The Fun Stuff: And Other Essaysby James Wood
Following The Broken Estate, The Irresponsible Self, and How Fiction Worksbooks that established James Wood as the leading critic of his generationThe Fun Stuff confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of the contemporary novel. In twenty-three passionate, sparkling/i>/i>/i>/i>
Following The Broken Estate, The Irresponsible Self, and How Fiction Worksbooks that established James Wood as the leading critic of his generationThe Fun Stuff confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of the contemporary novel. In twenty-three passionate, sparkling dispatchesthat range over such crucial writers as Thomas Hardy, Leon Tolstoy, Edmund Wilson, and Mikhail LermontovWood offers a panoramic look at the modern novel. He effortlessly connects his encyclopedic, passionate understanding of the literary canon with an equally in-depth analysis of the most important authors writing today, including Cormac McCarthy, Lydia Davis, Aleksandar Hemon, and Michel Houellebecq. Included in The Fun Stuff are the title essay on Keith Moon and the lost joys of drummingwhich was a finalist for last year's National Magazine Awardsas well as Wood's essay on George Orwell, which Christopher Hitchens selected for the Best American Essays 2010. The Fun Stuff is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about contemporary literature.
“Wood is one of the best readers writing today. Devouring these pieces back to back feels like having a long conversation about books with your most erudite, articulate, and excitable friend. To read his essays on the works of Norman Rush, Aleksandar Hemon, Leo Tolstoy, or Lydia Davis is to relive the specific brand of joy created by a particular work of genius. Wood's reviews are never just evaluations; more often they are passionate, sensitive discourses on the variations of authorial voice, the nature of memory, or the burden of biography. … Wood's veneration of virtuosity reminds why we're reading at all--because we still believe that it's possible to find transcendence in great art. Isn't it fun to think so?” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Wood is now unquestionably one of the most influential voices in contemporary literary criticism.” The Millions
“Literary criticism sometimes takes itself too seriously, so it's a pleasure to see that preeminent literary critic Wood's very title reminds us what literature is really about: fun. Here he offers his heartfelt views on writers ranging from Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Mikhail Lermontov to Cormac McCarthy, Lydia Davis, and Michel Houellebecq. . . Get ready for some bracing delights.” Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
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The Fun Stuff, and Other Essays
By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 James Wood
All rights reserved.
THE FUN STUFF: HOMAGE TO KEITH MOON
I had a traditional musical education, in a provincial English cathedral town. I was sent off to an ancient piano teacher with the requisite halitosis, who lashed with a ruler at my knuckles as if they were wasps; I added the trumpet a few years later and had lessons with a younger, cheerier man, who told me that the best way to make the instrument "sound" was to imagine spitting paper pellets down the mouthpiece at the school bully. I sang daily in the cathedral choir, an excellent grounding in sight-reading and performance. I still play the piano and the trumpet.
But what I really wanted to do, as a little boy, was play the drums, and of those different ways of making music, only playing the drums still makes me feel like a little boy. A friend's older brother had a drum kit, and as a twelve-year-old I gawped at the spangled shells of wood and skin, and plotted how I might get to hit them, and make a lot of noise. It wouldn't be easy. My parents had no time for "all that thumping about," and the prim world of ecclesiastical and classical music, which meant so much to me, detested rock. But I waited until the drums' owner was off at school and sneaked into the attic, where they gleamed, fabulously inert, and over the next few years I taught myself how to play them. Sitting behind the drums was also like a fantasy of driving (the other great prepubescent ambition), with my feet established on two pedals, bass drum and hi-hat, and the willing dials staring back at me like a blank dashboard ...
Noise, speed, rebellion: everyone secretly wants to play the drums, because hitting things, like yelling, returns us to the innocent violence of childhood. Music makes us want to dance, to register rhythm on and with our bodies. So the drummer and the conductor are the luckiest of all musicians, because they are closest to dancing. And in drumming, how childishly close the connection is between the dancer and the dance! When you blow down an oboe, say, or pull a bow across a string, an infinitesimal, barely perceptible hesitation—the hesitation of vibration—separates the act and the sound; for trumpeters, the simple voicing of a quiet middle C is more fraught than very complex passages, because that brass tube can be sluggish in its obedience. But when a drummer needs to make a drum sound, he just ... hits it. The stick or hand comes down, and the skin bellows. The narrator of Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser, a pianist crazed with dreams of genius and obsessed with Glenn Gould, expresses the impossible longing to become the piano, to be at one with it. When you play the drums, you are the drums. "Le tom-tom, c'est moi," as Wallace Stevens put it.
The drummer who was the drums, when I was a boy, was the Who's Keith Moon, though he was already dead by the time I first heard him. He was the drums not because he was the most technically accomplished of drummers, but because his many-armed, joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming. He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness. At the end of early Who concerts, as Pete Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon would kick his drums and stand on them and hurl them around the stage, and this seems a logical extension not only of the basic premise of drumming, which is to hit things, but an inevitable extension of Moon's drumming, which was to hit things exuberantly. In the band's very early days, the managers of clubs would complain to Townshend about his drummer. We like you guys, they would say, but get rid of that madman on the drums, he's too loud. To which Moon succinctly replied: "I can't play quiet, I'm a rock drummer."
The Who had extraordinary rhythmic vitality, and it died when Keith Moon died, on September 7, 1978. I had hardly ever heard any rock music when I first listened to albums like Quadrophenia and Who's Next. My notion of musical volume and power was inevitably circumscribed by my fairly sheltered, austerely Christian upbringing—I got off on classical or churchy things like the brassy last bars of William Walton's First Symphony, or the chromatic last movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, or the way the choir bursts in at the start of Handel's anthem Zadok the Priest, or the thundering thirty-two-foot bass pipes of Durham Cathedral's organ, and the way the echo, at the end of a piece, took seven seconds to dissolve in that huge building. Those are not to be despised, but nothing had prepared me for the ferocious energy of the Who. The music enacted the Mod rebellion of its lyrics: "Hope I die before I get old"; "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"; "Dressed right, for a beach fight"; "There's a millionaire above you, / And you're under his suspicion." Pete Townshend's hard, tense suspended chords seem to scour the air around them; Roger Daltrey's singing was a young man's fighting swagger, an incitement to some kind of crime; John Entwistle's incessantly mobile bass playing was like someone running away from the scene of the crime; and Keith Moon's drumming, in its inspired vandalism, was the crime itself.
Most rock drummers, even very good and inventive ones, are timekeepers. There is a space for a fill or a roll at the end of a musical phrase, but the beat has primacy over the curlicues. In a regular 4/4 bar, the bass drum sounds the first beat, the snare the second, the bass drum again hits the third (often with two eighth notes at this point), and then the snare hits the bar's final beat. This results in the familiar "boom-DA, boom-boom-DA" sound of most rock drumming. A standard-issue drummer, playing along, say, to the Beatles' "Carry That Weight," would keep his 4/4 beat steady through the line "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight, carry that weight, a long time," until the natural break, which comes at the end of the phrase, where, just after the word "time," a wordless, two-beat half-bar readies itself for the repeated chorus. In that half-bar, there might be space for a quick roll, or a roll and a triplet, or something fancy with snare and hi-hat—really, any variety of filler. The filler is the fun stuff, and it could be said, without much exaggeration, that nearly all the fun stuff in drumming takes place in those two empty beats between the end of a phrase and the start of another. Ringo Starr, who interpreted his role fairly modestly, does nothing much in that two-beat space: mostly, he just provides eight even, straightforward sixteenth notes (da-da-da-da / da-da-da-da). In a good cover version of the song, Phil Collins, an extremely sophisticated drummer who was never a modest performer with Genesis, does a tight roll that begins with featherlight delicacy on a tom-tom and ends more firmly on his snare, before going back to the beat. But whatever their stylistic differences, the modest and the sophisticated drummer share an understanding that there is a proper space for keeping the beat, and a much smaller space for departing from it, like a time-out area in a classroom. The difference is just that the sophisticated drummer is much more often in time-out, and is always busily showing off to the rest of the class while he is there.
Keith Moon ripped all this up. There is no time-out in his drumming, because there is no time-in. It is all fun stuff. The first principle of Moon's drumming was that drummers do not exist to keep the beat. He did keep the beat, of course, and very well, but he did it by every method except the traditional one. Drumming is repetition, as is rock music generally, and Moon clearly found repetition dull. So he played the drums like no one else—and not even like himself. I mean that no two bars of Moon's playing ever sound the same; he is in revolt against consistency, he is always vandalizing repetition. Everyone else in the band gets to improvise, so why should the drummer be nothing more than a condemned metronome? He saw himself as a soloist playing with an ensemble of other soloists. It follows from this that the drummer will be playing a line of music, just as, say, the guitarist does, with undulations and crescendos and leaps. It further follows that the snare drum and the bass drum, traditionally the ball and chain of rhythmic imprisonment, are no more interesting than any of the other drums in the kit; and that you will need lots of those other drums. Lots and lots. By the mid-1970s, when Moon's kit was said to be "the biggest in the world"—and what a deliciously absurd conceit, anyway!—he had two bass drums and at least twelve tom-toms, arrayed in stacks like squadrons of spotlights; he looked like a cheerful boy who had built elaborate fortifications for the sole purpose of destroying them. But he needed all those drums, as a flute needs all its stops or a harp its strings, so that his tremendous bubbling cascades, his liquid journeys, could be voiced: he needed not to run out of drums as he ran around them.
Average musical performance, like athletic prowess and viticulture—and perhaps novel writing?—has probably improved in the last century. Nowadays, more and more pianists can brilliantly run off some Chopin or Rachmaninoff in a concert hall, and the guy at the local drum shop is probably technically more adept than Keith Moon was. YouTube, which is a kind of permanent Special Olympics for show-offs, is full of young men wreaking double-jointed virtuosity on fabulously complex drum kits rigged up like artillery ranges. But so what? They can also backflip into their jeans from great heights and parkour across Paris. Moon disliked drum solos and did not perform them; the only one I have seen is pretty bad, a piece of anti–performance art—Moon sloppy and mindless, apparently drunk or stoned or both, and almost collapsing into the drums while he pounds them like pillows. He may have lacked the control necessary to sustain a long, complex solo; more likely, he needed the kinetic adventures of the Who to provoke him into his own. His cheerful way of conceding this was his celebrated remark that "I'm the best Keith Moon–style drummer in the world." Which was also a way of saying, "I'm the best Who-style drummer in the world."
Keith Moon–style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and artless. To begin at the beginning: his drums always sounded good. He hit them nice and hard, and tuned the bigger tom-toms low (not for him the little eunuch toms of Kenney Jones, who palely succeeded him in the Who, after Moon's death). He kept his snare pretty "dry." This isn't a small thing. The talentless three-piece jazz combo at your local hotel ballroom—dinner-jacketed old-timers hacking through the old favorites—almost certainly features a so-called drummer whose sticks are used so lightly that they barely embarrass the skins, and whose snare—wet, buzzy, loose—sounds like a repeated sneeze. A good dry snare, properly struck, is a bark, a crack, a report. How a drummer hits the snare, and how it sounds, can determine a band's entire dynamic. Groups like Supertramp and the Eagles seem soft, in large part, because the snare is so drippy and mildly used (and not just because elves are apparently squeezing the singers' testicles).
There are three great albums by the Who, and these are also the three greatest Moon records: Live at Leeds (1970), a recording of an explosive concert at Leeds University on February 14, 1970, generally considered one of the greatest live albums in rock; Who's Next (1971), the most famous Who album; and Quadrophenia (1973), a kind of successor to Tommy, a "rock opera" that nostalgically celebrates the 1960s Mod culture that had provoked and nourished the band in its earlier days. On these are such songs as "Substitute," "My Generation," "See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You," "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Baba O'Riley," "Bargain," "The Song Is Over," "The Real Me," "5.15," "Sea and Sand," and "Love, Reign o'er Me." There is no great difference between the live concert recordings and the studio songs—all of them are full of improvisation and structured anarchy, fluffs and misses; all of them seem to have the rushed gratitude of something achieved only once. From which emerges the second great principle of Moon's drumming: namely, that one is always performing, not recording, and that making mistakes is simply part of the locomotion of vitality. (In the wonderful song "The Dirty Jobs," on Quadrophenia, you can hear Moon accidentally knock his sticks together three separate times while traveling around the kit. Most drummers would be horrified to be caught out on tape like this.)
For Moon, this vitality meant trying to shape oneself to the changing dynamics of the music, listening as much to the percussive deviations of the bass line as to the steady, obvious line of the lead singer. As a result, it is impossible to separate him from the music the Who made. The story goes that, in 1968, Jimmy Page wanted John Entwistle on bass and Keith Moon on drums for his new band; and, as sensational as this group might have been, it would not have sounded either like Led Zeppelin or the Who. If Led Zeppelin's drummer, John Bonham, were substituted for Moon on "Won't Get Fooled Again," the song would lose half its passionate propulsion, half its wild excess; if Moon sat in for Bonham on "Good Times, Bad Times," the tight stability of that piece would instantly evaporate.
Bonham's drumming sounds as if he has thought about phrasing; he never overreaches himself, because he seems to have so perfectly measured the relationship between rhythmic order and rhythmic deviation: his superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare, and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum, are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his hi-hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars. (In a standard 4/4 bar, the hi-hat sounds the four whole beats, or perhaps sounds eight beats in eighth notes.) That is the "Bonham sound," heard in the celebrated long solo—one of devilish complexity—in "Moby Dick," on the live album The Song Remains the Same. Everything is judged, and rightly placed: astonishing order. Moon's drumming, by contrast, is about putting things in the wrong place: the appearance of astonishing disorder. You can copy Bonham exactly; but to copy Moon would be to bottle his spilling energy, which is much harder.
The third great Moon principle, of packing as much as possible into a single bar of music, produces the extraordinary variety of his playing. He seems to be hungrily reaching for everything at once. Take, for instance, the bass drum and the cymbal. Generally speaking, drummers strike these with respectable monotony. You hit the crash cymbal at the end of a drum roll, as a flourish, but also as a kind of announcement that time-out has, boringly enough, ended, and that the beat must go back to work. Moon does something strange with both instruments. He tends to "ride" his bass drum: he keeps his foot hovering over the bass drum pedal as a nervous driver might keep a foot on a brake, and strikes the drum often, sometimes continuously throughout a bar. When he breaks to do a roll around the toms, he will keep the bass drum going simultaneously, so that the effect is of two drummers playing together. Meanwhile, he delights in hitting his cymbals as often as humanly possible, and off the beat—just before or after the logical moment—rather as jazz and big-band drummers do. The effect of all these cymbals being struck is of someone shouting out at unexpected moments while waiting in line—a yammer of exclamation marks. (Whereas his habit of entering a song by first crashing a cymbal and then ripping around the kit is like someone bursting into a quiet room and shouting: "I'm here!")
Excerpted from The Fun Stuff, and Other Essays by James Wood. Copyright © 2012 James Wood. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. He is the author of How Fiction Works, as well as two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God, all published by FSG.
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