Saturday, July 16, 2005

Hot Hot Heat

Having spent the bulk of my life below the Mason/Dixon line, I ought to be used to steamy, sultry summer weather. My last summer in Baltimore, for instance, was marked by a four-week stretch during which the mercury never dipped below 90. At the time, I thought nothing of it.

But my Yankee roots must be showing, as the heat wave currently beating down on Toronto has me in sweaty, sticky misery. Although the temperatures are mild by Baltimore standards — especially since it does, in fact, cool down in the evening here — and the humidity no worse, Toronto is far less comfortable at 30° C than at -30° C. (That’s 86° and -22° for you Fahrenheiters.)

Some of that may be my cold-weather prejudice coming out, but it’s mostly a reflection of the fact that Toronto has not succumbed to the sort of hot-weather crutches that make life in the American South livable. Air-conditioning is not ubiquitous here, particularly in houses and lo-rise apartments, and that seems to reflect the Canadian fondness for fresh air as much as the relative rarity of scorchers. Consequently, Torontonians are less likely to spend their summer going from artificially cooled space to artificially cooled space, venturing outdoors only for recreation or lawn cutting. People continue to walk or to cycle, to enjoy the coolness of an evening from a front porch or rooftop deck, and to assume that the outside is not their enemy.

Given the smog levels currently besetting the city, that may not be the wisest assumption, health-wise. Still, it beats the insularity of A/C land, and while I can’t say I enjoy spending my days feeling like a damp dishrag, it is nice to spend the summer in a house that smells like fresh air.

Except when the neighbours’ dog tries to play with one of the neighbourhood skunks. But that’s another story.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Voices Inside My Head

We all know that personal experience is, by nature, utterly subjective, and most of us assume that our little window on the world is reasonably close to everyone else’s. Occasionally, though, doubts creep in. A recent article in The New York Times described a man in Wales who began hearing pop tunes in his head, and was told by a Dr. Victor Aziz that he suffered from musical hallucinations, an apparently rare (or, perhaps, underreported) phenomenon.

Reports the Times’ Carl Zimmer, “Musical hallucinations were invading people’s minds long before they were recognized as a medical condition. ‘Plenty of musical composers have had musical hallucinations,’ Dr. Aziz said.”

This stopped me dead. I wasn’t shocked that people heard music in their head — what stunned me was that it would be considered unusual, because I’ve had an internal soundtrack my entire life. Moreover, I thought everyone did. Certainly, the phenomenon is common enough that seemingly everyone goes through the annoying “song stuck in my mind” situation at least once. And surely musicians and DJs regularly imagine or recall music mentally as part of their creative process. Why else would they talk so much about “getting the sounds inside my head” onto to tape? (Or hard disc).

Further research into this seems to suggest that what differentiates the sounds in my head from musical hallucinations is that I can distinguish between internal and external sound — not unlike the distinction between maintaining an internal monologue and actually talking to yourself. Except that, just as not everyone plays music, I suppose that not everyone keeps an internal soundtrack going full-time — much less conjures entirely new songs or sounds in their mind’s ear.

Still, it’s a bit distressing to read about a researcher describing a composer’s imagining music as a form of hallucination. But, as Greg Sandow points out, cluelessness about classical music is disturbingly common these days, even among the ostensibly intellectual. There was a time when every well-educated person could be presumed able to read music, and would likely sing or play on a regular basis. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the only sound in some heads these days is the seashell hiss of white noise.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Who Likes Short Shorts?

In the Washington City Paper, Jason Cherkis has an essay about celebrity rock critics and the damage they have done to the noble and exulted trade of record reviewing. It’s a provocative swipe at those littérateurs — Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, and so on — who’ve gone slumming in the album reviews section, and has drawn considerable notice in the blogosphere and on the I Love Music board.

Although some of the comment elsewhere has touched on the whiff of resentment beneath the prose — How dare these poseurs take bread from the mouths of actual music critics! — the snark and nitpicking has largely glossed over the real point behind Cherkis’ rant, which has to do with the low regard with which editors view music writing. Gripes Cherkis, awkwardly, “criticism has become cameo—stunt casting.”

It certainly is true that editors outside the music ghetto seem distressingly ready to believe that pretty much anyone with an interest and enthusiasm can write about popular music. Unlike classical, which seemingly requires if not musical literacy then an awareness of the musical canon, pop is presumed accessible to anyone with ears, and thus fair game. And, of course, the fact that newspapers and magazines invariably have on staff one or more obsessive fans with a lot of knowledge about a select few acts only reinforces that idea.

But criticism isn’t about knowledge — it’s about insight. And while it’s unlikely that someone with limited knowledge may have great insight, it’s just as true that having knowledge is no guarantee of having insight. Critical thinking involves making connections between various bits of info, seeing a bigger picture or greater context, and being able to explain it all in cogent, straightforward prose. It’s not something writers are normally encouraged to do (especially in journalism, where outside of the arts the practice is damned as “editorializing”), nor is it something that comes easily to most people.

Cherkis suggests, wrongly, “The problem with author-critics is that they’re critics who refuse to be critical; purple prose is their abiding principle.” No, the problem is that they’re approaching reviewing at the “how do you feel?” level so beloved of TV journalists. They natter on about memories and emotional response and social significance, things that go a long way toward explaining why they’ve devoted several thousand words to the subject, but which tells us precious little about the music itself.

Then again, so what? Rock criticism has been doing that for decades, since the early days of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. In the mid-’60s, those who tried to analyze the Beatles musically were derided as over-intellectualizing fuddy-duddies, and it was the practitioner of the trade who could balance vernacular enthusiasm with technical expertise (Jon Landau and the late Robert Palmer chief among them). Far more common in the reviews section were slices of autobiography, bad fiction and attempts at psychoanalysis.

That hasn’t changed much, either. True, there are many more journals covering popular music than there were 40 years ago, and many, many more writers eager to be published therein. But the main difference Cherkis sees is in the length of reviews:

“All you have to do is flip through any music magazine—Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender—to see the editors’ patience for real criticism. The majority of Entertainment Weekly reviews are only 75 words. In Spin, many reviews are whittled down to a couple of sentences before being anonymously dispatched with a grade. That means fewer words to suspect, doubt, tear at, take a record apart to see how it works (or doesn’t). Fewer words to change the way someone thinks about how and why art is made and experienced—which is, after all, the real purpose of criticism.”

This is where I’m obliged to play the heretic, because while there are many things wrong with music criticism today, short reviews is not one of them. Much as I would like to believe that great insights are being choked off as the average review’s word count declines, my experience is that the opposite is true. Less really is more.

As a guy who owes at least part of his reputation to reviews of a sentence or less, my preference for short and sweet may not come as a surprise. But sad truth is this: It’s a rare critic who actually has a raft of genuine insight into an album. More often than not, what gets set down are observation, description and rhetoric (not necessarily in that order), which is usually centered on a single idea about the album or band, then whipped into some semblance of essay form. Most could easily be condensed to 20 or 30 words of actual argument — and, frankly, should be. And once that couple dozen words are fleshed out with a bit of background and a supporting example or two, you’ve got a very nice 100- or 120-word review.

Writing short is also harder than writing long. It requires more thought, more discipline, more re-writing, more focus. There’s less room for self-indulgent wordplay, and less opportunity to show off. And perversely, writing short is harder when you have less to say, because there’s no space to pad out a paucity of ideas with clever prose. (Perhaps that’s why the celebreviewers are allowed to wax on at length…)

Cherkis is spot on in singling out Sasha Frere-Jones’ work in The New Yorker as worthy of both space and praise. SFJ’s recent take-down of the White Stripes was one of the best pieces of rock criticism I’ve read in a while, and not just because I agreed with his opinion. In addition to placing them in the cultural landscape, Frere-Jones addresses both the mechanics and the aesthetics of the Stripes’ sound, and manages to point up the band’s failings in a way that seems like genuinely constructive criticism. Still, Frere-Jones’ advantage isn’t that he has space, but that he packs it with meat, not filler.

The Emancipation of Meme

Over on his blog, the delightful Douglas Wolk recently complained about the flood of “how-many-books-have-you-owned-type memes,” saying that he liked them in theory but found the questions “unthrilling.” Personally, I’d go a step further, and admit to being slightly creeped out at the notion of defining a person through their possessions (which is all some of these memes boil down to). Yes, it could be interesting to know what Writer X’s favorite novels are and why, but what does it matter how many DVDs he or she owns?

Anyway, Wolk posted a challenge, asking his readers to “make up ONE original question you think would be part of a really satisfying meme.” Those who did were obliged to answer the whole set of questions on their own blogs. So:

What is the oldest article of clothing still in active use in your wardrobe?

It’s tempting to get all rock critic-y and claim my 1979 Clash “Give ’Em Enough Rope” US Tour T-shirt — so old that it refers to “Epic records, cassettes and 8-track tapes” — but truth is, that shirt mainly sits in a drawer, keeping my Clash at Bond’s Casino shirt company. So it would have to be a camelhair cardigan vest I bought in 1981 and now wear without buttoning.

If you were to pass along to a child (offspring, godchild, favorite young person you hope to influence for the better) a lifelong passion for one thing, what would it be?

Practice. Spending hours on scales and arpeggios and etudes is nobody’s idea of fun, but it remains the best way to build technique — and with technique comes confidence and the ability to express what’s in your head. Of course, good technique will never outweigh good ideas, but what’s the use of ideas you can’t express? (The virtues of practice also apply to non-musical pursuits, from athletics to language skills to scholarship.)

What's the one website or periodical that you read which nobody would expect you to?

I subscribed to Car & Driver in the early ’80s, but lost interest ages ago. I loved Loaded back in the mid-’90s when it was laying the foundation for lads mags, but stopped looking at it before the decade was over. I’ve had spurts of reading Elle, Vogue and W over the years, but don’t currently. I have become appallingly predictable, I’m afraid — Cook’s Illustrated is the best I can do, and I doubt that would surprise anyone who knows me socially.

Does there ever come a point when [insert interviewee's occupation] becomes kind of arbitrary to you?

No. Interviewing is serious work, and while it’s always nice to turn a press session into something resembling a casual chat, the truth is you’re there to find out as much as you can about the person or their field. If that information begins to seem arbitrary, it’s time to look for another job.

What is one album/book/movie you have not heard/read/seen but which you really should to be doing what you do, and how do you work around that?

You mean apart from the books in my To Read pile? Obviously, it’s impossible to hear/read/see everything, but I can’t imagine a critic who would come across a gap in his or her knowledge, and not rush to fill that gap. (Well, OK, I can imagine some critics not caring enough to learn more, but they’re idiots.)

What superstitions do you follow or have you made up for yourself?

I prefer to eat Real Fruit Gummies in threes, but that’s more odd habit than superstition. Generally, I try to avoid magical thinking.

What happened the first time you danced?

Nothing. Well, the mother of the guys with whom I rode to the dance referred to my partner as “a long drink of water,” which changed my perception of her somewhat. But that was about it.

What was the first piece of art (book, song, film, painting, building, etc.) that changed your life? What happened? How do you regard that work now?

This is a tough one. I wish I had a pop music story here, such as describing how the first Sex Pistols singles changed my life, but that was hardly a first, as I had nearly finished university by that point. Likewise, I vividly remember hearing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on the radio for the first time. I was riding in a car with my father, and we were taking a short cut through the campus of Goucher college on bright fall afternoon. The song came on the radio, and it seemed to me as if time itself changed as I got lost in the interlocking rhythm of the overdubbed clavinet lines. But I was 16 then, so again, it’s no first.

That honor likely lies with a two-disc set of Wilhelm Furtwangler’s recordings of Wagner orchestral favorites I got for Christmas when I was in junior high. Some I already knew, but there was a drama and sense of narrative to his reading of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” that completely entranced my 13-year old self. Listening to music was never the same after that, and looking back, my only regret is that I’ve been spoiled for other Wagner recordings ever since. (But I’m hardly alone in that.)

If you could choose to understand one thing in much greater depth than the other, what would it be -- your roots or your current surroundings, and why?

My current surroundings, definitely. I’ve been in Toronto barely four years, and still have much to learn about it and Canada. And frankly, I feel in some ways more at home here than I do in Maryland, where I grew up — and that makes me even more curious about this city and country.

How do you like your eggs?

Poached, atop corned beef hash. Oddly, I have Richard Nixon to thank for that, in a round-about way. Many years ago, when I was in Los Angeles to interview the members of Van Halen, I was looking at a hotel breakfast menu and suddenly recalled that I’d read somewhere that corned beef hash with poached eggs was Nixon’s favorite breakfast. So I tried it, and well — the guy may have been wrong about Viet Nam and many other things, but he knew a good breakfast. Curiously, the best poached eggs I ever had (sans hash) were in Tokyo. Perfectly shaped and lusciously soft, they had gorgeous orange-yellow yolks and wonderfully vivid flavor.

The egg question was my contribution to Wolk’s list, and the thinking behind it was that there are many ways to have eggs, and as such a well-defined preference would likely say something about a person’s attitude and aesthetics.

I’ve since come up with some additional atypical questions. Feel free to give answers of your own, or to email them to your favorite blogger.

If you could have sex with the celebrity of your choice, would you tell your friends?

Which had more impact on modern America: The War Between the States, or the English Civil War?

When was the last time Berke Breathed was funny?

Should toilet paper rolls hang with the loose sheet over the front, or over the back? Have you ever changed the orientation of the paper in someone else’s washroom?

Do you like the taste of store-bought tomatoes?

Of the books in your house, how many have you never read? Of those, how many have you owned since college?

Beer or wine?

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Oh, right — the blog. The blog I haven’t written anything for in a dog’s age. (Ahem.) This one.

Regular visitors (assuming such exist) may have wondered if I’d gone on vacation or perhaps forgotten about this thing. Neither, I'm afraid; I’ve just been directing my energies toward such dreary pursuits as maintaining an income and keeping the house in working order.

Things will pick up here, I promise. There should be a post along shortly, reflecting on what is and is not wrong about rock criticism these days. And I'll likely think of other stuff.

In the meantime, if there’s anything you’d care to see addressed in this space, feel free to ask. We do take requests -- and if we don’t know the tune, hum a few bars and we’ll fake it.

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