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.

A new piece by Steven Hyden sets out to say I won’t love the new Killers record, but convinces me I will.

A new piece by Steven Hyden sets out to say I won’t love the new Killers record, but convinces me I will.  I like the Imagine Dragons set-up of the Battle Born review, but by the time I got to the Grizzly Bear portion, I’d forgotten that half the piece was supposed to be about them.

Related: Hyden on Billy Corgan and Noel Gallagher.

Steven Hyden’s Look At Billy Corgan

I don’t agree with all of Hyden’s conclusions in this piece (and I’m certainly no Rush expert), but isn’t this a fantastic piece of writing?:

Resentment was very good to Corgan when he invented the original incarnation of Smashing Pumpkins and made it the biggest band of alt-rock’s last, lurching stand in the mid-’90s. It grew — as only the purest, most potent reservoirs of resentment do — from out of the Midwest, festering inside the pinched heart of a nerdy metal kid who knew he would never be accepted by the Thurston Moores and Stephen Malkmuses of the world, with their stupidly perfect mussed hairdos and mysteriously crucial connections to skateboard culture and world-class noise-rock collections. To them, no matter how fast he shredded or how high his choruses soared, Billy would always have sweaty palms and pockmarks and a ruthlessly flowing mullet. Guys like that can just smell the hayseed on you, even through your paisley-colored rock-star clothes, and they’ll never let you forget your place.

I also love this Corgan quote, which Hyden thinks is Billy talking about Billy:

“I can’t think of any people outside of Weird Al Yankovic who have both embraced and pissed on rock more than I have. Obviously there’s a level of reverence, but there’s also a level of intelligence to even know what to piss on. ‘Cause I’m not pissing on Rainbow. I’m not pissing on Deep Purple. But I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead, because of all this pomposity. This value system that says Jonny Greenwood is more valuable than Ritchie Blackmore. Not in the world I grew up in, buddy. Not in the world I grew up in.”

Says Hyden:

If you’ve been following Corgan for these last 20 years, and know how to parse the cogent thoughts from his thatches of twisty-turny grandiosity, you might understand that he’s not talking at all about Radiohead here, and only a little bit about Weird Al and perhaps slightly more about Ritchie Blackmore. That Billy Corgan quote is mainly about Billy Corgan; Al and Ritchie are manifestations of how Corgan sees himself and his place in rock music. He is criticizing the value system that says fashionable and arbitrarily acclaimed (in his view) bands are considered more valuable than he is. Unfortunately, this is the world you grew up in, buddy. Corgan’s feelings of persecution at the hands of a vast, underground, oppressively aloof hip-stapo have been central to his music since at least “Cherub Rock,” one of the few golden-era Smashing Pumpkins oldies that Corgan never seems to tire of playing.

He’s right, of course, that this really isn’t about Radiohead.  And hey, I remember when Adore and all that came out and we couldn’t give it away at BestBuy.  It must have hurt that Semisonic and The Flys where outselling the Pumpkins’ follow-up to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and it must have hurt more that no one who listened to the record seemed to like it.   I remember Corgan saying he was being punished for being ahead of his time, and I remember thinking it was all an ill-informed load of crap.  But Corgan’s right, isn’t he, about the value system of Whoever It Is that makes tastes and foments critical opinion?  Yes and no, of course.  But if you’re like me, the yes has found you really pissed off about these hierarchies on more than one occasion…typically when your heroes are passed over for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with merit or talent or art.

Billy Corgan was never a hero of mine the way, say, Noel Gallagher was/is, but I was 15 when Mellon Collie came out and I had all those thoughts.  Maybe Corgan’s talking about himself and maybe he’s not, or maybe we just don’t expect this kind of angst about authenticity from people in their 40s.  (Of course we don’t.  Maybe we should.)

Hyden’s right, anyway, about the Mellon Collie Corgan being a Brill Building of his own.  A Baxter Building, even.  Listen to “1979” and don’t feel amazing about some sliver of your youth.  Go right ahead.  Listen to “Tonight, Tonight” and don’t feel like the un-vindicated sixteen-year-old you were.  Not in the world I grew up in, buddy.

And so this post ends up not being about Steven Hyden and only a little bit about Billy Corgan.  And that’s what great writing, like Hyden’s, and great art, like Corgan’s, find us doing.  Sorting out our own histories and narratives and hard-won feelings. It’s why Mellon Collie soared and Adore didn’t.  It’s why I share and quote from pieces like these in the first place.  Buddy.