And where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?

Since the widespread electronic proliferation of journalism and information, opinions about music are abundant, free, and easy to find. Reviews of concerts abound, and insights and writings of The Public Writ Large are largely free for the reading. This has democratized things quite a bit, and is largely regarded as A Good Thing.

“So why have professional music critics at all?” one may well wonder. Why would any one pay to read someone’s review—or, indeed, pay someone to write one—when the same content is free and widely available?

The answer is simple, of course: it's not the same content. The keen insights and musical expertise of the savvy concertgoer, you see, do not always combine easily with a facility for (and love of) the bon mot. Even the best-intentioned casual amateur wordsmith and musical devotee cannot match the fragile excellence of the Professional Music Critic.

Witness with me now the peerless renderings of keen musical insight wrought in fine language by just such a professional.

Concert Review: Jethro Tull at Wolf Trap

Jacquie Kubin, The Washington Times

Ah, the Moonies. Surely their rigorous journalistic standards belie an old-fashioned devotion to the twin arts of writing and editing. Right?

Returning to the beautiful Filene Center stage at Wolf Trap Jethro Tull, 62 year old Ian Anderson fleet of foot and flute, recreated many of his greatest songs alongside his career long friend Martin Barre.

Already the lofty language does more than report, it communicates a sense of place and event. “Wolf Trap Jethro Tull’s” center stage must be fine indeed, as well as overjoyed to welcome the very band that contributed half its name!

The intricate prose then takes a rhapsodic twist when the fragment “long” (from the previously stated word “along”) makes an appearance, as an apparition, between “career” and “friend.” This asyntactic maneuver feints at the hyphenated compound-adjective construction “career-long friend” while simultaneously implying that Martin Barre is rather tall.

The evening was welcoming cool…

Ah, what a fanciful, evocative construction. Just when you think you know what the subject of a sentence is, you're wrong.

…after last week's heat wave and Wolf Trap was not only lush and lovely, but the people as nice as one expects from this heritage DC Metro Area venue.

Good weather for a show, and also the people were Nice! As one would expect; they are after all from the Nice Part of Town, I gather.

The evening begins with Gary Booker and Procol Harum (Geoff Whitehorn/lead guitar, Matt Pegg/bass guitar, Geoff Dunn/percussion and Josh Phillips/Hammond organ)…

The sudden change of tense transports the reader to the occasion and place of the concert, beyond the everyday boundaries of linear time. Furthermore, listing the band members in this casual, parenthetical, separated-by-slashes fashion gives the impression that one is typing reading from a press release concert program. It’s just like we were there alongside Jacquie!

…in their first stop on a 2010 fifteen venue tour.

Sorry, what? I think I lost my place.

The evening begins with Gary Booker and Procol Harum…in their first stop on a 2010 fifteen venue tour.

As the evening begins they...were…in their first stop? This bespeaks a clear vision wherein vowel choice in prepositions is largely a stylistic matter. And I’m not sure what a “venue tour” is, or why the band is on (in?) one from (apparently) 2010-15. I think?

…a 2010 fifteen venue tour

A philological fragment of carefully-constructed ambiguity, that. I mean, clearly. Right? Because, obviously, a professional writer with fifteen years of experience would only offer such an artistically-rendered sentence with both clear intent and the consent of one’s (presumably) eagle-eyed editor.

Silver haired booker sang ala Steve Winwood, with sheet music in place as the rest of the band provided a backbone that, with the overload of dueling keyboard and organ, might have been tough.

I’m having trouble with this sentence; my many years of reading and thinking about music have not prepared me for the deft mastery and complex wordplay at work here.

Silver haired booker sang ala…

Clearly the lead vocalist Gary Booker is not meant here, for “booker” is rendered in lower case. And “ala” must be some artfully infantilized onomatopoeia signifying nonsense musical syllables. Another feint at a compound adjective, but again sans hyphen. [Note to self: is this becoming a leitmotiv-like recurring fragment? Remember to investigate!]

Like poetry it reads.

Silver haired booker sang ala Steve Winwood,

with sheet music in place as the rest of the band provided a backbone that,

with the overload of dueling keyboard and organ,

might have been tough.

Weaving and bobbing impressionistically, implying without reporting. Such gorgeous prose, not afraid to take risks, boldly and openly flaunting not only bourgeois conventions of grammar and punctuation, but the very notion of linear narrative itself!

“Might have been tough.” Indeed.

I think it is safe to safe the guitarist Whitehorn was absolutely pleased to be on stage as he grimaced and grinned through his parts.

Is it ever really “safe to safe”? That’s the real question here; the existential skeleton of the hidden narrative of this avant-garde review is slowly revealing itself. "Review" hardly does justice; this work is more of an artistic gesture.

The group riffed through an approximate forty-five minute set…

We see, or rather are gently shown, how form and content act in concert. An approximate sentence reflects the approximate set. The organicism of the writing is stunning. Adverbs would have been the easy way out.

…that included "Once we had a Highway," "One eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past," "The Devil Came from Kansas," "Pandora's Box," "A Salty Dog," the audience favorite "Whiter Shade of Pale"…

We are made keenly aware of which words designate the names of songs; they are set off in quotation marks. Why, therefore, should one strictly stick to commonplace capitalization rules? With the burden of the naming-work clearly carried by punctuation, the choice of which words to capitalize (or not!) becomes merely another free play of style for the adept wordsmith. Witness:

"Once we had a Highway"

Verbs aren’t even nouns. Why should they be capitalized? The same goes for pronouns; who do they think they are, anyway?

"One eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past"

The “eye” on the future isn’t properly a being at all, and its lower-case status reflects its essence as becoming and not being (all Gang and no Satz, if you will), while the “Eye” on the past is fully articulated and present-determined, and therefore capitalized.

Thus is struck into stark relief the radical contingency and arbitrariness of our “real” rules and conventions for written communication. Real writers—artists, if you will—need no such strictures. Every withheld stroke of the shift key neuters the suffocating patriarchy of the cultural elite Rule Makers, who would even tell us which words are worthy of capitalization. Every gesture by the true, bold writer is the new tradition.

…and closing with the obscure "Kaleidoscope" from the band's first self-titled album (1967).

It should now be obvious that the author is also no novice to all things Prog Rock; not just everyone knows how many self-titled albums Procul Harum released. And while it would have been simple—perhaps trivial—enough to write “album of 1967,” the parenthetical citation “(1967)” invokes scholarly reference styles and admits that, yes, the academy is welcome here as well, further testifying to the broad scope whence flows this sagacity.

The band raised a bit of the late 60's era consciousness with a new bit of song, "War is Not Healthy,"

The delicious repetition of the word “bit” within a ten-word span re-emphasizes the plosive phoneme “b.” Obviously, this rhymes with “p” which stands for “pool”, yes—but also for “prose style.” And “is” is such a small word; although technically a verb, it looks like it could possibly be a preposition, and therefore may safely (but, ironically, at the same time radically) in lower case. The social commentary implied is both profound and clearly communicated: We the socially undercapitalized must rail against our capitalized/capitalist masters, and rally as many as possible to join our cause. Death to the capitalization police and their fascist corporate masters!

…a song that stands out not only for it being something entirely different but also as it is not instantly recognizable as Procol Harum.

The song was not only entirely different but also not instantly recognizable. On the surface this may seem redundant, yes, but closer reading reveals a subtler distinction.

The sentiments of this 2003-hard driving ballad would be as appropriate in 1969 as in 2010.

This simple insight is breathtaking in its wisdom. War, it makes one think, really is not healthy, not one bit. I am transported through time, across oceans and over mountains to a higher plane—a plane where people realize war is bad.

The predominantly older audience, with a few kids sprinkled in here and there, most of the young ones out with "dad" for the night, politely received Procol Harum, but they were obviously there for Jethro Tull.

Here the instinctive discretion of the seasoned writer is obvious, but the principled journalist must at least nod to the darker truths. I am referring, of course, to the punctuationally-marked “dad” which indicates obliquely that most of the “kids sprinkled in” were underage sex workers. Tactful and beautifully rendered; delicate, yet necessary.

Mr. [Ian] Anderson bounded, danced, and pranced throughout the one hour twenty minute set.

Why tarnish a sweet string of temporal description with conventional, and, strictly speaking, unnecessary hyphenated baggage? Usage is as usage does.

His energy was exuberant for a man decades younger than his years.

And here we see, finally, the real impetus of this review/manifesto: classic rock nostalgia tours force us to confront the widening gap between reality and the Lacanian real. “Age is a state of mind” may seem a trite message, but only to the city fathers who wag their fingers and stroke their beards and cluck their tongues, muttering “What’s to be done about this rock and roll business?”

In trade mark style, he was warm and jovial with the audience, peppering the performance with anecdotes and stories about the songs and the band.

It would seem that this “mark” was traded for a guitarist to be named later, a move which both reflects and undermines the free-market capitalist underpinnings of the music industry. A deft analysis that cuts to the quick.

Band mate for the last forty-plus year,

This is clearly a veiled condemnation of our backwards-looking stance on same-sex unions, cleverly disguised as a compositional error: “banned mate” would be a little too on point, no? This repressive trauma, however, has taken its toll on the would-be plural “year.”

…Martin Barre easily commanded the stage and audience with chops that have not degraded with time.

It is only the keenest musical insight that recognizes when musicians improve with four decades’ practice.

Breaking into Aqualung, striking each powerful chord with perfection brought the audience to their feet with grand appreciation for this master of the six-string.

“Aqualung,” being Tull’s best-known song, requires no nominally-indicative quotation marks to flaunt its titular status. Only a pedantic and banal writer (such as your humble narrator) would stick to a clearly-established (if arbitrary) naming convention one had articulated earlier in the article.

Jethro Tull's music has long been an mélange of musical styles incorporating American blues, jazz, Celtic, and folk along with a bit of classical influence.

Ah, the coup de grace. No longer content to merely prevent unsightly vowel elision (a bourgeois concern if there ever was one), the consonant-laden article “an” has been elevated to an higher status, one wherein any foreign or fancy technical word may take the enhanced particle to signify class or importance.

What are words, anyway? Words have their own life. They don’t follow your rules.

Never knowing the direction any one song may take makes enjoying the body of work presented so much more fulfilling.

Furthermore, utterly misunderstanding and misrepresenting the genre-bending (if occasionally tedious) polystylistic meanderings of Jethro Tull is clearly a moral and artistic choice rather than a sign of willful ignorance and depraved indifference to any musical sense.

The set wound in and around their library including the powerfully bluesy New Day Yesterday,

Yes! Stand athwart your own naming conventions! Become the ruling body!

…with Anderson on harmonica and his sardonic style playing to the songs sultry style.

Prose style is about so much more than appropriate placement of (so-called) “words” and a basic understanding of the punctuation rules governing possessives, don’t you think? Speak it!

Closing with the encore Locomotive Breath enhanced by two of those large 70's arena style balloons left the very polite group quickly leaving the center happy to have had the chance, once again to spend an evening with the lads.

And, finally, the practice of omission or inclusion of commas to divide sentences into comprehensible phrases is, in the final analysis, stripped of its oppressive imperialist power and demoted to impotent, decorative status. Balloons full of nitrous oxide make for a mellow crowd indeed.


Perhaps this close reading comes across as far-fetched, or even implausible. Given, though, that the only real alternative is to conclude that we must convene an international tribunal to address the worst crime ever perpetrated in the English language, allowances must be made.


Anonymous said...

How about this sentence from the review at hand? "The sentiments of this 2003-hard driving ballad would be as appropriate in 1969 as in 2010."

This left me wondering if a "driving ballad" might be a sort of road song, one to sing while driving an automobile, such as "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall"?

I'm baffled by "2003-hard" -- I hope that there is a professional music critic who can explain this to me. :-)


Excellent deconstruction. Please keep up the fine work! When we accept mediocrity, it becomes the norm.

Sator Arepo said...

Indeed. The numerical-alphabetic hyphenation is a rare chimera indeed. Well said.

(In the end, I left things out because my own post was getting long and repetitive.)

Jim said...

Excellent piece. Even our small-town paper doesn't abuse the language quite as much as this "review" did.
Oddly enough, I had read the original piece before coming across your excellent "deconstruction", and at that time, I scarcely noticed the profusion of grammatical gaffes.
I used to think I was pretty picky about language, but I'm afraid that my failure to notice the errors on my own might mean that I am really becoming accustomed to them, since they are so common in published material.

I think I yammered on way too long, but I really did enjoy your writing. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the funniest deconstructions I have read on the DR! I couldn't stop laughing.

Keep up the good work guys and enjoy a song from my childhood:



(Wow, that looks like it could have come from a spammer!)