Thursday, March 7, 2013

800 Words: The Best Songwriter There Is (part 1)

Around this time last year, I wrote a series of posts called ‘The ABC’s of The Marriage of Figaro,’ inspired by my 30th birthday present from my grandmother. On the day of my 30th, I sat spellbound  at the Lyric Opera Theater in Baltimore – listening to my favorite opera. It wasn’t the greatest production I’d ever seen, but it was good enough to magnetize me more than I’ve been by any other artistic experience all year. It was the absolutely perfect way to spend your 30th birthday. To savor the moment, I was planning on writing a huge series of posts, detailing Figaro’s place in history, it’s musical form, it’s dramatic innovations, and everything else about why The Marriage of Figaro is one of those artistic miracles that’s happened perhaps half a dozen times in history.

But I got carried away…

It was by my own introduction, in which I ranked my favorite pieces of art in any form. I got to revisit many of my favorites, from Jean Renoir to The Simpsons to Chekhov to Sondheim to, of course, Mozart. There was ample time to talk about my bottomless reservoir of operas and movies I’ll take with me to my Pharaonic tomb, along with a slightly more limited reservoir of books and plays. But when I hit more popular music, I hit a snag.

It’s not like I don’t know any of it. That might have been by and large true at 15, but at 30, my working knowledge of popular art music is pretty decent by any standard. But my problem went deeper – even now, there’s too little of it for which I have an honest and deep passion. Perhaps it’s my classical background, but there’s a lot of music which many knowledgeable music lovers wax poetically for that simply doesn’t do anything for me. In my defense, there’s an increasing amount of classical music that does very little for me. Some of the great composers write lots of music that provokes outright dislike in me (though never everything by them, that’s another list…): the Bach cantatas are boring, Wagner operas make me nauseous, Prokofiev and Hindemith are mechanical, Messiaen is pretentious, Philip Glass deserves a beatdown after the 236345734567th repetition of the same motif, and how can Webern be considered a great composer when he wrote three hours of music? But even among the composers I know I love passionately, their music has moments which nag at me – why isn’t there more to this music than there is? Why don’t Schubert or Tchaikovsky get over themselves? Why can’t Berlioz or Verdi or John Adams dive into more ordinary experiences? Why can’t Handel and Bruckner and Elgar stop before their music becomes too much of a good thing? Why can’t Chopin or Grieg write anything great that’s more than a few minutes long (rather like some more recent musicians we know…)? Why can’t Mendelssohn and Ligeti stop playing games with their techniques? Why can’t Brahms and Schoenberg paint in any color but gray? Why can’t the music of Debussy and Bartok express more than just their amazingly cool chords? And why is so much of Stravinsky and Steve Reich as dry as overcooked toast?

I came to what we generally call the canon of popular music because there were vitamins in the classical canon which I clearly wasn’t getting. And yet, for all the investigation, I can’t deny that I feel lots of the same disappointments living in this house as I did when living in the other. I often feel like I’ve sold out a canon that puts too much emphasis on profundity for a canon that puts too much emphasis on frivolity. Both of them have resulted in the same disaffectedness as ever before – with the same nagging questions about whether there is all that much music in the world that gives back to the listener as much as it demands. 

Other people see Bob Dylan as a sage, perhaps even a Beethoven-like figure for America who liberated musicians once and for all from the confines of pleasing sounds to create an output that's as challenging as the musician wishes. Yet the more I listen to Dylan, the more I see him as nothing more than decent songwriter who managed to con the American intelligentsia with lyrics that inevitably mean less than they seem to into proclaiming him our greatest musician. Hell, Dylan would probably say the same thing about himself, and has said variations on it many times – maybe, just maybe, he’s telling the truth. Dylan seems to write the same three songs 300 times, and I often can’t tell one Dylan song from another. But the  output of Beethoven, the European classical equivalent, is infinitely diverse, as though a  different composer wrote every piece of his.

Perhaps Neil Young is our Schubert, and the comparison is far more apt than Dylan to Beethoven. His music is profoundly beautiful, it’s also profoundly fragile and oversensitive. How much tragic beauty can you take in one sitting? I adore the optimism, the energy, the humanism, the excitement and yes, the grandeur, of Bruce Springsteen, but the lack of cynicism, the lack of anything resembling a mean-spirited sentiment, eventually wears as much as it does in any other great music. I love a lot of what Tom Waits writes, he’s more loveable than Dylan, but the bizarre clown in a dive bar seems to me as much a ‘role’ he puts on as Bob Dylan’s pose as a seer.. Like Dylan, he’s more than his image, but not enough. Otis Redding was only 26 when he died, and is the most tragic what-if of American music, but as it stands, there simply isn’t enough of his material to love the way you should a cosmic master whose music gets you through your many moods of life.  I love the old Lieber and Stoller songs, but they’re pure junk food. James Brown’s material was simply not as great as his performances. The Who performed songs  that expressed militant attitude that’s almost creepy,  Leonard Cohen’s too spiritual, Van Morrison too new-agey and romantic, Smokey Robinson too sex-crazed, Stevie Wunder’s a better musician than songwriter, Brian Wilson is too unremittingly sunny (no wonder he had a breakdown), I simply don’t get The Rolling Stones’ continued appeal, Joni Mitchell is too earnest (maybe it’s a Canadian thing), David Bowie’s irritating, and don’t get me started on Elvis Costello…

I have less complaints about Soul Music than any other genre of the popular ‘masters’, but when you come down to it, much as I may have sometimes tried to convince myself otherwise, there are only a very few artists I know (with my extremely imperfect knowledge) whose work is so personal and masterful that I would take with me to the Desert Island, and even then, it probably won’t be anywhere close to all the work other music-lovers deem important: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, The Beatles… but now there’s maybe one above all. One whose music I’ve formed a desperate attachment to beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in non-classical music – a songwriter who combines the best of popular idioms with all the elements of classical music that are still worth mining.  A songwriter who speaks to the experience of life as I’ve lived it (which, admittedly, is perhaps not the way others have), and one who never gets enough credit and often condescended to as a skilled hack has-been while less talented, more pretentious songwriters seem poised to walk away with posterity’s honors. He is, simply, the very best there is, even if I’m the only person in the world who feels that way.

(Admittedly, this is f-cking hysterical)

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