December 19th, 2008

Is Hiss the New Silence?

The wonderful new issue of The Oxford American -- a fine, economical holiday gift, incidentally, at $9.95 --hits newsstands this week. Because it's the tenth anniversary for their annual Music Issue -- and because they got the corporate sponsorship needed to fund the project -- it contains two CDs for the first time. One is keyed to the articles in the current issue and the other offers a bevy of tracks that recall some of the best articles in the previous nine. I'm proud to say that my contribution is acknowledged on both discs. This time I'm writing about the song "If You Want Me You Can Find Me" by the mid-1960s Memphis band Lawson & Four More, which provides the occasion for me to reflect on both garage rock and its corporate simulation in The Monkees. Back in 2006, I wrote about punk icon Richard Hell -- he would probably hate the designation, but some clichés are too true to forego -- for that year's Music Issue, focusing on his most famous song "Blank Generation." This time around he is represented by one of his later songs, "Hey Sweetheart" and this snippet from my original piece: "Richard 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."

If you don't know The Oxford American, trust me when I say that it rewards careful reading and, more impressively, rereading more than almost any periodical I can recall. Mind you, I say this from the perspective of a person who has been published in the magazine. But I don't think it's just gratitude that has had me pore through Ernest Gaines's piece from the last issue, in which he discusses the former plantation he grew up on and the ancestors who proceeded him there, three times in the past week. The reason I'm so honored to be included in The Oxford American's impressive roster of contributors is that I know how high their standards are.

When I wrote my piece on Richard Hell back in 2006, I felt pretty confident in its excellence. I had certainly worked hard enough on it. In retrospect, I wonder whether I might have worked a little too hard, since it now strikes me as being strangely airless, as if my words had been packed into one of those vacuum-sealed storage bags. I am very happy with individual sentences still, but am less satisfied by the whole than I was when I submitted the article for publication. Since it's now in a back issue, I don't feel bad about sharing it with you in PDF-form. Tell me what you think, if you get a chance.

The piece in the current issue, by contrast, is one that I felt less confident about initially, but which I have grown to appreciate more as a result of the positive feedback I've received so far from friends. I had worried -- maybe I still am worrying -- that the piece is too loosely constructed. I've been told, though, that it breathes better than much of my published work. That suggests to me that I might be one of those writers who needs a tight deadline to restrain my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I basically had two weeks to finish, since I got the assignment very late in the publication schedule. Lacking the time to do the sort of in-depth research and rumination that I generally devote to my pieces, I just formulated a conceit to get me started -- see the line about hiss being the new silence -- and let the argument proceed from there.

I think part of the reason why I felt that my new article was lacking something is that much of it is devoted to making historical claims. I know that history can be sexy, but I find that it makes my prose more pedestrian. Still, there's something nice about alternating between a fact-centered mode and one that prioritizes interpretation. Maybe it's that back-and-forth that clears breathing room :
One of the reasons that I began to research punk -- contrary to some unfortunate rumors started by my collection of Chucks, I am not now and never have been a punk -- is that I was interested in the way an aesthetic sensibility can impact aspects of life where aesthetics are not typically a priority. More specifically, I wanted to ponder the way punk and the do-it-yourself ethos with which it is inextricably bound up affected attitudes towards production and consumption. The longer you look into the early years of punk, though, the more you realize that it came about as a result of a self-conscious effort to revive and, in some cases, radicalize the spirit of garage rock, a truth attested to by the crucial role that Lenny Kaye's 1972 Nuggets collection -- I briefly mention it in the piece -- played in transforming "punk" from a noun into an adjective with a specific musical significance. Regardless of their experience playing rock music -- Joe Strummer played pub rock, some of the Buzzcocks played metal -- first-generation punks wanted to convey the impression that they were novices, so moved by the need to express their political and personal outrage that they were able to make music in the absence of both training and talent. They wanted to project the attitude, in other words, that they were garage bands in the classic mid-1960s sense even when they weren't. And so, ironically, did the composer of the song "If You Want Me You Can Find Me", as I discuss in the latter portion of my piece. Enjoy.