Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ethical Dilemma? Nah, not so much.

Daniel Robinson (foreground) and guitarist Pat Manley at The Continental in NYC.

In this wacky post-postmodern world, who's to say what's ethical? Or so I tell myself when I consider the ethics of what I'm about to do. Look, I wrote this, sort of, but I'm going to link to it anyway, because it's cool, and a decent interview with a terrific songwriter. So there.

Okay, so a while ago (a couple of months now, I think) I interviewed Daniel Robinson of Milton and the Devils Party. I know Robinson personally, and I like him, maybe one reason I felt okay about this foray into traditional rock writing, which I generally eschew. We're both overeducated pop nuts, but our interests lie in such radically different directions that we've always got something to discuss or about which to argue (usually) good-naturedly. It's always fun to talk about music with your friends, and if it happens to fit into some other form, so much the better.

The interview appeared in Buzzsaw Haircut, a student publication at one of my campuses, presented here in an online version (thus the B for Buzzaw, which is really me). Anyway, here it is. Enjoy!

DR: I think respecting the genre is important. The songwriters who measure up in this regard are Ray Davies, Morrissey, and Nick Cave. Also Lloyd Cole, and sometimes Leonard Cohen. The ones who fail are people like Sting or Elvis Costello.

B: Why do they fail?

DR: Well, Sting’s problem as a songwriter is that he’s just a little bit smarter than the average person, and he tries to get as much mileage out of that as he can. But he can’t really go that far. I do believe he is smart—but almost in a mathematical, musical way. Not really in a literary sense.

B: Do you mean the early, poppy, reggae stuff? Or are we talking “Dream of the Blue Turtles” here?

DR: Well, I do think Sting has learned from his mistakes (“Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Tea In The Sahara,” etc.). So, now that he’s grown out of his pretentiousness, he has nothing really to say.

B: His mispronunciation of Nabokov has had serious effects.

DR: Well, he’s not that smart.

B: But Elvis Costello has a similar split, no? Between something like This Year’s Model and say, “God Give Me Strength”?

DR: Well, Elvis Costello is too smart for his own good. Sting’s not really smart enough to pull off what he wants to do. Elvis Costello will throw everything away just to dazzle you with a phrase. If I ever taught a songwriting class (and I might one day), I would do a week on EC and have students read Samuel Johnson’s comments on the metaphysical poets—a lot of it applies to Elvis Costello!

B: Remind my readers what Johnson said about the metaphysical poets.

DR: Well, basically, that the metaphysicals love to dazzle you with surprising conceits—false wit—and incongruities, wordplay. But the poems don’t really add up to anything meaningful. Johnson saw that the parts were greater than the whole and that that was a serious deficiency. Elvis will throw a phrase like “I’m in a grip-like vice” and you are so dazzled by the brilliance of that that you forget that the rest of the song doesn’t make any sense.

If you're curious to see what kind of stuff someone with these opinions comes up with, you can hear a few mp3s here. Also MDP is available at Amazon.com and through itunes: if you have to pick one song to buy, and you're a power pop fan, allow me to humbly recommend "Perfect Breasts," which is poppy, energetic, and a hoot (so to speak). (I tried to podcast a sample, but as it transpires, #$%&ing Blogger doesn't accept podcasts yet. But I have a tech request in!)

Oh, and the pic is by the divine watertiger! Posted by Hello


watertiger said...

Rock 'n Roll Photographer. C'est moi! ;)

agitpropre said...

It’s very, very easy to slag off Elvis Costello; anyone who has turned out the amount of stuff he has over the years is bound to drop some sizeable clangers from time to time. To suggest the low points somehow vitiate [“the ones who fail…”!] the good material is nonsensical. The good stuff is still good; in EC’s case it is often ‘great’.

The really troubling line in the interview is “I think respecting the genre is important.” ‘Respecting the genre’ reeks of an established orthodoxy as in “I know what is within the genre and what is without; anything NOT falling inside MY paradigm is a failure”. Just to stick with EC examples – is ‘Shipbuilding’ within the boundaries of the paradigm? ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’? ‘Alison’? Are they less good songs for being on the outside of the genre? (We won’t get into the C&W stuff let alone the Burt Bacharach material.) My point is that to say ANY artist has ’failed’ because one don’t think some of their material doesn’t fit within one’s self-created pigeon-hole is, well, crap.

One should also be wary of calling upon Dr Johnson as an authority; he delighted in changing his opinion to fit the audience and circumstance. Also he had a prodigious output over many years and some of it was less good than other bits. (Say, that sounds familiar…) But if you want a Johnsonian dictum on respecting the genre, try this (from one of his Rambler essays:

"It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established; that he may neither violate essential principles by a desire of novelty, nor debar himself from the attainment of beauties within his view, by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact."

Or, in the modern argot: Stuff the genre!

gargamelhatessmurfs said...

EC is a phony, not so much a genius as an idiot savant. And he doesn't break the rules nearly as often as his . And agitpropre is confusing the two comments:

gargamelhatessmurfs said...

EC is a phony, not so much a genius as an idiot savant. And he doesn't break the rules nearly as often as he shows a slavish dependence upon the rule while proving he can master every kind of musical style. And agitpropre is confusing the two comments:
the guy is talking about not trying to write pretentious "literary" lyrics in rock songs; and he invokes Johnson, not as an authority on genre, but because Johnson's comment on the metaphysicals resembles his own view of EC's songwriting.

What a lot of whining--I think EC's reputation is safe.

Thersites said...

I like Elvis Costello. But anti-Costello-ites may be pleased to learn that Shane MacGowan once stole all his booze during the Pogues's notorious first tour with them.

NYMary said...

Well, I'll stand up for early EC, and about half of Spike (would that an American artist had the balls to pen something as vicious as "Tramp The Dirt Down"!), but as ghs points out, his reputation is pretty safe anyway. But agitpropre makes a valuable point: 30 years is a long time to be in the public eye, and it would be frankly shocking if there weren't crap out there under his name. (Back to the Egg, anyone?)

I won't comment on the Johnson kafuffle, since I only ever knew enough about Johnson to get me the hell out of grad school. I thought he was quite good on Black Adder, if that helps.

What, no one wants to stand up for poor old Sting?

Fox said...

I'll take the plunge for our tantric Brit... lol, "Lady in Red" is one of the best cheesy makeout songs ever.

Come onnnn, you know it's true. ;)

miltontheband said...

Hey, agitpropre needs to read the whole interview.

I'm no fan of Samuel Johnson, and I do think EC is a talent. I went through a deep obsession with his music that, unfortunately, left me feeling rather empty--like there was nothing really there to sustain me. The Smiths, early R.E.M., The Kinks--all that stuff holds up. EC just doesn't for me--and I think it's because, as I say in the interview, he seems to try to dazzle you with his wit or his versatility. But I'm left feeling kind of used.

Kind of like when he released the Rhino reissues just a couple of years after the Rykodisc ones.

miltontheband said...

Oh, a couple more things:

Did Sting do "Lady In Red"? I thought that was Chris De Burgh.

And "Tramp The Dirt Down"--a gutsy, if overly didactic song--is a perfect example of what I'm saying: it features the great line "When England was the whore of the world Margaret was her madam" followed by the abysmal "and the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam." Ugghh. EC loses points for whipping out the rhyming dictionary.


NYMary said...

Ok, "black tar macadam" I'll give you...

watertiger said...

"Lady in Red" was Chris de Burgh.

Mind you, I only was able to type that after I'd stopped vomiting from the thought of that song.

Between that and "You Look Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton...I'd like to take both of them by their skulls and knock 'em together for writing such aurally offensive detritus.

refinnej said...

I will stand up for Sting and not just because he is, was, and always will be totally hot.

His music makes me feel good. It's the equivalent of a hot cup of tea when you finally get home on a cold, rainy November afternoon when people have been mean to you. I can relax to Sting.

Interesting though that while I have all Police albums except Zenyatta Mondatta (forgive please any spelling errors as I am desperately ill) I do not have any of his solo stuff. Not that I don't like it, because I do, but it's not the Police which I really love. (It's one of those pesky pre-teen connections that never really let go. I've got one to REM as well, but THEY are still around.) Maybe I don't have Sting's solo stuff because to me he will always be part of a trio...

anyhooo... I had a point, and I really don't remember what it was (see above) so I'm going to stop writing now.

Dave said...

miltontheband (hi!), I'm surprised that you seem to give morrissey (and, nymary might argue, ray davies) a free pass for the sort of "clever for clever's sake" lyrical drive you accuse EC of having. Johnson talk aside (I dunno that EC ever got all that metaphysical...your example in the interview isn't any loftier than a pun), if it's the self-consciousness that gets to you, the Smiths and the Kinks aren't the safest counter-examples -- and pardon my own lack of examples, I just wanted to be a part of the FITE. As far as artists completely devoid of this kind of lyrical posing are concerned, I'd go for ABBA or, more specifically, Agnetha Faltskog, who is amazing.

miltontheband said...

Sting is ABSOLUTELY my favorite bassist of all time. And he and Stewart are my favorite bass-drum duo of all time. And you know what? His song "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" is one of his best songs--totally free of pretentiousness and actually seems to have a heart and soul.

In my younger, more roguish days I actually seduced a girl by suggesting that I was the closest thing to Sting she was ever going to get--and it worked! ;-) Before you people jump all over me--I was like 19.

Again, my point has nothing to do about EC being metaphysical (that's just the group of poets Johnson was discussing)--it's the point about wordplay and surprising conceits. Sigh.

I can't think of a single instance where Morrissey or Ray Davies ever puts cleverness ahead of poignancy--unless it's in a song that's trying to be funny. They will not sacrifice emotional effect for cheap displays of wit--and often the complex layers of irony they both employ only serve to deepen the emotional effect. Davies in particular is more likely to disappoint with schlock or hokey sentimentalism.

Elvis often appears to build a whole song around one or two witty lines while the rest don't add up to anything. Or, even worse, he will destroy the emotional appeal of a song by pulling the rug out from under it. Even he has admitted that he fears getting too personal or too emotional in his songs. Even "Alison," a nearly flawless song, has that reprehensible jokey subtext that the speaker's "aim is true"--it's not sincerity he means; it's a silly joke about killing her. He deconstructs the whole song.

And then there's the more recent stuff where he's trying to sound sincere and heartfelt (Painted From Memory, North) but it just rings hollow.

agitpropre said...

miltontheband said...
Hey, agitpropre needs to read the whole interview.

Been there.

I'm no fan of Samuel Johnson
Fine; don't use him as an authority, then. Who ARE you a fan of?

and I do think EC is a talent.
Hmmm - a talented failure? Look, I was responding to what you said; you referred to Costello as being among "the ones who fail" and I thought that was silly.

And "Tramp The Dirt Down"--a gutsy, if overly didactic song
Didactic in what way? I think perhaps you are missing the context. Costello is expressing the absolute rage that those of us lefties with first hand, UK experience of the Thatcher years felt. It was a grotesque, shattering period. The UK is still recovering from the damage.

BTW tarmacadam is a term still in regular use in the North of England; the rhyme is not a 'reach' to English ears.

From the interview:
B: So are you more distanced/ironic?
DR: Well, yes—but I try to find greater truth that way...

No pretension here, then.

miltontheband said...

What's pretentious about using irony and distance? I mean truth of character--read the comment in context. I'm talking about creating different characters in songs rather than writing about my life. How can I do that without irony and distance? Geez.

And the "tarmacadam" rhyme is still awful, sorry. You're telling me that's not a forced rhyme? The future looks like black stuff--great imagery! It's otherwise a good song. Almost all political songs are didactic--what's the mystery? I just don't like didactic songs.

As for using Johnson as an authority: can't I compare a remark by someone I don't necessarily adore to an opinion I have? it's not really using him as an authority: it's more like, hey, I'm reading this so I can discuss it with my students, and this sounds a lot like the way I feel about EC. I read stuff and get ideas, so sue me.

And forgive me for implying that EC ALWAYS fails. But he does often fail, thus "the ones who fail..."; and I did say "in this regard," which means pertaining to this particular issue.

And don't call me pretentious: I have credentials; I'm not pretending to anything. I teach and write about literature for a living--and I love it. It would be phony for me not to talk about that stuff. Perhaps you could say I'm pompous... ;-)

Dave said...

I can't keep up with this! But fwiw...

RE: EC v. Moz, I still think the line between cleverness and poignancy isn't as clear-cut as you suggest...by your definition, is "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" funny or poignant? Is Moz commenting on adolescent misery (funny) or indulging in it (not funny)? Or to go back to your EC quote, is "Party Girl" really THAT sincere that "grip-like vice" somehow undermines its poignancy?

Re: "Alison," I think "my aim is true" is more complex (and honest) than you're suggesting. He did name the album after that line, suggesting it's more than a "silly" murder gag in context. Like Moz, he's using (arguably) sophisticated black humor to filter a more juvenile form of anger.

The real crime in "Alison" is the line about "loving somebody/ I only know it isn't mine." Bad form.

miltontheband said...

This is becoming a drag. It's all more complicated than any of us are able to put into hastily typed out words.

I think "Party Girl" has a great line that is way better than any of the other lines in the song. I didn't mean for that to be an example of the poignancy thing (that was part of my point about Moz and Davies). That song is pretty satirical, but when you try to put it all together it seems to have only that one really great line; the rest of the song is kind of blah and some lines are nonsensical. But let's not explicate each line. The bass in it is awesome, though.

I don't think "There Is A Light" is a song in which Morrissey is trying to be particularly clever--not necessarily the same as being funny. I think he's playing with that miserable Morrissey persona that is absurd and endearing at the same time (for some of us at least). I think the song is funny and poignant at the same time. My point is that it doesn't have one or two lines of brilliance that seem incongruous with the rest of the song.

I don't know: I wish "Alison" were the song most people assume it is. That whole second bit about "I think somebody better put out the big light...." Okay, it's a murder fantasy dressed up in faux-sympathy for her wasted life. It is like black humor--a kind of twisted "Still Crazy After All These Years" meeting-your-former-lover song. But I look at it now and it just seems like a cheap gag. I'd take the first verse over the second any day.

miltontheband said...

P.S. Please go buy our record, so we can make another one.


EVE said...

Milton said: "In my younger, more roguish days I actually seduced a girl by suggesting that I was the closest thing to Sting she was ever going to get--and it worked! ;-) Before you people jump all over me--I was like 19."

I'm sure lots want to jump all over you! lucky girl ;-)

Thersites said...

Shane MacGowan is of course a far better songwriter and lyricist than Morrisey. That really can't be argued.

refinnej said...

"Shane MacGowan is of course a far better songwriter and lyricist than Morrisey. That really can't be argued."

This is true.

Is S McG still alive?

watertiger said...

"Shane MacGowan is of course a far better songwriter and lyricist than Morrisey. That really can't be argued."

Yeah, but Morrissey has better teeth.

then again, a woodchuck has better teeth.

agitpropre said...

miltontheband said:
It's all more complicated than any of us are able to put into hastily typed out words.

Indeed. And I am more cranky these days than I should be. Even so -

What's pretentious about using irony and distance?
Nothing. It was the notion of "greater truth" that I considered pretentious.

And the "tarmacadam" rhyme is still awful, sorry. You're telling me that's not a forced rhyme? The future looks like black stuff--great imagery!
The line is "And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam" - that would be some of that irony which you profess to employ yourself.

Almost all political songs are didactic--what's the mystery?
If I may, you said "overly-didactic" and I asked "in what way?". I agree that for a song to be considered "political" it, almost inevitably, must be didactic. But the strength of that particular song, for me at least, is that it precisely captured the way many of us at the time (and even now!) felt.

I read stuff and get ideas, so sue me.
In THIS country? I don't need to; Bush plans to make it a criminal offence.

Perhaps you could say I'm pompous... ;-)
I might - but that would provoke a pot/kettle pigmentation comparison which I would prefer to avoid.

refinnej said...

"Yeah, but Morrissey has better teeth."

This is true... Does S McG even HAVE teeth? Or is it just the one?

Assuming, of course, that he's still alive..

Olaf glad and big said...

i've always thought that sting, at least post-police sting, was too ambitious for pop, but too lame for jazz.