The music is available here.
Something I have been thinking about off and on for a while now (a few years?) is the question of how we read our own writing, especially during the editing stages. What sensibility kicks in when we evaluate and revise the pieces we’ve been working on in search of ways to make them better?
In the midst of reading some projects in various stages of completion, it struck me that I read my work as if through what I imagine is the perspective of someone else. I never to do this while writing, only while editing. This perspective offers me critical voices to draw on–it’s like having other readers with me at the table. Call it Ventrilo-Reading.
The question is to whom do these critical voices belong? The answer seems to be: my teachers and friends. As I read I remember teachers I have had going back some twenty years, and I also think about friends. (And of course, some former teachers remain friends!) As I scan the writing line by line, I imagine these other readers reading, and so for a moment achieve the illusion that it’s not me reading, but them, so seamlessly do I seem to inhabit their sensibilities. As I read I ponder whether or not a line would make sense to them, whether it’s good enough as is, or whether it could be further clarified, further compressed to make its ideas clearer and simpler. Little seems all that clear as I picture my imaginary readers pausing for a moment at a busy juncture or unnecessary word (goodbye adverb), furrowing their brow (as I furrow mine) as they puzzle how they might gently make suggestions to make things better.
My imaginary readers are always on the lookout for BS–all those points at which I lose them by making an unsupported claim or saying something that is simply not germane enough to the matter at hand. “Get rid of this,” they say flatly, striking it with a single pen stroke. (Why do we see more looking at hard copy rather than the screen?) Or maybe it isn’t a matter of BS but an idea is clearly is in the wrong place or repeats something that was already said. “Move it here,” they offer, drawing an arrow towards an appropriate destination.
Working line by line, heeding these incisive suggestions by my imaginary readers who noticed stuff that I didn’t, I tweak and move and delete words and phrases. As I do so, the project and its ideas become humbler and maybe a bit less sure of themselves. With the right edits though, the writing also becomes cleaner. “Finally,” the voices say, glad that I’ve heeded their suggestions, “it’s getting better.” And as the prose gets cleaner and thus clearer, I sometimes receive an unexpected gift. Just like that, my critical readers have vanished, replaced by another imaginary audience–general readers who can finally follow along. If I’m lucky I might hear them speak: “I see what you’re trying to say.”
In this excerpt (from the book Still The Mind and as heard in the animated video “Life Has A Voice” below), the philosopher Alan Watts (1915-1973) makes connections between deep listening, attention, and lack of self-consciousness:
“The first thing we have to understand is what I call deep listening. And very few people ever really listen. Because instead of receiving the sound, they make comments on it all the time. They’re thinking about it, and so the sound is never fully heard.
You just have to let it take over. Let it take you over completely. Then you get the samadhi state of becoming it.
And it also means that you abandon your socially nervous personality…One of the reasons why people don’t sing is that they hear so many masters on records, and they’re ashamed of their own voices and think there’s no point in singing unless I’m good at it.
But singing is of course very good for you, but we won’t mention that…It’s like a child will make noises because of the absorbing interest of making noises. It embarrasses the hell out of some people.”
Imagine you’re a bird flying high above a vast landscape. Now imagine that the landscape–forest, mountains, rivers, roaming animals, small towns–is the history of popular music stretched out below you. You’re not flying alone. Next to you is another bird named Bob. Bob knows this territory well, pointing out the important sights below and explaining to you how everything relates to everything else.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is a remarkably engaging history of pop music from the 1950s to about 2000. Over some 600 pages, musician and writer Bob Stanley touches on most of the pop musical styles, movements, and artists over the past fifty years–from Bill Haley, Elvis, the Brill Building scene and the Beatles to folk, country, punk, funk, heavy metal, disco, new wave, Motown, soul, electro and hip hop, and so much in between. His writing is succinct, insightful to the point that it reads as if the author was somehow there for every musical moment he describes, and utterly engaging. Like a street corner observer who witnessed history shuffle by and then remembered and distilled the good and juicy bits, Stanley has knack for telling the sprawling story of pop. Rarely has a book gone by so effortlessly for me. Bravo Bob!
The book takes a chronological approach to pop history, patiently moving from year to year and including dates of noteworthy songs in parentheses. One of Stanley’s go-to structuring techniques is to anchor his narrative around important and/or hit songs from the year as kinds of signposts indicating points of widespread critical admiration. Hit songs tell us what a lot of people were listening to and enjoying at various moments in time. We can understand how these moments work when Stanley tells us that what makes great pop is “tension, opposition, progress, and fear of progress.” Fortunately for us, the author himself seems to appreciate just about every pop subculture out there for what it has to tell us about the human experience. Whether it’s folk music or glam rock, Stanley sees the modern pop era as an “endless, interchangeable jigsaw puzzle.” This makes him a fascinating tour guide who on each page goes on explaining to us how all these sounds and styles and artists fit together and relate to one another.
If Stanley has a bias it’s that he likes good music, quality music–music that takes chances, music that embraces the full potential of what it is meant to be. And in addition to being a pop musical generalist, Stanley is a populist too, quick to value the underdog, the overlooked, and the marginalized rather than simply rehash the merits of a few canonic favorites. (Please, no more Zeppelin.) This is what allows him to explain how, for example, in pop “noise and overexcitement became values rather than marks of low quality.” It’s easy to forget the value these kinds of artistic contributions that often come to the mainstream from the margins.
The history of pop is, among other things, a history of technology, and Stanley observes that pop would not exist without recordings. In fact, pop innovated the idea that music can exist first and foremost as a recorded form. Here, we learn about the British producer and studio wiz Joe Meek, who in 1960s “was the first to manipulate every element of the track, imagining the record as a complete production.” Meek was also “the first to argue that records didn’t need to directly mimic a live performance.” This powerful idea would be famously taken up by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and others who came to recognize the recording studio as pop’s natural habitat.
One of Stanley’s most compelling qualities as a writer is his range of interests and the way he is able to say incisive things about so many different musics. Whether he’s talking about country music (“the underside of modern pop…on every level, country music remains a mass fantasy”), Jamaican reggae (“Marley fitted a preconception about Jamaican culture that suited a white audience”), soft rock (“managed to be both countercultural and crushingly conservative …It was also unforgiving, very male, and very straight”), punk (“stripped of pretty much all black influence”), or post-punk (“the sound of postwar architecture itself. It was abstract, sometimes confused, frequently surprising”), Stanley tells you what is important to know about the place of a style within the broader historical narrative.
And rarely is the author dismissive of a music. Instead, he finds a way to validate it. For example, he describes metal as “not out to test your faculties, it was there to dim them, to blot out that teenage shit with sheer volume…It is about a state of being, Being Metal. Almost no other music has this raison d’être.” Stanley also locates quotes from the musicians themselves that give you pause. About punk, for instance, we hear from the Ramones’ original drummer Tommy Ramone explaining lucidly what his group was trying to do: “The hypnotic effect of strict repetition, driving the music like a sonic machine…it’s very sensual. It was a new way of looking at music.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is how it validates pop’s shift towards electronics (synthesizers, drum machines, computers, etc.) and explains how this shift radically changed its soundscape. As Stanley matter of factly describes the shift: “It had become apparent by the turn of this century that rock–the vocals/guitar/bass/drums setup pioneered by the Crickets, Shadows, Beatles, and Led Zeppelin–had become as fossilized and ancient as Dixieland jazz was in 1952.”
In the 1970s, disco was the first threat to the rock canon. (Remember the “disco sucks” rallies in Chicago?) Thanks to disco, “for the first time the pulse of pop became the most important factor in a hit record, and that hasn’t gone away.” This steady pulse also marked “the beginning of pop’s internationalization.” While it is perhaps easy to ridicule some of disco’s biggest stars such as the Bee Gees (humorously described as “aliens who had been given tiny scraps of information about what pop music was all about and were bravely trying to piece it together”), the idiom also brought us real innovations such as the remix and the idea of extending the rhythmic breaks of songs. This would in turn influence the breakbeats of hip hop. Not long after disco, electro funk “gave American pop a new sense of space, as New York producers mixed dub with Korg and Roland’s evolving keyboard and beatbox technology, and created something undeniably futuristic.” Electro would soon bifurcate, one half fueling techno and house musics (“house and techno were the first truly international sounds of modern pop; they could be easily mimicked, exploited, expanded by musicians in any country”), the other driving hop hop and its investigations of “texture and persuasive powers of dialogue and flow.”
Since that bifurcation, pop has continued many of its guitar-based ways (indie, post-rock, grunge, alt-country), but increasingly the most interesting music is that made in idioms free of shall we say, six-string constraints. An early example is New Order’s “Blue Monday,” a song that “physically bridged the gap between rock and dance culture in that it was only available as a twelve-inch single, the chosen format of DJs.” Another example is the idiom of contemporary R&B. As Stanley notes about this music from the mid-90s to middle of following decade: “A swathe of auteur producers emerged, happy to take the most oblique rhythm, the most exotic instrumentation, and deliver the most outré chart hit.” Much of the most interesting pop today–rhythmically, texturally, timbrally–grows out of the template set by these R&B producers.
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! ends amidst this cultural moment–a point in the history of pop where producers using little more than computers and software are creating big, engaging sounds. Stanley doesn’t mourn the half-passing of the guitar-bass-drums-vocalist pop template because he still believes in great songs in whatever form. At heart, he’s a true fan, in love with Quality pop, yet tempered by a sense of realism. “We have entered a different era, the digital age, in which great records will continue to be made,” he tells us near the end of the book, “but, with such a choice of influences readily available, it will be much harder to create a brand-new form of music.”
There’s a wonderful rhythmic insistence to this music–a rolling 6-beat feel with shifting accents that blends the sounds of string quartet (Kronos) with a multi-percussion drumset part. In its positive energy it evokes the homespun of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts mixed with the shimmer of Indonesian gamelan…
What is the relationship between music and discipline?
A great question! While it’s a cliché that in music, practice makes perfect, and that steady, mindful practice requires discipline, perhaps less remarked upon is how the act of playing music is itself a form of discipline. Making music disciplines one’s mind to focus on the sounds here and now, the notes on the page, or the interaction of oneself with one’s band mates. Making music is also discipline for the body to travel and re-travel certain paths along one’s chosen instrument(s), in the process developing a finely tuned sense of one’s capability to do musical things.
Wallace Stevens music.
The American poet Wallace Stevens did touch on music in his poetry. As I wrote in this blog a few years ago, “Stevens was quite interested in musical experience, writing about the power of music to encapsulate the unseen and unsaid. For Stevens, meaning is never a given, but rather something created, and he used music–that presence between body and spirit–as a figure for a desire of spectral power.” You can read more here.
What is perfect time in music?
There is, of course, no such thing as perfect time in music–unless you’re talking about the tick-tock of a metronome, which isn’t really music. Maybe perfect time in music is that sound that effortlessly flows like a stream, or like autumn leaves blown up and around in circles. Or perfect time is a group of musicians–a band, a choir–who work as one. Or perfect time is a musician who doesn’t need to count, but instead lets the music propel the moment.