Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wood on Moon

I'd like to poke my head out of my lit cave for a moment to praise James Wood's article in the New Yorker this week on, of all people, Keith Moon. The phenomenon of literary writers moonlighting as rock and roll nerds is not unusual in my age bracket, but James Wood? A drummer? Really? Who knew! My initial distaste for Wood's criticism (I think it's his ambivalence about David Foster Wallace that got me thinking of myself, initially, as anti-Woodian) long ago evaporated, and these days I like him a lot.

This article in particular. Wood actually tries to explain, to the New Yorker audience, why Moon was awesome, and he largely succeeds. At times, of course, he sounds hopelessly dorky, as in this passage about John Bonham: "His superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his high hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars." Which I think we can all agree is not what generally occurs to us while we're blasting Led Zep in the car.

But this passage about the Moon of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Behind Blue Eyes" is right on the money: can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever done in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the line and into the start of the next phrase. In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, this challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in, is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment.

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I feel the same way. I think the connection, among writers of my generation (guys mostly, I think, but not entirely), between literary fiction and rock has gone largely unexplored; here, Wood is getting at the kind of controlled exuberance that I find most moving both in popular music and literature, and he manages to do so without coming off like a total dipshit. That is quite an accomplishment, in my book.


Matt said...

Must admit, I'm surprised to read "James Wood" and "Keith Moon" in the same article. That said, as a drummer and John Bonham fan, he does nail Bonzo's skill quite accurately.

I'll have to check this article out - thanks for posting about it.

5 Red Pandas said...

I really enjoyed this article because he says something true about writing, and something true about drumming in a way that was also interesting to read.

What do you think of readings where writers try to incorporate music? Unless a writer is a phenomenal reader, readings are often dull. I appreciate that they're trying to liven things up, but it seems hard to pull off. It strikes me as a self conscious attempt to generate the same energy you'd have at a rock show.

This aversion I have to rock-readings might be because famous writer super groups usually make me want to barf. They're usually too clever for their own good.

That said, I'm a writer who is also a drummer in a capital R rock band. I probably shouldn't complain about writers and their rock bands.

jrlennon said...

I've done music at readings a lot--either just playing songs on the guitar and singing, or having people provide backing music, or what have you. Sometimes it works...sometimes it feels like you're just tarting up an already-boring presentation. I dunno...I have mixed feelings about readings in few are any good.

springer said...

If you were surprised about Woods having a drumming jones, I take it you never saw this video that made the rounds a while back:

jrlennon said...

Well that certainly made my day! That coffee mug sounds just like an 808.

Dylan Hicks said...

Yeah, that was a good piece, and I think the perhaps incongruous formality of some of the prose jibes with the essay's self-portrait. He does seem to underrate the Who's '60s work, though.

Pete said...

Hi, this comment has nothing to do with James Wood nerding out or the interweaving of literary fiction and rock music, it's just a link to some Who awesomeness:

You're all forgiven,