Page Two: Slave to the 'Rhythms'
Art is afoot, and words only slow it down
Vinyl records are both wonderful and can be a bit of a pain. When I write, I listen to music. Actually, more correctly, I have music playing. Sometimes I listen, but often it is there – sometimes as a driving rhythm carrying me through the writing, other times as just a needed sound, as I so often write all night.
In the past, when music was played to accompany work, the downside of vinyl became quickly obvious. After the first side of an album finished, it had to be turned over to play the other side. When the writing was flowing, this often meant long stretches of silence before the music resumed.
Year after year, I checked for it, but it was never there.
Now it is.
There are only a few albums I've played as much as Crazy Rhythms, the debut album by Hoboken's the Feelies, and probably no album I've played more. No other album really comes close to its driving, propulsive, soothing, nervous, and flowing sound.
"The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness," the opening cut, defines the album by its title and sound. At first it seems there is only silence, but that's misleading; the music just begins that quietly as it builds into its full sound.
The Feelies were actually from Haledon, N.J., not Hoboken, but they played Maxwell's regularly enough that their residence was attributed to the latter. When kids traveling outside of the state were asked where they were from, most answered with a very vague "outside of ..." – as in "outside of" New York City or Philadelphia, depending on which was closer to where they lived in Jersey. The state was not only uncool but also stigmatic. I always answered "Jersey," but my sense of social grace wasn't very developed.
Now these days there might be some kind of Jersey pride that used to be lacking, especially because of Bruce Springsteen but also attributable to the many other musicians who live there. Springsteen is not only from Jersey; most of the songs on his first four or so albums are pretty clearly set there. Still, even he identified himself with close-by but far more hip Asbury Park rather than his hometown of Freehold.
Haledon, much more traditionally suburban, is outside of Patterson, a former mill town stained with too much blood spilled because of the once lousy working conditions and the labor clashes that resulted.
Having listened to Crazy Rhythms hundreds of times, I have found that the first track is followed not by individual songs but by a wholeness of sound – one that is familiar, inspiring, distant, and overwhelming. The music, filling the room while occupying my head, is a driving, hypnotic force. The only other track that stands out is the inspired cover of Lennon and McCartney's "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)."
But this is not a review of the album or a history of the band. As the Residents pointed out a long time ago, "ignorance of your own culture is not considered cool."
Yet in these times that wisdom is mostly ignored. Instead, widely held and commonly accepted is the opinion that essentially there is no American culture – that what once was has long degenerated into being meaningless, offensive, trivial, and impotent. At its most plebeian, this viewpoint is expressed by the phrase "the dumbing down of ...." Out of the academy come far more sophisticated laments, book-length scholarly rants about today's depravity compared to yesteryear's elegance.
Culture is how we explain life to ourselves, how we set a context for our lives and invest that with meaning. The idea that once culture was great but now its diseased and decadent is based on the safeness of the past, the knowability of what has happened set against the unknowability of now and the danger and uncertainty of the future.
Way too often, those celebrating high art over low art, old art over new art, do so with a snobbish assumption that the qualitative difference is simply just so obvious. Popular, street, or low culture – call it what you want – is consequently described in only the most derogatory terms. This categorization is usually more illustrative of the person making those judgments than it is revealing about art and culture. The distinction is often nonchalantly used to reinforce class distinctions, serving as an ideal cleaver to separate the upper class from the hoi polloi.
Looking at the past is easy, with everything seemingly so neat, clean, and ordered. In contrast, the present is chaotic, dirty, and not really organized in any sustainable way. Remarkably, this same view is not new but instead has been held by the elite of succeeding generations who look backward with respect but at the contemporary and future with horror.
I refuse to participate in this mindset. The culture is just as alive and as vital as always. Art is alive and well. Distinctions inherently limit art, but art won't be restrained. Current art is almost always attacked. What is happening seems so messy and maybe even trivial compared to art that has long been finished. Attacks on art are a crucial part of its energy and meaning. Anarchistic, chaotic, sometimes offensive, often seemingly incomprehensible art is the modern court jester to established society. Brilliant, otherworldly, inspired, and inspiring, it is also the modern traveling troubadour providing illumination and meaning in its wake. Hell, art is afoot, and words only slow it down.
This is not a qualitative argument choosing low art over high art or suggesting that the art being made now is inherently better than what is already established. Instead this is a celebration with no condemnation attached.
Sometimes, just sometimes, when art is so much bigger than you, towering over you (physically, intellectually, spiritually), it sucks you in to cleanse, inspire, or tease you, to set a context for modern life or to critique it. Sometimes, in fact most often, art is on our level: It illuminates, connects, and offers hope and vision, or it finds fault, shames, censures, or intimidates. Sometimes it lifts us up; other times it shuts us down. But usually, regardless of whatever else the impact is, it touches our soul by a route that leads through our mind and sense of self.
The size of art, in terms of self, does not define it. All art, even when it is far greater than we are, can be empty and meaningless, and all art can inspire and infuse. Now, please don't take to the Ayn Rand barricades to accuse me of selling out to collectivism, promoting mediocrity as equality, or seeing the depths but ignoring the heights.
The best time is when art can't be pinned down. At times, it is of you, out of and into your life, both aura and taint. Reading Larry McMurty's Moving On when I was in my 20s was the first time I realized that fiction could be set in the world as I knew and lived in it – not that the characters and situations were familiar, but that it was set in the familiar and known. Media almost always used to distance itself from those who partook of it. Films, TV shows, books, radio, and the like were lifted off the mimetic; their very existence defined them as infused with something more than just daily life. Not intentionally, of course, but because of how it was accessed and regarded.
Loving rock & roll is what it is as much as loving grand opera is what it is. There are albums I cherish, sometimes in mundane ways but sometimes in ways that are sanctified and holy.
Crazy Rhythms fits like skin; it is of me just as blood and seems as much memory as music.
Maybe my affection for the album is because it's by a Jersey band and I'm a Jersey kid, but maybe not. It's music from a state that more people drive through on their way to Philadelphia or New York City than visit. In the past, that voyage would encounter several cities that smelled so offensively putrid as to define the state. At least when (or maybe it is where) I grew up, much of the population worked outside of the state.
The sounds of the Feelies are the sounds of Jersey, the music of lawn mowers and leaf blowers, washers and dryers, traffic jams and neat suburban communities, malls and toll roads. The music is inspired, propulsive, smooth, disconcerting, subtle, and overwhelming. Could one ask for anything more? Crazy Rhythms again graces and enriches, as it has for more than two decades, my life, and the rooms I write in, as well as the writer that I am.