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February 19th, 2003

in praise of pretension

I miss the days of progressive rock and early heavy metal. We have a problem nowadays--the problem that people don't take themselves too seriously in appropriately silly ways anymore. This results in international crises, Ari Fleischer, and the RIAA. But in the days of yore, pretension roamed the earth, and dwelt among people, in a way that can only be described as groovy.

Consider the radiowaves in the early days of FM, for example.
You flip the dial, and the Moody Blues are playing some Justin Hayward song with a great line like "Beauty I've always missed/with these eyes before/just what the truth is/I can't say anymore". Never mind that the refrain of the song is the poor fellow moaning "I love you" as this odd set of refugee strings sounds as if it has taken over the coat closet and issued an ultimatum to the brooms, or something similar. It doesn't matter that the words are needlessly pretentious, or don't mean anything. In those days, the distant radio station is probably fading in and out too often for one to hear it in any event. All that matters is that one is 15, and this guy with a cool accent is saying "just what the truth is, I can't say anymore", which must mean something. In those days, even girl-you-met-at-parties-and-took-drugs-with songs had a sort of grandeur. Consider Uriah Heep's hit "Sweet Lorraine" (Box, Byron, Thain). First, for those who don't know Uriah Heep, David Byron had a voice that sounded like he was auditioning to play Richard Harris playing King Arthur in the musical Camelot, except that he wanted to do the role as Anthony Newley crossed with Charlton Heston, after ingesting far too many mushrooms. In "Sweet Lorraine", the audience is assured that "she understands--she's been before; it's in her hands/to find the door", before Lorraine herself is implored to not only "let the party carry on", but also to "swim the seas" and, appropriately enough "feel the breeze". I think that what the world needs now is more theremins and pretentious lyrics, and fewer UN resolutions. I feel as though Pete Sinfield, the old Emerson, Lake and Palmer lyricist, could do a better job scripting 2003 than Donald Rumsfeld has done; in addition, an ELP future would involve lots of pianos spinning in mid-air.

Those were indeed the days, when Peter Gabriel dressed as a giant flower because he could and then led his band to its "magnum opus", the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a "concept album" in which this fellow named Rael does all sorts of things that don't make any sense, but the lamb, which apparently has chosen to lie down on a crowded street, "brings a stillness to the air" on Broadway. In that time, bands like Magma roamed the earth, who played Euro acid jazz rock with song lyrics all rendered in an invented language that only the members of Magma spoke. David Bowie knew how to use make-up then, the key question for a song was not "was it good", but "does it rock", and bands could make a living just playing every hall in the midwest, speakers stacked high, charging five dollars a ticket.

Those times were swept away, of course, by disco on the dark side, and on the light side, by wonderful bands with cool names like Television, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Talking Heads. But didn't the world grow just a little colder from then on? Since then, we've had a lot of innovations--the Individual Retirement Account, the "smart bomb", and Fox News. But I miss those earlier, more cynical and yet more naive times. It's not that I ever used drugs or had a particularly hedonistic social life. My life has almost always been lived along rather puritanical lines, with a few exceptions in single days which would be more the stuff of episodes of Everwood rather than of road tours of Status Quo. But somehow I've always had a fondness for these road warrior bands who lived some Spinal Tap existence three hundred days a year, people with mellotrons and scrub boards and lyrics about hiding out from the gnomes. As live intro to the old Black Oak Arkansas song, which advocated an avoidance of long life, postulated, "mankind has lost his mind--he's turned into the Monster. Our generation is his offspring--we're Mutants of the Monster". What did it mean? I have no idea. It took a lot of five dollar bills paid by the Monster to acquire the record collection which would give us clues. But in some odd ways, this series of ridiculous bands, untouched by both the "social insight" of the sixties and the "stern reality" which was to come (but trying desperately to be both in touch and tuned out), these little snippets of pretense seem in retrospect to predict what was to come, and urge us all to find some other, more absurd way.