I have two posts on this blog that have enduring interest, according to my stats: my Rush post and my Cream post. This is hardly shocking; Rush and Cream are two of the better-known bands I’ve posted about, and Rush has a following that can only be described as rabid (I resemble that remark).
I’m going to get back to Rush and Cream, but bear with me for a moment while I get to the real purpose of this post.
A few weeks ago, I found myself attempting to explain to someone why I did not like a particular hipster darling band‘s music, and I was evidently at a loss for words, because the only reason I could come up with was that the music sounded dishonest to me. The person I was talking to treated me like a raving lunatic; after all, this band leader’s dedication to his “craft” (I’m gagging just typing that) gets as much press – or more – as the music does. The words I was likely looking for were insincere and contrived, but I could only come up with dishonest.
I think “dishonest” came to mind so readily because honesty truly is a trait of the best music. To explain, let’s go back to Cream and Rush.
As the group for which the term “supergroup” was coined, I think it’s safe to say that Cream was somewhat manufactured. Here you have God, aka Eric Clapton, Ginger Bruce, who although he has only two arms, is often mistaken for Kali behind a drum kit, and Jack Bruce, a man of extraordinary talents both as a singer and a bass player. There was nothing organic about these three outstanding talents coming together, and each of the three has said as much in hundreds of interviews over the years.
Yet at first, before the new wore off, anyway, Cream made pretty honest music. Often, some sort of alchemy took place, and they managed to transcend their manufactured, blues-derivative beginnings – see “Badge,” “SWLABR” or “Deserted Cities of the Heart.”
But what happened to Cream? The generally accepted version of events reads that they became victims of their own success, of the sheer weight of their talent and the expectations for them, and imploded. It boils down, however, to honesty; Eric Clapton heard The Band, and decided that the psychedelia and faux-blues that Cream had become mired in was musically impure.
If you listen to The Band and Cream back-to-back, that’s an easy attitude to understand. Certainly the guitar heroics, endless drum solos, and pseudo-psychedelic lyrics sound overblown next to the easy, unstudied elegance of The Band. But I don’t find Cream dishonest; rather, I think they disbanded at the perfect point in the band’s career – they could have gone on autopilot for years, riding on their reputation (sound familiar?).
Now contrast Cream with Rush. Again, you have a three-man band comprised of a guitar hero, a singing bass player, and a drummer who sounds like he has 40 arms. The difference is the element of contrivance. If Jack Bruce had sounded like Geddy Lee, I highly doubt he’d have been invited to join Cream. Had any member of Cream suggested a futuristic concept album (2112, from which that lovely picture up top was taken from) four albums into a career that had hardly taken off, that member would likely have been asked to retire. But for Rush, to do anything but put Geddy Lee up front, put out concept albums, add synthesizers, and write lyrics too intelligent for mainstream radio would have been patently dishonest.
No one’s ever going to accuse Rush of making slapdash, under-produced albums, but by the same token, no one’s ever going to accuse Rush of making an album they didn’t make purely for the joy of making music. Neither will anyone ever accuse Rush of creating any sort of cult around the way they make music, or of trying to make something that will appeal to the mainstream or hipsters. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are simply too musically honest to do so.
Music that is honest is ars gratis artis – music for music’s sake. It’s what Eric Clapton responded to when he heard The Band’s first album. It’s music that exists for the sheer love of music.
That’s not to say that music for pretense’s sake is not lasting, or can’t be enjoyable. One need only look at Kiss for proof; Kiss may have made 10 songs in the 200 years they’ve been recording that were made for the sake of making a song that any member of Kiss loved, and likely, all ten songs are scattered throughout the two “Kiss solo albums” made by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss (I doubt that Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley have made an uncalculated move since they were in diapers). But I defy you not to enjoy “Rock-n-Roll All Nite.”
Maybe Neil Peart had all the dishonest elements of music in the 1970s – Boston, late 70s Stones, disco-era Rod Stewart – in mind when he wrote these immortal lines:
All this machinery
Making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
Its really just a question
Of your honesty
One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
It doesn’t matter if your glittering prize is the top slot of the charts, or the coveted 9.5 on a Pitchfork review, the result is the same. It’s a great line, Neil, but endless compromises do not shatter the illusion of integrity, they shatter the illusion that music exists for its own sake. Hence you have dishonest music.