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Free me from the tyranny of lists

A bit ADHD (and prone to ironic understatement), my life is dominated by the tyranny of lists.

For me, a trip to the grocery store without a list is a visit to La-La Land and an invitation for investing in a lost cause: invariably, I’ll go through the checkout line with items I don’t need far outnumbering the items I needed but forgot to get. If I don’t indulge my nightly ritual of composing tomorrow’s To-Do list, bills go unpaid, children starve and I find myself walking up the highway with a gas can in my hand.

Anyone keeping score knows my fondness for lists: best of this, worst of that, artists worthy of a blindfold and a cigarette, albums so necessary that not owning them indicates a truly empty life, etc.

The list of lists is endless, a meta-list so vast that it needs to be on the list of things to never consider unless insanity is a desired state of being.

Fortunately, life is blessed with things that do not require lists, priority or ranking. In their Zen-like state of suchness they just are, awaiting our apprehension and appreciation.

Like almost all readers (and when I refer to “readers” I mean that increasingly rare breed for whom a book is like a vestigial appendage, never unattached), there are a number of books around my house with slips of paper, tissue, business cards, photographs or other sundry items placed between pages where I last read and where I, at some point, intend to continue.

And continue I will. Just as my ADHD won’t allow me to stay focused on any one book, that same scattered concentration prevents me from leaving a book unfinished; beneath Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” (just started), on the arm of my big chair, is Volume 2, Part II of Coplestone’s “A History of Philosophy” (Mediaeval Philosophy – plodding through, bit by bit). In my sanctuary, where no child dares disturb the quietude of my constitutional, is “Othello,” where Act III, scene III (Iago: “O beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”), with its subtle and malevolent venom, um, moved me.

On my night stand, sitting atop the stack of things-to-be-read-next, are the choices that send me off to sleep — or keep me up far later than I intended. Nick Hornby’s “Juliet, Naked” is there if I’m feeling like I can tackle a few chapters before switching off the light.

I confess that I’ve not felt particularly ambitious lately and Hornby has taken a hit (most likely I’ll have to start again). Months being shy a writer, weeks of an editor out and the added burden of producing visitor guide copy — then to come home to three kids and all that entails – of course has left me wrung out and, by the time I crawl under the blankets, there’s no energy left for weighty words or digging deeply into plot and prose.

For those nights, the light burns for something brief: articles from back issues of The Atlantic or Rolling Stone or The New Yorker, maybe some Arthur Conan Doyle (he never gets old), perhaps a short story anthology or a collection of essays.

To the latter, Jorge Luis Borges has been a constant companion and two volumes of his have helped me through these many past weeks where going the distance with a novel has been out of the question.

Whereas “Collected Fictions” offers tiny, sweet morsels of comedy, tragedy, mythology, semi-invented history and literature, “Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952” reveals some of Borges’ philosophy at its most puckish and pedantic.

In his essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” from “Other Inquisitions” Borges writes, “…doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

Borges’ absurd taxonomy, so dry that the tongue adheres firmly to the cheek, struck me as particularly appropriate after having just read a piece in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini selecting the top 10 classical music composers.

I’m not here to slam Tommasini or his list (the link to his column is available on the Web version of this column at; in fact, I think Tommasini sticks his neck out in a way that is admirable and heroic – in my experience the classical music audience can be more rabid and fanatical than even the most booze-fueled death metal freaks. Furthermore, for me to weigh in on a list of top 10 classical musicians would be about as useful as my list of top 10 favorite permutations of String Theory. As far as I’m concerned, Tommasini’s list was as good as it gets and, with the exception of a few of my own admittedly uniformed quibbles, a lot of fun.

The list — Bach comes in at number one followed by (in order) Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and finally, Bartok — seems pretty solid and Tommasini concedes that he’d have fit in a few more names if, in our universe, 10 equaled 20 (“My apologies to Mahler devotees,” he writes, “so impressively committed to this visionary composer. Would that I could include my beloved Puccini.”), sounding genuinely perturbed that Haydn, Chopin and several supreme 20th-century composers could not make the list.

My point is that, whereas Tommasini may have succeeded (and I have no way of determining if he passed muster — was he also reading Othello?) with classical music, I could probably never accomplish that same list within my own ken — what is broadly defined as rock music.

First of all, the two music forms are worlds apart and comparison is not merely asinine but the domain of puerile and pretentious blowhards.

I have to stop here and say that I’ve always been bothered by the way many critics (and fans) of so-called “serious” (or classical) music have traditionally looked down on rock as somehow inferior, it’s like saying a Ford is superior to a Harley. How you want to get somewhere is what matters but the mode is different; “Anarchy in the U.K.” will be just as vital and relevant as “Fugue in G-minor” is in the next century.

In fact, Tommasini addresses the very question of “greatness” in music (and the implication that classical music is somehow better than rock and roll) by drawing from an essay by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, saying, “… the very term “classical music” makes this vibrant art form seem dead. Indeed, as he writes, “greatness” and “seriousness” are not classical music’s defining characteristics; it can also “be stupid, vulgar and insane.”

Secondly (and as I’ve said in this column many times before), rock and roll is not only dynamic, changing and evolving at a pace that outstrips generations, but grows from technological innovation. Conversely, classical music (with the exception of a few 20th-century experimentalists) eschews technology in favor of performance, evolving at an almost glacial pace; the difference between shifts in style and taste (i.e. from baroque to romanticism to modernism) isn’t a matter of a few years but several decades, if not centuries.

Not better but different.

Thus, why a top 10 list for rock is frankly impossible, futile, a cage match (to the death, it seems) of conflicted alliances that from one moment to the next, find my teeth tearing into the flesh of a poor competitor’s throat only to claim, in the next glance, that there is no better wine than the blood painting my lips red.

If I even attempted a top 10, all I can say is that the Beatles would be, of course, my list’s Bach (and I completely agree with Tommasini in his number one ranking). No artist or band in rock come close to what the Beatles achieved in just a few short years.

The genius of the Beatles was not merely their mastery of composition, tonality and harmony but mainly their lyrical perfection (and I’m not just referring to words, here). No other artist, classical, rock or any other form, has created as many universally loved and recognized standards. Certainly, no other rock artist has taken technological and musical innovation so far (and so quickly) and made it something so much more than intellectual gamesmanship — the Beatles took those leaps to the thrall of fans everywhere.

From there, however, the list falls apart.

Tommasini had it easy. He argues (quite convincingly) why his composers deserve their place on the list, all in sound intellectual terms. It is an exercise that cannot be applied to rock.

One of the reasons for that is rock arises from a vast number of cultural and social influences. Not just Africa and Appalachia (at its roots) but, through time and into the streets of Compton or Camden, the Favelas of Sao Paolo, the ghettos of Cape Town, the row houses of Manchester, the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, the suburbs of Seattle ... again, the list in endless.

Rock is, at its roots, folk music, assimilating its influences and then spraying out new sounds in a multitude of directions, down new avenues, seeking out its audience and inviting further mutations. Classical music, on the other hand, is largely the domain of white men, composed from the beneficence of rich and powerful patrons. When folk forms infuse classical music, it is largely thematic, a compositional tool that ultimately renders the form unrecognizable from its roots or intention (in Tommasini’s list, Dvorak is the only composer who made wide use of folk music).

Given the diverse and seemingly divergent elements that make rock music great also render it immune to a top 10 great list. While Tommasini might have some smarty-pants detractors, I think that, at the end of the day and if put to a vote, his list would have an almost universal consensus.

Not so with rock. While Bob Marley would be a worthy candidate for a top 10 list due to his influence on other artists, number of covers recorded by others, staying power, worldwide admiration and recognition of his stature, I’m not sure I’d include him on my list. And that, my friends, makes a top 10 list a personal endeavor and far from an intellectual exercise.

I wouldn’t want to go there. If we attempt to make it an intellectual exercise, we must apply quantitative criteria for making the list and that opens up a Pandora’s Box full of ugly and loathsome results.

It could (taken to logical extremes) admit the Grateful Dead onto such a list. Aside from the fact that Jerry Garcia was a superb guitarist (and, with Robert Hunter, a pretty good song writer) but they also led the way to a jam band scene that, like a wad of gum stuck to the bottom of a Birkenstock, just won’t go away.

You see the dilemma (except you Deadheads, who only see sparkly things. And fairies). While Tommasini can apply logic (quite well) in developing his list, arriving at something that garners little controversy, the converse is true of rock: such a list results in a bar brawl.

A rock list is as laughable as Borges’ encyclopaedia.

I’m often asked, “What is your favorite band?” The question is akin to asking me, “What is your favorite snowflake?” (the one that’s melting, roundabout late February, I think) or “What is your favorite letter of the alphabet?”

“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten-thousand stars how not to dance...,” e.e. cummings wrote, wisely. There are some things that are muddled when we try to enumerate them, when we attempt to measure their worth or mass. By trying to quantify some things, we rob them of their essential suchness — and our ability to enjoy them.

What’s your favorite leaf of grass? What are the top 10 best breezes on a summer afternoon?

Free from the tyranny of lists, I can enjoy a little Llosa, crank up the Velvet Underground and let tomorrow take care of itself. Milk, eggs, garlic, cereal, raspberry jam. Fill up the truck with gas. Pay the water bill and, oh yeah, download Lucinda Williams’ new album.

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