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Bryan Curtis and a post-genre groove

The thing about metaphors that I like is the part where an important subject can kind of wear a costume and become easier to chew on and think about.

That doesn't have anything to do with Bryan Curtis.

Or...does it?

Cue dramatic music.

Bryan Curtis is a Barcelona-based drummer, but he struck me as one of these people that I've started thinking of as Citizens of the World, because they come from everywhere. Most recently before Barcelona, Bryan "came from" Canada. I don't know where from just before that, but at some point before that he "came from" Ireland. So after zig-zagging across the world for a while he ended up where he is, and it's made me wonder whether any of us are really from anywhere, and why that's such a big deal after all.

Which is not metaphorical.

What is metaphorical is genre distinctions. I mean that literally. Rock and roll is an interesting thing, because its whole history has occurred during the most historical period of human history. There's never been such a thing as mass media before, and so we've had this massive bulge of historical events. Not important ones, just recorded ones.

And as anyone who's spent five minutes with a human before can confirm, there's no documented professional opinion doesn't deserve at least one aggressive, often unqualified, counterpoint that is destined to be the beginning of yet another subculture.

That's us. We thrive on squabble. Things can't just be what they are, they need to be called something. If things are just existing that's no claim to being real. They also need to be labeled. They can't just be rocks. They need to be foliated metamorphic schistic gneiss. You can't just have rolls. You need to have gâteau de puits d’amour. Mere existence isn't enough. That's how we know we're human. We need labels to know we have power over nature.

So of course it isn't enough to just call it "music" when folk started formalizing their hill country jam session and performing for money. "Don't know. Just strangling a tune," didn't cut it when the journalist arrived to ask what you call this strange music.

So we arrive at the two wellsprings that watered the current mess that is rock and roll genre distinction: blues, and country western.

That's the simple beginning of rock and roll. After a hundred years that wellspring has branched out into ever more specific rivulets of distinction, because specificity must be the only tool for understanding. And now we know precisely the label that belongs to our music, and of course my genre is best, and I will actively shun all other demonstrably inferior genres because clearly there is a qualititative difference between my superior genre and every other genre, and the fact that other people like other genres is evidence of their insanity or wrong-headed-ness and not a clue about the possibility of varied intrinsic value.

Remember, this is not metaphorical.

The Post-Genre Groove

We live in a post-genre era. Musicians have a solid background in borrowing, mimicking, and downright stealing anything that'll make a good sound. Between about 1938 and 1968, genre distinctions were actually distinct. That fifty years, about, was the experimental era, when everything still needed to be invented. But by the time punk reacted to Beatlemania, most genres had been basically invented. Since then, genres have continuously blurred and bled together. Now we're either living in a world with so many genres that it hardly matters, or no genres but with a vague sense of some kind of platonic form of different genre sounds that musicians still bear in mind when they're laying down tracks and so it hardly matters.

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

It's interesting talking to a drummer about this because of where a drummer sits in the whole genre distinction argument, i.e., at the back showing up to work.

Bryan told me a story. He's a working musician in Barcelona, see, and he's a drummer. It's a smart thing to be if what you want to do is play a bunch of gigs, because who wants to be the drummer? Mythology says that drummers don't get the girls. Spartacus--Achilles--Leonidas of old--were all guitarists, according to mythology. Can you name a single drummer? No. You can't. Because they were all chilling in the background, literally, keeping time and just having a good time. Nobody remembers the drummer, which is why they're so colorful. They have to make an impression somehow, aside from as the loudest member of the band who's providing the infrastructure for the whole performance. Barring that small distinction, drummer is the least attractive job to your budding working musician.

Which is good news for anyone who likes the look of it. If you're a competent drummer and news gets around that you are, you'll get gigs. That's not so bad.

Bryan's a good drummer. He gets gigs. (Echoing Vanessa's Interview with Bryan last year)

He says they're mostly pretty good gigs too. He gets to play a lot of clubs with a lot of musicians, and that's a good time.

There is one brown spot on this good news apple: "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse.

"Valerie" isn't a bad song. If your Pandora station brings it up you won't experience an immediate gag reflex, which is how I judge an okay song. So "Valerie" is okay.

It is, however, one of about four songs that Bryan mentioned as pretty much inescapable songs in the Barcelona open mic scene. He mentioned a couple others, but "Valerie" has a special evilness because of the Genre Traitors of Barcelona.

When there are four songs that every group of musicians plays in the open mic scene, what feels good is if you can get with a group of guys who seem like they're not interested in playing those four songs--and in particular not playing "Valerie."

Bryan had got in with one such group of dudes. He was having a good time playing anything but "Valerie" and feeling like a real musician.

For a while, at least. Because one night the Genre Traitors of Barcelona, going for the cheap thrill, announced their intention: their next song would be "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse.

Bryan had a choice.

He knew that he could be like those musicians out there who declare that there are lines that no civilized musician ought to cross, and that "Valerie" is one of those lines past which lies barbarism, chaos, and a world of wine coolers and other sell-out type behavior. Prima donas, in other words, but there's a certain enlightenment to the prima dona code. They have their rules and they will not waver from them.

Or he could lay stick to drum and find a groove.

He decided option two. He decided to enjoy an evening with some mates making music and sharing an evening with the people gathered to share the night.

Bryan says that he doesn't always get to play the style of music that he likes best, but he said that's okay because the trade-off is that he gets to play a lot. Problems with style are a little different for a drummer than, like, a guitar player, maybe. A guitar player's kind of shackled to the key and melody that's there, and veering too far away from "Valerie" means you aren't playing "Valerie" anymore.

Drummer's don't have it quite that bad. Bryan says he can almost always find a groove, doesn't matter what the genre claims it thinks it is.

Share the Night

It's magical that at any time I like I can cue up and listen to Robert Johnson's album King of the Delta Blues Singers. It is nuts to have that as an option. I have a world of music either new or legendary at the whims of my fingers. There's a behemoth of a library of music the unlistened-to weight of which smothers my idle moments like a wasted summer day. As a lover of music, there are days I feel like all I should do is get onto Spotify and listen to new music for the rest of forever.

Then I go to a live gig and it reminds me of something.

There is an unrepeatable dimension in live music. Any live music has it. All performance of live music has a fullness and a realness unlike any other thing lived through. A gig is a tactile time. A gig's air has texture, and no two gigs have the same texture. Music subverts other kinds of communication, it bypasses thinking and speaks to bones. It gets a roomful of people all on the same ecliptic, and no one needs to discuss it. It gets your blood moving the same way.

Live gigs have that kind of quasi-psychic power.

Because in the final reckoning, we thrive on what we have in common.

Remember: not a metaphor.

That's what Bryan says, anyway. Not in those words exactly, but he says he likes live gigs best. The unrepeatable, shared night is a strange and remarkable thing.

Bryan Curtis is a drummer, but he's actually a really smart guy. Keep an eye out later this year for his all-percussion EP.

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