Four Books on Music

It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books about music recently, so instead of doing individual reviews, I thought I’d clump them all together.

 

A Light That Never Goes Out by Tony Fletcher

This is a biography of The Smiths that we picked up last Christmas on a whim (yes, we still browse bookstores, as quaint as that may seem).  I was a huge fan of The Smiths back in the 80’s, to the point of being almost a walking stereotype: wearing all black clothes, moping around wherever I went.  They provided the soundtrack to my adolescent angst as if it were a John Hughes movie.

Fletcher’s history of the band is well-written enough, and I definitely learned some things that I hadn’t known before about the behind-closed-doors madness of dealing with record labels and tours without a proper manager.  However, Fletcher is a bit too precious about trying to explain the music, both the possible origins of various lyrics and the rhythmic/tonal evolution of the band.  This probably comes from his background as a record reviewer, but as a fan, I don’t need someone else to interpret the music for me, or characterize it.  I already have a history with all of those songs.  The context is what’s valuable, and reading about the various intersections with other groups in the Manchester scene, as well as the major players in the not-quite scene (not quite new wave, not quite alternative, not quite pop) was interesting.

For a hardcore Smiths fan, I’d probably recommend looking for other versions of this history (which Fletcher, to his credit, acknowledges) that focus more on events and characters and less on musical interpretation.  If you’re not already a Smiths fan, don’t even bother.

 

Mo’ Meta Blues by ?uestlove

I’ve never really given the Roots their due.  It takes me a long time to discover new music; I have to live with it for a while.  Even my favorite artists and songs often turn me off on first listen, and it’s not until I get past the newness that I start to see the genius in it.  The Roots started blowing up right when my exploratory phase was shutting down, so I’ve never put in the time.

Nevertheless, ?uestlove is an interesting writer.  The book ranges widely, by design, from musical influences and family dynamics to performing and DJ’ing to social/cultural analysis and critique.  His experiences growing up in Philadelphia as a Black man in a family that plays music together professionally are about as far away from my own experiences growing up in a small town in Florida with parents who were academics, but while I miss a number of references and connections, the story he tells is still compelling to me.  The most fun, and unexpected, part of the whole history is his long, enduring love for Prince.  It’s one of those moments where I wish I were more knowledgeable about music, because there is clearly a strong connection there based around the art and craft of making music, but it’s beyond me.

Overall, the book is lighthearted (even in its serious moments) and an easy read.  If you’re already into ?uestlove or the Roots, you’ll dig it.  It’s also an interesting cultural critique, but if you’re not familiar with him, check out his series of articles on hip-hop from New York Magazine.  They will give you a taste of his writing style, and if that trips your trigger, you’ll love this book.

 

How Music Works by David Byrne

This was a present from my brother-in-law, a composer and professor of music.  I keep expressing to him how much I would love to be able to understand music the way he does, so he gave me this book.

The thing that surprised me was how broadly synthetic Byrne’s thinking is.  How Music Works isn’t a textbook, but it does include a history of musical contexts, reflections on various philosophical and critical takes on music, explorations of technology’s impact on music, and an overview of the money machine behind the music, among other things.  Each of the chapters has a particular theme, but like a complex composition, there are also call-backs and references, crossover melodies that run throughout the book.  Obviously, Byrne’s personal history with Talking Heads, CBGB’s, and the world music explosion come up with some regularity, but this is not a book about fan service.  Most of the straight-up autobiography fits into about a chapter and a half.  Rather, Byrne is exploring (with the reader in tow) a broad range of perspectives on music, often putting his thumb on one side of the scales in an argument, but presenting multiple perspectives.  My two favorite chapters were the one about creating an arts “scene” and the one where he lays out the business and money-flow of various publishing models in the music business.

I was never a huge fan of Talking Heads – I mean, I knew their pop side, but didn’t really dive deeply into the albums – but found this book to be charming and enlightening.  It takes some patience to get far enough into the book to see where Byrne is going, but if you give it the benefit of the doubt, it will reward you.

 

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

I’ve saved my personal favorite for last.  If you’re not interested in Joy Division, New Order, and the Manchester scene, you probably won’t like this book, but I’m into all three and loved it.

Hook gives both a personal history and his own version of events and personalities around the scene.  His perspective is front and center throughout the stories, because he is unapologetic about speaking from his own experience.  This can be funny and playful, as he jabs Bernard Sumner throughout the book by referring to him as Barney (a pet peeve of Sumner’s, apparently), but it can also be solemn and almost tragic, as when he discusses his own silence and willful ignorance about Ian Curtis’ struggles. He can be ruthless with other people, but he’s also ruthless with himself, and then he’ll turn and be conciliatory and gentle.  This is not a historical story for Hook, it’s personal, and his voice as a writer conveys a charming authenticity – flawed, human, weak, but also daring, inspired, and passionate.

If you already know the history of the Manchester scene and the Hacienda, a lot of this will be old hat, but even knowing what I did, I found Hook’s perspective to not only shed new light, but it also helped humanize that time for me; it helped me to see the people behind the events, and that is, in its own way, priceless.

 

I do find it interesting that of the four books, the three written by musicians were more enjoyable than the one written by a professional writer.  Your mileage may vary, of course.

Bad Antagonist

There is a trope that I seem to be encountering more frequently lately, enough so that it is starting to really bother me: the omniscient antagonist.  Now, it is in the nature of antagonists to be frustrating, so it’s important to be clear that the part of this that is troubling is the omniscient part.  You expect an antagonist to cause problems; you expect them to cause breakdowns; you expect them to generate conflict.  After all, the protagonist needs something to overcome, so the antagonist plays a necessary role.

However, when the antagonist knows everything, every possible move that a protagonist could make, every potential outcome, every relevant piece of information to a situation, they become not only capable of creating chaos, conflict, and confusion, but theoretically unstoppable.  If knowledge really is power, then the omniscient antagonist may as well be omnipotent.  And if there is one figure in any narrative who is both omniscient and omnipotent, that person is the author.

In other words, just as there is a Mary Sue problem in making the protagonist too capable, likable, etc., there is a similar problem in making the antagonist too knowledgeable, too capable, etc.  For, when the antagonist and the author become too closely related, it defeats my identification as a reader with the protagonist.  As much as the protagonist needs an obstacle to overcome, that obstacle should not be the author.  As a reader, I am already giving the author my time, my attention, my money, and my suspension of disbelief.  The last thing I want is to have an antagonistic relationship with them.  That’s not entertainment; that’s abuse.

There are all sorts of valid complications of this over-simplified structure: unreliable narrators, unreliable narratives, meta-narratives, and so on.  But part of what makes a good storyteller is that the story takes center stage, and the hand of the author disappears behind the various machinations of the characters in the world that they inhabit.  When an author resorts to giving god-like capabilities to the antagonist in order to advance the plot, conflict, and characterization of a story, it calls attention to the man behind the curtain.  Whether it happens through incompetence, arrogance, or polemicization does not matter.  It breaks the fundamental contract between narrative creator and consumer.

Totalizing narratives, like conspiracy theories, are comforting in their own way.  It is easier to believe that someone is in charge and making bad things happen than to believe that no one is really in charge and bad things happen sometimes to good people, for no discernible reason other than life isn’t fair.  We do not celebrate art, though, for doing what is easy, comfortable, and reassuring.  If you want me to take you seriously as an author, you need to find a way to make your villains threatening for credible reasons other than your need as an author to have them be so.  Otherwise, you’re just wasting my time.