Distal Muse


by Mark W. Tiedemann

    Bruce Springsteen has a new album out.  It’s been a while.  I thought never to hear from him again, but alas, the grating sounds of that nearly tuneless voice will not go lightly into oblivion.  Just like others of less than adequate talent--Jagger, Dylan, Prine, et al.
    I’m ranting.  Hell with it, I don’t care.
    Somewhere around 1974, I bought an album--on Columbia Records--which contained an inner sleeve with music news.  There were articles about Laura Nyro, Blood, Sweat & Tears...and a column about this new guy, Bruce Springsteen.  The reviewer declared “I have seen the future of rock, and it is Springsteen.”  Or something to that effect.  I thought, “hey, that’s high praise, maybe I should check this guy out.”
    I had a terribly negative reaction.
    Let me explain quickly to those of you who are about to take umbrage that I am trashing one of rock’n’roll’s great artists.  I can’t stand listening to the Rolling Stones, but I like a lot of what they’ve written--when done by other bands.  Mick Jagger’s tortured tenor grates over my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Some blues musicians I respect think he’s got a terrific voice.  I can’t hear it.  I want to leave the room when he starts his keening.
    Likewise with Springsteen.  I recognize the songwriting talent.  I even recognize the awesome live performance talent.
    Take that voice away.  Please.
    It’s not just voices to which I react this way.  Some instruments leave me less than impressed.  I don’t “get” the dobro sound.  It’s tinny.  I don’t really care for accordions--they will always in mind be connected to Lawrence Welk and a kind of kitschy bad dance music that seemed custom made to subvert the whole idea of good music, and as a result I can’t get anywhere near zydeko music.  I really don’t like the solo violin.  Isaac Stern could play one acceptably well, and when certain performers amped theirs--like Jean-Luc Ponty and Eddie Jobson--I enjoyed the result, but the lone, unamped violin, Stradivarius or not, gives me chill-blains.  There’s only one guitarist I can listen to play pedal steel--all the rest seem condemned to produce a saccharin-laced melancholic whine that never fails to remind me of Porter Waggoner and over-sentimentalized C & W dreck.
    So, no, it isn’t just voices that turn me off.
    Just mostly.
    And Bruce Springsteen is at the top of my list.  My opinion is that the vast audience that laps his stuff up has a fey strain of anti-elitism that embraces mediocrity on different levels.  That Springsteen’s earnest attempts at singing sync with our own lack of ability to sing any better, and that makes him One Of Us on some level, a kind of implicit nod to a false democratization of talent.  Maybe that’s stretching too far to explain something that I otherwise can’t stand.
     I once went through a round of frustration at a party where a woman kept telling me to change the music I was playing because it was “depressing.”  I looked at my choices--Flim and the Bbs, Chick Corea, The Dixie Dregs, Jeff Beck--and couldn’t figure out what she meant.  Depressing?
    “No one is singing!”
    Oh.  No singing = depressing.  No matter that the music (you know, the important part?) Is major key, lively, good beat, energetic, playful...no, instrumentals without singing are a priori depressing.  Huh?
    The reverse side of the coin I’m flipping here, is this: Springsteen and his musical forebears--Jagger and Dylan specifically--are the reaction of the Sixites youth culture to the pasteurized music of their parents.  To that WWII generation, good music meant melody, melifluity, harmony, and, above all, evident skill.  If you couldn’t sing like Perry Como or Bing Crosby or Dean Martin--which is to say, in a pleasing, marvelously controlled voice--then the music was crap.  Regardless of what the music was.  So we had an endless quantity of empty, melody-heavy, unchallenging, show-tune-driven pabulum.  Lifeless, contentless, banal.  But RESTFUL.
    Starting with rock’n’roll in the Fifties, the kids of the Sixties rejected all those standards.  Some standards, though, shouldn’t be rejected.  Like talent and ability. The thing that made Dylan popular was that he didn’t even try to sing well.  He was “honest” in his music.
    Well, fine.  I tolerate a lot of bad vocalists because they front for bands whose musicianship I really like.  But I rarely listen to them for the singing.
    In a different time, Springsteen would have been a songwriter, working off stage, his work performed by others.  Records companies used to have such people on salary.  The last such of these were Walter Egan and Donald Fagen, who wrote songs for ABC-Dunhill until they gave it up and became Steely Dan.  (Fagen’s another one who can’t sing, as far as I’m concerned, but I’ll put up with it because the music is so interesting.)
    It’s arguable, however, that what Springsteen has written would be performed by anyone of that generation.  It’s true that if you want your stuff done right, you should do it yourself.  That fact means we have been subjected for almost fifty years to round after round of song writer who simply cannot sing.
    But we’ve gotten used to it.
    (As a truly sacrilegious slur against a giant of music, let me throw into this mix Louis Armstrong.  I have Ken Burns’ epic “Jazz” on tape, which is a monumentally good piece of work.  It is amazing.  But there is a statement in there about Armstrong that leaves me dismayed, although I understand technically what it means: the claim is made that Louis Armstrong “taught America how to sing.”  I think Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest musicians who ever drew breath.  I cannot abide that toad-croak of a voice of his.  But the only time Armstrong was ever truly “mainstream” was in the years after he recorded “Hello, Dolly” which chartered higher than the Beatles in 1964.)
    It would be nice if talent and ability always came in the same package.  But it’s always been a problem.  Tsaichovsky could not play piano well at all.  He screwed up his own music all the time when he tried to perform it.  So others did it for him.  Irving Berlin could only write songs in one key.  Others had to transpose it for him if a performer needed it in a different one.  B.B. King can’t sing and play guitar at the same time.
     The list goes on.  But many such people find ways to present their work in the best way possible by accepting their limitations and finding a voice, a method, a means that brings in talent where they may lack it, and provides an experience that completes the work.
    Well, I don’t know what bothers me more--Springsteen’s voice or the fact that so many people don’t seem to care that it ain’t very good.
    Makes you wonder what other parts of life get the same kind of compromised consideration.  That would be a long, long list.  Just to add to my statement of well-established and accepted artists who leave me flat, I am in a vast minority when it comes to Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock.  I think Andy Warhol is a great example of mediocrity finding a gimmick.  I think Serra’s steel objects are the epitome of con art, rust and all.  The literary world raves (occasionally) about Kurt Vonnegut, who may well be a great writer but his style shuts me out every time--I am not 10 years old with a learning impairment, I do not care to be written at as if I were.  Charles Ives is held up as a great example of American classical music--it is noise, dis-phony, garbage.  People keep telling me Will Ferrel is funny--I can’t see it.  I’ve never “gotten” Letterman or “Seinfeld” or “Friends.”  These are not amusing to me and less comprehensible--although Letterman once claimed that all he ever wanted was his own show, it didn’t matter what it was about.
    In this sense, I’m a bit of throwback.  I appreciate polish and sophistication, the clear knowledge on the part of the performer that I am not a dummy, that my taste is a bit more complex than to satisfied by whatever might be on the jukebox or the current Top 40.
    So let me talk about a pair of albums I heard recently that did impress me.  Sarah McLachlan’s newest, “Afterglow” and the new U2, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.”
    Now, neither of these artists is at the bottom of anyone’s heap.  They’re doing quite well, thank you, and don’t need a plug from me.  That’s not my intention here.  I want to offer them as examples of what I find best in music.
    I don’t think you can really expect artistry at this level.  You can hope for it.  McLachlan is one of the few exceptions to my “vocals are secondary” rule, but I have to make a quick disclaimer about that.  There is another vocalist I will listen to no matter what she sings--Annie Haslam, formerly of the prog rock group “Renaissance”.  Golden, clear, magnificent range, and the ability to sink a note into your brain and find your soul.  But.  But such gems require the proper setting and while I still adore Annie’s voice, I listen to her new work far less than I go back to listen to the old Renaissance albums.  There you find the perfect setting in which to appreciate her ability.  Without that music to sing, she doesn’t quite do it.  At least, not for me.  McLachlan may be the same.  I hear a musical instrument in her voice, one well-trained and practiced to high proficiency: she plays her voice magnificently.
    But let’s face it--Van Cliburn playing “Autumn Leaves” is just a really good pianist wasting his time.  At that level of skill, the music has to be worthy.  If Sarah McLachlan were a traditional singer doing other people’s music, she might get lucky occasionally and do something that matched her ability, but she’d just be a really good singer wasting her time.  The music she composes, however, is a match to that ability, and the two resonate off each other magnificently.
     McLachlan would be an example, if I were to teach a class in composition (which I won’t, because I’m not that educated in the subject) of someone with supreme skills at constructing what I’d call the Inevitable Song.  There is something so exact about her phrasing and changes, the way she structures her music, that it seems it could be no other way.  We’re hearing someone with huge talent at writing music, as well as a superb performer.  It’s studied and disciplined, like the kind of construction you find in Beethoven or Dvorak.  As I say, it is inevitable.  And so real that it still surprises, in the way it gets inside and works your emotions.
    U2 also has this ability, but in a different way.  From “Achtung, Baby!” on, I’ve been delighted at the pot pouri of styles and influences and ideas they jam into a song.  There are elements in some of their pieces that, when taken apart and examined, should not work together.  Yet they do.
    They don’t do what McLachlan does, at least it doesn’t sound that way.  While McLachlan exhibits profound control and craft, U2 seems to exhibit a natural process, music arising from what might be called “emergent properties” in other fields.
    Yet, there is control there as well.
    I would never put Bono’s voice in the category of Those To Whom I Would Listen No Matter Whose Music Was Being Performed.  For my ears, Bono and U2 are a syncretic whole, something that would pretty much fall apart if they were separated.  (Interestingly, in the example of Renaissance, that “whole” that worked so well when Annie Haslam was in the band seems to work poorly without her--there has been a “Renaissance” album since her departure, with a vocalist of extreme ability, but an album that, while statically lovely in the many definitions of beautiful music, is essentially soulless.  While Annie’s solo music is weaker--or at least, for me, less interesting than what she did with Renaissance--it is by no means soulless.  Annie has managed once separated from the original gestalt.)  And, apparently, they realize it.  I haven’t seen any solo albums from the members of U2 (of them all, I would expect only Edge could pull one off successfully).  Like other bands--too few, in my opinion--they recognize their essential strength in unity and haven’t messed with it.
    Bono comes very close to someone I don’t care to listen to.  But never quite drives me away.  His voice is uniquely interesting, and, like some improbable combination, is always mesmerizing even when you think it shouldn’t be.  I credit the music he writes with the band.  They have together found a way to sound far better than any one of them could singly.
    While McLachlan seems to know just which emotions she wants to excite and hits those buttons with amazing accuracy, U2 seems to opt for a shotgun effect--in any given song there are several emotive potentials, and it depends often on the day of the week, the hour of the day, or the day just passed to determine how it will effect you.  That’s fine.  I don’t listen to Beethoven for one single emotion at a time, either.  The thing is, though, in the midst of that hurricane of emotive fingers aiming at your buttons, there never seems to be a superfluous one.  At the end of all the experiential winds, there’s nothing left over looking for an emotion to trigger.
    What does any of this have to do with Bruce Springsteen?  A couple of things.  Take a lesson, Bruce.  McLachlan has the voice and the discipline and the talent to make Art, with amazing control and eloquence.  U2 has the artistic virtue and the in-built anger to punch all the buttons at once without ever making you feel manipulated.  Springsteen tries for both approaches and misses repeatedly.  His blizzards of emotional arrows fly wide, leaving the field behind the target littered with spent shafts with nothing accomplished.  What skill and talent he has left--and he does have considerable--would be better used in trying for the single goal, the direct line to lone emotions and effects.  But he doesn’t have the voice for that, the way McLachlan does.  In the end, all that furious virtuosity he and his band exhibit is undermined by the fact that he’s simply unpleasant to listen to.
    Of course, that’s my opinion.  I’ve gotten in trouble with that before.  Once a hard-core Stones fan tried to throw me out a second floor window because I criticized Mick Jagger.  I thought he was kidding until other people had to pull him off me.  There is no accounting for what some people will love.  And that’s fine.
     But sometimes there is, both for what you love and what you don’t.  Once in a while you can explain it.  Sort of.

copyright © 2005 by Mark W. Tiedemann