Death and the music critic

>> Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Today I stumbled onto a ridiculous commentary piece I felt obliged to share: some asshole writing about "rock martyrs" in The Guardian. The piece isn't really worth reading, actually. So why did I include a link? Oh of course: because anything I might have to say about it will make more sense if you bother yourself with reading it. But I should warn you: there's not really a whole lot of substance there. Apparently professional writers share the experience we amateur bloggers have of needing to fill up an entry even when we have nothing to say.

The most interesting part of the piece is that he thinks Radiohead's Thom Yorke wants to kill him. No, it's not even that interesting: it really appears Yorke wants to kick the writer's ass because, back in 1995, the writer kinda sorta implied that maybe Radiohead would be more famous if Yorke killed himself. Not because of anything personal against Yorke, mind you, but simply because that would make Radiohead's "story" more tragic or interesting or whatever.

See, this is the hideous thing about Paul Lester's (the asshole's) bit of twaddle, the whole "rock martyrs" thing in the title of his fluffy bit of not-much: you may not have realized it, but the whole point of being a musician isn't to try to get paid for entertaining people with your musical or compositional abilities, oh-ho no! Your responsibility, if you're a musician, is to interest people by being a train wreck. If you're a train wreck, somebody will eventually make a movie about you, see, like Anton Corbijn's Joy Division flick, Control.

(Oddly enough, another high-profile music biopic last year was Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, also about a moody dead musician, the late Bob Dylan who tragically committed suicide when he was 27 is still alive, releasing albums, touring, and even hawking lingerie every now and then. Hm. That's strange--how on earth could Bob Dylan deserve biopic treatment when he's alive?)

Here's Mr. Lester's brilliant defense of his asstardery:

We were only saying what people have been saying for years: that dying young, even if it's not the result of living fast, can be a good thing, if you want to preserve the integrity of your art. Come on, we've just experienced two years of Joy Division mania during which Ian Curtis has been canonised as the patron saint of despair. Can we finally accept, now that he's dead and so worthy of consideration not condemnation, that Tony Wilson knew what he was talking about when he concluded that Curtis' suicide was the best career move he could have made? Not that it was the best thing for his wife and daughter, or for his friends. Instead, Curtis' decision to hang himself at the age of 23 was the ultimate confirmation of his commitment to his lyrics and music. Would Joy Division have been taken less seriously today had Curtis lived? Would there have been films and books about them?

"...[D]ying young... can be a good thing, if you want to preserve the integrity of your art"? Ah, yes, because older, living musicians are incapable of integrity, I suppose? Or artists who die young are inevitably geniuses in retrospect no matter how shitty they seemed when they were alive, because they... they have integrity, dude.

Give me a fucking break. I've never even met Paul Lester, I'm generally a pacifist, and I want to pin his fucking arms while Thom Yorke works over his ribs and rearranges his nose. How many things are wrong with Lester's sentiments? I've already pointed one out--there are plenty of books and films about people who have managed to not kill themselves over careers spanning half a century and counting. And if we want to talk about Joy Division specifically, I have to admit I was pretty underwhelmed by JD the first time I heard them--my own reappraisal had nothing to do with Ian Curtis directly (alive or dead) and a good bit to do with cover versions by Nine Inch Nails and If Thousands. (Indeed, my decision to get a copy of Permanent was made after listening to If Thousands's Yellowstone. And to date it's the only JD record I own, though it has stayed on my iPod for a while now and seems fairly safe from deletion for the foreseeable future.)

But the worst thing, the really absolute worst thing about Lester's vapid little piece is how it subscribes to the whole dead artists mythos and caters to the bread'n'circuses mentality the media seems to subscribe to. Which would you rather have, a nice documentary about Gram Parsons or thirty years of albums, most of which would have been good and some of which might have been brilliant? Would you rather have Townes Van Zandt still writing killer songs (his worst songs were better than anything on some people's "Best Of" collections) or a tribute album? Is it great that Syd Barrett retired with "integrity" or depressing that he sank into mental illness and never came back out, leaving us with two solo albums that are sometimes depressingly sleazy in the way they almost exploit Barrett's disintegration? You really want a Kurt Cobain film and Courtney Love spinning dangerously close to the event horizon or would you have rather had some adequate Nirvana albums and maybe (just maybe) Courtney keeping her shit together long enough to record another Live Through This? Or how are you liking all those Jimi Hendrix solos we can't hear because he's fucking dead, but hey, at least he lives on in Pepsi commercials and t-shirts and paisley-infected posters on the walls of college dorms, we'll always have that, right?

And hey, death gives us something to write about, eh? Which is why we have that critical reassessment of Milli Vanilli under way since Rob Pilatus OD'd, right? And that's why Britney Spears is well on her way to being regarded as the musical genius of the 21st century, because there's plenty of material there, and she'll be dead soon enough the way things are going. Don't feel sorry for her if that's the sad case, though: she'll have fucking integrity coming out her ass so fast it'll leave bullet holes in the cement.

Lester writes:

In rock'n'roll, the stakes are high. In no other art form do you see artists almost being willed by their audience to make the ultimate declaration of the sincerity of their intent.

Yep, that sums us fans up, don't it? Every concert I've been to, that's what I've been doing in the audience--willing the people who brought me great pleasures and small ones, the people who kept me alive in darkest times and sharpened the savor of the brightest, willing them to just die already, so I could know they really meant it. And I won't be sad or angry or depressed, oh no. When I heard some shit ran over Kirsty MacColl in a speedboat or that Mark Sandman died onstage at a Morphine show, I wasn't depressed or angry at all. Why would I be sad that I got robbed by a drunken boater or a bum ticker--hell, you know what I just realized? I just realized what the logical conclusion of this line of thought is: Mark David Chapman is fucking awesome for sinceritizing John Lennon in front of the Dakota. And here I thought he was some kind of psychotic douchebag. Thanks, Mark! Thanks bunches!

Yeah. Paul Lester. Asshole.


Rebelcat,  Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 3:21:00 PM EDT  

What if Bowie had died after the Ziggy Stardust album? The thought of all the music that hadn't been written in that case, makes me shudder.

And what if Nick Drake had stayed around to record more beautiful songs. But he can't because he is dead.
I rather have an unfamous rock artist that keep going than a dead star that only managed to do two albums.
I am a huge Joy Division fan. It would have been nice if I had had more albums to listen to. When it comes to Nick Drake there is a bunch of demo's and stuff that htey have put out to make money. But to be fair it's mostly shit as it wasn't supposed to be released. It's nothing like his studio albums.

I'll help you hold Lester down while Thom Yorke beats him up. The man is full of BS. :P

Eric Tuesday, May 20, 2008 at 6:31:00 PM EDT  

No Diamond Dogs? No "Berlin trilogy"? Yeah, Paul Lester's world sounds awesome, doesn't it?

And Bowie's an especially good call because, like Dylan, he continues to release solid work well into the present. He may never break the ground he broke on Scary Monsters--how the hell he could he?--but that's beside the point: Heathen and Reality are damn good records, just like Dylan's Love And Theft and Time Out Of Mind were shockingly good records for a man well past the point of dying young.

Even aging artists who aren't as consistent sometimes blow you away: it's been a very long time since Robert Plant released anything noteworthy, at least until Raising Sand, the album he recorded last year with Alison Krauss that proves old dogs may not learn new tricks often, but they definitely can learn them. (If you don't have it, buy it. Thank me later.)

I also forgot to point out that Lester stupidly disregards mastery as opposed to innovation. What I mean is: nobody expects, say, a bluesman like B.B. King or a jazz pianist like Herbie Hancock to shake the world the way they did in their 20s (I'm not saying they can't do it, but let's agree it's unlikely)--but that's not why you go to their concerts or buy their newer CDs. You still listen to them because they bring all these decades to their craft.

On the rock'n'roll front--David Gilmour's On An Island isn't a great record, and it sure as hell isn't The Dark Side Of The Moon; but it is a man who has been playing rock guitar for more than five decades showing what he knows about his instrument. (Feel free to substitute your own Aging Hero here.) Maybe Kurt Cobain never quite got around to embarrassing himself with a record, but he'll also never show us whether he was a better guitarist at 54 then he was at 27, and that's a damn pity. (He was pretty good at 27, it would have been nice to hear what he had to learn.)

Rebelcat,  Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 5:15:00 PM EDT  

Heh. I might buy that Plant-album if you recommend it. I need new music. ;)

Yea, we will never know what Cobain would have created if he had managed to stay alive. I think someone said that what he really wanted to do was to make an album with softer songs. I would have liked that.

Oh by the way! Pink Floyd gets the Polar Music prize this year:

Eric Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 6:43:00 PM EDT  

I do recommend it--it's a great album. Here's a link to Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss at, if that helps.

I would have liked the softer side of Cobain too, I think--you can hear hints of that on the great Unplugged album. And Nirvana's use of dynamics was always one of the fun/interesting things about the band. It's a pity we never got to hear it.

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