My brother recently posted the picture below on Facebook. He said it immediately took him back to the Dick Lurie Guitar Studio in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I knew just what he meant, and so did a bunch of other old musician friends from Cleveland’s east side. For Dick’s store is where we each began our personal journey with the guitar or the bass.
Ben and I studied with Dick himself. Later, my brother also studied with Bill Jeric, who apparently had been a member of the James Gang at some point. Bill was the rock teacher.
Dick, who was probably around 60 at the time, had a long history as a local jazz player and session musician. He was also quite a character. But whatever his eccentricities, you’ve got to give the guy all due respect: He managed to make a career out of music, and that is no small accomplishment.
As for the store, well, I’d say in retrospect that it was more of a front for the guitar lesson business that happened in the back. Over time, I came to realize that there were better places to go looking for guitars (e.g., there’s probably a good blog post to be written about Barry’s Mayfield Music, which wasn’t far from Dick’s studio).
Dick didn’t actually have that huge of a stock of instruments and amps in his shop, and a lot of what he did have wasn’t necessarily top of the line (more Hondo II guitars and Marlboro amps than Gibson, Fender, and Marshall–although he did get a Mesa Boogie combo in there at one point). This was mostly stuff for beginners, and one imagines, stuff where the manufacturers were more willing to offer a store owner favorable credit terms.
But as a 15 year old kid, there was plenty to be learned in Dick’s store, and the dudes behind the counter were always kind to us in our ignorance. Whether they were actually cool, I’m not sure, but at the time, they seemed pretty cool to me, because they were already inside of a world that I very much wanted to enter. So any little tidbit they laid down about that world, I was going to scoop it up has fast as possible.
We had no Internet back then. We just had guitar shop dudes, Guitar Player Magazine, and our own over-active imaginations.
Anyway, with that brief introduction, I give you a few random Dick Lurie memories:
1. Christmas Eve 1978: My dad, my brother, and I entered Dick Lurie’s for the first time on Christmas Eve 1978. Ostensibly, we went to get Ben a bass as a Christmas present. Our dad knew Dick, because he taught guitar in the music department at Cleveland State University, where dad also taught.
While we were in there, my dad turned to me and asked “You see anything you want here?” After I timidly said “Maybe a guitar would be cool,” my brother walked out the door with a low-end Fender Precision Bass copy, and I walked out the door with an electric six-string that said “Alpha I” on the headstock and made a Hondo II Les Paul copy look like the real thing.
Imagine two pieces of 5-ply plywood glued together to double the thickness, then cut into a Les Paul shape, finished with a bad red tobacco-sunburst, some humbucker shaped pick-ups, and some volume and tone nobs (no pick-up selector switch). That was the Alpha I.
But it wasn’t a bad guitar for what it was. Action wasn’t bad, intonation was okay, and down the line, after I got some new tuners on it, it stayed in tune pretty well.
Back in 1977, I was starting 9th grade in Champaign, Illinois. One day, a kid in my class told me that if you wrote a letter to a pro sports team and told them you were a fan, they would send you free stuff.
The Seattle Seahawks were a brand new NFL franchise back then. Unlike the other expansion team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were one of the worst teams in NFL history, the Hawks had been reasonably competitive in their first season.
I thought the Seahawks helmets were super cool. They also had a left-handed quarterback: Jim Zorn. I thought that was cool too, as I was left-handed.
With the help of my mom, I wrote the Seahawks a letter saying that I was a big fan of their team. A few weeks later, I got an envelope back from them. Inside, was a decal that looked a lot like the picture above. I put that decal on the window in my bedroom.
Fast forward to 1992. My brother and I are driving across the country from Boston to Seattle, where he had lived since 1989. I am in the process of moving out there too.
We drive through Champaign on the way there and spend the night hanging out with my old friend Larry Crotser, who happens to be in town from Chicago that weekend visiting his parents.
The next day, Ben and I drive by our old house to take a look at it. There’s a guy out in front of the house next door, and we strike up a conversation with him. He indicates that if we knock on the door at our old house, the teenage son of the owner is there and he suspects that the son will let us see the inside of the house.
We go over and knock on the door. Sure enough, the son is home and after we explain who we are, he invites us into the house for a tour. They’ve done a lot of nice renovations on the inside. But while some things are definitely different, a lot of it is just as we remembered it.
When we head upstairs, we walk into my old bedroom. That’s when I see it: The Seahawks decal is still on the window there.
Later that day, after driving around town some more, we got in the car and continued the trip west to Seattle, where I’ve lived ever since.
In 2005, my parents moved to Seattle too. Now, the whole family is living here.
But long before any of us got to Seattle, the universe apparently knew that we would all end up here one day rooting for the Seahawks.
A year ago next Sunday (Jan 26), my dad passed away here in Seattle. Since my folks moved out here, Sunday football has been one of our family rituals.
I’m really happy I got to watch so many games with my dad in the years before he passed. Parkinsons took a lot of stuff away from him. But it never took away watching football, which was one of the last things he had left, and something he enjoyed to the very end.
I watched the NFC championship game with him last Jan 20, six days before he died. If he’d held on another week or two, we undoubtedly would have watched the Super Bowl together as well.
In a little while, Antonia and I will be heading up north to get my mom. Then, we’re going to my brother’s to watch today’s game with Ben and his family. Although my dad won’t be there, I know he’ll be with us in spirit for sure.
Well, the Hawks played hard, got a few home team breaks, and managed to pull out a 23-17 victory. So we live to play another day.
Early in the season, my nephew developed a special celebration he’d do when something good happened for the Seahawks (a score, interception, sack, etc). It was also a tribute to my dad. He called it the “Conductor” (among other things, my dad was an orchestral conductor).
First, Max would tap the an imaginary podium with his imaginary baton. Then, he’d raise his hands up in the air and start conducting his imaginary orchestra. In my mind, they’re always playing a beautiful celebration song.
Let’s just say we were all doing the Conductor today at the end of the game after Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass in the end zone and Malcolm Smith grabbed it for an interception.
Next stop: Super Bowl. No sleep till Jersey!
Here’s hoping our imaginary orchestra is playing another celebratory song on Feb 2.
[no_toc]As I’ve mentioned before on this weblog, there wasn’t much Judeo-Christian worship in our family growing up. Nevertheless, there was always plenty of religion in our home. Through the years, my brother and I absorbed large helpings of an eclectic gospel authored by our father, Edwin London, the founder and sole rabbi of the Church of Dissonance.
When we were growing up, our church didn’t yet have a name. It was more of a free flowing set of ideas and attitudes–a way of being, or an outlook, if you will. The name came much later, courtesy of our buddy Pete Sheehy.
At a summer barbecue around 1999 or 2000, I was describing to Pete the childhood experience of attending my father’s atonal, contemporary music concerts, and how hard my brother and I found it to sit still through music so difficult to absorb that 10 minutes of it often felt more like an hour.
“That sounds a lot like it was for me going to church when I was a kid,” Pete interjected.
“You’re right,” I responded, “I guess we were raised in the Church of Dissonance.”
Since that day, I’ve intended to record the most important lessons of our church for posterity. And now, on Father’s Day, in the year of Edwin London’s passing, I think the time is finally right.
So I give you 17 lessons learned in the Church of Dissonance (“COD”):
1. Avoid cheap beer, rot-gut whiskey, and sweet mixed-drinks.
When I was in high school, my mom cut a cartoon out of the New Yorker and put it on the wall in the breakfast nook of our kitchen. There was a guy sitting at a bar talking to the bartender. The caption read “The good Scotch James. My body is my temple.”
Drinking was not frowned upon in the COD. But drinking low-end alcoholic beverages was. On more than one occasion, I got advice along the following lines from my dad:
“If you don’t like the taste of an alcoholic beverage on its own, don’t drink it mixed with other stuff to hide its flavor. Very little good ever comes from doing that. If you can’t afford to drink the quality, good tasting stuff, save your money until you can.”
As I enter my 35th year of drinking on a semi-regular basis, I’ve found my dad’s advice on these matters to be solid. I don’t always follow it (I do enjoy a limeade Shandy; sometimes, I make it with cheap beer), but when spirits are involved, dad was right: If one anticipates a long night of drinking, it’s best to avoid the Well and confine the mixer to an H20 derivative (e.g., ice, water, or club soda).
I’ve had a K-Mart radio for over 30 years now. It receives AM, FM, and shortwave frequencies. It was made in Japan before that was a compliment. Nevertheless, it aspires to be hi-fidelity, with knobs and switches for bass, treble, volume, and loudness, plus a separate woofer and tweeter. It even has inputs on its side for things like microphones and electric guitars. Yes, I have played guitar through it.
A while back, a housemate of mine moved out and took the boombox from our kitchen. After months of cooking without music, I remembered the K-Mart radio, dug it out of storage, and put it back into service. Worked like a charm. No CDs, cassettes, or MP3s. Just whatever’s on the terrestrial airwaves when you power it up.
Around 1975, my dad gave both my brother and me one of these radios for Christmas. For me, it replaced an old tube table radio that had originally been my grandmother’s. That radio had a cool orange light on the front of it and wood on the sides. But it was on its last legs. As it heated up, the volume would drop until you couldn’t hear much of anything. It also didn’t have good AM reception. So I couldn’t listen to WLS, the Top 40 station from Chicago. But I did listen to Champaign’s WLRW Solid Gold FM on it: “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Rag Doll,” and things like that. Strange to think that those oldies were younger in 1975 than the K-Mart radio is now.
I come from a mixed faith marriage. My mom is Episcopalian. My dad is Jewish. There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons why the faith of the mother determines the faith of the child in Judaism. But one reason might be that women are often the ones who maintain the family cultural traditions. That was pretty much true in my family. Perhaps because of the mixed marriage, I got very little traditional religion growing up. We never attended church or temple. Mostly, we worshipped in the Church of Dissonance, which really wasn’t a place as much as a way of being. But that’s a subject for another time.
We did, however, celebrate Christmas. Presumably, my mother was the instigator of this. As a very little boy, we went at least once out to Oakland, California to celebrate it with her mom. Probably, there were more times before that. But I don’t remember them. Maybe we celebrated it for Grandma’s sake. I don’t know. But when I was 5, Grandma died, and we kept on celebrating Christmas. So it either meant something to somebody, or by that time the habit was formed. The Londons are nothing if not creatures of habit, and Christmas certainly helped organize our yearly consumption of consumer durable goods. It also gave me one less thing to feel like a freak about (let’s just say that most of the kids I knew growing up did not worship in the Church of Dissonance).
Kids and Christmas are a very comfortable fit. At least that’s how it’s always seemed to me. Everyone is happy to see kids. People give them things. And why wouldn’t people give them things? Kids really make Christmas fun. They embody the joy of the season. Even today, it’s easy to please a kid with less than ten dollars. Try really pleasing an adult with less than 10 dollars. It’s virtually impossible. Only a kid delivers that much positive feedback for ten bucks.
As a kid, I didn’t think much about Christmas. It was just something we did. Consequently, I never really considered the possibility that my dad, the Jewish guy, might have a more complicated relationship with the holiday than I did. Of course, in retrospect, it’s clear that he did.
On the one hand, my dad definitely had the outsider’s anthropological curiosity about Christmas. In the late 1950s, he wrote an opera about Santa Claus to complete his Ph.D. in music composition. And in the 1970s, he composed a suite of Christmas music under the pseudonym “Bjørne Enstabile”. (Maybe he determined that since Irving Berlin had written a famous Christmas tune, it was a rite of passage for all Jewish composers to try their hand at writing one too.)
On the other hand, I think celebrating Christmas was always a little bit weird for my dad, like getting an invite to an annual party you have routinely been excluded from in the past. Even if the party is pretty fun, you never completely shake the sense that there’s something a little wrong about being there.
I’ve dated a few Jewish gals over the years, and on a couple of occasions they celebrated Christmas with me. While I don’t want to project too much of their experience with Christmas onto my dad, talking with them about it did provide me with at least a little bit of third party Jewish perspective on what it feels like to participate in the Christian rituals.
My takeaway from these conversations? Dad liked the family togetherness of Christmas. He seemed to like that low budget positive kid feedback part too. But he was nevertheless ambivalent about the holiday, and he expressed this ambivalence each year by putting off his Christmas shopping until the last possible moment.
Typically, the drill went something like this: Finals would end a few days before Christmas at the University of Illinois, where my dad taught music theory and composition. Then on December 23 or December 24, my dad would go have a few afternoon drinks, maybe with his friend Salvatore Martirano, maybe with some other folks, maybe alone. I don’t really know. But having some drinks was usually involved. Then he was ready to head off and do some Christmas shopping.
The year of the K-Mart radio was definitely a Christmas Eve shopping year. In fact, I think it was an unprecedented Christmas Eve night shopping year. This is probably how K-Mart got involved. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been dad’s go-to shopping destination. But it was one of the few stores open late on December 24th. So he didn’t have much of a choice.
The K-Mart in Champaign, Illinois was on Bloomington Road near Prospect Avenue (it’s a Home Depot now). From our house on West Hill Street, you drove north up Prospect across the railroad tracks, past Unc Blacker’s Tavern (“Coldest Beer in Town”), Top Boy Hamburgers, Putt Putt Golf, Dairy Queen, Shakey’s Pizza , Dog and Suds, and Foremost Liquors. I think there was a Red Lobster up there too.
We didn’t live far from the K-Mart, maybe a mile or two away. Once I got to junior high school, I biked it pretty regularly (indeed my junior high school was between our house and the K-Mart). But it was definitely in a different part of town. Our neighborhood sort of defined the northern edge of the nicer part of Champaign. It was nothing fancy, but it mostly consisted of reasonably well-kept, middle class, single family homes. As you headed north out towards K-Mart, things got progressively more low rent and run down. If you headed due east from K-Mart, you eventually found yourself in a poorer, African American part of town. And if you headed due west, you’d find a lot of poor and lower middle class white folks.
Whatever their ethnicity, these people were the regular customers of the K-Mart. And that Christmas Eve night was no exception. My dad later painted a rather bleak picture of the scene: people struggling under the dingy glow of the fluorescent lights to get some last minute shopping done with whatever cash they’d managed to scrape together before the impending deadline–many of them undoubtedly hoping their meager budget would be enough to win some positive feedback from their children.
Dad, the tipsy, middle-class academic, was most definitely a tourist in that sea of desperation. But he was not a stranger to it. He’d grown up poor in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. While he never said so explicitly, I’ve wondered whether the scene conjured up some unhappy childhood memories for him. All I know is that he never hit the K-Mart on Christmas Eve night again. And he rarely went to K-Mart at all after that.
So this night was different than all the other nights. It was like a higher power drew my dad to the radios. For they were of a quality rarely encountered at K-Mart before or since that day. I can’t remember anything else I received for Christmas in 1975, but the K-Mart radio left its indelible mark almost immediately. How different our lives would have been if dad had not gone to the K-Mart that night.
The day after I got the new radio, I was a little more of my own person than the day before I got it. Receiving it was like encountering Martin Luther’s 95 Theses during the Protestant Reformation and contemplating for the first time the possibility that no sacerdotal middle man was necessary to convene with the divine. Suddenly, I had my own direct connection. Now, it was about me and my peers. What did I like? What did we like? Who was cool? Who wasn’t? Before too long, we had our own cultural theology.
Of course, thinking about it almost 40 years later, my illusions of autonomy seem pretty quaint. Even if the K-Mart radio took my parents out of my cultural loop, there were still plenty of adults in the abstract ether of the mass media, constructing and structuring most of what we kids consumed. Sure, there was a symbiotic feedback loop. These people were eager to see what we liked, because their livelihood depended on it. But ultimately, it was a very top down system of dissemination with an incredibly powerful supply-side filtering mechanism. Many were called. But we only heard the very few who were chosen by the gods of the mass media.
Today, we live in an era of media fragmentation. Choice and individuality are buzzwords. The old enforced scarcity of mass media and supply-side filters has given way to a networked, hyper-abundance of digitized culture products. Often, it feels like almost everyone is both a publisher and a consumer.
Contemporary kids embrace a cultural theology far more radical than anything we could have conceived of in the 1970s. Many aren’t just skeptical about the privileged role of the sacerdotal middle man. They question the entire notion that any divine “other” exists outside the confines of the peer-to-peer Hive Mind.
Devices like the iPod allow people to carry tens of thousands of songs around in the palm of their hands. To anyone born before 1980, having easy access to such a huge archive of recorded music feels like an episode of Star Trek. All you have to do is say “Computer, play me some John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Minutemen, Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Death Cab for Cutie, and Soul Asylum.” A few moments later you’re listening to it.
In the face of this abundance, the shuffle feature has become a popular tool for addressing its challenges. Don’t know what to choose? Put it on shuffle. Who knows what it will play next? When shuffle does a good job, one may even entertain the possibility that the algorithm is tapping into something divine. But this is an illusion. Ultimately, all the control remains with the user. Don’t like the song that comes up in the shuffle? Skip it. Or put on your own customized play list. In the end, each iPod user has the godlike power to craft their own personal pop cultural experience.
That sort power seems pretty great in theory. But in practice, wielding it can be rather overwhelming. Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, eloquently addresses this conundrum. More choice, he argues, doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. Often, it leaves people drained and dissatisfied. So many choices. So many what-ifs after a choice is made. Did I really make the best choice? Maybe I should have gotten the Chipotle, Cool Ranch Doritos instead of Extra Spicy Nacho Cheese.
This problem is particularly acute in the context of music consumption. So much old music is easily available and so much more new music is constantly being released. It’s like trying to drink from a high-pressure fire hose. Gerald Casale from the band Devo recently addressed this in an NPR interview: “What’s happened is that so many CDs are put out per month, possibly 10,000 a month. Nobody can possibly even know half the music that exists out there.”
For the people who try to keep up with current releases (e.g., critics and super fans), it can feel less and less like it’s about the pleasure of listening and more and more like it’s about just trying to find a way to process the never ending stream of data.
One wouldn’t want to miss out on some important new release. Yet is any release important anymore? How do you even locate and contextualize various releases when there’s such a glut of old and new music floating around in the big atemporal reservoir of song.
Radio, of course, doesn’t work like this. It’s less about control and more about collective experience. As my buddy Pete Sheehy put it to me a while ago, “a radio is a wePod not an iPod.” Everybody gets the same playlist and the same three choices when they tune into a radio station: (1) listen to it, (2) change the station, or (3) turn it off. That’s not a lot of choices compared to an iPod, especially given the limited number of terrestrial radio stations in most markets.
But even with these limitations, radio remains a great deal. It gives you the music for free, and it simply asks you to keep listening when the commercials come on (or the sponsorship messages, or the pleas for donations). Evidently, enough of these commercials have been listened to year-in and year-out to keep the business model viable for many decades.
Probably, I’m just getting old and nostalgic, but I often prefer letting someone else choose the playlist, especially if they are good at it. Compared to the average shuffle mix on an iPod, the classic top 40 of the 1960s and early 1970s still provided a more cohesive mix. Whether it was Motown, British Invasion, Stax/Volt, or San Francisco Psychedelia, if it made it on the top-40 in this period, there was something catchy and pop at its core.
Hell, the same could probably even be said about the average 1970s free-form station. There was a human filter involved, somebody with judgment. There was also the knowledge that a bunch of other folks in your town were listening to the same thing at that very same moment that you were.
When I first visited Seattle in the summer of 1990, my brother had KCMU on in his house (the predecessor to KEXP for any youngsters or Seattle newcomers reading this). As we moved around his Capitol Hill neighborhood, it seemed like every business we entered also had it on.
Fugazi was scheduled to play a show at some movie theater in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood that has long since been razed for condos or something. Riz Rollins was the afternoon DJ then, and on the day of the Fugazi show, as he talked about it on the air, it really felt like Seattle was a very small town and everybody who lived there was going to be attending the show that night. I found that astounding, especially in a city the size of Seattle.
At that moment, I was reminded of the power of the wePod, and I understood why Seattle’s vibrant music scene was fast becoming an international phenomenon. Along with local music magazine “the Rocket,” KCMU was taking the energy of the local scene, aggregating it, amplifying it, mixing it with complementary stuff from the world outside Seattle (like Fugazi), and reflecting it back to the local community. All you had to do was tune in to be a part of it.
Today, social networking sites like Facebook seem to offer a richer platform than radio for aggregating and sharing these sorts of social experiences. So perhaps we don’t need radio as much for that anymore. But as I celebrate another year with the K-Mart radio, let’s not prematurely write off the venerable wePod either.
Sure, its status and cultural relevance may have declined somewhat in recent years. And it certainly has its flaws (the present state of most commercial radio offers ample proof of that). But in the right hands, a radio can still change your life, just as it changed mine that Christmas morning many years ago.
Everyday, staff members at stations like KEXP continue to drink deeply from the fire hose of cultural production, distill it, and beam the results back to the people. In doing so, they reaffirm that a carefully curated set of music provides an unparalleled opportunity to sidestep the noise and commune with the divinity of the pure signal.
[Another old piece of writing. Kind of a sibling to the Replacements piece. Consolidating it over here.]
Recently, the band Kiss made a triumphant return to the limelight. It was fun observing the whole resurgence. It got me thinking warm thoughts about my life as 7th grader, listening to the Big 89, WLS AM Chicago, and the 50,000 watts of top forty power it beamed down to Champaign, Illinois. But before I’ve even finished singing “Beth” to myself, my mind invariably wanders forward to more recent Kiss related memory: a night a few years before this recent resurgence when I unexpectedly found myself going to see Ace Frehley, Kiss lead guitarist, perform at a local rock club with his own band.
“Whadya think he’ll play?” one of my friends wondered out loud as we drove down to the club.
“Hope he plays some Kiss songs,” another one replied.
“He better,” we all agreed. “Or it’ll be a rip-off.”
Inside the club, the band room had been transformed into the “hard rock zone.” The stage was filled with tall stacks of Laney amplifiers belonging to Ace and his band. In many trips to this club, I had never seen a full wall of amps like that in there.
Outside the band room, by the bar, I ran into an acquaintance of mine who said he had been there when the bands loaded in their equipment and that Ace was surrounded by three body guards.
“I couldn’t tell if they were protecting him or holding him up so he wouldn’t fall down,” he explained.
About twenty minutes after the second opening band finished its set, Ace emerged with his band. From my vantage point he looked like a cross between a puffy-faced vampire and Elvis after he discovered Carbohydrates. “Relaxed fit” blue jeans were a necessity rather than a fashion choice. Surrounding Ace were three comparatively younger musicians of the hard rock persuasion, sporting an array of tight jeans, colorful vests and scarves that would have made Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler proud.
At this point, even a jumbo helping of Generation X ironic whimsy seemed unlikely to salvage the evening. But when Ace slung on his cherry-sunburst Les Paul Custom and the band launched into “Detroit Rock City,” I was forced to reconsider my position. The band sounded good, even if Ace’s vocals were a little thin. All those amps made one hell of a loud pummeling sound. The kind of loud you get when you send two Les Paul guitars into eight hundred watts of overdriven tube amplification and back out through thirty-two 12″ Celestion speakers–a muscular, we’re not even pushing these rigs, kind of loud. I stood there, slightly in awe, the bottom end of the guitars washing over me, and pondered whether the best Kiss songs didn’t embody, in a hard rock context, the very principles Strunk and White preached in their Elements of Style: clarity, directness, concision, and careful organization.
Then a strange thing happened. The voice of my sixty-five-year-old dad echoed through my head:
“He’s really working up there, isn’t he?”
Although the meaning of this statement was immediately clear to me, it probably needs some explanation here. My dad has been involved in music professionally for about fifty years. He started out doing popular stuff, playing trumpet and french horn in jazz and swing bands back in Philadelphia in the 1940s. Since 1960, he’s been a composer, a conductor, and a professor of music composition. He’s written three operas and numerous other orchestral and choral works, most of which have far more in common with the work of Schönberg and Cage than with that of Ace Frehley.
But despite their stylistic dissimilarities, over the years, dad, like Ace, has made his living through music. It’s art to him, and he takes his art seriously. But it’s also a job and a career. So when my dad says “He’s really working up there, isn’t he?” it’s a knowing comment about a reality that binds all professional musicians together, regardless of how different they may be in musical style or taste. They’re all hustling and trying to make a living. They’re not just artists. They’re workers too. Music may be everyone else’s break from everyday life, their entertainment. It may even be a welcome escape from the tedium of the nine-to-five world for the musicians themselves. But if you do it regularly for money, eventually it’s work.
So when my dad made a similar comment as we watched James Brown do the splits on the David Letterman Show about thirteen years ago, I took it as a statement paying respect to James Brown for taking his craft seriously, for being my dad’s age and doing the splits on Letterman, for still getting out there and singing “Cold Sweat” with energy and conviction. I took it the same way when my dad used similar language to describe seeing Elvis in Las Vegas in 1972. And when my dad took my brother to see the Who in 1982 and he came back and said the same thing, I knew what he meant. I doubt the Who touched his life significantly, but the fact of their longevity did make an impression on him. They were still doing it after almost two decades. And they put on a good show. Their job was to entertain and they did their job.
We children of the rock and roll era don’t have much respect for the notion of craft to which my dad’s comment refers. It’s really a pre-rock-and-roll notion, one born in a time when craft was usually a precondition to making a living as a musician. Songwriters wrote songs. Musicians played these songs. There was a lot more live music and bands were bigger. They had big horn sections with intricate arrangements. To make these arrangements work, bands generally worked from sheet music. This practice also facilitated more fluid employment relations. Individual musicians were less tied to particular bands. The “show went on.” If Saxophone A couldn’t show up, you brought in Saxophone B, gave him the music, maybe rehearsed once and played the show.
This still goes on today in at least some segments of the music industry. But in many respects, rock and roll changed all this, because the ethos of rock and roll is hostile to such notions of craft and professionalism, even though this sort of craft and professionalism has always been a part of rock and roll. As an ideology, rock and roll has always been about “anyone can do it” and “raw emotions” expressed in an “authentic” way. So a song’s a little raw. So the guitars are out of tune. Who cares? It’s sincere. It’s honest. It’s what I was feeling. Don’t put you’re standards on me. I can do what I want. It’s rock and roll.
In this ideological framework, craft, in the pre-rock sense, is among the worst evils. It’s about elitism and exclusivity. It’s the end of innocence, the beginning of self-consciousness, the arrival of artifice and insincerity. It’s the hand of “the man” sanitizing the music, white-washing the truth. It’s the world of commerce rushing in and trampling the sacred world of “real” artistic expression. It’s people carrying on after the thrill is gone in order to make a living. It’s people making decisions for business rather than artistic reasons. It’s not very romantic. In short, it’s the everyday life of the real world, the world from which rock and roll is supposed to provide an escape.
In this regard, rock and roll seems to share more with the world of sports than with the musical genres that preceded it. You either make it big or barely make a thing (The NBA vs. the CBA). In addition, rock and roll seems to be viewed as a game that you play, not a job that you do. God forbid you ever think of it as a job (especially out loud). You’re supposed to play it for the love of the game, and feel grateful for the privilege. You’ll work a day job if you have to, in order to play on your own terms. That’s far more honorable than sullying yourself in a cover band playing weddings.
Rock and roll is also like sports in that successful rock and roll musicians aren’t just musicians. They’re “stars.” As a result, we’ve tended to look at successful rock musicians in much the same way we look at successful ballplayers. There’s a tacit agreement: you play the game as well as you can and we’ll give you more money and adulation than most people receive in a life time. But remember that it’s a young man’s game. When the time comes that you’ve lost the spring in your step and you can’t pull the ball down the line anymore, leave the game gracefully and retire or go sell insurance. We don’t want to feel embarrassed for you. Because if we have to see you as you are now, we’ll have to look at ourselves as we are now. We’ll have to face the here and now, as opposed to that fantasy world of the past that your music creates for us, that place where we’re all forever young.
Ace Frehley is the walking embodiment of this phenomenon. In his case, it’s even more pronounced, because he spent the most successful years of his career performing in make-up and a costume, surrounded by a vast array of pyrotechnics. Maybe he looked like a puffy-faced vampire in 1975 too. We never knew, but we could sure see him now in all his middle-aged, burned-out splendor. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
But there’s more to it than that. Even if Ace was as fit as Steven Tyler–the Dorian Grey of Hard Rock–seeing him perform would still engender a complicated mix of emotions. For at some level, seeing Ace is seeing Kiss. And unpacking the cultural significance of Kiss has proven to be far more complicated than anyone ever expected. After all, rock critics and the hipoise always hated Kiss, precisely because Kiss was always about craft. It was crass. It was completely contrived. And in the eyes of the critics, the “philistine masses” ate it up, because they lacked the hermeneutic skills to shed their false consciousness and see the horrible truth about the band. They were too stupid to see through the artifice, to see that there might not be any “real” emotions underlying Kiss’s music, to see that “Art” took a back seat to entertainment.
What the critics missed is that music is a two way emotional street. It isn’t just about a musician bearing his or her “real” soul and the listener bearing witness to the “authenticity” of this experience and absorbing it. It’s about listeners making their own meanings out of the music. At this level, the distinction between “real” emotion and craft is a lot less important. Craft can be a virtue, because craft is a powerful thing. That’s why rock and roll has always been wary of it, even as it tacitly embraces it. Craft is knowledge. It implies an understanding of the ways in which music effects people physically and emotionally and the ability to use music’s power to manipulate people’s emotions and senses. In the case of pop music, it’s the ability to write and record a song that people like, a song that people will pay money for.
On this level Kiss was always a phenomenal success. Whether the band members wrote the songs themselves or brought in song doctors like Desmond Child, someone knew what they were doing and cared about doing it well. Hell, the band might not have even played on the records. And whether the songs expressed “sincere” emotions is anyone’s guess. Maybe they just wanted to make money or be famous. But someone had pride in the product. Sure, it was candy, but for those of us who came of age with Kiss, it tasted pretty good.
We were touched by the band’s craft. It seduced us and made us like the band’s music. And we’ve built emotional attachments to Kiss’s music that are personal to our own experiences. At least for me, these attachments don’t have much to do with the “deep issues” of pain and loss and the contemplation of the artist’s soul. They have to do with being twelve years old and listening to the radio and singing “I want to rock and roll all night and party every day” without really even knowing what the hell these words meant. They were just catchy. They still are. And I don’t want to belittle this experience just because I was twelve years old and lacking the sophisticated interpretive tools possessed by rock critics and my friends’ older siblings. I learned those later. They’ve brought me pleasure and enlightenment. But so has Kiss, a pleasure I’d hate to lose, but can never fully explain.
So as I watched Ace playing up on the stage that night, it was strangely uplifting. “Rocket Ride” felt good. “Back in the New York Groove,” from his solo album, felt good. So did the encore, where he pulled out “Rock and Roll All Night.” Sure it was bittersweet. It was hard not to feel a little sorry for Ace. There was no big arena, no make-up, and no pyrotechnics. Ace was no longer a mega-star. But even knowing how drunk Ace probably was, he did not seem pathetic to me. Ace was working and there was a love and understanding of the craft that came through. He was up on that stage entertaining us, and he acquitted himself quite well. The band sounded good and Ace’s guitar playing was there too. Nobody ever would have confused him with Ritchie Blackmore or Eddie Van Halen. But nobody ever has. So why start now? He played his solos and rocked out in a down right dignified way. Well, as dignified as a person can be who uses the words “fuck,” “fucker,” and “motherfucker” in every sentence. But after all, Ace wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t. He’s a free bird. It’s rock and roll, and Ace is a rock and roller.