Apocalypse music history

In Michael Chabon’s enormously enjoyable recent novel Telegraph Avenue, there is a great passage on music that I will reproduce here in lieu of writing my full-on continuation of the whole syllabus thing. The one I want to quote is a longish speech put in the mouth of Gibson Goode, aka G-Bad, former football hero and fifth-richest black man in America. Goode spends the first part of the novel off-screen (a cinematic metaphor that’s completely apt to a novel that wears its Tarantino influences on its sleeve) and serves mostly as a plot device: he plans on building a media megastore in Oakland a couple of blocks away from a poky, unprofitable Utopia of vintage vinyl, a store aptly named Brokeland. The book follows the owners of Brokeland as they try to stave off the development, and at first G-Bad is just some generic Mr. Big (picture Marsellus Wallace as we first see him in Pulp Fiction, just the back of his head, though without the incongruous band-aid) who we’re set up to imagine in the role of the generic philistine capitalist, indifferent to the little oasis of community and culture he’s destroying. But it turns out that G-Bad is playing a deeper game. He has reasons to open a commercial depository of Great Black Music from the 1920s to the present day, and even to lose money on the deal. His motivation for pursuing this development comes out of a kind of music-historical analysis:

“All right, then, look at it this way. The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me? You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms, I love. I love it. Life without Nas, without the first Slum Village album, without, shit, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? Can’t imagine it. Can’t even imagine. And I’m not saying, just because we got sampling, we got no innovation happening. Black music is innovation. At the same time, we got a continuity to the traditions, even in the latest hip-hop joint. Signifying, playing the dozens. Church music, the blues, if you wanna look hard. But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. A whole lot. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music today. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying? Quincy Jones. Charles Stepney. Weldon Irvine. Shit, knowing how to play the fuck out of your instrument. Guitar, saxophone, bass, drums, we used to own those motherfuckers. Trumpet! We were the landlords, white players had to rent that shit from us. Now, black kid halfway to a genius comes along? Like RZA? Can’t even play a motherfucking kazoo. Can’t do nothing but ‘quote.’ Like those Indians down in Mexico nowadays, skinny-ass, bean-eating motherfucker sleeping with his goat on top of a rock used to be a temple that could predict what time a solar eclipse was going to happen.”

“I’m not going to blame nobody, and I don’t know what the reason is, because I haven’t studied it, and like with everything misfortunate in life, I bet there’s ten, twelve reasons for musical civilization getting wiped out by this here particular firestorm, what’s he call it in the book—?” 

Goode glanced over at the bodyguard, Taku, who sat immersed in a copy of Shonon Jump magazine. ” ‘The Deluge of Flame,’ “, Taku said, not looking up.

“Record companies. MTV. Corporate radio. Crack cocaine. Budget cuts to music programs, high school bands. All that, none of it. Doesn’t make no difference. I’m saying we’re living in the aftermath.

A few questions and thoughts suggest themselves to me:

1. Is G-Bad being sincere, or is he just trying to work on the finer feelings of the idealistic person he’s talking to? The classic Blaxploitation question is posed — is this a hustle? What’s G-Bad’s angle? Those of you who have read the novel, tell me what you think.

2. This is the great narrative of postmodernism, isn’t it? Living in the ruins, picking through the unmeaning fragments of a vanished high culture and sticking them together in alien bricolage, like Coke cans and Brillo boxes on a cargo cult altar. (And, very postmodernly, we’re not at all sure about the causes, or even whether things have causes, anymore.)

3. Re. no. 2, above, I never realized how much Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is really all about postmodernism.

4. Is Chabon turning G-Bad into a sock puppet here, ventriloquizing his own position on black music or postmodernism or whatever? Or is this simply the sort of thing a guy like G-Bad would say? I’m guessing it’s more the second than the first. I suspect (though help me out here, Mr. Chabon, if you ever read this, which I doubt) that one of the pleasures of novel-writing is the pleasure that Thomas Mann must have had when writing The Magic Mountain and staging all those quarrels between Settembrini and Naphta — the pleasure of building and entertaining intellectual structures, of playing them off one another like a mean little kid putting two scorpions in a jar.

In any event, it’s interesting to find a character in a major novel advancing what could be called a musicological idea. Whether you agree with it or not is another matter.

One of the ideas I’m playing around with for my “Music Since 1960” class is a bit of stuff on the critiques of modern society. One of the less well-known of these (certainly one distant from the various critiques I’ve written about in my book, which you can now totally buy) is the “neo-traditionalist” critique associated with René Guénon and articulated by the composer John Tavener. Guénon liked to say that modernity is the fulfillment of the Vedic “kali yuga,” the degenerate age of man in which the wholeness of meaning breaks into pieces. For the neo-traditionalists, that is the meaning vouchsafed by God and manifested in a static hierarchical social order; for modernists, the kali yuga of postmodernism represents the breaking of another kind of meaning, that of history and the integral Work. Either way, neo-traditionalist or modernist, we’re dealing with the apocalypse.

*Note: this post was originally published with Jonathan Lethem’s name being substituted throughout for Chabon’s. I always get their names confused. I’ve now read 2 or so novels by Chabon and none of Lethem’s, though I know Lethem for his editorial work on Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre, and for the fact that he has a tattoo of the Ubik can on his arm. For some reason, though, I mentally blend Lethem’s life in with Chabon’s, so that the guy who writes the novels I like so much also gets to be the PKD weirdo.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Apocalypse music history

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Phil, do you mean Michael Chabon‘s recent novel Telegraph Avenue or a recent novel of another name by Jonathan Lethem?

  2. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, uh, wow, you haven’t read Lethem? Start with Gun, with Occasional Music, his first. It is very strange. I liked Motherless Brooklyn enormously, have not read anything else. I’m curious which other Chabon you have read.

  3. philphord says:

    The one I really want to read “Chronic City.”

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