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Something Better than Rage, Pain, Anger & Hurt
It might be fun to have a kid I could pass something on to
Something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt …
There’s nothing inherently more rational about a violin than a guitar – as Eric Clapton says, ‘It’s in the Way That You Use It!' It just so happens that over the last three centuries or three most violins have been asked to do more than have most guitars. That’s just the way it is.
Art really is our own shortcut to our own soul. Good art enables us to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to see what it is our own soul looks like - and it isn’t always pretty, and we’d sometimes rather not know. Arguably, music is the most personal of the arts because there is no other that plays so directly with our own emotions, and so directly tells us (if we have ears with which to listen honestly) who we are.
Three chords, done right, can offer us revelation and release. Simple melodies steal their way past our defences and lodge there, naggingly, only able to be expunged by cathartically playing them, over and over, and – should the moment seem right – thrashing our air guitars with wild abandon and pogoing around our lounge.
Look, I confess. I do it myself - Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life' still provides near-perfect pogoing; the Manics’ ‘You Love Us’ offers unmatched air-guitar - but these days I don’t kid myself that my air guitar moments are massaging my entire soul, or even a large part of it. There are parts of my soul – as I’m sure there are parts of yours, dear reader – that no rock music will ever reach. If we are to be true to ourselves, we need to search out music that does and let it reach us.
What that means is searching out music that has the scope, depth and integration that our lives do - and also, we trust, our souls – and learning to understand it and finding out what music really speaks to those voices inside us that are urging us to grow. Damaged music can speak to a damaged soul, and simple exuberance speaks to youth, but a more complex drummer is needed for sunlit maturity. For the adults we aspire to be, music that has all this and more is a must.
Nick Cave’s ‘When the Boatman Calls’ can touch us gently, but Puccini’s ‘E Lucevan le Stelle’ done properly can rend our heart. The Beatles ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ can move us, but the beautiful delicacy of Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ can make our soul ache. Shaking to AC/DC ‘All Night Long’ can help us feel our anger and rage, but opening up to Holst’s ‘Mars: Bringer of War’ can help us understand our anger, and offer us a way out. As good and as intelligent (and integrated) as is Lou Reed’s ‘Magic and Loss,’ Richard Strauss’s ’Four Last Songs’ speaks to us more about life and loss than Lou with all my love for his music just isn’t able to do.
Even something with the admittedly delicate power of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ can never touch the parts that, say, Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ does. And if majesty and awesome scale are your bag, then no piece of music on earth – certainly nothing in prog rock or metal – can reach the parts that does Brunnhilde’s Immolation, the last scene of Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung.’ It really is all over when this fat lady sings to you. The music is vast, and powerful and tremendously cleansing – and it does quite literally bring the house down!
And as far as ‘tiddlywink music’ goes that can move us both emotionally, and from the neck up and neck down, the worlds of operetta and of (early) jazz and swing just have to be explored. If you’ve never listened to Lionel Hampton ‘Flying Home’ – or you’ve listened but not been moved to swing your hips – then your soul is just not ready to die! The radiant sunlit cheerfulness of the music of Franz Lehar, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Benny Goodman belies its depth and complexity, both emotionally and musically – the music is a living refutation of any art/entertainment dichotomy you may somehow be harbouring. And it sure does swing.
Each of these deeper pieces I’ve mentioned here can touch us in ways that other music never can, but only if we can drop our defences and let our souls be touched by them. And that’s just not easy to do when our emotional range is as stunted and immature as our musical range. If our emotions provide our reward for living well, as they must do, we need to feed them with the art form that extends them and talks to them more powerfully than any other, which is what music does. Music with real scope, depth and integration can enrich our emotions and help them grow – but only if we are able to let ourselves hear it and be touched by it. On a diet of Stiff Little Fingers and Fear Factory that’s a little difficult.
It’s not a matter of musical ability; rock music sure does have loads of incredible knob twiddlers and plectrum pyrotechnicians – what’s lacking is real emotional range and depth. Robert Fripp, surely one of the most acerbically nimble fretboard geniuses, offers the example of superb skill combined with almost no emotional range, yet it barely hinders his art at all. The scale of ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ is extraordinary, but the emotional depth is that of a very high ceiling.
But rock can and does portray emotions, and the emotions it does do so well are mostly those we feel in our teenage years, particularly those enumerated at the head of the page. Rock music does those emotions exceptionally well, but if we’re more than fifty-percent alive we do eventually realise that there’s something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt – that life really offers more than just these primitive emotional ‘rewards.’ If we don’t realise that, we never reward ourselves properly.
Many people just stop rewarding themselves; they ‘grow out’ of their early enthusiasm for music and they spend the rest of their life listening to Dire Straits instead. Or Kenny G. Music becomes something ‘in the background, darling’ at dinner parties – something they buy at the filling station along with a tank of gas, and a pie and a coke for little Johnny.
If they were once enthusiastic about music though, it wasn’t that they really ‘grew out’ of music - it’s that they grew out of the music of their youth, but had never learned how to be touched by music that could reach the more important adult parts of their soul – those parts that demand to be heard or that are buried for good – those parts of the soul at its real depths that represent who we are and what we’re about. If those parts of us aren’t massaged and acknowledged by us, we lose something enormous out of our lives. The end of that road for our soul is a place called Stepford and a soundtrack by Mark Knopfler.
So, like John Cusack in ‘Hi Fidelity’ we’re eventually confronted with the inescapable fact that rock music doesn’t have real soul – it doesn’t have the real human soul that the scope, depth and integration of our own souls requires in their music. At that stage, you really have two choices: Either argue that scope, depth and integration aren’t important, or argue that rock music has these elements in spades and what’s the friggin’ problem (and haven’t we seen both responses here at SOLO in the last few days?)
The former argument is the post-modernist one that standards are neither important nor desirable (or at least, that is, western objective standards); the second is just a little more evasive, and can only be answered for each of us inside the listening room of our own soul.
Alexandra York, talking about the importance of music education in the development of emotional maturity in teenage boys helps make the point:
Like life, musical passages contain highs and lows, fast and slows … musical vocabulary includes dissonance and resolution, tumult and sublimity, all emboldening a student in the process of making music to feel to his heart’s content within the security of a confined experience... By learning to orchestrate emotional content through so rigorous a structure, the student must learn to merge reason and emotions; otherwise, the resulting music will be cold and sterile, math without the poetry. Classical music is too mentally commanding to permit the flailing and screaming incited by rock n' roll, thus it forces young people to control their emotional output, offering them the experience of cathexis rather than catharsis. Also, because music deals with broad abstractions - triumph, defeat, love, loss - it allows a young person to personalize universals of the human condition, to feel on a grand scale both the hope and the hurt that necessarily accompany an individual life fully lived. For teenagers, in particular, it unlocks gateways to mature excursions into the ecstasy and the vulnerability of love, the headiness and the hazards of risk. Often, once young people begin to understand the value of classical music, they turn to it in moments of emotional need to help them experience deep stirrings that may not make it to the surface of consciousness by themselves. Repressed boys, especially, can benefit immensely from music study.
Emotions are our rewards, we don’t want to numb them, we want to learn how to use them, to understand them, and to use them to celebrate our selves and enjoy who we are in all the richness of our maturity.
But I think in many ways much of rock music desensitises emotions, but it also desensitises our sensitivity to many of the musical places that rock music just doesn’t reach – to many of the places that could provide us with real emotional fuel. It’s hard to leap directly from hard rock to a jazz number to a classical piece (or vice versa) and then to listen to each on its own terms : after listening to Benjamino Gigli, the wailing of Geddy Lee just sounds, well, odd ; and after listening to Elton John (should one take on such a task!) something like Liszt’s ‘St Francis Walking on the Water’ just sounds like a nice wee tune, but a bit plinkety-plunk. But in fact Geddy Lee’s falsetto is odd (I’d thought the last castrati died seventy-odd years ago?), whereas Liszt’s piece is far from just a nice wee tune, and if we listen to it only at that level we might as well give up and go back to Geddy’s grunting and groaning. For its the hardest thing to take down our emotional defences after listening to some ‘head-down, no-nonsense, mindless boogie’ and then switching to try and really experience a rich, emotionally complex piece such as Wagner’s music for ‘Siegfried’s Death.’ It’s not easy to accomplish, and if we can’t do it we miss out.
And if Wagner’s powerful piece is beyond the emotionally repressed, how much more difficult to understand and enjoy the delicacy of Duke Ellington’s ‘Lotus Blossom’ or ‘Prelude to a Kiss,’ let alone to be able to listen with open ears and wet cheeks to Louis Armstrong sing ‘We Have All the Time in the World; or Lanza sing ‘I’ll Walk with God.’ In some ways this last song is an acid test, for in order to really enjoy it you’ve got to really open yourself up. In the language of Rand’s ‘Romantic Manifesto,’ this is how one would feel if in the presence of the divine. If you listen to it and don’t get it, it’s a good sign that you’re really missing something – and not just in your musical life.
Now it’s true that much of the music I’ve been promoting here is hardly contemporary, and much is what so-called ‘high art.’ So what? High art (at least the very best of it) is so because it has the power to speak to us profoundly ; that much of the art that does speak to us in that way was produced some years before this one is more an indictment on the culture of today than it is a plea to look back in time. In this present Age of Crap in which reason and adult themes are absent from literature, film, painting and architecture - when today’s celebrities have the emotional maturity of the young Macaulay Culkin, and artists of every type are not just refusing to stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past but are spitting in their faces - then it’s time to change the culture. And the fuel for that change is the art and ideas those very giants produced – it’s through them we know something better is possible in this world.
Most people wisely abandoned the field of ‘high art’ as it abandoned reason and abandoned melody, and enthusiastically embraced melody wherever it could be found. But in that wild abandonment it was often forgotten there was a rich heritage of rich passionate melody and emotionally complex music still extant in what came to be codifed as ‘the classics’; music that was all too often delivered with all the passion of the museum pieces they were often taken to be. And there is more honest emotion in one bar of ‘Sweet Jane’ or ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ or ‘Boogie Chillun’ than there is in a whole season of passionless classics, or anything by Stockhausen or Schoenberg or Bartok (try his Concerto for Coffee Grinder and Two Vacuum Cleaners if you must). But that isn’t all the music there is.
There is excitement in simple melody done well, for sure, and there’s a truly special excitement in a three chord guitar song played well - I first heard it myself in a simple three chord rock song called ‘Gutter Black’ which still excites me today – and I can truly understand why the classical music of today which has abandoned melody has been abandoned by everybody but po-faced poseurs.
But there is more to life and more to our souls than just three chords or po-faces, and there are better things to feel than rage, pain, anger and hurt. Good music nourishes our soul; it’s as essential as food because it’s part of the artistic fuel that sustains us. Music is our food of the spirit, so do try and be careful what you eat.
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