Tom Gillam, guilty pleasures, and the hunt for a sharp hook
Last night, during one of the hours in which parenthood trumps the chime of the phone, my friend Tom Gillam called to share a rant.
I will paraphrase: “I keep hearing these bands being compared to the Eagles,” his message said, knowing that mentioning the Eagles at all trods dangerously toward one or several of my rants. “Or some other band from the ’70s. But I’ve been listening, and they don’t have any hits, they don’t have any hooks.”
Now, Tom has a new album out, called Had Enough, which means that on some level he’s vying for radio time with these other acts being compared to the Eagles. I have already admitted that Tom’s my friend. I’ve also designed his last three album covers, in the futile hope that lending my name to his work in the small type might in some way suggest how much I believe in his work, and that others would come to share my enthusiasm. (And in the futile hope that others would note my presence in the marketplace of design, but I guess most folks imagine they can design their own packages these days, though I think they’re generally wrong about that. So it goes.) From which you can conclude that I’m not unbiased about whether or not he should be on the radio.
Just to dispose of the Eagles as quickly as possible, I should perhaps explain that I spent the waning parts of the evenings of two consecutive summers trapped in a friend’s basement with a pool table, a foosball table, and an air hockey table that never worked. And a stereo. And two friends. One of whom had a very limited tolerance for musical exploration, and so we played over and over and over again Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which is part of how I came to be a Peter Green fan, some damn Foreigner LP, Who’s Next, the eponymous Boston debut, Styx’s Grand Illusion, and the Eagles’ Hotel California. It’s a wonder…well, anyway.
It is possible that a dispassionate listener would be more inclined to forgive the Eagles, but I’m not.
Without segue, then, I shall continue.
A few days back I commenced to singing “Joy To The World” to my daughter, because I have the world’s worst voice and singing to her sometimes makes her smile (or hit me) and breaks her mood. I have no memory for lyrics, but Three Dog Night were big when I was in sixth grade and sometimes I can recite “Invictus,” too. (“Out of the night that covers me/black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever God may be/for my unconquerable soul.” There are, I think, three more verses.)
Pause, for a moment, to contemplate a universe in which an Australian superstar band, who were at least as good and successful as Grand Funk Railroad, drew upon the fringes of Nashville’s songwriting community for their hits: Hoyt Axton, for that one, and a very young John Hiatt, of all people, for “Sure As I’m Sitting Here.”
That’s what I’m talking about, in any event. What Tom was on about, I think: Hits. Hooks. Lyrics you can remember to sing to your child when you’re old and fuzzy.
I happened to mention my fondness for Three Dog Night on Facebook, where I waste the minimal amount of time possible so to maintain the illusion of sociability (don’t ask to be my “friend” unless you know me), and apparently some of my acquaintances were shocked that I would admit to enjoying such a declasse and apparently forgotten ensemble.
We critics, present and former, have a phrase for such things: Guilty pleasures.
Guilty because they are not among the anointed, because they were successful, because their music was accessible.
Well, look. Styx, sure, that’s a guilty pleasure.
Three Dog Night (and Bad Company, and Grand Funk, but not Foreigner and certainly not Kansas) were great bands. Rock bands, of a kind and with a kind of market penetration which cannot be duplicated these days.
Now, generally I’m an eccentric aesthete on this subject. I like weird, odd, offbeat music that the marketplace is rarely even aware it is snubbing. (Which, of course, is how I come to be here.) And all the guilty pleasure pretense is usually silly. We’re going to defend Michael Jackson and Madonna as guilty pleasures, or as cultural icons, or whatever…well. I dunno. If I were a woman who grew up in the 1980s, I’m fairly confident I would feel differently about Madonna. Michael Jackson I tend to think of as a waste of talent, or as a talent who allowed his gifts to be ill-used.
See, I didn’t like Whiskeytown because they reminded me of the Eagles. I liked Whiskeytown because they played with unrestrained hurt and longing, and because when Ryan Adams is right he’s one hell of a songwriter. Undisciplined, still, alas, but the gift is still there. The magic.
I am going nowhere with this. I meant somehow to explore the notion of why we like what we like, but that’s futile, and has as much to do with what was on the radio when we were kids as anything we might make up by way of intellectual baggage after. But it cannot too often be noted that we once shared a cultural language called rock ‘n’ roll, in which Sly and the Family Stone and Bruce Springsteen and the Pointer Sisters and, yes, the Eagles, were all played so constantly on the radio that even an old goof like me could remember some of their lyrics.
Or, my favorite line from Squeeze, oft-quoted here and elsewhere: “Singles remind me of kisses/albums remind me of plans.”
On to the work day, then.
Eat wisely, drive safely.