Tag Archives: Rock ‘n Roll

Empathic Vibrations: How Music Allows Us to Understand One Another

This post is part of a series of daily blog posts written during the month of May as a form of artistic protest. This Blog March was organized by writer/musician Robin Renée. You can learn more about Robin and the Blog March by visiting her website.

A few years ago, I had a co-worker who was really into music. When he found out that I enjoyed many of the classic rock bands that he liked, he’d come by my desk to have long, meandering conversations about music. One day he and I were discussing Hendrix, and he said that he didn’t like Jimi Hendrix and thought he was overrated. I told him that I tended to agree, that the cult of personality surrounding Hendrix had gotten a bit out-of-hand. Then in another conversation, we were having about guitarists we thought were overlooked, I suggested Prince and his reaction was one of disgust. “Prince? Prince? Surely you are joking…” I thought that was an odd reaction for such a big music fan to have, but I didn’t think too much about it. Then there was the time the subject of blues music came up, and he emphatically told me that he couldn’t stand it and that it held little artistic merit (or some such thing). I thought that was a pretty odd perspective to have, especially considering his favorite band was The Rolling Stones. I called him out on this, and he shrugged me off.

Imagine my surprise, however, when his hero Keith Richards released an album of all blues covers. There was no way that this guy was going to like that, right? Wrong, he loved it. I called him out on his inconsistent stance on blues. Then I asked him if he listened to any music made by a black artist and he told me frankly: “I don’t listen to black music…it just doesn’t speak to me. I can’t relate to it at all.” I laughed, not because the statement was funny (though it was) but because I thought this guy was joking. He was not. It turned out this guy avoided “black music” and only listened to bands/singers who were white, like him. Now, whether or not this guy was racists is neither here nor there–the point is, I think it’s pretty common for people to enjoy music made by people who most resemble themselves. As I’ve said many times, I didn’t seriously listen to female bands/singers until I was in my early 20’s when radio host/E-Street Band member Little Steve told me that Tegan & Sara were “cool.”

Now, if you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for this guy to think he has more in common with Keith Richards than he does with someone like Robert Johnson. This guy was a teacher so economically, Johnson and his day-to-day life were much more “relatable” than Richards (who is a millionaire-vampire).

As I’ve matured and expanded my sphere of listening, I’ve come to realize how valuable it is to hear music created by people vastly different from myself. About a year or so ago, I was listening to a rap song, I wish I could remember what song or who the artist was (I think it was Run The Jewels), but I remember taking my headphones off and thinking: Oh, my God…”Black Lives Matter” means “All Lives Matter.” I had never taken issue with the sentiment of BLM, but like a lot of middle-class white people, I also thought it should be “All Lives Matter.” But through exploring both classic and modern rap/hip-hop, it became apparent to me that the way I experienced the world was fundamentally different than the way people of color experience it. Listening to rap provided a window of insight into how other people see and feel about things. I no longer have a problem with “Black Lives Matter,” because I can see now how they currently don’t matter (in this country and elsewhere in the world) and it was music that allowed me to begin the process of understanding. And right now what the world needs more than anything right now is more understanding.

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Run the Jewels.

100+ days ago, I would say this revelation would be pretty important, but now in May of 2017, I think it’s probably the most important thing music is. No matter who you are, take the time to explore the art of people who are different from you. Art is where we exalt our joy and preserve our pain. That old saying about not knowing someone until you walk a mile in their shoes? Well, one way you can do that is to experience their films, books, and music. I love Keith Richards to death, but it blows my mind that a person could enjoy his work and have zero interest in his mentor Chuck Berry. Don’t you dare be that narrowminded.

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The master and the apprentice.

Our Hater-In-Chief and those like him can only see divisions, but the truth is that our world is overflowing with art that can link us together. We’re all floating islands of isolation, but art tethers us not just to this world but to one another. Stop reading this post and listen to music made by someone who doesn’t look like you.

And if you want a suggestion:

 

Check out the next Blog March blog, by David Jamison here: https://davidjamison.wordpress.com/

 

 

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1984 by Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is a super-talented artist whose music always feels a bit like homework to me. I recognize that Adams is super-talented, probably a genius even…but listening to most of his albums always feels like work. And just like that dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest I keep trying to read, I never throw the towel in completely with Adams because intellectually I know I should love his music. He’s ferocious, highly literate, and sincere to a fault–all qualities I respect in an artist. So what’s my problem with him? I think the problem might be tempo. I love when Adams gets loud.

In 2003, Ryan Adams knocked my socks off with him solo album ROCK ‘N ROLL. A joyous, unabashed love letter to the gritty rock albums that Adams (and me) grew up listening to, ROCK ‘N ROLL was largely ignored by the press and music fans in general. But I connected with this record in a big, big way. This is the album that convinced me that I had something in common with Adams, whom I’d otherwise considered to be a bit on the stuffy side. It seems as though with Adams the less he tries, the more I dig his music.

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ROCK ‘N ROLL always felt as though it was a bit of a “goof” and not something Adams would repeat. Apparently the album was recorded after his label rejected his album LOVE IS HELL for not being commercial enough. ROCK ‘N ROLL was recorded to fulfill contractual obligation, a blatant attempt to create something modern rock fans would approve of but ended up biting Adams in the ass. ROCK ‘N ROLL wasn’t a smash success.  But when LOVE IS HELL eventually came out, it’s darker more indie-rock focus garnered Adams immense critical praise. I’ve always thought that this rejection of ROCK ‘N ROLL and the praise LOVE IS HELL received served as a watershed moment for Adams. This was the moment when his fate was sealed and a his status as an indie rock troubadour was cemented for good.  I never thought he’d put out another dirty and gritty rock album. And for the most part, I was correct…however last August he did release a very fine 11 song EP titled simply 1984.

1984. The title tips Adams hand, this (very short) collection of songs is an even bigger homage to the hard edge rock bands of yesterday. Clocking in at 14 minutes, the songs fly by and bleed together in an angry torrent of slightly fuzzy guitars and reverbed soaked vocals. This is 100% nostalgia, pure and simple. Anyone expecting a thoughtful, contemplative indie rock album should look elsewhere. 1984 is hard charging and visceral. All the tracks seem hurriedly dashed off, never quite lazy but with a sort of “fuck it” vibe. The snarly vocals and primal guitars reminded me of very early Replacements, a band who always got to the point simply and quickly.

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1884 is wall-to-wall badassery. That old cliché “don’t bore us/get to the chorus” is in full effect here, with nearly all the song existing as fast guitars and million dollar choruses. “When The Summer Ends” has an almost Ramones-esque level of beautiful, brutal simplicity. Essentially the song is a just a vocal hook and sloppy guitar riff repeated over and over. This sort of thing should be annoying or stupid or come across as sloppy, but Adams is clearly putting his heart into this music and it shows. The tracks minute and forty-eight second run time also prevents the song from overstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome.

In fact, all of the songs on 1984 tumble out quickly, as though Adams is afraid he won’t remember them or he’ll run out of tape. This gives the EP a kinetic, some might even say exhausting quality. The best song, the true diamond in the rough is “Change Your Mind.” Full of both angst and yearning, the song is a quick minute and a half that captures the beautiful futility of a love that cannot be: “If I could change it, I’d change your mind.” Sometimes an aggressive power chord and a clever line shouted over the noise says more than a thousand carefully crafted lines. That’s 1984.

I also really love the loopy guitar that opens “Wolves” a song that sounds like something The Strokes would have recorded circa 2001. And the somewhat quieter ballad “Look in the Mirror” closes 1984 in a surprisingly restrained note.

Finishing up the EP, one gets the distinct feeling they’ve just finished hearing a bunch of really kickass demos.  Like flipping through a painters sketch book, you get the feeling Adams could really flesh these songs out and make an incredible album. Instead, these songs exist as brief glimpses of the past where Adams was young and angry. There’s a time to think and there’s a time to damn the torpedoes and charge ahead—1984 is very much a head-down, ballsy charge. Take fifteen minutes out of your day and listen to 1984. Enjoy the nostalgia.

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“You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared”

Let me start off by explaining two things: firstly, this post is not my long-gestating epic on Warren Zevon.  Warren is my all-time favorite songwriter and I keep meaning to write a long, rambly essay about why he’s so awesome but I’ve had trouble finding the words.  So this is not that post.  Secondly, this post is not “about” the Colorado shootings that took place recently at a midnight showing of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  That unfortunate event was the impetus for this post, but I don’t want to cheapen that tragic event by talking about it on DEFENDING AXL ROSE (which is just a shitty music blog).

Sometimes I wonder why I even bother listening to, obsessing over, and writing about music.  God knows it doesn’t make me any money.  But the older I get, the more I feel this terrible compulsion to disappear into music, where I’m able to float off into another place.  In college I was trained to not just read books, but write about them when I finished them.  I guess that explains why I feel the urge to write about albums after I’m done listening to them: I’ve been brainwashed by the educational system.  So in a nutshell, this blog is just an itch I have to scratch, and even though it feels like a waste of time, I indulge myself.

But every so often, something will happen that will really make me question all of it.  Usually this is a terrible, tragic event.  In the face of death, mass death of many innocent people, I can’t help but wonder “what the fuck am I doing with my life?”  What does it mean? Is there a point to any of this obsessive listening, or am I just wasting my time? Does art, specifically music, offer anything other than a fleeting, masturbatory escape from brutal reality?

I’ve been asking myself these (and other) questions all week.

Whenever a violent tragedy occurs, I’m always baffled by all the macho assholes who immediately step forward to let everyone know what “they would have done” had they been there.  I really can’t stand people who do this, but I was never able to articulate what it was exactly that was wrong with their braggadocious bravado.  Then a few days ago it hit me.  I was talking with my wife about recent events and the subject came up about thick-necked jerks who think they’d have stopped 9/11 had they just been on those planes…and then BANG! I instantly remembered Warren Zevon’s song “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”

“You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”

That title is ridiculous, isn’t it? But it sums up everything nicely so it gets a pass in my book.  The thesis of the song, co-written by famed-gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is that we’re not ourselves when we’re truly, deeply afraid.  The song is both groovy and goofy (because that’s how Zevon rolled) but at it’s core, “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared” is 100% true.  I’ve only been terrified one or two times in my life, and I can tell you–when you’re scared you don’t act like yourself.  You don’t act like yourself because human beings are animals, and when animals get scared, survival instincts kick-in.  It’s easy to say that in the face of extreme danger you’d “step up” and be a hero…but the the reality is something else entirely.  Can any of us really say, with anything approximating certainty, that we know what we’d do in the face of death? I don’t think so.

I’d been struggling to find the words, to sum up my position on the whole matter, when Zevon’s song suddenly sprang to mind.  That a song helped resolve my feelings about a very serious matter shouldn’t be a surprise to me, but it was.  Once I got to thinking about it, I realized that a life surrounded by art is more than just pretty things and cute sayings.  It’s more than just a good beat and fun time.  Music, good music, is more than just superficial beauty, it can enlighten us, and put into words what we know but cannot say.  I’m no mental-slouch, but I was having a hard time coming up with the exact reason for why I was so pissed at these tough-guy jerkoff’s–but Hunter S. Thompson and Warren Zevon knew what I was trying to say and gave me “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”

This whole experience has done nothing but affirm to me that I’m not wasting my time, there is something to be gained by enjoying music and the world of art.  Rock ‘n roll ain’t noise pollution, to me it makes good, good sense.

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