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October 28, 2014 - Image 7

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-10-28

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7 - Tuesday, October 28, 2014
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The Michigan Daily -- michigandaily.com

Why We Should Write About Music

By BRIAN BURLAGE
Daily Arts Writer
In their sprawling
investigation into the life of
Jim Morrison, No One Here
Gets Out Alive, authors Jerry
Hopkins and Danny Sugerman
compare the volatile lead singer
of The Doors to Dionysus,
the Greek god of wine. The
two authors draw many
parallels between Morrison
and Dionysus, a few of which
include physical appearance
(both are frequently bearded,
*robed), obsession with ritual
madness and ecstasy, the power
they each have over their
cultish following and a reliance
on artistic epiphany. (Morrison
would often improvise poetry
during his performances.)
Among the many commonalities
between Morrison and
Dionysus, however, Hopkins
and Sugerman advance one in
particular, 'a singular notion
that links music in the previous
century with Greek antiquity
and mythology - Dionysus
is a dying god, a deity that
voluntarily departs from
Olympus and never returns.
For over five decades now,
the mystery surrounding
Morrison's death has placed
him in similar legendry. He
died alone in a bathtub in
Paris, where the coroner's
speculation as to the cause of
death produced conflicting
stories, and where Morrison's
:long-term girlfriend, Pamela
Courson, never disclosed the
details of his burial. Much like
the god himself, Jim Morrison
seemed to vanish from the
earth.
Engineer Glen Snoddy, who
produced country music in
Nashville in the early '60s,
invented distortion as it is
understood today. As he and
Marty Robbins were recording
"Don't Worry" in the studio,
one of the amplifiers suddenly
blew out. Instead of scrapping
the recording and replacing
the amp, Snoddy kept the tapes
rolling and used the jarred
sound anyway. Robbins's guitar
*sounds fuzzy, electrically
slowed and even a bit sour. But
it was a hit with the public,
and became a No. 1 country
sensation and reached No. 3
on the pop charts. Demand
for this new "distorted" sound
0grew among recording artists.
Pressed for a legitimate
business solution, Snoddy
created a foot pedal that could
be activated with the touch of
a button. He sold the Maestro
Fuzz-Tone FZ-1 to Gibson as
music's first functional guitar
pedal.
Three years later The Rolling
Stones released "(I Can't
Get No) Satisfaction," which
featured the same infant fuzz-
toneusedin "Don'tWorry."Jack
Doyle, in describing the birth
of "Satisfaction," once wrote,
"The guitar riff developed
by Richards in any case, was
initially not set for guitar, but
thought as a guide for horns."
The invention of the new fuzz-
tone served Richards's intent
perfectly - a sonic convergence
of the shrillness of horns and
the snakelike bite of the electric
guitar. Butpopularnewspapers,

magazines, tabloids and prints
ut their own spin on the
new sound, and declared it
righteous, an embodiment of
youthful protest, a brave step
forward for counter-cultural
music; it became representative
of the political "dissatisfaction"
of youth in the 1960s. And so it
was, one of rock 'n' roll's most
pivotal songs was born of the
failed mechanics in a Nashville
country studio a few years
before.
Chuck Cleaver and Lisa
Walker have been playing music
together for 13 years. Their
band, Wussy, a garage/indie/
folk/pop outfit from Cincinnati,
is composed of members that
are well above the age of 30,
'erhaps even 40. Cleaver and
Walker work regular jobs from
nine to five, and once a year
they reunite to collaborate on
a new album (this year's Attical
brings the total to six). Even
their Cincinnati-based record
abel, Shake It Records, reflects
the band's sense of age: the
label's Twitter page encourages
visitors to "use the phone" as

Music criticism, over the years, has developed into an art form in its own right.

opposed to instant messaging,
since the .label's executives
rarely communicate digitally.
Robert Christgau, in his
review of their latest album
Attica!, noted that the album's
opener "...remembers, as Lou
Reed once put it, how a life was
saved by rock 'n' roll." Similar
praise came from Los Angeles
Review of Books contributor
Charles Taylor in his tribute
to the band, in which he wrote
that Wussy's music "...brings
you immediately back to the
way we received rock 'n' roll as
solitary adolescents, as if the
songs were radio transmissions
from a resistance we hadn't
dared to hope existed."
Christgau and Taylor - each
prominent advocates of the
band and absolute forces in
the world of music journalism
- have brought Wussy's music
into the national spotlight,
noting the irony that a band
so removed from the modern
digitized world should make
music so intensely in-tune with
what it lacks.
In a sense the stories of Jim
Morrison, Glen Snoddy and
Wussy point to a larger truth
about music: that in the last 60
years, writing about its many
wondrous characters, trends
and events has diffused its
cultural and artistic appeal
at an unprecedented rate.
Lead singers have been put
on par with Greek gods, the
invention of a small foot pedal
helped spark a countercultural
movement, middle-aged
hobbyists have been credited
with rock 'n' roll's resurrection
and among all these anecdotes,
elevation emerges as the key
distinguishing feature. Writing
about music, whether online
or in print, has, over time,
elevated music, musicians,
the musical process and
overarching influences to their
own levels of mythological
importance. The long tradition
of decades-old publications
like Rolling Stone and Robert
Christgau's Consumer Guide,
in combination with the digital

and strategic innovation
of newer online zines like
Pitchfork, have made the
art of writing about music as
influential as the music itself.
This effect of flip-flopping
influences extends back to the
pioneer work of one of music's
first rock 'n' roll critics, Lester
Bangs. Two years after Rolling
Stone magazine launched in
1967, Bangs responded to an ad
that called for Stone readers
to submit their own reviews.
He wrote a piece on MC5's
album Kick Out The Jams, and
it became the first of his many
scathing reviews (which would
eventually get him fired). In
his short 13-year journalistic
career, Bangs contributed to
Creem, The Village Voice,
Penthouse, Playboy and New
Musical Express. He flouted
conventional journalism of
the time, and described his
own process openly: "Well
basically I just started out to
lead an interview with the most
insulting question I could think
of. Because it seemed to me that
the whole thing of interviewing
... was groveling obeisance
to people who weren't that
special, really." He sabotaged
live performances, accused
popular bands of plagiarism,
disputed evaluations with
high-end bosses and editors,
kept a poorly trained dog in the
office and he even recorded his
own punk rock album in Texas
(before the Ramones or Sex
Pistols were even an idea).
Bangs's enduring
contribution to music is rooted
in this ardency with which he
tried to demythologize rock
stars and their astronomical
personas. Perhaps the most
famous example of this was his
"Let Us Now Praise Famous
Death Dwarves" interview
with Lou Reed, a purposefully
tense interaction that produced
nothing but piss and vinegar
between the two. Bangs was
nearly obsessed with Reed's
Metal Machine Music, which
he wrote about frequently and
reverently. But he was even

more obsessed with getting to
the man behind the sunglasses
and exposing him for what
he was, or rather, what Bangs
thought he was: a regular guy.
Many critics have since
wrought their cheap imitations
of Bangs and tried to rally
against those same supreme-
rock personas, but few have
done so with such influence.
Robert Christgau, who started
around the same time as Bangs
in the late '60s, is among the
few. Christgau - the Dean of
American Rock Critics - has,
for nearly 50 years, written
about music ranging from Iggy
Azalea's pop fetishism to West
African Soweto, from '80s New
Wave to '90s art rock.
Christgau's critical
methodology is simple: first,
you have to know what you
like, and second, you have to
be able to explain why you
like it - "even if the reason
is completely disgraceful."
Many of his most "disgraceful"
reviews, in fact, have utterly
perturbed the various artists
and bands themselves. Lou
Reed - who seems to have had
a penchant for aggravating
music critics, and vice versa --
once ranted about Christgau's
"toe fucker" character in one
of his performances at The
Bottom Line in New York,
which eventually became
his third live album, Take No
Prisoners. As it turns out, a few
months prior, Christgau had
graded Reed's latest album,
Street Hassle, and given it a B+,
calling it "muddled" and "self-,
serving."
Similarly, in the late '80s
Christgau took to Sonic Youth
to call them "pigfuckers" in
his decade-end feature about
music in the '80s, and needless
to say, none of his name-calling
was well received by the band.
In 1983, in fact, they released
their third EP called Kill Yr
Idols, the title track of which
was originally called "I Killed
Christgau with My Big Fucking
Dick." Thurston Moore sings,
"I don't know why /You wanna

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critics alive, relying upon a
strict and often upsetting
decimal grade system.
In fact, the infamous
Pitchfork review system
spawned a Pitchfork reviews-
review website that provides
"accurate/undeniable coverage
of Pitchfork reviews" and
now has its own book deal.
At the same time, bands like
Whirr - bands that are aware
of Pitchfork's 1.5 million-
viewers-per-month readership
- respond poorly to the
site's overt criticism. After
theirsfrequent collaborators,
Nothing, received a 6.9 grade
earlier, Whirr posted on
Facebook and openly called the
reviewer "a pussy" and declared
that Pitchfork is "clueless about
anything".
While Pitchfork's undeniable
influence and vast array of talent
have ultimately dwarfed these
pebble-flinging sites and posts
over the past decade, their mere
existence reveals an odd truth:
music criticism has become so
AMOEBA effectual and so potent in its
own right, that it has spawned
ss Christgau / Ah let that its own subjugate criticism;
lie / And find out the new it's become a distinguished art
Christgau - "that shit" form. Journalistic moguls like
s only 41 years old at the Pitchfork as well as industry
so the vitriol is indeed staples like Christgau have, in
;enuine. establishingtheir clout-charged
re so than any other brands over the years, created
of his time, Robert a distinct artistic mode from
tgau and his music popular music criticism, replete
tee have succeeded in with its own aesthetic value
eating music itself. Two and merit, prone to the same
y influential artists from public resistance and fueled by
listinct decades each felt generational insight.
ged by his words, insulted Renowned historian and
me degree. Even other translatorFrederickH.Martens,
critics, like prominent in his essay "The Influence
her and columnist Russ of Music in World History,"
, have been known to describes music's role on both
ate their disapproval or a global and generational scale:
reement with Christgau's "...music exerts its influence on
the historic event principally
as the carrier of a thought,
one couched in magic words
W hen did of incantation, the melodic
summary of faith or creed, the
riting about battle-cry ... the instrumental
tune which is the tonal body of
S bthe words of a national song"
usicbDecome Music - more so than any other
ntroversial2 artistic discipline - bears the
thought of a local, regional or
national group in its truest and
most present moment, adapting
to the "tonal body" of that group
how can one man draw so and eliciting a "magic" that is
foul play from musicians, utterly meticulous in its capture
critics and music fans of time and emotion.
At what point did writing The world of music is a world
music become as equally of incredible conglomeration.
oversial as making music? Cultures, tastes, histories,
ough the work of social movements, musical
rock critics like Bangs, theories, rhythms and attitudes
tgau, Paul Williams and collectively compose (to borrow
Morthland, music writing a phrase from David Toop) an
o a degree greater than unparalleled ocean of sound.
artistic disciplines, Writing about its many features
ished a kind of dual helps to retrace these streams
y with the art of the music of identity back to their place
It's created a unique of birth, back to where all
like string of their two people are fundamentally the
ies, a structure that often same: in the need for personal
es and intersects at points fulfillment.
reme tension. The fusion It was Walter Pater who put
ues today with highly it best in his essay about the
ic publishers like Spin, practical utility of art and its
Vulture, Rolling Stone abilitytoelevatewhat'sordinary
llmusic, as well as larger - to fulfill each moment as
gate sites like Metacritic. they come. His intuitive and
ork, meanwhile, keeps the prescient read into the role
ivocal, time-conscious of art best applies to music,
ion of those early rock in that music is responsible

for creating moment-by-
moment value. "Well! we are
all condamnes," Pater begins,
"we have an interval, and then
our place knows us no more.
Some spend this interval in
listlessness, some in high
passions, the wisest, at least
among the 'children of the
earth' in art and song. For our
one chance lies in expanding
that interval, in getting as many
pulsations as possible into the
given time ... (song) comes to
you proposing frankly to give
nothing but the highest quality
to your moments as they pass,
and simply for those moments'
sake." In this way, writing
about music arrests these
flurrying moments in attempt
to slow their hurried passing.
It takes the frantic rush of life
- however joyous or sorrowful
- second-by-second, sound-by-
sound, and grapples with its
emotional flux, deconstructs
its seismic motion, until even
the shortest of intervals begin
to expand into entire seasons of
human grandeur and beauty.
For the unabridged version of
COURTESY OF LESTER BANGS this article, visit the Arts section
at www.michigandaily.com

Lester Bangs is universally recognized as one of the greatest rock critics of all time.

I

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