A heretic’s Sunday confessions
Of course there’s a modern rock critical canon, and so I wasn’t all that surprised to skim a New Yorker article extolling the virtues of the new U2 album, nor to find that I simply did not care. I once broke up with a very good woman (in my 20s, I hasten to add, happily married these last ten-plus years) because she was young enough to hear and adore the first couple U2 albums, and I took the fact that I just didn’t get it as a bad sign. (It was, incidentally, a stupid reason to break up with her, and she’s better off without me.)
But I was sitting with my morning coffee and realized it was Sunday and I should confess my apostacies. Which may not be a word, but what the hell. And invite my gentle readers to share theirs. So, in no particular order, save the order in which they come to mind…
I don’t hear the magic in U2. It’s a big, bold, arena band, and I’ve seen them at least twice (in Vancouver, B.C., with Los Lobos and the BoDeans, I believe, though from where we sat it was hard to know; and in Seattle, with a bunch of funny East German cars hanging from the ceiling), and I’ve eaten in Dublin at Bono’s restaurant on somebody else’s expense account (and the food wasn’t very good, so maybe that’s what I hold against him?). Now…they’ve hit a few out of the park, and I’ll give them that. But the adoration, the assumption of profundity, the expectation that each album matters deeply…I don’t hear it. It’s a big, simple, bold machine they’ve built, and it’s a force for good, to be sure. But important (to me)? No. If they sold 20,000 albums a year, would anybody care?
And then there’s R.E.M. The best thing R.E.M. ever did was hire Scott McCaughey, who has written for me a couple times in a couple places, and has now for some years gotten to play and play with a band he adores. Great for Scott, and I went to see them in LA just to see him have all that much fun, but Scott has always had fun, no matter the stage or his companions. And, again, they’ve hit a song or two that is fun to hear on the radio, and they have been a force for good in the world. But deciphering the mumbles of the early stuff (which is a lazy criticism, I grant you), or untangling the rest? I don’t hear it. Nothing touches me.
Which brings us to Bruce. For seven years I worked for Charles R. Cross, who started and edited and designed Backstreets, in many ways the template for what we tried to do with No Depression. Hell, I even typeset the headlines for the first tabloid issue of Backstreets, if that counts. But the worship…I really don’t get. To my ears he’s a banal songwriter, and like the composer of any good Hallmark card some of his songs strike a nerve. But a deep thinker he’s not (maybe this is part of the appeal), and a working man he’s never really been. It’s not that I mind the calculation, although I probably do. It’s that I don’t think he has anything real to say. And when I finally saw him (courtesy Charley) in the Tacoma Dome, what I saw was a recreation — a very careful illusion, including a tub of water to pour over himself so it LOOKED like he was sweating — of what his earlier, legendary performances may (and may not) actually have been like. If you’re going to manipulate me, do it with your art, not your stagecraft, please?
Somehow that leads to Dylan. Obviously it leads to Dylan, the dissembling mumbler, a second tier Kerouac, the man for whom Pete Townsend should have been singing “I just want to be misunderstood…” Apparently there is something inviting about wandering lyrics which invite selective misinterpretation, and I don’t mourn particularly for the fact that Dylan didn’t continue to write the topical songs which brought him to the foreground of Sing Out!. I spent a lot of time, back in high school, with Blood On The Tracks, and finally concluded — as the cliche now goes — that there was no there there. It was clever and oblique and facile, but it wasn’t a truth I could grasp, or a truth I could hear, or something I needed to spend any more time listening to.
Now…I’m sure to take a beating for having quickly typed this little scree, and that’s fine. And I’m sure somebody’s going to say, “Well, if you just listened to…” and my point here is that I’ve either heard it, or nothing in the music I did hear suggested it was worth my time to take that next step. Besides…music and art are intensely personal things. These four revered artists simply do not touch me. They’re supposed to; they touch millions. I’ve heard plenty of their work, and not all of it. I don’t care that they’re major stars — that’s not a reason to criticize their work. I’m simply indifferent to their charms.
And what I was really after, as I sat down to type this, was whether anybody else here wished to add a name or two to my list. So we’ll see.