Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Indulgent journal entry on mod suits and criticism.

Part I.

I feel like a child writing this, but having grown up with parents whose record collections documented the earliest phases of punk – Dad being a fan of Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, Mom owning records by Suicide, Black Flag, the Stranglers and the Sugarcubes – I'd never had a chance to hear the obvious classic stuff until I went and sought it out on my own during the start of college. Until I was 20, I'd never heard a full album by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. Didn't hear a Pink Floyd album until I was 21 (Mom's still disgusted that I bothered at all with those dinosaurs). My dad was a fan of the Beatles but never played me any of their records, and instead opted to test out more advanced stuff on me during childhood. I still remember being about seven years old and watching him put the Residents' “Duck Stab” on his turntable for me, and promptly asking him to shut it off because the combination of sound effects and cover art made me nervous. I also remember him playing Billie Holiday's “God Bless the Child,” and arguing with him that Lisa Simpson did a much better rendition on The Simpsons Sing the Blues. The early '90s weren't good years as far as my taste was concerned.

But back to those Beatles. The occasional taste of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “Twist and Shout” has been essential to L.A.'s token oldies station for as long as I can remember, and not having grown up with a greater exposure to the band, I could never understand the period of Beatlemania I'd seen images of on TV, with teen girls screaming the names of each face that rested under a bowl cut and smiled a plastic grin. Such a thing seemed so square in contrast with boy bands like NKOTB or (my favorite) the glittery and badass Vanilla Ice of my day. Much in the way that '70s haircuts seemed repulsive to me before the Strokes appeared five years ago and made them sexy again, the British Invasion period seemed so foreign and unattractive in contrast with what was current. Four men in stiff suits singing G-rated lyrics about holding hands just didn't seem believable. During my teen years I stopped finding the group so old-fashioned and realized that they actually did have a few nice songs; namely, I fell in love with “Across the Universe” and learned to appreciate the psychedelic-sounding stuff, like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But I still didn't spot any genius or understand the craze of years past, and I still wouldn't bother with buying a Beatles album.

Given this kind of history with the band, it was rather unexpected that I would be able to literally turn around overnight, at the late-bloomer's age of 20. I was living alone for the summer and wanted to watch a fluffy movie after a day of work, so I rented A Hard Day's Night at random because it seemed appropriate for my mental state. Everything was going as expected when, about ten or fifteen minutes in, I found myself developing a small crush on John Lennon – the mod suit, the devilish grin, cheeky (scripted) comments delivered by a Liverpudlian accent. It all sort of fit him nicely. And then it suddenly hit me: I got Beatlemania. Just as teen girls of the late '90s would develop crushes on JC Chasez or Justin Timberlake and get so attached that they'd convince themselves they actually liked 'NSYNC's music, later dismissing the band's catchy pop once they no longer found the teen idols attractive, the Beatles started as a band that girls would completely throw themselves into because the music naturally followed the boys leading it. Of course, the big difference here is that the Beatles had an organized songwriting method, actually crafted those songs well, and were smart enough to develop into a project of myriad phases of which there was something for everyone to appreciate. But as far as that whole screaming, crying, Paul is my future husband business goes, I finally got it. And all because John looked good in that damn suit.

Part II.

A year later I'm snatching up Beatles records left and right, playing catch-up and tracking progress in my mind from the earliest Beatle years to John Lennon's solo career. Because really, he was the one who piqued my interest in the first place. I'd bought Plastic Ono Band after Imagine, and after reading an interview in which Lennon griped that the former said all the same things Imagine said, only without all that sugar coating the public needed for convenience's sake. I scanned through the liner notes of one of his greatest hits albums and realized that my favorite songs from his solo career had been co-produced by Phil Spector. It's going around the internet this week that Pete Doherty and Carl Barat recorded a version of “A Day in the Life” for Radio 2 – there've been a few complaints because it's such an untouchable song, but after going through those Lennon liner notes, there's no doubt in my mind that the Libertine update would sound brilliant if Phil Spector produced it. Any chance of him escaping the courtroom and getting into the studio for a bit?

But back to John. Late last year I managed to find a copy of the Rolling Stone issue, the one from January 22, 1981, when Rolling Stone cost just $1.50 and wasn't yet glossy, with Yoko and a nude John on the cover, its content entirely dedicated to mourning and celebrating John Lennon after his death. There was one great quote from John that I spotted in an interview that had been done approximately ten years prior to this issue and re-printed within it. John had called Plastic Ono Band “the best thing I've ever done,” noting that he enjoyed his honest solo work more than the third-person stories he'd told with the Beatles: “Now I write all about me and that's why I like it. It's me! And nobody else.” He also called himself a genius, but I prefer comedy with my narcissism.

There was also a recurring theme in this Rolling Stone issue. Of all the interviews, celebrity memorializing, reader letters and historical tidbits included, a big issue that frequently popped up was that the press was guilty of misunderstanding and misinterpreting John Lennon's music and purpose. One thing I've always struggled with in terms of music journalism's purpose is whether it's preferable to simply inform and let the reader seek out what sounds most interesting, or to allow a bit of snarkiness if it's total critical honesty and a good snicker from the reader you're seeking. Or, a more likely happy medium, to only write about and promote what you enjoy so that only positive words are spoken and music journalism takes part in what appears a sort of renaissance. I still haven't decided the ideal. But while re-reading the John Lennon tribute, I seemed to get a few answers, first in a reader's letter to Rolling Stone, again in a reflective article by Dave Marsh.

That reader, one Kevin Samson, offered criticism of criticism, referring to a negative review of Double Fantasy he'd read: “It seems that in our attempt to be new and artistic, abrasive and trendy, indignant and political, we've lost touch with something much more important: the human (and artistic) right to be honest and loving.” This actually reminded me a bit of an essay in Ian Svenonius' The Psychic Soviet, in which Svenonius complained that music critics had opted out of intellectual discussion of music, instead becoming a collective imitation of Lester Bangs and taking the gonzo route. Even intellectual discussion of music is separate from simply letting it be what it is and allowing the artist to have his time as a creator of whatever he wants to create, but the idea is the same and certainly applies to today's internet critics, that we all want to get that snicker out of the reader, often at the expense of the artist and the time he's dedicated to his craft.

There was an expansion on this debate in Dave Marsh's “Ghoulish Beatlemania,” an article placed later in this Rolling Stone issue. Marsh discussed his previously written “An Open Letter to John Lennon,” in which he'd asked John to come out of retirement and give the public some answers (I've yet to find this article, sadly). He wrote about how John had bitterly responded to his article by answering that “I don't fucking owe anybody anything. I've done my part. It's everybody else's turn now.” Marsh's counter-response, several years later, wasn't in fact a counter-response but a matured man's method of surrendering: “I felt pretty small. Like most rock fans, I took it for granted that John Lennon existed to pump out entertainment, inspirational insight. It never occurred to me, until then, that my attitude reduced someone I thought I loved and admired to the status of a vending machine.”

Wow. That's painful to read, isn't it? The toughest aspect of processing these two viewpoints is that both are understandable, not just if you've been a critic, but if you've simply been a music fan at any point. And it's an argument I still find myself grappling with; should the artist have freedom to create whatever he likes without the risk of some stranger verbally trampling all over his work? Or does the critic have just as much freedom to spout off an opinion because, face it, the art is for the public to digest now that it's out in the open? And is the music fan entitled to demand from the artist because the artist has now put himself out there, opening himself up for expectations to be met, or does the artist have a right to stop whenever the creativity's been spent? There are some awful questions to ponder about art that still haven't been answered, because frankly, everyone belongs to one side or the other and wants to believe that their viewpoints are the ones reeking of validity. In John Lennon's case, where he's griping that the public should take over where he left off, I think he probably meant this more in terms of the pro-peace movement, that he'd done the encouraging and was waiting for all those fans to put words into actions and demonstrate that they believed the meaning behind the songs. But his complaint can certainly be applied to the messy relationship between musician and music critic, and Marsh's response is without a doubt relevant to now.

I apologize that this is starting to read like an essay out of my college course on aesthetics. If anything, the only real decision I've been able to firmly make – after a late jump on a British teen craze, falling in love with John-as-character and reading fanmail – is that John looked handsome in a mod suit. But I'd be curious to know what anyone else thinks of the artist versus critic debate/relationship, or, if nothing else, whether Phil Spector could have saved that dreadful Green Day cover of “Working Class Hero.” The latter is a joke, sort of.

The Beatles - I'll Follow the Sun
John Lennon - Love


Stephen said...

I can't believe I knew you before you liked the Beatles.

China said...

Pathetic, isn't it? Blame my mother and all the Cramps and Kate Bush she shoved into my ears.