Thursday, February 27, 2014

Rock solid, or awash in nostalgia and imitation? Perspectives from Jimmy Rushing and Harold Bloom

Among the comments on my "Rage Against Rock" rant, a post I relinked to the other day, was a fascinating recommendation from a local musician I respect. He said I should  give a listen to a band called Deerhoof and its song "Chatterboxes."

Having done so, I feel once again the sorrows of most pop attempts to play upon feelings. Here's part of why I don't listen to today's pop music, even at the exploratory fringes: It tends to be derivative in ways that seldom give much room to original expression, either vocally or instrumentally. In "Chatterboxes," during the first few minutes of its chattering guitar textures, I was immediately put in mind of a 1977 recording by performer/composer Allan Bryant called "Space Guitars: Music for New String Instruments" (CRI).

Nothing wrong about having new music remind you of old music, but I suspect Deerhoof is considered innovative in its realm. So much for that.  I don't know if the band knows Bryant's work, and, true, instrumental texture and patterning similarities don't constitute plagiarism.

On the vocal side, this instrumental pitter-patter undergirds a wistful female vocal intoning in oddly accented English a text that I could make little sense of till I looked it up online.

Pause here to consider some wisdom that's as applicable to the performing arts as to literature. "As fools of time," Harold Bloom says toward the end of a  brilliant lecture on Shakespeare delivered at Yale University in 2012, "we are all of us agonized lovers, fantasizing fictions of duration that, if they are jealous enough, become our own bad poems or stories."

Harold Bloom, plausibly listening to "Chatterboxes," but probably not.
For Deerhoof in "Chatterboxes," the "fictions of duration" are rich, thrown backward into a past not so much remembered as mistily evoked, and in fairly trite ways. "In pencil lines of ages past," the lyric begins, "Idea maps were being drawn / over the world."  True enough, a universal process of fledgling understanding, tentative ("pencil lines") and provisional, starts the parade of nostalgia.

The birth of the oral tradition as the recollection of maternal voices, dependably "fantasizing fictions of duration," implants "storytime in your wildest mind": "Mother to child, / singing a long song."  Of course it's a long song, since it lasts far beyond the physical experience of hearing it in infancy. And it tends to overdetermine later, ostensibly mature interpretations of life.
Jimmy Rushing

These formative experiences shape life's journey, unsurprisingly expressed by Deerhoof in obsolete, hackneyed metaphors: "Set sail, seaworthy vessel. Fill your hold with the sound / Of daughters and sons / Wagging their tongues."

The din raised by these voyagers (now we see what all that fuzzy guitar chaff is for) is then sentimentalized as dream-stuff, even as its transmission is given durable form. The song ends: "Written down in ink so clear / Voices of a yesteryear / Dreams are whispered in an ear."

This is certainly the uprearing of excessive jealousy Bloom speaks of. In Deerhoof and so much bad art, it expresses in pain and wistfulness a futile resistance to being time's fool. The resistance is too limp and passive to be heroic. So the expression of it descends swiftly into the category that the Bloom quotation's last six words bluntly identify.

Pop consists of countless musings that are all too jealous of time's inevitable thievery. The results are the bad poems and stories of pop lyrics, going all the way back to Tin Pan Alley. Even lyrics far better than those of "Chatterboxes" can be buried in the sentimentality and overlayering of pop singers. Then again, an undistinguished set of lyrics, such as those to the obscure song "The You and Me That Used to Be," can be held back from the dustheap of "our own bad poems and stories" by the right performers.

I turn to that song because of its late-in-life rendition by one of my favorite jazz vocalists, Jimmy Rushing, on an LP of the same title, recorded with stellar jazz backing less than a year before the singer's death in 1972. Like Louis Armstrong, Rushing always sang with individuality and feeling, but he didn't emote. Nor did he act superior to a song's emotion, so that even with inferior songs, Rushing's exuberance was never ironic.

If Professor Bloom's warnings about the toll we pay for being the fools of time are true, Rushing had an instinctive knack not to give in to trite expressions of that predicament. Questionable material can thus yield a straightforward, if temporary, victory. And so it does here.

The voice is buoyant, tinged enough with regret to represent the lyrics well,  but cresting the wave of nostalgia for bygone days that a couple in love spent watching movies, visiting the zoo, and "paying a man a dime to watch the moon". Rushing's well-worn voice drapes itself casually over the lyrics, falling a bit off phrase ends as if to indicate: "Well, those times were all well and good, and I sort of miss them, but the important thing is we had them and, though we're done with them, I wonder if you ever give them a thought, too."

When his voice rises in the chorus at the very end, it's to indicate as much triumph as any of us can have over the fondly recalled past. "The You and Me That Used to Be" could surely be sung wallowing in its regret for lost pleasures, but Rushing manages to evoke those pleasures without becoming entangled.

An instinct for unfussy interpretation, honed on the fertile Kansas City scene of the 1920s, somehow meets the truth of an aged professor's aphoristic wisdom about time and art. I don't often find contemporary popular music equal to such a surprising and enlightening conversation.