John Corbett is an old-school renaissance person: he owns and runs a gallery in Chicago; he plays the guitar; he used to write about jazz but is schooled in almost every kind of music one can imagine; he was a sort of a promoter of musical events while in college; he is the only person I know who interviewed Sun Ra (see below).
His new book Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music (University of Chicago Press, March 2019) proves how versatile and expert his music criticism is. Pick Up the Pieces foregrounds Corbett himself, and his rich and varied musical youth, but in the process attending above all to the feeling of loving music, to the inquiry into music as a kind of alchemical mapping of the self. At the same time, the book retains the kind of perceptiveness—and the occasionally outrageous opinion—that we want from our best music writers.
I loved reading this book as I have loved few books of writing on music recently, and therefore I was eager to ask Corbett a few questions, which I finally got to do by email in February and the beginning of March of 2019. If you like Corbett’s discursive and curious and quixotic sensibility here, as I’m betting you will, you’ll love the book too (and no doubt the sequel he’s working on now). Have a listen.
The Rumpus: I’m mindful of the fact that in earlier work you wrote at length about improvisation and experimental music, and yet in this book you let us in on some moments of appreciation about decidedly mainstream music. The title itself celebrates this profane love. Was it difficult to raise this particular freak flag high? Was your love of the pop song always lurking inside waiting to be given a vessel of this kind so as to shine forth?
John Corbett: Although I’ve written more extensively about obscure music than I have mainstream music, I’ve always listened to both. Sometimes the balance has shifted, but never one exclusive of the other. One of the challenges I set myself in Pick Up the Pieces was to try to find my own way to write about music that’s very broadly known, what saxophonist Joseph Jarman once called “universal property.” It’s one thing to write about music that barely anyone has heard of—that comes with a certain responsibility to be informative and accurate but to be original, well, you’re already original because you’re writing about it. You’re copping some of its originality. When you’re writing about Fleetwood Mac or Neil Young, there’s an army of people already doing that, the Mojo armada, and so you have a different set of demands in order to bring anything new to the table.
The term “guilty pleasure,” which is often invoked in contexts like this, has always felt strange to me. I know it’s meant to suggest a kind of shame—one should be ashamed for enjoying that awful everyday pabulum. But I’ve felt the shame the other direction, that someone might assume I think better of myself for listening to obscure music when in fact I dig all kinds of popular music, too.
Rumpus: Is there a mnemonic quality to the “everyday paneling” that helps you clear the shame hurdle? For instance, I have massive overlap with you (thus this interview), and am constantly defending my pre-punk love of Prog (Close to the Edge!), which definitely causes Proustian waves of memory in me. But: I really strongly dislike Van Halen. It’s a band with less than zero interest for me. I like Dave’s carnival barker routine, and I like Eddie’s smile, but I hate the songs and the sound of the recordings. Does the time, the zeitgeist of the 70s, enable you to transcend aesthetic judgment here?
Corbett: Van Halen: I was indifferent to the second LP and actively detested all thereafter, but Van Halen was a touchstone in terms of pop metal, and returning to it after four decades I still found a lot to like. The guitar sound is special—strong and personal—and the songs have subtle details (ha! here I am praising the subtlety of Van Halen) and are more interesting than I understood at the time. I stand by it, not as a masterpiece, but as a really great good-time record. Nevertheless, in this book I did allow myself to write about some music that, upon return, I did not like. Like Ted Nugent. And not just from the standpoint of what a numbskull he’s turned out to be—his band, now that I hear it with the ears of a fifty-four-year-old who’s been listening to music nonstop since then, is remarkably weak. Or Alice Cooper’s ”School’s Out,” which is a one-liner and little more, unlike Cooper’s weird and good earlier records. But this music was all important to me and I wanted to spend a minute with it to ask why. Not to transcend aesthetic judgment, but to ponder the change in my brain, to wonder about the earlier me. And maybe also to indulge in that mnemonic quality a little, to feel the feelings that even music I have grown away from can stir. Music has such a deep power, penetrating memory access, that not many other art forms seem to possess in as pure a way. Proustian dope kit. Incidentally, I don’t have much appetite for writing about bad music. I had plenty of experience doing that over twenty-five years as a monthly lead reviewer in DownBeat magazine, where I was assigned new releases rather than choosing what I would write about. There is nothing more difficult than finding something to say about a dull record.
One more thing: there is some music from my youth that I have trouble assessing in a critical way. For instance, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle.” It’s kind of a brilliant arrangement, but I’m not sure I can step back from it that analytical manner, because it was the song that taught me how to dance. How are you going to interrogate that? By what aesthetic criterion can you judge your disco dance instructor? I just say thanks, Van.
Rumpus: So what about Ted Nugent then? What was it that made him palatable back when? I remember my first year at Brown (1979-1980) there were guys who were into the Pistols and the Clash who would advance the theory that “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Wango Tango” were punk but in a way concealed from view. I remember thinking they were extremely bad, and sort of liking their badness to some limited degree, in the way, for example, that I thought “My Sharona” was sort of interestingly bad. But was there more to it than that? Is it possible with some of this stuff that only the historical conditions made it possible to like the music in question? (I sort of feel that way about U2 now—I simply cannot understand what I might have liked about them, if indeed I liked them, in 1979-1981.) Or is the mnemonic freighted-ness of the interaction with the song such as to give it a veneer that it would not otherwise have? Or is there a narrative that goes with this work for you? Like a particular “School’s Out” event or events that continues to haunt your interactions with the song?
Corbett: Well, with the Nuge, what made him palatable was in part that I was thirteen years old and thought he was a rule-breaking badass. The music was loud and risqué and suitably gonzo, and the songs had a sense of humor, which I appreciated. But I had little to compare it with and my lack of knowledge worked to Ted’s advantage. Going back to Cat Scratch Fever, I can hear that the biggest problem is the rhythm section. It’s remarkably sluggish for a band that’s supposed to be so explosive. The drumming is lackluster and the bassist has no dynamic relationship to the time. It’s got the metrical blahs. Nugent has to generate all the propulsion—a job he was very good at, to be honest.
I do think you’re right, that there’s some music that is so linked to its historical milieu that it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it later. But I believe that, too, is in fact unfixed, and things that seem irredeemable suddenly pop back into fashion. Look at all the Martin Denny and Les Baxter records languishing in thrift stores, seemingly repudiated by all humanity, until the 90s exotica revival. Or the current rehashing of 80s synth pop. Not quite the solution we’d expected. For the record, U2, for me, was impossible to love after October, so dreadful, and the later records made me despise the first two. It works that way sometimes: one shitty record brings the others down. And in other cases, like with Alice Cooper, the good records seem fireproofed against the lesser ones, so that Easy Action, for instance, is worth listening to, while I can’t say as much for Welcome to My Nightmare. What made it interesting to look back at “School’s Out” was the perspective of age, understanding something about how shock rock related to my own, very weird, family history, with professional wrestling and circuses at the center of its narrative.
To return to Ted Nugent, I arrived at Brown two years after you, five years after seeing him at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, same time that the guys who formed Pussy Galore and Cop Shoot Cop were at the school playing in Shithaus, and I never thought for two seconds that Nugent had anything to do with punk. He is a punk, but that’s different. But all his antics, as well as his music, in the end, are about as normative as could be. Predatory songs about young women played by a chugging rock quartet. No way, give me Pink Flag or Dial ‘M’ for Motherfucker and call it a day.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the 70s part of this project. So do you feel like there really is something special about our decade, or is it simply because this was the decade in which you discovered music, and therefore you were honor bound to favor its productions, if not least because you were, for example, thirteen. I have often heard it said that there is some alleged study indicating that whatever you liked at thirteen is going to be the music you feel most strongly about in your life. So are the 70s unusual, or are they just your decade?
Corbett: Ah, exceptionalism! It’s hard to disentangle the personal from the general in a case like this, which in some ways is why I chose not to, instead letting the personal invade my overview of the epoch. I’d say that, just in terms of recorded music, the 70s do occupy a particularly important moment, an apotheosis, and also a dispersal, a widening out. It’s the era in which the LP matured and blossomed, also the era in which it crashed and burned, leaving singles culture in its wake, a return to the 60s in late-70s DIY 7-inch post-punk. But if you think of the term “album,” which hearkens back to photography, in the 50s and 60s musical albums were normally just like that: compilations of snapshots, single songs culled together into a scrapbook. In the 70s, the record became an art form all its own, rather than a receptacle for singles. Multitrack recording technology reaches a kind of peak in this decade; new distribution methods make international music more accessible; home stereo hits a kind of freakish zenith, too. I make a point of emphasizing the notion of hybridity, which I think is one of the standout features of the 70s. Information was really picking up velocity, spreading exponentially, and all around the world there were broadcasting zones, transmitter zones, and receiver zones, so that, for instance, Jamaica, one of the most fulsome broadcaster zones of the period, influenced almost every kind of popular music, and singers and players everywhere experimented widely with ska, rock steady, reggae, talk-over, nyabinghi, and dub. Of course, hybridity was also a feature of the end of the previous decade, with psychedelic music for instance, but it culminated in the 70s.
Foucault once said that the big problem is that we tend to see our current moment as daybreak or damnation when in fact it’s just another day. The 70s was just another day. But what a wonderful day. You can argue that any decade has its own power, and naturally it does. But I’d say that the 70s—our decade—left us music with more music of lasting impact than most. That certainly reflects my age and the fact that I learned how to listen in that decade. I’m biased. But I’m right.
One final thing about this: in the 70s, popular music was great music, much more than now, much more than in the 80s, and I’d argue much more than in the 50s. 60s, well, that’s tough. Recorded music then was spectacular in a different way. But for sure regular old 70s music, the stuff we grew up listening to on the radio, the singles and albums we bought, the live broadcasts we watched on Soul Train and Saturday Night Live—these were full of incredible, life-altering music. Stevie Wonder was a fucking pop musician, man. You could hear Led Zeppelin on the radio, one of the best drummers ever to hit a snare, John Bonham. David Bowie was everywhere. Sly Stone was top forty. Joni Mitchell was a superstar. Neil Young’s Harvest was the biggest seller. I remember listening to The Band’s Stage Fright on our Ford LTD car stereo. You couldn’t get away from all the fricking fantastic music even if you tried. Honestly, do we have that now? Now we have to go hunting. And if I’m listening to the radio, regular broadcast radio, I’m automatically depressed.
A caveat: country music. Country music was not better in the 70s. All the outlaw dreck and meldings that created the Eagles—move along, people, nothing to look at. I enjoyed the Eagles when I was thirteen, so I guess there goes that theory.
Rumpus: Ha! That’s really funny about the Eagles. I hate the Eagles rather violently, which is I guess what you’re saying.
I just want to probe at the “exceptionalism.” Usually, when I think the 70s were special, I do a thought experiment about the 80s. Everyone hates the 80s because of gated reverb and MIDI chains, but the 80s also gave us, e.g., The Tenement Year by Pere Ubu, Big Science by Laurie Anderson, New Day Rising by Husker Du, Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen, Free Lancing by James “Blood” Ulmer, Let It Be by the Replacements, “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, Dolmen Music by Meredith Monk, On Land by Brian Eno, Symphony No. 3 (GLORIA) by Glenn Branca, etc. If I were ten years younger, and that were the time, would you say to me that my time was not relevant or less relevant? And what about now? Like you, I would rather punch nails into my head than listen to, e.g., a bunch of Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande or, say, what passes for rock and roll on Pitchfork, but can that resistance really constitute an accurate assessment of contemporary music? One must (in one’s late fifties, let’s say) survive on antipathy, or expertise on a decade now forty years past?
Corbett: I prefer to keep my qualitative generalization about the superiority of the 70s contained to the top of the pops. Everyday music, the kind that you could find absolutely everywhere, was spectacularly wonderful then. If we admit independent music, of course, every moment of every day of every decade there’s some special off-the-grid or out-of-limelight music being made. What complicated the 80s, in part, was the codification of indie and “alternative” music. But the really super-popular music of that time, with notable exceptions—Michael Jackson, of course, and Prince—wasn’t something that held my attention. This wasn’t just zeitgeist, it was structural. It was a concerted effort on the part of the music industry, which at the end of the 70s feared that it might actually implode; major labels had once been very liberal in gathering new talent, putting out loads of records by lots of people who never made it big, but now they felt they needed the massive hits to stay alive, so they restricted their efforts to a smaller number of acts, more coiffed, overproduced, and lavished with all the oil their PR machines could muster. Look at Heart in the 70s and then look at them in the 80s. Yikes.
Also, if we really get into qualitative judgments and thinking categorically, we’d have to admit how much atrocious pop music was made in the 70s. Really. America and Seals & Crofts, ABBA and Starland Vocal Band, REO Speedwagon and Supertramp, Kiss and Foreigner. There could be a companion book—Throw Out the Pieces.
When I was finishing Pick Up the Pieces I began to wonder if this might be a series of decade books. Then I thought about the 80s and said no way, I couldn’t do it, I don’t have the same feeling for that era’s music. A bit of time passed. I started making a list. Some of the records on your previous list were on it. It grew very long. And then I realized, hey, I was in college and grad school in the 80s, I was constantly listening to music, contemporary music, loving it, not too much of the pop music but all sorts of other stuff, and now I’m writing a book about the 80s, same mode as this one. And the hook is: it’s an apology for 80s music. Because all the gated drums and synth blankets couldn’t snuff out the amazing shit that people were inventing.
I learned to listen in the 70s, but I didn’t gather all the music I would need for my life. I’m not stuck there. Actually, I wore some of my favorites out, had to leave them behind for a few decades. I have that feeling about the Beatles, too. No contesting their importance, but I don’t really want to hear them now. I know it too well. It’s boring. I saved some things I knew I would like for later, like Gram Parsons, who I only got to know much later, or Big Star, whose brilliance never spoke to me as a younger person but does as an old fart. And there are ones that will never run out of juice, like Parliament. I want Mothership Connection played at my funeral.
As to the present, I’m listening to a ton of pop-ish music made now, not Taylor Swift—blech, but certainly relevant to someone—but Earl Sweatshirt, Open Mike Eagle, Pusha T, and Run The Jewels, SZA and Erykah Badu, Moor Mother, Thee Oh Sees and Savages, David Grubbs, This Is The Kit, the renaissance of women singer/songwriters including Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, Feist, Joanna Newsom, Beth Orton, and Laura Marling. Thank goodness for Antony, or I guess Anohni, for making “Another World.” And I kinda like Beyoncé. I think she’s going places.
Rumpus: You have more you wanted to share about mnemonics?
Corbett: Yes, maybe we can return for a moment to the idea of mnemonics. As a music journalist I’d always been warned off using first person, and there are good reasons to be sparing in use of subjective perspective. When you’re writing a review or a feature, it should be focused on the music, not you. I get that. So this isn’t music journalism. Approaching this book I felt a strong impulse to locate some of the music in terms of personal narrative, using a kind of echolocation, plotting it in my life and in the world around me, looking for its meaning not in some universal floating absolute, but burrowed into the minutia of daily life, the widening perspective of a kid growing up or the confessions of an adult discovering something important he missed in his childhood.
I was moved by the way you did this way back when in Garden State, and even more so in the author’s preface you added seven years later. The book used music as a navigational device, emotionally and in the plot, and then you further situated it, meta-critically, in that retrospective reflection, where it became crucially important what music you were listening to while you were writing a book that used listening to music as a ground. I felt that incessant specificity, too. When I hear Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, I am cast back to a single snowy afternoon. Nothing that I’ve learned since—which is just about anything I know about the music—has diminished that association. Same with the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers: nobody needs me to tell them some factoid about the Jagger/Richards songwriting team, but here I’ve taken the liberty of recounting a brief instant, a flash really, in which I believed I would die in a car accident, the Stones providing the soundtrack. The only way these experiences have survived is through the music. And there are uncomfortable parts of my past that I’ve excavated in the process, episodes I might rather have left alone. That’s what I was thinking about when I started. About how my friends and I listened to tons of queer music—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Queen, Sparks—in a suburban context that was deeply homophobic; that we revered African American music in spite of living around steadfast racists, in a city—Philadelphia—whose governance was anchored in the most disgusting kind of systemic racial violence. For me, riding the rails of the music itself was a way of getting back to those contradictions, wondering aloud about them, forcing their polarities to rise to the surface. Despite the obvious differences between music in the 70s and now, the contradictions haven’t completely gone away; many are still relevant, still volatile, and still widely disavowed.
Rumpus: I’m really interested in the critique of the first-person perspective in music criticism, in part because the music criticism I really like best almost always foregrounds subjectivity (Lester Bangs being a good example, but much of what was produced in the Village Voice in the 70s/80s was first-person, and I read all of that work with great voraciousness). My own approaches to the medium have always been in this direction, I think, and I really like it in your book, too. Maybe because I approach music emotionally this seems a hard approach to completely evade.
You bring up the issue or race and music, and I wanted to talk about that with respect to your book, because you are such a catholic listener that race is really effaced in how passionately you like what you like. For me, the chapter about Sun Ra, and meeting Sun Ra, is a good example of this. My reverence for Sun Ra is such that it’s almost impossible to imagine meeting him, or even that he was really here (and not, for example, on Saturn), but you have, and apparently at a much younger age. My experience of the early 80s, notwithstanding the crossover success of a certain disgraced pop star much in the news this week, was of a fragmenting radio environment that increasingly pitted the white audience against the black audience (disco sucks!) and so on. How did you find your way across that divide? Was it music criticism that helped you? Or older listeners? Or having one foot in the AM radio of the early 70s? And was is the lesson of that listening for us now?
Corbett: Yeah, I agree for sure. Bangs changed everything for me as a listener and also probably as a writer. And the Brits I was reading in NME and Melody Maker and Sounds and Sniffin’ Glue, the punk and post-punk writers, they didn’t hide their subjective position, made a point of foregrounding it much of the time. But there are aspects of good criticism that require a certain kind of distance—accurate and insightful description, especially, which is the most important skill, and of course critical assessment. The thing that’s tricky when journalists depend on first-person subjective appraisal is that it too easily lapses into opinion. Opinions are common, ordinary, banal. I think it’s okay to share them, but the work can’t stop there, it has to push harder, find more than simple judgment. The sadness of thumbs up/down or star rating systems: opinion stated as pseudo-scientific stats.
So, all that said, I went whole hog for the subjective in Pick Up the Pieces, but did so for a specific reason. I think there are things about music—yes, I agree, emotional things mostly—that can’t be approached in a more supposedly neutral way. They require the setting, the event, the character, the consequence. I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately, and I think that has something to do with it. I felt that there were aspects of the music of that era that I would miss—crush is probably a better word—if I wrote about them in an academic or journalistic way. The little delicacies of learning to make your way around the world by way of what you put in your ears.
Growing up in the 70s, you’d have had to want to avoid black music. My first favorite song, when I was a little kid, was by the Fifth Dimension; my first vinyl record was a single by Edwin Starr; my elementary school friends and I adored Minnie Riperton and Rufus & Chaka Khan and Hot Chocolate; George Clinton, whose music I was gifted by my record store boss in junior high, was my gateway drug to harder funk. I remember kids wearing “disco sucks” t-shirts, understanding implicitly that as lovers of hard rock we were supposed to be against funky music, also rejecting that stance. How could you love Aerosmith and be against funk, for fuck’s sake? When I was in high school I got into jazz. And I’ve been very fortunate to meet many of my jazz heroes in the course of writing about them and producing concerts for them, Sun Ra included. I interviewed Ra four times, once on his death bed. He was a world-class talker—one question and he could be off and running for an hour, all of it fascinating and enlightening.
I was raised in a color blind family, also kind of color ignorant. Music was my education. And I think it still functions that way for lots of young suburban white kids—they transcend the myopia of their enclave through music. I have younger relatives who did this, learned their way out of their box by means of rap. My current hip-hop mentor is Joe, a seventeen-year-old white kid I’ve known since he was born; one day when he was fourteen we started talking about music and he knew ten times more than me. Now he sends me regular text recommendations, keeps me up to date. And he’s very critical, understands the race politics of his love of the music much more thoroughly than I did at his age. Joe makes me feel very optimistic.
Rumpus: it’s funny that we both came out of Brown University—I presume that the critical theory/modern cultural and media/semiotics department had some effect on you as it did on me. While I certainly believe that “subjectivity” is a social construct, and (as I say to the horror of my writing students) that the self is the ultimate artifice, these bits of resistance pale in comparison to my suspicions about objectivity. But perhaps what you’re saying is that these approaches are dynamic. Without a reliance on objectivity somewhere in the mix, we are lost in a blind adherence to relativities. Let’s talk a little about jazz in the 70s, if you’re willing. Was your awakening to loft jazz and the downtown of Zorn et al., an outgrowth of punk, or to some more traditional thing which was, in the 70s, somewhat in eclipse? (And: sidebar: can you expand on the Sun Ra story a bit? I’m really curious about what he was like.)
Corbett: Yes, I see both subjectivity and objectivity as constructions. Between them is a field of possible positions for writers and readers. I don’t believe in externally verifiable meanings in music or art, but I do think there are good and bad descriptions, just as I think there are interpretations that are good and less good. To pull off the kind of self-indulgent music criticism that Bangs does is an art in itself. Many others try and fail miserably. His version brings insight by means of stories and fantasies and proclaimed judgments. I only hope that mine is a fraction as entertaining as his.
I got into jazz backasswards, by way of post-punk. The noise and energy and intelligence of post-punk were appealing to me. So was its challenge to the use of standardized rock formats. It had an experimental ethos, which was what drew me across the aisle at the record store, into the jazz section, the vastness of which had always intimidated me. Any catholicism I have comes strictly from curiosity, the same kind that leads you into the mysterious parts of the shop. I’ve let my nose lead me around into all kinds of unfamiliar places. On my maiden jazz expedition I bought two records : Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, perhaps the most stereotypical first record for a jazz newcomer, and Blood Ulmer’s Tales of Captain Black, quite the opposite, a dive into the proverbial deep end. Ulmer, it turned out, had recorded for Rough Trade, though I didn’t know it that day; when I learned of this, it suggested an actual crossover between jazz and post-punk that till then I’d only felt. I also recall that my first taste of free improvised music was cellist Tristan Honsinger on a single called “We Are All Prostitutes” by the Pop Group. His playing was completely opaque to me, which, in my world, was a great quality. I had to try to figure it out. It made me more curious.
Knowing of my newfound obsession with jazz, an older friend in high school basically forced me to buy the newest Sun Ra LP, Lanquidity. It immediately became one of my favorite records, and by the time I was in college I was buying anything I could find by the Arkestra. I managed to see them perform many times in the 80s, and theirs was an inspiration that went far beyond the sound of their music. My initial encounter with Ra himself, in 1986, when I was about to graduate from Brown, took place in the dressing room at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel. We talked for nearly two hours—well, mostly he talked—with John Gilmore nodding and smiling in the wings. I met June Tyson then, too. She was incredibly friendly and I loved her stage presence, which was so warm, but could turn fierce, too. Like Ra.
When Ra died, in 1993, I got a call from his on/off manager since the 50s, Alton Abraham. We became friendly, and then Alton’s death in 1999 set off a chain of events that, a year later, led my wife and me to acquire a huge cache of Ra materials. I’ve told the story in full four-part harmony as a chapter in my last book, Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (Duke University Press, 2017), but this was easily the single most important experience for me in terms of just facing off with my love of material culture, asking myself what really means anything in the bigger picture, what the trajectory of my life in the period after, say, forty, might look like. I would never be doing what I do now if I hadn’t, for instance, had a late night session listening to one of the four hundred tapes, during which, out of a barrage of late 60s drum-heavy Arkestra, came a short segment of Ra alone a decade earlier, probably recorded late at night in his apartment in Chicago, in which he says in a wonderfully strange singsongy whisper, like a TV horror movie announcer: ”Truth is bad… or truth is good! It all depends on who and what and why and how you know…”
Ra always said he was not a philosopher because philosophy deals with conjecture and he was interested in equations. Identity as construction? Hey, y’all, Sun Ra came from Saturn to teach us that shit many decades ago. It’s taken us a minute to figure out what he meant.
Rumpus: Lanquidity was also my first Ra purchase. I think it got a really good review in the Voice and I bought it, not knowing anything about it. It was a period in which I was really trying and failing to understand Ornette, too. I didn’t totally get the Ra thing, then, and it took me a good five or ten years of rigorous application to see the fun and joy and originality of it all. Then, which is still now, I became obsessed and couldn’t stop.
I did an event last night with the critic Florence Dore who has out a really good book, Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll, about linkages between rock and roll (and the material that pre-dates rock and roll) and Southern literature of the 50s. We got talking about whether rock and roll is now inevitably a thing that one talks about as though the canon was fixed and the matter is closed. I was wondering, while walking home last night, if the 70s-veneration in your book is a manifestation of that, that the matter is sort of closed now. I think young people don’t really know what rock and roll is, or was, which means it’s now a post-historical thing. Do you think it is still extant in a meaningful way? Could we write about rock and roll of the new millennium and still mean anything? Or would it necessarily be about a niche genre?
Corbett: Interesting question. I’m congenitally averse to declarations of the end of things, I think. Consider all that’s been proclaimed over: the novel, figuration, abstraction, painting in general—these things are supposed to be done, to have worn out their worth in the contemporary world. They’re spent. Quaint. Passé. And yet, they persist. Maybe the most consistent such proclamation, in music, is jazz. I’ve always been fond of Lester Bowie’s great solo trumpet piece “Jazz Death?”—in it, posing as a jazz critic, he asks himself: “Is jazz as we know it dead?” And his response: “It all depends on what… you… know.”
Rock and roll, as I see it, necessarily defies historical canonization, and it does so by transforming into other things. Because, in a way, it doesn’t really matter if it’s rock and roll as we know it, or post-rock (dumb term, I always thought), or some new amalgamation that we don’t know—the spirit that drove rock in all its manifestations, I’d say, transcended the term and lives on. Maybe that’s idiotically romantic, but hey, I’ll take the hit. I’ve been at gigs not that long ago, let’s just pick out one luminous night at the Empty Bottle in Chicago watching Thee Oh Sees, when I knew that the impetus had not ended, and so did the many young people dancing around me. I think rock lives on in lots of contemporary rap, too, extending the Funkadelic lineage—funk-rock babies, all. People do frequently ask me if jazz is dead. That was Ken Burns’s line, that it is basically now a historical concept. My response: nonsense. I hear all sorts of great jazz these days. Tons and tons. Maybe it doesn’t sound like the jazz we’ve come to think of as jazz. But that’s the point. It’s transformed. And so is rock. It will take a little bit to write about it meaningfully, but yes, I think an insightful critique of things like Smog and Bonnie Prince Billie and Sharon Van Etten is in order. And not at all confined to a narrow niche. Check out Tyler the Creator’s track “Deathcamp” from Cherry Bomb and tell me it has nothing to do with rock.
Rumpus: I was thinking of the whole issue, of the “death of rock” (and at this event the other night Peter Holsapple played a really funny and unsettling song called “The Death of Rock”), in the way that Arthur Danto used to talk about contemporary art having used up its material at the moment of Warhol’s Brillo box, and being post-historical thereafter. I know you’re going to say here’s a lot of great art that was made after that moment (Christian Marclay, Gregory Crewdson, Marina Abramovic, etc.), and I agree, and Danto usually occupied himself with works that had epistemological emphasis among contemporary artists, and used them in the 80s and 90s, to indicate art aware of its ontological crises. He never had trouble finding excitement among “post-historical” works of contemporary art. And yet: does not something like Greta Van Fleet (or, for me, the Black Keys, a band that has never existed in any way but as a reconstitution of ideas formulated elsewhere) indicate a mere rehashing and depleting of the original impulse? Or should we just say that there was “always already” a rehashing, that rock and roll or popular music of the 70s, e.g., was rehashing at the moment of its origin, its origin being itself highly suspect?
Corbett: Depends where you’re looking for originality. Should it be found in conception or inflection? Originality of conception—extremely rare. Even the wellspring artists of rock and roll were not conceptually original. Originality of inflection—the mainstay of culture. And Elvis, for one, was original in inflection, in my opinion, not in conception. In the 80s, I was very enamored of the sort of postmodern self-consciousness that stems from a basic feeling that everything’s been done before, even though I never really believed for a minute that everything had been done before. That ontological crisis rang true to me then, but that work began to seem a bit hollow after awhile. The notion of “used-up material” of culture, I now find that dubious. The post-historical feels like a critic’s perspective on making things. Someone “does something” and then it’s been done, basta. Not for me. It’s in the inflection, like the way a pinball player cheats the machine a bit, trying to avoid tilting. Ask someone who actually makes things whether they’re easy to “use up” and you’ll get a very different response. Material is there to be massaged, and you can often massage them a long time before they run dry. Sometimes materials are dormant awhile, and then it turns out there’s still stuff left to do with them. Of course that’s very different from someone self-consciously trying to sound just like Led Zeppelin, like Greta Van Fleet does, or playing stereotypical garage boogie rock like Black Keys do—pretty damn well, in my ears. There are no doubt pastiche artists, good and bad, though I don’t see pastiche as a general cultural symptom the way Frederic Jameson did. If you want a good example of a highly popular band that seems to me to defy the concept of contemporary rock as inevitably post-historical, I’d point at Alabama Shakes. In them you hear lots of points of reference—Zeppelin, Stones, Curtis Mayfield—but nothing’s derivative and it’s not a pastiche. Those references are fully digested.
Rumpus: I too really like Alabama Shakes. I like the bass playing, I like the sort of Cropperesque guitar parts, and of course there’s Brittany Howard. What an immensely powerful voice.
Two last questions: I published a crowd-sourced list of “perfect” albums this week, obviously a somewhat facetious task. But I wondered what would constitute a perfect album for you, these days? And, what’s next for your work?
Corbett: I saw the Shakes a couple years back and Brittany Howard absolutely killed me. I could have watched her for days. I think she’s one of the most dynamic performers I’ve ever seen. More records, please!
So, perfect records for me are more than just collections of flawless songs. They are organisms in themselves. I meditate a bit on what constitutes a perfect record in Pick Up the Pieces in a chapter on Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which I would put in that category for sure. Key elements are that the tracks need to feel like they have some urgent relationship to one another, you should feel that it’s more like a suite than an “album.” And the first impulse when the record finishes should be: start it over.
Here’s another one: Milton Nascimento/Lô Borges, Clube da Esquina.
I’ve been working on a few projects of late. As I mentioned above, although I’d thought it impossible, I’m actually digging into a follow-up, structured like Pick Up the Pieces, about the 80s, tentatively titled Sing No Evil: An Apology for Eighties Music. I’m finding it a fascinating reevaluation, also confirmation that it was a bit of a dire moment for mainstream pop. And I’ve been working on a small, poetic book on Albert Ayler’s death. There are three weeks in which his whereabouts are officially unaccounted for before his body was discovered. That unaccounted time is, for me, tragic and very suggestive. Coincidentally, I’ve been invited to contribute liner notes to a box set of Bengt “Frippe” Nordström, the saxophonist who first recorded Ayler. I’ll be working on that soon, too.
Photograph of John Corbett © Jean Andre Antoine.