Is we what Rock is?

Hi, bloggofans!  DK here.  Long time no speak.  Let me assure you that, having completed Madness and Morals, Louder Than Dirt has been busy rehearsing and working up new tunes for our next CD release.  And the thought crossed my mind that we, the band, should consider what direction we want the new record to take.  But I quickly suppressed the thought.  The idea of “direction” has always for me been a source of pain and suffering, fear and loathing, stress and anxiety.  But in the previous post the anonymous author (it was Joseph) confessed that Louder Than Dirt is in fact a rock band, and all the baggage that term implies.

Those skilled in reading between the lines will have discerned from these pages that I have been in the biz for a long time.  And I think back to a time when I wanted to “get signed by a major label” as they used to say.  (This was is the days before Louder Than Dirt, so, more than seven years ago.)  I used to get approval for my song writing.  The bands I was in would gain endorsement for their performances.  But I was always stymied by the question, “What do you see as your artistic [or more likely, commercial] direction.”  And perhaps I have just resolved the problem since, if I’m concerned about direction at all, I’m concerned about artistic and not commercial direction, a fact that has occasionally opened me to the charge of snobbery.  For example, a good friend once said, “You think you’re above promotional duties.  You think somebody should do that for you.”  Well, yes.  I made the decision a long time ago to take a day job to support my music habit, especially considering that the industry made it clear to me that my commercial potential was limited.  Since I make the time, in addition to my day job, to write songs and rehearse and play shows and make records, I really don’t have time to schmooze with promoter types.  More basically, I’m interested in (and therefore good at) the artistic and not the commercial side of things.  Now, if a show or a record or these pages happened to pique the interest of a promoter type, I would be delighted to engage in verbal interaction—that’s my third favorite activity.  But the time and interest I can afford to reserve for hunting and fishing is limited indeed.

Is commercial success always the result of commercial direction?  Well, all I can say is that as a classicist, I emulate the great masters, all of whom have been practitioners more of an artistic evolution than of the establishment of a commercially reliable but static style.  And yet, one could not fail to identify a record by the Beatles or Hendrix or Dylan or the Stones.  I’m dying to digress on each of these cases: how, for example, at the time of his death Hendrix was embarking upon a fascinating artistic analysis of the situation of an African-American performer most successful among white audiences and how after his death Hendrix was lionized by black artists, notably, the Isley Brothers and Miles Davis.  Or how Dylan, after a decade and a half of stagnation, accomplished a heroic late flowering.  The fact that all of these artists found their initial success during the turbulent and risk-permitting 1960’s is surely significant.  Of course, moreover, they all sought commercial success and strategized for it.  On the other hand, they were assisted in each case by handlers not only highly talented in the art of promotion but also concerned to protect and indeed to encourage the artistic development of their charges.  I rather think that only a mediocre artists’ manager would pressure the artist to a John Grisham- or KISS-like predictability.  The fact that geniuses like Dylan and Hendrix create identifiable styles for themselves is attributable not only to their immense creative intelligence but also their personal integrity and their participation in, and indeed mastery of and extension beyond, a cultural tradition.

But if commercial direction is not a compelling motivation, is artistic direction?  Should an artist specialize in a particular manner?  I’m reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon: many identical paintings are displayed in a gallery; one visitor says to another, “You gotta wonder what he would have accomplished if he had lived.”  The artist who would deliberately limit his style is really rather ridiculous.  My motto, as I have declaimed many times in these pages, is Truth to imagination.  If somebody were to tell me that I should stick to my strengths, say ballads or blues or straight-ahead rockers (I obviously don’t know what my strengths are), I wouldn’t know how to proceed.  I would grieve for the inspirations that I had murdered in the cradle.  It is true that as one ages he relies more and more upon method, but I truly feel for myself that it is a matter of adding more method to inspiration, not using method more and inspiration less.  As if method could compensate for a decline in inspiration.  Inspiration or imaginative ideas or whatever you like to call it is too precious to let go by.  Moreover, nothing is so stifling to imagination as disuse and neglect.  Many times I have had a great brainstorm for a song and ended up writing two or three, precisely because the idea was too capacious to compress into one style, one form.  On the other hand, and this is a big other hand, I pretty much exclusively write songs for a rock combo, and that means Louder Than Dirt.  So I must be honest and say that I write and perform rock music.  But what is rock?

This is a seriously difficult to answer question.  One would have to come up with a definition that would incorporate not only the incredibly diverse achievements of the Great Masters, but also all future achievements.  And no doubt rock has developed, and will develop in the future (if it’s not dead), in unexpected directions and borrow from unexpected sources.  For example, rock was totally comfortable with assimilating elements of reggae.  Calypso—not so much.  Nevertheless, one should be able to distinguish its general contours.  So one might start with what it’s not.  It’s not a genre.  The word genre aptly applies to distinguish drama and fiction.  They’re both literature (art made out of language), but their structural features are so profoundly different, one performed by actors for a mass audience, the other read in silence by an individual alone, that they deserve to be called different kinds, or genres, of literature.  (I don’t think genre is the right word to distinguish film noir from movie musicals.)  I would say that classical music is a genre, but beyond that I don’t think the word is particularly useful.  Really I think the question comes down to what do “Maybelline” and “Kashmir” have in common?  And then we start breaking it down.  What do “Maybelline” and “Kashmir” have in common?—They’re both wicked cool, and if you can’t hear it, maybe you should turn up the Loudness.

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