Gone are the days when the most renowned musicians were middle-aged men in powdered wigs who changed the arts with a few daring compositions after drafting away in their youth. In the 21st century, music belongs to the young. With the musicians of note getting younger, the music got younger. As the music got younger, the compositions got shorter. As communication technology spread throughout the world, music became a very different commodity no longer reserved for aristocrats in big concert halls. Songs were served up in little spurts of marketability in the form of singles or potential singles. Popular music is now just as available to The Prince of Wales as it is a car mechanic. As music became easily distributable, it was able to influence a greater number of people, very quickly, and thus go through much quicker evolutions.
In the constantly changing world of music and the ever greater rate of change—we mark its evolution by decades and even years now rather than the centennial or bicentennial—there has been a just as quickly changing world of writing about music. Unfortunately, that writing is almost purely journalistic in nature—frustrated ex-guitarists, music majors and moonlighting ditty-writers for dog-food commercials. What happened to the days when philosophers, novelists, poets and intellectuals were music-minded and had something to say on the matter? It seems that over the past century (a relatively short time in the long history of music) that all we hear on the subject from these types are a few old-man grumblings from established non-musician artists who, otherwise, are thought of as hip in their respective fields.
Novelist and musician Rick Moody's On Celestial Music is admirable for at least trying to engage with the world of contemporary music of the past fifty years in a way that doesn’t betray the writer’s need to approach subjects with a fresh, cultural scrutiny while keeping the old-man youth-hate grumblings to a minimum. ‘Trying’ is the key word here, however.
Some of the musical biases that pop up are unsurprising, given his generation and artistic temperament, and I read this book sort of expecting these. Aside from the mention of a few artists who come off like his exceptions, Moody doesn’t seem to think much of Hip-Hop on whole. Same goes for Heavy Metal. He doesn’t like Phil Collins-era Genesis and arguably doesn’t like them with Peter Gabriel much, either. One gathers that he prefers guitar music to synth music. This is all pretty standard stuff.
Thin-skinned readers are bound to find no interest in books like this if they wish only to read something that espouses and reviles different musicians in keeping with their own tastes. However, those of us who appreciate the relativity of varied musical opinion are quite okay with Moody saying he doesn’t much like Eric Clapton. He reserves the right do dislike whomever he wants. If it happens that we can agree with Moody on something—as I did, sharing his hatred of the overstated sentimentality and cloying vibrato of show-tunes—it is all the better that he can supplement his opinion with some well articulated reason.
At his worst, however, Moody sometimes uses words that give an innateness to his opinions which puts them immediately in the realm of fact. The Cure simply is ‘outdated.’ Tool simply is ‘mediocre.’ After a while, the assertions go beyond mere claims to a particular artist’s talent or lack thereof, as happens when he insinuates that The Velvet Underground was more influential than Bob Dylan—albeit, in a throw-away statement as if this was something we all know already. As words like ‘mediocre’ and ‘outdated’ replace what would be more appropriate to list under ‘not my cup of tea,’ Moody’s struggle to say something fresh and informed about contemporary music falls ever nearer that pit of previous-generation-grumblings that the whole ambition of his project seems intent on surpassing. On those occasions he does try to supplement an opinion in favor of an artist, it is usually a coupling of personal experience with some quote in a common rock magazine.
The prose itself is earnest, passionate and musical with a feeling of freedom like much of the jazz he favors. Take this passage about the music of the Roots, for example:
‘The whole thing rolls forward like a sermon from the cracks in your floorboards, a sermon for lost souls, like some politics of bipolar disorder, complete with hallucinations, and in which all the isms, all the ideologies, collapse, and then there’s just the black American stuck in the state of permanent urban exile, trying to find a way to survive amid the Darwinism to which the power elite is so happy to consign him, and all this with a really, amazing, beautiful improvisation happening in the background, mixing electronic effects with live drumming, Baraka rising up from the sound bed like he is being challenged in a way that he long resisted, after which—if in fact there can be an “after”—the album falls into two blanks, two blank tracks, a suitable silence, a sepulchral silence, a reprieve, forty seconds thereof, the silence of the beyond the grave of African American history and identity and oppression …’'
There is, however, the other side of that earnestness and freedom. One wonders if Moody perhaps feels uncomfortable employing sarcasm without gunshot-like exclamation points to make sure his reader knows that he is being sarcastic. ‘Only problem is: Pete Townshend didn’t even write them!’ ‘Wow! Bob Dylan was dead meat! We should all be so badly decomposed!’ ‘Kiss … created a multinational merchandising juggernaut!’
The whimsy transcends mere punctuation. The title piece, ‘On Celestial Music,’ is a short reckless stew of aesthetics and theology together, giving Moody the opportunity to go abstract on the divine and its relationship with music.
But something peculiar happens when we get to ‘The Pete Townsend Fragments.’ Pete Townsend of The Who earned himself uncoveted attention in 2003 when the police found his credit card information on a child pornography website. It was dismissed when Pete was able to prove that he was researching child porn in order to fight it. As I read this, it became clear that the whole lengthy essay acted, not only as an in-depth study of The Who’s career and music but, adjacently, it acted as a peek-a-boo psychoanalytic search through Townshend’s art and life for signs of Pete as pederast or Pete as childhood abusee.
Moody’s curiosity reaches the height of its vulgarity when he says:
‘I sort of want to know more about Pete’s grandmother, about the period of his real or imagined child abuse. This is a fascinating autobiographical subplot for those who are interested in such things.’
This insensitivity actually incited me to write ‘Yuck!’ in my notes. Of course it’s a fascinating autobiographical subplot. But you’re not supposed to say it. You’re not supposed say it. Moody says it. Moody asks the crass questions and goes on wondering until I find myself reading only to satiate my own vulgar curiosity along with him, which becomes the primary hook of the essay.
‘The Problem of Impairment’ has a similar format. It takes the dipsomania of The Pogues frontman, Shane McGowan, as its aesthetic entry point into the band’s music. The piece is redeemed, however, by its muscularity and maturity over the Townshend piece as it says something much bigger about artists and substance-abuse on whole. Moody handles this piece with greater sensitivity as he relates to the subject directly as a recovering alcoholic.
If this is not too big a worm to offer up in too small a piece of cake, the book’s comic-book exclamation points and vulgar curiosities are, in the end, redeemed by the care and sheer ambition of pieces like ‘The New York Underground’ and ‘Europe, Forsake Your Drum Machines!’
In a book edited by Moody on The New Testament called Joyful Noise he refers to himself in his introductory essay as an ‘armchair hermeneuticist.’ This is where he shines and this is precisely how he approaches the drum machine essay. Using the history of the drum machine, Moody says some very interesting things about the nature of art, dehumanization, secularism and how different genres bifurcate.
Is what he says in this piece true? Do the pieces to the historical puzzle he presents fit so neatly? Who cares? One could, perhaps, compare what Moody is attempting in this book to what Roberto Calasso does inThe Forty-nine Steps or Foucault inThe Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. He’s developing a historical narrative. He’s developing an interpretation.
His addressing the musicians of Europe reaches the height of his earnestness and militancy, and you have to at least admire his attempt to turn it into an invested appeal rather than an alienated gripe.
‘In the pursuit of a globalized, corporate Europe, an EU, you are going to flatten out all this difference and apply a nearly uniform sound to it, a martial, regimented sound to it, which is the sound of the drum machine? You are going to rhythmically organize Europe so that in its new secular guise its music is wholly explicable, without mystery, or you are going to take every immigrant music and subject it to this same spin cycle that wrings out all the differences and gives the music the same dull intention? And in the process you are going to rid the world of the actual music makers so that there is no one left making the music, just the ill-at-ease boys with their laptops?’
I welcome the response of European music to this appeal. I also welcome the challenge this book presents to other writers to invest this much thought to different kinds of music that space, time and personal taste didn’t permit Moody to address. Perhaps this will become its own mini-genre—the nonjealous investigation of music by other kinds of artists.