Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Real Reason I Write About Music

Perhaps THE highlight of my music writing career was the week, maybe 8 years ago, when I got to interview James Hetfield and Ozzy Osbourne back-to-back, two half hour phone calls about one day apart. They may have been the easiest, most gracious interviews I was ever given, and leave it to Hetfield to perfectly voice my own reasons for being on that phone.

Metallica's James Hetfield inducting Black Sabbath into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame--

James Hetfield: "BLACK SABBATH is mammoth riffs with menacing lyrics that made me oh so happy. That was gonna be my speech — that was it — but Springsteen kind of upped the ante the last year.

"I'll go a little deeper. Picture a nine-year-old boy — quiet, well-behaved on the outside, but on the inside boiling and dying for a life to burst open with some sort of — any sort of — stimulation and the discovery of music was what was to burst it wide open.

"But not just any music. This was more than just music — a powerful, loud, heavy sound that moved his soul. You see, this timid nine-year-old constantly raided his roommate-slash-older brother's record collection, and going against his older brother's wishes, played those off-limit records on the forbidden record player. And out of all the records he could have worn out, there was no other choice — the very moment he saw their earliest album cover, he knew they were going to offer him a different kind of ride. He was drawn to them like a magnet to metal…

"That's pretty lame, yes. OK, I'll try again.

"More like a shy boy to his own loud voice. Those monstrous riffs lived inside him and spoke the feelings he could never put into words [choking up], sending chills of inspiration through him, from those gloomy lyrics and outlaw chords and all. They helped crack the shell he was stuck in.

"Also, scaring his mom and sister was an extra bonus.

"And now, as the former nine-year-old speaks to you here, as an adult musician — I know those two words really don't go together — I realize that without their defining sound, as my friend Lars has said, there would be no METALLICA, especially with one James Hetfield. Never have I known a more timeless and influential band. They have spread their wonderful disease through generations of musicians. They are always listed as an influence by heavy bands to this day. They are loved and highly respected as the fathers of heavy music. It truly is a dream come true and an extreme honor for me and the nine-year-old still inside of me to induct into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame such a significant group of musicians. And in the words of our fearless leader Ozzy Osbourne, 'Let's go fucking crazy!'"

Monday, March 20, 2006

Dumb and Dumber and the Divine

With regard to my blog about Hustle & Flow, Betty Lou (whose blog I strongly recommend by the way ) writes: "Am I the only one who thinks that really big studio films dumb down to the average movie goer?"

And I found myself chewing on this all evening, thinking, "No. I don't think so. Isn't that what most people think?"

I don't for a moment believe that my opinions on the value of popular culture reflect what most people think, not consciously at least. But what I'm afraid I see most often, what I hear from my students/friends/family all the time is an accepted agreement that what most people like is trash or only for entertainment and that nothing more should be read into it. The unexamined life is not worth examining, or something like that.

Actually, let's consider that more closely. It's acceptable to see popular culture as dumb or destructive, but we shouldn't read into it that it is also potentially smart or constructive. Stephen King is one of the great advocates of a perspective I agree with, which insists that kind of thinking is as empty as it is elitist, which is why I was surprised he oversimplified Crash.

One reason I write--the main reason I write?--is that there's a lot to be examined in what we respond to in this effort to be "entertained," whatever that actually means--for me it usually means some kind of excitement leading to a catharsis, and that usually doesn't happen without something real going on. And though the negative side of that gets talked about a lot, the positive goes unexamined. I don't try to overlook one in favor of the other, but if I often seem to go half glass full, that's why. I don't hear enough voices doing that, and I certainly don't hear enough people standing up for what they really love and talking about its power.

What I do know is that, for all the talk about commercial art being cynical, I have met very few artists (I actually can't think of one who has much impact) who are cynical about what they do--whether it's writing songs or books, drawing pictures of making movies. Art is, in general, not rewarded by commerce, and what motivates people to keep doing it is some vision that it's worth doing.

My own experience as a writer confirms this. A few years back, when I was dealing with some pretty serious dead ends in my personal and professional life as well as debilitating pain, I began to write more aggressively than ever before, generating two book manuscripts, in large part because it was the only way I was making meaning out of the loose ends of what felt like a terminally fragmented life. One of the books is by far the most commercial thing I've ever attempted. If I ever publish it, I'm sure many will assume I wrote it to make a buck. I don't think there's any shame in working for that buck, but the truth would be I was writing to save my soul and my sanity.

Tonight I was watching a documentary about Goya, and the commentator said that one thing that makes Goya's art so powerful is that he never acted as if he believed art was meant for anything less than tackling and perhaps transforming the whole of the human experience. I think that impulse motivates most people who create, whether or not they can intellectually cop to it--they certainly aren't encouraged to--but I think their greatest successes often happen in that intangible area where intuition insists on possibility, and both artist and audience feel the truth of that possibility. For me, it's in that moment when Nola grasps the wheel in Hustle & Flow, and it's in a million moments from pop songs where a flicker of self expression feels like the secret of the universe unveiled. Betty Lou and I are both Springsteen fans and, for me, that's what that "I learned more from a three minute record than I ever did in school" is all about.

As a side note, I don't know how much any of this applies to Hustle & Flow or Crash though--neither of which has the look, feel or the comfort level implicit in the description "really big studio film."