Rockstars and Whetstones and SSRIs: Steven Hyden, the 90s, and Other Things

From 2013.  Grantland was too good for this world (most of the time).

Steven Hyden puts out some really good stuff.  The fact that I can’t type the word “intervention” without hearing Win Butler tells you two things:  1) like Butler and Hyden, I’m a man of a certain age, and 2) (perhaps) like both of them, I have struggled with my share of obsessions.  (I also work for a church, but my family is fine.  Bonus points for a Billy Joel reference within an Arcade Fire reference).

Hyden is working on a pretty ambitious Winners’ History of Rock and Roll at Grantland.  The first piece I read was about Metallica, and it’s so good I need to email it to my best friend because, well, yeah.  Painstakingly thorough in its fidelity to mission, History is not meticulous in the typical sense: it’s a grand, narrative survey and a primer in postmodern historiography.  But Hyden weaves and he weaves and weaves, expertly.

I can’t speak for him, but I know I spent a good deal of my twenties obsessing about the long-term ramifications of my pop-culture pantheon.  In my early 30’s, not much has changed.  Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is a really great record.  But what kind of obsessive-compulsive Oasis fan would I be if I’d never stayed up all night watching Gallagher’s hilarious interviews on YouTube and wishing, still wishing, they’d released The Masterplan instead of Be Here Now?  Not a very good one.

Rock needs its obsessives, and Hyden’s a great one.  So are so many of the artists he profiles.  If good art borrows and great art steals, you can’t be Led Zeppelin without aping the bluesmen or, apparently, Spirit, and you can’t write Defiantly Maybe without a whole lotta, er, love.

Butler, Hyden, and I are young for GenXers.  We’ve learned the postmodern notes of professional curation, appreciation, executed by big cultural brothers like Rob from High Fidelity and Lloyd Dobbler, our cool 80s teen cousin.  We don’t obsess because they did, but because we’re obsessive.  But they paved the way for this kind of writing, for this way of being in public and in popular culture.  In 2013, we’re all kind of tired of clever so we’ve gone academic.  Tarantino nods are now dissertations.  More intelligent memes replace cliched, received language.

On a long enough timeline, obsession is burden.  On a short one, too, but you don’t really notice.  You don’t amass 400 issues of Rolling Stone all at once, but, now, here they are.  You can’t just throw them away.

For a long time, it meant a lot to me that the 90s meant something.  It hurt that great bands fizzled and died, that brilliant shows were cancelled, that I’d turn twenty without the great rock revival Gibby Haynes promised was coming with Beck.  But after Odelay, irony stopped being fun.  Letterman won’t even wink, now.  I had to move on.  We’d reached the end, hadn’t we, of what Hyden calls Elitist Taste?  We were in on the joke, but it stopped being funny.  Be Here Now was amazing for how little it cared and how big, too big, it sounded, but it didn’t sound too big then.  It sounded like filling a hole with Code Hero swagger, the logical end of the first two brilliant discs.  This is what you do when you conquer the world, when you’ve done so rejecting rejection, writing Live Forever as a dis track hurled at Kurt Cobain for  I Hate Myself and Want to Die.

In college, I found new things to obsess over.  Relationships.  MP3s.  The platonic ideals of The Phaedrus and classic rock.  The fundamental paradox at the center of Descartes’ Enlightenment project and the center of me.  My future, my grades. Change, all that change, the farmland banding my home, Lehigh County, plowed over and under for strip malls and suburbs.  The efficacy of Christ and his cross.

I got stuck.  Eventually, I realized I wasn’t just existentially advanced or overly sensitive.  I realized that God made me in a lean time, 1980; in an echo of the energy crisis, he’d held back serotonin.  I supplement, now, and think with less hurt about what’s been lost.  Forever, I feared this.  No pain and no edge.  But there’s always pain and there’s always edge, and there’s the blunt edges of the tools we pick up to make meaning:

“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused.”  (Ernest Hemingway, Preface to The First Forty-Nine Stories).

As long as I fretted, only, the instrument stayed shiny and smooth.  It was an engine always oiled, never stopping, some perpetual emotion machine gorged for want of the chemical breaks.  Do SSRIs blunt it?  Maybe.  But they buy me enough margin to push to the next thought and the thought beyond that, to construct some kind of perspective, peace.  In this margin I find productivity, too.  An output for the inputs I continue to plug in and share.

“There’s depression,” Leonard Cohen said, “and depression.”

“What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I have a hangover in the weekend … the girl didn’t show up or something like that. It isn’t that. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit…”  (from a French interview, trans. Nick Halliwell).

Something happens somewhere.  Mental violence. You get stuck.  There are triggers, short and long, but you focus on the short ones.  “If I hadn’t heard that song, if I hadn’t walked that way today,” and miss the bigger picture: you live in world of uncontrolled stimuli and your off-switch is broken.  Fix it. Fix it safely, fix it wisely, fix it with the help of a professional.  I always thought the fix would dull me in a bad way, but it’s actually made me more precise.  It’s helped me, immeasurably, learn to speak and say.

I love treatises like Hyden’s for obvious reasons.  I’m not suggesting he has OCD or general anxiety or trouble letting go, but, like the postmodern obsessive compulsive I am in my soul and my biochemistry, respectively, I’ve felt free to use his work as a grindstone and whetstone, hammering out what I need to say to you about letting go but not forgetting, being refreshed and strengthened by the good things from our past instead of being washed away and drowned out by their loss.  Thank you, Steven.

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