Real Punks Don’t Wear Black
o understand Frank Kogan, we must turn to Sophie B. Hawkins. Remember her two big, eternal hits, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and “As I Lay Me Down”? Fascinated, more than a little repulsed, but willing to be seduced by this silly woman, Kogan gives her forgotten 1999 album Timbre the courtesy of his complete attention. There is no trace of snark as he deconstructs her “starling metaphors, mawkish clichés, feints at narrative, shock effects” (one song, Kogan’s favorite, is titled, “Your Tongue Like the Sun in My Mouth”). What matters most about Hawkins to Kogan—in prose that mirrors the swirls and eddies of Hawkins’ own songs—is her talent for making her pseudo-mystic tripe signify. Not at the world-historic level, but at the level at which, according to Kogan, performers and rock critics should begin any discussion worth a damn:
Understanding yourself involves probing and testing, comparing your memories and ideas to someone else’s and asking yourself if why you think you did something was the reason, and so on.As the last part of this sentence indicates, this process is, of course, what we call thinking. Man’s highest calling, Hannah Arendt posited in The Human Condition, was leaving the private sphere for the public, where we can test our ideas. Thinking demands that we negotiate a space between these ideas and other people’s. Good performers do this subtextually; the great ones insist on holding these negotiations in the agora. Whether it’s Mick Jagger imploring “you” to get off of his cloud or Mariah Carey unleashing a stream of ridiculous high notes (“Mariah’s at the other end,” Kogan gushes. “Mariah’s totally irresponsible, she’s splashing all over the pool and off the planet”), these artists demand your attention by finding new ways to challenge what you pay attention to in the first place; if they make you queasy, well, good.
The key word is the second-person pronoun. Without “you” as a beginning there’s no way a performer will compel. Even at his or her most self-adoring (and most of Kogan’s favorites adore themselves to lustrous distraction) there’s always a “you” to whom a song is directed. Kogan is deeply suspicious of music and criticism that won’t leave its zone of protection. Artists can preen, but you’ve got to see the audience in the mirror too, or the art shrivels. Thus, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”: “And from here on she’s just blaring away, trying to power all the windmills in Holland, and the song disappears in the woosh.” Roxy Music: “I don’t want the idea instead of the music, I want the idea to come with the music, to enrich the music, to be carried by the music. In Roxy Music, the idea was taking precedence.” This sense that a creation must pulse with a blood-life it can hardly contain extends to criticism too:
We can’t convey the romance and the adventure of music unless we’re willing to convey our own romance and adventure.An anachronism, this word “romance”—and it’s exactly right. It denotes a quest, and by its very nature it’s public. Also implied is danger. An artist or critic (both, as Kogan will surely agree, performers) needn’t worry about looking foolish; chances are he is a fool anyway. I suspect this is why Kogan devotes so many pages of Real Punks Don’t Wear Black to freestyle gals like Debbie Deb, to a band on the verge of implosion like the New York Dolls, to the communal possibilities of disco. To probe and test themselves—to convey romance—they resorted to the splashy, the vulgar, the rank, realizing that they had only one single or a couple of albums in which they could think aloud, in song, before the public tired of them.
This is hardly new. One of my favorite rockcrit lines ever written is Robert Christgau’s distillation of Donna Summer’s genius: “To emote inconsistent banalities as if her life depended on them.” No doubt Summer would be insulted (especially the post-1980 iron maiden fag-hater); but to her fans (I’m one) what Christgau calls inconsistency sounds like truth. So what if you can’t parse the Many Moods of Donna Summer on Bad Girls? Summer’s inscrutability is a large part of her charm; none of us is parsable; and life depends on clinging to certain banalities. We love performers like, say, Summer, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, and the Mountain Goats because we look to them to articulate banalities we’re either too smart to admit we believe in, or to reassure, at the risk of making us complacent.
It’s obvious that by now Kogan is beyond the calcified rockism-vs-popism debate he in some way instigated (the frustrating miscellany that is Real Punks Don’t Wear Black includes late 1990’s Village Voice Pazz ��n’ Jop ballots and emails to former Voice music editor Chuck Eddy defining the battleground on which hacks still clash, to what end only the almighty can say). Because he never condescends to the audience, he avoids the dilettantish scorn as noticeable on a fortysomething rock critic as his crows’-feet. Yes, the little girls do understand. Since they don’t misstate their preferences or lie about their tastes, the performers in whom they find solace have a mainline to their lusts as unyielding and true as the connection between an indie band and its college-radio audience. Among the most moving sections of Real Punks Don’t Wear Black are excerpts from letters culled from girlie-pop mags like Smash Hits, the sincere drool that passes for teen fandom: “I hate Kylie Minogue. She is so stuck up. I love Alex Papps and Joey Tempest—they’re so cute!” Don’t laugh. By excluding reactions like these we reinforce the separation between music and life that Kogan derides as anathema to our relationship with both the world and art.
If it weren’t for the helter-skelter manner in which this book is organized (the lack of an index is but one of its sins) and sequenced, the strength of Kogan’s theories and prose would stand in greater relief; but thanks to Real Punks Don’t Wear Black’s fitful rhythm arguments are repeated, or merely restated, instead of accreting. The book is misleadingly subtitled, “Music Writing by Frank Kogan” when it’s really “The Collected Frank Kogan.” Thus, the inclusion of poetry, autobiographical sketches, and the aforementioned emails (“Superwords Revisited,” a summation of the more execrable subjects I studied in grad school lit-crit courses, is useful but redundant). Kogan might counter that this decision is indicative of his desire to wreck the Great Wrong Place of stuffy rockcrit, but who wants to get into this stupid argument?
I niggle because Kogan’s generosity inspires and consoles. There isn’t a single section in which his insinuating, conversational style doesn’t illuminate his subjects. Kogan writes—and I mean this as a compliment—like a twenty-year-old intoxicated by the reaches of his power to conjure. Every one of Real Punks Don’t Wear Black’s chapters is directed at the ideal listener; each awakens us from the torpor of saturation. More music is accessible to us than ever. Consider the ways in which our lives interact with it. For my part, “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” calls to mind Kelly and Dylan snuggling on a beach in Beverly Hills, 90210—a scene as trite as the love triangle in which I found myself that summer, the clamor of the drums and the purple-mountain-majesty of Hawkins’ words matching the bedlam in my heart note for note. The correspondences were shallow, abject—a worthwhile beginning.