Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, January 20, 2005


Rock and roll has always been a gerrymandered catchall term.  Which is why tracing its history is so vexed.   

Did very many ‘60s soul musicians figure that they were working the same turf as Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash?  Hip hop artists trace their lineage to George Clinton and James Brown and reggae; some say Chicago blues; maybe some say gospel, I don’t know.  Country has nothing to do with any version of their story that I’ve seen, and I can’t see how they’re wrong.

Thing is, lotsa rock bands today don’t trace their lineage any back farther than the Byrds or the Beatles; or, for a different stripe of band, the Dead Kennedys, who were serious rhythmic innovators (and wild showmen – I saw them once).  Ten or 11 years ago I jammed with a local drummer who’d been on tour with a punk band that had an album out on the small local label C/Z.  I was trying to describe the feel I wanted for a song – “you know, ‘70s New York punk, a Patti Smith – Television type thing.”  The guy had never heard of Patti Smith or Television.  He was in his mid 20s, really nice guy, not a bad drummer, a touring punk rock pro.  And he had no clue about his stylistic lineage -- not even the punk rock part of it!

This blithe ignorance to art history – it doesn’t occur in jazz.  I heard a silky shantoozy singing somebody’s words to Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now” on the radio today. And the lazy sultry beat really had no more to do with King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band -- or Monk’s idol James P. Johnson -- than the Dead Kennedys have to do with Carl Perkins; and yet no jazz player that I’ve heard of is anything other than reverential to (at least most of) the jazz past.

Can you imagine a non-relationship to the genre’s past in classical?  “Oh, I compose choral music, I’m really into melody and counter-melody and really dense harmonies.  Palestrina? Handel?  Faure?  Never heard of them.”

Interestingly, there’s a parallel today in slam poetry -- the first poetry movement where a significant percentage of the practitioners have no conscious relationship to past poetry.  It’s not a question of hostility, there’s no Oedipal thing going on.  From what I can tell as a fairly interested outsider, it’s just pure liberated here-and-now indifference.  I can’t personally relate, but a significant part of me admires the focus, the blithe and healthy freedom to make the art with no worries about art-historical originality, the devotion to the flow.

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