Roadkill Along the Turnpike to Obsession
There’s a stage I go through during the gestation period of a new musical infatuation where I’m aware that it’s pointless to resist my need to hear song X at a particular moment and yet I’ll find myself resisting anyhow. “I am not going to listen to it again today,” I’ll say to myself. “Not this guy.” Spineless bargaining soon follows: “OK, I’m going to listen to the song again today and we both know it. And if that’s true—and it is—then I may as well listen to it right now. Just let me finish this paragraph first.” And then before any work is even attempted, I’ll fire up the song and begin to rock out. All of this takes less than two minutes.
Internal struggles like these, and I’ve had hundreds of them through the years, have nothing to do with improving my productivity, which in turn might increase my income, boost my self-esteem, and finally garner me the vague accolades my mother told my first-grade teacher I was destined to receive. (“Multiplication? Already?” she asked Mrs. Horton in 1976, when informed of my flash-card prowess. “He’s headed for great things.”) Sadly, they help only to combat burnout. Listen too often, too fast, to a song you’ve recently discovered and it will not go the distance for you. Very soon, maybe within a week or a month, you’ll play the track and notice its flaws: Singer’s voice too whiny. Guitarist not bringing it. Lyric no longer possible to condone (e.g., Interpol: “Her love’s a pony”). And so it will fail to deliver the emotional payoff you’ve come to expect. When this cancer sets in, you’ll never enjoy the song properly again—and by properly I mean with a geeky exuberance that can cause your mysterious, Haitian-born upstairs neighbor to bang repeatedly on his floorboards with what you hope is a mop or a broom and not something that has made you the target of a voodoo curse. Years later, when you hear song X on the radio or at a party, you’ll converse politely with it in your head, but, as with that ex-girlfriend you once assumed you’d marry but later had to leave around the time she got overly invested in swing dancing, you know there’s no going back.
Discarded musical infatuations are roadkill along the turnpike to obsession, and every obsessive’s toll road is littered with unsightly carcasses. Tears for Fears, INXS, Duran Duran, Journey, Falco, Information Society—these were just some of the acts I once regarded with an unhealthy measure of affection but whose songs often cause my face to burn when they confront me now. But minor embarrassments are a fair price to pay in order to satisfy an unquenchable desire: to add to that small cluster of songs and bands that will stay by my side always, no matter how many times I listen to them.1
If there’s any benefit to these periodic failures of judgment, it’s that they’ve taught me to keep my fat yap shut upon discovering something new. I’ll leave the touting of the next big thing to the bloggers (exception: the Silversun Pickups) and spare my friends the ultimately pointless babble about bands that I myself will dislike in a month or two. Instead, a worthier publicity campaign is waged. Because informing the people close to you of your long-term musical loves can be crucial to their understanding of who you are, everyone knows how I feel about Guided By Voices and Pavement and Built to Spill and so on—that is, if they were even listening. My friends can be pretty self-centered.
Still, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about discussing your obsessions, and I’ve known this for nearly three decades now. What
I only recently determined, however, is that a lot of people go about it the wrong way. There are rules to being an obsessive consumer of music and many fanatics simply aren’t following them. And by not following these rules, these so-called fans are giving the very music they’re obsessed with a bad name; they are failing the songs they love. To the detriment of everyone, these guidelines aren’t posted anywhere, not even on the internet, and believe me, I’ve checked. But I’m not going to post them here. You either know how to serve your idols well, or you do not.
The Girl with the Hearing Aid in her Ear
My father, the son of a decorous corporate lawyer and a Georgia-born schoolteacher, is that rare Lutheran pastor who quit the ministry to chase snakes. His replacement religion, a Zen-like state he refers to as Dylansis, was there to guide him through Michigan fields and swamps as he prowled for slithering creatures big and small, and it rode shotgun in his Honda Civic when he returned home, often smelling like he’d poured a jug containing sewage and cigarette butts over his head to cool off. Like many Bob Dylan fans, his devotion was a holy one. Nearly every day in my childhood, when he wasn’t off in some bum-fuck backwoods, he could be counted on to approach his record player liturgically and perform the following steps: Pull out [insert Dylan album name here, with a special bias toward Highway 61 Revisited]. Place on turntable. Drop needle. Commune. Repeat. As frequently as possible, despite pleas for mercy.
These daily marathon listening sessions caused no small amount of distress in our household. His addiction to the nasal-voiced auteur’s music couldn’t have wreaked more havoc around us if his copy of Bringing It All Back Home had morphed into an F5 tornado. But in retrospect, my dad’s so-called Dylansis could have been far more oppressive.2 He’s never been gabby, due to a lifelong stuttering problem, but even factoring that in, he rarely talked about Dylan around the house. Sure, every now and then he’d come out with comments like “Actually, Dylan didn’t perform at Woodstock” and “He was never the same after the motorcycle accident.” But mostly he just shut up and played the music.
Increasingly, I find myself wishing that more Dylan fans would emulate my dad’s muted approach—although muted is obviously relative here, considering that he’s issued a half dozen mass emails about his hero in the past three months. There’s a different breed of Dylan enthusiast out there today. Born a generation after my dad, those who make up this subset carry around an entirely different attitude, and to put it in street terms, that attitude is totally stank. Rather than simply spread the word about Dylan’s greatness and wield a quiet confidence forged over years of fealty to that greatness, these newbies oppress innocent bystanders—that is, non–Dylan fans like me—not only by repetitively playing his songs on jukeboxes at favored watering holes but also through a sinister behavioral tick that I’ll call conspiratorial smugness. Each one of them is that worst kind of obsessive: the know-it-all.
It took me by surprise when I first encountered the phenomenon of being cocky about one’s idols, especially since it went down at a Morrissey concert. In 1991, a grunt-boy position had been created for me as a courtesy by the Washington, D.C., law firm cofounded in the 1930s by my grandfather, in part so I could figure out if I wanted to apply to law schools when I returned for my senior year of college, and also because I desperately needed to see what it was like to spend a summer break outside of Michigan. The great thing about the job (and my grandfather would be displeased to hear this were he still alive) was that, because it had been created especially for me, I didn’t have much to do unless I sought it out—and I rarely sought it out. So a summer of free time was spent in a tiny, out-of-the-way office that provided just enough room to allow my then-spindly frame to stretch out comfortably behind my desk and turn out the lights, which I did on at least three occasions. In a typical day, mix tapes were produced on the giant boom box I’d lugged in, entire novels were read, and lengthy personal letters were composed by hand (remember those?). It wasn’t a shock, then, that not a single higher-up commented later on how I’d gone AWOL at noon on a certain Friday to drive up to Philadelphia, where I successfully waited in line the following morning to purchase tickets to see the anvil-headed Mancunian’s first American tour as a solo artist. (I’d already procured tickets to the D.C.-area show; Philly was pure gluttony.) It was a necessary trip: I’d discovered the Smiths after they’d broken up,3 and going beyond the call of duty would be required to certify my fanship.
A few weeks later, on the afternoon of the show, I hit Philadelphia early to scout out the venue in broad daylight. Part of me hoped, quite ridiculously, that maybe I’d catch a glimpse of Morrissey emerging from a sound check as I passed by. It wasn’t a unique thought. A cluster of fans was already milling about in the parking lot; most of them looked like potential sunburn victims under the bright July sun. These pale mope enthusiasts exuded confidence, however, as if stalking one’s heroes wasn’t out of the ordinary—they were clearly the cool kids. I decided to join them. After standing for ten minutes in what I originally thought was the loser section of the parking lot, I realized two things about the twenty or so megafans nearby: (1) These people weren’t cool at all, and (2) they were not for me. A few were clutching gladioli, a brief fetish of Morrissey’s that has been co-opted by the more sycophantic among his faithfuls. One guy had molded his hair and sideburns to resemble the Bona Drag cover portrait. A pudgy girl in a Hatful of Hollow T-shirt and a black cardigan sported an obviously unnecessary hearing aid in one ear, for reasons that I still haven’t been curious enough to figure out. And these dumb-asses were just standing around silently, seeing and being seen, with very entitled looks on their faces. Plus, there seemed to be an established pecking order: Gladioli Girls were more important than Hearing Aid, who in turn was cooler than Boner Fag, followed by some other nondescript beanpoles, and finally by me, the dork wearing a Detroit Tigers cap and faded jeans. The vibe in that Philadelphia parking lot reminds me of how it feels when I’m in a place like Silver Lake or Williamsburg4 now, where everyone tries to out-cool everyone else; the obvious goal here was to be viewed as the world’s most knowledgeable Morrissey fan. As if you had to look the part to win that award! It was time to get a beer.
Conspiratorial Smugness Quiz
Hatred of your own kind is one thing—and believe me, it happens a lot with regard to indie rock, my preferred genre of music, where so many fans simply cannot restrain themselves from one-upping their peers (e.g., “Oh, you saw Pavement at Roseland in 1994? Nice. Of course, I saw them at Maxwell’s in 1991, before Slanted came out.” Fuck you). But fanatical oppression is much harder to deal with when you don’t share the opinion of the music with the obsessives assaulting you with their fanship. And it’s rendered intolerable when the overwhelming critical opinion holds that the artist in question is of genius caliber.
This obviously eliminates the vast majority of musical acts immediately. You’re safe around superfans of bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Toto, and Hanson. Indulgers in these sorts of ephemeral curiosities, if there even are any, could only be regarded as eccentric; hearing them spew insider knowledge would be more pitiful than insufferable. No need to sweat hyper listeners of pop nothings like Fergie, Christina Aguilera, or Gwen Stefani, who get decent reviews and sell plenty of records and make rumps shake at the club, but whose core listeners don’t have the built-in geekery required of the musical know-it-all. And groups that critics adore but that are way out of the mainstream—Ween, Lightning Bolt, the Mountain Goats—don’t come up often enough to do any real damage, although junkies mainlining all three of those bands have inflicted serious mental anguish on me in recent years.
So what types of musicians inspire in their fans the asinine behavior I’m interested in—or rather, not interested in? To induce the aforementioned conspiratorial smugness, your favorite act must have debuted at least fifteen years ago and must merit a yes to at least three of the following five questions:
- Did they start out in the counterculture but are now famous enough to be considered mainstream?
- Have they put out so many records that they can be called prolific?
- Has their sound changed in notable and possibly famous ways over their career?
- Are their live performances gushingly discussed and frequently bootlegged?
- Is the main singing voice often described by non-fans as “weird” or “annoying” or “fingernails-on-chalkboard-y” or, even better, all three?
How many musical concerns can legitimately fulfill the three-yes mandate? A shocking few. Neil Young and Tom Waits are shoo-ins. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., and Prince? Probably. Pearl Jam? Barely, although it’s possible that they haven’t done enough time to be convicted of the crime. Along with a few others (e.g., U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers), these musicians have the right mixture of qualities to fill so many of their faithful—and particularly newer adopters—with a disturbing sense of superiority. Why this phenomenon occurs may lie in that characteristic or those characteristics that only a fan could love. The bushy, unkempt hair of the lead singer. That oh-so-unique voice, the kind that’s more difficult for haters to listen to than a Jim Cramer monologue. The regular, and to some, over-the-top displays of sincerity, like sticking a sign-language interpreter onstage during live shows to translate the band’s earnest lyrics to the deaf. Such quirks prompt the geek loser inside each convert to cry: “This is a thing I can get behind! And I’ll never let you forget it!”
But the most dangerous know-it-all phenomena rise up around artists whose careers follow this trajectory: initial critical praise ‘ a string of similarly regarded or more highly regarded albums ‘ flirtation with or realization of mainstream success ‘ a period of decline and even widespread public ridicule, possibly in the wake of a scandal or a monumentally shitty album ‘ a long-overdue nugget of genius ‘ redemption ‘ canonization. In every case, the musicians must be viewed by the establishment as being elder statesmen. They are legitimate icons.
Enter the Dylan know-it-all. They’re everywhere nowadays; have you met one? Likely between the ages of thirty and forty-five, these fanatics no doubt love their chosen master every bit as fervently as my dad does. They too have seen Dylan live multiple times, at least one of them involving long-distance road travel. They have a favorite song, and you can bet it’s a lot more obscure than “Like a Rolling Stone.” They can quote long sequences (and they won’t hesitate to recite them) from Don’t Look Back. If they don’t own every album in the catalog, they’ve sampled enough from each stage of Dylan’s career to justify having a favorite period. And they know the lore, the stuff regular people have to trawl Wikipedia to find out. But the trait shared by all neo-Dylanites—and this is where they differ from my dad—is that they assume you love Dylan too.
Unlike the fans closer to my dad’s advanced age of sixty-six, these youngsters—Gen Xers, mostly, to slap a label on them—weren’t there at the beginning. In fact, most were born after Dylan went electric (1965), many after the birth of that guy in the Wallflowers (1969), and others still after the famous tour with the Band (1974). So the Dylan they grew up with was a lesser icon, both physically and creatively, the born-again Christian who mugged his way through a Joe Eszterhas movie and whose singing parts on the USA for Africa single were indecipherable. None of the albums released during the formative years of neo-Dylanites—meaning the late 1970s to the early 1990s—are ever cited as being among his best, except by contrarians (and, unfortunately, neo-Dylanites love to be contrary). Still, these nascent music listeners found something endearing about the early Dylan, the one who existed before their time, and latched on. (And isn’t that the only way to get into Dylan? Through the music and image he cultivated when he was young and cool and relevant? Or do people really like the caterwauling that is “Jokerman”?) They extrapolated that badass version of Dylan through the ages, and used it to find something special about each latter-day release, despite the fact that most of it just wasn’t very good.
But then came the Oscar for that Wonder Boys song. And the best-selling and admittedly excellent, if frustrating, autobiography. And the Scorsese-directed PBS documentary—which, all right, was exceedingly easy on the eyes and made me unutterably sad that there are no mavericks today who come close to rivaling the Dylan of the 1960s. (Jack White? Ryan Adams? Sufjan Stevens? Uh, no.) No doubt these later triumphs produced an uptick in goodwill toward Dylan in the general public. But any gains on that front were completely offset by the prideful upsurge within the Dylan know-it-all. With their obsessions validated at last, these people were finally able to say, “See? He’s not just a mumbling has-been revered solely by Jann Wenner!”
OK, so Dylan has long placed high on the list of famous American musicians of the rock era—fourth, probably, to Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Madonna (please, no protests from defenders of Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Kurt Cobain, Paul Simon, Prince, or Billy Joel—especially that last one). Suffice to say, Dylan is the most critically acclaimed. And I’m not saying that the man doesn’t deserve a ton of kudos; he’s inarguably written some of the most important songs in the pop canon and he’s affected as much change in rock and roll as anyone. Still, over the past decade, in the same way that Muhammad Ali’s image has been puffed up to an almost mythical level, Dylan has been lionized, commercialized, and sanitized for public consumption. This wider acceptance has allowed these newer fans, who’ve only really known him firsthand in the creatively lean years, to feel like they’re experiencing his heyday. Which of course they’re not. And which might explain the rise of the know-it-all. They did not—and can never—experience the Rolling Thunder Revue; the only way to stake a claim on that vanished era is by transforming it into another form of cultural currency: elitist information.
A conversation with a know-it-all usually starts with a harmless comment: “So I was watching The Last Waltz the other day and thought, Man, if only I’d been around to see Dylan play with Robbie.”
You [in playing-dead, “holy shit, it’s a bear!” mode, hoping that if you stay very still, the problem will pass by]: “Uh-huh.”
But Dylan fans love to commune, so you get: “How many times you seen him?”
You [acting dumb now, buying time, looking for the exit]: “Who?”
And then you have to say zero. The alternative is to lie and quickly be found out, because there’s going to be a quiz if you say you’ve seen him live: What was the encore? Did he play “Lay Lady Lay”? Were the vocals as bad as they were at the Chicago stop on that tour? If this happens to you, the best thing you can do is to go into what I’ll call Operation Shutdown. Nod politely. Make no sudden moves. Sit there. Take it. Whatever you do: don’t argue! Arguing only will only make it worse. Eventually the know-it-all will end a lengthy sermon about why you’re stupid not to join the Cult of Dylan with sarcastic laughter, and a “Have fun with Guided By Voices!”5
Early adopters like my dad aren’t afflicted by smugness of the Dylan kind, because of propriety: They tuned in at the outset and held on for dear life through the good times, the bland ones, and the downright Traveling Wilburysian. They can simply relax and reflect on the wild ride. And if I have anything good to say about neo-Dylanites, it is this: they are smart to have shacked up with an artist so prolific and unretiring, whose back catalog is filled with countless gems and who has delivered an album to his disciples every couple of years since my dad’s appreciation began. There are far more frustrating artists they could have gotten involved with—ones that had already called it quits or become an embarrassment, like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, or Jimmy Buffett. (Oh, wait, Jimmy Buffett was always an embarrassment.) In other words, at least these newcomer Dylan fans don’t base the value of their life on the promise of a reunion tour. And yeah, at least they’re not blathering on about American Idol. But these lesser Dylan fans’ righteous claim on their hero is specious. Until my dad and members of his generation start falling off, legitimate possession of Dylan is theirs.
Now it stands to reason that, since I seem to be in the minority with my disdain for Dylansis, haters like me might be the problem. It’s quite possible that, by going against the grain, anti-fans are aggregately more annoying than Dylan know-it-alls. And of course, I’ve resorted here to parsing fan love—some Dylan fans are OK, others are not, my dad’s fandom is superior, etc.—which must make me as insufferable as those Morrissey fans back in the Philadelphia parking lot. But whatever. How am I supposed to embrace Dylan when so many of his fans around my age get on my last nerve?
And yet—maybe that’s what they want. Consider this. What if something sinister is at work in the minds of Dylan know-it-alls? What if they are purposely trying to irritate us non-fans with their over-the-top proselytizing because, in fact, they don’t want us to like their hero? What if by engaging us smugly and making us want to rip out their nose hairs they’re actually trying to thin the herd of potential converts? I can’t help but think that a great many Dylan fans must have been irked that so many people have warmed to Dylan in recent years. That, due to the autobiography and the Scorsese film, everyone has become a Dylan know-it-all. Because of the wider acceptance of his greatness, and the cultural fluency regarding the formerly “experts only” knowledge about his career, the Dylan fan’s mastery has been rendered less potent.
I went through the same thing myself with U2 in 1987 (and to a lesser extent with Pavement in 1994), when all of my friends seemed to be claiming my band as their own. And indeed, sharing your love with too many people does make you think differently. Maybe your band isn’t as unique as you’ve been telling yourself they are. Maybe they’re not as cool. Maybe you’re not as unique or cool either. After all, there are only so many people who can crash a house party before the host himself wants to get the hell out of there. And if it is self-preservation that’s motivating the collective smugness of Dylan know-it-alls, well, I can’t fault them for that. We all want people to love our heroes—just not as much as we do.