“There’s not enough music in that music.” That was the best I could do, this hopelessly circular critique, when trying to explain to an old friend why I hadn’t appreciated Bob Dylan when we were young. Anti-Zimmerman sentiment was sacrilege, then as now, and I never made a point of broadcasting my disdain. The critical climate that Dylan’s work engendered – much like the Velvet Underground’s – seemed, by some sort of Teflon miracle, to shift the scrutiny from the music to the listener. If you don’t like it, the fault is yours: an irremediable deficiency of both depth and cool.
But my problem wasn’t with depth or cool. Those things don’t actually exist. My problem was one of imbalanced perspective. I was too involved with the music within the music. The action and the emotion, for me, went down in the innards – in the interlocking of arrangement, counterpoint, harmonic movement. My attentions dwelt there even before I knew those words, often to the neglect of the whole, the Gestalt, the song.
So instead of Dylan, I enjoyed the comparative musical opulence of worthy peers like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell; but I also obsessed over the instrumental latticework of Kansas and other quasi-spiritual blowhards when I could have been acquainting myself with…I dunno, Townes Van Zandt or Richard Thompson. Well, I can’t hate myself for this. It was natural affinity that made me this way, not pretense. I grew up in a house where Bach was played 24/7. That wired me a certain way, without my permission.
When I listen to the Feelies, the legendary Hoboken band whose membership will be reuniting in several alternative configurations at Backstage Studio Productions (BSP) in Kingston on Saturday, January 19, I come face-to-face with these limits of my taste. The Feelies were a band that I rejected at first blush. I remember feeling that external, Velvet Underground-like pressure to dig it or be square. (I remember feeling that about heroin, too; glad I held the line on that one.) I nosed around the Feelies’ genuinely important first record, Crazy Rhythms, dug the jumpy rhythmic energy (which seemed of a piece with Talking Heads, but less comic) and the dry, serrated Telecasters, but couldn’t find my nourishment therein. There wasn’t enough music in that music.
The lesson of the Feelies, which I missed at the time, is one of reduction and clarification. I get it now. It is rock music after a harsh corrosive has been applied to burn away all the accumulated manners, gestures and doilies of rock music – all my precious doilies! What is left can sometimes seem brutally minimal and dry, or it can seem like exposed, skeletal strength and truth.
On January 19, Yung Wu will perform, a long-running Feelies rearrangement in which percussionist Dave Weckerman steps to the front as singer/songwriter. While every bit as bare and spare as Feelies Central, Weckerman’s songs and delivery are possessed of a naïve, plainspoken sweetness that is a bit of a warm variation on the Feelies’ theme. In his voice you hear real vulnerability – the vulnerability of someone who, by some standards, perhaps shouldn’t be singing, but who is going to set his voice to these sweet melodies anyway, for all it’s worth. In the absence of doilies, of internal minutiae, you are forced to zoom out to Gestalt-level and take this music in as one thing, one collective intent. Weckerman’s lumbering charm and humanity make this kind of easy.
So I found my own way home to the Spartan joys of the Feelies’ take on pop (though I still love practically every fussy and precious Baroque pop band that comes out), but I would like to apologize to the guys for missing the gist the first time around. It’s great stuff, and still very alive with its original rock reformers’ purpose.
Yung Wu will be joined by East of Venus – a Hoboken-scene all-star collective that is soon to release a new album – and Wild Carnations, a fusion of Feelies and Speed the Plough members. That Hoboken sound, all its challenges and its charms, will be in full effect.
Night of the Living Feelies: Yung Wu, East of Venus, Wild Carnations; Saturday, January 19; 8 p.m., $12/advance, $15/door, 18 & over, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 481-5158, www.bsplounge.com.