Truly Great: An introductionby Ernest Simpson
My best friend stood looking at my CD collection and my bookshelves one day and then turned to me and remarked that I wasn’t nearly discriminating enough, that I liked too many things. He proceed to say that I was too forgiving of some things in music and literature, that I needed to pick out what was “truly great” and then get rid of everything else. And while I couldn’t part with everything not “truly great,” I knew he was right.
There are many different types of music fans and lovers of books. For one, there’s the collector. This is the category that I had fallen into. This type has to own everything by their favorite artists and authors regardless of the quality. This is why I own Never Let Me Down by David Bowie and both Tin Machine albums. Bowie is one of my favorite artists, but that doesn’t justify the inclusion of these soon-to-be-coasters. I also have everything by Philip K. Dick, and let’s face it — they can’t all be Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
Secondly, there’s the “fan”-atic. This person will follow one, or at most a handful of bands, go to every show when they are in town, own all the tour t-shirts, know every line of every song, etc. etc. But they will completely limit themselves to the one particular group or style of music. Fans of jam bands, Tool, and Rob Zombie, you know who you are. In the book world, they end up simply rereading the same books again and again. Pale and scabby Anne Rice fans, I’m looking squarely in your direction.
Then there is the critic. My friend, of whom I spoke earlier, fell into this category, as I now do myself. The critic is a contradiction at best. He has the experience of listening to thousands upon thousands of albums, millions upon millions of songs, and is able to determine not only if something is great, passing, or crap, but also to tell if the music is original or just some rehashed material. He reads thousands upon thousands of books, knows when something is great literature or, as my friend Marta is wont to say, “candy.” A truly good critic can also go against the grain and tell when a book or album is given accolades when undeserved. Critics are a contradiction because they have to be open-minded while at the same time must be able to come down hard on one side of the fence or the other.
They are critics because they “critique,” not necessarily because they are “critical.” Personal taste and opinion can always enter into the equation, absolutely, but shame on any critic that takes only his or her personal opinion into consideration when critiquing. As a “for instance,” I can’t stand most music by The Doors, but I can objectively view their contribution to the music world. On the other hand, I can say with complete and total sincerity that bands like The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Hives may be artistically sound (to some), but contribute absolutely nothing original to the music world.
There are a few requirements of being a qualified critic. They must have experience; they must be open-minded; they must be able to see two sides of an issue; and they must be strong in their convictions.
I have been listening to music for as long as I can remember, cannot count how many albums I’ve heard, much less owned. I have read on average three books a week for the last ten years. I have never limited myself to one band, artist, writer, or genre and I believe anyone who does so and still claims to “know” books or music are fools. One cannot have a CD collection consisting only of Dave Matthews Band and Phish albums and claim to know what good music is.
I can alternately have in my 200 CD jukebox, Brahms’ 4th, Philip Glass, A Tribe Called Quest, Johnny Cash, Helmet, Prince, Coldplay, Enya, Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, Miles Davis, Dean Martin, and Nine Inch Nails. (Sometimes for fun I put these on `shuffle’). I also have lining my bookshelves Shakespeare, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, Michael Ondaatje, Haruki Murakami, Roger Kahn, Philip K. Dick, Ernest Hemingway, and Charlotte Bronte.
Although I have been known to make blanket statements like “All recent rap music is crap,” or “I’ll listen to everything but popular country,” I am a fairly open minded, free thinking, all accepting kind of guy. I have given fair shots to The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, supposed “good books” like Cold Mountain or Birdsong, and have discovered what I suspected all along, that they suck. To be fair, I have been convinced the other way with Frank Sinatra, Ani DiFranco, Built to Spill, Bret Easton Ellis, John Irving, and Patrick McGrath just to name a few that I didn’t discover all myself or at least needed a little coercion. I have also been known to say things like “Anybody who listens to Primus has therefore abused his privilege of having been born with ears and should have the protrusions promptly removed.” (And then later I think of using the word “pruned” to make it the statement not only sarcastic, but alliterative as well.) As you can see, I’m a complicated man. As Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Good ol’ Wally.
See others’ points of view
Even though I come down firmly on one side or another in an argument or an opinion, like all good leaders, (and no, Clinton bashers, it’s not “waffling”) I can see both sides of a particular topic. Take for instance the recent Jonathan Franzen / Oprah Winfrey debacle that played itself out in print and on television. Franzen wrote a magnificent piece of literature called The Corrections. It was released with plenty of hype and I picked up a copy as I was intrigued. The Oprah Winfrey show promptly picked it as its next “Oprah’s Book Club” Selection and as such, books were reprinted with the red, white, and tan logo that I’ve come to loathe. I should insert here that I’ve always been conflicted about Oprah’s club. The book snob in me cries foul at someone who never graduated college attempting to help the country become more literary. I can go on for pages and pages about the show and club itself (in its first incarnation, as of this writing, it is going through a second incarnation in which she’ll discuss classics), but I must limit myself somehow, and I’ll simply sum up by saying that it has pained me enough just typing her name four times in this paragraph. At the same time, I applaud her for using what used to be a dumping ground for topics like “My skeezy daughter dresses like a slut, has sex with men in their fifties, and calls me names” which some daytime talk shows continue to air, and using that time for such a worthy cause. Back to the original example, Jonathan Franzen gave an interview in which he called into question the caliber of literature read in her club and questioned his own inner conflicts on including himself in the program. Oprah just as promptly dismissed him from the show and her fans returned the books in droves. The two sides that I can see are these:
1) He had a damn good point and should be able to say whatever he likes. He wrote a damn good book and didn’t enter into any gag contract when his publisher accepted the book being included on the show.
2) If he was so adamantly against being included in the first place, he should have simply told his publisher and he wouldn’t have been considered. I’m sure it was much more complicated than this, but that’s how I see it. He also could have waited to bring these topics up on the show itself to at least expose whether or not Oprah actually read every book or at least chose every book herself, and could have questioned his conflict privately until he had the chance to speak to Oprah and find out if an on air discussion on it was viable. (I would have loved to have seen six housewives, Oprah, and Franzen at a pajama party a la the Maya Angelou show and watch him blast previous choices like Wally Lamb.) He could have affected change in the institution that he had a problem with.
Strong in one’s convictions
I remember being in grade school and mentioning to someone that I thought Duran Duran was “rad.” Their scorn at my statement made me feel bad, and although I didn’t stop listening to the band, I didn’t mention it at school again. I now know, with the wisdom of my years, that I should have stuck to my guns and not given a crap what that one other kid thought. As a lover of music and now as a critic, I have to and do believe, frankly, that my taste is better than yours.
Eat it, it’s the truth.
I remember the day that I learned this. It took a homophobic Armenian kid I worked with to harden me. I quietly seethed when he would hurl disdain upon Ethan Canin because he was a “gay” author. He would dis every band that any other employee would bring up and be smugly satisfied with his own favorites. I finally snapped after he put down Prince (after all, you just don’t mess with “His Purple Badness”) and angrily asked him what he thought good music was. When he replied “The Doors”, I could almost feel my muscles rippling and my skin becoming green. I could have easily just said “Hulk smash, Doors bite!” but instead said something like “If Jim Morrison’s a poet then I’m the premier of Russia.” His eyes bugged and he began to stammer, and I simply looked him straight in the face and said “The Doors are the most godawful band in the world, the only thing they had going for them was mescaline, and Jim’s lucky that Arthur Rimbaud couldn’t sue for plagiarism because the poor sap was dead!”
I then pointed out every gay or lesbian author in the store and sang their praises. Most of the time he sat there with his arms crossed, other times he gaped in shock when authors he liked were `outed’. We never really spoke again. Little did I know it, but I had become a critic that day. Not only did I have a great little Aaron Sorkin moment, but I cemented my path into becoming what I had always wanted to be.
Critics do what they do so that the reading, listening, buying public can make a choice as to where to spend their hard-earned cash. While the fabulously wealthy have the luxury of listening to just about whatever they damn well please, most people live on a budget. Most people don’t have the access that DJ’s and reviewers do. The majority of people have to make hard choices about what goes in their collection. Should the reader of the review go out and ignore every stoplight to get to their local record store to pick up the latest hot album? Should he wait for a particular book to come out in paperback if he absolutely must have it, because let’s face it, this particular book is not worth the hardcover price they’re asking. These are decisions the critic helps you make and this is why we are invaluable.
All this having been said; I still had to make a decision about the type of reviews in which to write. I decided to nix the idea of trying to broaden people’s listening or reading tastes, the other writers in this webzine and the readers I’m sure, all probably have broader tastes than myself and this effort would be somewhat futile. Along the same lines, I also vetoed trying to raise the indie flag, focusing on small label or arty rock and cult writers. I decided that articles putting Pavement or Sonic Youth on pedestals were against what I actually believed. I believe that great music has to move people emotionally. Those two bands, while good, just make me want to smoke heavily, drink lots, and discuss philosophy. And while I can say as I did earlier that my tastes are better than everyone else’s, like all critics would say, I must admit for all of us that we have our guilty pleasures. I have, after all, been known to sing along to REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”.
So, in praise of my friend who put me on the right track, no pun intended, my reviews or retrospectives will be trained exclusively on the “truly great,” either a stand out artist or author(ex.: Jeff Buckley, Haruki Murakami), or the best single works from artists with a larger body of work (ex.: Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler), or an underrated work from a band with highly lauded albums (ex.: The Clash’s Give `em Enough Rope).
Essentially I will write about the music that should be in your collection and the books that should be on your bookshelf if they aren’t already. I will write about the music that, if you do own it, will remind you to fall in love with it all over again. I will write about the books that are worth a second, or sometimes a third read. Read along and enjoy, and in return I promise never to use the following phrases, “I was into them before they were `cool’”, “I’m not really into that kinda thing”, or “this album was made when rock was still good.” Then again, screw it, I promise nothing.