Re: RARA-AVIS: Could the real Men in Black stand up?

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 16 Sep 2003


"You'll be surprised to hear that I do appreciate primitive rock'n'roll, though rock (in all its forms) is for me a distant second to jazz, the blues and classical music (Western and Indian)."

Actually, I am a bit surprised. And wouldn't that make it a distant fourth?

"In all these forms, being a "pretty good" musician doesn't even get you in the door, and perhaps I'm wrong in applying the criterion of "at least a very good musician" to a different phenomenon like rock and pop."

But "pretty good" is defined differently within those different types of music. For instance, many classical players would regard many jazz players as musically immature (buying into the myth that, especially black, jazz musicians are raw and primitive) -- it even happens within jazz, just look at Wynton Marsalis's disdain for most jazz forms after a certain date -- and some of both would say the same of many blues artists. And when defined by the other form's standards, they are.

"If I play The Beatles after, say, Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan, or Coleman Hawkins, the effect is one of ridiculousness. I'm either spoiled or spoilt, or just out of it."

Probably just taste. Although I like all of the artists you name (as long as the tablas aren't too prominent in the ragas), my default music is probably still rock. When I play some of the above after the Stooges, they sound effete.

I'll even agree that Revolution #9, say, does not compare to its models in the musique concrete of people like Pierres Schaeffer or Henry. And the same can be said of a number of their experiments with other music outside rock. But I liked that they were adventurous in their taste and did not simply regurgitate their earlier, very successful sounds. Still, I think they were at their best when they focused on songs, not concepts.

"I don't feel any 'slumming down" when I read Goodis, Thompson, Prather or Lionel White (technically very strong, I don't know what Westlake is talking about...)."

Oh, I know you don't. My crack about slumming was aimed at self-proclaimed serious writers who choose to cash in on some of the
"easy money" of writing genre fiction. However, it takes a different set of skills. One more musical analogy -- Harry Connick Jr used to insist that he could write a top ten pop/rock hit at any time, since they are so formulaic, but he wouldn't lower himself to it. I'm sure he couldn't. Contempt for a genre is very offputting to fans and easy to spot.

So knowing you appreciate genre fiction as well as literary fiction, see them as equal but different, I found it a bit exasperating that you were applying jazz aesthetics to rock playing.

"I consider them serious and highly skilled writers. I'm sure that, if England had had a Prather, the English would be proud of him. The US has been hard on humorists."

I'm not the Prather fan you are, but I agree with your point.

"I started thinking of how many novels published in 1950 I would like to read today. I bet almost all of them would be "genre" novels."

I agree. And that's kind of interesting. Many critics say the only thing that sustains interest in crime fiction is whodunnit are whatbeendun, once you know the answer to that question, there is nothing left. However, I find myself rereading crime novels far more often than I do literary ones. I guess Chandler was right that a good mystery should satisfy even if the final chapter were missing.

"So I don't make any distinction between mainstream and genre fiction. In fact, I reject such distinctions. That is one of the main reasons why I joined Bill's list in the old days of 1997 (can it be that long ago?)."

I'm assuming you're talking about hierarchical distinctions here, not classificatory, since choosing the books to be discussed on this list is a manner of distinguishing a certain type of book from others -- even if we incessantly argue about how that distinction is defined.


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