Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Rock Nostalgia and Time Zones
Along time continuums, rock is angled towards present-minded orientations. The best rock songs have the quality of intensely lived moments— even those torqued away from sex and romance, like “Waterloo Sunset.” Ray Davies is one of the few rock songwriters to write consistently in “past modes”— one of the reasons he’s a contender for the most serious artist in rock history. Writing about “now” or future outcomes can seldom be as rich as writing about past moments, emotions, etc. Time changes and expands perspectives— moments look different in retrospect than they do in the present tense. When Davies sings “People often change/ But memories of people can remain” in “Do You Remember Walter?”, the wisdom he imparts is simple but profound. The moment intensely lived is a double moment— a moment of recollection. It’s experienced as overwhelming, simultaneously joyous and melancholy. Davies best songs do seem to make other rock writers look one-dimensional. Other good rock songs that attempt this sort of thing (David Bowie’s “Changes,” the Beatles “She Said She Said”) don’t quite demonstrate the narrative chops to balance head and heart the way Davies does.
If Davies’ songs have a slight edge on Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” it’s because the song’s second-person perspective drains some energy and interest away from the narrative. That having been said, Davies’ perceived masterpiece, 68’s “Village Green” album, is patchy. If “Third/Sister Lovers” doesn’t have any individual tracks as brilliant as “Waterloo Sunset” or “Do You Remember Walter?”, it adds up to a whole that incorporates moments of recollection with moments of intense present-minded urgency. What’s funny about the Beatles is that their most famous “past statement” (the double-sided single “Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields Forever”) is put together in such a way that, had John Lennon and Paul McCartney not talked them up in interviews, no one outside Liverpool (especially Americans) would have realized that Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were Liverpudlian places from their pasts. The Who’s quirky variant of this, “I’m a Boy,” is not a recollection at all but a little monologue from an androgynous (proto-deviant) young girl. Prince takes this subgenre (temporal narrative/ nostalgia piece) and radically sexualizes it— “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret” are pure sexual nostalgia. Ray Davies almost always remains platonic. In a way, Pet Sounds is a nostalgia piece— nostalgia combines with a pained awareness of present and future. The context is pure Americana, the voice one of wounded innocence. The Bruce Springsteen voice that manifests in “My Hometown” is the adult equivalent of Asher/Wilson’s troubled adolescent.
This time zone subgenre is one reason that rock songs and their canon cannot be easily dismissed. Subgenres like hard rock and heavy metal have a more difficult time making bids for maturity— the songs are almost all present tense. No rock critic that I’ve seen has bothered to make extensive sub-generic distinctions— one of the reasons it is difficult to regard them as serious. Serious critics in higher art genres need to sort, and organize. They have their own wheels to spin— they don’t have to be mere cogs. This is what rock has to decide for itself— whether or not it wants to be a higher art genre. I’d say, rock biz shenanigans aside, rock has gotten off to a decent start. To the extent that you can equate “Waterloo Sunset” with one of Keats’ better sonnets, this would be hard to argue against. The move that needs to be made is from sonnet to ode; minor ambitions in a minor genre to major ambitions in a major genre. All it really takes is three or four great writers. And a little luck.