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Is Hiss the New Silence? - De File — LiveJournal
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
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.

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11 comments or Leave a comment
jstgerma From: jstgerma Date: December 19th, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm glad you mentioned your thoughts on the amount of contextual material in the article. It's interesting to hear, because it's something that often worries/preoccupies me in my writing.

And ss a reader, one of my favorite things about that piece is both the depth and breadth of the historical knowledge you share, and the grace with which you deploy it. (Which I guess is two things.) You fill in the context of the material you're reviewing in a comprehensive but concise way that a reader who's relatively ignorant of that material (like me) can really appreciate. I feel like the piece teaches me something. And you have a knack for doing it without sounding pretentious, which is a skill I wish you could teach other music critics.

Maybe you could do a seminar at the Pitchfork offices.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 20th, 2008 02:04 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I do think that what seems extraneous to the writer is often essential to readers. I know that the mantra of most workshops is "Pare it down," especially where adjectives and adverbs are concerned. But sometimes less really is less, even if it seems like too much to the author.

I thank you for the compliment that I have "a knack for doing it without sounding pretentious." I sometimes think that I write entries framing my clips so that I can demonstrate that I'm more pretentious than my pieces sound. Because I do dream big, though I try not to show it. I think that means that I pursued the wrong career.

Or maybe it means that I should start pursuing the right career. Think of all the high-paying options in the world of journalism! Seriously, I'm all for the voluntary. It was the sine qua non of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life. But why won't someone pay me indirects for making free contributions to the public sphere?
From: babyiwasshot Date: December 20th, 2008 04:47 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

cultural artyfacts

Lenny Kaye's 1972 Nuggets collection

Yesss! You're the only other person I know who has heard of this fantastic compendium of tracks.

Also, it's nice to know that other people--good writers like yourself--struggle with the same OCD verbosity that utterly kills my own writing.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 20th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: cultural artyfacts

Hmm. I think I do have OCD verbosity, a less intense and far less beautiful version of the sort that David Foster Wallace exhibits. But the thing I was talking about here is actually the opposite, in a sense. Once I turn off the verbosity, I frequently move into a mode where I revise to the point where every word is so tightly locked in place that making further changes is absurdly hard. That's what leads, I think, to the airlessness I mentioned.

As for Lennny Kaye's collection, which you can reproduce with the Rhino box set, I think it's extraordinarily important within the context of both popular music history and contemporary culture more generally. I mean, here's a compilation from 1972 that's full of music that's mostly from a little over a half decade before. Recent history, in other words, but in an era when that kind of historical consciousness, especially where cultural artifacts were concerned, was a striking innovation.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 21st, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: cultural artyfacts

Before I forget, the Believer's most recent movie issue featured an article on "mockbusters", straight-to-DVD films that are titled similarly to major releases. It discusses the evolution of B-movies in interesting ways. I can scan it for you.
From: babyiwasshot Date: December 22nd, 2008 04:17 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: cultural artyfacts

I can scan it for you.

Please do so if you have time, then shoot it to me either via email (amcghee@email.arizona.edu) or a link. THANKS!!!

Since you know quite a lot about Benjamin, where do you think such films would fit into his "dialectical image" schema:

I'd say they're either a fetish or a wish image/symbol, but then I don't know a whole lot about Benjamin and his ideas.
schencka From: schencka Date: December 20th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

general comment

Where else on the interweb might one find such an intelligent conversation about writing about popular music? Gold.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 20th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: general comment

Oh, that's so nice of you to say, Adam! I have a hard time mustering the self-confidence to see myself as brass, much less gold, but the praise still makes me feel a little more shiny.
From: ex_benlinus Date: December 20th, 2008 11:43 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I think about this stuff sometimes. I like the way you're able to put it into terms.
I think the best case study for it is The Dicks. Don't know how familiar you are with them, but as soon as they realized they could play in a more sophisticated way, they were ruined.
On the other hand, I think these days, bands like NOFX come off as "punk" BECAUSE they're so skilled and not afraid to show it.
A weird little evolution. Proficiency and punk aren't really mutually exclusive anymore.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 21st, 2008 12:08 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for your comment! Yes, it was mostly a first-generation punk phenomenon, in the sense that many of the bands from back then consisted of musicians who had already been playing awhile in other genres. Later, it was easy for teens to set out to be punk bands when they first picked up their instruments. I think that's one of the reasons why proficiency gradually came to be accepted in punk circles. The absence of skill came to be viewed as a developmental stage more than a state of mind.
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