context, music, Nirvana

Don’t Be Too Lazy to Put Things in the Context of History

On Wednesday I wrote about Nirvana and how, to music fans today, they might seem like just another band. However, at the time they came out, they had a massive impact on the music industry. What was once considered “alternative” was suddenly mainstream, thus rendering that adjective obsolete. (To be honest, it never meant much to me anyway. It certainly wasn’t a “genre.” I mean, how can you say alternative was a genre, which means it was one particular kind of music, when you had a band like the Catherine Wheel and a musician like Bjork lumped under that moniker? They are clearly NOT the same kind of music; therefore, your “alternative” label didn’t mean a damn thing.)

However, it isn’t easy for most people to look at a phenomenon like Nirvana within the context of when they came out. Most people just look through their “today” glasses, and that is all they see.

Of course, this isn’t limited to just music. The passage of time can make the significance of anything fade. Take the movie Psycho as another example. Not many people would know this, because we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with a lot worse, but that movie was the first one to show a toilet being flushed on screen. Now in this day and age, where you have gross-out teen comedy movies that show you what is IN the toilet, that might not seem like a big deal. However, that is only if you think about watching the movie TODAY.

The material of stand-up comic Dick Gregory also suffers a reduction in significance with the passage of time. This was the first black comic to go on stage in a suit, looking handsome and speaking intelligently about the racial issues of the day. Now we think about comedians like Kevin Hart and Chris Rock, and what Mr. Gregory said doesn’t seem very controversial or groundbreaking, but again, you need to go back and look at how the rest of the world was. You might listen to his routines in 2019, but you have to imagine how they would have made you feel if you’d heard them when they first came out.

So much of the power and importance can be lost if you don’t exercise your mind a little. Imagine what the rest of the world was like back then; don’t just examine it with your modern-day view. Like the title of this blog says: “Don’t be too lazy to put things in the context of history.”

memories, music, Nirvana, reminiscing, Smashing Pumpkins

Thinking About Kurt Cobain

Why am I thinking about Kurt today? It’s not like it is the anniversary of his death; he died in April. I can’t say for sure, other than I was driving around in my car yesterday and decided to put on some Nirvana tunes.

All these years later, it’s easy to forget the impact Nirvana had on music. Music listeners these days look at them as just another band, but in 1991 they caused a seismic shift. Before them, the airwaves were cluttered with songs like Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” and Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me.”

Then Nirvana came along, and we heard things like this:

“Just because you’re paranoid

don’t mean they’re not after you.”

~~~Nirvana, “Territorial Pissings”

Man, what great lyrics. They have the ability to evoke dread and a laugh at the same time. A lot of Kurt’s lyrics can do that.

For example, there are these lines from “Smells Like Teen Spirit:”

“And I forget just why I taste.

Oh yeah…I guess it makes me smile.”

While the obliviousness/cluelessness of the narrator is humorous, it also has a dark side to it. Think about it: this is a person who might be running the world someday. Do you really want it left in their hands? Sure, we could maybe attribute his “duh-ness” to being young, something they might outgrow, but we can’t be sure.

Imagine if someone like Bill S. Preston Esquire (Keanu Reeves’ character from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) was the guy in charge of pressing “the button.” I can just see him looking at it and going, “Dude, what does THIS do?” That is the fear Kurt’s lyrics evoke in me because I grew up with the generation listening to his music. I knew those people, and most of them were fucking idiots!

I can’t say for certain Kurt was writing about the upcoming so-called “Generation X” when he composed those lines. According to Dave Grohl, the lyrics were cobbled together only minutes before they were recorded, so he finds it hard to believe they were “about” anything. However, even if that is true, that makes it even scarier how on target he was about the attitude most youth had at that time.

Kurt wasn’t just a lyricist. He was a poet, which is another class of artist entirely. (It’s kind of like the difference between a singer and a vocalist, but that’s for another blog.) In a way, he was like the “Gen X” version of one of his heroes (and mine): Leonard Cohen. By that I mean they discarded the usual topics that most musicians favor (girls, cars, and any other shiny happy topics) and went for something deeper. They used their words to explore their souls…and, whether it was an accident or not, they explored ours as well.

From interviews with him and about him, I feel like I knew the type of person Kurt was. For example, there was an interview with Billy Corgan (from MY favorite band, the Smashing Pumpkins) who said that Kurt was a better guitar player than the albums might lead you to believe. According to Billy, Kurt could play a mean lead guitar, but on record he always played the “I can’t play the guitar solo” type of solo.

What do I mean by that? Well, listen to most Nirvana guitar solos. “Teen Spirit” would be a great one to check out. You will notice that the solo basically copies the notes that he sings in the verse. That is how MOST Nirvana solos go. The only exception that comes to mind is the solo on “In Bloom,” which is one of my favorites, not just from Kurt, but from any guitar player ever. It’s proof that he could play a REAL solo instead of just mimicking his vocal line.

So why did he do that? My guess: Kurt was uncomfortable with praise. If he let out his inner guitar god and played wicked solos on their albums, then he’d get people saying, “Wow, man, you are awesome!” To avoid that, he just played the vocal line as his guitar solo. Then, instead of hearing praise, he got to hear people say, “That dude sucks. He can’t even play a real lead part! Lazy bastard just plays the notes he sang!” I believe he was more comfortable with insults than with praise.

Sadly, there are many people like him. I’m one of them. (After all, one of my previous posts was about not being able to take certain compliments.) This is just based on interviews with him, but I feel like Kurt was a gentle, humble soul. He strikes me as someone who didn’t want to be perceived as arrogant; he didn’t want to let the praise he received go to his head, so he sought to reject it.

Of course, he went too far in the opposite direction. Not only did Kurt not become arrogant, but he also never felt like he was worth much of anything. His actions on April 5, 1994 prove that much.

The impression I get of him is that, in terms of personality and demeanor, he was a lot like me. If we had met, we would have been close friends. I wish that had been so, because I know one thing I definitely would have done: I would have tried to do something to make sure he was still here.

Make no mistake about it, folks. Even if he DID only play the vocal line for his guitar solos, we lost a talented, sweet, gentle soul when he went away. He had the ability to do whatever he wanted with his music, but for whatever reason, Kurt felt like it had reached the end of the line.

RIP, dear Mr. Cobain.

criticism, lesson, life, music, universal, writing

Taking Criticism…When It Makes Sense

For some reason, this morning I woke up thinking about criticism and how I have gotten better at taking it. (Higher self-esteem can give you this ability.) However, the more I thought about this, the more I realized something: I have never really been BAD at taking it, but it has to mean something or else I can’t take it seriously.

This can make it seem like I can’t handle criticism. I remember telling a young woman I knew about a criticism a friend had of one of my stories, and she said, “Have you ever thought about taking people’s remarks as ways to make your story better instead of just being like, ‘Haha they’re so ignorant?'” To which I said, “Yes, I can…if it’s logical criticism.”

Let me explain the story in question, and you will see what I mean.

In this instance, I had asked a friend to read a script I’d written for a martial arts movie. (For the record, I called it Shaolin Secrets.) The story was about a half-American, half-Chinese martial arts star named Raymond Liu who gets drawn into some mysterious plot. I’m not going to explain the whole movie here; I gave you the very basics so that I could get to the part that drew criticism from my friend.

Raymond’s mother died when he was very young, which left him to be raised alone by his father. (His name: Jian.) Now some of you reading this might not know the history, but there was something that happened in Chinese history called the Sino-Japanese War. During this conflict, the Japanese committed many horrific war crimes; some people even refer to it as the “Asian Holocaust.” Jian lived through that and, as a result, developed a racist attitude toward the Japanese, which he passed on to Raymond.

You see, in most stories, the main character experiences some kind of growth by the end of the story. In this case, my intention was that Raymond would shed his racist attitude, and I had a way to do it that didn’t seem preachy/heavy-handed.

Then my friend got back to me with what he thought of the story. He liked the action sequences, liked the plot, liked the dialogue, liked the characters, but there was one thing he didn’t like.

What was that?

You guessed it.

The fact that Raymond was racist.

I asked why not, and he expressed a view about martial artists that has to be one of the most common myths out there. He said, “Well, it’s because he’s a serious martial artist, and most martial artists are enlightened, and they can rise above petty things like that.”

I said, “Really? So what about those martial artists that confronted Bruce Lee about teaching kung fu to whites and blacks? Or what about the Chinese guy who runs a school in Albany, who I’ve heard say disparaging things about the Japanese because he grew up through the Sino-Japanese War, just like Ray’s father?” (SIDE NOTE: I based Raymond’s racism on this real-life example.)

So when I passed my friend’s remark on to this other person, that is when she said I couldn’t take criticism. Incidentally, this same young lady was the source of another critique that I never took seriously because, again, it didn’t make sense.

At the time, I was in a band. This young lady and her boyfriend came to see one of my shows. When I saw her at work, I asked what they thought of our performance. She said the songs, lyrics, and my guitar playing were all good, but the singing fell short because I sang monotone. I asked what she meant by that, but she never explained it.

This is why I couldn’t take it seriously: I doubt she knew what the word meant. That sounds like I am mocking her, but think about it. If you went and saw a band where the lead vocalist sang “monotone,” then it would sound something like this:

I know for a fact I don’t sing like that. Near as I can tell, what she REALLY meant was that I didn’t sing with enough guts/passion, that I didn’t sound like I “meant” it, which is a criticism I’ve had of myself over the years. Still, that wasn’t the way it was communicated to me, so therefore the “criticism” was brushed aside.

In summary, I have no problem with criticism, but I don’t believe it should be taken blindly. Sometimes you might have knowledge of the subject being critiqued that the source of the remark doesn’t have that renders it meaningless. That doesn’t mean you can’t TAKE it; it just means it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Maybe most people reading this post are not writers or musicians. That’s fine because this idea of analyzing criticism can be applied to any part of life. Think about it: let’s say you buy some shoes that you think are the most stylish shoes ever made. You ask a friend what they think, and all they say is, “They’re ugly because they’re gray.”

Okay, well..maybe YOU like gray, so that is why, to you, they were awesome shoes. In my opinion, that would be a form of criticism that could be dismissed because it doesn’t hold up to close examination.

I always write my blogs with the intention of making what I say applicable to everyone, not just writers, musicians, and other artists. I bet you thought I was going to leave you folks out this time, huh? No, I’m going to always do my best to NEVER do that.

Until next time,

~~~Steve