Sophisticated Ignorances, Part 2
by Nathan Osborne
III. Judge not lest ye be judged
What does it mean when we declare Trout Mask Replica the greatest album of all time, and "Sister Ray" the greatest song? What job is left the listener, critic, when all other fare become lesser emanations of those avant-garde extremities? Viewed from that height, whole movements and decades of musical innovation become pointless, contemptible even. In this reading, the birth of the Delta blues and the masters of that form are worth mention if only for their bearing on a young Captain Beefheart, making possible his schizophrenically brilliant rendering of the world. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and other forefathers of rock might receive mention only in a footnote on how the paved the way for the Velvet Underground's strung out brand of rock and roll. Some of these artistic innovators of the '40's and '50's do receive biographical accounts in Scaruffi's history, but they're treated mostly as mere forebears of what later (and almost exclusively white, male) artists would accomplish on the foundations they laid. With artists before, Beatlemania forever changed the world, you'd be hard pressed to find even the numerical scores Scaruffi so relentlessly imposes as a designator of worth in virtually all of his music writing. It's like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis cannot even be critically analyzed because they belong to the unselfconscious era of rock-ist prehistory. This is partly because of Scaruffi's antipathy to the reigning mode of music distribution in that era, i.e., the single. It seems as if Scaruffi can only judge a cultural artifact as a work of art if it presents itself in huge, Wagnerian, and "aristocratic" gestures. In this case, the birth of the LP is for Scaruffi the extreme earliest point at which popular music can even be considered an analyzable art form. The fact that Scaruffi is biased in favor of LP Art (with a capital a) doesn't merely pertain to his discussion of '50's rock and rollers. His inability to discern value, to peel back the layers of meaning in a product of mass culture, to read between the lines and uncover sympathies with the particular artist behind a work, these failings reveal more serious limitations to his approach as a whole. His suggests that his scorned artists and genres are not objectively worthy of derision, but merely in possession of artistic modes that Scaruffi is by natural temperament not equipped to receive.
Another area in which Scaruffi's critical judgment fails in in lyrical matters. Or rather, he tends to completely ignore lyrics in favor of the purely musical. When limited to his prized artists this makes sense, as much of the truly demented avant-garde Scaruffi so revers leaves much to be desired in the way of concrete lyrics. Lyrical fragments, standard evocations of disintegration, or straight-up unintelligible scat make up a large percentage of the lyrical efforts on Scaruffi's "Top Albums" lists. Perhaps Scaruffi should be given some slack, as English is not his first language. However, disregarding lyrics (even by linguistically-barring necessity) leaves one searching out the most purely musical experiences in popular music. But popular music without words quickly gets repetitive. Let's take the example of the blues again. Without the stanzas of perverse ambiguity that string together so many of the repetitive bar repetitions, the music would become quickly unlistenable. Even with a master guitarist like John Fahey, who divorced the folk-blues from narrative content, the end result inevitably tended to blur a bit in recollection. So popular music's deliberate use of lyrics and storytelling is not a mark against it. While symphonic music may display a virtuosic complexity unimaginable to all but the most blowhard of prog enthusiasts, popular music can create entire universes out of the sung or spoken word. As Jason Pierce of the band Spiritualized has said, in an interview with Perfect Sound Forever 5, "What I love most about Rock and Roll is this way you can say things that are trite or mundane but when you put them to music, they become amazing, magical poetry." Scaruffi's preferred method is to treat popular music like instrumental classical, and then marvel at how unimaginative it all is. If the lyrics support his working theories on why a band deserves such adulation of contempt, they might get mentioned, but even so, no in-depth analysis really ever occurs. What this approach gets wrong is that it automatically excludes, by popular music self-definition, ninety-five percent of the music because it is not something other than what it is. This approach certainly doesn't seem like an open-minded critical lens.
Furthermore, when Scaruffi does venture into lyrical matters, it usually only gets him into trouble. Namely, he tends, in his enthusiasm, to wax mystical. For example, on Trout Mask Replica 6: "Here, Beefheart's Dadaism is at its apex. The lyrics are pure nonsense, abstract sketches that serve only to set the listener on the wrong track." Which is itself "pure nonsense", an abstraction. The opening track, "Frownland", is specific in detail on a liberating escape from the confines of a depressing reality; "Dachau Blues" wails out a pained and sorrowful humanistic resistance in the face of the unimaginable; "Wildlife" displays a genuine fondness for Mother Nature and ecology. Even the surrealistic spoken-word interludes do no such thing as deliberately obscure the actual dimensions of the album: they match the temperament of the music, i.e., crazy but not completely gone, though hinting at something more terrifying hiding just below the surface. That Scaruffi would forgo examining the concrete details and recurrent themes of the album's lyrics in favor of airy poeticizing typifies his approach. Objective examination of albums or songs and what they signify to their audiences is inimical to him. On the contrary, Scaruffi seems to favor whatever avant-garde skullduggery will afford him the best opportunity to indulge in one of his prose-poem stream-of-consciousness ruminations in the guise of album review. No wonder that Scaruffi's best pieces always seem to come out as some music criticism version of "Song of Myself" 7.
None of which is to denigrate Scaruffi's analysis of Trout Mask Replica as a whole. His paean is indeed one of the most passionate and convincing defenses of that album against those who would relegate it to freakdom or novelty status. And that Scaruffi's "review" of his "greatest of all time" album is so evocative is fitting: the forlorn imagery he uses to convey Trout Mask Replica's power casts a spell on the reader, convincing that more of the same (greatness) will follow, if only we follow Scaruffi farther along.
Not to belabor the point, but a look at another one of Scaruffi's showstoppers might also be instructive on this point. In his page on the Sex Pistols 8, Never Mind the Bullocks is given a significant amount of explanation, but without a numerical grade. For anyone familiar with Scaruffi, except for those pre-‘60's artists, and the albums that no one really even cares about (even Scaruffi!), this is kind of a Big Deal. What Scaruffi is signifying here in a roundabout way is that the Sex Pistols were some kind of elemental force, they epitomized the murderously anarchic spirit that Rock and Roll springs from, or something. It's somewhat analogous to when Pitchfork awarded a (1)0.00 9 to some poor sap who had somehow made their shitlist: "Here they be monsters, and critical faculties no longer avail." All well and good, but it gets better. Explaining the latent meaning of "Anarchy in the U.K.", Scaruffi lets slip one of the best of his golden aphorisms. For "I am an Antichrist/ I am an anarchist;/ Don't know what I want/ but I know how to get it" he informs us in measured tones: "This is one of the few meaningful lyrics in all of rock music." Holy shit, right? But let that statement settle with you for even a little longer. It's surely an impressive one, sure to signify portentous matters of great importance. Something to do with the hopelessly confused self-destruction and anarchic nature of a lost and uneducated generation making fumbling attempts at self-expression in such a stunted art form. Still with me? But such a categorical statement also betrays assumptions about what rock, and popular music as a whole, have to say about the human condition. Scaruffi is assuming that the self-emolument typifies by the Sex Pistols and the Sid Vicious crowd is the true, primal essence of rock, a claim made often enough but deserving of significant suspicion since at least Lester Bangs' tribute to his junkie-friend Peter Laughner back in 1977 10. From these assumptions, it's only a short step to the idea that anything affirmative, positive, hell, not overtly psychotic in popular music is a lie, an opiate only to placate the stupid masses. Paul McCartney, you lost before you even started, and MJ, just shut the fuck up already... Ignoring the fact that this starry-eyed romanticization of self-destruction and psychosis is a privilege largely afforded only to white males, Scaruffi's remarks reveal a larger contempt for the very art form he has devoted thousands (!) of web pages to. One might ask: if so much of pop lyricism is useless drivel, why even bother? The answer is that it's not, and Scaruffi's deeper-than-thou posturing is just an auto-confirmation of his own "superior" tastes.
Scaruffi's blindsight to all but the most self-serious music leaves some curious omissions in his "greatest of all times" list. In fact, judging from the contenders, it would seem that the only artists who have produced anything of lasting value in popular music have been (largely dead) white males, with Nico thrown in to add some variety to the table. To be fair, on his site there are "greatest album" lists for specific sub-genres, but these can definitely be considered consolation, or loser's, brackets. Take, for example, Scaruffi's "Top Hip-Hop" list 11. Public Enemy provides his number one, a safe and reasonable choice. But after that, the choices get stranger and it seems that, by the early 2000's, Scaruffi couldn't really be bothered to listen to much hip-hop at all. I'm not the only one to think that about the time that Kurt Cobain OD'd, hip-hop became the dominant force in popular music, the only genre that retained significant vitality and produced consistently groundbreaking new works and artists. But rap music simply doesn't seem to ring any bells in Scaruffi's (warped?) pleasure centers; rap just doesn't fit his aesthetic criterion for meaningful art. In fact, one can imagine Scaruffi cursing his own encyclopedic project around the time of hip-hop's ascendency: he'd started on this venture on now had to wade, pro forma, through so much, erm, urbanity. When reading through his writing on not even just hip-hop, but country, soul, or pop music as a specific genre, one senses a palpable boredom and disgust for his subject. In fact, if you're black, latino, or a rural white, and make the music indigenous to your upbringing, you can expect your album to be docked at least two points from the get-go. Scaruffi doesn't deny that inventive music can emerge from genres other than industrial or the Canterbury Scene, but for him, it's all so uninteresting, so why would you even want to bother? Scaruffi should definitely be allowed his likes and dislikes as far as genre go, but when compiling a "greatest albums" list, these biases should be clearly stated 12. Something along the lines of "I believe that ‘art music' is inherently superior to more popular forms of music. I assume this superiority before the content of the respective musical works' content are even gauged." With information like this, visitors to his site could then begin to critically assess Scaruffi's choices in his "greatest of all times" list. Barring that, it's all just so much snobbish condescension and pompous, unproven assertions.
Through repeated listening, I'm becoming more familiar with the psychic landscape of these works. I know now what I can reasonably expect; the shock subsides and I can slowly regain my senses. Lorca 13. has been recycling through my mind. What could make a man need to write songs like that? One would have to feel a terrible loneliness, a constant, gnawing solitude, one so absolute as to be present even in the arms of one's love. And now perhaps know something of that solitude, I guess. No matter how I try, no one can seem to care about Tim Buckley, or Robert Wyatt, or krautrock. I know it's just the effort it requires to enjoy the music is too much for them. That assurance, however, can't seem to assuage a feeling new to me- a strange sense of resentment on my part.
IV. But the greatest of these is charity
If list-making is a way to briefly fend of the mutability of our existence, Scaruffi seems to have found some pathway to immortality, and passed it along to his followers. At Listology.com, a virtual gathering-place for list-making enthusiasts, Scaruffi is sometimes mentioned as a sort of holy writ against which friends can judge each other's respective lists. And on numerous occasions have I come upon random individual's profiles, on various sites of multiple purposes, to find that under "Favorite Music," there are none other than Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt, Nico, Captain Beefheart, etc., listed together. My breath departs for a moment, and I realize that Scaruffi has passed this way, too.
Which in and of itself is fine; Scaruffi's sway can lead impressionable listeners to bands that have unjustly languished in obscurity for too long (Red House Painter's provided the soundtrack to my stormiest teenage years). What troubles me however is that his style seems to encourage uncritical copy-catting, seems to manipulate reader's anxieties over musical sophistication and impresses arbitrary tastes as if they somehow otherwise. Worst case scenario, Scaruffi's obscurity might foster a snobbishness that is not able even to clearly articulate its own positions. Certainly, no man should be blamed for the actions of all of his followers, but in Scaruffi's case, the pretentiousness seems almost certain to consistently produce these results. I would suggest, too, that Scaruffi-ism possesses an almost cult-like vibe; cults, however, have the added benefit of having at least some social dimension.
But what then of Scaruffi's tastes? Of his prized genres and musical acts? For however much obscure music he champions, it seems as if it's all used as a mere bludgeoning tool against which the tastes of those less musically refined can be denounced. Imagine for a moment, instead, a critic who could extol both Tim Buckley and see the dormant potentialities inherent in the latest dance track. An environment in which art music was secure enough in its own strength and eccentricities to not futilely assert its own superiority over, say, something your mother would listen to. It seems to me that for all his insight, Scaruffi is not the champion these artists deserve. Nor the one they need: with all the indifference of Scaruffi's critical glance, his views will only reach those few whose temperaments already precisely match that needed to become a Scarrufi-ite. And Scaruffi's encyclopedic enterprise on the whole certainly is awe-inspiring in its scope. An insatiable curiosity and genuine love of music would have to be key components in anyone foolhardy enough to undertake such an enterprise. Where Scaruffi went wrong, however, was crystallizing his opinions too soon, for in the great critic, permanent crystallization of thought can only be a stagnation and decline. What a strange world that is, Scaruffi's, in which nothing much come of value in the 2000s but obscure death metal and Joanna Newsom.
Scaruffi's tastes were formed in a different era than our own; his likes and dislikes are an understandable reaction to the currents and anxieties in popular music's nascent era. But his criteria for great art posits popular music as a contradiction: it can only be great when it is no longer itself, when it becomes inaccessible, no longer fully human. Scaruffi assumes a world where the only art is High Art, where art is only such in its most heavily alienated forms, is sick only when its bargains away its own soul. His is a world where the high- and lowbrow do not coexist and nurture one another, but are forever embattled. To be clear: this is a world where art can no longer be met on its own terms; in short, a world ruled by prejudice and dogma. This is a world in which ninety-five percent of music lovers are too stupid for their own good, in which your friend's naivety in music choice is not simply misinformed, but categorically wrong. What I am suggesting is that for listeners and critics, especially the rising generation of critics, this worldview is unacceptable. In Scaruffi's world, Beatles fans are not allowed even the dignity of holding opinions- they're sheep. In this world, there is no conversation: by definition, they're wrong.
When we were young, it was certainly to our credit in taking the courage to explore the outer fringes of mainstream music, and to proceed then into the heart of the avant-garde. But as listeners, or critics, or simply as engaged human beings, it is no longer possible to merely rest contented in our soi-disant sophistication. While we bask in our floating castles of the True and Beautiful, the very culture around is dying. Reviews are bought for money, artists are shackled by streaming's relentless advance- now is the time more than ever for the return of critical intelligences into the chasms of mainstream cultural life. My ideal is a generation of critics who, with unclouded eyes, would once again "illuminate the abysses with their holy torches" 14. We made it long ago out of the stultifying cocoon of vulgar banality; now, however, it is undeniably our duty to go back.
But... then again, Scaruffi's world at time does seem so enticing. He seems the last of a dying breed, the last true musical patron-aristocrat, who has built himself a castle towering over the rabble, and self-published his thoughts with no care as to their popularity or reception. His world is a lovely place to visit, reminiscent of times when there were still places unexplored, when barbarism could be a noble a beautiful thing, when the impossible was still in the globe of human possibility. I would not dissuade the curious from venturing into that realm; I would not suggest even that it would not be good in some way to impart some of that world into their soul. What I would have, however, is that, along the path up the hill, before the castle gates, a large sign be displayed, in unmistakable lettering- "DEAD END".
Unsatisfied, I found myself in a dark forest 15, the ways in and out of which I'd somehow forgotten. Travelling onwards what seemed like weeks, or years, I reach a point in which the path slopes considerably downwards before a final ascent, out of the forest, towards the light. I begin to run, unmindful of my steps, if only I can reach the light and the ones I love on the other side. However, just before the steep ascent, I feel myself start to sink into the ground. My feet are stuck and all my trashing and protestation merely exacerbates the degree of my entanglement. I sink lower; a distinct odor grows stronger until I can hardly bear it. I feel somehow as if I have fallen into this pit of my own accord; the smell too is now recognizable: it seems I am sinking into a pit filled with my own shit and vomit. Suddenly, at the top of the hill, the opening grows wider and rustles for an instant. I can make out a figure, to whom I violently cry out for help. To which after a moment, the figure replies:
"Christ, man, what do you call yourself?" With considerable excitement now , as if being called down from the audience to be some game-show contestant, I exclaim,
"The Aristocrat!" 16
Awaking from such grotesqueries, I feel an insatiable need to go outside and breathe in fresh air. I feel as if today I won't be listening to the Velvet Undergound, or Royal Trux, or Throbbing Gristle. My friend recommended Chance the Rapper's new mixtape the other day; I might try that, or better yet, perhaps I will listen to no music at all. Stepping outside into the blinding late-morning sun, I feel more free than usual. Stuck in my head, words once heard but whose source is now lost to the ravages of time-
My smile is stuck,
I cannot go back to your Frownland;
I cannot go back to your land of gloom
Where black jagged shadows
Remind me of the coming of your doom-
I want my own land 17
1. Richard Meltzer, somewhere
7. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
12. À la Christgau, here: http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/web/cgusers.php , under "Prejudices?"
13. In Scaruffi's assessment, Tim Buckley's greatest album
14. Thomas Mann, Dr. Faustus
15. Dante, Inferno, Canto I, line 1
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