I have two of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies index cards taped to my monitor. They are supposed to motivate me while slowly radiating guilt. Obliquely, I guess. One reads: Not building a wall, but making a brick (sands, time, hourglass, you see?) The other: What are you really thinking about just now? Incorporate.
I’m thinking about the relative merits – or rather, the lack thereof – of what I’m doing.
Sometimes they’re helpful, little cards.
When I read Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself To Live I was struck by a lot of things, not least his ability to stumble on a sweetly profound rumination on the nature – the somewhat elusive nature! – of a perfect love spurred by, of all things, driving across North Dakota and listening to Gene Simmons’ thoroughly horrible eponymous 1978 solo album. But one idea in that book stuck with me more than any other. First it niggled, then it became incessant and finally it presented itself as an immovable psychic roadblock that, to this day, I find it almost impossible to move past. In the world according to Chuck, anyone who writes about music finds themselves stuck in a particularly absurd existential crisis. One part of it is the disproportionately intense relationship critics have with their mail. The other is that critics are forever unable to escape the truth of their vocation – which is that what they do, in the scheme of things, doesn’t really matter.
In certain circles, one might be hanged for agreeing with this idea. But it’s what I always come back to, worryingly. This stuff is all pretty interesting, and fun, and I really get a kick out of it (and this is a job?) and I’ve been in some fairly awesome/absurd situations that I never imagined I’d be party to (no, not like THAT) and I’d never want to trade those memories for anything. But if all the world’s music critics died tomorrow, music wouldn’t. We aren’t the pilot fish cleaning the whale, performing some vital function. We are just hangers-on. In fact, if we did all die, publicists the world over would be delighted. Unemployed, but delighted.
It’s a chicken and egg proposition. And we definitely aren’t the egg.
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“I discovered that I hated academic people and I couldn’t stand college students because it’s totally insular. And then I realized when I got into this bullshit that it’s even more insular than that is! My feeling about rock and roll is that it’s a bunch of garbage! It’s everything your parents ever said it was, it’s in one ear and out the other, it’s trash – here today and gone tomorrow – so what? The only people who are more unnecessary than rock musicians – who are totally interchangeable – are rock critics, because who gives a fuck, right? I think this whole thing is ridiculous, but I’m glad I’m here. I’m having a good time, and I hope you are!”
So said Lester Bangs, for better or worse, despite whatever you think of him. Me? Not much, until I read Jim DeRogatis’ lovingly redeeming biography of the Creem scribe, Let It Blurt, from which the above quote is taken. Taken from a conference of music critics, no less, if you can imagine such a thing. It degenerated, mainly, into drunken slanging matches. Lenny Kaye was there with Patti Smith, speaking as writers, not as musicians. This stirred rather a great deal of excitement at the time. And Lester Bangs, whose dissolution with rock musicians was at times legendary – not least in the wake of several painfully embarrassing stoushes with Lou Reed on the nature of authenticity – won that day to me. Not through the fine, devastating construction of his argument, but for his honesty on the topic of why he did what he did. It was all absolute, unmitigated bullshit, he said; it bore no baring on the machinations of what was already fast becoming an industry; it was, he thought, a parasitic and meaningless vocation. But hell, it was FUN!
I had wanted to write about music since, as a greatly unhappy teenager, I first escaped into the pages of Q magazine for hours at a time during its ’90s heyday. Next came the local title Juice and then every other publication I could blow my wages from the record store on (which was at least time efficient, as it involved nothing more than switching from one side of the counter to the other). Then, as now, record reviews never really interested me. Nor did they make much sense. As an exercise in pure futility, they are peerless. Still, I welcome all crystalline, salient and no doubt ferocious arguings to the contrary (though, I am yet to be convinced otherwise, and my partner is a rock critic – he is extremely patient with me.) Bill Flanagan wrote about the role of the critic as viewed by the musician: “Rock stars hate critics so much because they represent the one per cent of their lives they cannot control.” This seems like a pretty arse-backwards relationship of control to me.
What I was interested in were the stories.
The reasons why anyone gets into playing rock music are as varied as the reasons why anyone starts writing about the playing of rock music. Some are transcendental, others base. Maybe you want, however naively, to change the world. Maybe you want to have a great deal of sex. Common to both is that just maybe, you never want to have to grow up and get a real job. You want to never go straight. As writers, maybe, we want to touch something so other. Perhaps, to be not just be party to it, but to be part of it. Just briefly. Somehow. But writers never really are. Your job is to always be at the margins, bearing witness to something that will exist whether you are there to write about it or not.
I asked a friend who spent a good deal of his career as a broadsheet music critic what it was that made him start doing it. “At the risk of glibness, I don’t know that it would have occurred to me not to,” he said. “I was your teen obsessive music snob. For the years 1981-84, I can tell you where I was and on what day I bought a huge number of albums. I clearly remember buying U2’s October under the counter, fresh out of an illegal import box, the smell of the cardboard inner sleeve on the bus ride home, seat second from the back, on the left as you walk down the aisle. I clearly remember requesting ‘I Will Follow’ on the local radio station one Saturday night in early 1981 and the excitement of it coming through the speakers. Mostly, I just wanted to write about stuff, and the thing I seemed to know most about was music. I didn’t know I was meant to be interested in politics and finance and stuff. You?”
I had to think very hard about this question. I was jealous of the ardent surety of his response. I had to think so hard that the short answer is what you’re reading now.
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It helps, I think, to know when, at a precise date and time, something happened that left you forever changed. In this case, it would be on Saturday, November 27, 1993. It is unseasonably hot, even for a city where summer makes its presence felt early. Inside the enormous Sydney Football Stadium, at eight in the evening, the temperature is still well over thirty degrees. The sun has set, but the dry heat of the day has not abated. The crowd, which from my perspective seems to have no end, makes for a flesh-colored sea of bare shoulders and arms held aloft, and there has been much passing of time with the building human pyramids of varying success and the tossing of the odd person akimbo into the air and catching them again and the Mexican waves of human dominoes roaring their course around the arena. Where I am standing is a fair way away from the stage. Okay, it’s almost right at the back of the venue. Behind me is just a few rows of unfortunate people who can only see the backs of our heads. The crowd before us standing on the field has pushed forward as far as they can, leaving a strip of grass exposed at the back where a few dozen people have passed out from a combination of heat stroke and too many hours spent drinking. One guy, smoking a joint, decides to strip down to his underwear and turn cartwheels over the inert figures on the ground. I get distracted watching him – until, right then, when the world is plunged into darkness and an instantaneous roar baffles the sides of my head. I am twelve years old. Who the band is doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that from that moment on I was captivated by music, and was fated, perhaps, one day to write about it as well. I wanted to somehow be inside this thing. I wanted it around me, all the time.
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My mother gives me a card for Christmas with a dog on it. This symbolizes many things, most obviously my desire to own a dog. She and I don’t talk really, much, at all, about things – not the particulars of things, anyway. But she knows what I’m trying to do, at least a bit. She definitely understands the bit about it not paying anything, in the way of money. But she never treats my decision with the anguished ambivalence that I do.
On the card is a Charles M. Schultz quote:
My life has no purpose,
No direction, no aim, no meaning,
and yet I’m happy.
I can’t figure it out.
What am I doing right?
This piece was originally commissioned by Kluster Magazine and is reproduced here with their permission.
Illustration by André Eamiello