If you step into just about any respectable city art gallery (the National Gallery in Ottawa, let's say) with a cognizant and reasonably critical adolescent (my 12-year-old daughter, for instance) and proceed through a given wing historically (the Canadian wing, to continue) starting with the staid, commissioned portraits of the 17th century and moving on to the more expressive modes of the 18th century, the romantic landscapes lush with natural resources and foreboding in scale, then stepping into the bold declarations of the 19th century and the Impressionists, before settling finally into the 20th century and its wide and wild variety and concluding with one or two rooms devoted to abstract expressionism — including, maybe, a crudely drawn circle, or large canvas with three neatly painted stripes that somehow fetched a cool 1.6 million tax dollars — you can pretty much count on the following exchange:
“Dad? What happened?”
“Uh . . . well . . . for a variety of social and economic reasons, a ramshackle triumvirate of curators, theorists and bright young things were able to exploit international media and pretty much remove their product from the common concerns and experience of the larger public. You could also argue that commercial illustrators took up the slack left behind by the self-appointed elites, I suppose.”
“Could we go back to that other room?”
Always the Impressionists.
Well, I may not know what I like, but I know art. And the music that's being sold as today's rock 'n' roll is pretty arty stuff. It provokes questions. Questions like: When I listen to Gang of Four putting a fine gloss on their British angst, or Deerhoof cheerfully noodling around with sonic expectations, what is it that makes me reach yet again for early Talking Heads or Laurie Anderson? It's not as if the newer acts are bereft of any capacity to charm and amuse. Nor, on consideration, are the older acts qualitatively “better” than their edgy progeny. Is it strictly a matter of me developing a calcified cochlea? Or were the New York Punks the Impressionists of rock 'n' roll, effectively bringing Nietzsche's Hammer down on a genre of music and reducing it to a million ever-splintering shards?
I haven't yet developed a theory for what happened and who's responsible, but when I do I'll definitely have something to pitch to the folks at Continuum Press. In the meantime, the new stuff has its moments, which you may like more than I do. In my case, after giving the new a few obligatory spins, I quickly shift gears back to what naturally appeals: the sensational soul sounds of Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band — someone sign this 62-year-old newcomer(!) to the Wattstax Anniversary Project. Also Gregg Allman: I don’t know how T Bone Burnett persuaded him to go ahead and commit to the first installment of a Rubin & Cash-like final act, but God love ‘em both, that’s what we’ve got.
But the album I've played most for the sheer unfeigned joy of it is the recently exhumed Batman and Robin, a hasty cash-on-the-table assignment that Sun Ra & The Blues Project took on in the 70s. At the time, the album cover artwork was probably the selling factor, and perhaps at first spin the music doesn’t immediately recommend itself; the gang seems to have cooked up and delivered the goods on a single Monday-to-Wednesday stretch, before cleaning up for their regular gigs. There are botched cues, and the cross-fades are wielded with a heavy hand. One quick listen to “Batmobile Wheels” reveals a tune of Classical origins that has not been significantly retooled. But nobody sounds like they begrudge the work. And, damn, it’s fun!
It's a combination of music that appeals to my inner 12-year-old, as well as the burgeoning elderly grump. Until I come up with a proper theory for it, I'll just sit back and enjoy it in unburdened bliss.
Today's title is a line uttered by David Byrne in the LP release of The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads. The line didn't make it onto the CD re-release.