I wasn’t going to write the column I’m about to write. It’s going to cause me more of the trouble I’ve lately been experiencing, but the subject and the thoughts it occasions seem to have pushed everything else out of my mind. I don’t mean to prolong my headache, which is considerable. It could be that writing about it will offer some relief. Or maybe it will just make people mad at me all over again.
When I started The Syncopated Times fifty issues ago I might have intuited that I would be getting on a tightrope that probably wouldn’t hold me. My sense of balance has never been good, and here it turns out I’d have to maintain a state of equilibrium between reporting the facts (and generally calling them as I see them) and supporting artists and projects I admire without resorting to puffery.
What I didn’t bargain for was that my best intentions would often result in the worst reactions. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that Jazz is a wing of Show Business, however distantly removed from its main currents. Journalists (or those who style themselves such) forget that at their dire peril. Personalities and egos are operatic. If one holds up the mirror to a star at the wrong angle, one is likely to be ripped to shreds—at least psychologically.
The repercussions of casting an untoward reflection are not confined to explosions of verbal abuse by image-conscious celebrities, but include the bitter complaints of those who are emotionally invested in any beloved thing at all that may be discussed. This is not a good time to be an iconoclast—and I have to admit that sometimes I can’t help being a bad boy when I’m not being a merely clumsy one.
A few months ago I wrote a column with the title “The Road to Hell is Paved with Eggshells.” I’m here today to tell you that thoroughfare isn’t surfaced with just eggshells, but broken glass and land mines. Even when I mean well (which is most of the time), my maladroitness is enough to kill me. (And, by some lights, clumsiness is more offensive that actual evil.) When I am feeling devilish enough to say what I really think, I’m doomed.
In taking on this publishing endeavor, I flattered myself that I was close enough in appearance and demeanor to a Nostalgia Bro to pass among the tribe undetected. I’ve listened to tens of thousands of old records (on shellac and CD), enough to discern gold from guilty pleasures. I can smell an anachronism at fifty paces. I concur that movies were more fun before the Production Code went into effect. The shibboleth that smoked me out as not being a genuine Nostalgia Bro is that I find myself quite unable to praise a piece of popular culture merely because it is old. (Also, I never got around to acquiring a Hawaiian shirt.)
There are Nostalgia Bros whose friendship I cherish. Unfortunately, I’ve repeatedly strained those alliances because I am utterly unable to keep my trap buttoned—or to merely damn with faint praise—when confronted with a cultural artifact that makes my eyes roll. I can’t gush along with the choir. As such, I reveal myself to be a Fauxstalgia Bro, at best. I have to step outside the Church of St. Joe Franklin to cackle and hoot and blaspheme at the top of my voice.
I do regret the effect my raw heathenism has on my friends. Most days, I can tamp it down enough that it doesn’t influence what I do here. However, just as when I am with a Nostalgia Bro I can gab endlessly about the most subtle aspects of exquisite old recordings, when I encounter another unbeliever there is likely to be crockery thrown. That did happen recently.
I did not reckon that our little ruckus was going to cause hurt feelings. I was certainly complicit in the vandalism (of, in this case, a much-loved film), and encouraged it. I did not fully take into account that to some certain works of popular culture are seen as sacred. I have as much difficulty embracing that level of real Nostalgia as I do ecstatic religion or blind patriotism. If I were to choose my epitaph (if I merit one), it would be what Dvořák said of Brahms: “Such a man, such a fine soul—and he believes in nothing! He believes in nothing!”
I do believe in not gratuitously causing others pain, whatever my unsentimental impulses. Chief among those impulses is to let it out when I can’t hold it in any longer. No one (except perhaps my wife) has any idea of all the things I really wanted to say, but didn’t. I suspect all those nasty unspoken utterances will gang up on me and sublimate as a hernia. A hernia is still preferable to being shamed on the internet.
With my distaste for pure Nostalgia now declared, I begin to wonder if I am in the right trade. I wonder until I consider that it doesn’t really matter how I feel when I am doing a job that so far no one else has expressed a desire to do. That I am pledged to keep doing it bespeaks a certain level of Nostalgia (for the music we celebrate)—and belief in something (the medium of print), itself.
If one shows up on my doorstep with a monocle, a Hawaiian shirt, and a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, I will be sorely tempted to relinquish my post.