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

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The EMP Pop Conference is back in town, and while various circumstances are keeping me away from most of it, I caught Jonathan Lethem’s keynote address and the after-party Thursday night. If you’ve never tramped into a swank hotel restaurant with 30 self-consciously scruffy rock critics -- well, the incongruity was hilarious in itself, and the self-consciousness with which we all got to indulge our fantasies of anti-nomianism had its comic element as well.

We couldn’t add a chair. The table had six chairs and that was that -- no squeezing allowed, the maitre d
was very firm. So my friend and his friend got up because I got to the table too late to join them and my friend knew I barely knew anybody else among the 30. We repaired to a corner booth with another writer (whose book I happen to be reading and enjoying).

The menu! Put it this way: The prices were such that my beloved spouse and I might go there once a year, on our anniversary. Some at our table were hungry but none of us felt flush enough to order anything more than a $10 salad -- and maybe a drink. Our table of four: One had a drink and no salad, one had a salad and no drink, and two of us had a drink and a salad. Because we were at a booth we were allowed to squeeze in another diner, and so a friend whom we had abandoned at the earlier overcrowded table squeezed in, planning to table hop. But our friend returned to his main table before the waiter took our order. “Was it something I said?” he joked.

But it was no joking matter. When we ordered salads -- and nothing else -- the waiter openly scoffed at us. “No dinners? No appetizers? Huh!” It was just about the funniest thing I ever saw a waiter do.

Right as our salads were arriving -- delivered not by the scoffer but by a server we had not yet met -- a conference ringleader recruited us to abandon our table and go to the bar. “If we see the waiter I’ll tell him it was something he said.” The maitre d’s eyes popped out as she saw the server follow us to the bar, carrying our three salads. We were out of control!

The salads were delicious (we were at the Edgewater Hotel, if you’re interested), and the conversation was real. Talk about adoption and fertility and family and money, talk about music, talk about the weather, talk about work, talk about music some more.

As we were getting ready to leave, we learned that two or three other tables among our mass had picked up our table’s bill, because in the confusion the maitre d’ or the waiter could not find us. Embarrassing! Oh well -- saved twenty bucks, I guess. Thanks, other tables!

The keynote speech? It definitely had its points. Jonathan Lethem, acclaimed novelist, occasional essayist, music fan, genuinely nice guy. (He was one of the people who bought me a salad.) Elegant writer whose elegance, at least when he’s reciting, sometimes veers into mannerism -- he began reading as if it were a poetry reading, each syllable delicate. It probably wouldn't come off mannered on the page, but simply smoothly, and the poetry-reading tone faded as the talk developed. Personal writer, engaging. And illuminating.

Not about music, and not so much about musical culture, but indirectly about the culture of the consumption of writing. His personal, elegant essays are more likely to last than much more acutely perceptive, though less personal and less elegantly turned-out, essays about music by others. There are no truths in culture, so the conversation about it that lasts, lasts because of its style. So it didn’t matter that I took fundamental exception with some of what Lethem was talking about -- he said it stylishly.

I will say this, though. He may deny it, and other writers may too, but there is a widespread tendency among music writers to condescend to musicians. Music writers get by on their abilities to perceive and comprehend things, and articulate their perceptions and understandings, and then here comes music which is extremely difficult to understand beyond some basic reactions. I suspect that maybe music writers get nervous about their lack of understanding in the face of something that can seemingly haul their souls out of their bodies and fling them around the sky like a cosmic lasso. And in their nervousness, they seek to put music -- and, even more, musicians -- in their place; they joke, they belittle, they condescend. I’m generalizing, and maybe I'm overstating the tendency, but, especially in rock writing, I’ve seen it over and over and over again. (Shades of Dave Clark Five!) And, the pity of it is, not understanding music is no cause for shame, because music, make no mistake, is something that not even technically trained musicians understand very well. Sure, I can tell you that the ReBirth Brass Band’s strategic deployment of polyrhythm acts as a tension-and-release coiling and exploding of emotional energy, but I can’t really tell you how it is that that technique is so effective, and I can’t tell you how a melody works. “The secret of a great melody is a secret.” My view is -- we should exult that such secrets live among us. Lethem exulted, but . . . he also joked in a belittling way. During the Q & A afterwards, someone criticized Lethem for this, and the discussion was very uncomfortable. I agreed with the questioner.

When I spoke with Jonathan after the talk -- it turns out that he’s a friendly acquaintance of a friend, and a genuinely friendly person -- I didn’t bring it up. The evening was lovely, and why critique someone who was only trying to do his best, and besides, he had heard it already. (And I do feel a slight compunction about bringing it up now; interesting reflection of the impersonality of writing versus the intimacy and the hope for mutuality with face-to-face conversation.) I told him what I especially dug about his talk.

He had a long riff about the mythical 5th Beatle, and how the 5th Beatle is . . . you. And . . . it sent my mind to revery.

Growing up I shared a room with my brother. We had the Beatles’ “White Album,” and we hung the four poster-portraits of the Fabs on our bulletin board, and in the middle of the Four, between Paul & George, we posted a picture of our dad, in his tie, at his office -- our Fifth Beatle: John, Paul, Mike, George & Ringo. Dad really disliked the Beatles, so maybe there was a tiny element of mockery, and certainly a large dollop of goofiness, but mostly it was a token of our esteem. As far as we were concerned, our fairly square dad was cooler than any rock star -- something I believe to this day.

There was more about the talk that I liked -- Lethem's personal reflections of teen-age fan-dom were really engaging -- but the 5th Beatle talk was what really sparked me. But first there a crowd who wanted to congratulate him, and then the moment had passed, so all I said was, “I really vibed on your 5th Beatle riff.” He smiled and said, “Thanks.”

* * *

The reaction to the speech was fair-to-middling -- it was a tough crowd. But Robert Christgau and his wife Carola Dibbell and his good friend Tom Smucker gave Lethem a Standing O. And this probably isn’t the only reason why, but Lethem, in his talk, at one point quoted someone he identified only as “a great man.” I recognized the quote, but couldn’t place it, and tonight at a party I confirmed with an acquaintance who’s a friend of Christgau’s that what I suspected was correct: Lethem’s “great man” is Christgau. It was a sweet gesture, and, heck, if someone called me or my spouse “great” I might give them a Standing O too.

* * *

My beloved spouse is out-of-town, visiting an ailing 77-year-old cousin with her sister, so it was me & the kid at the post-EMP party tonight. When Robert Christgau arrived, I was holding the 4-year-old, and Christgau took my son
s hand and shook it and made a sweet goofy face and got a smile out of my son, and I should have introduced myself and my son, because I had met Christgau briefly before and weve corresponded a few times, and I really like his writing -- his was the one panel I tried to catch, the kid in tow, but we got there just as he was receiving his ovation this morning -- but I couldn’t decide whether to introduce him as Bob, which is what he goes by, or Robert, because we’ve never really been introduced and that’s what his byline says -- and then Christgau was gone, talking to a friend. Ah well. Would have loved to have stayed at the party, but it was pumpkin time, and there were no other kids, and so it was time to go.

* * *

Wish I could have caught more of the conference, and the two papers on Christgau's panel that I did hear, by Daphne Brooks and Tim Quirk, were both first-rate magazine articles, but, for me, something was missing. I'm in a weird frame of mind lately about music writing. I'm sick of mere opinion stated pontifically, and there's a lot of that in music writing, whether rock, jazz, classical, or whatever. Brooks and Quirk didn't do that, particularly, but I guess I just wanted more exultation in the mystery. Maybe the ubiquity of music has masked its mystery, like a drug to which our tolerance has grown, and I'm guilty of that too. Martin Medeski & Wood swinging a Coltrane tune on the iTunes as I type this as the kid sleeps -- they're terrific, Coltrane's tune is beguiling, Medeski's tone is distinctively sparkling, but for me right now it's just background music.

For more on the conference, Ali Marcus and the Seattle Times are blogging a lot of it, and I have no doubt that many of the participants will weigh in as well. I'll be interested in what others have to say.

* * *

Later thoughts, in which I recant my criticisms of Daphne Brooks and Tim Quirk.

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