Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Out of Time

I wish I could take up Robert Christgau's challenge in a recent ARTicles blog post. He asked for a defense of prog rock:

What I'm looking for is a ringing, systematic, polemical defense in which the perceived shortcomings of danceable rhythms, blues changes, and foursquare structures are articulated. Not just that they're old hat, but that their old hatness signifies in substantively undesirable ways. That way everybody understands more clearly what's at stake.

It would be an interesting academic task, but my heart wouldn't be in it. I enjoyed reading the Jon Pareles piece on the Mars Volta that Christgau refers to more than than listening to the Mars Volta.

Still, I'd be faking if I shunned Genesis 1970-1975. The release of the box set has brought out closet Genesis fans in the critical world, and the recent issue of Mojo includes a buyer's guide to Genesis. One fairly empty night in a music club here in New Orleans, the bartender took a break from the subdudes and the Radiators to spin Selling England by the Pound, singing along when "I Know What I Like in Your Wardrobe" got to the line, "Me, I'm just a lawn mower. You can tell me by the way I walk."

Growing up in Southern Ontario, I was in one of the prog hotbeds in the 1970s, with Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson and Genesis getting regular airplay on CHUM-FM in Toronto. As I went through high school and discovered punk and arena rock, I bought cut-out copies of Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot, which typified what was right and wrong about Genesis for me. No matter how weird the idea or time signature, Tony Banks and Steve Hackett could figure out how to put something beautiful on top. At the same time, Peter Gabriel made sure that things were never simply lovely. That was all good, but the same odd British-ness that once drew me to those records explains why they don't speak to other records of their time or sense for me.

With the exception of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the albums all seem isolated - in time, and from other music. They may have had some anxiety about their Limey past and present, but when exactly the past represented by Nursery Cryme took place is tough to nail down, and Selling England by the Pound may have been more contemporary, but that doesn't make it modern, much less post-modern. More than anything else, when I hear Genesis, I hear lonely prep school boys who discovered the musical equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons, something that could theoretically help them meet girls except that girls couldn't dance to it and they sat down like wallflowers or hid behind keyboards.

On the other hand, as impenetrable as the concept behind The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway may be, the music is often dense and clattering, mimicking the New York City streets they imagined from the British countryside, and some of Steve Hackett's uncharacteristically gnarled tangle of notes would predate much of what Robert Fripp would do on his brush with punk and new wave, Exposure. There are passages that consciously build a melodyless tension, emphasizing texture and drama on a low sizzle instead of the grand sweep of "Firth of Fifth" or "The Cinema Show".

But revisiting and reconsidering Genesis isn't enough to make me want more. I now have the little prog I care about - these albums, King Crimson's Red and USA, 801 Live and Kevin Ayers, but they're another sort of art-rock, really. And when I received the Yes Live box a few years back, I decided the drugs must really have been better back then because I found it unlistenable. Ultimately, I too am a prog dabbler at best.


David said...

Nice post, Alex. Last week, we were talking about camping out for concert tickets, and I mentioned the only time I ever did it was for Gentle Giant tickets.

No one had ever even heard of the band. Not even, "Peel the Paint."

I agree with your sentiments about Genesis. When I too was a sexually-frustrated adolescent, they were geniuses of undiscovered mythology and prog rock. Nowadays, if I heard a song or two, I'd listen and smile, but that would be more a product of memory than current appreciation.

And growing up in Buffalo, I listened to CHUM all the time.

David Winkler-Schmit

Alex Rawls said...

I used to have Gentle Giant's live album and occasionally think about buying it again, but I've decided remembering it fondly is probably better than hearing it and reminding myself what dopes we are when we're teenagers. The only song I can remember is the album's opener, "On Reflection," and since my patience for music that invokes madrigals has diminished significantly, I can't imagine enjoying it like I once did.