Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas




Whenever discussions about authenticity crop up, which they often do, the urge to debunk is strong. Artists claiming ‘street’ credibility are subject to scrutiny and ridicule. While this is a healthy approach in general (one should always be on the lookout for spurious claims of authenticity) it has led to the assumption that almost all great art is ultimately made by the middle-classes. David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, sums up this attitude neatly in an interview conducted by Simon Reynolds. In the interview, available in Reynolds’ book Totally Wired, Thomas makes the claim that all adventurous art is middle-class in origin.

"This is the strength of our upbringing. This is why all adventurous art is done by middle-class people. Because middle-class people don’t care. “I’m going to do what I want, because I can do something else better and make more money than this.” If you sit down and make a list of the people you consider to be adventurous in pop music, I’d bet you lots that the vast majority of them are middle-class."

When Reynolds mentions The Beatles, Thomas scoffs:

"Do you really think The Beatles were working-class? Really? The Beatles were not working-class."

Now, the last thing I want to do is talk about The Beatles. Yet I find it interesting that it is now an accepted ‘fact’ that The Beatles were middle-class. The proof of this claim seems to rest on the fact that, after his working-class parents abandoned him, a caring Aunt with middle-class aspirations brought John Lennon up in a relatively well-to-do Liverpool suburb. He did not attend private school. His education was no different from other working-class children. All the other Beatles came from stalwart working-class backgrounds. Ringo’s household was certainly the worst-off but, in regards to the other Beatles, working-class does not mean destitute. It means working people with no means of income other than selling their labour. Yet somehow, over the course of time, The Beatles became middle-class. This reeks of class appropriation and class prejudice. Apparently thousands of people cannot accept the fact that a group as inventive and adventurous as The Beatles were working-class. David Thomas repeats this illegitimate claim with no evidence. He believes it, other people believe it, and therefore it is the truth. Typical middle-class thinking.


It surely does not need pointing out that almost every adventurous musical innovation of the 20th Century came from working-class origins. The blues, jazz, country, rock’n'roll, soul, reggae, disco, r&b, hip-hop, techno, house; the list goes on. It would take a mixture of ignorance and arrogance on a monumental scale to appropriate all of these innovations for the middle-classes. David Thomas certainly fits this criteria. After claiming all adventurous art comes from the middle-classes, he then claims that only Americans are fit to play rock’n'roll, and people from other countries have no business playing it.

"Nobody would in their right mind argue that an English band could play African tribal music as well as African tribal people. So where do you get this idea that English people can play rock music – the folk music of America – in any authentic way?"

He then goes on to quote Russian music critic Artemis Trotsky who said:

"The most ordinary amateur garage band in America has more authenticity and fire and soul than the most adventurous band from England, because they’re playing the music of their blood."

Thomas endorses this claim by saying:

"In any bar in America you can find ordinary musicians playing rock music of such high quality that it puts to shame stuff from other countries. That’s because it’s in their blood."

This little fantasy ignores one very salient fact; the vast majority of white Americans in 1960 had no idea about America’s musical heritage because it was music made by African-Americans and working-class whites. There’s a reason the average bar in America in 1960 did not shake with rock music, the reason being that, even after the advent of Elvis, listening to music made by black people was still frowned upon. Suburban teens learned of America’s rich musical heritage from the writing credits on Rolling Stones’ albums, not because it was in their blood. If it had not been for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks and Them, all groups who worshiped black American musicians, then middle-class Americans would have remained ignorant of the music of their blood. It was a well-known fact that blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would play to packed houses in Britain, be treated like royalty and have nervous young Brits hanging on their every word, and then return to segregated America and play to half-empty bar rooms.

The truth is, while British bands were playing Chuck Berry, embryonic American garage bands were cutting their chops on ‘Gloria’ by Them. In other words, rock music is a British creation that Americans subsequently copied. Bob Dylan named his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home in reference to the fact that British bands had shown Americans music from their own country that they didn’t know existed and now it was time for an American to take these influences back.


                       

Black musicians were outcasts in their own country. They lived their lives on the sidelines instead of being treated like the musical innovators that they actually were. By claiming that rock music is authentic American music that only Americans are fit to play, David Thomas is reveling in unbearable ignorance. On the one hand, he casually appropriates the music of African-Americans and poor rural whites while on the other hand also claims ownership of this music on behalf of all Americans and disallows all non-Americans from participating. The actual music made by white people in the early 60s had almost no connection to the musical heritage America would soon discover. Thomas ignores the fact that the middle-classes scorned ‘race music’, ignores the political and cultural segregation that led to jazz and blues. He then claims that as a white middle-class male he has the right to pass judgment on non-American rock bands.

When reminded by Reynolds that there is really no such thing as American ‘blood’ and that America was and remains highly segregated Thomas makes perhaps his most startling claim of all. After Reynolds puts it to Thomas that America does not really have a ‘melting pot’, Thomas replies by saying:

"Yes, we do. Only recently, since people like Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders have taken over, has it been less successfully melted."

In his greatest feat of arrogance, Thomas ignores the economic and social damage wrought by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and blames an African-American woman for making America a less integrated place! Only moronic middle-class thinking could leap to this kind of conclusion.

What proof does Thomas offer up of the connectedness of American music? Greil Marcus.

"Images are created – seminal things like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard. I've written probably a dozen songs based on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Read Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’, it’s all about the passing on of communal images."

There you have it. Greil Marcus wrote about it in Mystery Train and it sure seems plausible so therefore it is undoubtedly historical fact. Marcus, ever determined to put a poetic, romantic spin on the music he writes about, has a habit of making dubious connections between songs that feel aesthetically pleasing but bear no resemblance to historical fact. Over-romanticising American history can lead a person to ignore what were very troubling realities. The 20s and 30s were not so much ‘Old Weird America’ but rather ‘Hellish Segregated Morally Repugnant Murderous Racist America’.



A black male living in the south in the 30s risked being lynched for even looking at a white woman in a way she or her husband found distasteful. Apparently, this was the ideal melting pot for America until Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders came along. What David Thomas has done in this interview, and in his thinking, is to allow white, middle-class America to take ownership of images, music, and emotions that did not belong to them. Separated by race and class, the music of early 20th century America came out of poverty, out of prejudice, out of spirit-crushing realities faced on a day-to-day basis, realities that white middle-class Americans need never face.

Art belongs to no particular group or class, however, and the nature of culture means that Art becomes the property of all. Yet David Thomas, after appropriating music from out with his race and class, then condemns others for playing music that supposedly does not belong to them. I've read many interviews by musicians. Some show remarkable intelligence, some show a disappointing lack of wit. Never have I read an interview that has such ignorance, such stupidity, such thoughtless arrogance, as the one in Totally Wired with David Thomas. He insults the working-class by claiming they are all but incapable of making adventurous art (I’m sure Mark E. Smith would beg to differ), he insults African-Americans by appropriating their Art and claiming it for all Americans, he insults non-American rock bands, and he actually claims that an African-American woman is partly responsible for making America more segregated (this seems like a variation on the tired theme of ‘race problems would go away if we stopped talking about them’).

To be honest, I’d probably care more if Thomas weren't so irrelevant, if his ‘career’ didn't consist of two decent albums made decades ago. Nevertheless the interview contains enough moronic thinking, the kind that often passes for fact in America and elsewhere, that I feel it is my duty to bring others’ attention to it. The fantasy world that David Thomas inhabits reeks of privilege and conceit. Perhaps I expected a bit more intelligence, a bit more individuality, a bit more adventurousness to his thinking. Then again, he is a white middle-class American male. We can’t expect too much.


(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

4 comments:

  1. that made my head hurt just reading those comments!!

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  2. Do you really think The Beatles were inventive and adventurous? Really? The Beatles were not inventive nor adventurous.

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    1. Sounds like more snobby middle class shite.

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  3. 'Tomorrow Never Knows', 'Rain', 'A Day In The Life', 'Revolution 9', 'I Am The Walrus'... to be honest it's embarrassing how inventive and adventurous they were compared to their contemporaries. When 'Tomorrow Never Knows' came out it put a distance between them and their rivals that could only be measured in light years.

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