Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading Hawthorne in the Fall

A cancelled class left me with a free moment or two. It was a fall day -- the blue-sky kind, you know, where it looks like summer if you look straight up. If you find a good patch of sun those days can feel like summer too. My search didn't take long.

I balanced my obscene fountain drink on the arm of a bright blue, south-facing bench, and balanced myself and my book on the seat. "A warm place," I muttered. I talk to myself in public, but quietly and mysteriously enough that (hopefully) no one can tell.

I pried open the fat volume of American literature, and landed right where I wanted to be. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is easy enough to find -- since the entire novel is reprinted in the anthology, the pages are a different tint of white from the rest. Penguin managed to find a tree that slices even thinner than the delicately shaved trunks that make up Norton's Anthologies.

The sun was at forty-five degrees. There was a breeze. I couldn't face the sun and read through the reflection off the bright white pages, nor could I tolerate the cold that was settling into the north-facing back of my neck, as much as my neck appreciated the touch of the breeze. I had to pick a side. So I presented my best side, my right side, to the sun.

So I delved into "The Custom-House," the introduction to the novel. I have read The Scarlet Letter twice before, but never had I seen it with its intro intact. I have had the same pocket version of it since I was about eleven years old.

My middle-school class had got the leftover books when the high school cleaned out their library, so I naturally had rifled through and took home several volumes which were far too advanced for a sixth grade mind. I slowly got through that Hawthorne novel, re-reading every sentence and then every paragraph, and then prompty forgot what I'd read. I have a feeling I retained some of the vocabulary and I certainly gained a lifelong fondness of nineteenth century sentence structures. But nothing of Hester or Dimmesdale was left in my skull when I dusted the book off for eleventh grade english. Although a pass at the novel as a sixteen-year-old was much easier.

This is perhaps the only book with which I've had such a long relationship. However, now that I plan to be a scholar of books (and other written things), a familiarity spanning only seventeen years will soon be a trifle.

These thoughts distracted me from my reading, and so did Hawthorne himself. Having only read the novel and some few short stories of his, I had no idea about his sense of humor. At each chuckle I'd look up an be even further distracted by the trees.

I remembered then that it was not summer, despite the sunny positioning of my neck and face and the brightness everywhere. No, some of the bright things were trees, and that meant fall. I tried to pick a name for each of the colors of the three trees that formed a display by the street.

One was definitely gold, the kind of splendid gold you'd imagine in a palace. But that is so material, I thought, Why does the tree have to look like something of value? The next tree looked like a pumpkin color, but as if a little white had been added to tint it a softer orange. It was Dreamsicle orange! But why does this tree have to look like a food product? I thought, Why does it remind me of an artificial flavor? The last tree was the same species as the first, and upon examining its particular hue of gold, I was then in a quandry over which gold was really more "Golden." I decided not to assign symbols or even colors to trees. They are trees, and I should be able to take them in as such, without mitigation through any kind of tree-valuation system.

Between the trees and the changing sunlight (a puffy cloud blotted out the sun for less than a minute and I felt my lips turn purple), I did not get far in my reading. I watched the clouds to see when the sun might make its reentrance, but I could not perceive any movement. I ran for cover from that eerily static, painted-on sky and warmed myself in the library before heading home.

After the sun had gone down, I tackled it again. Only now my house seemed to be colder than my breezy afternoon on the bench. I put the heater on a modest 65 degrees, and sat right next to it. My afternoon dilemma was reenacted. I could not face the heater for fear of the book catching fire (or my feet catching fire), and I could not put my back to it for my lips were again turning purple and my nose was surely about to follow. So I had to choose a side. The heater got my earlier neglected left profile.

The heater keeps turning off. Hawthorne keeps making me laugh and look up. I am still not finished reading.

". . . the waywardness of an April breeze; which spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts of inexplicable passion, and is petulant in the best of moods, and chills oftener than caresses you, when you take it to your bosom; in requital of which misdemeanours it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss your cheek with a kind of doubtful tenderness, and play gently with your hair, and then begone about its other idle business, leaving a dreamy pleasure at your heart."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Evolution of the Music Review


Several months ago I found an ancient music review online, stored in the vaults of a defunct Steely Dan fanize called Metal Leg. Defunct.

What was I doing there? Looking for Steely Dan reviews of course.

It's a late night and I'm in the groove with the Dan. I'll keep us reminded of the background music for this post throughout.

"I learned to work the saxophone...and I play juuuust what I feeeeel..."

This review of the Aja album, written by Mr. Ken Emerson for the Boston Phoenix and published in 1977, impressed me because of Emerson's thoroughness, his almost literary analysis, and his near-academic writing style as applied to pop-culture.

I enjoyed it so much I was ready to mark it as something novel and unique, the pinnacle of review writing. In fact, this one was so darn good the guys who run the fan site put it up even though it's completely negative! But then I got to looking at reviews by Emerson's contemporaries, and I was met with similarly dense articles. Emerson's still takes the cake for quasi-scholarly, philosophical music reviews, but all in all, reviews used to be much more than they are today.

Since I do not listen to anything composed in the twenty-first century, and since twenty years is a wide enough time gap for comparing our reviews, I did a comparison of the Dan review with a 1995 review of one of my favorite 90s bands, Alice in Chains. This review was written by Mr. Jon Wiederhorn and published in Rolling Stone magazine. I chose it because I still remembered this 1995 review, though I had read it when I was only fifteen years old.

Why did I remember a review from thirteen years ago? Because I couldn't stand the writing!

"kick off your high heeled sneakers, it's party time...give us some funked up music, she treats you nice..."

The Essay

The two reviews are typical of their eras. They differ in which aspects of the albums are given the most attention (i.e. lyrics, music, historical context, biographical context, etc.), types of analysis applied, and the reader's expected level of familiarity with the "text."

I will start with the last point, it will be illustrated without much effort from me once all the other points are out of the way. The authors have different expectations of the readers. We will see how the seventies author assumes that we have already listened to the album, or at least have a close familiarity (whether it be amicable or acrimonious) with Steely Dan, and that the review will give us a better understanding of the music we've heard. The nineties author assumes that we have not heard the Alice in Chains album, that we are perhaps not even familiar with the well-established band, and that his review will help us decide whether to buy their new album.

Perhaps Wiederhorn didn't hear Billy Joel when he sang, "you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine."

Now the second and first points (I've been reading too many "backwards point" essays lately), the difference in the types of analysis used and in the time spent on different aspects of the album. Luckily the structures are similar so we can easily compare and contrast.

"when Josie comes home, so bad, she's the best thing we've ever had . . . she's the raw flame, the live wire . . ."

"To twist 'Reelin' In The Years' out of context, the 'everlasting summer' of the '60s was 'fading fast' when Steely Dan began writing the decade's obit in 1972." Both reviews begin with a bit of a history lesson about the bands, but the Dan review places the music within the context of the post-1960s counter-counter-culture era. After a genius, biting introduction ("And the record is Steely Dan's first failure because Becker and Fagen have lost their arrogant sense of place and purpose."), we get a lesson on the futility of utopia and free love, and a back-handed kudos to the Dan for ". . . amassing a devastating critique of the sensibility of the '60s and . . . proffering their own as infinitely more sensible." I love that! Dan the revisionists, the reformers, the inception of "Danism."

The Alice in Chains review begins with this bland piece of historical reference: "The older generation always complains that hard rockers are an angry, unstable bunch prone to violent, antisocial and frequently self-destructive behavior." How generic can you get? While Chains members were not known for any particular acts of violence, self-destruction was certainly at the top of Layne Staley's to-do list. This, I suppose, is the author's segue into the subject of drug addiction as a background for the bands achievements and hardships. All of this is summed up in two short paragraphs.

In the body of the reviews both authors discuss song lyrics and sound, in some cases track by track. Again Emerson's analyses poke the brain! And Wiederhorn's just lie there.

Emerson picks apart the Dan's lyrics, launching into an essay-within-a-review on Steely Dan's history of misogynism, with albums like "Can't Buy a Thrill" as cases in point. The feminist or gender theory analysis here goes so far as finding phalluses in the lyrics of five or six songs, in the forms of guns and needles.

Some psychoanalysis happens as well, mixed with the author's analysis of the musicians themselves. Songs about holed-up criminals and doped up sax players lead Emerson to wonder how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker relate to these characters, what their motives are, and why we spend so much time inside their heads.

Wiederhorn's analysis of Alice's lyrics and the relationship of music to musician is again bland and superficial. "If Jar of Flies was the key that unlocked the group's creative potential, then this new disc is the musical rebirth. What really makes Alice in Chains a poignant artistic statement is the band's unflinching candor." How melodramatic.

Finally, the thing I remembered most about the Chains review was the description of the sounds. The language Wiederhorn uses is so thick and soupy, and although the album he is describing could also be called thick and soupy, I still am grated upon by his word choices. They are even more ridiculous to me because the review is written to convince the reader to buy the CD -- so the reader has not heard the music, and Wiederhorn thinks he can sell the album by describing it like this: "Alice's songs are still dipped in a quagmire of surging guitars and throbbing bass, only this time they're laced with layered, fluorescent licks and soaring vocal harmonies . . . " and then, "'Grind' shimmers and shudders beneath a web of trippy wah-wah guitar . . ." and then, "a nightmarish vista that begins with a sluggish riff, peaks with a sprawling solo layered over demonic chatter and ends with an atmospheric mélange of wailing guitars."

Can't stand it. And if you've ever heard Alice in Chains you'd know that these descriptions could be of just about any one of their songs.

Emerson's only attempt at describing sound is mixed in with his essay points, and it seems, like the entire review, to be addressed to a veteran of the Dan. During his argument about Steely Dan's studio quality sound and how their being "hermetically sealed" in a recording booth had cut them off from the music world, he describes the chorus of what he thinks is their greatest recorded performance, "My Old School": "a lurching, almost epileptic, guitar solo against a backdrop of bemused saxophones. "

And that's it. It does smack a little of Wiederhorn's style, but the Dan-fan who reads this knows that this kind of sound is atypical of Steely Dan's music. The description is funny because it's unlikely but true. And I'm pretty sure Emerson was trying to be funny -- not trying to impress us with his pocket thesaurus of Ten-Thousand-and-One Grungy Words.

If this sort of comparison interests you, or if you are an avid music review reader or even just a lover of music, I suggest checking out the two reviews for a better idea of what I'm trying to get at here.

In conclusion, I think these reviews show (among other things) that by the 90s music had become a commodity, and that musical literacy was on the decline, even among writers on the Rolling Stone staff. And now, in the era of the endless playlist, we go through tunes like paper plates. But in the 70s, that great musical decade which I am sad to have missed by a mere ten months, people bought LPs and played them again and again (often enough to do a "close-reading" of the texts if you will), and stuck to their music genres like religious beliefs.

" . . .they stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast."

Now onto the Steely Dan/Eagles feud.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fancy Footnotes

I am reading a lot of "Ye Olde English" and "Ye Olde Middle English" these days. I like it. But sometimes the reading goes very slowly.

The problem I am having with my Norton Anthology of medieval literature is the overabundance of footnotes. The editors use the notes to clarify historical context, define unfamiliar words, or clarify the unclear grammar of yore. The first type of footnotes are usually appreciated, and can be conveniently skipped over if a reader is savvy enough to figure out when they are about to be directed to a historical footnote, i.e. the little "1" is next to the name of a saint or a city.

The other two types of footnotes (definitions and grammar clarifications) however, should be used sparingly. Moreover, they should not be repeated.

After reading Sir Thomas Mallory and the Gawain poet, I have a good idea of what many of the quirky medieval terms mean, and how some of the archaic verb forms work. "Wit" used to mean "know," and it was conjugated as wit, woot, and other funny forms that sound like owl calls. "Wert," however, just means "were." The first note on each of these words was all I needed.

But the editors felt it necessary to label every one! So in the middle of some already dense middle English, as I am using the margin notes to understand the very weird words, my eyes keep catching little ones, twos, and threes, and darting down to the bottom of the page to search for the corresponding number, which nine times out of ten precedes a tidbit of information I had long stored away.

The editors chose to print Chaucer's Canterbury Tales "untranslated" which makes it a lot of fun (I mean it). But now my reading is going slower than ever. The professor handed out "translations" taken from a paperback edition of the Tales, but they just don't do the language justice. I would rather like to get through the middle English version instead, but that endeavor may take longer than my midterm schedule allows.

In the past I have had the same trouble with Shakespeare's plays. By now I have found the versions and publishers that I like, and I can skim through a play with only minor distractions from the well placed notes in, for instance, the Oxford editions. But unfortunately, more archaic and obscure literature like Margery Kempe or Marie de France is not as readily available in thousands of formats like Shakespeare's plays. So we are at the mercy of the editors -- they may choose to give us no notes at all or to distract us endlessly with repeated information. Usually they choose the latter method of footnoting.

Although the Norton Anthologies are printed on Bible-thin pages I still think they might save a tree or two if they cut back a little on the footnotes.

I hope that it becomes clear to editors of critical editions of anthologies and single works that those who are reading these kinds of books are interested in the material -- perhaps they are even English majors or PhD students! Some anthologies are certainly intended for high school and lower level college courses, but period specific anthologies and critical editions of single texts are probably being read a little more closely and by an audience that is a bit more sophisticated than your average reader of a collection of "stories."

Finally, I wonder at the intent of all these notes. Are they trying to make it easier, to reach out a hand to students who struggle with reading and help them over ye olde river of middle English? Do they think of their burgeoning notes as a sign of their benevolence to us? Or are they convinced that today's scholars of literature are completely hopeless when it comes to learning and retaining new words? Do they make fun of us as they type up their notes?

If I have to read a footnote definition of "woot" one more time in this edition, I shall consider my intelligence officially insulted.

Please save the forests, save the eyes of English students (we certainly need them to stay sharp for years to come), and save time for everyone involved -- stop the fancy footnote work!