Why all that classical jazz? Lenny Bruce does Father Flotsky and a prison break. Sting. Pete Townshend. Keith Emerson. What should prog guys do when they grow up?
Roger CortonSpeaking as a fan, one of the most common questions that gets tossed around is “Why is JC always (to use your expression) banging on about classical this and classical that?
JCHIt’s a fair question. I think about that whenever I see any news of a progressive rock ‘elder statesman’. And I always come back to this Lenny Bruce bit where he’s the old Irish priest Father Flotsky says, “Aye lad, there are two roads ye can go down. The good rrrroad and… the baaaaad rrrroad.”
RCOK, what’s ‘the good road’?
JCHNo, man. Yer talking to “Mr. Negative” here. Ask me what the bad road is first.
RCFine. What’s the bad road?
JCHThe bad road is to keep doing the same shit until yer seventy years old and playing at the WampumVille Casino. Even if it was once ‘classic’, after a certain point, yer just an old guy playing at a casino. Or on a cruise ship.
RCOuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuch. You’re speaking of a hypothetical cruise ship, right?
JCHYou bet. Strictly hypothetical (JC whistles). Oh and you begin going back to yer ‘rock n roll roots’. that’s also a key sign that you’ve headed down the bad road. For example, the guy changes from a Marshall Stack to a Soundgarden-style ‘modern’ amp. Or a ‘turntablist’ magically appears on stage to ‘update the sound’. Better still? The artist decides to do a series of Everly Brothers covers.
RCDoooooooouble Ouch. Triple Ouoooooooooouuuuuuch. That may be the fastest you’ve ever offended prog fans yet. I’ve been on that cruise. It was great.
RCI’m serious. This is probably a record. So, OK, now that we’re back to five readers, what’s the good road?
JCHWell, assuming you haven’t left ‘the biz’ entirely… which by the way is a totally noble way to go in my opinion
RCGo out on top and don’t look back.
JCHExactly. The Gentle Giant approach. MUCH respect to them for doing that! But if you stay ‘in’ the thing to do is to leverage your decades of craft into making, wait for it, better music. Music for adults. Better music. The real musician says, OK, I’m fifty, what can I do that Pharrell can’t? Wait, I know! I can write a score because. I can write music that has some real meaning because… wow… life has tattooed some real character onto my ass.
RCIs that where the character goes? (laughs) OK, so that’s why you’ve gone all Beethoven.
JCHFUCK NO. That is music who’s sandals I am not worthy to untie. It’s simply not who I am. But neither am I a rock and roller. Or a Motown guitar player. Or a jazz bassist. I’m just a guy who kept working on his craft. I can now do shit that I simply couldn’t pull off twenty years ago. So I’m doing what I’m prepared to do now.
RCSays the man who calls himself a prog rocker but goes around trying to hawk an opera. The man who spends five times more time banging on about Beethoven than, say, Yes or King Crimson.
JCHTouché These blog posts do give people the wrong idea about what my music actually sounds like. Don’t think that I don’t puzzle over that. But what I take from all the classical junk I listen to is the structure, the craft and mostly the attitude of ‘continuous self-improvement’ that classical guys do. The bad road is all these prog rockers who are caught in this weird state of Arrested Development pretending they’re twenty five by playing a louder amp or getting a hair weave. The classical guys have that ‘dojo’ attitude.
RCSo who else is on ‘the good road’?
JCHWell, there have been a few truly ‘noble failures’ recently. Pete Townshend’s attempt to make a legit opera out of Quadrophenia is one side of the coin and Sting’s ‘Last Ship’ is another. Both failures, but both fascinating.
RCFailures, you say?
JCHTake Quadrophenia. Like I’ve said before, Pete knows what he’s doing. Tommy was a real operetta. It’s so good nobody’s ever really gone back and said “Hey wait a minute. This is the real deal.” But it is. And Quadrophenia? I don’t like the music as much, but the story? Even better than Tommy. It’s truly operatic. But while it’s a great libretto, the music just isn’t ‘opera’. Tommy really is a ‘rock opera’. Quadrophenia is rock n roll. So like so many other efforts, you put in an orchestra and you get…
RCThe London Symphony Orchestra Plays Metallica.
JCHExactly. You simply can’t turn rock into opera; no matter how good the words are if the music wasn’t designed to be as ‘cinematic’, it just doesn’t work. All you get is that laughable feeling of ‘opera singers’ trying to ‘rawk’.
RCAnd Sting’s show? I saw the PBS special on it and it was impressive.
JCHIt was impressive. But I don’t think the show ever even opened on Broadway. In that case I think it was simple hubris. Because it was ‘Sting’ they threw the kitchen sink at it and thus financiers were expecting, nay demanding that it be a ‘hit’. That takes some stones for a first-time show writer–even if it is Sting. It would’ve been a LOT better if he had written the show as a tiny Off-Broadway deal. It’s basically a small story anyway. There was no need to make it out to be like Le Miz. Lower the expectations. Sell out a 200 seat theater for a full run, tweak the show as you go and learn how it all works. Save the epic smash hit for the next show. But trying to swing for the seats first time out? Yer just asking the gods to punish you.
RCMakes sense. Anyone else?
JCHWell, there is a whole range of guys from Ben Folds to Mark O’Connor to David Byrne who try their hand at doing ‘serious’ pieces. In my opinion some are more successful than others–the Mark O’ Connor ‘Fiddle Concerto’ is pretty good actually–but none I’ve heard are really great.
RCWhy do you think that is?
JCHI think there are various reasons, but the biggee is simply that writing long form music requires that you feel long form music. Frankly, most people are songwriters at heart. So if they put together a long form instrumental piece, it sounds like a bunch of songs strung together simply because they haven’t spent the 5,000 hours learning how a Haydn symphony actually works. I mean from the inside. That’s what makes almost everyone sound like ‘LSO Plays Master Of Puppets’. And if it’s a vocal deal, again, there’s a big difference between a ‘concept album’ you know, ‘Ten Songs About Joyce And Jim’ and an actual musical arc as in a real show.
RCJoyce and Jim who?
JCHJoyce and Jim Yomama, motherfucker. I dunno. Whatever. The point is that if you go back to that PBS Sting show you saw he kinda whines about how he showed up the first day of rehearsals and immediately the re-writes started and how that was tough on the ego. Welcome to musical theater. No matter how great a songwriter you are, you can’t understand what it takes to write theater until you do it. As I’ve said before, the show tells you what it needs as you go. Unless you’ve done it a bunch, you can’t possibly get it right the first time. Or put it this way, there’s an old expression about ‘Showtunes’: a lot of great tunes come from shows, but not a lot of great shows come from tunes. Again, it comes down to knowing about structure. And again, again, that’s why I bang on so much about classical music concepts. All pop and jazz players know it’s the training ground for playing technique, but it’s also the training ground for show writing technique. The same story telling that makes Marriage Of Figaro work is also what makes Guys And Dolls or Le Miz or whatever work.
RCOK, so we’re assuming that ‘the adult’ progressive rock guy will ‘graduate’ into classical music.
JCHNot necessarily. I’m just telling you the tiny little path I’m taking. But it’s a path that a lot of guys could’ve taken. For example, I always said, Keith Emerson should have taken a job as a prof at some small college and settled down to a quiet life of writing serious music. He had the talent to pump some real life into the sorry current state of concert music. I mean the Piano Concerto he did on “Works Volume I” is actually not half bad. Sure it’s ‘derivative’, but again, what do you expect for your first time out? If he had been for reals, he’d be on concerto number four by now and it would be great, I’m sure.
But other guys find different ways to have that successful second act. Of course, Miles re-invented his band several times. Fripp is probably the most amazing example of this. The 1980 version of King Crimson, though completely different is arguably better than the original. The point is, it can be done. The point is to GROW. And a decent progressive rock guy is almost perfectly positioned to do that. Almost by definition, you’ve got a big enough toolbox, so why not take it to another place? It’s not like Spinal Tap where you can only fake doing other types of music or some old blues guy, bless his soul, who only knows three chords. That guy can only ever stay on the same road.
RCWhich is not necessarily a bad thing, but I take your point. OK, we need to wind it up, but I’m still not sure we’ve reached any conclusions here.
JCHDo we ever? (laughs). I’ll tell you one conclusion of all the names I’ve dropped here. All these big names tend to have big failures because they have big expectations. Since they’re big shot rock stars they immediately go for a big shot Broadway show or a piano concerto or whatever. The kind of second act I think would be a lot more successful is like what I said about Keith Emerson… get a gig somewhere small but with some fancy schamncy prof title; you know “Terpsichorean Chair Of Musical Flibberty Gibbet”. Write small. Learn the new craft. GROW. Don’t think because you sold ten million records that your first show isn’t going to smell like ass. After yer third or fourth outing, then go for the gold. Earn the Red Belt.
JCHYou can’t go wrong with a Mamet reference.
RCI know. I feel like chopping wood now. Like in Rocky IV.
JCHI’m hip. Unfortunately, no one applauds and plays that inspiring montage music while yer out there freezing yer arse off. But a great holiday movie. Go watch it and enjoy the day, mate. Or maybe Hunt For Red October. That’s a fabulous holiday movie!
RCHappy Holiday to you, too.