Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Blog from Under the Floor Boards

No time for anything new, so here's a 12 year-old....


I really really don’t want to cling to the old saw that all artists are tortured souls mentally sumo wrestling angst the size of Alaska. Please, not that. But it’s a compelling line (lie?): to think is to be aware is to suffer is to dwell is to flail at hope’s taillights leaving you in the dust. Out of that dust, you draw and call it art, or better yet, let others call it art.

You see, I would like to consider myself an #*!@&!#. Even my computer knows enough to keep me from printing what I almost wrote. But, the point is this – if artists must be fucked up, and I even modestly aspire to be an artist, well, it doesn’t take an ace at syllogisms, does it? Tortured I’m happily not. Yeah, I’ve got my dark nights of the soul, and I know the world is screwed. (An early 1996 election joke: “This will be the first time I vote for a Republican for president. [pause] I’m voting for Clinton.”) [2007 note: Little did we know in 1996 how screwed the world could get – a Clinton in the hand is worth a second Bush in the White House...] But I’ve got privilege on my side. White, male. Monogamous lovely companion. Steady job. A clean, well-lighted place walled with books and CDs and records (remember them?) – culture as fortress. A pharmacologically pure life – nothing prescribed or desired or downed, no smoke, and as for alcohol, well, a man’s gotta have something. Still, liquor is best lip-smackingly lovely – perfect Rob Roys up with a twist, martinis made with the deliciously junipered and unfortunately expensive gin from Anchor Brewing, Belgian ales yeasty as bread. My suffering doesn't add up to even a healthy piss in the Pacific.

Given all I’ve been given, you must wonder why I write on and on, must wonder why you should care. The answer is as simple as turning on your stereo, if it isn’t on already. You see, if you and I share nothing else, we share this belief: Music Matters. (Here my computer, inhuman hunk it is, almost edits again.) We’ve found a frequency just outside of public earshot, so I can say Nelson, and you think Bill, not blond twins. I don't mean to pat us on our smug backs, either, and not just because such effusions might shatter our cool. I mean to say the world is large and so is music.

Egad. This rumination began with art and misery and look where I am now? But that’s where art and misery get you – everywhere. Rock plays connect the dots just this way: you connect all the dots, to all the other dots, all at the same time. Now dance.

Perhaps you’re dancing to “September Gurls,” whose guitars ring like we want to think the Byrds’ guitars did. As if the Byrds would toss off a line like, “I loved you, well nevermind.” (As for connect the dots, could a best-selling Nevermind be lurking here?) Perhaps you’re dancing to “Kanga Roo,” because dancing for you is horrorshow and love is strange and you never forget that measure when that seemingly haunted cowbell kicks in – although you can never quite remember when it comes, so it catches you up, every single time. Perhaps you’re dancing to “No Sex,” set to the mythic chords of “Wild Thing” and 644 other rock songs, as if to make normal AIDS, as if to say the song’s zinger line, “C’mon baby, fuck me and die,” is the sweetest I Love You.

Perhaps you know, given you know Music Matters, that all three songs are by Alex Chilton. I hope he needs no introduction, from his teen days belting out “The Letter” with the Box Tops to that early seventies highlight that through its influence made almost all Eighties highlights possible, Big Star, to his reluctant last decade as High Priest of Hep. As a tortured artist, Chilton is hard to top. His biggest chart success came in his teens for music not even his – it’s like the poor schmoe whose ultimate life thrill will end up a high school football game’s winning touchdown. Big Star’s albums barely got released, despite critical acclaim; Chilton sounds the cynicism alarum bells in the interview portion of Big Star Live (recorded in 1974, released in 1992), when he calls the business “scummy,” and later invests his all in the disc’s lone cover, Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues,” a brilliant lament about rock life on the road. Chilton was just 22.

Then there’s all the talk about Chilton being "”difficult,” which, in the music biz, can mean a kajillion things, from drugs to perfectionism. Or it could be as simple, and simply deep, as this – realizing you’re a great pop artist who has never been popular, and realizing even if you were, well, what the hell would that matter? For the paradox is always this: sure, music might unite us with others every odd now and then, music might crystallize our joy or vent our pain, but so? To be enough and so little.

That’s a lot of weight to fend off with only a guitar and a wise guy’s wit. What makes Alex Chilton a wonder is he can be ironic and loving all at once. He was on tour again last summer, in theory pushing his latest Ardent release A Man Called Destruction, a title that is both joke and sad joke. Despite touring, he’s foregoing interviews, for what’s the point? How does one explain it? And what is it?

Rock and roll. Geez, it’s even got a museum now. Rock isn’t monumental, it's of the moment; it's Chilton coming around from a clearly disgruntled start at a Santa Barbara show, remembering that music is fun and people dig him. It’s got to sound as if you could find just the right joint (not a bar) that’s just tawdry (not seedy) on the night you’re just tight (not drunk). Somehow the singer manages to eke out a falsetto that makes a song as possibly silly as “What's Your Sign, Girl” (“Leo, you foxy lion heart”!) seem as sincere as church.

So. Yeah, I know, big discovery, music as a way into the mystic, blah blah blah. Yet maybe we want to make fun of that idea because it is true, and the truth is scary. If Alex Chilton, unearthing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” can be oddly moving, yet he and you and I, we know it’s complete blather – swoony love for a pug-nosed dream? – does that mean there’s hope (we can be moved) or doom (it’s mush that moves us)?

Faith is what the gullible call their life.

written Summer 1996


Anonymous Mike said...

Damn, George. You were on to Chilton way earlier than I was. I'm impressed.

I was still in my "I love Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque & I guess one of these days I should check out those Big Star guys I always read about when someone talks about TF" phase.

Or something like that. Anyway, I love "September Gurls," and that's good enough for me.

5:43 AM  

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