Friday, January 16, 2009

High School Musical

Wow, I never thought I'd be posting what I just posted.

You should be able to get the full backstory at the Facebook page from whence this comes (assuming said Facebook page doesn't lock you out). If you can't, the short version is that, as it says in the bio sidebar of this here blog, I wrote a "rock opera" (Dancing Days) during my senior year in high school (1986-87). Above is a video of the beginning of it.

I realize that by posting this, I risk destroying, in one fell swoop, whatever "avant garde" credibility I have painstakingly built up over the years. (What's that, you say? It's hard to destroy none?) Especially once I get around to putting up some of the more maudlin bits from the show. (With any "luck," the whole two-act mess will go up on Facebook over the next week or so. Thus you should be able to get to the other tunes via the above link. Or, just come find me on the Facebook.)

I guess the question is: why am I posting this? And why now? Especially since I've never been a particularly nostalgic person? And especially since every time someone has asked me about Dancing Days in the 20 or so years since it was first staged, I have almost always changed the subject?

Alas, much as I hate to admit it, this particular trip down memory lane probably has something to do with my recent "graduation" to age 40, which has been accompanied by a desire to get some perspective on my life, not to mention a greater sense of my own mortality... and other stupid existential stuff like that.

I am not, and will never, make any claims for the value of this very old set of songs, written in late adolescence, before I really knew the first goddamned thing about how the world actually works (not that I know much about that subject now). You can't choose your geographical, historical, or social starting point, but you can try to express something about that starting point honestly, until you adapt or change or grow. Dancing Days was pretty much my attempt to do exactly that, circa the late 80s. On a personal level, it was "successful" and gratifying because it captured my state of mind in a way that was musically relevant for me and many of my high school peers. Whether this state of mind was worth capturing is another subject altogether.

Of course, because of the implied answer to that implied question -- no, this state of mind was probably not worth capturing -- some of Dancing Days is downright embarrassing. But that dovetails nicely with the fact that, more and more, embarrassment has become one of my aesthetic tools (possibly one reason I frequently call upon my band-mates to do truly ridiculous things -- things that no self-respecting jazz musician would deign to do -- onstage). I see embarassment as a specific disarming / de-formalizing strategy within an overarching comic sensibility. It's also a key element of the sort of aesthetic and philosophical honesty I was pursuing here.

Sorry, I started to get high-falutin' there for a second.

Anyway, why the embarrassment over (certain sections of) Dancing Days? In a word: "sentimentality." Much of the music I have loved as an adult pretty much avoids directly expressing excessive or overwhelming emotion -- either disregarding it as a phenomenon altogether, or questioning it as a pose and a construction. Which is fitting, given our era: a sweeping Hallmark-ian idea of "love" is used to sell us everything under the sun, tapping into and exploiting our basic insecurities and loneliness... and ultimately leaving us insecure and lonely. Popular music has been greatly implicated in that swindle, as has Broadway.

Zappa pretty much nails it here:

And yet... who among us is so evolved as to have completely escaped the irrational emotional underpinnings of the psyche? Every once in a while I'll be reminded of how Zappa wept at the sound of Irish folk music (toward the end of his life), or how Duke Ellington doted upon his mother, or how John Lennon could write such cloying music as "Dear Yoko" -- all evidence that under even the toughest sentiment-eschewing artistic exterior, there has to be a basic vulnerability, even if the audience rarely gets to see it up close.

So maybe that's why I'm not prepared to disown Dancing Days, and have even started thinking of it fondly again, despite all its faults: it's me at my most artistically vulnerable. (Duh! I was a teenager.) And that's a handy personal reference point every time some critic faults me for missing a soul.

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