“The Believer” Music Issue: Is Rick Moody a Martian?

ggiant-free-hand.jpgI have no real sense of Rick Moody the novelist. I haven’t read any of his books or short stories; I haven’t even seen the filmed version of The Ice Storm. Most of what I know about him is that Dale Peck made his career by calling him “the worst writer of his generation,” and that he contributes regularly to the pop-leaning lit mags I read, Black Clock and The Believer. In both magazines a few years ago Moody wrote about a listening club he’s part of; once a month he and a dozen friends pick two songs based on a theme and then sit around and play them together, with dinner. It inspired me to start something similar, and that’s been going on for a few years now, so I thank him for that.

Still, something about Moody’s music writing in The Believer in particular made me scratch my head. Why all this fuss when you can say something cleanly? I realize he’s cultivated this tone on purpose, and I’d guess that it works better detailing movement and plot than it does detailing a guy’s thoughts about music. I kept reading him and wondering if I was supposed to be getting something I didn’t. Then, with the magazine’s music issue, all was explained.

Rick Moody is a Martian.

That’s the only way I can convey how I felt when I read the shorter of Moody’s two pieces in the issue, a one-pager on the glories of Gentle Giant’s 1975 album Free Hand. Page 47, paragraph three:

It would seem impossible to defend Gentle Giant, and yet that is what I mean to do. My defense rests on the following notions: 1) That 4/4 time is really boring and starts to hurt your head after a while. 2) That counterpoint, as a compositional tool, is beguiling and satisfying to the ears. 3) That a record with a lot of different instrumental textures is more consistently interesting than one on which every song has the very same instrumentation. 4) That dynamic variation is the secret to making a recording move over its course (if all of the songs start and end at the same level, there’s no reason to begin at the beginning of an album and go all the way to the end). 5) That love ditties, lyrically speaking, need not feature mere teen platitudes.

Encountering this was like reading something translated badly from a foreign language, except the words are too precise to be anything else but the same tongue I speak. Well, generally–I couldn’t rail, as Moody does, against the tyranny of 4/4 without bursting into laughter somewhere along the way.

I have never encountered in one place a mini-manifesto more tailor-made away from my ends. I don’t know if it’s possible to put into words a more precise series of violations to my aesthetic sensibility, a description so perfectly antithetical to what I love about music. Not even Miccio could pull it off.

I’m probably overreacting (out of pure awe), but nevertheless, wow. Even the stuff I agree with sounds terrible in this company. Counterpoint: if polyrhythm counts, I love it. Oh wait, gotta shift rhythms a lot. Never mind. In other cases, I don’t know what he’s talking about. How many records made in the last 40 years really do actually start and end at the same level? Ramones, Music for 18 Musicians, ambient for sure–but what else? Especially in rock, surely there are as many–or more–records that follow rules three and four than don’t. As for the idea that Gentle Giant recorded love ditties that did not feature mere teen platitudes, again, wow. Cosmic.

This is all really good to know. It solves the mystery in my head about what I didn’t get about the guy–again, the guy as music writer in The Believer, the only guise in which I can claim any knowledge–which is to say, anything. I’m not sure I’ll ever read his books, but if I do, I can go in forearmed with the knowledge that I’m encountering an alien sensibility.

The Believer – July/August 2008 [The Believer]

  • natepatrin

    That passage was horrifying. Then, gleaning some familiar muso jerkoffery from those sentiments, I read it again with “Gentle Giant” replaced by “Frank Zappa”. It simultaneously clicked and got worse.

  • Ned Raggett

    Not even Miccio could pull it off.

    Dying of laughter here.

  • Al Shipley

    Surely there’s more to criticize in this issue: yet another Ian Mackaye interview that seems to be exclusively about straight edge and his feelings about alcohol, and something called “The Grizz-ind: In Praise of Rap CDs Purchased on the Street.”

  • Michaelangelo Matos

    I am planning further posts about the issue, Al. Worry not.

  • OokieDookie

    That New Republic piece by Peck was insane. I read it in a criticism class along with Arlene Croce’s New Yorker article on Bill T. Jones. Controver-say!

  • mishaps

    It’s “the worst writer of his generation,” not “the worst novelist alive.”


  • Michaelangelo Matos

    @mishaps: good thing I didn’t put quotes around it, then. I’ll fix–thanks.

  • Catbirdseat

    I saw him “open” for the Magnetic Fields years ago in D.C. I’m sure you can imagine what that was like.

  • rajmahall

    You know, I have never put on a record and thought, “Wait, this song is in 4/4 time?! Blecchhh!” I must not love music as much as this guy.

  • Maura Johnston

    Someone send this dude the new CSS stat!

  • mishaps

    @Michaelangelo Matos: I thank you from the bottom of my shriveled obsessive-compulsive heart.

    I like Moody’s fiction, and I think you might actually like some of his short stories (flip through Demonology, which has a lot of stylistic trickery but also some truly great writing) but the man should be forcibly prevented from ever writing about music again. By Dale Peck, if necessary, who could in fact totally take him in a fight.