If you’re seriously about your art, you think of your work as your babies. Lyrics in Progressive Rock. Gay people kissing in public? Greg Lake, RIP. Those Moody Blues poems. The lyrics drive the music. Is a secular Bach even possible? A Dan Brown festival in every piece.
Roger CortonTwo years ago you ranted on Why So Serious? Despite my feeling that it is marketing death to indulge you, at that time I promised we’d get back to that. So here I am, keeping my promise to shoot you in the foot. Again. OK, you have the floor.
JCHWow. With my bleeding foot. So… remind me not to invite you to my funeral (laughs).
OK, I keep thinking about the new Dream Theater record (The Astonishing) from last time. Every fan I’ve talked to about the record says two things: a) How ludicrous they find the lyrics. b) But they simply don’t care. And you agreed.
RCI did. What can I say? We love their music. And since I think I know where you’re going with this, Prog fans are a hypocritical bunch.
JCHWell, I’ve been grieving a bit over Greg Lake’s death.
RCRest In Peace.
JCHAnd I keep wondering what happened to Progressive Rock. Because back in the day, I loved a lot of the poetry. Pete Sinfield and those early King Crimson records? Wow. Even those poems by Graeme Edge on the old Moody Blues albums? I used to love those.
RCPoint taken. Always good to get that poem in during the dark days of winter! OK, stipulated: the lyrics in modern Progressive Rock are usually terrible. But I think I see what you’re saying. They actually started out as being as important as the music. And at some point, they became a joke.
JCHThe funny thing, for me, is that early ‘Prog’ fans would be so angry that rock critics didn’t take them seriously. And yet now? Current fans have become exactly the caricature that the critics despised. Many of us simply wallow in overblown playing, posturing and totally empty lyrics. It’s like the whole genre got subsumed by some hair band from the 80’s.
RCBut minus the spandex.
JCHMinus the spandex (laughs). Well done. I don’t think too many fans want to see anyone, from me on up to Dream Theatre, in spandex.
RCAmen to that. But I take your point. For many of us, the whole genre has become something of a guilty pleasure.
JCHAnd the thing I want you to understand is that it’s not that way for me at all. Not even a little bit. I take the poetry in these things very seriously. But as close as we’ve become? I never talk to you about it. I’ll go on all sorts of historical backgrounds and sociology and blah, blah, blah, but we never talk about the lyrics to anything I do.
RCOK, I’ll bite. So why not?
JCHBecause you’re always trying to push your agenda, dude (laughs). You come off as the ‘representative of the people’–constantly trying to nudge me into talking about aspects of the material that you think fans enjoy. You’re constantly trying to steer the conversation away from what I care about–which is at least half of the time? The poetry.
JCHLook, I know how toxic this sounds, but I do not enjoy coming across as pretentious, like people in the visual art world who take themselves so seriously as to be a joke to the outside world.
RCYou ranted about that while I was gone a couple of weeks ago. Andy Warhol is the visual that always comes to mind.
JCHRight. Those guys know they appear clownish to everyone else, but they simply don’t care. Their audience is an echo chamber of like-minded people and the rich people who patronize them. It’s an act, but it’s not an act if you take my meaning. In other words, they know it’s a joke, but they are, at the same time, in dead earnest about the opinions they have. Maybe. You can never tell. And I can never get there. I just don’t have it in me to intentionally act that pretentious or snippy.
RCJust unintentionally (laughs). Sorry, it was a softball right down the center of the plate. But I do take your point. If I can’t hear you without making a joke, I suppose you can’t expect others to do so either.
JCHEXACTLY! So here’s the toxic part. It’s like being a semi-closeted gay person. I can say, ‘the poetry matters’, but I have to say it with a shrug. Like in old movies depicting gay people? For decades, they had to express their feelings with ‘knowing glances’. Then maybe twenty years ago they would have a kiss on the cheek. A few years ago, they started with a peck on the lips. But you still never see full-on sex scenes, chock full of bumping and grinding and simulated pounding as is common in even a daytime soap opera for heterosexual couples. Rarely happens. The mainstream world still isn’t quite ready for that. I can’t relax enough to talk about ‘the poetry’ because I know that even you will make a sarcastic remark. As you just said, you can’t help yerself.
RCOK, and you feel like that?
JCHI feel like that. The poems on each album? I feel as strongly about them as I do about the music you gush about. As strongly as a guy might feel about his gay partner or a mother her child. I am not kidding. But that sounds so odd to ‘normal’ people that I can never get upset if people ignore them or just go, ‘whatever’.
JCHAnd I’ll tell ya something else: It’s why I balk at your compliments about ‘the music’. The respect just isn’t there for fifty percent of the product…
RCBy that you mean the lyrics…
JCHCorrect. So it immediately makes me not want to engage you on the music part.
RCBecause you feel like I’m not interested in the lyrics you don’t want to engage sincerely on the parts I respond to?
JCHCorrect. I tell people over and over that it’s the lyrics that drive the music but they simply don’t get it. It’s as if the lyrics are just add-ons. But it’s actually just the reverse. I think and think and think about what I want to say for months and then the musical ideas pretty much just write themselves. And I don’t think too many people internalize this. Maybe Dream Theater just ‘jam’ and then slap on some lyrics, but that’s not what I do. I work like a ‘real composer’. You may not think the quality is up there with ‘Schubert’ or whoever, but it’s the same process.
RCI have to admit, you’ve gassed on about that a number of times but I haven’t taken that seriously. It’s so far away from how anyone I know writes a ‘song’ in a regular rock and roll or country band. I confess–I haven’t taken you at face value. I think it would’ve been hard for me, at least until now, if you had come at me in full ‘pretentious artist’ mode. I simply wouldn’t have listened if you’d acted less “aw shucks” than you do.
JCHRight. And I totally appreciate your saying so. I know you feel beat up. But see a visual artist, in full pretentious mode, has NO problem showing high umbrage or literally crying or screaming when people don’t take his or her ‘babies’ seriously. There is a tradition in that ‘culture’ that they simply doesn’t care what the world thinks. Regardless of monetary success, the ‘artiste’ demands that you take his babies seriously if you want to engage with him. Because he cares about them in the same way that no parent would tolerate anyone making fun of their kid. The artist knows the rest of the world may laugh and think, “that’s ridiculous”. But that’s just the deal. He’s not ‘trying’ to feel any kind of way about his work; he just does. And that’s how I feel about it. I joke about Toothpick City in the same way that gay people have had to laugh off slights because they had some fear of retribution, but inside? They die a little. And I die a little. These things are my babies. They’re my life’s work.
RCSo that begs the question: After all these years ‘in the closet’, why talk about it now?
JCHIt’s probably too late, but I’ve just become angrier about musicians garnering some respect. To continue my metaphor, I think at some point, gay people got bone tired of not being taken seriously. So they adopted a more militant attitude. And that’s what I’m doing. It may be completely pointless. I also don’t want to take the metaphor too far. I’m not expecting to get beat up like a gay person. I’m not worried about my personal safety. I simply expect to be either chuckled at or plain ignored. But I don’t know what else to do when music of all kinds is now so trivialized.
RCFine. But how does this translate into action for you? For example, gay people march or protest or whatever to call attention.
JCHTwo things come to mind. Now, when people ask me any question, I tend to say, RTFM!
RCRead the blankety-blank manual?
JCHYes. Again, because what they don’t seem to get is that the reason I gas on about the concepts behind Progress or any of my albums is that those really are where the notes come from. I think a lot of people think I just noodle on the guitar and then add on some cockamamie poem. If you want to ‘get it’? The notes all come from the poem. Really, truly.
RCAnd again, that’s a hard one–even for me. I’m so used to the image of rock guys in the studio trading ‘riffs’. Or even a classical composer noodling for ideas at a piano.
JCHI know. But, again, again, it was the ideas that came first. And believe me when I tell you: every ‘riff’ is meant to express the ideas we talk about. It’s not a ‘program’; I’m not telling a literal ‘story’ that depicts events
RC“The hero’s journey to kill the dragon! Scene one: the farmer’s daughter.”
JCHExactly! It’s not a plot. It’s a series of ideas that I’m putting into music to try to get you to think about something in a way that could not be expressed in words. Beethoven’s Ninth is about the ideas in the Schiller poem, but there’s not ‘plot’. It has a beginning, middle and end for sure, but they aren’t “a guy walked into a bar, then he went to the cave, then he…”
RCGot it. But when you read the poem or discuss the ideas, it hopefully gets you to the understanding of the music in a deeper way.
JCHRight. You can enjoy a piece of music without any of that verbal junk, but if you want to get at what it means it’s good to understand the ideas behind it.
RCAnd the other point? You said there were two.
JCHI did? (laughs) Oh yeah. OK, this is a painful discussion I have with agnostics/atheists, it’s like Bach. Bach’s music is about the faith ideas he’s presenting. It’s tough for modern listeners to ‘get’ but virtually all of Bach’s music is expressing his religious convictions. We know this because when you analyze THE NOTES you see hundreds; thousands of little musical epigrams that depict various religious symbols. It’s a Dan Brown festival in almost every piece. No religious symbols, no Bach. The faith stories drive the music. And that’s a tough thing for atheists to swallow. They simply cannot accept the notion that great art REQUIRES that kind of driver.
RCYou mean, is it possible to have a secular Bach?
JCHIt’s just not. Great art requires some big driver. You almost never get to something really good with a ‘riff’. It has to have something inside that just aches. Maybe it’s not God; maybe it’s a lost love, but the stuff that lasts? It’s almost never, “Well I was noodling at the guitar and this just popped out.” That may work for a pop song. But for a long-form piece to be any good? It has to have a serious driver.
RCSo the quality of the piece is determined by the quality of the underlying words?
JCHI believe that. I don’t think there is any long form piece of music that did not have a really focused, deep concept. And if you look at a lot of the near misses or failures? They were done by people who simply didn’t have that big heart or that big idea.
RCSo you start with a ‘big idea’?
JCHNo. It’s either in you or it isn’t. It’s not a recipe. Anyhoo, the point is that the ideas are what needs to be taken seriously. If you like what I (or any composer) does, look at the ideas for answers and then look at the notes. And understand that these are my babies. I don’t want to have to shrink from that part of it, in the same way that a gay man doesn’t want to have to avoid kissing in public. I don’t want people to think of the poem or the discussions we have as being an afterthought. They really are the core.
JCHI want it understood that I take a very dim view of jokes about my work. Again, these are my babies; no metaphor. People may scoff, but that’s the deal. In the art world, this is understood. An artist may literally cry or have a break down because his work is not well received. Well, that’s analogous to finding out that your child has some terrible disease, or is being bullied at school. I think that all the pretense in the visual art world is largely because the ‘normal’ world doesn’t get it. The outlandish behaviour is, like a lot of older gay culture, a reaction to a lack of acceptance in the wider world. You’re always ‘the other’ when you care so deeply about something that the square world simply laughs about. Part of you gets tired of being self-deprecating. In my case, when people say they love the sounds, but wish I didn’t gas on about politics or religion. It’s like secular Bach.
RCPeople don’t get it.
JCHWell, it’s not just that they don’t ‘get it’. It’s that you have to stand up for, and demand, respect. Like a gay person, at some point has to say, “I will no longer just shrug or walk on when you say you don’t ‘get it’.” I demand respect. I’m going to stand here and say, “Shut your mouth. I may not be able to change your heart, but I simply will no longer tolerate comments that belittle my babies. I will educate you, if you care to be educated, but I will not stand idly by whilst you trivialize the part of the work that actually animates the parts you do enjoy.”
RCPoint taken. Consider me on the road to being educated. I doubt I’ll stop liking Dream Theater–in spite of their crappy lyrics–but I will start listening to your work in a different way.