Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Conversation Series - Part Two

Here now, Part Two of My Conversation Series with Ross K:


I give you an inch and you takes 10,000 words. I’ll see that and raise it. Soooo much to say…

Um, The Vines? Are you sure you remember which ones they were? The “garage rock” revival in 2001 (The Strokes, The Hives, The White Stripes, The Vines, Kings of Leon) gave us something to root for, but it played out the wrong way. The Hives and The Vines don’t really exist anymore—at least not in any relevant way—and The Strokes have been on B+ autopilot since the first record. The White Stripes, on the other hand, have proven to be so much more than a retro-garage-rock outfit and the Kings torched that whole idea a year ago.

Here’s mine:
1) John Bonham (Led Zeppelin)
2) Keith Moon (The Who)
3) Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age)
4) Jack Irons (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam)
5) Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience)


I’ve never played drums and don’t ACTUALLY know what I’m talking about. But my prerequisites are essentially the same as yours, and there’s the list. Admittedly, I’ve never listened to Rush once in my life, so I’ll take a pass on that. I think Jack Irons’ work with Pearl Jam (No Code and Yield) is some of my favorite rock drumming of all time, and merited inclusion. My only listed honorable mention is, obviously RINGO STARR.

Better question: where do you come down on Ringo? Is he, as Lester Bangs rudely put it, “incompetent,” or is he a vastly underrated song-servant? “Ticket to Ride” alone is enough to put me in the latter camp. I’ll give Ringo propers all day long. His malapropisms also gave us some great lines: “hard day’s night,” “tomorrow never knows,” etc. He was AT LEAST twice the poet Paul was.

You’re right—Nashville is bulimic. But I’d argue the motivations are different. To me, it’s not the embarrassment of talent-riches that you’re depicting. I rarely go to other local shows and feel discouraged about my own work—partly because it’s a generally positive community, and partly because I don’t hear that many good songs around town. There are a ton of remarkable musicians, but they’re all imported and exported anyway; they might be “in” Nashville, but they’re not “of” Nashville. I’d say that the passivity and blasé attitude in the scene is less about the frequency of incredible performances, and more about laziness. It’s not so much that there’s so much greatness that folks aren’t easily impressed—it’s that nobody really cares enough to be impressed in the first place.

Let’s go further—if Nashville is a rapidly aging girl with low self-esteem and a pattern of bulimia, Memphis is…what? I’ll call her a formerly gorgeous debutante with oppressively high self-esteem, long past her prime, now a mother of five, and her looks never recovered. She’s still wearing halter tops and standing next to the bowling alley jukebox. If only she wanted to look like something else, she might get back into shape and re-establish her beauty. But, for now, she’s eating at DBo’s three times a day and re-dying her hair…but her daughters are already pretty. And Louisville? A pre-teen from the other side of the tracks with unconventionally pretty features and an awkward, gangly frame? In six years she might be a supermodel, or she might just be frightening?

Also, Jerry Stiller was a joke. I was asking about FEMALE video co-stars. I’ll take Megan Fox because, uh, she seems smart.

If you learned one thing in college, what was it? What single songwriter do you admire the most? And what’s your pick for rock’s all-time Most Underrated Band?

Back in off-white,


Mr. Milam,

I don’t think Ringo incompetent; quite to the contrary. He IS a selfless song-servant, but that’s something I’ve only begun to understand and value recently. When you ask about favorite drummers, my answer is more geared toward the music I liked when I played only drums and nothing else, and was more exclusively interested in drums than in the rest of a band. You must understand that I was never into the Beatles as a teenager, when I started playing drums. I’ve only learned to appreciate them recently as I’ve studied music more thoroughly and become interested in songwriting and melodic instruments. Ringo is a songwriter’s dream, because he doesn’t step on your song. He lets the songwriter’s ego go unchallenged by the interests of the drummer, who is often the biggest affront to it. To one way of thinking, Ringo did the best thing he could do, which was stay out of the way of some great songwriters by playing as sparingly and inconspicuously as he could, with the deadest possible drum sounds. In many ways it’s a much greater challenge to stay solid in the background and be a soldier sacrificing for the rest of the band than it is to go off all the time. But the only beat he ever played that fired me up is the crash-fest at the end of Revolver (one of my favorite albums), “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

If Louisville were a girl, it would be a sixteen-year-old wannabe indie groupie with different streaks of dye in her hair who tries to initiate contact with older boys by coming up and asking for a cigarette. The kind of girl Lois Griffin was talking about when she told Chris, “Remember to find a girl who smokes. If she smokes, she pokes.” That girl who flirts with rebelliousness and attention-seeking, but inwardly craves strong limits and leadership she can respect, who wants to play out both scripts at the same time, being strong and being weak, writing her own life and leaving it up to somebody else, being free and alone and being fettered and taken care of. And who ultimately ends up pregnant in her early twenties, living an unrealized life thereafter. But this is before that part. Like a teenager, Louisville isn’t sure what its models are or what it wants to become. It has several options to choose from and hasn’t decided yet; it’s a splinter of several kinds of cities, still deciding what kind of city it wants to be and how it wants to be regarded by everybody else.

There’s a Broadway stage dancer named Susan LaMontagne who’s a sex bomb. Ideally I would feature her in my music video. Since you say you need a celebrity, however, and no one knows who Susan LaMontagne is, I would happily feature Cate Blanchett. Bear in mind, analogously, how well it worked when Axl Rose put Stephanie Seymour in those videos.

I probably admire J. S. Bach the most, because he wrote 1100 pieces of music that are all brilliant, timeless, and either stirring, soothing or rumination-friendly, and in a wide range of instrumentation—masses, solo keyboard, you name it. I sense, however, that you mean within the realm of douche bags with acoustic guitars and journals. As far as recent, pop-music type songwriters…Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Ledbelly. Although they were bad to their families, I admire their courage.

Rock's Most Underrated Band…underrated by fans, musicians, by critics? This is a difficult question, because all the people we’re talking about are going to be famous regardless if they’re any good at all, and if they’re TRULY obscure, if no one at all knows them, it’s probably because they’re not good enough to be rated. I’d say the Allman Brothers, and I’m not even a rabid fan of theirs. I say underrated because I believe they get no crossover: I think that they’re stuck with a small-but-loyal jam-band cult following, and everybody else just hears “Ramblin’ Man” on the radio once a week and thinks nothing more of them. The surviving members still tour their hearts out constantly, and they’ve been playing in some incarnation or other for the better part of forty years, so I know they’re an extremely hard-working band, and you do hear about them, but I don’t know who else their fans might be besides…budding blues/jam-band guitar players. Another band I think of similarly is ZZ Top, who have been putting out album after album for a jillion years but don’t seem to show up in commercials or movies (except that “Tush” was in Dazed and Confused), they just tour the planet like clockwork and have “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” played on classic rock radio every day of the world.

What I learned in college is that college can make many people smaller instead of bigger if they let it institutionalize them. I don’t want to be a part of its culture of over-specialization, where people feel forced into getting a doctorate in one microscopically small and irrelevant field of study and just teaching that to similarly trapped-feeling people for the rest of their lives. It leads to intellectual and creative death for the doctoral candidates/teachers and encourages professor-worship in students who then waste away in unremarkable, unoriginal adherence to trends to please everybody around them instead of pursuing their own interests and passions. There are a lot of lost kids in Arts and Sciences who seem to want to become artists, who want to transform, to live bigger, less ordinary lives. If you want to be an artist, if you want to live a bold, noble, enriched life, you won’t do it by staying in school, you’ve got to out and just start TRYING to do it. A boat is safe in a harbor, but that’s not what boats are for.

Colleges are the ones who institutionalized literary criticism as a job and an industry, and because colleges are havens for critics, they actually put criticism ahead of literature in their teaching. What this does is eliminate the enjoyment a curious, creative person gets from reading stories and displaces it with snobbery. College can take frustrated artists and knead them into bitter critics who can only teach doubt and censure. These are creative people who want to range and wander, but they no longer trust themselves.

I also learned that college has gained too much power over family dynamics and parenting styles. College as a racket and industry manipulates parents and children needlessly into debt, and is not for everybody. It might not be right for you, but you probably won’t see that till you have student loans to pay off.

More to the point about professors…they often want a guarantee on receiving the deference people give to leaders without the uncertainty and risk of exercising enough leadership to earn that special treatment. Feel me? A friend of mine who's a writer studied leadership and group dynamics and always has sharp things to say about this; I'm really speaking in her terms there.

I end things abruptly,


ross k. said...

Hey, any musicians out there, who are YOUR favorite drummers? Let's get some more top-fives-and-tens going like the ones about concerts.

Also, Chris, I'm slightly underwhelmed by these Kings of Leon characters. Granted I haven't listened to the whole album yet and so I'm withholding an overall judgment till I hear your beloved closing track. It's all right, but, I'm just letting you know that you're really hyping an album I turned off after three songs because it just didn't grab me and shake me that hard. It's not bad but they're not blowing all those other bands off the table as you suggest.

My biggest beef is...what's with the singer? Can he say words? I really don't know what he's talking about. My complaint is mainly with the first song, which is heavy on the mumbling, because when he growls more after that it does get better...but he sounds like a poor man's Bon Scott with no teeth locked in a coat closet, with the mic recording on the wrong side of the door. Do I just need to turn the treble up? I know there's nothing wrong with my hearing. Tag, you're it.

Holly Capote said...

Ross, regarding could-be artists awaitin' and awartin' in colleges are teachers' toadies, I once had a graduate student researcher make the extended claim that what he did was the same as what an artist did, that evaluating artists was the same as creating. He dreadfully needed me to agree, so I did what Bud Selig did when Barry Bonds hit 755: I just stood and witnessed. Then I scooted and never went back, just like Bud.

Holly Capote said...

Sumpin else:

Ross wrote: "College as a racket and industry manipulates parents and children needlessly into debt, and is not for everybody."

Too tragically true. Ross went to Vandy. I attended grad school at Harvard. At Christmas, just like in those 'po' girl at a posh school' movies, my classmates jetted away and I was left with the janitors, which was comfy for me, for they were my people.

And my classmates would say, with all undue ignorance, "Oh, you afford a ticket to Paris. It doesn't cost much."

And they graduated sans debt and were given 5-figure checks. Hell, their parents should have finished the hat trick and given them tiaras too.

I graduated with hog-tying debt and a degree that's worthless. Editors don't give a shit where I went to school. All that matters is "Can you write?" and writing-wise at Harvard, I only learned how not to write.

But I was seduced and I went and I'm still chipping at that damn debt.

ross k. said...

Wishful thinking on the part of that guy. Very few artists get tenure if they just jump through enough hoops. Apart from a few fat fellowships like the Guggenheim, very few of them get any kind of patronage, whereas a ton of academics get tenure for nothing more than seniority. They just stick around long enough and they're set, they've got a cushy job rehashing ideas from their thesis year after year and they can't be fired.

He's also wrong about evaluation and creation being the same. The first is analytic, the second synthetic. You use different parts of your brain writing an essay for school that's due tomorrow than you do brainstorming in your journal. Most people can do a little bit of both, but they lean one way or the other, because they're more analytic, restrained and obsessive about detail or they're uninhibited by forethought. This goes for writing AND music. A lot of famous literary critics are creatively blocked, and their fiction and poetry don't live up to their own standards. On the other hand, a lot of writers with non-stop creative flow just blurt everything out; they can't explain what they do very well and may not understand it much better than everybody else, they just do it. Your brain is probably wired to be more one way than the other, to be an editor or critic who doesn't write stories or a story-teller who can't edit. In music, there are a lot of people who learn how to play everybody else's songs exactly right, but can't write their own stuff, and then there are people who can't for the life of them learn other people's music right, but they come up with songs non-stop.

Where would you even go to find data that back up analysis and creation being the same? I couldn't finish that paper.

Chris Milam said...

Right, seems like a good time to weigh in regarding KINGS OF LEON!

Caleb, the singer, is the most divisive aspect of the Kings. Without him, they're a straight-ahead rock band with an ear for hooks. But yeah, his lyrics are almost always stream-of-consciousness and much of the time nonsense. It's a weird vocal thing he's got going--sometimes it sounds tough-guy nonchalant (I don't care enough to PRONOUNCE these words), sometimes it sounds just infantile (like a little kid needing attention). I think either way it's interesting.

Kings' have a song called "Day Old Blues." The line before the "chorus" is "girls are gonna love the way I toss my hair/boys are gonna hate the way I sing." Then launches into the most self-parodying vocal caricature I've heard. If nothing else, Caleb is funny right then.

Anyway, it sounds like that graduate student researcher was doing what a lot of folks do: saying something that makes what he does more valuable. Obviously, it doesn't and he's wrong. But Ross is right: the best readers of creative writing are infrequently the best writers of it. I'm thinking of one poetry professor specifically...

Welcome to the fray, Holly!

Holly Capote said...

Thanks for the welcome, Chris. I was here one other time and you dished up some Southern hospitality then too.

I felt sorry for the researcher and his analogy. Sorry and embarrassed.

True story: The prof for the course where the researcher was a TA hated me. HATED. She wanted to yank out my teeth, mark them with little dots, and play craps on my corpse. She talked about creation. I was and am creative. So, she gave us these suffocating assignments, which she always tried to sell us with the pink satin tones of a casket salesman. I was the zombie in her room. She pyschically slew me a couple times and I kept busting out of her boxes. She assigned. I refused.

And once she wrote, "This doesn't even come close to meeting the expectations of the assignment."

And I responded, "So, the assignment is sentient?"

Yeah, I was an ass, but she was the hole.

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