I’M GOING TO heaven. And not only is it going to rock, I deserve to be there. From my stint in the Peace Corps to certain heroic measures saving stray dogs, God will no doubt giddily welcome me into his brass kingdom. Although possibly not before a stern lecture about slagging other people’s favorite bands. In my defense, should I choose to argue with His Wrathful Omniscience, having to deliver three thousand words on something besides Tom Cruise every Wednesday is a Job-level affliction.
Last week I read a widely-praised debut novel numerous people recommended. I had to force myself to finish. In fact, I would go so far as to say I hated it. But there’s no way I would ever criticize the book or its author in public. Even unsatisfying prose seems too intimate to blithely demean. Bearing down between the stirrups and delivering a novel to the tiny percentage of the populace that continues to read is a small miracle. I stopped doing book reviews, despite the huge fees being offered, for the very same reason. Who am I to pass judgment on such an agonizing and vulnerable experience? And yet I feel perfectly comfortable making rude, metaphor-larded comments about bands that irritate me. Why is one justified and not the other? Possibly because I’m often forced to listen to music I don’t like, either in Camrys or airport lounges or on the radio, whereas no one has forced me to read a book since The Great Gatsby in eighth grade (sucked, btw.) Also, when I was sixteen I bought a guitar and two days later was in a band. We were terrible, but with a drunk enough A&R tool and some tighter dance moves, we probably still could have scored a multi-album deal. By fronting three chords, rudimentary harmony, and the right footwear, almost any band can stumble upon a fairly listenable mix. On the other hand, it took me twenty years of arduous and soul-killing practice to learn to talk smack about the Beach Boys.
So essentially I’m mad I was duped into a career that will never allow me to decide which color M&Ms to exclude from my rider.
Disliking a band should not be confused with personal animus. I’d be happy to grab a taco with Eddie Vedder and just sit on the sidewalk talking about how hard it is to find a good nanny. He’s probably a cool guy. There are no doubt dozens of bands we could rattle off that we both admire. But I still don’t want to hear another note of his music, ever again, for the rest of my life. If he’s good with that, a couple’s dinner could be on the horizon. On the other hand, if he said he hated every article I’d ever written, and couldn’t stand to read another sentence until his goatee fell out, it’d be harder for me to accept. Which is totally hypocritical and unfair, but seems to be part of the unwritten contract we’ve all consented to. Bands are fair game. In comparison, the other arts are almost coddled. The reasons for this are manifold, including the fact that almost all of us think we know the difference between “good” and “bad” music, even if the only band we’ve ever heard of spells deaf like Def and leopard like Leppard, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will bore you to the marrow with opinions about Impressionism or Renaissance perspective if they’ve never even been to a museum. Also, most bands rarely change, even incrementally. They establish a sound and a style and then proceed to beat it to death until even die hard fans won’t rush the stage anymore. But the other arts seem to have a greater capacity for evolution. The ditzy paralegal in your local workshop will turn out shitty stories for years, and then one day inexplicably start producing astonishing and insightful work, but your ex-boyfriend with the thousand-dollar Martin almost never really learns to play that Rage Against the Machine riff, let alone come up with a listenable song of his own.
Which isn’t to say that great music is any easier to produce or less transformative than work in other mediums, just that the divergence between what’s considered “great” and what’s relegated as “unlistenable shit” is so much more random and insanely personal. Not to mention impossible to defend. Besides, any band that has enjoyed the radio saturation required to become a sonic earwig in the first place has by definition made a shit-ton of money, which should inure them from having to care about anything but cashing checks and sleeping with the cast members of Friends. I picture Adam Duritz, for instance, safely ensconced in a Scottish castle or Tokyo penthouse, hunkered down with stacks of cash and a kilo of whatever it takes to grin through even the most diabolical internet critique.
Even so, the idea that Billy Joel actually opened his laptop in the Glass House breakfast nook last week and read my comments about “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” makes me feel bad and want to give him a big hug. But I guess not enough to pretend to enjoy a single note of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, or even restrict myself, in a highly public forum, from saying that “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” may, in fact, be the most ridiculous song ever recorded. Strangely, in a stroke of almost divine provenance, just as I was writing that, R.E.M came blaring from the radio. It was the tune where Mike Stipe keeps singing “calling Jamaica” or “calling Chet Baker” or “calling the L.A. Lakers” over and over (and over) again. True to form, my wife shimmied her way through the kitchen, thoroughly enjoying every note, while I wanted to lob a cinder block at the receiver. How is it possible that something can give one person so much pleasure while simultaneously delivering so much pain? But hey, the point is that perception is relative. In the end, it may be true that my musical taste is all in my mouth, but as the awesome hair metal band Snatch once said, “If the party’s in your mouth, we’re comin’.”
So, to stave off suggestions that I’m too much of a coward to name the music I actually like and thereby subject it to the same rude scrutiny that Sting received last week, not to mention further speculation that I’m yet another callow indie darling who was paid way too much for an article almost any pop hack could have written (that part’s true), here’s my ten heaven bands:
1. Death Cab for Cutie
2. Neutral Milk Hotel
4. Belle and Sebastian
5. The Decemberists
6. Modest Mouse
7. Sigue Sigue Sputnik
8. Fleet Foxes
9. of Montreal
10. Vampire Weekend
Yeah, that’s a joke. Here’s the real list:**
1. The Clash
From any perch or perspective–hook, chorus, style, politics, melodics, aggression, humor, lyrics, simplicity, complexity, and sheer giddy thrash, the Clash does it all. They cleanse the palate, blast out the arteries, nuke the complacency, and force lazier assumptions into uncomfortable crevices. Is it actually possible for rockabilly, ska, and punk to brilliantly co-exist within a shell of Brit-squat poet loathing? Yes, it is. They didn’t always hit the mark, and fame-and-drugs fratricide eventually tore them apart, or at least forced them into marginal solo careers, but I didn’t wear a black sleeveless “The Clash is the only band that matters” T-shirt around for years with an unforgivable smirk, provoking disdain from grandmothers to bartenders alike, for nothing.
2. JJ Cale
The degree to which I love JJ Cale is unmeasurable, either by heart, head, or the Large Hadron Collider. His broken voice, near-indifferent delivery, and effortless roadside cool suffuses every lyric and lick. He’s the floor of a rye-soaked, brawl-ravaged, Tulsa dive personified. Except when he’s a cool breeze. Or a Dharma bum. Cale’s songs have been covered, copied, stolen, and abused by half the music business, including everyone from The Clap (“Cocaine”, “After Midnight”) to Captain Beefheart. About an hour after we arrive in Valhalla, me, JJ, and Bobby Kennedy will hit the poker room, playing five card stud for random souls and the next round of mead.
3. Miles Davis
I could have chosen to ascend with Roy Eldridge, Eric Dolphy, Johnny Hodges, Hank Mobley, Fats Navarro or any of a dozen other horn players I love and admire, but if only for the sheer volume of output and variety of style, it has to be Miles. He displayed more balls over five decades of playing than entire genres of other supposedly transgressive music combined. And I love it all. From the earliest straight bop through cool, modal, the quintets and the sextets, funk, electric, and avant. Miles was always onto the next thing before he got bored, while everyone else was just beginning to understand where he’d been. So why is he on a band list? Because vast swaths of his music absolutely kills rock. Pries it open, eats its marrow, steals its few worthwhile tricks, and then laughs a low, gravelly laugh.
When I need a dose of pure diesel crude, Slayer is usually my first choice. While there are plenty of other hilariously decadent metal bands that deliver the requisite wall of distortion like a claw hammer to the temple, most of them also saddle you with bat-head biting, hair that would embarrass Maria Conchita Alonso, numbingly dull chord progressions, unforgivable upper neck noodling, endless rouge, and nut-crimp vocals. Not Slayer. Few bands can match their unrelenting amphetamine squall. Hardly any even try. They make Metallica sound like Edie Brickell and the Band Therapist Bohemians. No matter what form God ultimately inhabits (Bastet? Minerva? Loki? Erzulie Dantor? Xenu?) I’m sort of assuming Paradise will skew toward the Citizens United crowd. In that case I’ll need something to scare the immortal shit out of the deity with. And that thing will almost certainly be a three-minute burst of frantic Slayer.
5. Billie Holiday
Although I made a promise to stick to rock, I am simply not going to heaven without Billie. If that’s a problem for the Elysian Guard, then I will take Lady Day’s hand and escort her to the down escalator. There hasn’t been a single time over the last thirty years that I wasn’t happy to be listening to Billie Holiday. I don’t think I can say that about any other musician or band, no matter how much I like them. Her voice is an aching, lilting, uncommonly supple and fearsome instrument. Her phrasing is nuanced and creatively unparalleled. There is more beauty in a few toss-off verses of her lamest standard than most singers can muster over an entire album. Let alone a career. In fact, Billie Holiday might actually be God herself, waiting up there for me with a vodka martini, seventy-two virgins, and a white gardenia.
6. The Minutemen
With apologies to Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, Meat Puppets, X, Johnny Thunders, the Stooges, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, and the Replacements, I have to hand this slot to the Minutemen. Not only were D. Boone’s lyrics hilarious, intricate, and politically challenging, his guitar chops continue to be hugely underrated. Preferring to eschew big meaty bar chords and a wall of distorted fuzz, he jammed econo, utilizing unusual song structure, sixteenth chords, jangly guitar lines, and a punk-jazz aesthetic that really was way more “punk” in the sense of doing whatever the hell you wanted to, despite what anyone else thought, than the scene that was busy tearing each other down for not having the right stickers on their leather jackets.
7. Jimi Hendrix
What would Electric Ladyland II have sounded like if Jimi hadn’t died while beginning to assemble the tracks for it? What new direction would he have chosen, already attempting to put Purple Haze as far behind himself as possible, ten years later? I guess I’ll find out when I rise through the cumulonimbus. Or maybe after achieving nirvana while rotting in the ground in a forty-dollar suit. And it will unquestionably be one of the best things about being dead, because I am absolutely certain that despite the mindblowing and incendiary playing already on record, Jimi was just getting started. No one else has ever been able to wrap soul, funk, jazz, blues, raw feedback, and southern-fried roadhouse skunk into such a singular style. His massive hands, thumb hooked over the neck and fretting bass notes while simultaneously picking out psych-boogie leads, not to mention his angular lefty style, make him arguably the most original rock guitar player of all time. Ever wonder why only gibbering fools and baked open mic devotees try to cover Hendrix tunes? Because it’s nearly impossible to reproduce his licks with even a tenth of the creativity, technical ability, and daunting rhythm that he did. See execrable versions by John Meyer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, PM Dawn, Phish, and Skid Row for damning conformation. (Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Little Wing” being a rare exclusion.) In order to kill off a century or two of eternal bliss, Jimi and I will play endless choruses of “Hear My Train a Comin'” on ivory acoustics, sitting cross-legged and callous-fingered, high above the murky Ganges.
8. The Meters
This is sort of cheating, since the Meters are funk, not to mention an essential component of the New Orleans sound, but I must have them. Besides, they rock hard as hell when they want to, and are pretty much what I subconsciously want most rock bands to sound like anyway. At least rhythm-wise. In other words throbbing, propulsive, intricate, life affirming, and ass-shakingly syncopated, doling out a lifetime’s worth of bad ass chops, riffs and second-line swing like it was just another Sunday in the parish. Instead of all the instruments following a simple prompt, the Meters each create their own brilliant lines, weaving in and out of rave ups, breakdowns, and vamps seamlessly. And Leo Nocentelli can play circles around even the most determined shredder while glossing his wingtips with the other hand. Besides, any ascension worth its salt will be dying to do a Cissy Strut through the lower atmosphere, ready to ride a mammoth groove straight on into the eternal.
9. David Bowie
I’m sort of astonished by this choice, and yet here I am making it. The hard truth is that any self-respecting list needs some Glam. I considered Roxy Music, T. Rex, Sweet, Sparks, Big Star and even the Soft Boys but it’s hard to argue with the longevity and variation of the Thin White Duke. Bowie started out as a straight-ahead hippie troubadour but as soon as he hit Manhattan almost instantly absorbed (stole? borrowed? transformed?) the downtown transvestite/art culture, not to mention the sound and attitude of the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground. He stepped into the bell-bottom closet, did a line of cheap crank, and emerged a spider from Mars. But that wasn’t enough. Flitting from plastic-horn soul to brilliant minimalism, from piano breakdowns to the Berlin albums, he consistently produced the most interesting and miscreant pop around. Collaborations with Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed were all occasionally fantastic (let’s just forget the brief tête à tête with Mick Jagger, shall we?) Sure, there’s enough tedious material putting out fire with gasoline to round out several other careers, but it’s mostly Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World that I’ll spin into sansara. Not to mention Low and Lodger. And, oh yeah, Station to Station. And Heroes. And Diamond Dogs. And Alladin Sane.
10. Syd Barrett
His work on the first two Pink Floyd albums are the only compelling reason to listen to Pink Floyd at all. Syd left the band in 1968 due to mounting instability and lysergic dissolution, but it’s because of his huddling pair of solo albums, Madcap Laughs and Barrett, that he appears here. This is broken music. Lost Thelonius. Way out on the coil. Completely untethered. But it’s also beautiful, transcendent, and truly childlike. The structureless quality of the songs, combined with improvised lyrics and jarring (but somehow perfect) rhythmic changes, tap into something elemental without making any effort to. These songs simply exist. It’s a sound bands have been laboring to achieve for half a century, but only Syd sounds like Syd. And only briefly did.
**A quick note on the impossibility of choosing only ten bands: I ignored behemoths like the Beatles or the Stones because even though I dig them, I’ve heard all their songs (including outtakes, rarities, etc.) a million times and don’t really want to keep doing so for eternity. “Me and My Monkey” or “Ventilator Blues” would be cool on any given Tuesday lying around on Corinthian leather pillows with St. Paul and Aaron Burr, but I never, ever want to hear “Start Me Up” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” again, even while alive. Also, just like the hell list, I confined myself to rock. The definition of what “rock” actually circumscribes would require an extremely lengthy article that would appease no one, but suffice it to say that I define it mainly as outside the realms of jazz, classical, Cajun, soul, funk, honkeytonk, afro beat, Batucada, Gamelan, and blues. (Sure, most rock is blues-based, but I’m talking of the difference between Skip James and Albert Collins, or the difference between what you might hear in a bar in 1940’s Natchez and what you’d be hearing right now in a $20 cover club on Beale Street.) Which is also why I otherwise chose not to consider Charlie Patton, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Doc Watson, James Brown, Sly Stone, Gilberto Gil, Ry Cooder, Son House, Roy Acuff, Gram Parsons, Slim Harpo, Lee Dorsey, Nina Simone, Fela, Al Green, Jimmy Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, Django Reinhardt, Larry Young, Bo Diddly, Jackie Mittoo, Sun Ra, and/or Elvis. In fact, if I were really standing at some heavenly deli counter with a number in my hand, waiting to place an order, I’d probably choose a pound and a half of thinly-sliced classical composers, because no matter how much I love Frank Zappa, I’m a lot more likely to get sick of Sheik Yerbouti by the time I sprout my first wings than I am to tire of the entire recorded output of Shostakovitch or Mozart.
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