Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Conceive It

As a result of being tagged by several overlapping memes over on Facebook, I've been thinking a lot about making lists that mean a lot to me, whether they be all-time favorites, current pleasure triggers or simply ones that changed my outlook on music or life to a significant degree.

At some point, I may put together a list I want to share. I might even, horror of horrors, try to get a meme going myself. For now, though, I'm going to start being a bit more voluble when it comes to music, as per the feedback I received from my poll. Because I'm feeling rather inarticulate today, I'll keep this short.

In revisiting much-traveled but slightly overgrown portions of my music collection, I've been paying special attention to those records that I turn to when I need to reinforce a state of mind or -- a more challenging task -- when I need to be transported to a different state of mind. Because we're deep into basketball season, I'm calling these records my "go-to" music, the ones I rely on in the proverbial crunch time.

Like many of you, I've been feeling particularly "crunched" of late, with visions of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars clouding my sight. In other words, I'm finding it therapeutic to go to my "go-to" records right now and also realizing again, as I have long said in jest, that this process of rediscovery is "cheaper than therapy" and pretty darned effective at mood management.

Sometimes an entire album, like The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street or Prince's Around the World in a Day, serves as a "go-to" record for me. Sometimes it's just a song, like Dusty Springfield's "Just a Little Lovin'", Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" or Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up." And sometimes it's just one part of a song, like the opening guitar part to the Sex Pistols' "Holiday in the Sun" flurry of horns in Otis Redding's "Respect".

Although I love all of the song I'm sharing with you today, it's one that I listen to for a specific part, when the vocals return after a few bars of rhythmic emphasis. I'll leave the details a surprise, for those of you who don't know the song or perhaps even the band. You can download the track here. The moment I'm talking about comes at 1:31 in that album version or 1:13 in this faster, yet longer one from The Year Punk Broke, in which it is enhanced by incongruous shots of a happy Euro couple:
I've always liked J. Mascis's lyrics, although they lack the subtlety and sophistication of my favorite sonic wordsmiths. Even when they are self-absorbed or, to be more precise, despite the fact that they almost always come off as self-absorbed, they convey the sort of sincere detachment that aligns with my own way of apprehending the world. And their simplicity, together with the enormous force of the music, gives their most quotable moments special power.

The note on this CD case dates back to one of the first classes I taught as a graduate student. I used to give a presentation on the aesthetics of noise in which I tried to demonstrate, with the help of examples from popular music, how muddying the waters of experience with deliberate distortion can actually give it more impact than tidied-up presentation. I was fumbling towards explaining the sublime, I suppose, although I was most interested in sharing some of my favorite songs as a way of countering the uncomfortable feelings I would have in playing the role of an authority. And I also wanted, as a corollary to that inevitably flawed attempt to abdicate the master's throne, to make my students like me, not as a teacher, but as someone they wouldn't mind spending time with outside the classroom.

I recognize all too well the trouble to which this approach to pedagogy can lead. Hell, I used to critique it in many of my professors. But it is better to acknowledge our tendencies than to pretend that they have been consigned to the landfill of discarded traits. At least I can console myself, in part, with the fact that I was innocently pushing buttons when I first engaged in this sort of sharing. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable playing this song for undergraduates now, after years of teaching students who do seem to think they do everything, including sins of the flesh, for Christ.

I'm also struck, listening to the song in these troubled times, by the degree to which it can be bent to whatever circumstances the listener requires. I used to think it was a relationship song. I imagine that's what J. Mascis intended, since almost all his songs are either relationship songs or "non-relationship" songs. That said, my favorite line seems perfectly suited to sizing up the global financial crisis. Indeed, I have a hard time hearing it as anything other than a prophecy hurled into a present that, despite the pretty wrapping paper in which it arrived, has turned out to be more curse than gift.
Tags: analysis, autobigraphy, economy, music, song, teaching, theory

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