Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock’s Most Mind Bending Questions by Seth Kaufman, OR Books, 2019
Seth Kaufman’s Metaphysical Graffiti poses some important questions in the first few chapters:
1. The old standby – Beatles or Stones?
Kaufman says that this is a trick question and that the answer is always Led Zeppelin. He also establishes the subject of the book by exploring the implications of this question. What is your response? Why?
2. What’s wrong with Billy Joel?
It turns out that your dislike of his music might be predicated on something more than just good taste. More on this to come.
3. Does Rush suck?
I attended Geddy Lee’s alma mater in Toronto, Newtonbrook Secondary School, for one year in the early eighties. I can tell you right now that Kaufman would have ended up in the trunk of some dude’s Camaro if he’d ever posed that question around there. And this is his point. Fans of the band adore them. No one else does. It’s a zero sum game. Seems a bit obvious, doesn’t it? But he makes the point that this is not the case with all bands. A lot of acts, maybe most acts in rock and roll, have casual fans. You can probably think of a half dozen bands that you don’t mind but would never count as one of ‘yours’. I feel this way about Lynyrd Skynyrd. We’re not exactly friends but I won’t change the station if Tuesday’s Gone comes on. I might even pick up their first album someday. Who knows? Rush is not this kind of band. Nobody, according to Kaufman, has a casual relationship with them. You adore them or you run screaming from the party when someone puts on Red Barchetta.
The question, and this is one for discussion, is whether there is something innately divisive about Rush. Kaufman makes a pretty good case that there are elements that are deal breakers for anyone who isn’t a big fan. Yes, Geddy’s voice is one of them. The Ayn Rand thing is another. I’m going to stop talking about Rush, just in case any old Newtonbrook kids are reading.
I will admit that I was put off initially by the chapter headings. Beatles vs Stones? C’mon. Why not both, comrade? Billy Joel? Honestly, who cares? Rush? It seemed like I woke up to Tom Sawyer every morning on FM radio for about a year. Enough! But then I started reading and an entirely different book emerged.
We live in an age of strident opinion where the number of forums to express them are almost boundless. YouTube comments are hilariously predictable. One guy says, ‘This was real music, not like that Bieber shit today.’ Another guy says, ‘I’m sorry but Robin Trower is better.’ Then someone comes in and says, ‘I’m 12 and I love this music.’ There is usually then a punter who gives a long well reasoned argument about why something is ‘objectively’ better than something else. Then someone says, ‘The bass player is my uncle.’ We all have access to everything and we are all experts. But music is slippery. Getting beyond your emotional response to a song or singer or band usually drifts into statements like, ‘He’s technically brilliant,’ or ‘They have sold more records.’ And those sound a bit hollow to me.
Kaufman’s book is essentially about aesthetics, something we used to be a lot clearer on before post modernism. We might have broken down some of the rigid power structures behind ideas of objective beauty but we seem to have also lost some of the language required for a real discussion about art.
Kaufman thus goes old school by establishing some parameters for these discussions. The Billy Joel chapter is surprisingly interesting. He argues that ‘authenticity’ is a key part of the rock and roll story and that it might even represent an empirical notion (I’m ducking for cover now). He then tests songs like Only The Good Die Young against it. He’s as fair as anyone could be about this song but he determines that there is something fundamentally inauthentic about it. His son challenges him by bringing up The Carpenters as an analogous pop act. ‘Listen to Superstar’, Kaufman says. ‘It’s not her song but she absolutely fills it with her own pain.’ Billy’s pain in Only The Good Die Young, he points out, is more elusive. His writing seems to be missing a sense of what Heidegger called ‘Dasein’, a German word that translates as ‘being there’ or ‘presence’. There’s nobody home in his songs and that is a serious matter for a singer songwriter.
I would add that one of the main problems with that song is the identity of the speaker. I gather that it’s supposed to take place in Little Italy between a tough guy Romeo and a cloistered Juliet. So why is Romeo then such a complete ignoramus about Catholicism? Who is this guy and why is he is trying to convince her to give up her virtue with flawed theology? Yikes, what an awful song. Give me Rod singing Tonight’s The Night any day for that sort of thing. He keeps it simple and direct. Or something. Anyhow, the point is that there is something missing from Billy Joel’s songwriting and that something is authenticity.
In a later chapter, he looks at ‘audacity.’ He establishes, pretty much beyond question, the importance of this quality in rock and roll before testing it out on, of all things, concept albums. He acknowledges that the line between pomposity and audacity is pretty thin in the genre but that the best of them – SF Sorrow, Tommy, and his favourite, Tull’s Thick As A Brick – contain enough meta-narrative and/or irony to dodge the charge of being overly high minded. I suppose my own question is more about where audacity slips into absurdity or even bad taste. Guns ‘n’ Roses were certainly audacious but were also, at least to my mind, entirely charmless.
Kaufman avoids sounding like Simon Frith by keeping the tone of the discussions humorous and often self-deprecating. His experience as a ‘recovering’ Deadhead will resonate with anyone who has flirted with this band over the years. Ann Coulter’s identity as a deadhead and her contention that the band has a considerable alt right following has presented the faithful with some difficult questions. Kaufman rightly points out that Coulter is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Grateful Dead paradoxes. “Would it still be a Dead concert if the Deadheads didn’t turn up?” he asks. If I ever teach philosophy again, that is going to be on the exam!
One of the chapters is called ‘The Best Song You’ve Never Heard’. I assumed that this would either be a Searchers b-side or a philosophical inquiry into the nature of obscurity in rock and roll. Instead, he actually comes up with the goods. You have never heard this song and it is remarkable. It’s also on YouTube but you won’t hear the title from me. No Spoilers!
The book ends with a defense of rock criticism and an examination of David Lee Roth’s much quoted contention that rock critics like Elvis Costello because they look like Elvis Costello. I can’t remember why I decided to read this book but it was a refreshing change from leaden rock memoirs and ‘scientific’ books about brains on music, etc. Exhausted by online arguments about rock and roll? Perhaps you’d like to start winning a few of them. Seth Kaufman’s book will give you some ammunition but more importantly, it might get you thinking about what you mean when you say ‘Stones’ or ‘Billy Joel is terrible’ or, even more daringly, ‘Rush sucks’.
Teasers: He tests the old theory that drummers make the band. Hard to argue! He also establishes why the rise of DJ culture as a musical force makes people nervous. Lots of fodder for discussion here.
Ever noticed that this sounds a bit like Pinball Wizard? No, me either. Good pick up by Seth Kaufman. Listen to the whole song before you say, nahhhh.