here are three chapters in American Psycho—“Huey Lewis,” “Whitney Houston,” and “Genesis”—in which Patrick Bateman, the narrator, ruminates on three of his favorite musical acts. In the third such chapter, he writes:
I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I really didn’t understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference to band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career), I did enjoy the lovely “Follow You, Follow Me.”
By this point in the book, Bateman has already mutilated a homeless saxophone player, chopped a co-worker to death with a chainsaw, and served his girlfriend a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. But it was only upon reading the preceding paragraph that it really kicked in: “He thinks Phil Collins is better than Peter Gabriel?!?! Holy shit! That guy’s fucking nuts!”
This is clearly the author’s intent. By all accounts, Bret Easton Ellis is something of a music snob—Less Than Zero, of course, derives its title from the Elvis Costello song of that name—who in real life (one supposes) would not hold with Bateman’s assessment of the horn-heavy Collins hit “Sussudio”: “great, great song; a personal favorite.”
That Peter Gabriel is “better” than Phil Collins, artistically if not commercially, is axiomatic. You won’t find many serious music listeners who disagree with that statement. The question is: why?
After all, Gabriel and Collins, as Ellis (and Bateman) point out, began in the same band, Genesis. Their sensibilities are akin. They dig African-style drums. They lean towards progressive rock, rather than the straight-ahead, I-IV-V variety. They are both gifted songwriters, able to craft sweet, catchy melodies. Even their voices are similar.
And yet there is something about Peter Gabriel, a certain ineffable quality, that Phil Collins lacks. I don’t know how to define it, I can’t break it down and tell you what it is, but it’s there. I mean, I can feel it coming in the air tonight. An added dimensionality, a depth of emotion, a more visceral expressiveness. Call it depth, call it gravitas. Call it…an invisible touch.
And it’s not the songs themselves. If Collins were to record Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” it would be cheesy as hell, and if Gabriel took on “Against All Odds,” it would be one of the better sad songs going.
No, it’s something inherent in the men. Gabriel has the shine; Collins doesn’t. If I listen to Peter Gabriel for too long, I get tired of the songs. If I surfeit on Collins—which happened recently, as I purchased his greatest hits CD at a yard sale for $1, and the kids made me play “Take Me Home” (which I like; hey, I bought the album, OK?) over and over and over again—it makes me physically ill.
Another example of the Gabriel/Collins dialectic: Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Imagine the Boss covering “Innocent Man.” Pretty good, right? But Joel doing “Thunder Road” would invoke the wrath of the gods. Frogs would fall upon his Baldwin, the moon would turn blood red, the Whore of Babylon would reveal herself to be Christie Brinkley.
But why? “Innocent Man” has a stronger melody line than “Thunder Road.” The lyrics aren’t that inferior. And Joel is a better piano player than Springsteen. So it’s not the songs; it’s something in the artists themselves. Bruce has a je ne sais quoi that Billy lacks.
It’s a quality some artists just have, naturally.
I caught an episode of Weeds awhile back—a maddeningly inconsistent show—and in one scene, where Mary Louise Parker is supposed to be sad, they play the Sufjan Stevens song “Holland.” I’d never heard it before—I only had the Illinoise album, not the Michigan one—but the song was so powerful, so evocative, so damned good, that it pulled me out of the scene. I no longer cared about Parker’s problems—Sufjan had upstaged her, with a few short bars of music.
This duality is true of other art forms as well. Take the world of letters. The Wizard of Earthsea series is Peter Gabriel to the Phil Collins that is the Harry Potter franchise. Ursula LeGuin possesses a kind of magic that all the wand-wavers of Hogwarts could not bestow upon J.K. Rowling, however more commercially successful she might be. Next to the former, the latter is a literary muggle (note: if you disagree, I direct your attention to “comments” section below…and don’t let the door hit you in the Snape).
In On Writing, Stephen King discusses his struggles with alcoholism. This is heavy stuff, heartbreaking really, and obviously personal for him. But there is a disposable quality to the writing. It comes off breezy and shallow, like a sequel to Dolores Claiborne. It lacks power. I’m not sure why. He’s not a bad writer, and the topic is engaging enough. But for all his prodigious book sales, King just doesn’t have the…well, the shining.
(Which brings up another point. The Shining, the novel, does not have the eponymous shining—but the film does. Why? Because Stanley Kubrick radiates the quality of which I speak. The material is exactly the same, and yet Kubrick has made high art out of a mass-market horror book.)
There has been much debate over Dan Brown’s novel ever since it was published, in 2003, but no question has been more contentious than this: if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” With that one word, “renowned,” Brown proves that he hails from the school of elbow-joggers—nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require. (Buried far below this tic is an author’s fear that his command of basic, unadorned English will not do the job; in the case of Brown, he’s right.) You could dismiss that first stumble as a blip, but consider this, discovered on a random skim through the book: “Prominent New York editor Jonas Faukman tugged nervously at his goatee.” What is more, he does so over “a half-eaten power lunch,” one of the saddest phrases I have ever heard.
Indeed, when I read Brown’s book—and it was a struggle—I felt physically ill afterward, as I did after watching Independence Day, or listening to “Take Me Home” for the tenth time in a row. I felt violated. Call it the Phil Collins effect. (And call me a snob, while you’re at it. Just remember that I’m the snob who wrote a piece extolling the virtues of Billy Joel).
Contrast this to, say, the opening two lines of Great Jones Street, the underrated masterpiece by Don DeLillo about the lost rock star Bucky Wunderlick:
Fame requires every kid of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings.
Now, that, Mr. Brown, is how you use the word renown.
With acting, there are so many examples, but for the sake of space, try this exercise: watch Almost Famous. Now, imagine how much better the film would have been with Sarah Polley (the original choice, who pulled out of the project) rather than Kate Hudson as Penny Lane.
Fine art offers perhaps the best example, as our own Lance Reynald can attest: Andy Warhol making art out of soup-can labels.
So what is the secret? My theory is that on some level, with art in general but with music particularly, composers are not authors as much as vessels, vehicles through which the soundtrack of the universe is transmitted. Some melody lines, to my ears, sound so primal, they simply can’t be new.
“Tom’s Diner,” for example. That aching, haunting melody—does it not sound older than Earth itself?—was not written by Suzanne Vega as much as it was discovered by her, as Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.
Bollocks, you say (if you’re James Irwin and you’re British). That’s a lot of New Age claptrap.
Perhaps. But consider:
Keith Richards drinks a bottle of whiskey, blacks out, wakes up the next morning in the recording studio, hits play, and finds the riff to “Satisfaction,” which he had composed during his drunken stupor.
Paul McCartney wakes up with the melody of “Yesterday,” completely intact, in his head. This is the most-played radio song of all time—and it came to him in a fucking dream.
And Ludwig van Beethoven composes his Ninth Symphony, easily one of the grandest pieces of music ever, after he has gone deaf. He’s deaf—deaf!—and he cranks out the Ode to Joy. How is that even possible?
I wish I could come up with a name for this quality, this element of artistry, this depth of expression. But I can’t locate the mot juste.
I will, however, submit a term for the opposite of the high-art shine. The anti-Peter Gabriel, the converse of all that is timeless about art. That word is this:
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Postscript: No (Book) Jacket Required
This is not to suggest that I possess the Peter Gabriel quality in spades, or that my novel, Totally Killer, is some sort of literary Ninth Symphony. There is plenty of Phil Collins in Greg Olear—although probably not enough to sell ten million copies of my book, as he did with No Jacket Required. But one can hope.
Speaking of TK, please watch and share this book trailer—written by moi; with music by my wife; produced, directed, edited, and improved by TNB’s own Kimberly M. Wetherell. (The “M” stands for marvelous).
116 Original Comments:
Marni, my dear, you flatter me.
Re: the comments, I need 260 more to catch Mr. Haney, who is clearly the Duke of Surfeit.
I heard the same thing about Phil Collins…story I heard was he was drunk and ranting at some Australian awards show he was hosting…but Snopes (I just checked) has disproved this:
Mel Gibson, on the other hand…