Funny thing about this book. I was at the library picking up a hold (Song of the Shank–more on that next month, probably) and, as usual, couldn’t help looking at the new music nonfiction. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my glasses, and my arms were only long enough for me to make out “Alex Ross,” “Brilliant,” and the title. Those sounded promising, so, I thought, why not add it to the stack? Upon arriving home and putting on my specs, I was initially dismayed to discover it was an expanded 33 1/3 entry about Celine Dion. Those things are so numerous, it’s hard to keep up with them–and, to my lights, they are seldom very good. I also noticed a Jonathan Lethem blurb, and, I’m sorry, but right now, “those guys” are not floating my boat much. Nonetheless, I chose to sample it. Not many hours later, I had finished it, and, truly, every music nut–and, especially, every music writer–should be required to read it. Wilson wasn’t a Dion fan when he took on the project (and still not much of one after); his idea was to use his distaste for Dion to examine what taste really is, and the results of his inquiry are sometimes rattling. Personally, as in Emerson’s old quote, I found many of my own past musings marched much more eloquently than I ever thought ’em back across my eyeline. The revelations Wilson makes are too numerous to go into fully here, but two fascinated me so much that, in the hours after I finished it, I began to reflect on some of the music “taste collisions” of my past. We all have bands that speak so directly to us that our responses are deeply emotional, that we can’t really think of them at a critical distance (right now, for me, that’s the Cincinnati, Ohio, band Wussy). Often, that speaking doesn’t necessarily relate to the benchmarks of high art, much less the simpler idea of good taste. Wilson, delving into both the significance of Dion’s Quebecois past to her Canadian fans and also the needs she might be fulfilling in her listeners in the wider world, writes wonderfully about how this phenomenon complicates critical assessment and discussion. Second, the author enters a long thought-tunnel concerning kitsch, and exits wondering, with great justification, whether there’s something troubling about cultural gatekeepers disparaging artists who traffic in, shall we say, broad emotions. Why, for example, should it be more critically valid to lionize artists who shine a light on the darker corners of living than to exalt those who choose to magnify the glow of the brighter ones? Now, honestly, how many of us have paused and thought that, caught short by a corny wedding song we’d never be caught dead housing in our media players?
These questions took me back to a moment in my late teens that I have often recalled. Having just finished my first year of college, where two new friends hipped me to many punk bands, notably The Ramones and Black Flag, I had returned home for the summer to work in a factory and save up some dough. Even though I had graduated from high school with “decent” taste–I was deeply obsessed with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello–I was ill-prepared (and completely, totally ready) for the worldviews of X, the Germs, Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, the latter two to whom I’d listened but not “got” prior to my college exposure. I knew good and well that, returning to the small southwest Missouri town where my parents lived, I would be spending the social segment of my leisure time tolerating the music of others. Such snobs we can be when we are wet behind the ears.
One weekend night, a carload of fellow factory workers, city pool rats and I headed across the state line into Kansas, where we could legally drink 3.2 beer (main attraction), ogle and even dance with women (second by a slim margin), and bask in the glow of .38 Special, Loverboy, Head East–must I go on? This particular evening, the rest of my party had had an exhilarating time; I, on the other hand, had spent most of the evening playing the wall, grimacing during mega-Midwestern-blasts like “Hold On Loosely,” and thinking about the Minor Threat/Bad Brains mix tape I’d just gotten in the mail from one of my college buddies, who, lucky for him, went home to California and was seeing L.A. punk bands live. I was a mope, and couldn’t wait to get back home. No wonder no chick wanted to dance with me.
On the way back, we were all quiet, most in a bit of a “j mood.” The car stereo was loud. The music fed their fantasies; it discouraged mine. Journey. Escape. My head was right next to one of the back speakers, and, with each Steve Perry vocal skyscrape, I took a deep swig of piss water and gnashed my teeth. An hour’s ride full of this, equivalent roughly to having an old filling drilled out without anesthesia. Casually at first, I looked around at my comrades, most of whom were reclined almost fully, their eyes closed, grinning blissfully (the driver was not among these, to our immense good fortune) and occasionally nodding to key phrases. An unsettling thought hit me: against the backdrop of a hometown they didn’t have much refuge from–I was the only college student among them–which offered little career fulfillment beyond industrial work, little social fulfillment beyond the bars, bowling alleys, pool, and, well, forays across the state line, and precious little diversity of culture and opinion, the–yes–soaring, Utopian music of Journey was simply and powerfully beautiful. In a flash, I realized, “The subjects of Springsteen songs don’t listen to Springsteen songs; they’re Steve Perry and Neil Schon fans!” Thinking from a writing student’s perspective, I thought, for a minute, “But…it’s so generic!” Well, it’s that just-right generic quality that allows for projecting one’s reality, no matter how constrained, upon the song’s magnificent scene, right?
You have to understand, Journey was everywhere in ’81–especially on the municipal pool jukebox on our days off and even more especially on those weekend Kansas clubs’ sound systems. This wasn’t a decade or so later, when the band’s reputation underwent some overdue reconsideration, when “Don’t Stop Believin'” closed down The Sopranos. Journey could not be escaped, which made the aesthetically deft escapism in their music easy to miss. For me, at least, this uncomplicated band was very complicated. My mind finished its convolutions at the approximate moment that “Open Arms” drifted (if loud music can be said to drift) from the car stereo speakers, and by that time, I had made peace with Journey’s music–in fact, I felt a little shamefaced that I had to furrow my brow to appreciate it, that I had to condescend before I could appreciate the other guys’ appreciation, but at least I found myself enjoying “Open Arms” for the first time. Of course, I didn’t share this tableau with my buddies when I returned to school, but it did help me avoid being a jerk when I started teaching and got into music gab with my students. I still don’t own even a Journey greatest hits album, but I can hear their finest achievements with startling clarity in my memory, and the feeling is warm, and good.
If, like me, you’ve experienced such a moment, you really need to read Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love–or, then again, maybe you don’t. It’s all in really hearing the soaring.