Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Pretty Long Discourse About A Couple of Shows I Saw

Another thing I always wanted to do... was be a rock critic. I love reading good rock writing – writers like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs. It is fascinating to hear really smart people who have a great way with words describe the music I love.
I found Lester Bangs to be the one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie "Almost Famous." He loved his "art," but had no illusions at all about what his place in that glamorous world was. In this passage, he advises an aspiring young music journalist over the phone:
Lester Bangs advises a young
critic in Almost Famous
Lester Bangs: Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong. 
William Miller: Well, it was fun. 
Lester Bangs: They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool. 
William Miller: I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn't. 
Lester Bangs: That's because we're uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don't have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we're smarter. 
William Miller: I can really see that now. 
Lester Bangs: Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love... and let's face it, you got a big head start. 
William Miller: I'm glad you were home. 
Lester Bangs: I'm always home. I'm uncool. 
William Miller: Me too! 
Lester Bangs: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool. 
I really have no purpose in putting this in here except that reeeeeally I love it. I really was just talking about rock critics in general because I'm going to tell you about a couple of concerts I've seen in the last week. It's not going to be a professional review because... well, no one's paying me... and also because I don't know how to do that. I can just tell you what I thought, and how the music made me feel.
Lucinda Williams
I am told there is a school of literary criticism that focuses solely on the actual text. The reader must not inquire into the life or intention of the writer, but only draw conclusions from the text itself. Well... I'm not doing that. When I hear music, I inevitably find myself thinking, "What happened to this person to inspire them to write this? What is he/she like? Are they speaking in character? What do they mean by this?" So that's where I'm going with this.
The two shows, both at the NC Art Museum: Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Both good shows, even though, as a rule, I am not a fan of female singers. 

Lucinda Williams has a "tough broad" kind of way about her, and also a vulnerability and sadness that is very moving. She reminds me of no one so much as the woman who lived out in the country who used to cut and style my mom's hair... been through the wringer, but holding on. Her voice has a real ragged quality - she kind of slides into the notes as if she's exhausted... or just taken a Valium. The songs are just wrenching... she's been robbed of her joy and demands that the heartbreaker return it; she "puts a lock on her front door" to keep him out, yet tells us all that we have been blessed, and that we were born to be loved. So... as sad as she seems, she knows what she was made for and is trying to get there. And I could be wrong, but every word seems to be born out of pain and life.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are a different story. Although they are fairly young, the songs they write sound like folk songs that have been around for a long time... like "By the Mark," "Orphan Girl," and "Caleb Meyer." It's like they studied old mountain songs and figured out what made them tick and then made their own. "Let's see... we need a song about a murder, a song that sounds like an old-time hymn, and maybe we'll write one about a stillhouse!" And they have perfected the sound as well. David Rawlings' guitar-playing is brilliant and intense, and their melodies and harmonies are flawless. Their voices sound like God made them to go together. In "The Way It Will Be" they sing in unison and it's hard to tell where one voice begins and the other ends. It gives me chills every time I hear it live.
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
Many of their songs are mournful and slow, but I don't get the feeling THEY are sad. In fact they seem pretty easy-going. And I don't mean their performances or records are without depth or feeling... I am pretty sure they aren't feeling the pain of having their stillhouse torn down, or being hooked on morphine... No, I think their passion is for the style and tradition of the music they are playing, and for performing together. They seem to cherish their instruments as they would their own kinfolk.
Whenever I hear them, I just feel so thankful for the talent God gave them – and how much they love what they do. And for the form of traditional music they follow... those old songs are so great, so rich – that's why they're still around!
Of course, not knowing any of the above musicians personally, these are my own conclusions... and I am as likely to be wrong as right. But those are the kinds of things I am thinking about when I am at a show. It is a joy to be caught up in the music and to chew over it all in my mind. I guess if I were a rock critic, I'd be all worried about whether it was right or not... good thing I'm not, then, right?

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