Without a doubt, one of the most endearing characteristics of the rock music I love is its grittiness, its stubborn refusal to fade into comfortable background noise.
This grit comes in many forms. Often it is a quality of the voice - a coarsening of the timbre or the stretching and bending of notes that characterizes the blues. Often it is linked to the subject-matter – someone daring or bothering to look for material where no-one had looked before - but sometimes it’s simply a function of the irrepressible energy in the music, as it was with early rock ‘n’ roll.
Sometimes it is austere, as in Waits at his noisiest. (Once, when I threatened that Waits’ clanging Orphans box would be my ideal desert island listening, Barbara responded, “Well, then, I hope it’s a large island …”, though she later relented). But I have an almost equal passion for Bruce Springsteen, whose rousing version of rock ‘n’ roll is democratic in its sound as well as in its politics, and filled arenas in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties without losing its integrity. Springsteen has always had a gift for combining his harrowing tales of hope and despair with catchy songs, causing Ronald Reagan to use “Born in the U.S.A.” for his 1984 election campaign, not realizing that it was about a disaffected Vietnam veteran.
Certainly it favours the unsentimental. Cape Town poet Gus Ferguson, a master of understatement, summed up the trouble with over-emotional poetry in an immortal couplet that will do as well for music: “He reads with feeling: / It’s not appealing.”
Speaking of feelings, for an example of what I’m talking about compare Celine Dion’s monumental My Heart Will Go On from the Titanic Soundtrack and the final song on Warren Zevon’s last album, 2003’s The Wind, recorded as he was struggling against the cancer he knew would kill him. Keep Me In Your Heart is a model of unsentimental honesty, just two guitars and simple percussion: “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / Keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave it doesn’t mean I love you any less / Keep me in your heart for a while.” Then he launches into a “sha-la-la” chorus that sounds like a singalong, but something in the unassuming production keeps you at a slight distance before that “for a while”, repeated over and over like a mantra, finally sinks in.
The difficulty with grit is that it resists being captured on record. The temptation to get everything just right is often too much for artists, producers and engineers alike.
There’s a song called The Road Past the View from our Wrestling the Angel album in which I can often hear traces of grit. It’s about a man traveling at speed towards something unknown. A refrain goes through his head: “She’ll be the death of you / She’ll be the death of you.” We were stuck for a long time finishing that song. My piano rendition of it was too genteel, and in the end I moved onto a keybord organ, which I couldn’t play, in an attempt to trick myself into finding where the song wanted to go. In the end we recorded it very quickly, in two or three takes as I remember. When we listened back to it, our sound engineer activated two different vocal takes by mistake, and the result sounded so inspired that we kept it that way.
You have to surprise yourself if you want to surprise other people.