So here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure Joe Daly is a nice guy. I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy hanging out with him. He’s a textbook example of the sort of person I write about in my new book, Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life. Which is to say, he’s deeply invested in music as a means of reaching the vital emotions inside himself.
For this reason, I looked forward to reading his recent piece, “Five Bands I Should Like, But I Don’t. At All.” The world of rock and roll is full of sacred cows, after all, and one of the perverse pleasures of being a Drooling Fanatic is watching a few of them get gored. I’m always up for good goring. Ask anyone.
Why, then, did I find his piece so deeply disappointing?
Because I didn’t learn anything from reading it, beyond Joe Daly’s musical habits and sensibilities. While I’m sure these are fascinating to Mr. Daly himself, they really only matter to the rest of us if he can articulate how and why they took shape. It can be diverting to listen to someone else bitch, in other words, but it’s not the same as feeling implicated.
Daly’s piece is punditry. It’s full of “controversial opinions” tossed off with an insouciant shrug. But these opinions aren’t nearly as controversial as Daly supposes – he seems almost poignantly unaware that hating on Dave Matthews was a cottage industry five years ago – and shrugging is a poor substitute for genuine reflection.
I realize Joe is going to react to all this by saying, in effect: Hey man, I was just having some fun. Chill out. (Actually, he’d probably say it like this: Chill. Out.) He wants to deflect criticism by assuming a posture of ironic distance. It’s the old, it-can’t-matter-to-you-the-reader-because-it-doesn’t-matter-to-me-the-writer. The catch is that music clearly does matter to Joe. Hell, he’s got an entire regimen. Which is precisely what makes the rest of the piece infuriating: his judgments are so shallow.
“I cannot explain fundamentally why these artists don’t spark my pilot light,” he writes. “For some reason, accomplished and beloved as they may be, I find that I don’t relate to their music on any meaningful level.”
For some reason? Really, Joe? Isn’t it kind of your job, as someone who has apparently puzzled over these matters for quite a while and taken it upon yourself to write an entire piece about them, to investigate the reasons? Isn’t that what basically redeems criticism, what makes it something more than subjective whining?
There is one part of Joe’s piece that I loved. Here it is:
I started working in a warehouse when I was 14, where we would basically unload huge eighteen wheelers full of Levi’s jeans, and spend hours mindlessly sorting them in cold, subterranean storage rooms. It was only through classic rock that we did not all go mad.
Why did I find this so awesome? Because Joe isn’t just slagging bands here. He’s telling a story, a story about how much he needed music at a particularly bleak juncture in his life. This is what the best music writing does.
Songs, after all, are properly understood as emotional transport devices. They remind us that feelings are not a vaguely embarrassing aspect of the human enterprise, but its central purpose. They convert our lesser defenses (alienation, grievance, anxiety) into the larger emotions (loneliness, grief, fear) that make us feel genuinely alive. And they beam us back to the eras and relationships – the particular moments even – that have shaped us into the strange beasts we are.
Nick Hornby’s Songbook is brilliant precisely because it’s full of lovely and often painful stories about the songs that matter to him most deeply. To read Songbook is to recognize how ultimately forgettable High Fidelity is.
The world, after all, is full of people like the ones Hornby describes in High Fidelity, dudes who run around trying to construct an identity based on what they listen to. Their clever snobbery might make us laugh, but it doesn’t get us anywhere close to who they (or we) really are, and how much we need songs to survive that knowledge.
In that spirit, then, here’s my own list of five bands, which Joe Daly is welcome to hate and which I hope you will seek out immediately, even if you think, as you probably do, that I’m a judgmental dickhead.
1. Nil Lara
The Stephen Talkhouse was a small club two blocks from the glittering, neglected sea. It was where we came every week to watch Nil Lara and his band destroy pop music as we knew it. The place smelled of lemon rinds and Marlboro Lights. It was where we drank the sweet drinks of our twenties and huddled close to flirt, living as we were in South Beach circa 1995, a tropical slum set to explode into capitalist chic.
There was one night in particular when he was playing “Mama’s Chant,” howling an Afro-Cuban incantation while we twirled beneath him, and he reached the bridge and passed the valley of solos and led his band into that bright clearing where the song itself exploded into something larger, a mood of cheerful chaos, the tiny dance floor being ectoplasm at this point, Nil thumping his bare feet between the amp cables and at some invisible cue directing his keyboardist to play a bubbling run of notes, at which point Nil burst out, “There is superstition, written on the wall!” so that for the next three minutes we were all Stevie Wonder, we were all blind black singers, exalted, swollen and nodding, even if Nil was the only one whose high sweet baritone could grant the notes their proper due, the only one who could gently bend the room back toward his song, which we figured would end the jam, would leave us all in a happy ruined heap of vodka fumes except that Nil began a high-kneed march and the bassist came in with a low drubbing and the guitarist (a towering shredder) nodded and came down hard on the chords instantly recognizable to anyone alive during the long slow death of prog rock…
We don’t need no education!
We don’t need no thought control!
And this was the holy shit of all holy shits, the moment when every single person in the Talkhouse (right down to the sullen bartender) felt the delicious howl of high school – the endless fascism of parents and teachers and The Man – come roaring out of our throats, like we were bricks, man, like we were the ones marching into the meat grinder and getting our soft hearts cranked into ground chuck; we didn’t even look around, we didn’t do anything but scream and scream and dance and scream and Nil got a frank look of pleasure on his face and shook his head because without meaning to he’d led us all back to the garage where fifteen years earlier he had played these exact notes and sung these exact words and dreamed of this exact moment, of a hundred souls ready to join his crusade and carry his banner into the world. These were the times when we knew Nil couldn’t miss, that it was only a matter of time until the world snatched him up and away from us, which made us a little sad but also chosen, which made us want to kneel before him, touch the hem of his garment, which sent us staggering out onto the damp sidewalks trembling with religious needs.
2. Ike Reilly
The day after the 2004 election, I decided to drive 700 miles across the South with my pal, The Close, whom I loved like a brother and also hated like a brother. This was, like most everything we did together, a fool’s errand. We were both furious and terrified at the re-election of Bush, at the indecent projections of evil that had become the central animating force of his administration, and at our own helplessness. Then came the storms. We stopped at a McDonald’s outside Roanoke and the Close watched a clutch of virginal Mennonites in white bonnets and murmured, “Mmmm-mmmm virgins. Virgins taste good.”
Back inside our car, the mood was pure homicide. About all we could agree on as the black rain beat down was Ike Reilly. Here was a man whose rage and eloquence measured up to the historical moment. Ike’s music sounded like the Clash fucking the Pogues then fucking Dylan. We had the stereo cranked so loud the crickets in the dark fields were swayed back in terrified silence. It was loud and gorgeous and relentless, and the song we settled on as our anthem was “Commie Drives a Nova,” which we howled out as the sopping rest stops of the Confederacy ripped past. It didn’t make the awful truth go away, but we could at least start feel what we needed to feel.
3. Boris McCutcheon & the Salt Licks
Boris and me were sitting on the green couch in my sunroom, waiting for the dawn. His band mates were scattered around the place, passed out amid the homemade bongs and stinking dogs and puddles of chocolate. I was practically managing the band at this point, which was a testament not to their brilliance, but to my own despotic and dwindling fantasies of rock stardom. My future wife, a figure of possibly masochistic patience, lay curled in the bedroom.
Our throats were raw and our souls were wired; they always were in those days. Boris began plucking at the strings absently. I figured he was coaxing himself toward sleep, but the notes resolved into something more solid, a chugging minor-key progression. Then Boris began to sing in that burred voice of his and I felt the holy shiver. The green wish is here, he sang. Such a phrase! I figured he’d nicked it from Isaiah. The song ended and Boris grinned shyly. The mandolin lay in his lap like a polished stone.
“‘The green wish,’” I said. “What’s that?”
“Spring,” he said softly.
4. Gil Scott Heron
My uncle Pete gave me The Best of Gil Scott-Heron as a graduation gift, back in 1984. I had no idea what to make of the record. It did not sound like “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama. Nor did it sound like “Shark Attack” by Split Enz. The arrangements baffled me. Was this Latin music? Funk? Soul? Gil sang beautifully – when he chose to sing. But more often he delivered the words in a sly chant that confused and enthralled me. It’s the reason we become enamored of certain singers, I think, because they project the voice we wish to summon within ourselves. His was a masterpiece: deep, resonant, slightly muddied by the South, learned but playful. “The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia,” he explained on the track B-Movie. “They want to go back as far as they can even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.” I’d never heard anyone explain, in language so simple and persuasive, the phony messianism of the Reagan Revolution.
5. Dayna Kurtz
And I can remember standing alone in my apartment in Somerville, in the wake of an especially hopeless blind date, listening to the crushingly sad strains of “Paterson” and in particular the spot, four minutes in, when the song seems to be drawing to an end, and instead, the time signature slows and we hear the trill of an accordion and violins and plucked guitar and Dayna Kurtz begins singing in Italian of all things – Oh mio core! – over and over, and how listening to this voice echo about my bedroom, its unending dejection, made me realize that keeping my ex, Erin, at bay was no longer an option, that my loneliness was not some precious artistic prerogative or exalted state but simply an ongoing regret. I needed her in close now, once and for all, where we could hear the music together.