Rick Moody's On Celestial Music is shamefully autobiographical
On Celestial Music
By Rick Moody. Back Bay, 439 pp, softcover
On Celestial Music is variously superficial, vexing, incomplete, out-of-date, and shamefully autobiographical. I’d recommend it highly for anyone interested in sound.
Yes, I know this seems paradoxical. But what makes these “adventures in listening” matter is that most of the arguments in these essays are delivered with eloquent passion and considerable insight. Moody, a novelist best known for The Ice Storm, cares deeply about music. And even if some of his theories are questionable, his obsession is so rare these days that it is to be cherished.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that the character who emerges in the essay “Guilty Pleasures” seems shockingly, painfully familiar.
“My broken, lost, somewhat hopeless, drug-addled younger self wanted to feel that there was more to life than being overlooked or oppressed by the fortunate and graceful striving past him in and out of school,” Moody writes. “And this is how he did it: he learned everything there was to learn about these reviled pieces of culture with their bombast and their excess and even, yes, with their occasional bits of genuine feeling, and he hung around with other misfits who made this indefensible nonsense their thing. Then he waited for the winds to change.”
I still love King Crimson and Gentle Giant, too, even if the winds have not yet changed.
Not all of On Celestial Music is as self-referential, or as self-flagellating. There’s a beautiful profile of Meredith Monk, an astonishing creator who has been largely overlooked, and an insightful look at Lounge Lizards founder John Lurie, whose immense talent was sabotaged by bad luck and worse decisions. There’s also a brief and brave memoir of being a fumbling rock guitarist at a music camp otherwise populated by young virtuosos, and a long and layered investigation of the Who’s Pete Townshend.
It’s brilliant stuff. But then there’s a potted history of New York City’s rock ’n’ roll underground that’s so banal it wouldn’t rate a two-page spread in Mojo. Also dubious—although erudite and entertaining—is a long anti-electronics screed, the gist of which is that drum machines are an abomination to God.
As the kids say, WTF?
Yet, if Moody occasionally paints himself into a rhetorical corner, it’s because of his visceral connection to music. For that, he’s forgiven.