Sunday, June 06, 2010

Notes on Tower of Song

In my previous entry, I listed 100 singer-songwriters supposedly greater than Leonard Cohen and supposedly lesser than Hank Williams. It was inspired by a few things:
I. Obviously, Leonard Cohen's aw-shucks humility in "Tower of Song".
II. The stereotype of obsessive list-making pop music devotees (exemplified by John Cusack's never-ending Top Fives in High Fidelity) that I curiously missed out on during my decade of music writing. Despite the fact that I've written (and continue to write) hundreds of record reviews, I don't think too highly of my skills as a critic. I mean, I'm a great listener and I'm a pretty good writer, and sometimes I'm able to bring those two skillsets together in alternatingly informative and entertaining paragraphs. But as far as being any kind of "this is better than this" authority? That ain't me.
My tastes are mine alone, idiosyncratic (and I don't say that as an elitist of any kind, but after some honest appraisal of how come so many of my favourite acts have failed to capture the minds and hearts of every, or sometimes any, other person on the planet) and irrevocably flawed and I'm in no position to shit on anyone for loving what they love. Nor would I want to. What I consider my real apprenticeship as a writer during the decade I covered the Hit Parade for the prairie dog and the Leader-Post was the feature-writing. Interviewing and reporting. Amassing the raw materials of a story and assembling them in a coherent and hopefully engaging narrative. I won't say that's where my strengths were, but that's where my strengths became. Certainly it's where my interest took me.
I've never been too chummy with other music writers, but I don't think many others looked at it like that. This is pure speculation here, but it seemed as though the features and profiles were--usually better-paying--means of subsidizing low-paying review-writing. That's how I saw them at first. In the hubris of youth, I figured that my talents as a taste-maker were being wasted on write-ups for upcoming shows. Reviews, man, were where I could really say something, and boy did I have something to say. Why should I let someone else's words eat up my precious column inches?
Features, or profiles, are far more restrictive in their structure and far less conducive to baring my tortured writer's soul. I had chops to work out, damn it! But, y'know, I got older and wiser, and actually started listening to what the people I interviewed had to say and started actually being curious about the people who made the music I had so many opinions about. I became something approaching a journalist, I guess. I cared less and less about telling people what I thought and more and more about showing people why they should care.
Despite my disenfranchisement with what I believed to be convential rock-write-think, I still love the pop critics and their endless list-making. I still took part in end-of-year listmaking, but as time passed, my lists became unwieldly and uncomprehensive.
III. I've been half-assedly interested in different ways the Internet and social media are changing the way content is generated. Blogger Dan Zambonini has done some interesting things pointing out the relationships between metrics and culture, and his recent post on The Januarist coincides with the basic premise of my Tower of Song list.
IV. The prairie dog's Gregory Beatty said some terribly snobbish things about Country Music that I felt needed to be refuted. I didn't quite address that in the list, but it was on my mind as I created it. Perhaps I'll compile a list of Awesome Mainstream Country Songs sometime.

SO. I created this list. It's inconsistent and there are some glaring omissions (John Hiatt, Alex Chilton, just for starters). I'm not that pleased with it, but I made it through to the end, and I even got a comment on it from perhaps the world's leading poet on the subject of Leo Cooper, Gus Braveyard. The list has already become my most popular posting on this blog since the time I wrote about Mike Reno's toupe. But, as an executed concept, it is a failure.

Some notes:

  • If the fact that Cohen is on the first floor and Williams is on the hundred-and-first is to have any significance, the singer-songwriters must be greater as the floor number increases. Demonstrably not so on my list. I tried to rationalize that I was merely compiling a continuum of singer-songwriters who would fall into similar levels of greatness as Cohen and Williams and that, hey, there's really such a slim margin of greatness between the two of them than any gradation of quality on such a scale would be measurable only through quantum physics, right? But, come on.
  • Youtube let me down. I decided early in the project that I wanted to back my claims up with links to proof of singer-songwriter greatness. The easiest way to do this uniformly was through Youtube. I left Neil Hagerty off the list because I couldn't find any decent quality vids of him as primary singer of a great song written by him. Surely he's written better tunes than, I dunno, Greg Dulli, but Afghan Wigs have better vids than Royal Trux.
  • I know I said no roomies, but then I put Hall & Oates together. Coulda made the case they within a singer-songwriter continuum they exist as one being, but then I gave all three Bee Gees their own individual floors.
  • Punk rock, heavy metal and rap are dismally underrepresented. What can I say? I don't listen to that much punk or metal lately, and rap songwriting credits are confusing. Sorry, dudes.
  • Never mind that the order of the listings create the illusion of really poor judgment in ranking, there are some pretty questionable choices on here. Well, at one point, the criteria for making it on the list was that the singer-songwriter in question only had to have ONE SONG that was as good as or better than Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song", which is a pretty good song, but not one of Cohen's ten best ("There is a War", "Jazz Police", "The Captain", "Who By Fire", "Field Commander Cohen", "Sisters of Mercy", "Avalanche", "The Future", "I Can't Forget" and "The Law"). Still, some people got through who might not have lasted a more thoughtful compilation process.
  • Floors 2-10, 12-16, 19, 21, 25-29, 33, 36, 37, 41, 42, 44, 46, 83, 93 and 99 should be uncontroversial by any canonical standard.
  • I had originally intended to leave Willie Nelson off the list entirely because I truly believe he is a stronger ideal of singer-songwriter-osity than Hank Williams, and would hence be on the 102nd floor, but I couldn't figure out how to make that explicit w/o explicitly saying it like I just have.

mp3: "When Will This Heartache End?" by the Blue Shadows

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