Talk Eddy to Me, Part 3
By Scott Woods
Scott: You may have written this awhile ago, but let me ask you about it anyway--it's from the book: "If you went to high school in the '70s, Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen' and 'School's Out' became part of your life and language whether you cared about rock music or not. You probably can't say that about any of the revived grunge of the last few years, even 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'--Alice's lyrics were direct where Nirvana's and Pearl Jam's are oblique and muffled. So I'm not entirely convinced the big Seattle bands communicated all that much to their own audience, much less beyond it." So what I want to ask you, first of all, do you really believe that "Teen Spirit"--regardless of your own feelings about Nirvana--didn't become part of the life and language of high schoolers in the early '90s? And secondly, why do muffled and oblique lyrics necessarily communicate less than clear and direct lyrics?
Chuck: Because they're muffled and oblique. [laughs]
Scott: Yeah but that's--that's not true, though. That's assuming that you have to take lyrics literally.
Chuck: You mean you can get them wrong.
Scott: Don't the early Stones'...
Chuck: Okay, alright, wait wait wait--Scott Scott Scott, let me answer the question, okay? Maybe [pause]... I mean, the thing is, the bottom line is Alice Cooper is a better songwriter than Cobain or Vedder were, I have no doubt in my mind about that. I don't think that--I think, yeah, you could get something [pause]... I can barely hear Vedder's lyrics, I mean, just shove him over in a corner somewhere, let's just think about Cobain, alright? I mean, Vedder's just a dork. There's even a couple songs I sort of like, but I don't think those have anything to do with words being communicated.
Chuck: I, I guess--okay, first off, maybe what I mean, number one, is: I think that kids my age, for the most part, got the same things out of "School's Out" and "I'm Eighteen" as each other. I think that individually, yeah, you could get things out of individual lines of Cobain's songs. I mean, I think I get certain... I get meaning out of certain--which I talk about! I mean, I kind of figured out--it took me four years to figure out--what any of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might add up to. And right, I did get something out of them, but yeah, I think that clarity counts for something.
Scott: Okay, but go back to the first part of the question. I don't understand why you would think that stuff didn't become part of the life of high schoolers in the '90s.
Chuck: I think that, I think, I think...
Scott: Because it obviously did.
Chuck: Alright, okay, first off. I think, umm [pause] part of it--I don't know if I want to say it's a fragmentation thing--I think if you were not a music fan... I mean, I guess what I'm saying is I had no interest in music when I was ten or eleven, and "School's Out" was just there, it was something that you sang to each other, and it, it--it had unmistakable meaning, I mean, like "Happy Birthday To You." And I think that, maybe with "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--no fucking way with "Jeremy" or "Alive" or those Pearl Jam songs, and no fucking way with anything that Nirvana did after "Teen Spirit."
Scott: [sighs] I...
Chuck: Just let me finish, Scott!
Chuck: Yeah, maybe that song--the music--would've been part of the environment, but I don't think that the words would have added up to any kind of common meaning at all.
Scott: Well, I guess I'm just, like--I mean, there was obviously, like, something of a 'scene,' or something.
Chuck: Yeah--but that's if they're IN THE SCENE!
Scott: Yeah, yeah.
Chuck: With Alice Cooper you did not HAVE TO BE IN THE SCENE! My whole point is, yeah, if you're a rock fan who sits in front of MTV, yeah, you're gonna be conscious of it. I'm talking about a kid who doesn't give a shit, who has NO consciousness at all that there is even a thing out there called 'rock' in general. I mean, yeah, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" meant a lot to people who wanted to rebel against Bon Jovi--like I give a shit--but for people who never knew that Nirvana was any different than Bon Jovi to begin with--and believe me, there are a lot of people out there like that--do you think that to the average Mariah Carey fan, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" means anything?
Scott: I don't know, I honestly wouldn't...
Chuck: Or Boyz II Men fan, or Whitney Houston fan, or Garth Brooks fan?
Scott: I can honestly tell you from working in a record store that you'd be surprised, in a lot of ways. Like, you do get the casual buyers coming in, who aren't people who go to the record store every week and buy $40...
Chuck: Well no, I know, Nevermind was a big album.
Scott: What's that?
Chuck: Nevermind was a big album. I'm not saying that nobody bought that record, but again, we're not talking about people who buy the record. I did not buy "School's Out." We're talking about people who are not music fans to any extent; if you weren't a music fan to any extent when I was in eighth grade, you still knew "School's Out." I don't think that--I think that if you were not a music fan to any extent in 1991, you might not even know who Nirvana is, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit," I think... my guess, my honest guess is that "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--yeah, you might recognize the melody because you've heard it a lot, but it would be just another song. Where "School's Out," it had a meaning--it had a meaning in your life, even if you were not a music fan. I do not think that if you were not a music fan--I'm not saying that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had no meaning in nobody's life, I'm saying that "School's Out" had a meaning in just about everybody's life. I don't think you could say that about "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and there's no way you could say that about "Jeremy"--I mean, it's a joke to even suggest that you could. But I think that to just your run-of-the-mill kid, who, you know, whatever, maybe had his own extracurricular activities, had an after-school job, didn't buy records--the equivalent of me in eighth grade--I don't think "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would've meant a thing. You might have been able to recognize the tune, and I'm not even so convinced of that.
Chuck: What I'm saying is "School's Out" did.
Scott: Okay, talk a little bit about the second part of the question: why do muffled and oblique lyrics necessarily communicate less than clear and direct lyrics? I can think of scads of examples--even the Stones in the '60s. Those are not clear and direct lyrics in terms of being able to hear them--I mean, they may actually be clear and direct lyrics, but half the time you don't know--but they communicate something.
Chuck: Well, I mean, I have a whole chapter in the book that completely contradicts that. I contradict myself a lot. In a way, Scott, I think you're putting words in my mouth. I'm not saying that clear and direct lyrics always communicate more than muffled and oblique lyrics.
Scott: No, no, I'm actually...
Chuck: In individual cases, of course, something I hear as mumbled and oblique, if the music is--if I find it likable otherwise, yeah, something I like that's mumbled and oblique is gonna communicate to me more than something I don't like that's clear, y'know. I mean, if I felt that, yeah, I would just like country songs, which I tend not to like all that many. So I don't even believe that's what I'm saying. I kind of think that you're jumping--that you're taking a leap of faith there.
Scott: Yeah, well it's an idea that I think pops up a couple times--I haven't read the book from cover to back, I've kind of read chapters out of sequence, and I've probably read about 80% of the book at this point, but I actually found it a kind of intriguing idea because you do place some emphasis--I can't give you page numbers or anything--but there are places where you do emphasize that clear and direct lyrics are important, and I think it's an interesting idea, I'm not actually saying that...
Chuck: I don't know if I'm saying that clear and direct lyrics are important, but I think what I am saying is that [pause] I want involvement in music, okay? I don't want detachment, okay? And I think that it can be really easy to do what, say, Beck--to me, in my mind--say Beck or Cobain did, which is just...
Scott: Free association?
Chuck: Yeah--no, not even free association, there's nothing remotely free about it. I think it's just not free at all. You know, putting together a bunch of unrelated lines and pretending that that in and of itself is clever, or... and yeah, the whole idea of--it goes along with the title of the book--you can communicate stuff accidentally by doing that; obviously Cobain did, I'm sure Sonic Youth did. And again, it's a matter of opinion, maybe some people would think that's what Dylan did. I mean, I hear Dylan's lines actually adding up to something--punchlines, for example, which I don't hear in Cobain or Thurston Moore or Beck. I mean, I think it's lazy--I think the way that Beck and Cobain wrote is lazy. That doesn't mean I don't like any of their songs, but I think that it places a limitation on them; I can only get so much out of them if all they are is a bunch of disassociated "aqua seafoam shame", or whatever that ridiculous line in "All Apologies" is. It makes me wince--like, what an idiot. It's like he doesn't even understand what words are supposed to do. And yeah, the sound of the words themself, I understand all that, that the words might just sound good together, but it--if I want it to have a direct effect on me, a direct effect on my emotions--which is one of the things music can do, and one of the big things music can do--I think it helps not to be detached, and it helps to communicate directly to a certain extent, at least to the extent of... I mean, I find those Stones' songs pretty coherent. The way he sings them, you have to listen to them a few times, but eventually I find a certain sort of coherence there; I hear a lot more coherence there than I hear in Cobain. And yeah, there are certain lines--I mean, I use one of Cobain's lines for a chapter heading in the book, which is a great line: "Hey, wait, I got a new complaint." I don't understand what the rest of that song's about, I mean, most of that song doesn't mean shit to me; the video's also one of the worst videos in the history of MTV.
Scott: I think that's a great video.
Chuck: I think it's pretentious and crap; it's horrible.
Scott: Why, though? To me it's just an interesting video to look at; I don't know what it means...
Chuck: I don't think it's interesting, I don't know.
Scott: It's colourful, though, it's got a lot of colour in it...
Chuck: I guess it's colourful, I don't find it interesting, I mean, it makes me wince. "Losing My Religion"'s another one like that.
Scott: You said you preferred the Metallica video ["Until it Sleeps"].
Chuck: But but wait--Scott!--I've seen the Metallica ONCE [laughs]--I mean just remember that, okay! Wanna know why I think I like the Metallica one--and I still might like it more--is that I actually kind of like Hieronymus Bosch. [laughs] I don't know why, I like album covers based on Hieronymus Bosch too; that should be a chapter, I think there's a Deep Purple album, and a lot of them, they just have that ear with the knife through it. Actually, what the Metallica one reminded me of, as much as those two, was "It's a Sin."
Scott: Yeah, that's not really one of my favourite Pet Shop Boys' videos.
Chuck: No, it's probably not one of my
but I mean, you know, I've got this Catholic thing.
thurston, debbie, and me
thurston, debbie, and me
Scott: Do you think it will strike some people as strange that your discography includes a bunch of artists who you criticize throughout the book? Perfect example being Sonic Youth.
Chuck: No, I mean in Stairway to Hell [laughs] there's five Sonic Youth albums, all of which I made fun of, I believe. I think my Stairway to Hell Sonic Youth writing was a triumph to a certain extent [laughs], because I pick five Sonic Youth albums I supposedly like, and I don't know if I had anything good to say about any of them.
Scott: Is the discography your penance?
Chuck: You know, it's just like, in the context of that book, what good things I have to say about Sonic Youth, and I do probably have some...
Scott: Uhh, I don't think you do, but...
Chuck: No, I do! I think that they have a knack for pretty melodies, I think that there are kind of pretty songs. I used to think that Thurston Moore sang all the good songs and that Kim--I used to hate Kim Gordon's voice. But now I'm kind of wondering--and I don't know, I'd have to go back and listen more--if now that I've learned to like Courtney Love's singing so much if I would see Kim Gordon as some kind of midway point between Stevie Nicks and Courtney Love...
Scott: I don't...
Chuck: But, umm, the thing is, Thurston Moore has no voice at all--he's completely bland.
Scott: But you like his songs better, you're saying.
Chuck: Yeah, for some reason he just ended up singing the songs that I like. I think that they have no knack for rhythm, I think that the lyrics, for the most part, are absurd. They have some cool guitar parts, you know, and sometimes it all comes together. And Sister just seems like the best mix of pretty songs and fast, rocking songs, like "Hotwire My Heart" or "Stereo Sanctity"--see, I know these off the top of my head, I'm not looking at a copy, I do play Sister sometimes. But what's weird is Sister is nowhere near one of the highest ones in Stairway to Hell. I think I actually reviewed Sister in the Voice and I gave it kind of a negative review, but relistening to all of them, Evol is almost all slow stuff, which I used to think was probably their best one. My second favourite Sonic Youth album is Confusion is Sex, which is the closest they came to actually making a rock record. Which I guess just means maybe I think that a bad rock record is better than an okay muzak record... I guess I like them when they mix up the muzak stuff that they were born to and the rock stuff that at least they try. [laughs] I don't know, I don't know!
Scott: Throughout the book, whenever Sonic Youth's name comes up you have to take some potshot at them; whereas you wouldn't take a potshot at, I don't know, Debbie Gibson--bad example, probably.
Chuck: I think I make fun of her.
Scott: Yeah, I guess you make fun of her.
Chuck: And I don't know... again, I want my writing to be interesting, and saying the same positive things about Sonic Youth that everyone else says would not be interesting. To me it just seems obvious. Honestly, I'm kind of confounded that people don't understand that.
Scott: But if you kind of like someone's music or whatever...
Chuck: The thing is--maybe the things I like about Sonic Youth's music maybe just wouldn't have fit into the format of this book. Or the things I like about it just seem like clichés. This isn't a record guide; it isn't a 'Why I like Sonic Youth' or 'Why I don't like Sonic Youth' book, you know? It's more fun to take potshots at Sonic Youth, even if I like them. I mean, the whole Dylan thing kind of disproves that whole theory; even the Velvets, who I think I'm pretty--I mean, I probably take a couple shots at them--but I think I'm pretty praiseworthy of them in this book. We all know what's good about Sonic Youth, why do I need to repeat it?
Scott: Yeah, yeah. But I can turn that around and say--it sounds like I'm all defensive about Sonic Youth, and believe me, I'm not--but why, at the same time, everytime they come up [laughs] you have to call Thurston Moore a twit or something. I mean, it makes me laugh...
Chuck: [laughing] He deserves it--he just... he is! So you'll ask me these questions--just to get attention. I don't know, because I want attention when I'm driving by. Because he's a notch and I'm a legend. [laughs]
Scott: The other day when we were talking you told me that you can't understand why people would think you don't like Springsteen.
Chuck: Well, no, of course I understand it, 'cause I insult him. But I mean, you just have to understand, the bottom line is, I want my writing to be good writing, okay? And it's, it's like, I just don't know that I have any interesting good things to say about Springsteen. But that doesn't mean that I don't like him. I write about stuff--the records I write about are not necessarily my favourite records, but they're the ones I think will make for the most interesting writing, and I say what, positively or negatively--that doesn't mean I'm lying, but because I write about Debbie Gibson a lot, that doesn't mean that she's my favourite artist, it just means that I think I have a lot of interesting things to say about Debbie Gibson. If I wrote about Springsteen as much as I liked him, I think what I wrote about him would be pretty boring, I don't think I would say that much that people haven't already said. Although I don't think anybody's pointed out what the similarities are between his first album and what Beck is doing now--that might be an interesting thing to look at. I think there are real similarities--like his writing in "Blinded By the Light," and how he sings it, and the way he uses rhythm--to what Beck's doing in "Loser" and "Where It's At," and things like that. They're probably both influenced by Dylan in very similar ways. They play with words in similar ways; my guess is that Springsteen was probably better at it.
Scott: Another thing about the early Springsteen too is all the kind of Latin rhythms he had back then.
Chuck: I don't think there were a lot.
Scott: Well, some.
Chuck: Yeah, I mean "Rosalita," obviously.
Scott: "Rosalita," I don't like, actually.
Chuck: Actually Howard Hampton, who I'm usually not a fan of, said something really interesting about, I think it's "Backstreets"--the one about him and his male friend in this old abandoned beach house--he said it had this real homoerotic subtext. And I'm thinking of the cover of "Born in the U.S.A." And his whole persona and his whole voice--he's apparently real big, I mean he has a certain gay disco audience.
Scott: Well, Frankie Goes to Hollywood covered "Born to Run." And there's a funny part...
Chuck: Didn't they also do "War"--what is it good for--which also he covered a couple years later?
Scott: Maybe. There was a funny review of their version of "Born to Run," one of the critics pointed out the line, "And the boys try to look so hard." You say "Springsteen has his moments, but he usually doesn't have a whole lot to do with rock'n'roll."
Chuck: I think that might be something I disagree with now.
Scott: I can't believe it!
Chuck: I thought of that in the car...
Scott: What--after you took the book to the publisher?
Chuck: No, after we were talking about Springsteen the other day. He obviously--he has a lot to do with rock'n'roll. I wrote that hackwork thing--it's ten years old. And I do like it--I think it reads really well--but that's one of the dogmatic type of statements that I disagree with. I mean, in a certain sense he--I don't know, I think I'm probably over-critical about people with artistic intentions.
Scott: But who doesn't have--who isn't an art rocker?
Chuck: That might be true. I think Sam the Sham knew that they were using Mexican rhythms. But I think that I define it that, I don't think Debbie Gibson looks at how her--or probably Boney M, better example--look at how their music is gonna... you know, ponder how their music is gonna look 20 or 30 years down the line. And I think Springsteen and Townshend do.
Scott: I don't know if I agree with that about Springsteen. I think the critics do that.
Chuck: I think he does, I think he wants to be legendary. But again, that can help. Was Axl Rose looking at his music that way? Or Johnny Rotten? Probably--and it probably helped.
Scott: I think Boney M probably did...
Chuck: I hope you have your tape recorder running. I don't think Boney M were thinking that. Boney M wanted to sell records.
Scott: Frank Farian.
Chuck: I don't think Farian was making music for posterity. I think that he was doing what he thought--I think he was a novelty artist who would come up with weird stuff 'cause he thought novelties would sell records. But, I think that Dylan or Johnny Rotten or maybe Axl Rose--I think that to a certain extent they thought about how they would be in posterity. So I think I probably don't completely agree with what I'm saying there. I mean, the thing is, when you start judging music by what you think the intentions of the people are, you're gonna be fucked up.
Scott: Yeah, that's a problem.
Chuck: Anytime I do that in that book--anytime I try judging the music by perceived intentions--I'm probably heading in the wrong direction.
Scott: Do you think you sometimes do that with alternative rock?
Chuck: No. My criticisms of alternative rock are usually because the music is timid and bland, it has shitty singers--that's what the music does. Those are my biggest problems with alternative rock. I mean, way way back I might've said something about it having to do with self consciousness, but it's been years, you know what I mean? I think the only time I really do that in the book is in the introduction. I guess you could say I do it in the collage rock chapter--I talk a little bit about intentions, or maybe the world music chapter; you know, Sweet Sensation's intentions compared to David Byrne's or whatever. But I think I'm talking about what the music does.