By Daniel Garrett
“Many believe they prefer that music retain its ‘mystery,’ and they say that a conscious understanding of its workings robs it of its magic. But this is like saying that an understanding of the chemistries of taste and smell would spoil a good meal,” declares Walter Everett, the editor of the book Expression in Pop-Rock Music: Critical and Analytical Essays and the chair of the University of Michigan’s music theory department. Walter Everett studied music education at Gettysburg College; and music theory at the University of Cincinnati and wrote his master’s thesis on “The Beatles as Composers,” and that band has remained a favorite subject of his; and he received his doctorate in music from the University of Michigan, where he is now a professor (his dissertation was on “A Schenkerian View of Text-Painting in Schubert’s Song Cycle Winterreise”). Everett, who states “In the professoriate, one gains authority in the classroom, where the best students present innumerable unanticipated challenges and insights, and through the process of peer review,” has done scholarship looking at connections and similarities between rock music and European classical music, and on traditions in popular music, in work that has discussed the long revered Mozart, and the newer masters Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan, among others.
Expression in Pop-Rock Music: Critical and Analytical Essays, edited by Walter Everett, is an anthology that collects essays on Frank Zappa, Tori Amos, Happy the Man, the Dixie Dregs, Elvis Presley, the Supremes, U2, the Cure, Stevie Wonder, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, Genesis, and other musicians and musical topics, such as musical structure and pitch relationships and the nature of music criticism itself. Expression in Pop-Rock Music: Critical and Analytical Essays, published by Routledge in 2008, is the second edition of a book originally released in year 2000 by Garland Publishing. At the time of its original debut, Stan Hawkins of the University of Oslo in the Music Library Association’s Notes, Vol. 57, No. 4 (2001), pp. 919-921, called the anthology “a welcome addition to the growing literature of popular-music analysis, both in its diversity and in its focus on the musical text,” with what seems a fair assessment of the differing approaches of the essayists—preferring those seeking a more complete examination of music, and criticizing those that seem reductionist, concluding that “Though some essays in this text succeed more than others, Expression in Pop-Rock Music is valuable in demonstrating that the continual development of music-analytical methods is of the utmost relevance in pop-rock research.” Allan F. Moore, head of music research in the University of Surrey’s music department, who is referred to in the book, also commented in an Oxford University Press publication, Music & Letters, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Feb., 2001), pp. 145-149, commending the book’s wide range of perspectives but noting some of its assumptions regarding the agency attributed to music itself, and idealized listeners, and Moore lauded its contributors Susan Fast and Ellie Hisama and Lori Burns, and found Everett’s own written contribution polemical, especially in its assumption of older classical musical properties for those in hybrid modern popular music. The new 2008 edition includes three new chapters in a work that seeks, as Walter Everett says in the book’s preface, “to bring to the table a multiplicity of issues, a mix of various techniques and perspectives, and (as affirmed by a glance through the index) the representation of a great variety of styles from all periods of rock history” (vii); and I find it an impressive work, one that I am still exploring. As the book is one of the more remarkable I have seen on music in recent years, I thought it might be valuable to ask questions of its editor: and I sent him, via e-mail, those questions on April 22, 2008 and he returned his answers on April 29, 2008, one week later, for the internet interview below: an interview in which discussed are his own work, academic standards, the roles of artist and critic and other social actors, particular essays investigating music, the differences between academic and popular responses to culture, the world wide web, distinguished and enjoyable musicians such as Radiohead and Gnarls Barkley and Nirvana and Patti Smith, and music as a political force. Walter Everett’s knowledge and energy are to be appreciated, as is his humility in restraining from offering definitive judgments regarding issues he has not expertly examined.
Daniel Garrett: Could you say something about how your interest in music developed, and why you were inspired to make it the focus of your career?
Walter Everett: My two musical germs were the piano lessons that steeped me in the classics from an early age and the Beatles’ performances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964 (I was nine at the time). Both experiences, and all that came after them, opened my ears in ways that made music the center of my life. I have been very fortunate to have found a way to support a family by listening to and conversing about music in ways that are constantly, even after decades, fully enriching for me.
Daniel Garrett: Do you see reflections of your younger self in your students; differences; or both?
Walter Everett: Yes, facing a new crop of eighteen-year-olds every fall allows me to continually relive the passions of these wonderful years and see things from a clearer perspective. I so enjoy learning from my students, and prefer focusing on the things we share, as opposed to dwelling on the ways we’re different. In big ways and small, working with people so much younger than me helps me in constantly becoming the student I wish I had been.
Daniel Garrett: “The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators, scientists, et cetera—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and all our achievement rests on things unseen,” wrote James Baldwin in a short article called “The Creative Process,” one of my favorites among his commentaries (Collected Essays, Library of America, 1998; page 670). Baldwin said that, “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides” (670). Do you, Walter Everett, think that there is an actual correspondence between artistic or musical liberty and personal liberty? Does the freedom of artists embolden that of a nation’s citizens; or is it a substitute for personal and political freedom?
Walter Everett: I’m sure all of these responses are common, depending upon the listener, as we all bring different desires, expectations, and purposes to our listening. As for Baldwin’s “rules,” one might recognize that the more closely one adheres to normal behaviors (as codified in received techniques), the larger the audience one will be able to reach. At the same time, the strongest and most interesting work will come from an artist who can express his or her original voice in a liberated yet coherent way, following or alluding to just enough “normal” behaviors that the work will find understanding and acceptance. Musicians such as Beethoven, Ornette Coleman, Janis Joplin, and Radiohead come to mind as profound artists who clearly have based their approaches on commonly understood forms and techniques, yet have been able to voice in very free ways their own deep understandings of the human mystery. As for social responsibility, I believe we ALL share the obligation to communicate what we know and believe; artists (including highly skilled orators) may have the benefit of doing so in lasting ways.
Daniel Garrett: What are the things (personal qualities; institutional accreditation; accomplishments) that most give you authority to speak and write about music?
Walter Everett: Academic authority is conferred upon a voice that is distinctive while reflective of a broad field or subfield. Training, particularly for music academics, begins early. My weekly private lessons beginning at the age of six taught me the techniques I would need to perform particular piano repertoire in ways that were pleasing to others. Later, I was encouraged to develop my own interpretive approach to performance, all the while being trained to become gradually free of direct review. The same dynamic works in academia, at both the student and professoriate levels. Music students typically begin with a three-year sequence in the rudiments of music theory, wherein they learn the norms of musical behavior; with advanced theoretical training, we are encouraged to find our own voices through composition, analysis, and critical discussion through a wide variety of musical styles and thought, until at the Ph.D. level one has chosen a personal topic of singular and recognized importance that allows the design of an original course of study and contemplation. In the professoriate, one gains authority in the classroom, where the best students present innumerable unanticipated challenges and insights, and through the process of peer review that begins with conference presentations (with Q&A sessions involving hundreds of onlookers that can present direct challenges both from the graduate student trying to gain a societal foothold and from the seasoned professional whose toes may have been stepped on), and extends through the publication of essays and books (all honed by multiple layers of pre-publication critique by the top scholars in the field) as well as through the constant review of the work of others for various purposes—the construction of conference programs, and anonymous evaluations of grant applications, of publication aspirants, and of those seeking academic promotion. All of this cultivates a responsible and community-based approach to original contribution, and many who are not well matched to the task are faced with that fact at any of the countless challenges suggested here, with the field being winnowed constantly. Therefore, personally, I believe my own authority rests in the acceptance of—and promotion by—my peers, which would not have been achieved without a rigorous lifelong attention to the fostering of my own imagination as enabled by a documentable inspiration from the work of others. That, and a lot of luck.
Daniel Garrett: I have written essays and reviews, fiction, and poetry; and I think of writing not only as making possible forms of contemplation, creativity, and self-expression, but also forms of responsibility—to knowledge and to truth, which are as much public concerns as they are personal. Yet it is easy to feel as an intellectual and an artist as if one is living in exile, making friendship and professional associations more important: and over the years, I have found some camaraderie in thinkers or writers organizations such as House of Poets in Harlem, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, and the East Village Writers Workshop. What kinds of responses do you get to your work—from family, friends, colleagues, the press, others?
Walter Everett: Engaged response is one of the absolute joys of my work, and it comes in many forms. I still draw strength from the spontaneous and rich applause following a recital I gave in my junior year of college as perhaps the warmest reception I’ve ever received. The acceptance of my first scholarly article by The Musical Quarterly while I was still a grad student, offers of positions at prestigious institutions, supportive reviews of publications, wonderful e-mails from many outside of academia in response to my Beatles books, informal give-and-take with friends, opportunities to consider informed questions such as yours, sharing music with my family in many ways on a daily basis—there are many thrills offered to me by others. Although criticism can be tough on the ego, it always helps in broadening perspective as well as helping to repair errors. While it’s true that the creative process usually takes place in isolation, I admit to constantly invoking the imagined response of others while I’m working—both in the writing process and in its reception, when I will often reread something of mine as seen through the eyes of someone who’s commented upon it. The latter practice can have an oddly narcissistic quality because it’s often done for pure enjoyment, even though my attention is always focused on the perceptions of another, somewhat as I imagine them to be.
Daniel Garrett: “We often see someone with a modest talent for this or that instrument. By means of continuous practice, such a person reaches the point where he can play a great number of notes easily in a minute and can—with regard to stress, touch, shadings, and tempo—handle the notes with ease according to the composer’s directions and (more frequently) according to his personal conception. On a higher level of musical invention, the image of the spirit of genius shows a similar situation. This spirit of genius, creating mysteriously out of the background of a fundamental structure, masters all the arpeggiations of the many individual harmonies and all the diminutions of the linear progressions in the composing-out process,” wrote the musical theorist Heinrich Schenker (“Organic Structure in Sonata Form,” Readings in Schenker Analysis and Other Approaches, edited by Maury Yeston, Yale Univ. Press, 1977; page 50). Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) seems to have articulated a way of looking at music that was derived from music itself, looking at its parts to better understand the whole: considering the details that are most prominent in a work, and the texture against which those details move, and a work’s overall form. In Lori Burns’s essay “Analytic Methodologies for Rock Music,” she states that Schenkerian analysis does not fully account for rhythmic features or modal harmony in music (Expression in Pop-Rock Music: Critical and Analytical Essays, pages 66 and 67). Is it possible to explain Schenker’s method in a way that the untutored music listener might understand it and its value?
Walter Everett: This is a great question, especially as the aims of Schenkerian analysis are widely misunderstood even by some who have been tutored. Schenkerians attempt to apply the laws of dissonance resolution, as codified in the study of strict counterpoint, to an understanding of the tendencies of harmonic drive. This results in a comparison of melody as it flows through time as against the timeless chords and harmonies that support those melodies, in such a way that both aspects are understood as they inform each other. Of special consideration is the way this approach reveals the relationships on many levels between structural tones and those that have an ornamental function. Even those practitioners who have been well trained in its technique can find Schenkerian analysis to be a lifelong learning process in even such fundamental dimensions as deciding upon the basic goals and values of the approach when considering works outside of a given repertoire, such as the modal songs with which Burns does such interesting work. Many critics disparage the reductive aspect of voice-leading analysis, complaining about the assigning of the label “ornamental” to tones that may seem to have great significance, as if the offending analyst has irresponsibly strip-mined the composition of its interest, when he or she has instead offered a way to compare the individual surface to the underlying norms. Unfortunately, the concept of value is often invoked incorrectly by both the technique’s adherents and its critics; sometimes one hears a claim that structural tones are more “important” than the ornamental tones, and this disappoints me as much as it inflames those who do not practice the technique. An analogy might help with this question: in considering a house, one might speak of the structural frame (ranch? two-story? split-level?) or the décor (wall hangings? furnishings? floral arrangements?). The structural and the ornamental aspects are both “important” in different ways to different people and purposes, and yet, incontrovertibly, moldings and chair rails are ornamental to the joists. An added issue with Schenkerian analysis, and one that draws heat disproportionate to its true importance, is the fact that Schenker discovered and promoted three archetypal deep structures that govern nearly all of the music he studied, that being mostly limited to certain types of instrumental works composed by major Germanic composers flourishing between Bach and Brahms. Some imagine that this deep “Ursatz” is the be-all and end-all of Schenkerian analysis, when in reality it is not nearly as informative as are lower-level concerns, particularly when studying vocal or dramatic works, and especially in considering the work of composers other than Schenker’s twelve. It is the detailed manner in which one can appreciate the tension that exists BETWEEN levels, as revealed in the study of structure and ornament, and not within any one level itself, by which Schenkerian analysis makes its greatest contribution.
Daniel Garrett: You describe in “Pitch Down the Middle” the change in Elvis Presley’s singing style, from early to late, as an illustration of the diminishment of his “great” talent, in Expression in Pop-Rock Music: the color contrasts in Presley’s vocal tone (limpid/murky and innocent/knowing) in his early music, with phrasing and inflections that suggest attitude and feeling (swallowing words, stuttering, adding syllables), including “portamento slides, blue notes, and improvised syncopations” (pages 119 and 120)—and Presley’s later moving closer to a bel canto delivery (more sentimental, smoother) as seeming much less creative, sincere, and effective (121). What does it take to establish a musician, a performer, or a musical work as great?
Walter Everett: That is different for every listener! My current love is the Raconteurs’ new album (Consolers of the Lonely) because it is fresh and richly imaginative—it nods to the past but constantly surprises me with new twists. Brahms is fantastic in the ways he sometimes works against the grain to create richly rewarding ambiguity. Bach is supreme for the clarity of multitudinous invention in multiple simultaneous domains. This all sounds cerebral, but these are the techniques that elicit savage and sweet emotional response. There is some music to which I have never managed to make a connection, and if it’s very successful, “great,” for other listeners, I often will blame myself for not giving it a chance or not having found a useful frame of reference before I will criticize it.
Daniel Garrett: In Expression in Pop-Rock Music (“Music, Contexts, and Meaning in U2”), Susan Fast discusses how the martial-sounding music of the band U2’s song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” seems to betray the lyric’s desire for peace, possibly an example of the ambiguity of musical meaning. In time U2 moved from an earnest sensibility to one more sensual and ironic, from one that was perceived as natural to one that seemed accepting of artifice, more technological; and the band has embraced its power and success without sacrificing its artistry. Does the confusion over the “Sunday Bloody Sunday” song stem from the ambiguity of musical meaning or a band’s not being fully in command of its musical resources?
Walter Everett: Ambiguity can be a problem when one suspects that an idea could have been expressed more clearly than it has been, as one often does in critiquing student work, revising one’s own early drafts, or reviewing others’ publicly presented work that seems unaware of its flaws. But ambiguity can be a wonderful thing as well, and is prized in all forms of art when it encourages multiple layers and voices of meaning and understanding that interact with each other in sometimes contradictory ways both within the consideration of the work itself and in relating it to other works and to received norms. At a deeper level, many but not most people are content with the acknowledgement that humans are biologically and in other ways physically limited in our abilities to understand universal unknowns. In my view, it is arrogant and self-defeating to believe that one has the answers to life’s mysteries or that one should attempt to snuff out all expression that is not understood—I admit to frustration when I cannot complete a crossword puzzle, but I do not feel impatient when confronted with interesting musical dilemmas. From Marx to Lennon, God is a concept by which we measure our pain, and we should revel in the delightful frustration of ambiguity and the play of the suggestive and intangible. For me, every composer, work, and listener offers and applies different aims and techniques, and while it is informative to measure these against each other, it is folly to demand global adherence to all principles (the only sure means of staying ambiguity), particularly when given great artworks that reward decades’ worth of contemplation with continually new understandings. As for the U2 song, the martial music in “Sunday” is so strongly marked, it creates blistering irony without any question as to unintended sloppiness.
Daniel Garrett: The idea of a “canon” has been subjected to critique in the last fifty years; and yet, as what is considered intelligent taste has broadened, there have been attempts to define anew cultural canons in ways that allow for once prohibited items. In Expression in Pop-Rock Music, Nadine Hubbs, following Allan Moore (Rock: The Primary Text), writes that “Canonicity and related notions like monumentalism, great-man theory, and master narrative have the potential to suffocate imagination, foreclosing as they do on the range of musical topics on which scholars might focus their inquiries,” indicating that such a concern narrows standards and topics, “leaving little room for the imagination” (“The Imagination of Pop-Rock Criticism,” page 225). What is your take on the matter?
Walter Everett: I believe there is equal “room for the imagination” in receiving any offered tenet or system. It is up to the listener or reader to interact critically with any and all offerings. Again responding more broadly, those who support a democratic system may well blame George W. Bush’s Ministry of Truth(iness) for its heavy-handed abuses, but it is also incumbent upon dissenters to encourage a populace to keep both eyes open at all times and provide compelling reasons for doing so. Criticize everything you take in!! There exist all sorts of political turf protections, unfair prohibitions, and sheepish followers of leaders in academia among those who react against ideas just as much as among those who promote them—suffocation can accompany a pleasing ether exhaled by the most sympathetic speaker. The imagination can be encouraged or discouraged by communicators of all stripes, but it can only be exercised by the individual.
Daniel Garrett: Has your sense of the purpose and pleasures of music and music criticism changed over the years; and if so, how?
Walter Everett: As for my own work, I’ve been publishing steadily since 1986 and I believe my fundamental desires have remained constant, but that I have shifted approach many times as I have sought different audiences or have gained in my technique and understanding. Regrettably, due to changing demands on my time, I do not have nearly the time to listen to music, or read the music journalism that I did in more formative years. But I think it’s obvious to anyone paying attention that rapid improvements in technology and slowly evolving changes in social structures have combined to place remarkable strains on the music-distribution industry. I had the pleasure of working as a 45 buyer in one of the country’s great record stores, the Eatontown, N.J., Sam Goody’s, during the heyday of vinyl, 1976-78, and so I had for a period quite an active life in musical commerce. It has been amazing to follow the changes in popular styles and artistry, alongside the changing notion of how and why people listen to music. At one level, listening may not be done with as much care as it once was—at one time, as other geezers will remember, we used to learn in public school quite a bit about how music operates. I have not seen that in my own sons’ educations, and I have reason to believe this decline is somewhat representative. Forty years ago, Leonard Bernstein had a regular network television show introducing a huge segment of the population to fascinating and sometimes advanced musical concepts. Now, YouTube offers many fascinating and widely varying perspectives on music, but rarely to a huge audience when presented with authority. I’d be interested in learning about trends I do not have time to follow as to personal music-making. Once, for instance, it seemed that every home had a piano and a good number of people would play it well. Guitar became popular by the late sixties, and now the flourishing of stores like Guitar Center and various online instrument distribution networks allow every neighborhood to have any number of drum sets, once a rarity. This being said, most, it seems, have a more passive relationship with music than might have been found a generation ago.
Daniel Garrett: Who are some of the people who have been important models for your own work?
Walter Everett: The two musicians who have had the deepest impact upon my own work are both music theorists—David Lewin, who has published across a range of amazing breadth and depth in many musical domains, and Carl Schachter, who is similarly prolific, who has made field-changing discoveries in the analysis of rhythm, and who has broadened the range of Schenkerian research with highly original insights.
Daniel Garrett: Why are the academic and popular (print) presses divergent in terms of their approach to music?
Walter Everett: This gets to music education. I was surprised to see the publication of my March 2008 letter to the New York Times describing the role of an augmented triad applied to the subdominant as an agent of character definition in “South Pacific.” The letter was a novelty in using language commonly restricted to the academy to discuss a musical event of great importance that everyone can hear and understand but of which no one who hasn’t studied a bit of music theory has any conscious awareness, let alone a means of discussion. I can’t say why the general public and the press have so little interest in the workings of music—one has no difficulty encountering somewhat technical language from many, many other fields in the popular press, and one would think that the huge public interest in music would promote a corresponding interest in its mechanics. Actually, many believe they prefer that music retain its “mystery,” and they say that a conscious understanding of its workings robs it of its magic. But this is like saying that an understanding of the chemistries of taste and smell would spoil a good meal. One might recognize that there are economic and political pressures that suppress the study of music and other arts from the earliest ages, and most of the public is complacent about that. There are many in education who would prefer efforts be wholly devoted to learning a trade to benefit the economy, as opposed to training the mind to think imaginatively, which is what study of the arts promotes best.
Daniel Garrett: The internet allows broad distribution of a wide range of information, much of it without regulatory approval or censorship: that suggests freedom as much as a lack of accountability and standards. Of course, “how it is used now and how it impacts on lives now is not necessarily a good indicator of what is to come,” as Simon During puts it in “The Internet and Technoculture” in Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2005; page 138). What are some of the effects that you observe of the internet on music scholarship, on its research, contemplation, and dissemination?
Walter Everett: The internet can support great freedom in allowing equal voice to everyone, and also can make easily available the ideas and documents that until recently had been exceedingly hard to come by. But this egalitarian approach also works against the principles of peer review, and actually can be destructive of that if academics are not careful to preserve it in some way. By this, I mean that scholars depend heavily upon the authorities of a writer and of the scholarly process. Let me give an example. In 1997, I presented a conference talk on an aspect of the nineteenth-century song that had gone unreported by others but was of great interest to me and, I believed, framed in an approach potentially useful to many others in my field. The talk, shared at a national meeting in Phoenix, was made possible by the selection of my paper proposal by a highly qualified program committee from a pool of over 100 three-page abstracts. After my proposal was accepted in the spring and the paper drafted over the summer, I shared it with three colleagues at my home institution, which led to improvements. When I presented my talk in November, I received public and private comments and questions that led to further refinements. In the first months of 2003, I led a seminar of graduate-student music theorists devoted to the study of relationships between poetry and music in song. This work allowed for the proper expansion of my Phoenix talk. I rewrote the paper and submitted it to the Journal of Music Theory. The article was given a year-long review by a board of anonymous readers, all of whom typically would be experts in the particular area under discussion. They approved publication, submitting suggestions for improvement. The journal’s editor, David Clampitt, provided marvelous copy editing of my revised draft, and so the article appeared in 2007, finally allowing for public comment following a ten-year process of vetting at many private levels. This illustration is rather typical of academic publishing including that which appears in online academic journals, but I would guess it would be considered ridiculously cumbersome in the lightning world of more popular internet writing. Another factor is that absolutely no monetary transactions accompany scholarly journal writing, at least in my field. The writing, evaluation, and editing all take place pro bono, without a penny influencing decisions. Some journals take advertising of other scholarly publications, but the work is subsidized to a nearly complete degree by individual and library subscriptions, and sometimes by university support in the form of production workstations.
Daniel Garrett: “A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson (Essays and Lectures, Library of America, 1983; page 22). It is hard to read such a thought and not wonder about the pervasive presence of “snark” in much popular critical commentary: the replacement of fair contemplation and eloquence with a derisive and otherwise empty attitude.
Walter Everett: Well, meritorious writing comes in many forms, and while it usually retains its pure aspect, it sometimes can be painfully critical. Devious argument, on the other hand, can be highly destructive, but is sometimes sugar-coated and unrecognizable as such. One thing I regret is the complexity with which I often write. My desire is to be direct and simple, but the competing interests of depth (“to communicate without loss”) and economy (frequently requiring parentheticals and otherwise complex sentence structures) often lead me to be terse and dense. My Beatles books, for instance, were boiled down from drafts more than twice their eventual length. The original was much more relaxed and forgiving, whereas the final product requires more of an investment from the reader.
Daniel Garrett: The southwest Latino (Mexican and Californian) tradition of rock is sketched by musician and historian Ruben Guevara, once a member of Ruben and the Jets, in “The History of Chicano Rock,” which appeared in The Rock History Reader (pages 37 to 42), edited by Theo Cateforis and published by Routledge in 2007; and Ruben Guevara delineates: the late nineteenth-century immigration of Mexicans to Los Angeles; the appeal of twentieth-century Harlem bands’ jump blues, and jump blues’ connection in swing, rhythm and blues, and early rock and roll; the importance of music figures such as Cab Calloway, Roy Milton, Johnny Otis; the flashy styles of Chicano gang culture (zoot suits); and the emergence of Chicano jump blues bands such as Pachuco Boogie Boys and rhythm and blues performers such as Li’l Julian Herrera. Guevara describes the Johnny Otis-Julian Herrera song “Lonely Lonely Nights” as one that is “an elegant and beautiful doo-wop ballad, very much in the black style, but something about it—the accent, the voice, the attitude—made it different. It was Chicano rock.” Then came Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba” and “Donna”). Do you, Walter Everett, think that the rock music tradition is now understood as a multicultural tradition, a tradition that Americans of different cultural backgrounds have contributed to, enjoy, and participate in?
Walter Everett: [I can’t provide an informed response.]
Daniel Garrett: In the book The Invention of An Alternative Rock Masculinity (Temple Univ. Press, 2003), the writer Peter Lehman writes about the singer and writer of the songs “Only the Lonely” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” the guitarist Roy Orbison, “He was mysterious in the sense that the public had little idea of his presence as either a physical being or even someone with a private life” (pages 41 and 42); and Roy Orbison, after losing a wife and young children, wore black clothes and dark glasses, and became associated with a tragic mystique, one that Orbison’s vocal sound—“something so new, so beautiful, so strange” (48)—had prefigured; and Peter Lehman claims that a “sophisticated aesthetic is at work in Orbison’s lyrics, and an equally profound challenge to dominant notions of masculinity and sexuality” (59), lyrics that portrayed the Orbison narrator as vulnerable, a man of desire, fear, and loneliness. Orbison enriched what could be seen and suggested in a male persona. I know, as a longtime critic of gender constructions and a past poetry editor of the male feminist Changing Men magazine, that many people are surprised when men request a more expansive concept of gender. Do you think that popular music has been progressive or regressive in terms of representing age, class, female gender and diverse sexuality?
Walter Everett: I have little background in this area. It is true that Orbison’s work is highly dramatic. It’s also true that he employed an exceedingly high range, but many male pop and rock singers sing in a very, very high range. Some researchers have studied the relationship between the vocal instrument and gender roles (Suzanne Cusick and Alyssa Woods come to mind), and others (I’m thinking of Jacqueline Warwick) have considered the creation of gender roles through textural uses of voices.
Daniel Garrett: Alfred Appel Jr.’s book Jazz Modernism: from Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce argues that jazz should be seen as being as much a part of the western modernist project as the books, films, paintings, and sculptures of the twentieth century that affirmed complicated consciousness and experimental form, and assumed the existence of traditions but either reinvented or rejected those traditions. I have thought the same about the music of Motown, and that of Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Nona Hendryx, Joan Armatrading, Michael Jackson, Prince, Sade, A.R. Kane, Ephraim Lewis, Seal, and Gnarls Barkley, but not all of that popular music has been seen for the complex expression it is, particularly (and ironically) because the work is also emotional, sensual, spiritual—and just plain entertaining! I was pleased to read Tim Hughes’s exploration of Stevie Wonder’s song “Living for the City” in Expression in Pop-Rock Music and his concluding and celebratory affirmation of “Wonder’s directly political aim, his striking use of drama, his ability to integrate conspicuous blues and gospel elements into a soul context, his overall skill as a lyricist, songwriter, and arranger, and his ability to integrate diverse elements into a seamless whole” (“Trapped within the Wheels,” page 262).
Walter Everett: I’m glad you enjoyed Tim’s essay. He and I shared a long and very fruitful correspondence over this chapter, which was derived from his great Ph.D. dissertation on Stevie Wonder.
Daniel Garrett: I love film—the works of Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Charles Burnett, Jane Campion, Patrice Chereau, Ang Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Terrence Malick, Satyajit Ray, Eric Rohmer, Andre Techine, and Michael Winterbottom, among others; and I have written for the online publications Cinetext.Philo and Offscreen. One of the interesting things about musical films is that they give music a direct context and use in people’s lives. When Madonna Louise Ciccone starred in Evita in 1996, some of us wondered if the musical film would see a resurgence, but it was not until 2001 with Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, that we began to see more musical films: Chicago, Camp, The Singing Detective, Beyond the Sea, De-Lovely, Ray, The Producers, Rent, Dreamgirls, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Take the Lead, Sweeney Todd, Once, I’m Not There, and Shine a Light. Do you find yourself responding to musical films?
Walter Everett: Of course! You mentioned Gnarls Barkley a bit ago and I have to say they’ve done some really fine videos. As for feature-lengths, the Talking Heads’ film, True Stories, is an all-time favorite of mine, and the music is a major reason but there are others as well.
Daniel Garrett: Nature has an original beauty and violence, a chaos and order, that give birth to us, shape us, haunt, inspire, and threaten us; and place, where we are born or settle, presents us with possibilities and limitations—I was reminded of that years ago when I worked for the Audubon society and organized what was considered the first organization-wide meeting on environmental issues in minority and poor communities (environmental justice). Songs have been focused on particular cities: among them, Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Garland Jeffreys’s “New York Skyline,” Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” Iggy Pop’s “Avenue B,” Mos Def’s “Bed-Stuy Parade and Funeral March”; Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town,” Styx’s “Back to Chicago” and Common’s “Chi-City”; and Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and Chris Isaak’s “San Francisco Days.” And, there have been locations that have been important in music’s development, such as Detroit (Berry Gordy’s Motown Records) and Memphis (Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton’s Stax Records) and Philadelphia (Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records). I know you have done work on music and place—in essays such as “Detroit and Memphis: The Soul of Revolver” and “Motown, Michigan and Music Theory.” Do you think place and its influence have been studied enough in musical scholarship?
Walter Everett: This is probably a question most on the minds of ethnomusicologists, who consider matters such as place and culture very deeply. I have to say, though, that it was a thrill to hear the Carnegie Hall reception to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” during the Turnstiles tour, and Garland Jeffreys got just about as big a reaction to “New York Skyline” when I heard him sing this in Asbury Park. Around here, fans love Bob Seger’s “Main Street,” which is set on Ann Arbor’s main drag. This sort of song is a connection between artist and fan that is hard to capture otherwise. My essay on Motown, Stax and the Beatles was prompted by that group’s citing of Detroit and Memphis as places they really wanted to visit because of the recordings that had been produced there—the album Revolver was almost taped in Memphis or Detroit. The other essay of mine you mention was a talk presented for some local color at a regional gathering of theorists in Kalamazoo, given as a warm-up to a keynote address by Henry Panion, who’d done quite a bit of arranging and conducting for Stevie Wonder.
Daniel Garrett: I remember seeing Diana Ross in performance in the mid-1990s at the stadium in Forest Hills (New York), a wonderful evening of music—elegant, intelligent, sensitive, fun. “Some performers stand onstage in one spot, sing their songs, and never talk to the audience. For me, bringing the audience in with me makes it more exciting as they become a part of the show. In a sense, the audience and I become one. I am not afraid of going into the audience. It makes me comfortable to be touched, to be able to touch them, and to see their faces and look into their eyes,” wrote Diana Ross in her memoirs, Secrets of a Sparrow (Villard Books, 1993; page 162). Can you, Walter, name the top ten live music performances you’ve seen or participated in thus far?
Walter Everett: Wow. Okay. There’ve been some great ones. My first rock concert: the Rascals came to my home town, Holmdel, NJ, in 1968 and I’ll always think of that first. Randy Newman’s one-man theater show, circa 1977, was really fine—I like the small theater shows. Brian Wilson did Pet Sounds in our local theater in about 2003 and that was nice. But then there’s Bruce in the Garden—no experience like it, and two of these will count in my top ten. For stadiums, the Dead at Roosevelt Stadium on the Blues for Allah tour—what a trip. I saw a few of Billy Joel’s New York shows in the ’70s—very tight band. Sir Paul’s 2004 (?) Detroit show was amazing. Todd Rundgren with Utopia in Philly in early ’77. Blues clubs in Chicago are always a real treat; other club shows, such as in the Village and on the Jersey shore don’t stand out as much for me, but jazz at the Firefly here is very cool. I really get to hear top draws pretty seldom, and don’t get to nearly the number of classical recitals and concerts and local-talent shows that I’d like. The Ann Arbor Symphony is a fine group, but I was spoiled with a seat for the San Francisco Symphony a month or so ago and their Eroica will stay with me a long time. I’m sure that for the moment I’m forgetting some really big concerts, but I’m sure your readers don’t mind that!! I would like to see Portishead live sometime, and Radiohead too.
Daniel Garrett: I’d like to list some names and have your associations or impressions: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner, Jackie Wilson, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bob Marley, Patti Smith, The Police, The Smiths, Husker Du, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Hootie and the Blowfish, Mos Def, Beyonce, Bright Eyes, and Devendra Banhart.
Walter Everett: Of these, Nirvana may be my favorite—along with Ben Folds, Beck, and Radiohead, Nirvana made my favorite music of the ’90s. The E-Street Band was always in our Sam Goody’s. I recall when Darkness on the Edge of Town, highly anticipated, was released—we had so many boxes of that thing stacked floor to ceiling, and they moved so fast . . . .Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” was my favorite song for months—it was a staple of WNEW-FM. I never got too into the Police. Public Enemy have gotten a lot of attention from academia—pretty compelling stuff. Chuck Berry—witty lyrics—“Venus di Milo had the world in the palm of her hand,” but everyone knows what happened to her. . . .Ike Turner played some great distorted guitar in the early ’50s, and his and Tina’s “River Deep Mountain High” is a classic; don’t care much for their “Proud Mary,” though, I have to say. Jackie Wilson had such a beautiful voice, and whoever did his arrangements was on top of the game. As for the Doors, there are five or so tracks that I think are great, and the rest I can take or leave. Morrissey has a great voice and sang great lyrics; and Little Richard had a great voice too for that matter—it was sad to see him on stage in the mid-’90s. Bob Marley was of course important politically, and I listen to him occasionally; my 16-year-old is a Marley fan. Whatever happened to Hootie and the Blowfish? I didn’t mention Patti Smith—her stuff in the mid-70s was very cool; I’d like to hear her recent covers album.
Daniel Garrett: There seem to be archetypes in popular music: the singer-songwriter, the demanding diva, the sex idol, the drink and drug addled low-life player, the glamour girl, the dance band, and the political group, among them; and yet we often respond to each performer’s incarnation as an archetype almost as if we had not heard or seen it before. What do you think about that?
Walter Everett: Every performer has to be distinctive to make it, but of course there are genres and influences. I try to focus mostly on the music, rather than the image construction, though.
Daniel Garrett: Books such as Helen Reddington’s The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era and Terrance Dean’s Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry recount punk rock and hip hop history, both of which were often “do it yourself” music forms available to alienated and angry or simply bored young people, forms that were frequently a reaction to established, well-financed institutions and glamorous icons. Yet, those music forms, mostly of the late 1970s and 1980s, were part of a counter-culture that seemed to have more cynicism and fewer ideals than that of the 1960s. (In my twenties, I became involved with Democratic Socialists of America, a sanely progressive group, for which I organized some discussions and proofread articles, but an organization that can seem a remnant of days past; and I think in my own life I have seen the dissolution of intelligent, large counter-culture formations, whether connected to class, ethnicity, or gender. Other than the singer-songwriter led MUSE or Musicians United for Safe Energy project, the early 1990s independent rock movement may be the only music movement I have seen as an adult that embodied creativity and critical values—and I think the indie rock movement was too self-segregating.) Any comment?
Walter Everett: Clearly, there are some socially motivated individuals—Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, etc. . . . .And some useful political statements, as in new albums by John Fogerty, REM, and Sheryl Crow. Green Day’s American Idiot was a major statement, but did it have a social impact? And then there are larger one-off causes involving numbers of artists (Bob Geldof . . . .), but I think you’re right—we don’t seem to have musico-social movements on the same scale as in the ’60s. Today’s corporate culture works very hard to tamp down social interest and maintain the economic status quo. What did Lennon sing, they “keep you doped with religion and sex and TV”? Many citizens who are critical and thoughtful have good reason to fear speaking their minds, which is widely seen as “un-American.” The people can’t be kept down forever, though. Even Exxon will have to change or die.
Daniel Garrett: What, regarding music, would you like the general public to know more, or in which way might you like the general public to respond differently?
Walter Everett: I would be very gratified to hear the general public, including pop journalists, find ways to speak intelligently about musical events and relationships. I’m doing what I can to help the cause. My Beatles books found an audience of music lovers with no academic backgrounds who were fascinated to discover that music could be discussed with such detailed specificity. My next book will go further to reach those with no musical training whatsoever.
Daniel Garrett: Your work is admirable, and I’m grateful for your sharing your ideas and passions, and I wish you health and respect and success. Will you continue in the direction of the scholarly explorations you have done, or do you have new areas of interest that you plan to explore?
Walter Everett: Thanks so much for your interest, your good wishes and your engaging questions, Daniel. About the new book, then. . . . it covers all sorts of popular music of the 1950s and ’60s, with chapters on the properties of rock instruments and vocals, forms, melodic patterns, harmonic relationships, rhythmic events, lyrics, and engineering, suggesting how all of these topics in all of their variety can contribute to musical expression; the final chapter helps readers put it all together by learning to build their own highly nuanced and personal interpretations. The book, which I call The Foundations of Rock: From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” refers to many hundreds of well-known tracks to make its points, but also will be tied in with a website featuring 300 original audio examples illustrating the book’s main points, recorded with more than 30 musicians. We’re shooting for a fall season, 2008, launch of the book—it’s from Oxford University Press.
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. (“I have been glad of the friendship, kindness, and support of an elder, Tom Buckman, recently, during a difficult time,” says Garrett.) Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org