First things first: Montana update!
We have been living in northwest Montana — first in a hotel in Kalispell, then in an inn in Bigfork, and now in an apartment in Bigfork — for two weeks. The photo above is of the Swan River, taken from a two-mile nature trail (that’s two miles in one direction, two miles back) that we walked on Sunday afternoon. It’s about five minutes’ drive from the apartment. We were told there was a bear around, a female (they’re called sows, like pigs) with cubs, so the innkeepers gave me a can of bear spray to take with us, but we didn’t see the bear, only a very large deer which kind of flounced across the trail some distance in front of us and then vaulted up an impossibly steep hillside without blinking. (We also saw two deer high-stepping across the road in front of our car a couple of days ago.)
I love Montana so far. Every single person has been friendly and helpful, even when I’ve done annoying things like getting my ATM card stuck in the machine’s slot ten minutes before the bank was due to close for the day. These first two weeks, during which we’ve figured out where the best local stores and restaurants are, gotten our internet hooked up, and spent time seriously cleaning the new apartment before all our furniture, clothing, books, CDs and DVDs arrive, have been casual and low-pressure. The low-level heart murmur of professional anxiety that I’ve lived with for several decades, but especially the last few years (not only because of the pandemic, but also because I don’t have just one job that pays all the bills; I cobble my financial existence together from five or six sources), is just gone, melted away like cotton candy in water. I have absolutely made the right life decision for me. I hope you can do the same for yourself, whatever it may be.
Next: Such Music is a monthly Resonance FM program put together by Latvian radio host and festival organizer Rihards Endriksons. Burning Ambulance will be collaborating with Rihards going forward, sharing the show here and on our website and occasionally premiering new music before it’s released on our label. The most recent episode features two otherwise unavailable tracks by Mats Gustafsson and Joachim Nordwall (not included on their new Thrill Jockey album), plus material by Zoh Amba, Jason Kahn, Lisa Ullén/Elsa Bergman/Anna Lund, and Kārlis Auziņš/Rihards Plešanovs. You can listen to the show on Mixcloud, and there’ll be a new installment next week!
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OK, let’s talk about music — or at least music-adjacent discourse.
I know what I like right away. People (not normal people — other music critics) talk all the time about albums that are “growers,” about how they’ve sometimes listened to a record a dozen times before it clicks for them and they become rabid devotees. Not me. I can only think of one occasion when I hated something that I later grew to love: Slayer’s Reign in Blood, which a friend played for me in 1986 when it was brand-new. It sounded like screeching, blasting noise to me; I didn’t like it at all. And I didn’t listen to them again for several years, but the next time I did, I had heard a bunch more extremely fast, aggressive metal in the meantime, and Slayer’s music made sense. Its brilliance was revealed to me. So it wasn’t intense study that made the difference. I just wasn’t ready.
There are some artists I have tried to like, though. And it’s never worked. Whenever I’ve done it, it’s been fueled by insecurity. I’ve been telling myself that the people who like these artists are smarter than me (they’re not), that they know more than me (they don’t, they just know about different things), and therefore their opinions must have merit. So I keep trying, buying album after disappointing album, thinking that maybe this latest one is gonna be the one. It never is.
Lou Reed is my greatest nemesis in this regard. I spent decades trying to like Lou Reed, both as a solo artist and with the Velvet Underground. I have owned, in one format or another, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Loaded, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music, Rock ’n’ Roll Animal, Lou Reed Live, The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New York, Songs for Drella, The Raven, and Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica. And the only one I like, the only one that gives me any pleasure at all to listen to, and yeah you’ve probably already seen this coming and are sneering and/or scoffing, is Metal Machine Music. It’s beautiful, both the original and the Zeitkratzer orchestral interpretation. All those other albums? Sure, there might be one or two songs that I like (“Nowhere at All,” “Strawman,” “Waves of Fear”), but the rest is crap. Dull riffs, bare-bones production, lyrics performed with an audible shrug. It slaps at my ears like a personal insult.
I tried a few times to give a shit about The Fall; some friends sent me CD-Rs of a few albums, I bought a 2CD compilation, and I think I even reviewed one of their latter-day records for Alternative Press. But that was a pretty quick in-and-out, all things considered. I investigated, I thought You must be putting me on, or maybe you’re putting yourselves on, and I stopped.
Captain Beefheart is one of the most commonly cited artists whose work requires study to appreciate — well, anyhow, certain dudes love to talk about how long it took them to get into Trout Mask Replica. I have owned TMR on vinyl and on CD. I don’t like it. But his last two albums, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow, are brilliant. So I don’t include him in this category.
INTERMISSION! Here’s a video from Danish guitarist Henrik Olsson’s band Hand of Benediction. The song is called “Forest Dweller”; it’s from the album Hand of Benediction II, which you can buy on Bandcamp here.
Nick Cave is another artist I have tried to like long after I should have stopped, almost entirely because people I respect like him. A lot of them, it seems. I’ve listened to the Birthday Party; they do nothing for me. The Cramps were a hundred times scarier and funnier and more powerful. I’ve listened to several of the Bad Seeds records — the last one I heard in full was Let Love In, but every few years he puts out another and I’ll at least listen to the single, maybe one or two more songs. I’ve seen two of the movies he’s written; The Proposition was OK; Lawless was not as good as that, mostly because of Tom Hardy, who is one of the worst actors alive.
In recent years, though — and by “recent” I mean the last two decades or so, OK? I am old, and so is Nick Cave — he’s embarked on a new career path. While he was once a proto-Goth ranter, an Aussie thug masquerading as a postpunk aesthete, he has aged into something even less interesting than that. He seems to me to be aiming for the gravitas of latter-day Leonard Cohen while still wanting to be considered a “rock” artist instead of a morose balladeer. His strategy for threading this needle consists of adding feedback and grumbling noises to his slow, boring songs (e.g., “Jesus Alone,” the six-minute opening track from 2016’s Skeleton Tree that somehow manages to feel five times that long).
(Yes, I know he had a “noise-rock” band, Grinderman, a decade or so ago. I’ve heard a couple of Grinderman songs. They’re boring, too.)
Anyway, lately Cave has been doing something surprising, but not in a good way. On his website, he has this page called the Red Hand Files, where he answers questions from fans. And some of them are stories from his artistic life, about recording with Johnny Cash or where a particular song lyric comes from or whatever, but others are from people asking him to grapple with Big Issues, like religion and the nature of love and freedom of speech and “cancel culture” and whatnot. And some of his responses are disappointing, or they might be if you weren’t expecting a 65-year-old Australian man to be at least somewhat conservative. “Cancel culture,” which is definitely a real thing that exists: he’s against it! “Woke” culture, too! He thinks Morrissey deserves a fair hearing (about what, I’m not sure)! OK, buddy, whatever.
But what’s been getting up my nose lately is the way Cave has become journalists’ go-to guy for Deep Discussions of Tragedy and Loss. Now, this is certainly justified in a way; two of his children (he has — had — four, with three different women) have died, one, Arthur, in 2015 and another, Jethro, in May 2022. To quote Wikipedia, “The effect of Arthur’s death on Cave and his family was explored in the 2016 documentary film One More Time with Feeling, the 2016 album Skeleton Tree, and the 2019 album Ghosteen.” Up to you to decide how you feel about that. If Nick Cave wants to make two albums and a documentary about grieving his son, I think that’s his business. But he’s also done press about those albums and about the movie, and subsequently, and those interviews have often seemed like therapy sessions for the writers, with Cave there to pat them on the head and talk about his own sorrow yet again, so they can measure theirs against it or commiserate with him and then go home and write about the experience.
And as someone who thinks Nick Cave is a kinda dumb, not all that great artist on the best of days, seeing him elevated to the role of spiritual counselor to fawning music journalists is somewhat discomfiting. So when the latest of these interviews appeared in the New Yorker, before I even read it I tweeted this:
After a few hours, I was chastised by Grayson Currin, a writer I know a little, and like — he does a lot of good work, and interviewed me once for the New York Times(!) — for being, well…
What he says is true. The writer, Amanda Petrusich, whom I do not know and with whom I have never interacted, lost her husband suddenly in August 2022. And that’s very sad. But to my mind, that makes the piece — which is in large part a transcript of two people talking about their grief — worse. Another writer, Jayson Greene, entered the conversation, and I elaborated on my position.
Another writer I like, Caryn Rose (I subscribe to her newsletter even though she often writes about artists I wouldn’t listen to unless I had a gun at my head, like Bruce Springsteen and U2), seemed to want to accuse me of sexism:
I don’t know who brought up punk rock. It certainly wasn’t me. (But since we’re talking about it… Nick Cave: not punk!) And I would have said the exact same thing about the piece if it had been written by Adam Petrusich.
Subsequent to this Twitter exchange, I did read the piece. And while I can see how it might provide catharsis to people who are engulfed in sorrow and loss, and might offer the illusion of depth to others, it remains offensive to me. Partly because I think Nick Cave is a blockhead who makes bad art, and partly because I recoil, almost physically, from the idea of becoming the story.
Some of you who have read my book Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century (available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookshop) are probably pointing a scornful finger right now and saying, “But Phil, almost every chapter in your book is written in the first person! You talk about gigs you attended; you describe the circumstances under which you met your interview subjects! Got you!” To which I say yes, I do insert myself into the narrative to the degree that I believe it is journalistically necessary. But I don’t make the story about myself. The focus remains on the artist. When I am interviewing someone, I will occasionally tell a story from, or make some other reference to, my own life, as part of our conversation. But that stuff doesn’t make it into the final piece. It’s a way of deepening the interaction with the interviewee, so that they will reveal something interesting about themselves, which I will then transmit to the reader. It’s not about me. It’s never about me.
If Amanda Petrusich had chosen to write a personal essay about her grief at the loss of her husband, I would understand. I might even read it, despite not having felt that exact form of grief myself. (The prospect of losing my wife, to whom I will have been married for 30 years in a few months, terrifies me.) But roping Nick Cave into her grieving, turning an interview with him into something about her, feels unseemly to me. It feels like a betrayal of journalism. As I said in that tweet above, “journalism” has “journal” in it, but they’re not the same thing. It also feels like a variant of the kind of weird parasocial parasitism Zachary Lipez described this week, when criticizing people who were (in his mind) too credulous about a fake Glenn Danzig Twitter account.
Now, maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe I’m being a heartless asshole and dismissing Amanda Petrusich’s grief. If I am being an asshole, it’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Maybe there are things more important than journalism. (There are.) Maybe nothing is real but the feeling of pain. (Henry Rollins said that.) Maybe I’m overreacting because, again, I think Nick Cave is a dummy whose music sucks and I’d like to see his balloon deflated. But I don’t think I am. I think journalism is a compact between writer and reader. The writer says, I have learned something by means unavailable to you, the reader; here it is. The reader says, Thanks! And if they remember who wrote the story five minutes after they finish reading it, great. But who is conveying the information is not important — the information being conveyed is.
(He said in his email newsletter.)
I don’t have an ending for this, so I’m gonna stop now. If you haven’t unsubscribed, I’ll see you next week!
Journalism has many faces, but Nick Cave is a blockhead.