Monday, March 09, 2009

Don't Tell a Soul

We’re tight, you and me. We have a bond. And I can trust that if I tell you a secret, you’ll keep it in confidence. Because I have something to say, and I’d hate for people to know.

A few months back, I found myself in a conversation about Genesis (the band, not the book). Though my disdain for prog rock has been chronicled here, as an impressionable adolescent I was influenced by some older teens (who I mistakenly believed to be cool) and became a fan of the band. Through my high school years, even as I was memorizing every mumble on Murmur and every bromide on Born in the U.S.A., I wafted away on the halcyon haze of moonlit knights and carpet crawlers.

And then one day my eyes popped open. Punk rock and new wave had led me to the light, and helped me reconnect with what I felt intuitively from the moment I first heard music, that rock and roll’s power lay in immediacy and intimacy, the kind that could be found on the A-side of any Stones, Creedence or Motown single. In Songbook, Nick Hornby meditates on his love for Rod Stewart’s early work and explains that part of his personal indebtedness to those albums stems from the introductions they provided to Stewart’s influences – Sam Cooke, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Womack – and to his influences’ influences, all the way back to the beginning of the blues. “The antecedents of Yes and Genesis,” he writes, “were Pink Floyd, and before that nobody much, really, and that was, in retrospect, part of the reason I didn’t like them very much. The music felt airless and synthetic, and it seemed even then as if all the prog rockers would rather have been classical musicians, as if pop were beneath them, somehow. They led you up a blind alley; there was nowhere to go.”

That’s exactly how I began to feel all those years ago. It seemed that in their effort to produce something greater than the pedestrian triviality of pop, the prog rockers ironically fabricated something terribly unsophisticated. Not musically unsophisticated, but emotionally unsophisticated, like high school kids who dress in black and take up smoking and existentialism. In effecting a knowing pose, they project naïveté and artifice.

Back to the Genesis conversation. When I detailed this prog epiphany to my friends, I told them that one day I looked at all my Genesis albums and thought to myself “I &%$#ing hate this &*^%. But I hate Duke the least.”

Immediately, I felt regret. Because though I hadn’t listened in twenty years, I suspected that I didn’t hate Duke at all.

To satisfy my curiosity and pay my penance, I recently replaced my quarter-century old copy with the new special edition CD. And then I listened to for the first time since the 1980s. Which brings me to my confession.

I kind of love this album.

There, I’ve said it. I kind of love Duke. And it’s not mere nostalgia. I spun The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway recently, and just scratched my head, lost at the intersection of “The Supernatural Anaesthetist” and “Hairless Heart.” But Duke hits me where I live, and I think it’s because the album represents the band’s accidental apex, the place where their two signature qualities, often in conflict, reached a near-perfect balance.

Genesis was defined by two vectors: Ambition and Pop. In the beginning (the left side of the chart), they were all Ambition and no Pop. To prove this, I need only mention that in 1971, they recorded an eight-minute song called “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” You don’t even have to hear it; you just know. As you move across the chart, the Ambition Vector is a sharp downward diagonal, the Pop Vector just the opposite. By the time you reach the end, it’s all Pop, no Ambition, exemplified by Invisible Touch, as indefensible a pail of gossamer hooey that any major act as has ever thrust upon the public. In the middle, though, the vectors cross. And the moment where they meet is Duke.

Duke has melodies. It has steady rocking beats, and it rarely meanders (though the closing suite of “Duke’s Travels” and “Duke’s End” flirts with ruining a good thing). And though it has a (very) vague narrative theme, all forms of trolls and unicorns are conspicuous by their absence, replaced by tales of relationships in turmoil. Instead of striving for epics, the band settles for songs, and that makes all the difference.

It starts with something that sounds vaguely like an overture, and overtures are very prog, so let’s call it a “flourish” or better yet, a “motif” – yes, we can live with that. A motif. No overtures here, thank you. And it’s hummable and forceful and memorable. And when the band settles into a steady groove, we find a drummer more enamored with “Take a Letter Maria” than “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Do you like good music? I mean sweet soul music? I do! And these guys do, too!

The songs have dynamics. They rise and swell. And they end. Ending is very important. Because when one good idea ends, another can begin. And there are lots of ideas here, some from very unconventional places. On the bonus DVD, Phil Collins confesses that the sound of “Misunderstanding” was influenced by, among others, Toto (!), a fact that makes a million unreformed prog-heads weep. There’s “Turn It On Again,” a full-out rock anthem that the band discovered (much like the Stones did with “Start Me Up”) by revving up a previously mid-tempo scrap. And though Collins in later years would come to wallow in syrupy relational pathos, “Please Don’t Ask” is a raw nerve, a vivid portrait of a doomed marriage that wouldn’t seem misplaced on a Carole King album.

Sure, some of my affection for these songs is almost certainly heightened by the fact that they take me back to that awkward age detailed here, but can any of us untether music from memory? Still, experience allows me to see the album in a new light, and I’ve had a bottomless pit of experience in the intervening years. Duke will never again be a companion, but it’s an old friend I’m happy to visit from time to time. Keep that to yourself.


Ms Suki said...

Lovely essay. I enjoyed reading it. I just started to reread Hornby's essays too.

Brian from NJ said...

first-time poster, long time TK reader...

I've always enjoyed Duke (maybe aside from "Heathaze", which I used to put on when I wanted to take a nap). I suppose I never sat down to think about why I like this album so much but you seem to have hit it on the head. nice work.