Thursday, July 01, 2004

Us and Them

True music lovers are not reducible to a binary "there are two kinds of people in the world" categorization, but there are centers of gravity and faultlines that can define swaths of us. One of those faultlines appears to run through the Velvet Underground and the New York scene that spawned them. Those that like the VU tend to be what I'll label here as "the intellects," who approach music for the lyrics, or what the band is "about," or how they fit as a puzzle piece into the larger scene (how different they are); the music itself is almost secondary. Then there are the people who I'll call "the romantics" who could care less about coolness factor, statements, or other esoteric stuff that has nothing to do with the music, and are attracted to the sonic landscape created by musicians; great lyrics, beautiful expressions of the human condition are all gravy - greatly appreciated gravy for sure - but the song has got to have a sound, a groove, an emotion, an atmosphere, something that rises above and becomes something greater then the sum of its parts. The "romantics" like myself tend to be very eclectic and make tape/CD mixes that might contain Hank Williams, Kiss, Tom Jones, Nirvana, Electric Light Orchestra, Weird Al Yankovic, Mighty Mighty Boss Tones, and Tomita all on one CD, and oddly the mix hangs together in a sonic thematic sense that you can't quite put your finger on.* The "intellects" tend to listen to music the same way most read books: they put it on, sit down at full attention, hands on knees, and listen to it in its entirety, as the artist meant you to hear it. Consequently they don't listen to music much. Standing up and shaking their butts once in a while is right out.

I've noticed that no "romantics" like VU and nearly all "intellects" do. To me, their sound is flat (their worst offense), Lou can't sing (not that not being able to sing is a problem, but his one-note range really doesn't go very far), and the lyrics are full of puss and bile. (Also, nearly any group assembled like the Monkees has to win me over with at least one fantastic song before I can grant them actual band status. VU was assembled by Andy Warhol as one of his "projects." And, still, "Sweet Jane" was done way better by The Cowboy Junkies.) The "intellects" talk about how groundbreaking the VU were; or about how the thin, minimalist sound WAS the point; or that they wrote about junkies and queers, which no one else would touch, and so on. But they almost never mention how a particular song or melody moved them. It tends to be what they represented moreso than what they played for the "intellects."

Also, it may have something do with their being from New York. Many many people, especially those on the coasts, ascribe way too much cachet to art/fashion/products simply because they hail from New York. Most of us in the flyover zones, as we are dubbed by the Coasters, put "and it's from NY!" stuff through a filter first, just to see if really has merit, or is just another big apple empty hype. But, since many folks from all over praise the VU, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt here.

All of this occurred to me as I was reading this mash note to Husker Du's 80's opus Zen Arcade. Granted the album has its merit and charm (if you consider bandsaw guitars played at a land speed record clip in oceans of feedback bracketed by snarled lyrics about hate, death and angst charming), and it is a classic in its genre, but it's not something you'd want to buy blindly. It's also of a very specific mood, and you are not going to want to play this on Sunday morning with the paper and coffee, or at the party, or whilst on an excursion to the beach. No, you put this howler on while loading guns for the apocalypse, or during one of those self-pity benders in the wee black hours of the endless night, or to roust fugitives from the complex. So, I wondered why the author, Patrick Smith, was slobbering on Zen Arcade like it was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Graceland (or even Nevermind) until he eventually gets around to the obligatory genuflecting to the VU. Then it all made sense. Zen Arcade was considered one of the coolest, most sincere, alt/hardcore efforts in its day (or ever), so surely the Great Pumpkin would not pass up their pumpkin patch if he existed. But the vast majority of us who bought the thing listened to it a couple times, maybe remarked on how cool it was that it was printed on virgin vinyl,** and then we put it away only to take it out again maybe once just to freak out the children and/or the dog.

I believe most casual music fans are more of the "romantic" stripe than of the "intellect," which explains why rock critics' taste so rarely match that of the general public. Almost all rock critics anymore are of the "intellect" vein. Only the late Lester Bangs seemed to be one of us "romantics." (If anyone knows of a critic who appears to be a "romantic," please alert me.) Hence, most rock critics these days are puzzled as to why the band The Strokes (from New York!) haven't caught on like they predicted they would. Well, they sound a LOT like the VU. Mystery solved.

Most of the rest of us like Jet ("Are You Gonna Be My Girl?") or, even if we won't admit it when sober or in polite company, The Darkness ("I Believe in a Thing Called Love").




*TLD: For instance, I was slapping some CDs in the player once, and I turned to my wife and asked if it were OK if I played some tunes for a while. She said it depended on what I was going to play. I showed them to her and she asked if I was going to randomize them, and I said yes. I'm not really in the mood for that, she said, and suggested I play some of my mix CDs. I asked her what the difference was between songs randomly picked by the player and ones I put together on a mix. She said that I somehow always put songs together that complemented each other and the transition from one song to the next was always pleasant and made some sort of musical sense compared to a jumble of random songs. I take my compliments where I can get them, so I decided to be flattered. I have been told this a few times in my life, actually, so I've chosen to believe it.

**TLD: Ah, virgin vinyl. I still get an endorphin rush at those words. Most of the vinyl used to make records was recycled from previous printings or from failed shipments that were returned to the companies. It was melted down with the labels on, and thus the paper and any dust or dirt on the surface became part of the next record that was printed on it. Usually, this made no difference in the initial sound of the record, but it contributed greatly to its deterioration. Virgin vinyl was vinyl that had never been used before, and when you hold a record made of it up to the light, you can see light through it - it's translucent. When the needle passes along the groove while a record is playing, the vinyl actually melts at the contact point for a brief moment, which after time causes deterioration in the groove and thus in the sound. Virgin vinyl is more elastic and will snap back to its original shape better and more often than standard vinyl. Hence, it was popular with archivists and collectors, like me. And it's purty to look at, too. Factoid: Most 45s were made with virgin vinyl because they tended to get played over and over a lot, like in jukeboxes, and the only way they would last is if they were made from virgin vinyl. When you hold them up to the light, most of them are a deep, translucent red.


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