Posted on | May 28, 2010 | No Comments[Another old piece of writing. Kind of a sibling to the Replacements piece. Consolidating it over here.]
Recently, the band Kiss made a triumphant return to the limelight. It was fun observing the whole resurgence. It got me thinking warm thoughts about my life as 7th grader, listening to the Big 89, WLS AM Chicago, and the 50,000 watts of top forty power it beamed down to Champaign, Illinois. But before I’ve even finished singing “Beth” to myself, my mind invariably wanders forward to more recent Kiss related memory: a night a few years before this recent resurgence when I unexpectedly found myself going to see Ace Frehley, Kiss lead guitarist, perform at a local rock club with his own band.
“Whadya think he’ll play?” one of my friends wondered out loud as we drove down to the club.
“Hope he plays some Kiss songs,” another one replied.
“He better,” we all agreed. “Or it’ll be a rip-off.”
Inside the club, the band room had been transformed into the “hard rock zone.” The stage was filled with tall stacks of Laney amplifiers belonging to Ace and his band. In many trips to this club, I had never seen a full wall of amps like that in there.
Outside the band room, by the bar, I ran into an acquaintance of mine who said he had been there when the bands loaded in their equipment and that Ace was surrounded by three body guards.
“I couldn’t tell if they were protecting him or holding him up so he wouldn’t fall down,” he explained.
About twenty minutes after the second opening band finished its set, Ace emerged with his band. From my vantage point he looked like a cross between a puffy-faced vampire and Elvis after he discovered Carbohydrates. “Relaxed fit” blue jeans were a necessity rather than a fashion choice. Surrounding Ace were three comparatively younger musicians of the hard rock persuasion, sporting an array of tight jeans, colorful vests and scarves that would have made Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler proud.
At this point, even a jumbo helping of Generation X ironic whimsy seemed unlikely to salvage the evening. But when Ace slung on his cherry-sunburst Les Paul Custom and the band launched into “Detroit Rock City,” I was forced to reconsider my position. The band sounded good, even if Ace’s vocals were a little thin. All those amps made one hell of a loud pummeling sound. The kind of loud you get when you send two Les Paul guitars into eight hundred watts of overdriven tube amplification and back out through thirty-two 12″ Celestion speakers–a muscular, we’re not even pushing these rigs, kind of loud. I stood there, slightly in awe, the bottom end of the guitars washing over me, and pondered whether the best Kiss songs didn’t embody, in a hard rock context, the very principles Strunk and White preached in their Elements of Style: clarity, directness, concision, and careful organization.
Then a strange thing happened. The voice of my sixty-five-year-old dad echoed through my head:
“He’s really working up there, isn’t he?”
Although the meaning of this statement was immediately clear to me, it probably needs some explanation here. My dad has been involved in music professionally for about fifty years. He started out doing popular stuff, playing trumpet and french horn in jazz and swing bands back in Philadelphia in the 1940s. Since 1960, he’s been a composer, a conductor, and a professor of music composition. He’s written three operas and numerous other orchestral and choral works, most of which have far more in common with the work of Schönberg and Cage than with that of Ace Frehley.
But despite their stylistic dissimilarities, over the years, dad, like Ace, has made his living through music. It’s art to him, and he takes his art seriously. But it’s also a job and a career. So when my dad says “He’s really working up there, isn’t he?” it’s a knowing comment about a reality that binds all professional musicians together, regardless of how different they may be in musical style or taste. They’re all hustling and trying to make a living. They’re not just artists. They’re workers too. Music may be everyone else’s break from everyday life, their entertainment. It may even be a welcome escape from the tedium of the nine-to-five world for the musicians themselves. But if you do it regularly for money, eventually it’s work.
So when my dad made a similar comment as we watched James Brown do the splits on the David Letterman Show about thirteen years ago, I took it as a statement paying respect to James Brown for taking his craft seriously, for being my dad’s age and doing the splits on Letterman, for still getting out there and singing “Cold Sweat” with energy and conviction. I took it the same way when my dad used similar language to describe seeing Elvis in Las Vegas in 1972. And when my dad took my brother to see the Who in 1982 and he came back and said the same thing, I knew what he meant. I doubt the Who touched his life significantly, but the fact of their longevity did make an impression on him. They were still doing it after almost two decades. And they put on a good show. Their job was to entertain and they did their job.
We children of the rock and roll era don’t have much respect for the notion of craft to which my dad’s comment refers. It’s really a pre-rock-and-roll notion, one born in a time when craft was usually a precondition to making a living as a musician. Songwriters wrote songs. Musicians played these songs. There was a lot more live music and bands were bigger. They had big horn sections with intricate arrangements. To make these arrangements work, bands generally worked from sheet music. This practice also facilitated more fluid employment relations. Individual musicians were less tied to particular bands. The “show went on.” If Saxophone A couldn’t show up, you brought in Saxophone B, gave him the music, maybe rehearsed once and played the show.
This still goes on today in at least some segments of the music industry. But in many respects, rock and roll changed all this, because the ethos of rock and roll is hostile to such notions of craft and professionalism, even though this sort of craft and professionalism has always been a part of rock and roll. As an ideology, rock and roll has always been about “anyone can do it” and “raw emotions” expressed in an “authentic” way. So a song’s a little raw. So the guitars are out of tune. Who cares? It’s sincere. It’s honest. It’s what I was feeling. Don’t put you’re standards on me. I can do what I want. It’s rock and roll.
In this ideological framework, craft, in the pre-rock sense, is among the worst evils. It’s about elitism and exclusivity. It’s the end of innocence, the beginning of self-consciousness, the arrival of artifice and insincerity. It’s the hand of “the man” sanitizing the music, white-washing the truth. It’s the world of commerce rushing in and trampling the sacred world of “real” artistic expression. It’s people carrying on after the thrill is gone in order to make a living. It’s people making decisions for business rather than artistic reasons. It’s not very romantic. In short, it’s the everyday life of the real world, the world from which rock and roll is supposed to provide an escape.
In this regard, rock and roll seems to share more with the world of sports than with the musical genres that preceded it. You either make it big or barely make a thing (The NBA vs. the CBA). In addition, rock and roll seems to be viewed as a game that you play, not a job that you do. God forbid you ever think of it as a job (especially out loud). You’re supposed to play it for the love of the game, and feel grateful for the privilege. You’ll work a day job if you have to, in order to play on your own terms. That’s far more honorable than sullying yourself in a cover band playing weddings.
Rock and roll is also like sports in that successful rock and roll musicians aren’t just musicians. They’re “stars.” As a result, we’ve tended to look at successful rock musicians in much the same way we look at successful ballplayers. There’s a tacit agreement: you play the game as well as you can and we’ll give you more money and adulation than most people receive in a life time. But remember that it’s a young man’s game. When the time comes that you’ve lost the spring in your step and you can’t pull the ball down the line anymore, leave the game gracefully and retire or go sell insurance. We don’t want to feel embarrassed for you. Because if we have to see you as you are now, we’ll have to look at ourselves as we are now. We’ll have to face the here and now, as opposed to that fantasy world of the past that your music creates for us, that place where we’re all forever young.
Ace Frehley is the walking embodiment of this phenomenon. In his case, it’s even more pronounced, because he spent the most successful years of his career performing in make-up and a costume, surrounded by a vast array of pyrotechnics. Maybe he looked like a puffy-faced vampire in 1975 too. We never knew, but we could sure see him now in all his middle-aged, burned-out splendor. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
But there’s more to it than that. Even if Ace was as fit as Steven Tyler–the Dorian Grey of Hard Rock–seeing him perform would still engender a complicated mix of emotions. For at some level, seeing Ace is seeing Kiss. And unpacking the cultural significance of Kiss has proven to be far more complicated than anyone ever expected. After all, rock critics and the hipoise always hated Kiss, precisely because Kiss was always about craft. It was crass. It was completely contrived. And in the eyes of the critics, the “philistine masses” ate it up, because they lacked the hermeneutic skills to shed their false consciousness and see the horrible truth about the band. They were too stupid to see through the artifice, to see that there might not be any “real” emotions underlying Kiss’s music, to see that “Art” took a back seat to entertainment.
What the critics missed is that music is a two way emotional street. It isn’t just about a musician bearing his or her “real” soul and the listener bearing witness to the “authenticity” of this experience and absorbing it. It’s about listeners making their own meanings out of the music. At this level, the distinction between “real” emotion and craft is a lot less important. Craft can be a virtue, because craft is a powerful thing. That’s why rock and roll has always been wary of it, even as it tacitly embraces it. Craft is knowledge. It implies an understanding of the ways in which music effects people physically and emotionally and the ability to use music’s power to manipulate people’s emotions and senses. In the case of pop music, it’s the ability to write and record a song that people like, a song that people will pay money for.
On this level Kiss was always a phenomenal success. Whether the band members wrote the songs themselves or brought in song doctors like Desmond Child, someone knew what they were doing and cared about doing it well. Hell, the band might not have even played on the records. And whether the songs expressed “sincere” emotions is anyone’s guess. Maybe they just wanted to make money or be famous. But someone had pride in the product. Sure, it was candy, but for those of us who came of age with Kiss, it tasted pretty good.
We were touched by the band’s craft. It seduced us and made us like the band’s music. And we’ve built emotional attachments to Kiss’s music that are personal to our own experiences. At least for me, these attachments don’t have much to do with the “deep issues” of pain and loss and the contemplation of the artist’s soul. They have to do with being twelve years old and listening to the radio and singing “I want to rock and roll all night and party every day” without really even knowing what the hell these words meant. They were just catchy. They still are. And I don’t want to belittle this experience just because I was twelve years old and lacking the sophisticated interpretive tools possessed by rock critics and my friends’ older siblings. I learned those later. They’ve brought me pleasure and enlightenment. But so has Kiss, a pleasure I’d hate to lose, but can never fully explain.
So as I watched Ace playing up on the stage that night, it was strangely uplifting. “Rocket Ride” felt good. “Back in the New York Groove,” from his solo album, felt good. So did the encore, where he pulled out “Rock and Roll All Night.” Sure it was bittersweet. It was hard not to feel a little sorry for Ace. There was no big arena, no make-up, and no pyrotechnics. Ace was no longer a mega-star. But even knowing how drunk Ace probably was, he did not seem pathetic to me. Ace was working and there was a love and understanding of the craft that came through. He was up on that stage entertaining us, and he acquitted himself quite well. The band sounded good and Ace’s guitar playing was there too. Nobody ever would have confused him with Ritchie Blackmore or Eddie Van Halen. But nobody ever has. So why start now? He played his solos and rocked out in a down right dignified way. Well, as dignified as a person can be who uses the words “fuck,” “fucker,” and “motherfucker” in every sentence. But after all, Ace wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t. He’s a free bird. It’s rock and roll, and Ace is a rock and roller.