My Last few posts have been on the heavier theoretical side, so I thought I’d lighten things up a bit and describe my musical aesthetic. I’ve just recently started singing, writing, and playing guitar with a band again after a two-year hiatus to finish my dissertation, and it’s great to be back in action. These last two years have allowed me a lot of time to reflect on the previous fifteen years I spent consistently playing with bands, rehearsing weekly, and playing hundreds of shows in a way that wasn’t possible while I was in the midst of constantly negotiating band dynamics, dealing with booking agents, lugging my equipment around, harassing my friends to come out to shows, and psyching myself up to sing in front of dozens, sometimes even hundreds of people. I’ve particularly had a lot of time to think about what it means to be a rock and roll musician as I’ve spent these last couple of years writing about music. My book, which I’m almost finished adapting from my dissertation, is tentatively titled How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. I read the early careers of these three genre-defining artists from a theoretical perspective based on the work of William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and others.
I wrote my first song, “One-Sided Love,” when I was ten, and I think the song has actually held up pretty well. I believe I wrote my next song when I was fifteen, and I started to think of myself as a songwriter when I was sixteen or seventeen. I’ve played with three major bands: The Arthurs from Austin, Texas (Sixties British and Elephant 6 inspired psychedelic pop, opened for My Morning Jacket, the Shins, and Of Montreal), The Pages from Brooklyn, NY (a weird amalgam of Beatlesque pop, country music, jam band, avant garde jazz, and hard rock that we referred to as “skiffle funk,” as if that explained anything), and The Morning Pages, also from NYC (a roots rock band that got within spitting distance of the big time). These three musical collectives have all influenced the development of my musical sensibility in profound ways. Although I’ve dabbled in a lot of styles over the years, my tastes seem to have settled on what can basically be described as roots music, though I see my aesthetic as less defined by genre and more by a set of qualities that cut across some pretty disparate styles of music.
Some of the musicians that exemplify my aesthetic include Waylon Jennings, Bob Marley, Tinariwen, JJ Cale, Jonathan Fire*Eater, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, The Grateful Dead (particularly in the early seventies), Neil Young (particularly with Crazy Horse), and Bob Dylan (particularly with the Band and the Rolling Thunder Review). This may seem like a slightly strange list, ranging from country and indie rock to North African music and reggae, but what they all share is a devotion to depth: of groove, of lyric, and of musical nuance. This is far from the only kind of music I like or listen to, but these are the artists that trace the contours of my ideal sound.
The musical element that Waylon and Marley and Tinariwen and JF*E all share is a highly distinctive rhythmic feel, though these rhythms are all very different from one another, with relatively few chord changes. This propulsive simplicity allows the musicians and audience to enter a kind of ecstatic, trance-like state that music with more active, vertical chord progressions and melodies vigorously disrupts. I’ve been in bands with plenty of musicians who prefer that mode—I even used to prefer it myself when I was younger—but over the years I’ve gravitated towards the horizontal mode. I think of the vertical mode as naïvely innocent and the horizontal mode as maturely road-worn, but that might just be a result of my own personal trajectory. I want music that impels me to move my body in reserved and complex ways. Think Richard Manuel or Levon Helm of the Band, shoulders pumping at slanted angles to their pelvis in a sinuous roll, literally a “hip” form of motivity equally removed from the angry head-banging of metal, the graceful swaying of country ballads, and the puppet-like jerk of eighties synth-pop, all of which have their center of gravity in the shoulders and chest. By contrast, the kind of music I generally prefer has its center of gravity in the pelvis. It’s basically rock and roll, though the original meaning of that term defined the “hip” feel, while later permutations took other elements of the genre in different rhythmic directions. Thus, I would argue that the artists mentioned above, though all from explicitly different genres, are the true inheritors of rock and roll, perhaps even more than Nirvana or Radiohead, both of whom I also love, but which I would classify more as “rock” than the syncopated, body-wiggling feel of those other artists. As far as I’m concerned, the Black Keys are the first widely successful “rock” band that’s emerged in a long time that actually possesses something of original rock and roll’s feel.
Just to be clear, I’m not against genre distinctions; they’re useful and they evolve through a complex process of public consensus and record company and radio-station marketing strategies. But, ultimately, I’d like to be able to discover new music based on this criterion of “feel” rather than of genre.
The other two elements that constitute my aesthetic can be described as depth of content, both lyrical and musical. In the case of the singers, to which, as a singer myself, I’m particularly attuned, these two qualities of words and phrasing go hand in hand. And like the feel described above, I prefer lyrics that are evocative without being too specific, philosophical without being pretentious, emotive without being dramatic. Think Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Waylon’s “This Time,” or Marley’s “Bad Card,” though most of the songs by these three artists have a similar lyrical quality. I like songs that can be sung by many different singers, songs that contain universal truths or paint familiar situations, but without pandering like most new country, for instance. My favorite kind of songs are extremely simple and pure, the kind of songs that sound like they could be sung around a campfire a hundred years from now, as my old guitar player once said. This simplicity of composition combined with subtle rhythmic sophistication creates a palette for the singers and players to express the full force of their personalities by paradoxically putting their egoic consciousness aside and letting the song and the groove manifest through them. I like singers who completely own the words, who know the song is great enough that they can relax and experiment with the melody, draw out phrases and play around the beat. Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan are all masters of this style of singing.
Let me know if you have suggestions for music that fits these criteria. I’d love to add more artists to my small musical pantheon.