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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/02/20
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: Ringo Blues

Last year, Tommy and I did something that, while probably not technically
illegal, was at least seriously sketchy. We found a roll of developed
pictures in a desk drawer. The desk was in a public space in a dormitory,
apparently abandoned. We didn’t know any of the people in the pictures.
There was nothing lurid about any of them: just some people hanging out,
some shots of a family. There was a picture of two people playing with a
Magic Eightball. The idea that it was a glimpse into somebody else’s life
was what was exciting: that we could look at the pictures and not know
anything about any of the people, or even any of the places. There was a
nice foreignness to it all; it was quietly transportational. We got prints
made of them.
I just returned from a trip (with Tommy, incidentally) and now come armed
with a large stack of photographs from the excursion — a highlight reel of
the 15 rolls Tommy shot, a stack of my own Polaroids, and some other things
we picked up along the way. People, family members, have asked to see them,
and I generally oblige. Along with the pictures, I’m usually expected to
give some sort of narrative explaining what’s going on in each one of them.
And when people don’t ask, I feel compelled to anyway. When I showed my
father the Polaroids ("art shots," Mom called ‘em, and not in a derogatory
way), he didn’t wanna hear it, and preferred to look at them plainly
divorced from the trip.
For me, it’s obviously hard to separate the two. I’d like to think I can,
but it’s just not that easy. When asked what he heard when he listened to
The Beatles, John Lennon (in typical post-Beatles deflationary mode)
replied, "when I hear a song, I remember the Abbey Road studio, the session,
who fought with whom, where I was sitting, banging the tambourine in the
corner." In other words: it could be reasoned that John Lennon might not be
the best available critic of The Beatles’ music.
Yet, that comment is nestled in the context of a larger interview – one of
Lennon’s last – in which he talks, very specifically, about The Beatles,
about his musical relationship with Paul McCartney, about what he was
thinking when he penned specific lyrics. These are not uninteresting
stories, and certainly lead very directly to a certain understanding of The
Beatles’ music. The more one reads about them, the more his opinions about
The Beatles are colored by the anecdotal histories. The mythology is
assimilated into the listening experience, even quantified by it: "did you
hear how John’s voice cracked there? That’s ‘cos Ringo was shoving
drumsticks up his bum." Well, that’s one story, anyway.
I know that voice crack, and – really – it don’t have shit to
do with drumsticks. Hell, sailor, you and I know that it’s an emotional
effect, right? (Or some other big and important sounding word that
critics like to use.) It does something to the song that’s kinda nice — a
little tinge of hesitation on the singer’s part, or maybe even plain ol’
Or maybe it does have to do with what was going on in Abbey Road that
day; yeah, that’s the ticket: a stray bit of tea leaf found its way into
John’s cup that afternoon and chose that precise moment to get lodged in his
throat; or he spotted Paul flouncing into the control room with Bob Dylan
and Johnny Cash in tow. Or John just thought it sounded cool. What’s the
difference? In "Not A Go-Betweens Piece" (recently anthologized in the
wonderful Best Music Writing 2001 volume), Jonathan Lethem spoke of a
personal mythology he created while listening to the Go-Betweens, one he
didn’t want to spoil by knowing the facts of the situation. The post-modern
crux of the matter is that a real mythology is no different from a
self-created one.
These are all just ways of imagining the music (what a hippie-ass notion!).
The problem, then, comes with the matter of shared experience. The
experiences that are easiest to share are the ones that are easiest to
communicate, and the ones that are easiest to communicate are generally the
ones that are most readily observable: in other words, what is or isn’t on
the record itself. A piece of criticism only becomes pretentious or useless
when the writer assumes a significant bit obscure knowledge on the part of
the reader that is necessary for an understanding of the review.
(Parenthetically, this is why The Beatles can – across the board – function
as decent examples for just about anything: people know who the fuck
Ringo is.)
This becomes a significant issue in writings about the jamband scene. To say
that one liked a version of "Dark Star" because of its relation to other
(perhaps specific) versions of "Dark Star" that The Grateful Dead played is
a description useless to somebody who hasn’t put some amount of study into
The Grateful Dead. By the same token, the description is all the more
articulate to someone who already knows what "Dark Star" symbolizes. The
latter mentality is one that is intrinsic to an understanding of this kind
of music, and even the culture that surrounds it. But it is the former that
is necessary to communicate it, at least as a starting point.
These so-called "blind spots" are actually moments of intensely clear vision
that might be likened to moments of lucidity amidst a highly personal
experience. Just because they are a challenge to describe certainly doesn’t
mean that they don’t exist. Nonetheless, these sorts of descriptions tend to
be frowned upon. There seems to be a great value placed on experiences that
can be reproduced: a record review should be objective to the degree that
the reader should be able to recreate the described effect at home. This
seems, on some levels, to be a cop-out. Who wants the same experience as
everybody else? How could one tell, anyway?
Jesse Jarnow has a custom-built,
hot-rod wunderkammern.

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