Sunday, April 04, 2010

Between the Covers: Understanding Alex Chilton


So I'm reading Bruce Eaton's Radio City (a pretty good entry in the "33 1/3" series, though I hope a later edition will fix the plethora of typos between its rushed-to-publication pages) and I come across a passage that instantly makes me understand why Alex Chilton's post-Big Star career has mostly consisted of recordings and live shows dominated by cover songs. It also made me understand the difference between sincerity and ingenuousness when it comes to music lovers. In other words, there is no such thing as a "guilty pleasure" when it comes to music; only pleasure. Eaton had just played on stage with Chilton at some Buffalo club when Supertramp's "The Logical Song" came on...

Breakfast in America was a huge album at the time - one deemed totally uncool by any self-respecting rock snob. But before I could reflexively make a snide comment, Alex started to nod his head to the beat in a way that indicated approval. I believe that I felt confused and even horrified.

One of the pitfalls of being a vinyl junkie is that you can easily turn into a rock snob an insufferable bore (almost always male) with a hollow superiority complex based on one's record collection. At the time, I certainly qualified. With hindsight and experience, I've come to understand that rock snobbery is an exercise in aural flagellation - a way to punish yourself and the world because girls ignored you back in high school. Like, why would I even want to hang out with those cute girls who like soccer players when I can listen to Frank Zappa and make fun of them? You start out when you're a kid buying the music you actually like and end up spending thousands of dollars over your lifetime on records that you think you should like - the more obscure or downright unlistenable the better. You idiots with your Fleetwood Mac records are too stupid to appreciate these contorted shards of tortured feedback skittering over jackboot techno-Burundi drums. If you're a rock snob, your record collection becomes your face to the world, a gradually shifting self portrait - each record like a dot in a Seurat painting. If your favorite obscure band somehow gets popular, that's okay, you'll be able to remind everyone within earshot that you listened to them way back when they were way better, and replace them in your record collection with that Cajun funk band that made a single album in 1972 that's unbelievably influential despite no one having heard it. Or perhaps you'll latch onto something that's so uncool - The 101 Strings Play Loggins and Messina - that it desperately needs you to make it cool. (Rock snobbery might not end when the girls finally look your way - you might actually believe that your rare Roky Erickson record had something to do with it. I eventually married a woman who didn't know Arthur Lee from Peter Green and 24 years later still couldn't care less.) What gets lost in all this rock snobbery is a simple point: music is meant to be enjoyed.

It took a while for the lesson of "The Logical Song" to become clear and sink it. One day I took a look at my play pile - the records stacked next to my turntable that I was actually listening to repeatedly and right up front with was the decidedly uncool Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich. The truth was that there were a few songs on that record - "Most Beautiful Girl in the World" for starters - that connected with me in a way all the supposedly hip punk rock and avant-garde loft jazz records that I'd been buying didn't. Those were gathering dust in the corner, having been played once or twice, while The Silver Fox spun around and around every evening, keeping me company.

I realized at that moment that I liked what I liked and that was all that mattered. You could like a song and there needn't be any grand consideration beyond that. You could find pleasure in "The Logical Song" - or "Behind Closed Doors" - without having a detailed, nuanced opinion about the artist or any context at all for that matter. Liking a song didn't have to involve listening to the entire album (and giving it a letter grade or the right number of stars), or making a commitment to owning their records or buying a concert ticket. None of that. In a world where the business focused on growing small numbers of new blockbuster albums in hothouses of hype and aficionados took pride in being miserable, Chilton looked through the other end of the telescope at the entire existing universe of songs, picked out some that grabbed him, and put together his own little musical solar system. He had found the freedom in knowing that a good song can come from anywhere if you keep your mind and ears open. If a record moves you in some way, then it was made just for you. Nothing else really matters. There is no piece of music in the world that you have to like.

I stopped paying attention to record reviews and pouring over new releases after that. Freed up from feeling obligated to have an opinion about Sandinista!, let alone spend money on it, I could sit back and let the music find its way to me in unexpected ways. Eventually I realized that a single song like Little Beaver's "Party Down" could make you not care that you'd never heard a note by the band on the cover of SPIN.

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