On Music & Mythology

The Performance of Metanarration

Sorry about this folks, but I’m about to drop a large serving of science into the gaping, abyssal maw of the Internets.  The following peace got rather unduly long in its gestation: I thought I had a good idea, but sorta got carried away.  But, anyway, this preemptive apology is but adding to the predicament of lengthiness before us, so without further adieu, let us proceed:

I

A few months back, I was embroiled in a discussion with a philosopher friend of mine over the relative merits of The Velvet Underground’s first record, The Velvet Underground & Nico.  I was arguing from the position that the supplementarily eponymous debut is, well, kinda crap – compared, at least to the rest of their fantastic catalogue.  Sure, “Sunday Morning” and “I’m Waiting For The Man” are brilliant tracks, but much of the rest of the long player, well, just irritates me.  All harsh and buzzy, no tunes or groove.

My analytical interlocutor insisted, however, that my negative reaction was not due to the record’s deficiencies, but rather mine own; that, in an interesting take on Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, my criticism of the record was instead a perverse reaction to the immense influence the album has had (it’s been said that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 500 copies on its initial release, but everyone that bought one started a band).[1]

Despite the fact that I may be grossly garbling his argument, he is, of course, dead wrong; my taste never fails me.  This line of argumentation really holds the album up to be nothing more than a sacred cow, reflexively defended from criticism by fact of its importance to posterity.  Indeed, it’s not so much defended from criticism as denied criticism, raised transcendent-like above aesthetic judgement (see: Pepper, Sgt.).

In actual fact, The Velvet Underground’s first album illustrates the process in which the mythology of an artwork obscures the material work itself and ultimately displaces it so that the apprehender cannot perceive the work, only the aura generated by its meta-narrative and context.

In other, more glib words: What most people like about The Velvet Underground & Nico is Andy Warhol’s signature, prominently displayed on the sleeve.

Fig. 1: Just whose record is this anyway?

The Velvet Underground is a good example of the cream-rising, self-correcting nature of The Canon.  Never achieving (mainstream) success in their own time, The VU made some fine records, each one exemplifying their different facets. Unfortunately, & Nico is not one of them.  Nonetheless, their posthumous resurgence, due in no small part to the etho-aesthetic development of punk, generated enough retrograde admiration to warrant their inclusion on the shelves of suburban chain stores throughout the Free World.  Like it or not, they’re part of the mainstream now.

It seems, though, the Velvets’ music is inextricable from the narrative of their career, the debut doubly so.  The Velvet Underground embody several distinct, but nonetheless interrelated, metanarratives: they were a proto-punk oppositional counterpart to flower-power; they injected the aesthetic values of “high” literature into rock and roll; they articulated a post-modern/neo-romantic ennui of decadence and debauchery; etc, etc.

I mentioned already the Warhol connection, and clearly there is some brand name appeal going on here as his name, not just on the sleeve artwork, but also in the production credits undoubtedly casts a shadow of cachet over the whole affair.  Warhol’s presence, and therefore the situationing of the album in the Factory scene, diverts attention from the record-as-musical-object [2] and instead focuses on it as a supplementary extension to Warhol’s oeuvre.  Some Foucauldian author shit going on here.

The thing is, however, that Warhol is actually a pretty terrible record producer (the sole non-Warhol track, “Sunday Morning”, was recorded by Tom “Like A Rolling Stone” Wilson and is by far the best sounding thing here).  In many respects, the low production values (and there’s nothing wrong with lo-fi: Will Oldham is a case in point) affirm the record as being some kind of Pop-Art stunt.  Warhol is associated with the world of high art, yet his work is based on the elevation of industrial folk-art (Campbell’s Soup cans, images of Elvis, etc) into the gallery alongside the authorized, hallowed works of the masters.  Indeed, Warhol’s career can be viewed as a deconstruction of the very categories of high and low art, but this implicates Warhol’s work with a kind of aesthetic primitivism in which objects such as the Velvet Underground’s musical performance are lionized for their technical “deficiencies”, ie. distorted, muddy recording, rudimentary songwriting, deliberately poor singing, etc.

Fig. 2: Danged if they weren't cool, though.

Once they stepped out of the shadow of Warhol’s aura, The VU went on to make a trio of fantastic records,  each one fleshing out all the elements that & Nico is supposedly rated for.  In fact, I would argue that much of the Velvets’ influence stems from these records; the musicians that have cited them would presumably be fans of their whole oeuvre.  The first album, however, is relegated by its context to the status of ironized kitsch.

Much attention is paid to the supposedly transgressive content of the album, but it seems that this is really nothing more than a cheap novelty effect: “ZOMG!1! They’re singing about heroin and sado-masochism!!”.  Meh.  Conceptually, it’s no different from Marilyn Manson’s prude-baiting histrionics.  We get it; you do hard drugs.  So do all jazz musicians, big whoop.  However, the contrast of this subject matter with the prevailing flower-power of the day, renders the whole enterprise into fertile ground for laudatory revisionism (especially when seen through lenses forged by the advent of punk).  Again, the metanarrative of the record – in this case,  its transgressivism – supersedes its music.

That’s fine: certainly The Velvet Underground & Nico is an important artistic statement and an important record (both in terms of its musical influence as well as being the starting point of a truly great band), but that doesn’t mean it’s a great piece of music, howsoever such a thing is subjectively determined (although, to be fair, I’d still consider a “good” record, due in no small part to the brilliant “I’m Waiting For The Man”).  Any subjective determination or, to use a more neutral term, experience of the work is conditioned by the framing metanarrative of the work, and, as I will further show with a couple more examples, in some cases this produces what I consider to be some perhaps overhasty canonizations.

II

A more poignant example of this phenomenon of metanarratives overtaking musical works is seen in the cult classic mid-seventies album by Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue.

Fig. 3: Not that his last name was important or anything.

Dennis Wilson first came to fame as the drummer for The Beach Boys.  By all accounts, his presence in the group was not due so much to his percussionary prowess so much as his good looks and family connections (also: unlike the rest of the group, he could surf).  It was apparently a great surprise then, that his mid-seventies solo work revealed him to be soulful, sensitive singer-songwriter type.  He released Pacific Ocean Blue to mild acclaim and, after starting an aborted follow-up, ultimately succumbed to the de rigueur rigors of the rock and roll life.

The album itself, however, took on a second life after its author’s death, fuelled, no doubt, by virtue of it not being reissued on compact disc.  Like his brother’s until-recently unreleased SMiLE, the album’s reputation became inflated by its unavailability: a record you can’t hear becomes as good as you can possibly imagine it to be.  However, whereas SMiLE expresses the trope of the tortured genius confounded and broken by his own brilliance, Pacific Ocean Blue employs a different narrative: the diamond in the rough whose natural talent is smothered by the indifference of the world.

The recent, belated reissue (with the aborted Bambu appended) shrewdly trades on this story: That Dennis Wilson carried with him an immense reserve of innate talent denied polish by fact of his overshadowing genius brother; that Pacific Ocean Blue was an unheralded swansong of a fragile talent, soon to be defeated by the requisite excesses of his chosen profession.  His producer, James Guercio, illustrates precisely this sentiment in the fantastically mythologizing liner notes: “He just blew me away with his raw talent.  I could also sense an injured bird there.  He was way more talented than anybody gave him credit for.”

Shorn from  this biographical context, Pacific Ocean Blue is still a pretty decent record, but doesn’t quite live up to its cult status.  Really, it’s no better than any of the other soft-rock, singer-songwriter works of the seventies.  Again, like The Velvet Underground & Nico, I’m not saying it’s not a good record: Opener “River Song” is quite stirring, and the album’s standout title track is notable for its prescient anticipation of Tom Green by rhyming “slaughter” with “otter”.

The laudatory wonderment of Wilson’s colleagues — and the Dennis Wilson mythos as a whole — comes across as the condescension of lowered expectations.  Former touring keyboardist for The Beach Boys and the Captain of Tennille, Daryl Dragon, exemplifies this:

I was sitting out in the bleachers during a sound check when I heard these amazing piano chords coming from the stage.  I looked up and it was Dennis, which kind of shocked me.  Like a lot of people, I only knew him as the wildman drummer.  I didn’t even know he played piano!  When I asked him who’d composed the gorgeous music he was playing, he said, “I did.”  I was floored.  Dennis had none of the formal training I’d had, but these were chords my instructors would’ve killed for.  He didn’t know the names of the notes, nothing.  He just played around with notes until he found the ones that matched what he was hearing in his head.  The richness and instinctive innovation of his chords reminded me of the composer Richard Wagner, whom Dennis had never heard of…

Apparently, the mystical primitive Dennis Wilson had uncanny powers which enabled him to find the Lost Chord and the Hidden Changes: the alchemist who found the Philosophers’ Stone by never having heard of it in the first place.  Rather, though, what makes Pacific Ocean Blue so moving and poignant is that its creator was burnt out by the supposed “raw energies” that enabled him to produce a work supposedly beyond his technical reach thus preventing any fulfillment of the promise seen in that record.  Critic and A&R man Ben Edmonds uses this exact mythology in the reissue’s liner notes when describing Wilson’s 1983 death (subtly eliding the seven years between Pacific Ocean Blue and Wilson’s passing): “The volcanic energies that powered his no-holds-barred assault on life eventually overwhelmed a physical circuitry compromised by years of testing the limits.  Once his creative momentum was lost in his mounting personal chaos it was never regained.”

Fig. 4: Visual representation of Dennis Wilson's career (source: B. Edmonds et al).

Ultimately Pacific Ocean Blue, and by extension Dennis Wilson, derives its status more from its position within a metanarrative than the actual musical content of the record itself.  We like the story more than the music.

III

Perhaps the best example of this metanarrative phenomenon is seen in the career of (The) Pink Floyd and the accord given to the group’s 1967 debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.  For those unfamiliar with the early history of the Floyd, they emerged in the mid-sixties London psychedelic scene as The Pink Floyd.  In its first incarnation, the group was fronted by guitarist-songwriter Roger “Syd” Barrett.  Unfortunately, Syd exceeded the recommended dosage of LSD (a thousandfold) and went mad, forcing the group to replace him with David Gilmour, thus giving birth to Pink Floyd proper (sans the definite article).

Fig. 5: Don't do acid, kids. You'll end up taping daffodils to your face.

While Barrett’s story is one of personal tragedy (he spent the rest of his life in the care of his parents before losing his sight to diabetes and sadly passing in 2004), it does provide us with all sorts of schadenfreudishly amusing anecdotes.  Such as:

  • The time he went mute and catatonic when it came time to record a US promo clip for the single “Apples & Oranges” forcing Roger Waters to do the lip-synch.
  • The time he wandered off stage while the group was in the middle of “Interstellar Overdrive”.  Used to such unpredictable behaviour, the group played on.  Eventually, Barrett remerged from backstage with a camping stove and proceeded to fry some bacon and eggs on stage, the sounds of a cooking breakfast surreally overscoring the group’s chaotic thrashings.
  • The time when he tried to teach the rest of The Floyd a new song of his, but kept radically changing the chords every time he played it for the group.  The song’s title? “Have You Got It Yet”.
  • The time he showed up at the recording studio after being fired and offered to play his former bandmates a new song on a guitar with no strings.
  • And so on and so on.

The madness of Syd Barrett is indeed a compelling story, and consequently it has generated an aura around Syd Barrett as a symbol of the Icarus-like artist who flew too close to the sun and burnt out brilliantly rather than fading away.  Shine on, you crazy diamond.  Unfortunately, however, this metanarrative means that Syd Barrett’s art is not his music, but rather his madness.

Much hay has been made about Barrett’s alleged songwriting prowess – again, he is seen as an example of the fragile genius spectacularly destroyed by the cruel machine of rocket soul.  The word “visionary” is thrown around alot, and not just in the context of him “tripping balls”.  The metanarrative that has grown around the band as a result of Barrett’s fall is that they started out as the thrilling vanguard of psychedelia yet with pop tunes that rivalled The Beatles for accessibility.  But once their leader left, they digressed into self-indulgent progginess: the perennially derided middle-of-the-road-album-oriented-rock.  Check this passage from über-hipster Pitchfork’s obligatorily laudatory review of the album:

Few would criticize the merits of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn itself (as reflected in the rating above)– it’s an essential album. While so many other products of the Summer of Love were positive and unifying, Piper was fractured and scary. Songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” captured the sustained improvisational freakouts of the band’s live shows, but did so in more concise form. Other songs, like “Lucifer Sam,” “Bike”, and “The Gnome”, split the difference between quirky pop songs and explorations of the nightmarish found-sound fringe, setting a twisted template for countless acts to come. By 1980’s The Wall, Pink Floyd had become sterile and solipsistic. At this auspicious start, Pink Floyd were thrilling. Anything was possible.

A more extreme phrasing of this metanarrative, one which concentrates more on bashing later Floyd than extolling Piper, is found in The NME‘s review of  the same reissue:

If you saw Pink Floyd at Live8 and wondered what all the fuss was about, then your instincts were right. Pink Floyd are one of those bands that even their fans have to make excuses for. Pompous, self-important, joyless and big-selling, they’ve become shorthand for grumpy middle-aged bank manager rock. Most famous for The Dark Side Of The Moon – a record about half as clever as it likes to think it is – Pink Floyd’s career is built on kiddy choirs, 30-year rows, giant polystyrene walls, inflatable pigs, interminable guitar solos and being Very Serious Indeed. It’s been successful – they’ve sold 150 million albums – but no person in their right mind would ever want to listen to one of those albums all the way through, especially if there are kitchen knives or open windows nearby. Except this one.

This is all post-punk revisionism.  In lauding Barrett’s musical adventerousness, these reviewers forget that Pink Floyd was at both its most experimental and its best just after Barrett left as they tried to figure out what the fuck they were going to do without their songwriting lynchpin before settling into the overpolished formulaicity of the post-Dark Side records.  But that, of course, is just this listener’s opinion.

The Cult of Barrett does, however, require some deconstruction. Certainly, as a guitarist, Barrett made excellent and innovative use of echo and delay as spectacularly demonstrated on the instrumental group effort “Interstellar Overdrive”.   It’s when Syd Barrett gets labelled a songwriting genius that things get wonky.  There’s no doubt that “See Emily Play” and “Arnold Layne” are fine slices of English psychedelia coaxed into pop song form.  The seeds of Blur, for better or for worse.  “Astronomy Domine” and “Lucifer Sam” from Piper and the solo track “Octopus” also work quite well (actually “Octopus” is pretty damn awesome), but apart from these gems, the rest of Barrett’s oeuvre gets remarkably sketchy and are perfect examples of the insufferable twee-ness of English psychedelia.

Fig. 6: Fucking hippies.

See, whereas American hippies were focused on changing the world with their electric kool-aid acid tests, the English kids, not having a war or the domestic oppression of a large minority to deal with, retreated into bourgeois idealizations of childhood and whimsy, and while Caravan and The Nice are lame enough, no-one did this worse than The Pink Floyd.

Viz. the The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn cut “The Gnome”:

I want to tell you a story

About a little man

If I can.

A gnome named Grimble Gromble

And little gnomes

Stay in their homes

Eating, sleeping, drinking their wine.

[and so on]

Fuck man, not only are those lines included in a rock song, but they’re included in a rock song that’s supposed to be cool.  Makes Led Zeppelin blowing the ending to The Lord Of The Rings seem positively Davisian.  I would rank this track’s opening lines as the second lamest moment in the history of rock and roll.[3]

Flaming” also joins “The Gnome” in the department of agonizing whimsy:

Alone in the clouds all blue

Lying on an eiderdown

Yippee! You can’t see me

But I can you.

One notable exception, of course, is “Jugband Blues”: a hauntingly beautiful track released after Barrett’s departure on A Saucerful Of Secrets (Fun Fact: check that album’s “Remember A Day” for a glimpse of a five man Floyd as both David Gilmour and Syd Barrett play on the track).  Legend has it that before being sacked from the band (allegedly, they just didn’t bother to pick him up on the way to a gig), Syd and the groop recorded three last cuts.  “Scream Thy Last Scream” and “Vegetable Man” were deemed too mad to be heard and were locked up in the water tower of Warner Bros. Studios.[4]

“Jugband Blues”, however, is Barrett’s masterpiece.  With its constantly shifting time signatures and ramshackle arrangement, it evokes the descent into madness that its author was experiencing.[5] Whereas “Bike” plays Barrett’s madness for laughs, “Jugband Blues” trades light-hearted, albeit batshit, whimsy for a fearful, claustrophobic darkness.  Chilling, yet somehow poignantly so.

The lyrics too seem to be the words of a madman trying to retrace the outlines of his lost mind:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here

And I’m most obliged to you for m-making it clear

That I’m not here.

And I never knew the moon could be so big

And I never knew the moon could be so blue

And I’m grateful that you threw away my old shoes

And brought me here instead dressed in red.

And I’m wondering who could be writing this song…

There’s definitely some postmodern author shit going down in there what with Barrett suggesting that what is “here” and “writing this song” is his madness – an alien force that has overcome and erased him, despite what the addressed listener may “think”.  Indeed, the listener is “making it clear” that what is being heard is not Syd Barrett, the singer and songwriter, but rather the whole story of Syd Barrett.  This mythology acts as the author-function of the Syd Barrett canon and, as such, removes the actual recorded musical performance from consideration.

To put it another way: There’s no question that “Jugband Blues” is an amazing work.  Yeah, it’s got a pretty good tune and there’s some great sounds.  But the emotional impact of the track (which is considerable) is derived from the backstory of its composer and singer (this of course, negates the input of the rest of the band and producer Norman Smith).  Would it be as beautiful if Syd Barrett was not genuinely insane, but rather a Ziggy Stardust type persona?

IV

This principle can be applied to many works: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, and the whole careers of the early deaths and suicides (Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Jeff Buckley).  Really what’s happening is that the retrospective appreciation of these works often neglects to see how the metanarrative frame of the work (its mythology) obscures and conditions their listening.  Essentially, the mythology takes on the same role that the consciously (and in some cases crudely crafted) metanarratives do to the music of David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna, and Marilyn Manson.  The actual musical performance is ancillary to a persona.[6]

This is all not to say that these works are not good or even great works (fuck “Interstellar Overdrive” kicks ass), just that acclaim can always be questioned.  Perhaps, what is really at stake here is the claim that mass-marketed musical performances can even be heard once they are mass-marketed, obscured always behind the branding of a mythology.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on April 28, 2010.

One Response to “On Music & Mythology”

  1. Footnotes:

    [1] Citation needed.

    [2] The term “object” is used here provisionally. The musical object referred to would be the recorded performance (really, in most cases, including the one at hand, an assemblage of performances), which, as Dolphy confirms, never actually makes it to the microphone, leaving us only with an electro-mechanical trace in the form of a recorded signal. The record itself (both the physical object and its content) is in reality a copy of this trace.

    [3] The single lamest voco-lyrical moment in the history of rocket soul music, however, occurs at 1:48 of “Atlantis” where, after telling how all civilizations are descended from super-human refugees from a sunken continent, Donovan instructs us to “Hail Atlantis”. You have to hear it to understand.

    [4] These recordings have naturally resurfaced on bootlegs. It’s probably best not to hear them: while “Scream Thy Last Scream” is actually pretty decent in a half-assed kind of way, it’s not as insane as you’d hope it’d be. Better to keep them as imaginary.

    [5] It should be noted, however, the Barrett mythology often overlooks the fact that the Salvation Army Band called into the studio were playing from a score by Norman Smith and not “just play[ing] anything” as Barrett is reputed to have told them.

    [6] It’s also worth noting that virtually all contemporary mainstream pop now trades on metanarratives.

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