October 2nd, 2006

My Latest Piece: Richard Hell For The Oxford American

That feature I was working on over the summer, which I mentioned a few times here, is finally showing up on newsstands in The Oxford American's annual music issue. The magazine is a little pricey, but you get an excellent CD, featuring tracks from the profiled artists, for your financial exertions. And the words the disc supplements are worth it too.

If you don't know The Oxford American already, it's one of the best literary magazines in the States. A typical issue strikes a nice balance between high-quality fiction and the sort of leisurely non-fiction pieces that are all too rare these days. The music issue, as you might expect, inclines more towards non-fiction, but with a wide variety of styles represented, all of it, as the cover proclaims, "A-LIST WRITING."

If I'm not mistaken, this is the first time that my name has appeared on a publication's cover, with the obvious exception of Bad Subjects. Yes, I'm excited. What thrills me more, though, is that I was given nearly 3500 words to tackle my subject. That sort of roominess has become about as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker lately, so I consider myself blessed.

As far as my piece itself goes, I'm relatively pleased. It went through many revisions, which isn't necessarily a good thing, since prose can acquire an airless quality if too much slack is trimmed away. I was also asked to include the sort of factual material that slides uneasily down the reader's gullet. At the same time, however, I was given free reign to indulge in the sort of literary hermeneutics that my editors have generally frowned upon as "too scholarly." That means that I was able to spend more time focusing on Hell's words, whether in the form of lyrics, fiction, memoir, or interview responses, and, what is more, suggesting ways of making connections between them.

Since "Blank Generation" was going to be on the CD -- too Hell's mild chagrin, since he deems the song overplayed -- I placed it at the center of my piece:
Even today, he is best known for “Blank Generation,” a song that fiercely interrogates the relationship between names and identity. The chorus is divided in two. Like the name of his band, the Voidoids, its first half conjures an existential lack: “I belong to the blank generation.” Yet his voice is full of swagger, its confidence punctuated by the delayed drumbeat that falls in the middle of the word generation. Hell invites listeners to see that, if they work hard enough, they can turn their emptiness inside out and realize that it’s actually lined with freedom. Before the CBGB bands were grouped together as “punk,” there was less pressure for them to conform to a standard. The absence of a label was enabling. Once their classification by the media had taken hold, though, the term “Blank Generation” became a Procrustean bed of its own, with participants in the scene asked to exhibit blankness as a proof of their belonging.

And that’s where the second half of the chorus comes in. This time, instead of singing “blank generation,” Hell leaves out the adjective, creating a blank within the song itself. That absence is a prison release mailed into the future. Songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing” and The Who’s “My Generation” encourage one group to cohere at the expense of another; “Blank Generation” rejects the principle of cohesion itself. This is why it proved so influential for people drawn to the idea of punk.
The only other time I was able to go this far down the lit-crit path was my first feature for Phoenix New Times, on Sleater-Kinney, when the temporary absence of a music editor in Phoenix resulted in a situation where I had almost no guidance at all.

At the time, I felt a little sheepish about being so word-driven in that Sleater-Kinney piece. But you know what? I'm a lyrics man. I'll spend months, even years -- see my musings on The Eagles' "Hotel California" -- reflecting on the words to a song. When I reread Simon Frith's essay "Why Do Songs Have Words?," I invariably think, "For people like me." At any rate, I'm not feeling the urge to beat myself up for taking Hell's words seriously in the current piece. Besides, he's clearly someone who cares deeply about expressing himself in language. I don't think I've ever encountered a musician for whom words matter more.

The one aspect of the piece that does unsettle me, though, is its resemblance to the sort of pre-poststructuralist biographical criticism that was always searching for psychological insights. Mind you, I stand behind my argument, which I take pains to leave largely implicit. But it feels strange to be promoting an analysis of the artist that refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of the text. Not to mention that Hell, whose brilliance manifests itself in an unwillingness to let others pin him down, will probably take issue with the connections I encourage my readers to make. Since he probably wouldn't have been entirely happy with anything I -- or anyone else -- wrote about his work, though, I'll have to content myself with the conviction that I was at least right to see what I saw.

Enough of this introspection. If you would like to read the piece -- or any of the other excellent pieces in the issue -- I invite you to head down to your local independent bookstore or, failing that, Borders or Barnes & Noble -- they both carry The Oxford American -- and procure a copy. You won't be disappointed with the investment.