Yesterday I Learned … VII

Yesterday I learned that some of us still don’t know how to perform drive-thru transactions properly. Some say the first drive-thru restaurant to open a side window happened in 1928, some say 1947, but whatever the case is, they’re been around for as long as most of us have been alive. Thus, those of us who didn’t grow up in a subculture that avoids technology know how to perform a drive-thru transaction. Yet, we read a decades-old menu of a decades old franchise as if it requires a Rosetta Stone to decipher its hieroglyphs. When we finally decide what we want, we search for the button to ignite the speaker device. For those who don’t know, restaurants in the 1970’s had buttons customers were required to use when they were ready to speak. When the time to perform arrives, we scream into the speaker as if we don’t understand the mechanizations behind the audio amplification a speaker can provide. What should take two minutes, often takes ten. Today, I realized that those of us who fall prey to the confusion this transaction provides are officially as old as the people they used to mock for being old.

Yesterday I realized that most artists spend most of their time skimming the core. Think about your favorite artists in any milieu. How many earth-shattering pieces did they create? The best artists, be they in literature, music, painting, etc., are extremely fortunate to develop four unique pieces that stand alone and above their peers’ creations. How many pieces did da Vinci create? Two? We have under twenty definitively proven da Vinci works, and only two are known throughout the world. How many pieces did Van Gogh, Picasso, James Joyce, and Andy Kaufman create? Some artists limited themselves to a few creations, and they spent most of their time perfecting those pieces, but others created hundreds of pieces, but most of them were not great, as we’re defining great here. Those of us who love music, fall in love with certain artists. How many great, epic, I-can’t-wait-to-listen-to-them-again albums did these artists create? I’m not limiting this discussion to sales figures here either. I’m talking about you-know-greatness-when-you-hear-it great. Three examples from my youth are King’s X Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, Queensyche’s Operation Mindcrime, and Metallica’s Master of Puppets. I was so in love with each of these albums that it didn’t matter how great their next album was, I was going to greet it as a normal person might greet their child into the world. I would listen to these new albums thirty times, before I began skipping through some songs, until I eventually tossed them into my personal dustbin. Each of these artists followed up what were for me magical, transcendent albums with admirable efforts, but the albums top-to-bottom didn’t have the same magic as their predecessors. The subsequent albums had some great singles, but the artists seemed to skim the core of their greatness for the rest of their careers. Now that we’ve achieved some distance, we can reflect back and evaluate our favorite artists more objectively. I think most music aficionados will now admit that their favorite artists probably had two albums that stand the test of time in them. Yet, it’s so exciting to see an artist come so close to their core that we buy their entire catalog without hearing any of the songs or reading critical reviews. Today, I realized that I love a great book, and I enjoy the occasional painting or two, but I never understood how someone could stare at a great painting for a half hour. There is something different about music, however, something that reached me when I was far too young to understand the connection, and something that, to quote the cliché, soothed my soul. Music is the universal art form that brings us together and drives us apart. I gave three examples of albums that inspired me in ways no other art form could, but I could probably list 100 off the top of my head that ‘set the sick ones free’. That list of 100 albums is so personal to me, but could it have been a time and place matter, or is a great album always a great album no matter when they come out, and how difficult are they to follow up?    

“I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born. Everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.” –Thomas Edison

Does art reflect life, or does life reflect art? How many of the most brilliant pieces of art are nothing more than interpretations of the world around the artist? Isn’t that the definition of art? Aren’t all artistic pieces “brain-born”? I understand that Edison was trying to be humble, but it doesn’t make much sense, if you consider Edison artistic in a universal sense. Artistic pieces are born through a complicated algorithm that arrow through influences, experiences, and individual interpretations. Whether it involves the creation of the lightbulb, the novel, and every other form of art, most of the artistic minutiae of a creation occur in the individual interpretation stage, but most artists could not arrive at that place without the first two.

Yesterday I considered most psychological tests a total waste of time. I don’t put much value in Rorschach tests, I don’t know what the spiral eye test does for anyone, other than being a little neat, and I think fill in the blank tests, insert letters into this b_ _t, are pointless. They’re all neat and fun, and they seem to say something fun and interesting about us, but what does it say about us if we answer boat? Today, I found an interesting nugget from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers suggests that suggests I might be wrong that they are a complete waste of time. In one test, the examiners gave this fill in the blank test to a group A. They then gave the results of that test to group B, to have them help the examiners decipher the answers. Group B psychoanalyzed the answers. Unbeknownst to both groups, the examiners created the test for group B, with the theory that we say more about ourselves when we analyze others than we ever do when we analyze ourselves. I still don’t know if they’re valuable tests to determine our characteristics, but this little twist suggests they’re not a complete waste of time. 

Yesterday, I wondered if others might consider what I was writing funny and interesting. We all have people in mind when we write. Today, I realized that that is an utter waste of time. You do what you do, work your tail off, and the accolades might follow. The ‘you do what you do’ principle does not work, however, if you don’t know the rules. As most comedians know, this is always funnier than that. The ‘this’ in this equation is rhythm. Most of the time one needs to economize. Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that, but one can get away with extended punch lines if they’re gifted. There are those especially gifted few who can upend and redefine the rules, but if we enjoyed betting, we would probably say that you and your gimmick are not for long.

Yesterday, I realized I’m probably as far from a ‘betting man’ as one can get. Anytime we hear analysts address a situation, they say, “If I were a betting man …” When I watch game shows, and the contestant is allowed to double their money by answering a final question, I don’t understand how anyone could take that bet. “You mean to tell me that you survived the three strikes and you’re out portion of the game with ‘X’ amount of money, and you risked it on the double or nothing final question?” Today, I realized that I would be that guy who disappoints the audience at home by taking the money and running so far away that I might not think about the chance I didn’t take. I might think of my refusal to take a chance every once in a while, but even if I took that chance and answered the question correctly, I wouldn’t feel so much gratification by answering the final question correctly that it would be worth it. It would pale in comparison to the face slapping nights I would endure if I missed that final question.

My Favorite Band is Better Than Yours

“You’re favorite bands suck! Trust me, they SUCK.”

Why do I like them then?

“I’m telling you that the band members cannot play their instruments, and their lyrics are stupid. They ripped off just about everything they did from better artists, and they weren’t very good people.”

What’s the difference between my favorite bands and the more technically proficient musicians playing meaningful, important songs? The arguments that critics and other music experts make involve a long, complicated algorithm that involves, in part, the technical proficiency that their well-trained ears hear, meaningful, important lyrics, and insider stories that detail performance inadequacies. These insiders write about moments our favorite guitarist couldn’t complete a complicated riff, and the record company, or the producer, had to call in a studio musician to do it. They know that our favorite music involves drum machines and drum samples that our favorite drummer wasn’t talented enough to complete to anyone’s satisfaction, and they know when technical wizards enhance the vocalist’s voice in parts. They tell us about how our favorite albums, by our favorite musicians, were tweaked in final mixing process, with special effects boxes, overdubs, and everything that the non-musicians accomplished in the high priced studio for the right money.

“Your favorite album, from your favorite artist, is a fraud perpetuated on the public,” they say. “It is an overly produced, computer enhanced contrivance that your favorite artist will never be able to play live without assistance.”

For the rest of us, this long and complicated algorithm ends in a big fat, “No one cares!” box. No one cares if the lyrics in these songs are deep and meaningful. Some do, of course, as they want others to view them in a serious light, so they avoid silly music with silly lyrics. Most people consider lyrics anywhere from silly to irrelevant. They might seek out the lyrics to find out what the vocalist is singing in the song, but most people don’t care one way or another if the lyrics prove sophomoric. Most of us bake that idea into our listening experience. Most meaningful, important music is woefully overrated. Most of us also don’t care if our favorite musicians are good people or bad people either. Cringe worthy headlines might stain the reputation of a musician, but our emotional attachment to most musicians does not extend to their personal life. Experts and critics don’t consider this an adequate defense. They require us to defend our favorite musician based on their criteria.

We know that if we enter into a debate with experts and critics, standing toe-to-toe, to defend our favorite band, they would beat us to pulp. If our debate had an audience, would these critics and experts persuade anyone in that audience? Would they care? Who is their audience? Are they trying to persuade us, or are they writing these critiques to one another? How many sacred cows of rock receive less than four stars? Are critics afraid that no one will invite them to cocktail parties if they violate the standard ratings?

We know most experts and critics can hear technical proficiency better than we can, and we know that all of the reasons we have for enjoying one band over another are tough to explain, except to say our appreciation for creative flair is greater than our appreciation for technical proficiency.

The experts will also tell us everything we want to know, and some that we don’t, about better artists who didn’t achieve one-fourth the acclaim our favorite artists did. They will comb through the historical timeline and lament the cheated artists who were better at the craft, and they’ll tell us how our favorite artists stole the sound of those artists and simplified it for mass appeal. They’ll tell us something about those time and place intangibles that factor into the equation of how one artist achieves more popularity over another. They’ll tell us about some kind of successful, but contrived appeal our favorite artists made to achieve fame. They’ll also tell us that our favorite artist is a well-packaged marketing gimmick for people who know nothing about real music. Some of them will then give us a list of artists we should be listening to instead, and some of us will give those artists a listen.

Most naysayers do not list their favorite groups, because if they say that our favorite bands suck, and they offer an alternative, we might think their favorite bands suck. It diminishes a contrarian’s argument to provide an alternative, but putting themselves in such a position is also admirable in that sense. If we find their argument compelling, on that basis, we might listen to their favorite artists. After a couple listens, we might admit that their band is probably technically superior, but they don’t display the same creative flair our favorite bands did. Something is missing, as their band failed to capture the magic our favorite band did.  

Even if our favorite artist is guilty of all of the above, we think the people involved in the album(s) created something that the more accomplished, and perhaps more deserving, artists either wouldn’t or couldn’t achieve. At this point in the argument, the experts might ask us why we fell in love with our favorite band. Was it the iconography that surrounded our favorite artist at the time, and did your peers convince you that they were great? Were they a better celebrity? Did our favorite artists have a better voice, were they better looking, or did they have some other superficial appeal that we found more pleasing than the better artist’s appeal? This is difficult to answer for most of us, because most of our attachments to music are emotional, as opposed to rational, and we cannot defend or explain why we prefer our bands to theirs, but we’re also not susceptible to having our minds changed on the subject.

I used to be that guy. I used to engage in the “my music is better than yours” childish game that some critics and music experts do. I don’t think I ever said those words, but I thought you would know the truth the minute you heard it. Even though I had no personal stake in my favorite band’s success, I loved their music so much that it became “my music”. I introduced “my music” to everyone I knew. For all of the reasons inherent in why we identify with our music, I was personally insulted when they didn’t enjoy it, and I considered far too gratifying when they did. I was far too proud to be the one who “discovered” the band among my peers. I think I considered it creativity on my part. I knew the joy I felt was vicarious, but I wasn’t doing anything else creative at that point in my life, so I think it filled that void.

The problem others had with “my music” was that it was silly. My serious music aficionado friends wouldn’t go anywhere near that group, that album, or that track on the album, lest they be hit by the stank of unserious music. They didn’t want anyone to consider them silly. If I attempted to promote a new album, they said, “Didn’t you like that track from that one album?” I did, I responded, I do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with silly songs. I don’t understand why serious aficionados dismiss a whole chunk of music because it’s unserious. My music doesn’t focus on depression, pain, anger, anti-social behavior, relationships, drug addiction (primarily heroin), war, death, and other emotionally charged topics.  

One particular instance involved an “undiscovered gem” I found from an “undiscovered” artist. That album blew my mind at the time, and I still, thirty years later, consider that album one of the top ten of all time. I wanted to be that guy who introduced that album to everyone I knew. I considered the album the product of creative geniuses. The music on that album spoke to me on a level I felt compelled to share with everyone I knew. Everyone I forced to listen to this album enjoyed it, but no one I knew bought it. Three years later, another band stole their sound. This other band personalized that sound a little here and tweaked it little there to make it fit with the zeitgeist better. I loved that album too, and I introduced it to everyone I knew. Everyone I knew loved it, and everyone I knew bought it. That album sold five million copies. This band went on to national acclaim, and critics still recognize them as one of the greatest, most original artists of all time. Yet, they stole that sound, and I learned later that they publicly admitted it. The band that I declared one of my favorite artists currently carries an asterisk no artist wants of being critically acclaimed, but never well received.

What was the difference between these two bands? The answer, again, involves a complicated, multi-tiered algorithm that takes us through a wide variety of boxes that might explain how one critically acclaimed band succeeds while another one does not, but it, too, ends in another big fat, “No one cares!” box. The artists who do not succeed probably went through a similar, frustrating algorithm that included paying their dues through exhaustive touring, spending mind-numbing hours in studios, doing radio interviews, and various other promotion efforts, until it ended in a big fat, “Thems the breaks” box to explain why they didn’t succeed. To the fans who, like me, vicariously wallowed in the misery of watching their favorite artist do everything required to succeed, only to end up in the bargain bin of record stores, hearing thems-the-breaks and no one cares doesn’t sit well. My advice to all of you is save your breath, and don’t waste your time trying to convince your world of the band’s virtues. It makes no sense to us, the critics, or the experts why some bands succeed where others do not. It can be as simple as time and place, looks, and a well-designed, comprehensive package that hits for whatever reasons. What we consider the greatest music of all time might be relatively boring to others, and music is as relative as comedy.

The Shocking, and Unconventional, Flaming Lips

In an attempt to top his never-ending parlor tricks, The Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne dressed in drag—an outfit that matched Stephen King’s Carrie, to be specific—in an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly. It was a rerun of a 11/12/13 episode, and the Carrie costume was a Halloween costume that Coyne wore at a “Halloween Blood Bath” Flaming Lips tour stop at The Greek Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, in Los Angeles. Some may call it a “tour-de-force” and “revolutionary” performance, but I ended up yawning a lot, and I eventually shut the performance off halfway through. I’ve seen my share of “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” performances, from The Lips, and others, and this was just another one.

Lips“What did you expect from a group that has the word flaming in their name?” those that may think that I was turned off by the shock of a drag performance might ask. I didn’t expect anything different, I answer. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s the point that our performance artists have so deluged us with shocking performances that we’re no longer shocked by them, and we’re all coming back to the point where we want the material back, and the shock and awe performances cause us all to yawn a little.

It may have something to do with the fact that I’m old, and I’ve witnessed “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” moments from David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Madonna, and Prince, and I now demand that “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” material accompany “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” performances. It may have something to do with the fact that The Lips, Of Montreal, Lady Ga Ga, Miley Cyrus, and Britney Spears aren’t trying to shock me, because I’ve already been shocked so often that my brains are scrambled, and I’m desensitized to it all, but one would think that the demographic they seek, the characteristically nonplussed young ones, aren’t easily shocked anymore either. They’ve grown up in an era of every artist playing king of the mountain in this shocking shell game, and they’re yawning and changing the channel on these performances as often as I am.

Those that have already found their formula for success in music, usually advise up and comers that the path to success has no pamphlet or road map. You simply have to carve a niche for yourself, they say. This doesn’t appear to be true in music. While there may not be a pamphlet, or road map, to success, there are advisers that have studied other paths to the top, and they advise those artists, of which they usually have a vested interest, to shock. If you don’t have the material —and most of those that make today’s headlines don’t— play with a snake on stage, wear a meat dress, insult America, tongue and twerk, or tell people that you hate America, Republicans, or you’re mom, and you will want to carve out sometime in your life for a stint in rehab … whether you actually need it or not. Unfortunate for most upcoming musical artists, this has all culminated in what most semi-talented artists should fear, the idea that something shocking will no longer be shocking to the yawners that are now turning their performance off halfway through.

The less flamboyant, creative peak of the Flaming Lips occurred somewhere around the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and The Soft Bulletin era. There were some bright spots in the albums before and after these two albums, but few Lips’ aficionados would argue the fact that we are now on the downside of their creative peak. If that’s true, then Coyne and company appear to be doing whatever they have to do to remain viable. This isn’t to say that they’re making bad music, but those of us that were fans of the Lips prior to Transmissions, have such huge expectations. Each album appeared to be leading to that one great album, and The Lips delivered, giving us two seminal albums: one crunchy, weird, glam rock, and the other bleak and blissful. Each of them captured the range, that Lips’ aficionados saw glimpses of in all of the prior albums, but there’s something about being an aficionado that leads one to believe that these upward arcs will continue ad infinitum. They rarely do, and they didn’t in the case of The Flaming Lips.

Hard-core fans also don’t see an official end to that peak. Hard-core fans don’t read one book, watch one movie, or listen to one album and officially declare that it’s all over. They give that artist a chance in the future based on what they’ve done in the past, and they keep on doing this, until they begin to notice a trend with that artist. That trend is not immediately apparent either. It usually takes about three to four lackluster productions for their hope to begin to wane. Even hard-core fans know that these things end, but they’re not prepared to make it official, until they’ve exhausted all belief.

The “He’s dressed like Carrie!” introduction to the taped concert performance of The Flaming Lips brought an official end to the brilliantly creative era of The Flaiming Lips to my mind. Having never been introduced by a major talk show host, I don’t know it to be factually true that an artist has a hand in how they’re introduced, but I have to imagine that Carson Daily’s people went to The Lips people and asked them how they’d like to be introduced. If that’s true, it’s a sad statement that they didn’t want the brunt of their intro to call attention to the single they would be playing, or the album from which that single sprang. It’s a sad statement that they asked that the greater attention be paid to something superficial like Wayne Coyne’s outfit, regardless what that outfit was.

Anyone that has attended a Flaming Lips show knows that they are almost peerless in their presentation. The group goes balls out to provide their fans one of the best concerts currently available on the market. After three songs, at a music fair in Wisconsin, one guy turned to me and said, “This is the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my life.” I wasn’t sure if I was as deliriously impressed as he was, or if I was simply delirious from the contact high I received from other concert goers, but that Lips show elicited a sense of euphoria that this long-time concert goer had never experienced.

This concert combined shocking your sensibilities, and overturning conventions, with all of the great Flaming Lips material I have grown to love. The “He’s dressed like Carrie,” intro signaled to me that The Flaming Lips concentration is no longer focused on the material but shocking your sensibilities and overturning your conventions.

Kiss’ act, in the 70’s, was full of parlor tricks, as was Queen’s, David Bowie’s, and Marc Bolan’s, but for the most part these groups shocked sensibilities, and overturned conventions, at the peak of their career. The Flaming Lips appear to be reaching a peak in their shock, with their creative peak long since passed. You can still attend an incredible concert from the Flaming Lips, as it will contain all their greatest hits to remind you of the diverse and impressive catalog they have, and you’ll get their unconventionally shocking moments, but you’ll probably be taking breaks from your delirious euphoria when they start playing their new stuff.

Linda Ronstadt rejects the need for more fame: The Hall of Fame

It’s not anything I’ve ever given a second thought to,” Linda Ronstadt says of being elected to Rock and Roll’s Hall of Fame,  “I never thought of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll singer.  I’ve thought of myself as a singer who sang rock ‘n’ roll, who sang this, who sang that.

“I remember one of the guys at my record company asked me once if I would induct somebody into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I said ‘I really don’t like going to things like that.’  And he said, ‘Linda, you have to do it if you ever want to get inducted yourself!’

“I said, ‘I don’t care if I ever get inducted,’” she said. “That was a long time ago—in the ‘80s, and that was the last I ever thought of it.”

Ronstadt‘Heretic!’ the rock and roll intelligentsia is probably screaming.  ‘She’s lying!  She’s a witch!!  Get her!!!’  Some, more reasonable Americans, are probably thinking that her ambivalence toward induction has something to do with the fact that she can’t sing anymore due to her Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.  Others might think that Ronstadt fears that she won’t match up to other inductees, under this most, scrutinizing spotlight, but most are thinking that it’s just not rational that a living, breathing human being would leave any amount of fame on the doorstop before entirely fading away into obscurity.

How could you not be intoxicated by the fame a Hall of Fame induction might bring you?  Isn’t it every person’s dream to be enshrined in such a manner.  Isn’t that why you did what you did.  Doesn’t it put a punctuation mark on your career?  Are you lying when you say that you don’t spend every moment of your existence remembering your glory years?  Don’t you want to have your legacy properly placed alongside your peers?

It’s not enough, for some, to simply have their songs still played on radio, it’s not enough for them to know that they have had some form of artistic impact on millions of lives.  They want more.  What is more?  What you got?

Even though the brunt of their careers are now thirty years past, most artists still want more.  They still have agents, and public relations guys, and they are immersed in this competitive desire to have more fame, more money, more recognition, or more of ‘what you got’ than their generation’s peers. We’re so accustomed to every artist clinging to their moment in the spotlight that when one artist steps forward and basically says, “Enough.  I’m ready to move on in life,” we consider them to be either dishonest, or driven by an unseen agenda that we have to unearth to reveal them as the freaks they have to be.

I think it hurt Linda that she didn’t write (her own songs),” said one longtime Hall of Fame voter who asked not to be identified.  “Unlike (others), (Ronstadt) was viewed as a popularizer of songs, which isn’t as valued in the rock tradition as the pop tradition.  She also was more pop in some ways than country or rock or soul, even though she incorporated touches of all that in her music.”

It could have a lot to do with that, say those of us that aren’t attempting to evaluate Ronstadt’s position with an agenda.  It could have something to do with the fact that Ronstadt can’t sing anymore, and all these retrospectives and celebrations bring her feelings of pain and sorrow.  Or, it could have something to do with the fact that (hold onto your bootstraps) she no longer has a desire for unnaturally prolonged fame.

She boils her career down to ‘I sang this, I sang that.’  She said that she didn’t want to be considered the Queen of Rock, when she was declared so in the 70’s, and that she has either lost, or given away, all of the awards she has received in her life.  She then furthered her heresy, by condemning the Rolling Stone (the magazine’s) effect on music when she said: “There was a puritanical attitude about music that reeked out of Rolling Stone: The attitude that only a certain kind of music is hip, that you have to be funky.  Where does that leave Jimmy Webb or Paul Simon or Kate & Anna McGarrigle or so many other great writers whose songs have nothing to do with whether they are hip or trendy or what they’re supposed to be doing this week? People write music from the most personal point of view, and that process endlessly renews itself.”

Music, she says, “Should be about processing your feelings and helping you get through life.”{1}

Taken at face value, most music is simplistically pure, she seems to be saying, but those outside the art form (Rolling Stone critics and writers) bring so many personal agendas, and personal interpretations, and attempts at self-aggrandizement, that what is actually simple becomes complicated with all of these establishment attachments added to it.

Would the Sex Pistols have achieved any fame at all, if Rolling Stone magazine had never existed?  Anyone that was so subjected to the Rolling Stone definition of cool that they actually bought a Sex Pistols album, knows that they were actually pretty terrible, but they achieved worldwide fame on the basis of attitude, and that attitude fit perfectly with the Rolling Stone ethos.  Anyone that bought a Ramones album, based on the never-ending plaudits that every Rolling Stone writer attached to them, to gain their bona fides as a rock critic, knows how limited the range of the Ramones catalogue was.  Ask any Rolling Stone writer about Tom Petty, and they’ll say he was great.  Ask these same people about a similar artist, from a similar era (say Billy Joel) and they’ll point their thumbs down with a raspberry to follow.  Petty was traditional, and Joel was more oriented towards pop music, which Rolling Stone generally rejects as bad.  Michael Jackson, bad, Prince good; traditional rock good, arena rock bad; and punk rock good, heavy metal bad.  It’s the Rolling Stone ethos.

Taste in music is relative, of course, and I’m sure that there are some that actually preferred Jim Morrison’s voice to Freddie Mercury’s, but how much of that preference was personally decided, and how much of it was spawned by the Rolling Stone’s declarations of good and bad?  How many of us dismissed Bohemian Rhapsody as unserious bubble gum pop, that therefore shouldn’t be held in the same category as the more important song The End by The Doors.  You can like Bohemian Rhapsody, in other words, but if you put it on the same level with The End, you’re unserious, and you should be dismissed as such.

The effect this magazine, and American Idol, have had on music is unquestioned, and this is what Ronstadt rejects: “This sort of competition has nothing to do with art.  It’s so counterproductive to put everybody in some kind of category.  That’s got nothing to do with anything.  I just don’t like it. I think competition is really good for horse races.”  She was speaking of the American Idol effect with this specific quote, but the feet of Rolling Stone’s writers can be held to some of the same fires.

In our teens, many of us were confused, on a daily basis, on what we could like and what we couldn’t.  Was it okay to like Michael Jackson back then?  That depends on the mood of the cool kid of the day.  Was it okay to like Kiss?  It usually wasn’t, but there were days when you could catch the right cool kid, on the right day, and find out it was.  Was it okay to like Cindy Lauper and Phil Collins?  That all depended on the motif you were trying to create.  Did  you want to be a kitschy, retro, nerd, or were you seeking good music?  If you truly wanted to be in the know, it was probably safer to put the Lauper CD back and pick up a Patty Smith, or Aretha Franklin CD.

The cool kids that I hung around—those that refused to join the Echo and the Bunnyman, Elvis Costello, and R.E.M, inner circle of Rolling Stone magazine cool kids—faced a quandary with Ozzy Osbourne.  Was he cool, or was he a kitschy cool, cartoon character on par with Kiss?  Most of the high school students I hung out with knew nothing of Black Sabbath, or anything that preceded the bat-biting heavy metal dude.  Once we found out the man had history, transcendental history, it was cool to love Ozzy again.  I was so confused.

I don’t know if the cool kid status, is as confusing today as it was back then, but I do know that for most adulthood allows those insecurities to slip away, like a snake shedding its skin.  I do know that most people start to like the music they like, because they like the music, and they eschew all of the personal, and establishment attachments that are placed on it.  I do know that most adults are confident enough that they don’t need the constant reinforcement that it appears most aging rock stars do when they have their Rolling Stone, classic rock bona fides redefined by the Hall, and they get to feel like cool kids again, until they are so overwhelmed that they are move to tears by it.  Very few of them appear to be so confident, or comfortable, that they are able to opt out of all this foolishness and say, “Okay, that’s enough, let’s all move on.  I’m in my sixties now, and I’m simply tired of reliving all those events that occurred thirty years ago.”  Linda Ronstadt appears to be the exception to the rule, and her public proclamation appears to have reflected so poorly on the others that they need some sort of explanation for this most personal affront.

[Editorial update] Linda Ronstadt was inducted into the Hall of Fame in April 2014.  In the dignified manner Ms. Ronstadt has conducted herself throughout her career, she said:  “I don’t want to seem ungracious, but I’ve refused all comment about this.”


My Obsession with “The Elder”

[Editor’s Note: Those seeking a review of the actual KISS album Music from “The Elder” will be disappointed. This is not a review of the album, as much as it is a review of the time and place when one kid loved music more than anything else in the world, and how the current world of music may make it impossible to return to that time.] 

It all began with a dream, an actual dream that involved me finally purchasing the KISS album Music from “The Elder” (aka The Elder). In this dream, I ran home and plugged the cassette tape into my Walkman, and I knew that my life would probably not get much better than that moment. I woke with a peaceful and serene smile that my “not a morning person” personality didn’t often permit. For reasons I would only be able to properly collate later, as an adult, I became obsessed with the Music from the Elder.

“It ain’t no dream,” my friend said. His tones were loaded with ridicule. “It’s real. The Music from The Elder is a real album, it’s out there, in stores, and on actual shelves, and it sucks. You just have to find it, or if you can’t find it, have a store clerk order it for you.” He then turned to a third party to drill down on my humiliation, “He just had a dream about buying a KISS album last night.”

I deserved the ridicule that followed. Dreaming of buying an album was an odd, bizarre dream, but it defined my desire for that album in ways that were otherwise hard for me to define as a teenager. I wasn’t so simple-minded that I thought The Elder would act as an elixir to all that ailed me, but this desire for something, somewhat out of my reach, said more about me, and that era, when juxtaposed with the modern era, than it did about the quality of music on The Elder. The Elder might have been a symbol for all things out of reach. The magical, almost mystical qualities that I attached to it might have been similar to all things that appreciate the qualities we attach to a product of limited supply. Yet, I am still so obsessed with this album, decades after its release, that I think The Elder is not only a great album, but also the best album the rock group KISS ever released.

As that last paragraph suggests, this piece is not so much a review of the quality of music on The Elder, as it is that special quality attached to a product through inexplicable and irrational desire, the rebellion to group thought, and the influence scarcity can have on a product. This piece is also about how the current lack of scarcity –abridged in the modern “on demand” world of MP3, file sharing, YouTube, etc.– may eventually cause music to be so much less prominent in our lives than it was for an 80’s kid who loved music so much that he felt an almost unquenchable desire for it.

How many 70’s and 80’s kids called into radio stations to request that they play “my song”, only to have those annoying DJs wait about an hour to play it? How many of us grew excited when the DJ finally played that song and attach our names to it? “And now … as requested by Billy, in Millard, I give you Rhinestone Cowboy by Glenn Campbell.” How many of us felt a special affinity with Glenn Campbell in the course of that effort? How many of us thought that a part of the success of Rhinestone Cowboy was a result of our continued requests? Is it just me, or did this association have a mystical attachment to it, that bred an irrational, and inexplicable, brand of loyalty, that cannot be touched in today’s MP3 world of “on demand” listening experiences. How many penniless young ones dreamed of one day living in an “on demand” world where we had more control of the when, where, and how we could hear our music that didn’t require assistance from DJs? How many of us would’ve loved to have a YouTube source where we could punch a song title into a search engine and hear it in two seconds? We all did, but now that it’s here, we have a “be careful what you wish for” warning for the world of music and music lovers.

No radio stations would play a song from The Elder, and there weren’t internet resources back then. I had to sit and stew in the bouillon of my desire. This scarcity was not intentional, and it was not a supply and demand tool put forth by KISS, or any of its associates, to increase demand for their product, but for one kid in Omaha, Nebraska, that’s exactly what it did. The scarcity was a result of the almost worldwide condemnation of the project. Critics and fans attached the word “flop” to The Elder, and they declared it KISS’s first commercial failure, after the near unprecedented levels of commercial viability they achieved with their previous albums.

The Elder proved to be such an embarrassment to the remaining members of KISS that guitarist Ace Frehley considered it emblematic of the new direction of KISS, and he quit the band as a result. Some of those involved in the project, adamantly refused to have their names listed in the liner notes of the album after hearing it. It embarrassed the remaining members of KISS so much that they decided not to tour in support of it, and by the time I began searching retail outlets for it, five years after its completion, I learned, firsthand, the economic concept of scarcity.

This scarcity resulted in a whole lot of self-imposed hype. It resulted in me briefly befriending those fortunate few lucky enough to have heard it. “What did you think of it?” I asked them, panting with anticipation. “What was so different about it?” I asked. “Why is it considered so horrible?”

“It just sucked!” was the consensus of those I knew who heard the album. When I would ask for a greater, more detailed explanation, they would dismiss me with, “I don’t know. I didn’t listen to it more than once. I just know it sucked!”

For reasons native to my personality, I only found this universal rejection of the album more compelling. I would later display the same level of intoxication –purposefully erected against group thought– with the comedy of Andy Kaufman, the infamous Crispin Glover appearance on David Letterman, U2’s Zooropa, and the other music of Mike Patton (other than Faith No More). I needed to know why the music on The Elder was so much worse than all the other KISS albums I adored. It was almost inevitable that I was either going to love the music on the album, or I would find that it was not as bad as my friends were telling me it was, for reasons native to my personality.

I would not say that the almost universal reaction to The Elder was my first experience with group thought. I knew about it, and I think I explored it on certain levels, but whenever you’re face to face with it, it feels like the first time. I’m also not going to pretend –as so many others do– that I’m impervious to group thought. I hear what other’s think, I read what critics think, but I’m more apt to force myself through such a hole if everyone dislikes something I decide I might like. I find intrigue in having an opinion that differs from group thought. I tend to find myself trying to have a converse relationship with it. Some believe that I do this to be difficult, or complicated, or artificially different, and that may be the case, but if it is, I’ve convinced myself of this lie so well that I now believe it. In the case of The Elder, however, my initial allure was such that I either never recovered from my desire to rebel against group thought, or the album wasn’t as bad as group thought suggested it was. I leave open the possibility for either in the case of The Elder.

In the space of the decades since its release, The Elder has spawned two camps: those who further their initial proclamation that it’s one of the worst albums ever made, and those who suggest that it now has a campy quality, similar to the movie Return of the Killer Tomatoes. Very few will suggest that it’s simply a good album with quality music on it. Q Magazine has ranked Music From “The Elder” 44th in their list of The 50 Worst Albums Ever. The same magazine ranked the album 6th in their list of 15 Albums Where Great Rock Acts Lost the Plot. The website Ultimate Classic Rock, quotes Paul Stanley saying that the Music from “The Elder” “Was pompous, contrived, self-important and fat.” “Critics pounced on the record and fans stayed away in droves.” The website KISS Elder Book states that Gene Simmons attached zero stars to it, and Stanley and Simmons have both admitted that they were “delusional” with the Bob Ezrin project. [Note the attempt to distance themselves from The Elder, by saying it was a Bob Ezrin project. A practice those who know their KISStory know all four members engage in when a project wasn’t well received. The album Destroyer was also a “Bob Ezrin project, but the four members climb all over each other to claim credit for it.] Ace Frehley said that he thought the idea of a Ezrin’s idea of concept album with The Elder “wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”

When almost everyone, including the band, crushes a brutha with group thought, the notions that we still like the album usually implode with “I don’t like it either” or “I like all of their albums, except The Elder” qualifiers that send shrapnel throughout the mind, until that person convinces themselves that their initial stance can no longer be maintained.

Maintaining such a stance can lead one to believe they are in the middle of a battlefield with friendly fire penetrating their belief. This lone soldier begins to believe they have no allies, especially when they cross the big four oh (forty years of age), and the idea that they still enjoy any KISS music proves to be a little embarrassing. At that point, a person has to qualify their affinity with words, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs that lead their friends and family to believe that they simply love the kitschy campiness of the act. By doing that, the soldier may gather some like-minded allies that say, “Well, I still like Duran Duran, Leo Sayer, or Michael Jackson, so I understand the attachment.” Saying that one still likes The Elder, however, will even cause like-minded KISS fans to strive for distance. “Sorry brotha, you’re on your own here,” they say to suggest that some loyalists are in too deep for them.

What makes defending The Music From The Elder so difficult is that I still don’t know why I love this album so much. I’m not sure if the reasons lie in those aspects of my personality that loves things other people don’t, or if I romanticized the album so much in my youth that I can’t defeat the feelings of nostalgia I feel for that time and place where I desired the album to the degree that it invaded my dreams one night. I also can’t determine if the music on the album simply appeals to me in that intangible manner that some music appeals to one person more than others, or if the album contains great music that people “won’t” like, because they fear the counter arguments (see ridicule) from their peers.

What I do know, or guess based upon my interactions with current, young music fans, is that this relationship with music may never happen again. It’s the human condition to want what you want, when you want it, but the reality of actually getting it “on demand” as many times as one wants it, often results in little satisfaction, no irrational, magical qualities that they can’t explain attached to it, and no loyalty. At some point in the process, songs become nothing more music. One song may be more creative than another and that may be why we like it, but we lose all personal attachments to it when we can listen to it hundreds of times, on our own time. It’s the want, the chase, and the desire, that ultimately defines the irrational love of the intangible.

This isn’t to say there isn’t demand for music anymore, but it pales in comparison to the youth-driven demand that caused young girls to swoon at Frank Sinatra, scream at Elvis and the Beatles, or fire up radio station, phone lines for the latest Hall and Oates song. We later experienced the magic of albums like, Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Is that magic still there for young music lovers? It may be, brilliant music is still brilliant music, but that relatively unquenchable demand for songs that spawned loyalty may never happen again due to the ubiquitous availability of music on the internet today. I’m sure there are still “some” albums that are hard to find, but for the most part the “on demand ‘if you want it, you got it’” era of music that those of us once dreamed of, is now here in the form of MP3’s. If you can’t find it in the MP3 universe, you can go to file sharing sites, or YouTube. There’s no more want any more for a young kid who loves music, because the idea of scarcity is almost nonexistent, and as a result, there’s no such thing as hyping something up to the degree that you’re so consumed by it, that you dream about it one night, and you’re still somewhat embarrassed to be obsessed with it decades later.