Thursday, January 19, 2006

High and low

Someone mentioned to me the other day that he doesn't listen to much rock any more, that he'd had the ecstatic experiences offered by the beat combo and had moved on to other forms of musical experience. A little bit sad for me to hear, as he's one of the more engaged listeners I've known and he's describing the typical dinosaur (and I say that with some affection) rock critic trope.

Nick Tosches has a fine riff on how rock is essentially trash for our consumption and that calling the ephemeral experience of rock art, preserving it, elevates the music beyond what it can stand. Lester Bangs keeps butting into the same problem throughout his later work (am I pushing too hard to say that this is the subtext of the great
Peter Laughner?) and Richard Meltzer's collection is titled A Whore Just Like The Rest so we've got a pretty good idea where he's coming from.

But the most eloquent discussion of this subject is a rock song itself. It's the ultimate closer, even if it's sequenced second on the record.

Club Mekon
- The Mekons

I saw a world where the dead are worshipped
This world belongs to them
Now they can keep it

Maybe I push too hard on the allegory of the "world" of the song as rock itself, but the way Sally Timms sings the above as the song closes is a pretty strong indictment of the rock death love. Definitely a strange sort of referential whiplash the song accomplishes, enhancing its power even as it obliterates itself. So much so that I find it hard to get through the rest of the album. In fact, there aren't too many songs that can withstand "Club Mekon," even among my favorites.

But High on Fire can. No shame, no irony, no pretensions toward art. Maybe this purity is the trick, or maybe living squarely in a genre, and metal in particular, adds an element of deflection. Or maybe it's because the songs are actually about death worship. That's a joke. From
Matt Pike: "My imagery comes from everyday life, even though it’s masked in some way to seem like fantasy or sci-fi." The lack of magic there seems about right to me. That and my vivid memory of him stalking the stage at the Double Door like a wounded panther after his guitar broke; I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone on stage as moved about anything, and that includes trips to the Goodman and Steppenwolf.

The Face of Oblivion - High on Fire

The Mekons Rock n' Roll
Blessed Black Wings


Blogger Amy said...

First: finally! Also: I am equally dismayed by the "maturity" pose. It's like sex, if you have to intellectualize music to enjoy it (or if you think ecstacy is beside the point), you are almost certainly doing it wrong. I could make more contemptuous comments on the subject, but will restrain myself. Finally: I find High on Fire to be a surprisingly pleasant bit of aggro. Even if--as you know--metal is not my thing. Bet you never thought you'd hear the word "pleasant" in the same sentence as "High on Fire."

2:31 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

Hey Amy. Thanks for chiming in.

I'm not sure it's entirely maturity, though that is a component. If I can extend your racy simile, I think it's more about rock as missionary position exclusivity. My pal, and the other critics I've mentioned (all guys, btw), seem to think rock offers the same thing over and over. When combined with the economics and the potential for corruptuion "Club Mekon" talks about, one's stomach can get knotted. You can certainly question whether this argument has merit, but I find the fact that these smart people keep butting up again this same perceived problem, something that book or art fans/critics don't seem to bring up, worthy of real consideration. Perhaps the point hasn't been framed correctly by them or me, but it's worth noting.

I should also say that it occurred to me that you could read the post as a sort of Mekons rip, especially with my take on Rock N' Roll outside of "Club Mekon." However, I love the Mekons with my whole heart. OOOH! is a wonderful album with a ton of really interesting things to say and it's only one in a string of adventurous releases. And they are a fantastically good time live. Please go see them.

HOF pleasant? I am a bit of a sissy really, but all the metal or hard stuff I'll listen to on a regular basis has at least a thread of something beautiful in there. Pig Destroyer? Occasionally. HOF? You can fall asleep to that lullaby, man.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

If you examine something close and long enough as a professional critic (or a particularly engaged fan)--whether it's rock, Abstract Expressionism, Restoration drama or French New Wave cinema--you probably begin to grow weary of the questions and the answers. (Which is why amateurism, dilettantish pursuits and a strict pleasure principle rule!) But I don't know if it calls into question the nature of the subject so much as the nature of the critic. Again, it comes down to what you enjoy and what you enjoy thinking about. They aren't always the same. And you do need both--but perhaps not from the same source. But let's say, for the sake of argument, rock isn't art. So what? Fuck art, let's dance.

9:56 AM  

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