The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, June 12, 2006

It's always something of a shock to me when, in the course of what I will glibly term Real Life, I run into other people whom I am inclined to forget also exist outside the world of music blogs. Thus, while making my way down Soho's busy Berwick Street of a pleasingly hot Saturday morning, I should not have been surprised to encounter the
Woebot man himself, Matthew Ingram, indeed should be surprised that we don't cross each other's paths more often, seeing as we are so often on our parallel paths, and were, I'd wager, both on our individual missions to find more music - the mission is unending, and therefore life is prolonged - to make our own kind of sense out of the world.

We exchanged a few nervous pleasantries; for we have argued fiercely online in the past and in a lot of ways I have drifted away from that particular corner of the blogosphere - the odd fellow in the corner by himself who just gets on with his own line of independent research and thought, scribbling away. I have been lax in following the Woebot blog and look at, or contribute to, Dissensus only very intermittently, which is a shame because, despite our very different outlooks on music, there are important overlaps. Also my degree of Asperger's always sends me into a tizzy when I meet someone unexpectedly, and usually gives the other person the impression that I am one millimetre away from being certified as I stutter things out, incoherently.

Anyway, I should clearly be paying Woebot more attention, for his current post on the Beatles is very good indeed. It also begs the very obvious question of: why exactly do music writers find it so hard to describe music in musical terms? The superficial answer to that is that nearly all music writers are graduates in English Literature and/or Philosophy - or, in the case of yours truly, both - and therefore are most comfortable describing songs, if not music, in terms of their words. With instrumental music of any sort, be it AMM or Breakage, they tend to come a cropper.

I suppose I am a very minor exception to this rule, since I did have a significant degree of musicel education in my youth - Grade 8 piano and clarinet before "life" intervened, and I'm pretty good on the saxophone, even if Evan Parker doesn't need to worry - and therefore am at least in part able to talk technically about music in a reasonably intelligent manner. As far as The Wire is concerned; well, in its early days, when its remit was strictly that of post-Ornette jazz and improv and post-Darmstadt serialism, writers like Max Harrison (a huge influence on me, possibly more so than Morley), Brian Priestley and Steve Lake were happy to discuss the power and impact of music in such a way. But then of course all of those writers were, and are, practising musicians.

I read Revolution In The Head some dozen years ago - I borrowed it from Victoria Library, and then bought the revised, Anthology-inclusive reprint. It is a hugely admirable work in many ways, though its central argument - that the Beatles, and the sixties, represented the aesthetic apex of everything, and now it could only decline - is destructive, not least in terms of the man who wrote it, and the terrible personal pain which the argument concealed; but also it was annoying to me - in 1994 my head was spinning with innumerable potential futures, with Omni Trio and Tricky and Portishead and Jeff Buckley and Wu-Tang and Aphex and Mu and Oval and Biosphere and Origin Unknown and Tortoise and LaBradford, and I knew in my bones that MacDonald was being deliberately wrong-headed.

The musical analyses themselves are admirably free of sentiment, which is not the same thing as poignancy - his appraisal of "Penny Lane" is about as poignant as any music writing could get. He is hard but fair, in a way which I think is in direct lineage from Harrison's contributions to the indispensable three-volume (if now needing an update) Essential Jazz Records set, even if one of the major tasks of the book appears to be giving McCartney his proper dues in terms of innovation (though that has the side-effect of making Lennon seem more of a dilettante than he actually was...then again...).

Most importantly, though, the book worked in its main function of getting me to listen to all my ancient Beatles records anew; and I would be disingenuous if I claimed that it had no influence on my own writing, here and elsewhere - although he never uses the word "punctum," he knows exactly what it signifies. And, for the purposes of this particular article, it was so immense a relief to read a writer who expressed discrete and concrete opinions, with real passion, about music.

I got some of that same feeling from reading the current issue of the magazine Plan B, which I purchased from the newsagent's immediately after my encounter with Matthew. Reading comparative veterans such as Everett True and Neil Kulkarni - and to me relatively unknown writers such as Frances May Morgan and Daniel Trilling - made me exclaim inwardly, several times: "At last - print music writers with directness of emotion and clarity of thought," even if I disagree considerably with some of their conclusions. It's a way of writing which has long since been expunged from the glossy monthlies and broadsheets, with their "considered balance," their recycled press releases (can't you just tell when someone's done the latter?) and general demographic-driven cowardice - these journals should be ashamed of the way in which they undersold The Drift, a masterpiece which thoroughly achieved, if not surpassed, their aims, scared that their Fifty Quid Man readership would have thought it weirdo minority music; whereas their aim should be to promote the best music, not the best promoted music. Only Chris Campion in the Observer Music Monthly and David Peschek in the Guardian were brave enough to defy this unwritten three-star ruling. Whereas with Plan B you are not only left with no doubt as to what writers think, but can be persuaded to investigate things which you might otherwise have passed over, for reasons of time, or prejudice, or exhaustion; Trilling's discussion of J Dilla's Donuts album should have you running to purchase a copy, even if you live ten miles away from a record shop. Kulkarni's singles column in the present issue should be a set text for any writer wishing to engage with music at any level other than the most superficial and least helpful. The tired, dated nonsense of Ben Myers anti-pop rant is easily rendered meaningless and purposeless by Alex Macpherson's staunch pro-Girls Aloud piece on the opposing page. I suspect that Plan B is far from free of demographic considerations, but unlike every other "mainstream" or "alternative" magazine, from Mojo to The Wire (though there may be a case to be made for some of the specialist hip hop and dance journals), it does not allow its demographics to crush and suffocate it. Its writing comes out of love rather than fear. It might even make me think that the Long Blondes are worth serious consideration (are they?).

And then, the envoi: this purpose-free but oddly idyllic Saturday morning - me on no errand, no specific purchasing requirements, no aim other than to enjoy the summer - looking in a second-hand record shop for nothing in particular, or maybe for the happy accident; and then, over the speakers, for the second Saturday within a month, I hear the Pavement song "Carrot Rope."

Sometimes happiness is not quite knowing why you are crying in the middle of a record shop on a Saturday morning. But the symbolism was clear, the promise eternal, her presence imminent.

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