Sunday, February 24, 2013

Perfectionism in Four Rock Band Biographies

In the last year or so I have read four full-length histories of four major rock bands, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Steely Dan and Husker Du (more correctly, Hüsker Dü).  This is a type of book I had never read before, much less four nearly back to back.  I picked up the books because I was interested in the bands.  Before I knew it I had put away four of them, was making connections between the bands' stories and thinking about what these books said about music in general.

The books are:

Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd by Mark Blake
Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by Phil Lesh [1]
Do It Again: The Steely Dan Years by Dave DiMartino
Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock by Andrew Earles

The bands have a few things in common, aside from being familiar to many people of my generation.  All are both influential and commercially successful.  Husker Du's commercial success is minimal compared to the other three, but they did much better than contemporary SST Records label-mates or any of their other peers, save The Replacements.  Again, with the exception of Husker Du, the bands are of the Baby Boom Generation and existed in the prog/jazz/psychedelic rock universe of complex arrangements and extended instrumental solos that peaked in the 1970's.  Each advanced this tradition in various ways while keeping the music listenable and centered on good songs/songwriting.  Husker Du were from the punk rock tradition and moved from helping define the punk sub-genre of hardcore to doing the same for the pop/punk/classic rock fusions known as indie, modern and alternative rock.[2]

The main thing Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Husker Du and the Grateful Dead have in common is that they were lead by perfectionists, each obsessed with their band's mission.  In each case this works itself out in different ways, many of them messy and full of conflict.  It seems very little happened by chance with any of these bands.  Everything they did was deliberate. They were all remarkably hard working and obsessed with making their music better, if not "just so."

Of the four bands the Grateful Dead are least important to me.  The only Grateful Dead songs I have any emotional connection to are Iko, Iko and Cumberland Blues. In both cases I have specific memories attached to them; it has little or nothing to do with the songs themselves.  I picked up the Phil Lesh book mostly because of something he said in a documentary about psychedelic music I saw in the 90's. It seems that early in the psychedelic era he and others realized there would be no massive utopia of mind expanding drugs and life-affirming music.  He says in Searching for the Sound that the closest thing to it, a certain optimistic atmosphere in the Bay Area, lasted only a few months--just a season, really.  Then it turned into something very different and much more negative.  

What is interesting to me is that this did not stop Lesh, or any of his band mates.  It made him sad, but he stuck with the Grateful Dead, and music in general, contributing what he could, although the goal was no longer transforming the whole world.  He talks about psychedelic drugs less and less as the book goes on, the implication being that they played a smaller and smaller role in his life as he got older.  He is also very frank about the damage done to The Dead and the lives of individual band members by substance abuse.  

Specifically, he talks about alcohol and heroin interfering with the band in the most basic way; band members with substance abuse problems sometimes could not play well, or even at all.  These are driven, even obsessed musicians, remember, so conflict was inevitable. According to Lesh this included musicians with massive drug problems badgering each other to get help because their playing was starting to suck...but not wanting to get help themselves.  Most of them eventually did. [3]

This is another unifying theme in all four books.  These bands were [4] made up of highly driven people who pushed themselves and each other, sometimes in questionable ways, to make better music.  Sometimes it is hard to tell what is striving for excellence and what is trying to wrest creative control from other musicians. What is clear to me that nobody reaches these creative heights without being very focused on quality and excellence[5], perhaps to the exclusion of other very important things.

Steely Dan started out as a six piece band.  Over time Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, the band's songwriters, gradually displaced the other band members with session musicians.  They didn't consult with the rest of the band or explain themselves.  They just excluded the other four original members more and more over time until Steely Dan became Becker, Fagan and whoever they were paying that day.  Denny Dias is the only other musician who was anything like a regular band member in later years, appearing on a total of six Steely Dan albums.  He is also the only other original band member who seemed to approve of Becker and Fagan's actions. He understood that they were perfectionists who "needed" to hire the right  musician to get the right performance.  Sometimes he was that musician.  Sometimes he wasn't.

This kind of cold, calculating perfectionism isn't good for relationships but it happens in music all the time, at different levels.  There was plenty of it in Pink Floyd.  Once Pink Floyd had commercial success there was a lot of pressure to maintain it.  With so much money at stake in the Pink Floyd brand everyone wanted the records to be brilliant and the live shows to be dazzling.  Waters wanted to go farther and farther down the road of concept albums, written by him and executed to his specifications.  Gilmour, representing his own interests and, to a lesser extent, those of the rest of the band, demanded not be sidelined.  

Waters eventually left. The leadership succession of Pink Floyd goes like this.

(Original band forms: Barrett, Waters, Wright and Mason)
Leaders: Syd Barrett and Roger Waters
(Gilmour joins as 2nd guitar)
Leaders: Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour
(Barrett leaves)
Leaders: Roger Waters and David Gilmour
(Waters leaves)
Leader: David Gilmour

I don't want to undersell Nick Mason and Richard Wright's contributions to the band but neither of them were ever leaders of Pink Floyd.  They didn't write much after 1968 and they never fought for control (except for resisting Waters' attempts to marginalize everybody but himself).  The point is that Gilmour never set out to lead the band alone.  Band leadership fell to him alone when the other leaders left.

When Roger Waters left Pink Floyd he did a few things that are completely in character and expected.  He started putting out the concept albums he loved and his former bandmates were ambivalent toward.  He went to court to stop them from from using the name, Pink Floyd.  Last but not least, he slammed David Gilmour's writing.

"There was no point in Gilmour, Mason or Wright trying to write lyrics. Because they'll never be as good as mine. Gilmour's lyrics are very third-rate. They always will be. And in comparison with what I do, I'm sure he'd agree. He's just not as good. I didn't play the guitar solos; he didn't write any lyrics."  --Roger Waters, Rolling Stone 1987

Once Waters was gone Gilmour had a lot to prove.  He had to prove that the remaining band members (legally, only himself and Mason) were worthy to have fought and kept the name, Pink Floyd.  What I find interesting about Gilmour's response to this situation is that he didn't make Pink Floyd all about him.  He wrote but he also brought in other songwriters.  He got Richard Wright more involved in the band again and he used session musicians as needed.  On tour he hired younger musicians to fill out the band, in essence admitting Pink Floyd's established members were not the sexy, energetic things they were twenty years prior.

It all worked. Hardened fans of Roger Waters aside, Pink Floyd continued to thrive under Gilmour's leadership. It wasn't the same, but it was still a good band that put on good shows and released good albums.

Just prior to Waters' departure Gilmour had also released the very fine album, About Face, which I write about here.

When it comes to Husker Du it is very tempting to say Bob Mould and Grant Hart are the Roger Waters and David Gilmour of punk rock.  It's half true.  In both cases you have a pair of quite talented singer-songwriters in an influential band who had massive conflict before and after an band break-up.  In Pink Floyd one left and the band continued.  In Husker Du the band ended.  All four men have continued to make music professionally.

With hart and Mould it was about getting their tracks on records. Any given album is going to have a finite number of songs on it.  With an abundance of songs it's understandable that there would be conflict over which ones made the cut.  Husker Du was so active and so prolific during their short career that I can't help thinking the solution was just to put out more records.  Of course, I don't know how to run a record label, so maybe you can't just do that.  Two of my favorite albums are the ones Hart and Mould put out directly after Husker Du split, Intolerance and Workbook.[6]  Neither of them sound like Husker Du but they are both fantastic.  I makes me wonder what Husker Du could have done if just a few things had happened differently.

I don't want to give the impression that Hart and Mould were mere self-promoters while with Husker Du.  The band (Hart, Moud and Greg Norton) worked very hard together over their nine-year career.  They took few, short breaks from performing and recording.  They never repeated themselves and frequently topped themselves, until just before the end.  In this regard I see them as being a highly concentrated Grateful Dead; half as many members, much shorter career, songs played at twice the speed.  The biggest difference is that the Dead did repeat themselves, a lot.  I don't fault them for this.  What "a Dead show" was didn't change much after they became popular enough to play really large venues, but they continued to do it very well.

The perfectionism that manifested itself in the Grateful Dead's commitment to keep doing what only they could do and at the highest possible level drove Husker Du to continually change what they were doing while simultaneously perfecting it.  They progressively showed off Mould and Hart's songwriting and melodies more and more while maintaining the ferocious intensity of the band's tight, coordinated, and invariably loud instrumental performances.  They went from a band that, at the height of their hardcore phase, seemed as un-pop as humanly possible to a band that was playing a new kind of pop music, complete with melody and hooks, that was also frighteningly powerful and clearly derived from hardcore punk.

Not all musicians who are so driven find success.  Not all musicians who "make it" are so driven.  Some are, in fact, lucky.  Maybe these bands were both driven and lucky.  What I'm certain of is that they all did things I am not willing to do.  I would rather preserve a friendship than put on a better concert or make a better record.  Maybe that's one of the reasons I'll always have a day job.

1. This is the only one of the four books that is a proper biography or autobiography and the only one written by a band member.  Lesh played bass for the Grateful Dead for their entire career.  He is modest and writes extensively about the whole band.  
2. At the time it was sometimes called "college music," because of its association with student-programmed college radio stations.  I don't think this name lasted very long.
3. Jerry Garcia didn't make it.

4. A couple of these bands resume activity from time to time but mostly in the "reunion tour" mode.  I will continue to refer to them in the past tense.

5. I don't like using those words. They sound like management speak or cloying and inspirational. On the other hand I can't think of a better way to say this. These musicians were driven to perform at a very high level.
6. This is quite parallel to my feelings about About Face and The Final Cut.

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