On the B-side of life

Muscians find it easier than academics to set their egos aside, be generous to their peers and play sidemen for a true great, argues Tara Brabazon

May 8, 2008
music, score. notes, musical, opera, classical



I used to work for an academic who organised every review written about his books into two enormous filing cabinets. At regular intervals, he would threaten “revenge” on the writers of “bad” reviews. To improve the karma of the cabinets, he continually asked friends, colleagues and former students to write about and cite his books, supposedly guaranteeing a more positive commentary. When asked if he was perhaps somewhat fixated on what other scholars thought of him, he replied with startling confidence: “I’m not paranoid. They really are out to get me.” Talking to him about his research was like being trapped in a looped version of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. He really thought every song, comment and review was about him.


I learnt much from this man. The first take-home message was never to read book reviews of your own work. Ever. We must not mortgage our identity, scholarship or relationships with others by becoming threatened by and fixated on the views of one person at one moment in time.

The second lesson that has stayed with me is much more important. Intellectual integrity and generosity are crucial to the functioning of university life. It is necessary to respect the great scholars who have changed the world and shaped knowledge through their ideas. In having a dialogue with the past – the characteristic of the best scholarship – we find remarkable friendships between academics that have lasted throughout their lives and left a mark on knowledge.

Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, campaigners during the Vietnam War, have continued to speak together, support community organisations and write generously about each other’s work. Similarly, Chomsky had great respect for Edward Said, and his profound and evocative commentaries after the great postcolonial theorist’s death were erudite and poignant. Bryan Palmer’s expansive review of E. P. Thompson’s career in Objections and Oppositions was much more than what he described as “a memoir and a homage”. Palmer used the death of the great historian to capture other losses to collective struggle and resistance. These scholarly friendships – between Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas – matter more than promotion committees, publishing deals, royalty cheques and book reviews.

Musicians are much more generous to other sounds, performers and writers than academics. Music journalists always ask about “influences” that act as a form of sonic footnoting. While academics deploy a suite of references, our academic protocols focus on “original” contributions to knowledge, international “innovations” and “world-leading” research. Acknowledging our influences and derivations seems to discredit the (supposedly) profound impact of an article, book or disciplinary paradigm shift. Actually, such a recognition of the great writers and researchers who preceded us conveys the scholarly scaffolding that builds our intellectual lives.

Not surprisingly, a musical moment provides a model for our actions. In April 1989, Roger McGuinn was the support act for Crowded House on their Temple of Low Men tour of the US. He was a quick replacement for Richard Thompson, the former Fairport Convention guitarist, but he remembers it as “one of the most fun tours of my life! What a great band and great guys!” Historically speaking, it was certainly an odd ordering of performers. Crowded House had just released their second album, yet one of the most famous guitarists in the world – Roger McGuinn – was their warm-up act. What made the concerts unusual is that Crowded House broke convention and joined their supporting artist on stage for three songs, Eight Miles High, So You Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star and Mr Tambourine Man. They lost the big “Good evening, Los Angeles” opening to their set because they wanted to acknowledge the great musician in their presence.

On the Roger McGuinn blog, Camilla McGuinn (his wife) recalls the enthusiasm – the awe – expressed by Neil Finn, Paul Hester and Nick Seymour in having Roger McGuinn on their tour bus.

“Neil would ask Roger a musical question, then a Byrds question and then a ’60s question. The banter between Nick, Paul and Neil would cease as they reverently listened to the music sage answer their deeply inquiring questions of the times and music of the ’60s decade. I enjoyed watching their faces and wondered if my face still showed excitement when I was in the presence of someone who had made an impact on my life. As I write this I realise that these guys made a big impact on our lives. I was probably sadder when they disbanded than when the Beatles did and I’m thankful we will always have the memories of that magical tour in 1989.”

The generosity between the musicians needs to be replicated in our universities. The ruthless ambition of academics – seen most cuttingly in research assessment exercises, teaching validations and shortlisting for posts – is rarely as open and respectful as that dialogue on the tour bus.

At the height of Crowded House’s fame and popularity, Finn must have realised that whatever he accomplished with his band, it would never be as influential or important as the Byrds. Such a recognition is not a statement of sonic quality, but history. How many of our colleagues share this sense of perspective? Celebrating minor “successes” of academic life is the function of cascading clutches of webpages, blogs, online newsletters, global e-mails and marketing epistles. The academy would be much better served by celebrating the great scholars of the past who help us gain perspective in our present. The quietness and reflection of listening, thinking and reading, rather than talking, spinning and selling, must return and be valued.

Crowded House had listened to the Byrds through their musical apprenticeships, and they continued to listen to McGuinn as they climbed on stage to play with him. Even with Finn, Hester and Seymour as a “new” backing band, the performance of Mr Tambourine Man captures McGuinn’s intent on accuracy during live performances in the post-Byrds years. Unlike Dylan, he has never butchered the material or memories created from the time of his greatest fame. Year after year, concert after concert, he continues to transport a sonic pocket of the 1960s into the present. Crowded House allowed him to continue his role as a minstrelling incubator for another decade by learning these old songs with precision and care.

Even with an unfamiliar band, the Rickenbacker rings as clearly as during the Byrds’s height. Neil Finn, unaccustomed in a post-Split Enz manifestation to singing backing vocal, assumed the David Crosby harmony line as if it were the lead. It overwhelmed McGuinn’s voice at the start of the song. Finn, known as a perfectionist, had within one verse woven the Crosby-style vocal back through McGuinn’s delicate melody.

We know about this concert and sound only because of a wife’s desire to capture this special moment for herself. The three songs performed by the appropriately named ByrdHouse were recorded by Camilla McGuinn at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles on her Sony Walkman Professional. This Sony model was a high-quality portable analogue recorder capturing clear sound on cassette tapes. On the last night of the tour, Camilla let the Capitol A&R representative listen to her recordings. The quality was so high that the version captured on this analogue cassette was later released by the company. She reported that Capitol never paid any royalties to the McGuinns for these songs. But they remain of historical importance as one of the few sonic traces of McGuinn’s work during the 1980s.

Unfortunately, these remarkable recordings were released as buried “extra” tracks to one of the more uninspiring Crowded House singles, I Feel Possessed. It was packaged with a US CD single in September 1989. The other inclusions were on a German CD and an Australian 7-inch vinyl single, with Mr Tambourine Man as the B-side. It is listed in the “rarest” of Crowded House collectables.

Through this metaphoric B-side of life, we hear a moment when – to paraphrase another Neil Finn song – the seven worlds of music collide. A shard of the past lived in the present only to be buried in musical history once more. Tragically, with the suicide of Crowded House’s drummer Paul Hester in 2005, the “jingle jangle morning” of this special B-side is now sliced by the snare of death. The dream is over.

These tracks – recorded in analogue and pressed on to vinyl – have been lost to the downloading age. No samples are available online, and iTunes has no listing for these live tracks. They remain – like McGuinn’s vocal on Mr Tambourine Man – analogue, ephemeral and transcendent. But through an Antipodean band’s generosity – 25 years ago at the height of their fame – and Camilla McGuinn’s recognition of historic importance in this live performance, we have a sonic reminder of not only Roger McGuinn’s talent but the relationship between originality and derivation. While – after the documentary No Direction Home – McGuinn may be a footnote in an expansive history of Bob Dylan, Crowded House’s consideration and respect has meant that we have a trace of a momentary meeting of the ’60s and the ’80s, music and memory.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.


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