The 33 1/13 Author Q&A: Kevin Dettmar

Kevin, 33.3Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

Next Up: Kevin J. H. Dettmar, who holds the position of W. M. Keck Professor of English at Pomona College in California (where he is, among other things, department chair and colleague to fellow 33 1/3 scribe Jonathan Lethem). Kevin is the author of Is Rock Dead?, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, and co-editor of Reading Rock & Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics. If his pop culture pedigree wasn’t enough, he’s also a James Joyce specialist. And if one were inclined to play Kevin Dettmar trivia, one might find this little gem, which sounds straight out of a Lethem novel (if you ask us): “My mother went on the old TV game show The Hollywood Squares and won (among other things) a Kimball organ; and I took lessons for a couple of years from Laurie Partridge’s (Susan Dey’s) teacher—she lived in the neighborhood. But those rumors of our torrid affair have been blown way out of proportion.”

For 33 1/3, Kevin is diving headfirst into UK post-punk pioneers Gang of Four’s seminal 1979 album Entertainment!

What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Kevin Dettmar: I’d always known Entertainment! would be on the short list for a project like this. But getting from a short list to just one album to pitch was tough. In the end, I realized that Entertainment! was simply the record that meant, and continues to mean, the most to me of any I’ve ever known—and no one had yet written a 33 1/3 about it. Part of its power, I know, is that it came out at just the right time—my brain was ready to do the work it required me to do. Thirty-plus years later it keeps giving my brain a workout, as writing the book has reminded me rather powerfully. I think that as a young man I’d always been searching for “smart” rock: the progressive rock of Yes, Genesis, ELP, Van der Graff Generator, etc., got me through high school. But when I first heard Entertainment!, I recognized that it was something different. It was brainy rock that was both powerfully musical and lyrically sophisticated. Much as I loved it at the time, that’s just not something I could say with a straight face about [Yes’s] Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
KD: I managed to get in touch with all Four of the Gang, and have now been able to conduct interviews with each of them—Hugo Burnham in Boston (where he now lives and teaches at the New England Institute of Art and Endicott College), Dave Allen (Director of Interactive Strategy for North, a marketing and advertising firm in Portland, Oregon), Jon King (Managing Director of the advertising firm Story Worldwide in London), and Andy Gill (an independent music producer in London; he is however, in the middle of writing a new Gang of Four album, and they have a busy upcoming tour schedule). I was terrified—I’m not a journalist, don’t have a lot of experience conducting interviews, and was afraid they’d eat this egghead alive. I’m much more comfortable writing about dead folks. But they were tremendous, each of them: warm and engaged and helpful, and seemingly delighted with the prospect of being immortalized in a 33 1/3. I’m so glad I screwed up my courage and did it. The meetings felt more like conversations that “interviews”: we talked about the record, the music, the ideas, the scene in 1979 … but they were as eager to hear from me as I was from them. I think it was while I was talking with Jon King over lunch and a pint in a gastropub in Saffron Hill when it finally dawned on me why we were all getting on so well: we’re all middle-aged men now, after all. We’re too old for rock & roll posturing, every one of us.

Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another? Be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
KD: I had the good fortune to have an early draft of my proposal read by someone who recognized that I was “burying the lead.” Jonathan Lethem is a colleague and friend in the English department at Pomona College, and since he had a 33 1/3 under his belt (Talking Heads’ Fear of Music), I was eager to get his reaction. And Jonathan sat me down and argued pretty forcefully that what had been a minor point in that draft—my argument that we need to pay attention to our misunderstandings of rock songs, that their inscrutability is one of their constitutive features—was too important to bury. He was right: Jonathan gave me the courage to recognize the importance of those little misunderstandings, and to realize that they actually constitute an important element of the politics of a band like Gang of Four.

“I was terrified—I’m not a journalist, don’t have a lot of experience conducting interviews, and was afraid they’d eat this egghead alive. I’m much more comfortable writing about dead folks.”

What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
KD: My sense is that when a band is labeled “political,” rock writing tends to fall into certain platitudes about the music that I find pretty frustrating. And bands fall into those platitudes, too: as exciting as I find some of their music, for instance, there’s finally something a bit two-dimensional, almost cartoonish, about the politics of bands like Rage Against the Machine and Fugazi. There’s nothing simplistic about Gang of Four’s politics—and I admire the way they found a sophisticated musical and lyrical style in which to practice those politics. Political rock also always runs the risk of falling into preaching—writing what Dylan came to call “finger-pointing songs.” That kind of writing, too, is of limited interest to me—and I think it’s potential to influence the thinking of listeners is also quite limited. What I find so striking about the songwriting of Gang of Four, all these years later, is the way that the songs—which come out of a very engaged and intelligent politics—still leave room for a listener to make discoveries, rather than just to be lectured. You’d never know it, though, from some of the press coverage, which seemed to assume that simply slapping the label “Marxist” on the band and its music told you everything you needed to know.

What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
KD: Oh, geez: I’ve probably read half of them at this point! Weirdly, my experience so far is that I tend to like best those that make an artist come alive that I don’t otherwise care for or care about. I know that it’s the most popular book in the series, but Carl Wilson does this so beautifully in his 33 1/3 about Celine Dion. (In another arena, Chuck Klosterman almost made me care about 80’s hair metal in Fargo Rock City.) By the same token, unfortunately, often the books I find most disappointing are those about albums that have meant the most to me. Discretion requires that I leave those unnamed. Although Douglas Wolk’s book on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo manages to get me excited about an album that I’ve long treasured. And Jonathan’s Fear of Music book does a wonderful job, I think, of putting the writer/listener at the center of the experience of hearing the music, without letting that listener get in the way of the music. I hope I’ve managed that balance myself in my 33 1/3: I’m writing from my very personal experience of and engagement with the music, but in a way, I hope, that communicates something more universal about the record.

What was your first concert?
KD: Hmm. I’m pretty sure it was Yes at Anaheim Stadium, July 9, 1976—the Relayer tour. Patrick Moraz and Alan White rather than Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford, for those who care about such things. I remember standing there in the infield with my friend Ian, both of us kind of freaking out as they played “The Gates of Delirium,” both of us screaming “On … to … Hell!” on cue. Opening acts: Peter Frampton, Gentle Giant, and a guy named Gary Wright, who had a hit with “Dream Weaver” and whose gimmick was that he wore a keyboard around his neck like a lame guitar. Frampton’s gimmick we all know….

How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
KD: These days, it’s approaching 100% mp3: I buy CDs and rip them to my iTunes library. The reason is fairly simple: I’m a college teacher and a literary and music critic, and most of my waking hours are spent in front of my laptop. Every piece of music I own is on my hard drive, and accessible instantly. I have all the CDs, but mostly for archival purposes at this point. And vinyl: though I respect my friends and students who feel quite differently about this, I’ve never been able to get excited, since the 80s when we were able to leave it behind, about vinyl. I’ll just go ahead and admit that the only difference my ears can hear between an mp3 and an LP is the surface noise of the LP. And I don’t miss that.

Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
KD: How about one lyric for each? a) “The problem of leisure / what to do for pleasure….” That’s the opening couplet of “Natural’s Not in It,” and I write a bit about it in the book, so I don’t want to spoil anything. But to my college-age self, hearing the lead singer of a rock band suggesting that “leisure” constituted any kind of problem really messed with my head. b) The most memorable thing about hearing the album for the first time really wasn’t lyrical, but instrumental: Andy Gill’s howling, cacophonous feedback solo at the start of “Anthrax.” But certainly the terror of that music lent a kind of seriousness and urgency to the anti-love-song lyric: “Love will get you like a case of anthrax / And that’s one thing I don’t want to catch.” c) Now that the writing of the book’s nearly done, I find myself chanting, as Jon & Andy do at the end of “Return the Gift”: “Please send me evenings and weekends!” I’ll be grateful to get them back.
Next Time:  Nicola Dibben on Bjork’s Biophilia. Stay tuned!

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