I remember reading the word for the first time and chewing it like a piece of perfectly done steak: gestalt. It had come out of the mouth of Richard Patrick, frontman of Filter. It was in one of those very mid-’90s, sound-bitey to the point of being fetishistic “light” news sections in Rolling Stone or SPIN. The canned question posed to several It acts of the moment was, “What band has influenced you the most?” Patrick’s answer was definitive—U2—because they epitomized the idea of the sum being bigger than its parts; of disparate and often clashing personalities fusing into a superior, elegant creature.
Whether you love or hate U2 is not the issue here. Written right before and after my first trip to London, this post, in a shift from the library advocacy and social media axes I’ve been grinding lately, hearkens back to the basic concept of creative influence. Music, namely that written and performed by The Clash, tops my list, as this blog has reiterated. And yet I have never investigated the appeal underneath the appeal of using intelligent popular music as a springboard for fiction. This is not to say I’ve been holding out on you, merely that writing about the universe of one’s novel begets rabbit holes inside of rabbit holes. It’s a bitch and a half to find your footing when you’re ass over head.
To the point: I’ve fallen in skull-shattering love with bands first and foremost because of the incredible music they create—but, music has always attracted me with its subtext as well. For me, the great groups offer the most definitive evidence that transcendent interpersonal collaboration is possible and ideal given the outcome (incredible music). Under the best circumstances, it’s possible to define yourself dynamically as an individual while building a semblance of a family that gives you the support you need to navigate the cruel, cruel world. In figuring out who the hell you are, you likely help your bandmates do the same. You know yourself, and others know you throughout a scary process. Music is your offspring. Beautiful, beautiful.
Here I’m going to point to Joe Strummer again because he’s so ripe for amateur analysis. As has been well documented, he was a bitter product of the English boarding school system and felt little to no connection to his middle-class family—his diplomat father in particular. His older brother’s suicide, coupled with his country-hopping early childhood, seemed to have negated the idea that he came from anywhere, so he threw his survivalist charisma into originating The Clash, not just a band but a maniacal quest for a new world order. He was happier in the twilight of his career, but he was never more exciting to watch than as a young man. With each phase of The Clash, you can see and hear him pushing to feed his imagination.
This would not have happened had John Mellor become a policeman.
Blur, who recently entered my personal pantheon of great bands, underwent a bizarre and yet logical evolution from teeny bop pin-ups to guerrilla indie artists with a Clash-esque streak in the 1990s. When the Brit pop baggage they invented threatened to render them completely ridiculous, they switched up their production and looked beyond coupling and snapshots of Modern Life in England for songwriting material. Listen to Parklife, then 13 (my favorite). They’re not just albums but soundtracks to the members’ lives at the time: from blatant attempts at fame to Damon losing a love of his life and Graham crashing toward sobriety.
A glinting sense of freedom and an infectious swagger are literally audible when bands like this have broken free from the confines of their backgrounds and the expectations of their public and delivered a stellar album. Reinvention, in this human configuration, seems endless and infused with the purest kind of joy. Pure because, well, you made art against the odds of human wiring. Most of us are shit at setting aside our self-interests for a higher goal. Compromise shaves down the ego.
More grueling still: maintaining optimum levels of creativity and community. After a certain point, most bands disintegrate under that responsibility, never mind the pitfalls of fame. Yes, and yes: The Clash and Blur blew up for those very reasons. Their lives had changed, and the band couldn’t reconcile the shifting attitudes and monster addictions. Having absorbed and pondered their sad and wonderful stories, I shouldn’t have any romantic notions about their music. No song is completely democratic, I’d think. No one got out without deep bruising and cuts. Yet, I want to believe that what they had is more special than what I will ever find, say, in my own immediate family or whatever circus I manage to start.
What is it about bands that make me want to believe they’re the best functional dysfunctional families? Ah, yes, the music, which through its own brilliance earns the right to be romantic. It’s proof that a few disparate crazies put their hands in the shit. Proof they succeeded—and failed many times. A genuine artifact of an attempt to communicate with fellow humans far out of earshot. Far superior to the mounds of grocery store receipts, subway cards, pollution, checks, dirty dishes, and broken promises I’ll leave in my wake.
(Thank you, Mr. Killerpoke. This post is dedicated to you and so-musical-it-makes-me-sick Albion.)
- The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus
- “English Rose” and “Liza Radley” by The Jam
- “Lush Life” by Johnny Hartman featuring John Coltrane on tenor sax