Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Past Sure Is Tense

Lefty’s rumination about the temporal retardation of the record geek got me thinking.
As someone who lives in a radio market where the recent arrival of a "‘90s alternative"-style station got a lot of people, including me, excited, let me say that the past is (almost) always getting better. How else to explain the way that songs by bands like Soundgarden, Cracker, and even Stone Temple Pilots start to somehow sound not as terrible as they once did? It must have something to do with our limited ability to accurately remember pain. The same reason we end up looking back fondly on the miserable camping trip where your feet blistered, you ate half-cooked lentils, you slept in a puddle and didn’t think to include coffee among all the crap you lugged into the wilderness. The fading synapse recall. The reason women who’ve endured the pain of childbirth are willing to go through it again. We forget. Or maybe it’s a can’t-step-into-the-same-river-twice scenario, more Heracletian business.

Our minds invert the values of past, present and future. It’s some kind of rods-and-cones-type adjustment. Turning everything upside down and inside out. Or maybe it’s temporal stereoscopy, with three-point perspective, allowing us to get a sense of what’s happening now only by blurring our vision of the future. We’re told that the present is all we have. All there is is now. And then there’s the whole "the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past" concept. Our minds just ooze and push and catapult themselves backwards and forwards. With the exception of futurists like Sun Ra, Kraftwerk, Moondog, Esquivel, there are few compelling visions of the future. And even those tend to be based in some transfigured and idealized version of the past anyway. Space Age fantasies were often refitted retro fashion with tinfoil hats and tights. Vacuum tubes and fish tank helmets. In the mid-60s, Sun Ra’s interstellar jazz was, in part, the last vestige of 30s and 40s big band music given a sci-fi upgrade. Listen to the forward-thinking music of the Ramones, X, T. Rex and Roxy Music and they were all attitudinal retreads of 50s doo-wop, early rock and roll and Brill Building pop, add some ripped jeans here and face paint there.
In short, I never met a Jeremiad I didn’t like. With the entirety of the past and the infinite possibility of the future to compete against, the present never fares too good by comparison.
When the subject is recorded music, it’s all, by its nature, past, a relic. It’s surprising that all the critical theorist-type characters – the Susan Sontags and Roland Barthes - came up with elaborate concepts about why photographic images have a haunting effect on us – because they’re "traces" of life that basically provide a spark, forcing us to recognize our mortality. Every photograph is a reminder that we don’t last. But doesn’t recorded music do the same thing?

This isn’t the bestest Beefheart, and it’s not even the most mind-bending tune off of Ice Cream For Crow, but it says it all, or at least it did.

1 comment:

Frankie Lee said...

That's so weird--I just loaded a bunch o' Beefheart into the compruter last night (not including your song, however).
How about a Harvey Milk post, by the way?