. They think it’s a scam because the sounds themselves are so easy to make — you pick up an instrument and stick your fingers on it in certain spots, and bingo, you can play the riff from “Wish You Were Here.” But could they write the song? Could they watch their grandmothers die and their friends’ minds wither under a constant acid trip and do anything but sit on it or cry like babies? Could they ever look past the particulars — Gramma’s dead, so sad — and concoct a meaningful way of expressing suffering that other people could understand and take solace in? Could they ever make a miserable fellow human feel less alone by playing the “Wish You Were Here” riff at a party for some girl?

It’s a distinctly un-American proposition to place credence in the words of a stranger, especially an slick artistic one. So yeah, you and I want food and drink and a place to sleep, and a few other amenities which vary from person to person; we’ve all got a lot of the same physical desires, in other words. We’re physical creatures in a physical universe. But please realize that “real artists” aren’t in it to leech off your money. They want answers and experiences that only come from the sublimation of the brain and open acknowledgment of the desire to be intimate and to feel good in what used to be called the soul, and what for rhetoric’s sake we’ll also call the soul. David Lee Roth, as he boasted, took pleasure in the experience of sailing right up next to happiness in a massive yacht. What he really meant was that the yacht was an amenity; the feeling of standing astride the world was his answer. (Fame and its riches are usually a flimsy foundation for validation, of course, but the metaphor is still there.) And maybe wealth is indeed the prize that affirms a lot of people — it symbolizes production and the physical improvement of others’ lives, after all, and when you think of it that way the creation of wealth becomes an end in itself. At this point the ultimate respective goals of art and of commerce start to look the same, which is good because all ends really are identical in the individual minds of each kind of creator. Art can be an answer for its practitioner, and so can production. And so in that case, we need to expose the superficiality of discrepancies between the pursuits of each. We should look down on neither because they both represent aspirations realized and answers found — we’re all just people hoping to feel fulfilled, and as cliched as this may also be, we simply pursue it down different avenues. The terrifically human thing about it all is how very different our goals are, and how much closer some of us are than others to those answers. So by all means, slag off on “transgressive” artists — their mission is elsewhere. They want to smash the flimsy artificial supports you use to buttress your incomplete worldview, and hopefully (if they’ve got any integrity) they’ll help you, without superiority or condescension, to reach fulfilling states which allow for the attainment of your truth.

You’ll probably never look at this comment again, but I’ve done my part. The rest of the job is yours, Mr. Ben. And trust me — the road to that kind of truth is jarring, but with a solid existential rock under your feet it is more easily negotiable and still the trip of a lifetime. I sincerely hope you find one.