AGAINST THE GRAIN: Thinking about the Voice in Pop

(originally published in Melody Maker,November 20, 1993)

Most rock-crit doesn’t have much to do with rock as music. Usually it’s amateur sociology, or Eng-Lit analysis of lyrics, or biography/gossip. But even those who do grapple with music-as-music seldom get much purchase on the Voice, beyond saying a particular voice is ‘great’ or ‘original’, or gushing superlatives.And that’s because the Voice is a mystery, defying analysis.It’s hard to say why one voice leaves you cold and another pierces the marrow of your soul, gets in your pants, fits you like a glove.

The trouble with discussing what you’re reading is that you might sometimes be clobbered by someone else’s dislike of the book you’re reading, a dislike sometimes felt and then expressed without their having read said book. It’s something I’m sure to have done, too, with books and just about everything else, forgetting the wise admonition to never “yuck somebody’s yummy”; and, perhaps in some kind of karmic retribution for my past, and surely upcoming perpetrations, of said admonition, when I’d recently mentioned I was reading Finnegans Wake (I’ve since finished it, falling way short of my goal to read it in as close to a single sitting as possible (it took me seven days, the significance of the number exaggerated in my mind)), trying to stay up while reading about someone who was, presumably, asleep, I received a few “yucks,” including, “I tried reading it, but I only know how to read English,” or something of the sort, the comment meant as nothing more than a joke, but, as we know with most jokes, it revealed an underlying belief, and the belief here was that Finnegans Wake is at best incomprehensible to readers, excepting the few academics still wheezing around in the dusty stacks, expert at splitting all kinds of exegetical hairs; or is, at worst, just a hodgepodge of navel-gazing jabberwocky. Joyce, however, quoted in Derek Attridge’s The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, would disagree: “If you take a characteristic obscure passage of one of these people [modern writers] and asked him what it meant, he couldn’t tell you; whereas I can justify every line of my book.”