Yes, darling, but is it art?

Dateline 9/2/2003: One nice thing about visiting England is that I usually get to see my friend Chris. I know him through my wife, who knew him when they were growing up in Norwich; he has London roots, however, and now he lives in Essex. Anyway, he knows more about music than anyone else I know, and in a deep sort of way that goes beyond trivia and “stats.” And unlike me, he seems to have the energy and attention span to keep up with new stuff. When the two of us start talking about music, practically no one we know can even pretend to participate, even though they like a lot of the same stuff — the conversations require a certain amount of stamina, if not monomania. The other night at the Light Bar in Shoreditch we gave up the pretense of a collective social gathering. Or rather, everyone else did: we were essentially banished to our own table.

The curious thing is, though we grew up on different continents and were unaware of each other’s existence, somehow we ended up being interested in pretty much precisely the same things. Like many kids, we both grew up seeing the world, and in a way our own questions, frustrations, and confusion about what life is about, how things are and how things ought to be, through the prism of the contents of our own individualistic, deliberately idiosyncratic record collections. (My source for pop esoterica was chiefly the import section of the Tower Records on Columbus in San Francisco, to which I gravitated because the people who tended to stand in this section flipping through the records tended to look cool and impressive and freaky. I would wait till they were finished and had moved on, because they scared me just a bit, and then I would quickly snatch and purchase random things I’d never heard of just because I liked the song titles and because they looked obscure. In at least a couple of cases — the TVPs and the Soft Boys — this led to lifelong obsessions.)

One thing comes up continually in such discussions: an incidental, yet important, part of that whole experience inevitably involves misunderstanding certain things about the music and musicians themselves. Some of the misunderstandings are based on things you read or heard somewhere; some begin life as reasonable inferences; and some you just make up because they seem interesting. Such misunderstandings contribute to a sort of personal mythology that in the end reflects a kind of truth about oneself, even if many of the illustrative details turn out to have been quite wrong. I don’t believe I would have figured that out in anything like the same way without all my conversations with Chris. We really seem to have had pretty much the same record collection, and to have derived similar, though not always identical, inferences, epiphanies, lessons, and what not from them, to have stumbled upon some of the same truths about some things through some of the same misinterpretations about something else. The differences are instructive, the similarities downright uncanny.

In other words, what we have here is an Amercan Anglophile and a British America-phile: two people separated by a common obsession with the Television Personalities.

We got together a couple of times in London this time, at the Light Bar, as I said, and at the Lamb and Flag near Covent Garden. As always, we talked a bit about the current state of science on the subject of Dan Treacy, the TVPs’ singer/songwriter/genius who had such a big, unlikely influence in forming our personalities and outlooks on life. As kids, we only knew him through his recorded music, generously augmented by our own romantic imaginations. (I think Chris saw the TVPs a few times in later life, though I never have; and he swears he saw him in street person mode at a London park a few years ago near the beginning of his famous disappearance, the incident that led to my own, little-noticed song “I Don’t Know where Dan Treacy Lives.”)

But as I’ve written before, knowing a person through his music isn’t the same as knowing the real guy, even though it often feels as though there’s no difference. As time went on, and as this or that plain fact about our hero or a newish interpretation of this or that song emerged which arguably contradicted or undercut the mythology, each was an occasion for self-examination. A new avenue of appreciation opened up, which cut across (or perhaps rather, ran concurrently with) all the others: the one which charts and puzzles over the evolution of your own understanding. Thus, a gradual transition from a naive to a more complicated understanding of what music (“art”) “does.” And for some reason, you can end up loving and appreciating the music just as much as or even more than before.

I’ve always felt that this background process is at least as important as what’s in the foreground. I doubt, however, that I’d have arrived at quite the same understanding of it if I hadn’t been able to compare notes periodically with a test subject other than myself. The other day, at the Lamb and Flag, the Other Test Subject (I admit — it’s a small sample) said between sips of Guinness what I’ve been trying to get at above much more clearly and simply: “the stuff you got wrong, yeah, is almost more important in a way, because that’s the part that comes from you.” And I think that is so right.

Is Music Appreciation always so radically subjective? I suppose at the level of obsession/fanaticism it usually is, even when you affect a kind of critical distance. It’s impossible to disentangle the thread of “what it really sounds like” and the thread of “what it really means,” from the thread of your experience of listening through the years. After that Bob Mould show, I put on New Day Rising for the first time in quite awhile. I paused briefly to marvel at how the New Day Rising that I remember, the one that always plays in my head, “sounds” quite different from the poorly-recorded, relatively amateurish, bass-less, out of control actual recording. That lasted only a split second, though, as my mind immediately and automatically set to work filling in all the “missing” elements; the New Day Rising of the mind is far more powerful than anything that can come out of a speaker. I’m “hearing” it — the “head version” — now, in fact, and it’s glorious. It’s the Real New Day Rising. It can beat up your New Day Rising any day.

If I had never heard the Television Personalities before, how would I react if someone handed me And Don’t the Kids Just Love It, say, and said “you’ve got to listen to this, it’s brilliant”? I know from experience that there are those who, in this situation, turn out to be absolutely immune to this record’s charm. (And I’d be less than honest if I failed to note that this itself plays a small part in its appeal, then as now.) They go swiftly from “okay, let’s hear this dude you’re always blathering on and on about” to “are you out of your mind? Take it off! Take it off! Quickly!” They do. Philistines.

Well, I’d like to think that even as an alleged adult I would recognize, upon hearing “Silly Girl,” “Smashing Time,” “Stranger to Myself,” “This Angry Silence,” or even “Where’s Bill Grundy Now?” or “Little Woody Allen,” that this was some of the most direct, sensitive, honest, engaging, sad, lovely, most “human” music I’d ever heard. But there’s no way of knowing, as it is utterly impossible to imagine what I should be like as a person who had never heard these songs as a kid. The long-term experience of listening and thinking and mythologizing far outweighs the immediate experience of listening alone. It’s all bound up in the initial experience of hearing it as teenager, being shocked at how much more “relatable” and less affected it was than the “normal” music all my peers liked, thinking something along the banal lines of “wow, this guy ‘gets it’ and I’m the only one who knows” and so on, as the initial reaction developed and was made complicated over the years. What it “really” sounds like is a relatively minor part, whether or not I pretend otherwise. When it comes to stuff I love, I’m a great Appreciator, and not much of a Critic. I imagine that goes for anyone who has, for his own acknowledged or unacknowledged personal reasons, fetishized an obscure, quirky, offbeat writer or musician and made the appreciation into a sort of personal totem. (Most fervent pop music fans, in other words.)

The weird thing is that, though I didn’t plan it that way, I suppose in a minor way I’m kind of one of those guys myself, i.e., an obscure, quirky, offbeat, sensitive, gormless, stubborn, self-absorbed, unlikely small-time pretend rock star with a cult following (many of the adherents of which seem primarily to value the obscurity itself), liable to slip off the deep end at any time. Lord knows I have perpetrated in public a great many aesthetic and sonic crimes, for which, in certain circles, I am forgiven all too easily for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with anything I have done or have intended to do. “My people” must fill in all my blanks, and make their own silent, well-needed corrections, hear in their heads their own, augmented, enhanced, annotated Our Bodies Our Selves, as I do with the recordings of those among whose “people” I am. I can think of no other explanation for the indulgence so many kind well-wishers have shown towards some of the truly awful things for which I have, on occasion, been responsible. (Thanks very much, by the way.) Well, my music is really quite a bit better than it sounds. So, I guess, it goes.

Those conversations were only a few days ago, but now I’m holed up in Deepest Darkest Norfolk (about which more later perhaps) and they seem extremely far away in time and distance. London’s still bustling, smoking, and throbbing, Dan Treacy’s still missing in it somewhere, and I’ve still got my own album to fret about, but I’m in another world altogether getting swamped by countryside and there’s more to life than rock, so bye now.

— Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, 2 September, 2003

[I posted this on my blog fifteen years ago. Yesterday Rules — the album I was fretting about — had been recorded but not yet mixed. I have a different relationship with England now, being no longer married to it, and I more or less lost Chris in the divorce. These things happen.]

I am Dr. Frank. I write books and songs. Mtx Forever.