Listening #68

Snobbery is a disease of the imagination.—Peter Straub, "Little Red's Tango"

When my wife was in college, years before I met her, she and a girlfriend spent a holiday together in Greece, whiling away their hours on the bone-white beaches of Ios. One afternoon she saw among the revelers a man with a pale complexion and a black Saville Row suit: obviously an Englishman. She wondered why anyone would forsake a tan on the world's most beautiful beach, and he wondered why an attractive American twentysomething would care. Thus began Janet's—and, ultimately, my—lifelong friendship with Phil Brett.

More than just a snappy dresser, Phil is a passionate music lover, having spent most of his waking life putting together a collection of very good pop and jazz singles, LPs, and CDs. He's an inveterate letter writer, too, and remains so in our middle ages. For years, Phil and I have shared a slow but continual stream of observations on our politics, our families, our loves—and, above all, our music. As record lovers go, Phil Brett is more than just ardent: He's articulate. And while he and I don't always see eye to eye—I have no patience with early-'80s English ska, he has no taste for late-'60s jangle—Phil is better than anyone I know at making the case for Jimmy Smith as the greatest keyboardist of all time, or Aretha Franklin as the best singer of all time, or Led Zeppelin as...well, quite simply, the dreariest.

Or so I used to think, a long time ago.

Far be it from me to deny the importance of juvenile fancy in determining one's early music preferences—in my case, the eternal struggle between Batman and Superman morphed easily into that between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (footnote 1)—but the fact is, my youthful dislike for Led Zep had nothing to do with choosing one camp over another, and everything to do with the fact that electric blues music, in anything larger than small doses, tended to put me off.

Neither would I hesitate to admit that the 16-year-old me was an intellectual snob. After I'd discovered Dylan, I was embarrassed to let anyone see that my tiny record collection also contained The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion, and Peter, Paul & Mary's A Song Will Rise.

Even worse, I started reading record reviews.

I read them in Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and, especially, Stereo Review. Steve Simels, who wrote about pop music for SR, gained my trust by loving the Kinks and Procol Harum, and evidently sharing my disdain for all things My baby done me wrong. Sadly—shamefully, really—when Simels went on to embarrass himself and SR with his hysterical loathing of David Bowie and all things My baby doesn't know if she's a boy or a girl, I missed the opportunity to pause and take stock. Had I done so, I might not have fallen so far behind the curve in realizing that even the most well-informed critics are not only fallible but potentially foolish, and thus spared myself a few years of relative joylessness.

Onward I trudged, buying what I was advised to buy, avoiding what I was told to avoid. In all fairness, the critics of the day got it right more than half of the time: They thought I might enjoy Roxy Music's Stranded, T. Rex's Electric Warrior, John Cale's Paris 1919, and Kate Bush's The Kick Inside, and they were right on every count. And while I didn't need them or anyone else to tell me that Boston, Journey, and R.E.O. Speedwagon were little more than glorified bar bands of the most formulaic and tiresome sort, it was nonetheless fun to read about their new records, too, and to revel in the simple pleasures of a good bad review. (It's a pity there wasn't a single heavy-metal band with enough self-awareness to name itself Schadenfreude—although the often-recommendable Blue Öyster Cult partly redeemed the genre with their own sense of humor.)

But: Was Tonio K's Life in the Foodchain really "the greatest album ever recorded" (Stereo Review)? Was Lou Reed's Berlin "an artistic masterpiece" (Rolling Stone)? Does anyone outside of the LGBT community and a handful of moldering hepcats really believe that Susan "Phranc" Gottlieb's Folksinger, quite possibly the most unintentionally funny record in the history of the recorded arts, deserves an A (from The Village Voice)? Respectively, the answers are: 1) "Incredibly far from it," 2) "Titanically, unbelievably, laughably far from it," and 3) "Gosh, no."

And that's the problem, friends and neighbors: Sometimes Phil Brett and I and a half-million other people play at being rock critics, rather than just buying and enjoying what we want. With Jodie Foster now in semi-retirement, we apparently need someone else to impress with our own senseless acts of obeisance. Sadly, we have set our sights on a small fraternity of unathletic men with severe acne scarring. I mean, my God, why else would anyone flip their wig over Patti Smith's Horses, or the Feelies' The Good Earth, or Throwing Muses' The Fat Skier, or anything at all by Yo La Tengo?

Rhythmic admiration
Or, for that matter, why would anyone in their right mind buy Elvis Costello's The Juliet Letters? It isn't the worst pop album I've ever heard (that would probably be The Fat Skier), and it isn't even Costello's own worst (that would probably be Goodbye, Cruel World). The Juliet Letters is listenable, and mildly interesting. It's the concept of that album that stinks up the house—the very idea of a pop musician who would be so bored with himself as to make such a thing.

How did that album escape the critical mauling it deserved? (According to Rolling Stone, The Juliet Letters was "Another bold step in a new direction.") For an answer, we must turn to that sage observer of the rock'n'roll scene, David Lee Roth: "The reason why most rock critics like Elvis Costello is that most rock critics look like Elvis Costello."

That's a funny line, and I'm sure it coaxes Coors Light through the nostrils of a half-dozen Hooters patrons every time it's repeated. But there's one little problem: David Lee Roth is a board-certified horse's ass whose only talents appear to be gymnastics, yelping, and self-promotion. No one over the mental age of 12 could possibly care what he has to say about music. Even his own fans seem to know he's a dickweed.

Elvis Costello, on the other hand, is clearly not a dickweed, regardless of one's opinion of his music—some of which I think is sublime. But that's a problem, too: Elvis Costello, being an intelligent record lover, is also in the habit of playing rock critic. Some examples:

"You read good reviews of Robert Plant records. It's a load of old rubbish! He must know that, it's written all over his face. He's trotting it out because people are gullible enough to have swallowed the myth and it's like eating somebody else's half-sucked Polo Mint."

"I am really grossly offended by Led Zeppelin."

Yikes: Sounds like someone has a Zeppelin-shaped bug up his ass. And I should know, since I had one of my own for the longest time. But I finally got it out, and I'm glad I did, because now I can appreciate Led Zeppelin for what they were: a great rock band whose recorded legacy reflects a surprisingly healthy ratio of gems to stinkers—higher than that of, say, the Band. Or the Clash. Or, dare I say, Deke MacManus himself.

Yes, Elvis Costello has made some wonderful recordings. "Couldn't Call it Unexpected No.4" never fails to make me cry, along with "I'll Wear It Proudly" and "Little Palaces." I can't hear "Every Day I Write the Book" without smiling. "I Want You" is one of the most inspired live-in-the-studio rock performances on record. I cannot, at this moment in time, name a better single than "Veronica." And "Stranger in the House" is simply the finest honky-tonk song to come from a place other than America.

Footnote 1: For Eduard Hanslick and George Bernard Shaw, it was Wagner vs Brahms, I suppose.