Hallway 61 Revisited
I've cut down what follows by about 25% from what I originally wrote. I tried to eliminate anything that had to do with Loverboy or questions of beauty or the realm of personal opinion. Chuck and I have been arguing about those things since practically the day we first spoke, when I interviewed him for Nerve ten years ago, and I should know better by now than to open that door. I'm glad I had a chance to put on record some other things that I should have been honest enough to address long ago, and I know why I wrote them. Anyone familiar with Chuck's writing is either going to a) share my exasperation with certain aspects of it, or b) think I'm as paranoid and insane as Chuck thinks I am. One thing that Chuck should have pointed out-- I'm not sure if this occurred to him--is that I'm guilty in my piece of the same thing that bugs me so much when Chuck writes about Sonic Youth and other critical favorites: I talk only about the problems I have with Chuck's writ- ing, taking it for granted that someone would already know that his new book is funny and has remarkable breadth and is filled with ideas and connections that you would never find anywhere else. (There, that's what I want Chuck to write about Sonic Youth's next album: "Funny, graced with remarkable breadth, filled with ideas and connections you'll never find anywhere else!") I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, despise Chuck's book. Again, I was writing about much more than the book. I do think that Chuck has misread or twisted out of shape some of what I wrote, so I want to clarify a few things. I'll try to be as brief and to-the- point as possible, but that's pretty hard for me, so I won't be all that brief.
1) The idea that I was engaging in a didactic exercise in debate per se: This strikes me as a weird conclusion to draw after reading my piece. Maybe Chuck is so used to taking such stances himself-going back, as he discusses in Scott's interview, to the days when he'd adopt an unpopular viewpoint in his high school paper and try to make a case for it-that he assumes as a matter of course that all arguments are just theoretical sport when stripped to their core. I was writing about things I really believe, things that have been on my mind for a while. It would never occur to me to spend 5,000 words expressing my frustrations with a good friend's writing just for the sake of seeing whether I could make it work or not.
2) That I took sentences from five and ten years ago out of context: As I've written to Chuck already, I'm interested in finding out what it is I took out of context. When I quoted Chuck on Hole and Liz Phair and Beck, those are things he did write, and they don't seem very susceptible to me to being taken out of context-they don't seem ambiguous at all. If by out of context Chuck means that those quotes don't jibe with things he's written elsewhere about Hole and Liz Phair and Beck, it's true, they don't-that was one of the main points I was trying to get across in the piece, how dizzying it can be to follow the twists and turns of Chuck's opinions. And except for a parenthetical mention of Flip Your Wig in my first paragraph, I consciously tried to avoid going back too far when quoting Chuck, concentrating instead on things he's written in the past four or five years (roughly speaking, the lifespan of Radio On). If I had gone back ten years and contrasted what Chuck was saying and writing then with his current tastes, it would have been sheer madness. So, context aside, I'm not sure what parts of my piece hold Chuck to things he wrote ten years ago.
3) That I misrepresented Chuck by saying he no longer likes the Pet Shop Boys or Neil Young: Go back to the interview and read what Chuck says about them. Neil's "classic stuff" (presumably Everybody Knows, After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night, etc.) is "cornier than people tend to give him credit for," not much more than "folk drone," and if you hear any rhythm in "Cinnamon Girl," Chuck has "no idea what you're talking about." He does like Trans. To me, if you don't think much of "Cinnamon Girl," consider Gold Rush and the rest of Neil's most highly regarded albums corny, and hold up Trans as your idea of a good Neil Young album...well, it's like saying "But I do like Orson Welles. Not Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil's pretty silly, but I think the wine commercials were terrific." With the Pet Shop Boys, Chuck says he likes Introspective a lot, including the song with the Ch=E9 Guevara line ("which one is it?"), even though the line itself makes Chuck wince. He has a low tolerance for the Pet Shop Boys' "quote-cleverness," attributes a "completely blank voice" to Neil Tenant (the most common complaint against the PSB by people who really do passionately dislike them; to like the PSB, I believe, is to hear lots of emotion in Neil Tenant's voice), and sees them as a "super super-compromised and tepid version of disco." At one point, "I just don't like them that much. I do like them! I just don't love them." A little farther on, "I don't like the Pet Shop Boys, I just have nothing negative to say about them." If all of that counts as actually liking someone, then, to put it mildly, it's a super super-compromised kind of liking. There was a Simpsons episode this year where a new employee at the nuclear plant literally drove himself insane trying to convince everyone that Homer was incompetent at his job. Open your eyes, he'd run around screaming, the proof is right in front of you; "Ah, leave Homer alone," everyone would counter, "he's OK." When I reach one of these black-is-white and white-is-black impasses with Chuck, I know exactly how the guy felt.
4) That because Boney M and Quarterflash sold millions of records, they were a poor analogy to use in conjunction with the Bangs quote: I should have been clearer there-I was talking about Boney M and the rest being critical obscurities, not that they didn't sell a lot of records. That's what I had in mind when drawing up that list.
5) That Chuck hadn't decided whether he liked the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony record simply because he'd only heard it twice: Perfectly normal, and if that's what Chuck had written, I never would zeroed in on that quote-I never would have brought the matter up at all. But that's not what he wrote; Chuck's exact words were "I haven't quite decided if I want to like [this] or not." To me, there's a world of difference between saying you haven't decided if you like something and saying you haven't decided if you want to like something.
6) That Chuck hasn't written, and wouldn't even suggest, that someone could only like the Beatles or R.E.M. in theory: I never said that Chuck had written such a thing. Here's what I wrote: "I suspect [Chuck] really believes that 'in theory' is the only possible way that someone might like R.E.M. or the Beatles or Hüsker Dü." I was taking something that Chuck HAD written-that most critics are turned into liars because they only like music in theory-and speculating on what music he was referring to when he wrote that. Chuck's right, it was silly of me to suggest that maybe he included the Beatles in that formulation. But I don't think it was unfair at all to speculate that he might have been talking about R.E.M. or Hüsker Dü. They seem like definitive examples of groups that a) critics generally love, b) Chuck generally dislikes (I won't get into the mildly pro-R.E.M. aside that Chuck slips into his response; if you were to gather together everything that Chuck's ever written about R.E.M., you'd have to be Johnnie Cochran to make a case that he actually likes them), and c) Chuck therefore might have had them in mind as the kind of music that critics only like in theory. Maybe they aren't examples of the phenomenon Chuck's talking about, but saying that they could be seems reasonable enough to me. If not R.E.M. or Hüsker Dü then who?
7) That changing your mind is against the rules (specifically, my rules): Hearing something that you haven't heard in a while, and realizing that you over- or underrated it at one time, is not only not unusual, it's to be expected-it would be bizarre if your likes and dislikes remained perfectly static forever. (I never understood Pauline Kael's practice of only seeing a film once in her lifetime-I'm sure I read her say that somewhere-and then never adjusting her original view of the film to account for the passage of time.) I've often written about such fluctuations in my own opinions in Radio On-with regards to songs by the Meat Puppets, C & C Music Factory, Extreme, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others. But it's a question of degree: surely Chuck must see that he's an extreme case, how unnatural his unending barrage of flip-flops must seem to someone who doesn't share his compulsion for revision. When Chuck goes from writing off the entirety of Hole's Live Through This (save one song) to being a fan in the space of 15 months, or from three years of writing 95% negatively about Beck to deciding one day that they should be friends because they have so much in common, there's something very confusing about that. Chuck says it's human nature, but it isn't in my experience-not as it applies to me, and not as it applies to anyone else I've ever met. And, as I've already written, there's a clear pattern to the great majority of these reversals: knock people while they're on their way to winning polls, then start to retreat.
8) That I'm writing from a high horse of integrity, that I'm on a pure and holy X-Files-like quest, and that the "Truth [Phil's] talking about is the Truth that agrees with [Phil's] tastes": All of this dovetails with the idea above that the rules I accuse Chuck of breaking are my rules. The strange thing about this tangent is that Chuck, as much as anyone and far more than most, has built part of his career out of questioning the motives and honesty of other critics. To take only the most immediate examples, there's the use of the word "liars" in Evolution and again in Scott's interview; I'm sure Chuck will concede that I could fill a few pages with examples of him taking on other critics. I have no problem with that, I just don't see how what I'm doing in my piece is any different from what Chuck's been doing for years. And when Chuck concludes that other critics are liars, I don't think he's judging them against my idea of how things should be done, or Scott's, or Dave Marsh's, or anyone else's-I assume the standards or rules they don't measure up to are his own. It's like Orson Welles says to Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane: "Here's to love on my terms, Jedidiah-the only terms anyone ever knows." As for my high horse of integrity, that's what Chuck threw at me in connection with "Yes It Is" that time. I guess I should at least be happy that my integrity hasn't killed me yet, like Kurt Cobain's killed him. I wish Chuck would stop yelling integrity in crowded arguments.
9) That my presentation of the hallway theory was a gross and lazy misinterpretation: Maybe I don't have it exactly right-what I wrote was my sense of what the theory's about, but I was working from memory, and from only having seen the theory explained a couple of times at that. "Gross and lazy"?-I'll have to ask Frank Kogan for a copy of the Why Music Sucks where it's explained in full, and I'll see how far off I was. But I think it would be more accurate to take what I wrote about the division in Chuck's writing between R.E.M., Liz Phair, and Neil Young on one side and Color Me Badd on the other, and to say that I identified something that does exist and misnamed it. The division's there, and I think I described that division accurately. If you don't want to hang the name "hallway theory" on it, pick something else-call it Manny Farber's "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" theory, call it the "Bruce Springsteen vs. John Waite" theory, call it whatever you want. It's omnipresent in Chuck's writing, and I think that he adheres to it so religiously he gets boxed in by it time and time again.
10) That to justify my (goofy) thesis, I have to pretend that the music Chuck embraces is purely arbitrary: The problem here is that Chuck has the thesis backwards-I'm saying that Chuck's explanations of why he likes what he likes often strike me as arbitrary, not the choices themselves. I tried to make it clear that, to my mind, Chuck chooses his favorite music through a process that's anything but arbitrary-that's why I dwelled on those comments about Chuck deciding or learning or convincing himself what to like. I think Chuck very carefully chooses what he embraces; it's when he defends those choices that I think he sometimes starts grasping at straws.
11) That I pretend my tastes are free of any prejudices or outside influences or other environmental factors: Do I? In Radio On I frequently write about mitigating circumstances that affect my judgement one way or the other. Again, it's a question of degree. If I don't write about these factors as often as Chuck does, and if I don't credit the outside influences with affecting me quite as much as they do Chuck, there's good reason for that-I'm not as affected by them. They're there, but in smaller measure. This brings the argument back to Chuck's stated goal of being a counterforce to critical consensus. Chuck's honest about this, and that's good, but it would be silly of me to make a similar claim. It doesn't apply to me.
12) That "Yes It Is" is a record-collector's obscurity: "Yes It Is" was a B-side, it's true, but it's also on Beatles VI-a number-one album (July '65) that, like all Beatles albums, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the years. If you're talking about the regular-issue albums only, I wonder if there even is such a thing as an obscure Beatles song? "Yes It Is" isn't-I discovered it when I was eight or nine, and not because I had a subscription to Goldmine.
Hopefully we can start to bring all of this to a close. We're both extremely stubborn, so it's hard to say.