Tuesday, June 29, 2021
My Internet Haunts
Thursday, June 24, 2021
The Man Who Hath No Music in Himself: Confessions of a Slade Fan, And Other Musings on Music
My father liked to quote these lines from The Merchant of Venice:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
Actually, he would misquote it as "The man who hath not music in his soul". I've only realized now, when seeking the quotation out, that he was misquoting it all those years. I'm inclined to say that my father's version is better than Shakespeare's.
Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that I am the man who has no music in himself. But it's certainly true to say that music is quite far down on my list of priorities. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to write about this. We tend to focus on our passions, but what about the things we're not passionate about, but which are generally considered to be an important part of life?
I could live quite happily without music. I would be miserable without books. I would hanker for movies if I couldn't see them. Not being able to write would drive me demented. But music I could live without.
I've given up music for Lent several times, and I haven't missed it terribly.
It's not that I don't like music, or don't listen to music. I do. Sometimes music even transports me. But it doesn't mean even nearly as much to me as does cinema, reading, writing, or any of the other things that I would call my passions.
Friedrich Nietzsche said: "WIthout music, life would be a mistake". I disagree with this. I might apply it to chocolate, but not music
I'm pretty sure I have poor taste in music, for the most part. Of course, it's hard to tell, since poor taste would seem to be by nature ignorant of itself.
But there are various considerations that lead me to this conclusion. There's something very abitrary about the music I like. There seems to be no pattern to it, it doesn't seem to follow any principles. I can't really say why I like what I like. This is in sharp contrast to my tastes in poetry and literature and film, where I can generally find a lot of words (too many, some might say) to praise a particular poem or book or film.
As well as this, the things that please me in music tend to be the most obvious things; hooks, especially. I can see quite clearly that a hook doesn't really allow for much deeper enjoyment; you can't explore it. I can see (or hear) that classical music, for instance, has a lot more nuance and range and depth than a Led Zeppelin song.
But, to my great regret, classical music is completely over my head (or my ears). I've made many, many, many efforts to enjoy classical music over the years. With a few exceptions, it leaves me cold.
I think it's fair to say that, whenever anything really speaks to us, the effect is involuntary. It might be a beautiful face, or a scary moment in a horror movie, or a line of poetry, or a joke. In every case, the reaction is akin to a shiver, or goose pimples, or a sneeze, or involuntary laughter. We're overtaken, surprised. The surprise can endure even when we encounter the thing for the hundredth time. Think of some particular beautiful face, for instance-- a face that bewitches you. Isn't there an enduring sense of surprise in your reaction to it?
I don't have this reaction with classical music. Or rather, I have it with a very few classical compositions. (Here is one of the few exceptions-- Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie, which I know from the film My Dinner with André.)
Even when it comes to popular music, my tastes are very restricted and middle-of-the-road.
Here are some of the bands and musicians I enjoy: Slade, Horslips, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, Rory Gallagher, The Lightning Seeds, The Beatles, Wings, The Wildhearts, Prince, Iron Maiden, Guns 'n' Roses, Queen. As you will see, none of that is particularly original or sophisticated!
When I'm asked to name a band that I like, the first name I come up with is usually Slade. This isn't because they're my absolute favourite band. That's probably Led Zeppelin. But how boring is that? I proffer Slade because it seems more interesting, and because proclaiming myself a Slade fan gratifies my contrarian instincts, since they are often regarded as something of a joke.
For anyone who doesn't know, Slade were an English band who rode the wave of glam rock back in the early seventies. They dominated the English charts for a few years, and are particularly remembered for "Merry Xmas Everybody", which nobody on this side of the Atlantic could fail to hear in the last few weeks of every year.
What I especially like about Slade is the contrast between their glam aesthetic (the outlandish costumes they wore on stage, for instance) and their rugged, down-to-earth, Black Country attitude. The get-up they wore was theatrical, but their actual music and lyrics were unfailingly man-in-the-street. The contrast becomes even more pointed when we consider the time and place in which they flourished; seventies Britain, the era of the three-day week and endless strikes and industrial disputes. I've always found something deliciously bleary and run-down about seventies Britain, as it appears to me through film and television and other media.
But I do genuinely like their music. One of my colleagues describes Merry Xmas Everybody as her least favourite song of all time, but I'm never bored of it (whereas I never want to hear Fairytale of New York again, as good as it is).
To quote from a blog called Darren's Music Blog:
Unlike the treacly nostalgia of previous Christmas classics, Holder and Lea managed to capture the essence of a working class family Christmas:
Are you waiting for the family to arrive
Are you sure you’ve got the room to spare inside
Does your granny always tell you
That the old songs are the best
Then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rolling with the rest?
That was combined with a genuine spirit of bright, breezy optimism.
I love other Slade songs, too. Mama Weer All Crazee Now and Cum On Feel the Noize are perfect companion pieces, raucous celebrations of rock. These were number one hits, but I also like some of their lesser-known songs: critical favourite How Does It Feel?, the bouncy Thanks for the Memory, and the irresistibly catchy Gypsy Roadhog. (Since this latter seems so obviously to have hit potential, there's been some discussion why it never became one. The consensus seems to be that glam rock had suddenly gone out of style, and that radio stations refused to play it because of its references to cocaine. Much as I like the song, I think this was entirely appropriate.)
Another seventies glam band that appeal to me are The Sweet, who enjoy even less musical respectability than Slade-- if Slade are the Carry On of music, The Sweet are the Confessions Of.. series. (At least this was the case until their song Fox On The Run became popular through being featured on the Guardians of the Galaxy series.)
I appreciate The Sweet's utterly ridiculous lyrics, such as these lines from WIg Wam Bam:
Hiawatha didn't bother too much
About Minnehaha and her tender touch
'Til she took him to the silver stream
Then she whispered words like he'd never heard
That made him all shudder inside when she said
Wig-wam bam, gonna make you my man
Wam bam bam, gonna get you if I can
Wig-wam bam, wanna make you understand
Try a little touch, try a little too much
Just try a little wig-wam bam.
Talk about cultural appropriation! Then there is this very fresh take on telecommunications history in their song Alexander Graham Bell:
A candle flickers in a window
Two thousand miles away she was there
There's a young man thinking by a window
How was she to know just how much he cared
He always knew just what he could do
He always knew that his dream would come true
Alexander Graham Bell - well, he knew darned well
He could find the only way to talk across the U.S.A.
Telephone, telephone, never be on your own
Many, many years ago
He started something with his first "Hello"
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell
But the attention I've given to The Sweet here is entirely disproportionate-- I've only ever owned their Greatest Hits.
The first album I ever owned was Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi. I was given it by one of my sister's friends, but I do remember liking it.
My elder brother and my cousin were heavy metal fans. Since they were older than me and I looked up to them, I became a heavy metal fan, too. Iron Maiden were their idols, so they were mine too. I shared their icy contempt for the teenbopper music of the time; Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Michael Jackson, Bros, and so on.
I still like Iron Maiden. My father regarded all contemporary popular music with disdain, and Iron Maiden with outright dismay. ("What kind of a name is that for a group of fellahs?", he asked, and he was not much mollified when I told him they were named after a torture device.)
As a matter of fact, Iron Maiden were a surprisingly wholesome influence in some ways. They didn't at all in for sex, drugs, and all of that stuff. Their songs were actually very educational. They drew on history, mythology, literature, and similarly high-minded subjects. I first heard about the Charge of the Light Brigade from the Iron Maiden song The Trooper, and about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from their rendition of it. Indeed, Iron Maiden even use a verse from G.K. Chesterton to preface one particular song!
As I grew up, I started discovering my own tastes, and I became a big fan of the Irish singer-songwriter Rory Gallagher. I learned about him through my eldest brother (not the Iron Maiden fan) playing his album Calling Card. A few years later, that brother having moved away, me and my youngest brother bought a replacement copy of this album and listened to it again...and again...and again... We both became fervent Rory devotees, at a time when his popularity was at its lowest and his albums were almost impossible to find. (This was before the internet, of course.) After his death in 1995, his popularity revived and his albums were everywhere, but I'd more or less lost interest by then.
My favourite Rory Gallagher song was the jaunty Barley and Grape Rag, which had the excellent line "where the whiskey flows and the dices roll till dawn."
Funnily enough, though, I rarely listen to Rory Gallagher these days-- and the Rory Gallagher songs I still enjoy were not among my favourites back then.
But I didn't intend this post to become a chronicle of my musical tastes. I wanted it to be a reflection on what part music plays in the life of a not-very-musical person.
I've often heard the statement "There was always music in our house", coming from musicians or devotees of music. Well, there was music in my own house only intermittently. My mother hardly ever listened to music, my father only occasionally. He liked John McCormack and Glen Miller, but he was more likely to listen to current affairs on the radio than music.
My eldest brother is a multi-instrumentalist, but I never played an instrument, nor did I ever feel a particular desire to do so. I have a strange, disconnected memory of a single piano lesson in school, after hours, when I was very young. It was just me and the teacher and nothing came of it. It's one of those spotlights of memory which are surrounded by darkness.
I did learn to play the tin whistle a little bit, in school. I had no choice, it was compulsory. At one point I tried to compose a tune on the tin whistle, on my own intiative. I remember it was called Bean An Tí (Woman of the House), since this seemed an appropriately folksy title. I can't remember how it went. I was playing it on the street once and a kid passed and said: "That's awful". Crestfallen, I gave up on it, and on any thought of ever composing music again.
Occasionally, a song that I overhear will captivate me. A couple of years ago, I was in a café and the YMCA song "Macho Man" was playing in the background. I'd never heard it before and it filled me with delight. It's rather embarrassing to admit.
Sometimes the songs that captivate me are a bit more prestigious. The first time I'd heard A Day in the Life by the Beatles (it was in 2005, since I remember where I was lodging at the time), I felt that I was floating. I've ever since found something otherworldly, even pleasantly eerie, about this song. It's one of the few times my tastes line up with those of the critics. A Day in the Life would be my favourite Beatles song, and listening to it is always an emotional experience (although this effect wears off if I listen to it too often in close succession.)
Other songs are connected to particular memories. I have a very happy memory of Christmas shopping with my brothers in Dublin city centre, back in the days when we would save pennies for months in order to buy Christmas gifts. It was a crisp winter's morning, and I can remember encountering the scent of fragrant soaps in one shop. In the window of Brown Thomas, Dublin's fanciest shop, there was a large glass model of a ship, which swayed slowly back and forth in a long rectangular box, filled with richly-coloured liquid. All these sensual associations are tied to the song Life of Riley by the Lightning Seeds, which was being played with crystal clarity through the speakers of one music shop that day.
So I guess music has been important to me. But only now and again, here and there, once in a while. When I find myself in conversations about music, I still feel pretty much at sea, and tend to keep my mouth shut. I guess it just goes to show life's richness, how much it always has to spare.
Friday, June 18, 2021
Back to Life
Ice-creams to celebrate Ireland finally coming out of lockdown, if all-too-slowly...
Tuesday, June 15, 2021
Issue Two of Leaven magazine
The second issue of Leaven, the new online Irish Catholic magazine, is now available.
It's a very handsome, professional and well-rounded production.There are articles in it about all kinds of things, including detective fiction, the portrayal of old age in cinema, and a round-table discussion on Catholic schools. I think this is the kind of breadth that Catholic discourse absolutely needs, rather than an obsessive concentration on church politics, Flannery O'Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, and homemade beer.
And there's also an article from me in praise of the situation comedy.
Is it worth four euro, or twenty euro for a year's subsciption? Well, I guess that depends on your disposable income. I'm always irritated at ads and charitable appeals which ask for "the price of a cup of coffee". It's a long time since a cup of coffee was a trivial expense for me. The days when I bought a daily blueberry muffin and cappuccino in the UCD café, often while reading the latest issue from my First Things subscription, seems like another life. But I do think Leaven is worth supporting if it's not too much of a financial strain.
Friday, June 11, 2021
What Makes a Good Horror Story?
However, I feel a little bit out of my depth there sometimes. My horror knowledge is quite extensive by normal standards, but these guys are walking encyclopedias of horror. This is especially true when it comes to the written word. My knowledge of horror movies is much more extensive than my knowledge of horror fiction. So I've been trying to expand it.
I've been confronted once more with the fact that many of the horror stories which are considered classics of the genre don't appeal to me at all. For instance, I can't really enjoy the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, a Dubliner of the nineteenth century, who is considered one of the masters of the genre. I derive rather more enjoyment from the stories of M.R. James (an English writer who died in 1936), but not quite as much as his reputation would seem to warrant.
I've realized that I have my own criteria when it comes to the enjoyment of horror stories, and many of the most celebrated stories just don't fit them.
Here they are.
1) The main criteria is that I like horror stories to have a supernatural element, or at least a potentially supernatural element. (Sometimes, it's left ambiguous.) I generally don't like horror stories with no supernatural element, although there are exceptions. I tend to dislike stories with an apparently supernatural element which turns out to be non-supernatural.
2) I like horror stories to be set in a world which is familiar to me, in some way. My favourite sort of horror involves the otherworldly intruding into the ordinary-- so the more ordinary, the better.
"Familiar" can have various meanings, though. Victorian England is a familiar enough world-- unless it's a story that sets out to present it in an unfamiliar way (which I won't enjoy).
Generally, I don't like stories which are set much more than a century in the past, or in non-English speaking countries, or in some kind of sub-culture such as organised crime or show business. I'm a very provincial person indeed.
|Dirk Benedict in "Mark of the Devil"|
3) I want the protagonist to be likeable. This is true, not only of horror stories, but of all stories. Who enjoys spending time in the company of someone they don't like?
4) I like horror stories to be cosy. "Cosy", like "familiar", is a relative term. It comes down to this: I have no interesting in reading a horror story (or any story, but especially a horror story) which is unrelieved bleakness from beginning to end.
I say "especially a horror story", because one of the reasons I enjoy horror stories is for this very reason. Horror and cosiness seem to go together, strangely enough. Many of the settings of horror are both spooky and cosy at once; lonely moors, old cottages, stormy nights, well-fitted bedrooms with four-poster beds, old churches, campfires, night trains, and so forth.
5) This point is similar to the previous one. I like horror which is seductive in some way. Horror where the horrific element is entirely repulsive is rarely appealing to me. Many people see the debonair, glamorous Dracula of movie tradition as a vulgarization of Stoker's Count Dracula, who was considerably less romantic. However, I like debonair vampires.
The point applies not only to the villains, but to the situation itself. The situation should be appealing in some way; if not to the person trapped in it, then to the audience. Take, for instance, the setting of the movie The Wicker Man: a Scottish island whose entire population has taken up paganism . Modern life is so alienated, rootless, and homogeneous that the thought of such a place is rather pleasing.
6) I like a horror story to mean something. This is a tricky one, however. I sympathise with the views of J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote: "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations." A story (at least, a story whose principle purpose is the enjoyment of the reader) should exist for its own sake. One cannot help resenting a story which is simply a dressed-up message of some kind, in the same ways one resents a "sponsored feature" in a magazine.
Horror is probably the genre which is most fertile in deeper meanings, perhaps because it probes our anxieties. Is Invasion of the Body-Snatchers about McCarthyism, or communism, or the fear of conformism in consumer society? Well, none of these hidden meaning seem to have been intended, but once can't help sensing their presence. Good horror tends to do this. Sometimes I encounter horror stories which seem to have no possible application to anything outside the story, and I don't enjoy them much.
Winston Churchill is supposed to have once commanded: "Take away that pudding-- it has no theme". That's how I feel about horror stories. The movie An American Werewolf in London is an example of this. It's a well-made movie, but it seems flat to me, because it doesn't suggest anything beyond itself.
7) I don't like stories which involve damnation, or even the danger of damnation. The reader might point out that, according to my own beliefs, life is a story featuring the danger of damnation. So it is. But I'm talking about horror stories in which the character barters his soul to the Devil, and so forth. The idea of eternal punishment is so awful that it takes all the relish out of the story, for me. And I felt like this before I became a believing Catholic.
The same is true of unspeakable and unending torment even outside a Christian cosmology. Sometimes horror can just be too stark.
8) On the more positive side, I like horror stories which involve the protagonist caught in some mysterious situation, one where reality itself seems to have turned against them. I dislike the influence of mythology-makers such as Anne Rice, because they make the world of the horror story too defined, too prosaic, too humdrum. I prefer horrors where there is no map, no compass, no guidelines, and the ground under the protagonist's feet seems to be giving way.
Here is an example which is all too real: the history of AIDS. AIDS is terrifying enough now. But think how terrifying it must have been at the very beginning, when doctors knew next to nothing about the disease.
However, in the case of the horror story, this mysteriousness isn't just terrifying. It's also strangely exhilarating-- at least for the reader!
Well, that's my list. I know it seems so specific that not very many horror stories could hope to satisfy me. However, I'm far from rigid. I can't imagine enjoying a story that failed to meet any of these criteria, or even most of them. But I don't expect any story to tick all these boxes.