II. Around and Around
Carlo Rotella, Charles Farrell and James Parker
CR: We tend to go around and around with music and writing, as a general rule, but not with boxing, for instance, where we both agree doing it right is fine all by itself. You just do the absolute conventional thing properly and clean the champion’s clock, and we’re good.
CF: We are good. But, also, that’s maybe the one field we’re talking about that is clearly deteriorating. We’re talking about a very compromised entity, and doing it right is more and more of a rarity, even a miracle, when it happens.
CR: One thing to consider is that every discipline, every genre, has a different relationship between doing it right and making it new. So for instance, in blues, in Chicago blues, I think one of the reasons that making it new has been generally so unsatisfying over the past few decades is that almost nobody does it right anymore. If more people did it right, the people making it new—like the people who started pairing rock-flavored guitar with funk-flavored bass in the 80s—would be reacting to that stronger center in more compelling ways. The dynamic between margins and center would be more generative. That’s why to me someone like Magic Slim, who pretty much only did it right in a recognizably classic Chicago-tradition way and had no interest in making it new, was so important and valuable. He was dead set on playing a shuffle right, and the assumption out there is that anybody can play a shuffle right, but in fact it’s hard to do and not that many people do it well. There weren’t enough people doing it right. That whole situation is opposed to the way Charles sees jazz, which is that way too many people are doing it right and not enough people are making it new.
JP: So now I’m thinking about rock n’ roll, where the teleological aspect is completely compromised. And that’s why it’s now dissolving, because of this great, floating simultaneity of sound and access through the ears at once that everybody’s living in now. It used to be This is punk rock, and then I’m a post-punk rocker, then I’m the next thing, I’m the next thing. It was always about the thing before, or had something to do with the thing before, post this, post that. That’s over. That’s finished.
CF: Except maybe in its very early stages, rock has almost never been about music. It’s almost never about music.
JP: What do you mean by that?
CF: That’s a medium where, aside from pop stuff, craft can devalue very quickly.
CF: And maybe for good reason.
CF: So the argument is never about who’s a good musician, it’s—
CF: Yeah, yeah, or about meaning. Stripped of everything else, maybe no music is really about pure music. Maybe, all music is about what it means to someone.
JP: So maybe rock n’ roll is just this mad tangent, which has now exhausted itself.
CR: But everything sticks around, and there’s all this scaffolding and apparatus out there that means it can’t truly exhaust itself. There are recordings, and YouTube, ways of preserving the music and extending influence, so there are people who still aspire to play in that way—for aesthetic reasons, or because there’s money to be made or notoriety to enjoy, or whatever. So there’s going to be some version of it. And that’s true of every form that you might see as getting creatively tired. Somebody’s still going to want to do it, right? And it will still mean something. I was in Nashville this week, and I went out to see a band at the Station Inn, a hallowed place of bluegrass and “real country,” a place that thinks of itself as the aesthetic real thing in a city dominated by commercial considerations. The band on stage was completely, entirely committed to playing it right. They played only covers, but they weren’t interested in reproducing specific recordings. It wasn’t a tribute band. They were interested in nailing an aesthetic. And their aesthetic was not just the 50s and 60s thing you might expect, Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline and George Jones. It was more 60s and 70s. So they’d do Tammy Wynette, but they’d also do Ronnie Milsap or Gene Watson or someone else that some hard-country types tend to think is not so close to the Hank Williams ideal. Everybody in this band could sing, everybody could play, and they were all committed to an established aesthetic—doing it right, with no interest in making it new at all. They weren’t trying to revive these songs or find a sly hidden meaning in them, they were just trying to get it right. Essentially, this was a record collection band. Listen to this. It’s important to me. This is what my taste sounds like.
JP: Yeah. I listen to this. Do you have the same taste as me? Oh, good.
CR: I found that whole experience perfectly satisfying, and I bet Charles would not.
CF: I would not.
CR: So why—
JP: Wait a sec. Is there a possibility that the point of making it new would be to generate some kind of unease, so that you’d never be satisfied by it in the way that you were by that band in Nashville?
CR: I was just as satisfied when I went to see Charles play some seriously out-there make-it-new shit at a gallery in Cambridge. I was unsettled, but I was very satisfied by how confused it made me. I’m happy with being confused or with that thing that happened in Nashville, where I was the opposite of confused.
JP: Charles, when I think about your music, it’s like you’re building these beautiful citadels and shredding them. Building and shredding, building and shredding. What’s going through your body when you’re doing that? I hope that’s not a mischaracterization.
CF: No, I think that’s very close. I think what happens when I play, I have a basic idea that I’m going with because, at the most basic level, I have time to kill and I have to kill it in some way. I want to go in with as little as possible. What I have is this background, and the background is the craft.
JP: So you go in with your skeleton of craft.
CF: Right. That’s the playing it right part. There, I’m borrowing. It would be probably from Coltrane more than anybody. But it also depends on the night. For example, the night you heard me play solo, I almost didn’t play piano. I had just listened to Marvin Santiago doing a tune called “El Pasajero.” I thought, That’s what I’m hearing right now.
CR: So what would you have done if you didn’t play piano?
CF: I probably would have played the record. And I probably would’ve said, “So okay, this [smacks table in salsa rhythm] is what I’m hearing.” And it would have made no sense, and it would have been horrible as a performance, but that doesn’t bother me. Being good, being bad, to me is completely insignificant.
CR: I’ve heard that from you enough that I’m convinced of it. You’ll see somebody play and you’ll write to me about it with great enthusiasm and you’ll say—deep into the email—It was very bad, not that that really matters. Where you and I are farthest apart is in music, and where I’m closest to your position is in fiction writing. I’d rather read bad DIY fantasy fan fiction than yet another well-crafted literary novel that got respectful reviews in all the right places.
CF: A novel like that, published now, gives you absolutely no information that you don’t already have. It doesn’t jolt you in any way, it doesn’t add to what you know in any way, it doesn’t teach you anything. And because you write, a well-constructed piece of writing—just on its own—it’s not going to mean much to you.
CR: But I don’t write fiction, and it’s fiction I’m talking about. I’m a bad musician, and I’m perfectly happy to have a well-constructed piece of music, and I’m happy for whoever did it. But in nonfiction writing, which I do for a living, I’m also perfectly happy to have a well-constructed piece of work. When my nonfiction writing students lay some pipe that doesn’t leak, I’m thrilled. The tricky part for me is that in reading fiction, as opposed to the other two, I find the same level of competence dispiriting. I find it dispiriting to imagine the process of constructing it, and to see that this result is all that came out of that process. Which I suspect is what happens when you listen to jazz.
CF: It’s exactly what happens when I listen to jazz. When I was in my late teens, for a while I thought it might be interesting to try and engage with jazz musicians. I played with a bunch of guys who all ended up being relatively famous, and all they cared about was mastery over pre-existing language. They had no interest in expanding it, no interest in what the language meant, culturally or emotionally or spiritually. The saw notes as notes, construction. And their goal, and these are young kids, was, first, to get rich, and then their ultimate goal was to work with Miles. That’s it, that’s where it stops. So you’re a kid for the rest of your life, you’re producing wonderful craft, but absolutely no meaning. You’re thinking of this thing—music—that really exists for emotional meaning, but you’re thinking purely about its architecture. And that’s as far as it goes, and I think you’ll never produce anything of real value.
CR: Does it work that way in rock? Does it work that way in metal?
JP: Well, metal is special because there’s a more athletic component, like physically what you can do. Especially a drummer. Metal drumming has evolved literally like a sport. There are teenage kids doing now what the best metal drummer once wouldn’t have dreamed of doing. The result is there’s something in the music itself that just demands this constant escalation. Not evolution—escalation. It’s got to go heavier, it’s got to be harder. It’s got to be stranger. It’s got to be more challenging.
CR: So, as a result, does metal have a whole lot of making it new or is everyone just laboring to play it right?
JP: I think there almost is no playing it right, because of the inherent escalation. I took my friend Jeremy Eichler, who reviews classical music for the Globe, to see Meshuggah—
CF: They’re good.
JP: Yeah, they do extraordinary things. Extraordinary things. Jeremy had never even been to a rock show before, so this was almost like I was guiding him through his first acid trip. Because they’re a shudderingly intense kind of live proposition. I mean, the light show alone is a battery of sensations. And Jeremy said, “Do you think this is a violent experience? Do you think the crowd is violent?” And I said, “No, I think this is actually a very loving experience. I think the crowd is very grateful because they’re getting exactly what they want.” And maybe that is kind of playing it right. But also, it has to go beyond. It has to achieve this level that only the very best band can—
CR: A technical level?
JP: Well, the ideal is a simultaneity, like a marriage, between the ultimate technical ability and the thing that you’re trying to express, right?
CR: The technical escalation is enabling new ways to make emotional meaning.
JP: Yes, quite right. I think Meshuggah, in particular, are conjuring this complete other world of oppression and domination and alien-ness and at-home-ness and strangeness and familiarity that not many bands can manage. The escalation is going somewhere.
Charles Farrell has spent his professional life moving between music and boxing, with occasional detours. His book (Lowlife): A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and The Mob, will be published in July, 2020.
James Parker is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the editor of The Pilgrim, a literary magazine from the homeless community of downtown Boston.
Carlo Rotella‘s latest book is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood. He is a professor of English at Boston College.