Monday, April 7, 2014

Your Music Really Does Suck

Disclaimer:  these are my opinions. You’re welcome to enjoy any kind of music you like. This is just my reaction to contemporary artists, based upon my musical background, experience and tastes.

So, as the WHO asks,”Who...are you?” 

Short answer, I’m a 64 yr. old musician who’s been playing, performing and recording since I was 16. My first instrument was clarinet, during which instruction I learned the basics of reading and writing music. From there, I learned guitar, sax and keyboards. I can keep a solid drum beat. I’ve written and recorded between 50-60 songs and performed in clubs and concerts regularly till 1990, when I got more involved in studio work and just having more free time on weekends.  I enjoy playing and listening to a wide variety of genres, from 40s swing classics to alternative rock, blues, and jazz. I’m not really into classical music (Bach, Chopin) although I can appreciate it. I’m not into hip-hop because it’s not “musical” enough for me. The closest I’d come to spoken verse would be Arlo Guthrie or Tom Waits. I think they’re better lyricists.

So, what do I enjoy listening to?

Here's a few of the artists and groups for which I have huge respect and affection. In no particular order:  Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Chet Atkins, Michael McDonald, the Doobies, Steely Dan, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rippingtons, Fourplay, Sting, The Manhattan Transfer, David Sanborn, John Hiatt.  Remember, I said a few. My music reference and listening library is huge. I have two different satellite radio stations, in addition to myriad online stations, plus iTunes, so I’m probably exposed to more music than a lot of people, both in terms of volume and variety. We also have satellite TV, so there’s another wealth of music. We watch a fair amount of concert and performance video, mostly because except for the Food Network, a lot of the rest of the programming is shit. And during our (thus far) 47 years together (44 married), my wife and I have probably attended more top-name live concerts than most folks. I won’t bother listing them all.

I like music that I think displays a certain level of effort and dedication, as though the artist worked hard on it as opposed to just whipping something out in 15 minutes. Some songs do happen that way, I realize that, but most of what are considered landmark (rock) songs - such as “A Day in the Life” (Beatles), “Time” (Pink Floyd), “What a Fool Believes” (McDonald), “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (B.O.C.) - involve creative rhythm patterns, interesting chord sequences, actual melodies and vocal harmonies, not to mention other advanced musical devices. I like music that displays variety and good lyrics are a plus, but I listen to an equal amount of instrumental stuff.

Loud? Hey, my generation fucking invented loud. I saw Hendrix live, twice. But he wasn’t just loud, he was talented. He played riffs I didn’t understand, and on an upside-down guitar, meaning it was a standard Fender Strat, but flipped the other direction. That’s technically insane, but definitely talented.

Weird? I grew up with Frank Zappa. Now THAT was some cutting-edge weird, and that dude could shred a guitar, plus write scores for an entire orchestra.

A contemporary rock group like Theory of a Deadman plays music that's loud AND angry, but it also displays a good degree of creativity and skill.

What do I think “sucks?”

OK, look. Don’t take offense here if I trash something you like - it just doesn’t sound good to my ears. Henry Rollins said,”There is no possible way these sonic sadists sat and listened to the final mix, looked at each and smiled, knowing they had just created something to the world's benefit.” That’s the way I react when I hear a lot of the newer stuff being showcased today. The other day, we were watching “Later...with Jools Holland” and if you don’t know who Jools is, this musician/celebrity has been hosting music performers since 1992, from Johnny Cash to Elvis Costello, from ZZ Top to Metallica, and hundreds of new progressive acts.

Anyway, on this particular episode, he showcased no less than three groups in a row whose songs contained no more than one or two chords, whose melody lines (if you could call them that) were a limited range of notes, and whose instruments weren’t always in tune.

Now, the very first thing I would require in a musician - whether listening to them or working with them - is that they could count to four and tune their guitar. Yeah, a guitar can quickly get out of tune if you’re really bending the strings or laying on the tailpiece, but I’m talking about from the start of the song. If your instrument is out of tune, it’s either because you’re incompetent or you did it intentionally, which I think is a bit odd. I’d rather run my fingers across a blackboard.

But this kind of music is nothing new; I had been seeing it since the 80s on Saturday Night Live, which has always been a favorite show of ours, mostly for the comedy but occasionally for the music. SNL would frequently showcase a new, upcoming pop/rock group and I was left asking myself,”How the hell does anybody think these clowns are worth $5K, much less worthy of prime time media coverage?"

Yesterday, while channel surfing, we came across this segment about an apparently popular Minnesota band called Run Westy Run and once again, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing or seeing. These musicians talked like instead of rehearsing, they just got together and jammed, and it sure sounded that way. The music was loud, raw, out of tune and very simplistic, and the fans in the audience were fawning over them like they were listening to the Beatles at the Cavern Club.

That’s when I turned to my wife and said,”Y’know, there’s got to be a point where raw folk art meets simply fucking lazy and awful.”  I can teach any person with at least 3 fingers and a thumb to play some basic guitar chords and turn up a Marshall amp to 11, but I wouldn’t call that music. 

I’m definitely no art critic, but I do appreciate quality photography. I don’t see anything fantastic about the work of Andy Warhol, whatever kind of statement he was making. I don't get Picasso, but I can appreciate Dali.

I am an authority on poetry and the best poems are meant to suggest.  Verse like haiku, in its simplicity, should convey 1) a season, 2) an activity, and 3) an emotion.  By contrast, when you write something as arcane as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, you’re writing for a very small and specific group, because everyone else has no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

But back to music that “sucks.”  Now, I understand and appreciate really basic music like Delta blues, and American songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, but the difference is, those people put some really intense emotion and thoughts into what they wrote. It wasn’t complicated, but it was legit.  I understand the significance in rock history of a group likeThe Clash, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy listening to (nor would I spend money on) out-of-tune instruments and singing. 

Just playing loud and angry isn’t any more artistic than flinging dog shit at a canvas to see what kinds of splatters you can make.

I don’t evaluate performers by awards or how much they gross from concerts or album sales.  By that measurement, Timberlake and Eminem are huge. I got no use for either one. Same goes for Usher, Beyonce, and a hundred other contemporary artists. Popular doesn’t equal good.

It’s got nothing and everything to do with being old, because I’ve just been exposed to and influenced by so many incredible artists. Before I could read and write, I was listening to my parent’s recordings of Glenn Miller and Sinatra. I recall hearing my first Elvis tune over a tiny transistor radio. Soon after I learned music came the Beatles, so my whole life, I’ve been riding this virtual tidal wave of incredible sounds. And unlike many of my peers who chose to define themselves as country bands or rock bands, I absorbed as much of it all as possible, so you can’t say my influences were limited. 

I spent years performing cover tunes, so I knew well how to pander to the public. The most popular and effective club songs were those that people were very familiar with, that had a solid dance beat. I knew how to cater to everything from bikers to grandparents. And the songs that seem to pass the test of time are those that display a good degree of artistry. 

I know good music when I hear it. 

You groove to whatever beat blows your dress up.

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