Flaskaland
Sunday, September 28, 2003
 
I hated it when Robert Palmer died. I hate death.

A few years back, I read an undeniably snotty comment from a music critic saying it was likely that whenever singer Robert Palmer died, all he'd be remembered for were the songs "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistible" and an MTV video. I hope this doesn't come across as cruel for me to comment upon, but reading through Palmer's obituaries this past weekend, I have to say that critic, while not really prescient, easily had his finger on the pulse of the major media. Most of the press obituaries (numbering at peak 340 online) are word-for-word exactly the same Associated Press obituary despite the writer's byline at the top, and I somehow doubt Palmer's sudden death has anything to do with catching them all woefully unprepared. When nearly a full day had elapsed, a few of the obituaries began to use words like "under appreciated", beginning to suggest both Palmer and his music were "select", and that his popular acclaim never matched the extent of his talents; or, predictably, a few already were swinging towards the other extreme, snapping back, as it were, and returning to their usual snarky selves. Thankfully, the snots are in small number.

The biggest downside to having crossed paths with people who have gone on to fame and fortune, or just plain notoriety, is that when they die, their deaths are public events, just as a major portion of their lives once were. For me, that could mean that any of my reactions might become public property, too, and truthfully I'm not so sure I want to share those feelings with the world at large. It also means, depending on how the death is regarded by the media, that I have to listen to a lot of other people spouting off, some of whom I might agree with and some of whom I might not agree with. Inevitably there is, in death as in life, misunderstandings. For the media, there is a disproportionate amount of recitation and repetition of data and facts, half-formed truths, purposefully misleading fictions, and unsuccessful interpretations of unfamiliar information on the fly.

Celebrities, in death as in life, are always, because of the nature of media, treated in a formulaic shallow manner. In other words, the celebrity is treated every bit the same in death as they were treated in life. Nothing changes for them even with death, at least as far as the media is concerned. Even at the end, the prescribed media format flattens what's left of a person's life. The contemporary obituary at best is a nostalgia piece, the reported facts are sometimes educative, the tone never elegaic. Formerly one of the highest forms of written art, the obituary once distilled the essence of a person's character and life and contributions to community. Now, the obituary has become but another well-used page of carbon, at best a tracer outline of the career highpoints. Though recognized as a skeletal representation at best, it still supposes the level of day-to-day existence can be adequately assessed and understood by a cursory examination of the leather-bound executive day-timer. Ultimately, the obituary reveals only how the person was treated throughout life in media by the media. If the press has been trained over the years by wave after wave of paid public relations squads to regard a person in a particular way, and it's become habitual to treat an artist in a kid glove manner, then the writers more tightly fasten the pearly buttons on their gray gloves as they pound out the standard obituaries from the press release. They even, for propriety's sake, fall back to quoting the public relations staff, the career handlers, and image enhancers' exact professional language. And, also for propriety's sale, with the possible exceptions of reviled foreign political figures or despised public criminals, the press in death is mercifully polite.

With 340 obituaries (and several hundred indexed blog notations) following in the immediate wake of Palmer's demise, all imparting the same information, another is uncalled for. Although the BBC sought to advance public discourse by allowing tribute comments online, if you want memorials or tributes, you must turn to a different media or a different kind of person and form of writing.

I'm not a professional obituary writer, so for me, life is easier. I just hate death, plain and simple.

I hate death: I hate hearing the details

Rumors have been flying about Robert Palmer's death, since 1997. That was the year of curious namesake coincidence, when two different persons with varying degrees of fame, who were also named Robert Palmer, were reported as dying. The first, a deep water explorer who was based in Nassau, Bahamas drowned in a diving accident; as the single most publicized fact about singer Robert Palmer throughout the '70s and early '80s was that he had made his residence in the Bahamas, the confusion could be manifold. Then to confound matters more for the public mind, a musician and music critic, not widely known outside the blues world, died in New Orleans of liver complications; and this occurred just slightly after singer Robert Palmer (with the reassembled Power Station) had passed through the U.S. on the "Living in Fear" tour. Though within a few months, the public sifted out the differences and came to know the truth, there can be no denying that death put Robert Palmer back into the news a few times before this past Friday, September 26. That's the day singer Robert Palmer, mellowly ripened to the age of 54, died of a suspected massive heart attack in his hotel room in Paris after dining out and taking in a movie.

Just by virtue of growing older, I've watched my friends and social acquaintances in my age group (45-55) dropping at an alarming rate. With friends going, there goes a big part of anyone's social circle. Aside from the expected attrition rate from war and disease, or even the regular everyday car-wreck, some of the people I've known managed in spite of themselves to go out recently in spectacular manners. One, a volcano photographer, was killed when the ledge he was standing on collapsed, and he fell with it into in the ocean far below, which was steaming and boiling from pouring rivers of hot exuding lava. Eyewitnesses said his body hit the roiling water, exploded, and just shot hundreds of feet into the air like a rocket.

With each one who departs, even strangers who I've never met, I recognize my own vulnerability, and that reminder is coming oftener now, too, and it's never really a surprise.

I hate death: it's not funny

I could say I do my utmost to avoid active volcanos. Because the media thinks that celebrities seem to be the only ones leading creative, interesting, or adventurous lives, as they are the ones made visible on their well-publicized movement along the still forming molten crust, they're the ones the public wants to read about. Of course their passages through life, and their deaths, and all the details about them could do more than make good copy. They're supposed to inform our lives in some way. At least, that's how these stories used to work. Tennessee Williams died choking on a cap from a toothpaste tube. That might be an odd and unfitting way to go, ridiculous enough to cause Tennessee himself to sneer at the absurdity. But death is no laughing matter.

I hate death: it's so unfair

Another person I knew quite recently was killed when his good-guy plane collided with another airborne Good Samaritan while they were fighting a forest fire started accidentally by a Hell's Angel cooking up a batch of meth.

Robert Palmer was doing the promotional rounds in Europe for his latest record, Drive. He'd finished taping an interview at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho, London, for a TV program called My Kinda People. He then retired to a few days vacation in Paris, where he died in luxury surroundings at the 4-star Warwick Hotel, just off the Champs-Elysees. To all who cared for him in any way, yes, I agree his death is unfair. It always is, except in the most extreme cases. But to those who say it's unfair that he didn't have time, like Zevon, to put out a last album, he did.

Death makes me make unfair comparisons, both with the dead and the living. Which is I suppose a way of saying that many times with death, the ones remaining are not always those we can most easily love or agree with.

I hate death: the press doesn't really give a shit if you die

Another, a former workmate of mine, an astronomer, was electrocuted by a bolt of lightning. And so by virtue of being felled by a freak accident on a slow news day, he made up a news blip on CNN that day.

For celebrities it's different. The celebrities who knew the celebrities or the celebrities who didn't know the celebrities are always asked to comment, and they usually do.

I hate death: the public wants to know the details and has too vivid an imagination

Another former workmate, an astrochemist, became momentarily famous (in scientific discussion circles, at least) because his hit-and-run death was another dark checkmark in a list of scientists with specialized fields who had all expired within days of each other -- all at once it seemed, all under curious circumstances to those with more active imaginations than I, as if a malevolent conspiracy were killing off the scientists of Europe.

There is a malevolent conspiracy. It's called death.

I hate death: everybody you will ever know will die

But in reality those few mentioned above are the diseases and accidents that just being alive brings to a life at its end. Because I've met and worked with a lot of different people, some of whom engage in risky occupations and avocations, and just given my age, I've encountered this death situation often. Let me tell you now if you haven't already guessed, if you stay in one place long enough, or get to know enough people, or live long enough yourself, this will happen for you, too. So start getting used to the idea.

I hate death: I especially hate it when some celebrities die

As I have grown older, so, too, have the people I've known who have become famous in some way. They're dying off at the same fast rate as my friends, workmates, family, and acquaintances. So in just the last decade, the past few years especially, there have been an increasing number of deaths of "notable" persons I've racked up, too. "Notable" -- if, that is, we are to behave and believe like the media and the public it feeds and come to flatly regard as the only gauge of a person's inherent worth is the mark the departed left on the fame and fortune meter, and that meter derives measure by previous media space accorded. The marks made by the rest of us poor struggling saps if noticed at all may be regarded by the next who happen by as the mysterious desperate-looking scratches left on the wall by the previous anonymous execution victim.

Each death and each obituary is another brush with death for me.

I hate death: I especially hate it when people I happen to know and like die

I've lost family, friends, and people who have personally impacted my life. Their influence was manifested sometimes in a beneficial manner, sometimes in tangled and messy ways. I've known "notables" who have died. You've heard of some of them, and some of them I could like, but it's far too morbid a task to compile a list.

I hate death so much, I can even hate it when people I dislike die. It makes me think mean thoughts, as I've survived long enough beyond them that I can spit or dance on their graves.

I hate death: I never know what to say.

None of the standard condolences are 100% true. For instance, "Only the good die young" … that can be such a lie.

I hate death: There's never anything I can do about it

It means the end of possibility.

 
Saturday, September 27, 2003
 
Casting pearls before pedants

Susan Tomes on the delicate balancing act between praise and criticism, asks the perennial question:

"But knowing what rings true to you is no easy matter. How, after all, are our personal beliefs formed?"
 
Sunday, September 21, 2003
 
The blues is havin' a birthday (and it's your birthday, too, yeah).

Wherein Jon Pareles reminds us that the blues taught people about mixed messages. And that the blues still imparts lessons, making the pop forms following in its wake sound one-dimensional and even naive.


 
 
It's September, and when I was growing up that meant it's time once again to go to the Fair. And you probably know what they're like!

Forty years ago, the fairs were still the proving grounds for the Future Farmers of America and 4-H club members. But even then, some of those young members were developing their individual tastes in art and music.

Artforms in Nature

Frank Zappa had an odd sense of humor. Near where I lived was a county fair that everyone attended for those first few sizzling weeks in September. As we lived in an area surrounded by agricultural districts, and because people had made their livelihoods for some number of years from the land there, such considerations not only found their way into people’s daily lives but also quite naturally into their artistic expressions.

Orange crate labels were treasured by nearly every child in the area. The labels were distinctive of the place, idealized yet colorful and dramatic representations of local Spanish Missions, Indians, animals, fair Mexican maids, and so on, and each new acquisition was proudly shared with other kids, and traded back and forth like baseball cards or comic books are in other areas.

But back to the fair. Everybody would go to the fair because there wasn’t a lot going on in town. Even though the fair had elements of the hokey, some real treasures emerged.

Gradually evolved at the fair was a folk art display in one of the side buildings. Therein people would labor for weeks to create representations of important themes using a pallet of citrus fruit. Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits were the artistic medium and all else that was allowed was some of the green cellophane that is in grocer displays.

The art would be assembled on a large wooden “canvas” of dimensions that would make Georgia O’Keefe envious. And this “frame” was structured to be displayed at a slight tilt to keep “the paints from running.” Most often the themes were drawn from nature, landscapes of mountains and the valley, and sometimes patriotic motifs emerged (garish yellow and orange American flags or portraits of George Washington).

Frank Zappa created his entry one year and it was a large representation of

his
mother’s
upright
vacuum
cleaner.

Now look who's there at the Fair!

 
Saturday, September 20, 2003
 
The history of rock is written by the losers.

You've read about it before elsewhere, now read about it here.
 
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
 
Music is often attached to other things, whether we like it or not, which allows writers to talk about those other things:


"Beyond being its beautiful self, music has the occasional yen to be helpful. On elevators it speeds us heavenward. It soothes us at Kmart. It accelerates our chewing at the lunch counter." "Chardonnay, Shellfish and Schubert."

On an eco-music festival in the Baltic: "Culture depends on economy, economy depends on environment" . . . so the state of the water "is absolutely the musician's business."

music and politics.
 
 
Whenever I read a piece of writing about music (which is quite, quite often) I can easily end up with more questions than answers, which is part of the process of deciding how I should write my next piece about music. Some of the questions other music critics ask themselves:

21 Questions

[To be rhythmically spoken--or "rapped"--over top of any Grover Washington Jr. b-side from 1974 - 1977.]

1. Is the primary readership of rock criticism other rock critics?
2. If so, is there something wrong with that?
3. Is the concept of "community" antithetical to the ideals of rock criticism?
4. Outside of discussions of geometry, does the word "angular" mean anything?
5. Should rock critics force themselves to listen to music they wouldn't listen to otherwise?
6. Would the world be a better place if the term "rock critic" was replaced by "music critic" or "pop critic"?
7. Are diminishing word lengths in record reviews really a bad thing?
8. If so, for whom?
9. Is it necessary--or even helpful--for rock critics to know something about music (technically speaking, that is--i.e., music theory)?
10. Is it necessary or helpful to know the biography (or the "back story") of the artist you're reviewing?
11. Does a record's popularity (or lack thereof) have any bearing at all on how it actually sounds?
12. Is it a rock critic's job to try and sell a particular artist (or their records) to the reader?
13. Will people still want to pay to read rock magazines in 5 or 10 years time?
14. If "everyone's a critic" is no one a critic?
15. Is the phrase "osmotic tongue pressure" really as abstract as it sounds?
16. Do critics limit themselves when they write with a particular readership in mind?
17. Should rock critics be "in touch with" what younger people are listening to? (Or for that matter, anyone not part of their immediate peer group?)
18. Are any musicians truly "beneath contempt"-- and therefore not worth consideration by critics?
19. Is the idea that a great recording can come from anywhere just an urban legend?
20. In terms of genre, is it better for music magazines to be locked into a particular niche or should they jump around all over the place?
21. If I went back to a Hoopty from a Benz, would you poof and disappear like some of my friends?


via rockcritics daily

Lately I've been asking:

22. Shouldn't a music critic write about the music?
23. Shouldn't a music critic describe how the music actually sounds?
24. Will a music critic tell me what the music does?


 
Compiling the best online articles about music so there will be more of both in the future. In periods of drought, the reader will be innundated by my own blogs on the matters.

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