Today I was intrigued to see obituaries for two very different people juxtaposed on top of each other in The New York Times. One of these people was Jackson Mac Low, the Fluxus poet who made his poems with random procedures, the way John Cage often composed music; the other was Dimebag Darrell, the metal guitarist who was shot last week while he was playing in a Columbus, Ohio club. It would be hard, I thought, to find two more different people either in music, or (in Mac Low’s case) with strong musical connections. Idly, I began wondering how anyone could draw a line connecting the two? I was thinking, of course, of the famous degrees of separation. How many steps would it take?
And then I realized something: I’m a connecting line. In the early ’80s, I wrote a column about new music for The Village Voice in New York, and regularly reviewed (and met) people like Cage, Robert Ashley, and Philip Corner whose work was something like Mac Low’s, and who knew him. In fact, I’m sure I met Mac Low himself. In 1988, I became a pop music critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, at the height of the Sunset Strip hard rock scene, which Dimebag Darrell had been part of a few years earlier, in his glam days, when he called himself (as I learned from his obituary) Diamond Darrell. Later, when he got famous as the guitarist from Pantera, I worked at Entertainment Weekly, and I think I interviewed Pantera’s bass player. (Who –and if it wasn’t him, it was someone else from a really big metal band — told me he liked to listen to the very peaceful music of Enigma when he wasn’t playing with his band. Then he begged me not to print that, because it would spoil his image! But he relented, and let me put that very human tidbit in my piece.)
So I can go from Mac Low to Dimebag Darrell with just one more person in the chain. (If my memory has failed me, and I didn’t interview anybody from Pantera, I’m sure I knew other people from the metal scene who’d known Darrell somewhere; in L.A., I got around that scene a lot.)
What does it mean that I can draw this line? My first thought, when I idly started thinking of all this, was how diverse the world is, with two such different people in it. Not everyone would be open to what both these artists did, but it’s not unprecedented that someone (like me) might be. But what does this mean? We could simply say that one person can have different tastes, and while that’s transparently true, I don’t want to stop there. Art, after all, shouldn’t just be a smorgasbord, or an old-fashioned Chinese menu where we pick a Fluxus poet from column A, and a metal band from column B. We really should be more involved than that; we should be moved, shaken, changed by all the art we touch.
So how could I be moved and changed by these two people? Or, cutting closer to the bone, is there any way that both could touch the same part of me?
I think there is. One feeling I’ve long gotten from work like Cage’s or Mac Low’s is peace. But not just any kind of peace — not, for instance, a warm and fuzzy peace, full of love, hope, and goodwill. It’s more profound than that; the peace that comes from lack of need or striving. I loved the Mac Low piece “184.108.40.206.11.9.3!11.6.7!4.,a biblical poem” reproduced in a box with the obituary (but unfortunately not included on the Times‘s website):
In /____/ /____/ wherein the /____/ /____/
/____/ /____/ eat lest they /____/ and taken /____/ /____/ the
/____/ twenty /____/ /____/ shall waters the ark /____/ /____/ /____/
These words are meant to be spoken aloud. “/____/” indicates a rhythmic silence. “When read aloud by multiple performers, each going at a different pace,” says the obituary (by Margalit Fox), “the poem evokes the wash of murmuring of Orthodox Jews at prayer.”
Metal, of course — and especially the punk-influenced power-metal kind, which Dimebag Darrell’s post-glam bands embodied — is just the opposite. It’s full of need and striving, laced with noise and rage. But this is also where I find a kind of common ground. Neither style is mainstream. Both, in fact, oppose the mainstream, metal noisily, Mac Low’s more quietly. Metal rages angrily at normal life; the relationship of Mac Low’s kind of art to normal life is less direct. And yet it’s strong. A Cliff Notes history of art after World War II would say — a cliché, by now, but still true — that in the shadow of the atom bomb (and the holocaust as well), meaning in normal life was hard to find. Hence rebellion, and also modernist art, which didn’t look for normal meaning.
Lewis Thomas, the biologist and essayist — in his thoughtful and really rather anguished essay “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony” — wondered what would happen if younger people created music that carried the rage they ought to feel because they lived in the shadow of nuclear destruction. He wrote this, I think, around 1980. (I lost my copy in a fire, and can’t look up the date. The essay collection the piece is in came out in 1983.) When I first read this, I was surprised and more than a little angry. Didn’t Thomas know, I groused, that what he wondered about had already come true? What was punk? What was metal? To me this seemed like yet another case of high-culture types not having any clue what’s going on in pop music, even when it speaks directly to their concerns.
But let that be. I’m older now, and more relaxed. If we collate Thomas with the standard view of modernism living in the shadow of the bomb, we’ve drawn a line from modernist art (Mac Low and Cage exemplified one strand of modernism) to raging power metal, with both, arguably, growing from not too different soil. Never mind that Cage hated rock; I’m not saying these things are identical, but just that they can be connected.
So I can draw related sustenance from each — support for rage from metal, a way to go beyond rage from artists like Jackson Mac Low. Within me are these two reactions to the horrors of the world we live in; both are valid; both are truthful; and each finds support in a different kind of art.