Wallace Wylie

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

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them featuring van morrison

The truth is, while British bands were playing Chuck Berry, embryonic American garage bands were cutting their chops on ‘Gloria’ by Them. In other words, rock music is a British creation that Americans subsequently copied. Bob Dylan named his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home in reference to the fact that British bands had shown Americans music from their own country that they didn’t know existed and now it was time for an American to take these influences back.

Black musicians were outcasts in their own country. They lived their lives on the sidelines instead of being treated like the musical innovators that they actually were. By claiming that rock music is authentic American music that only Americans are fit to play, David Thomas is reveling in unbearable ignorance. On the one hand, he casually appropriates the music of African-Americans and poor rural whites while on the other hand also claims ownership of this music on behalf of all Americans and disallows all non-Americans from participating. The actual music made by white people in the early 60s had almost no connection to the musical heritage America would soon discover. Thomas ignores the fact that the middle-classes scorned ‘race music’, ignores the political and cultural segregation that led to jazz and blues. He then claims that as a white middle-class male he has the right to pass judgment on non-American rock bands.

When reminded by Reynolds that there is really no such thing as American ‘blood’ and that America was and remains highly segregated Thomas makes perhaps his most startling claim of all. After Reynolds puts it to Thomas that America does not really have a ‘melting pot’, Thomas replies by saying:

Yes, we do. Only recently, since people like Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders have taken over, has it been less successfully melted.

In his greatest feat of arrogance, Thomas ignores the economic and social damage wrought by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and blames an African-American woman for making America a less integrated place! Only moronic middle-class thinking could leap to this kind of conclusion.

What proof does Thomas offer up of the connectedness of American music? Greil Marcus.

Images are created – seminal things like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard. I’ve written probably a dozen songs based on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Read Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’, it’s all about the passing on of communal images.

There you have it. Greil Marcus wrote about it in Mystery Train and it sure seems plausible so therefore it is undoubtedly historical fact. Marcus, ever determined to put a poetic, romantic spin on the music he writes about, has a habit of making dubious connections between songs that feel aesthetically pleasing but bear no resemblance to historical fact. Over-romanticising American history can lead a person to ignore what were very troubling realities. The 20s and 30s were not so much ‘Old Weird America’ but rather ‘Hellish Segregated Morally Repugnant Murderous Racist America’.

A black male living in the south in the 30s risked being lynched for even looking at a white woman in a way she or her husband found distasteful. Apparently, this was the ideal melting pot for America until Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders came along. What David Thomas has done in this interview, and in his thinking, is to allow white, middle-class America to take ownership of images, music, and emotions that did not belong to them. Separated by race and class, the music of early 20th century America came out of poverty, out of prejudice, out of spirit-crushing realities faced on a day-to-day basis, realities that white middle-class Americans need never face.

Art belongs to no particular group or class, however, and the nature of culture means that Art becomes the property of all. David Thomas, after appropriating music from out with his race and class, then condemns others for playing music that supposedly does not belong to them. I’ve read many interviews by musicians. Some show remarkable intelligence, some show a disappointing lack of wit. Never have I read an interview that has such ignorance, such stupidity, such thoughtless arrogance, as the one in Totally Wired with David Thomas. He insults the working-class by claiming they are all but incapable of making adventurous art (I’m sure Mark E. Smith would beg to differ), he insults African-Americans by appropriating their Art and claiming it for all Americans, he insults non-American rock bands, and he actually claims that an African-American woman is partly responsible for making America more segregated (this seems like a variation on the tired theme of ‘race problems would go away if we stopped talking about them’).

To be honest, I’d probably care more if Thomas weren’t so irrelevant, if his ‘career’ didn’t consist of two decent albums made decades ago. [Oi! – Ed] Yet the interview contains enough moronic thinking, the kind that often passes for fact in America and elsewhere, that I feel it is my duty to bring others’ attention to it. The fantasy world that David Thomas inhabits reeks of privilege and conceit. Perhaps I expected a bit more intelligence, a bit more individuality, a bit more adventurousness to his thinking. Then again, he is a white middle-class American male. We can’t expect too much.

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9 Responses to Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

  1. Erika May 1, 2012 at 12:19 am

    These discussions of “authenticity” – I have to ask, WHY do music critics care about this? It’s already obvious to me that people buy into all manner of story, myth, or “brand” in order to appreciate an artist or musician or type of music – but I would think critics at least would have the critical thinking skills to see that that is all relatively superficial. Why should it matter what style of music is played, or from what tradition, or by whom, if it comes from a genuine place within the individual?

  2. Erika May 1, 2012 at 12:38 am

    Ok I had to look up “authenticity.” Which according to wikipedia “refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.”

    There’s so many problems with the whole concept. For example an artist may be a full on liar about his/her origin while still being very sincere about the message coming through in the art. Does that make him/her inauthentic? Sometimes fiction overlays a deeper truth. Heck, isn’t that what art IS???

    AND it continues to be true that those who are most “authentic” – truthful, sincere, and rooted in a tradition – are rarely appreciated. Most fans would rather have a SOUND BITE. A BRAND. A MYTH. Something shiny. Something larger than life. A t-shirt. A slogan. A poster for the dorm wall.

    Seems to me that the authenticity stuff comes up mainly to justify an opinion already formed.

  3. Daniel May 1, 2012 at 3:33 am

    LOVE & THEFT is what we talk about when we talk about authenticity. I wish being poor or marginalized against gave some supernatural ability to make bitchin’ music, but such is not the case. What it does give you is a seldom heard voice, but it’s not piano lessons, Marlboro or Julliard. IMO, the Brits didn’t really do rock or blues “correctly”(in step with the prevailing orthodoxy of the genre), but that is irrelevant when discussing its merit as music.

    Everything borrowed is stolen and stolen again. There is no pure and unrooted music. We might hear a 60’s folk revivalist doing a rendition of “Gallow Pole”, thinking they’re covering Leadbelly, who in turn grifted lines from some poor unrecorded bastard who stole entire verses from a much older Lithuanian or Finnish folk tune heard from who knows where. New forms come from mistranslation.

  4. Stocky May 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    While I generally agree with Wallace and disagree with David Thomas, I find that this post tries to debunk myths that don’t really exist. The views of David Thomas are very peculiar. I’ve never heard anybody claim that The Beatles had middle-class origins before apart from those who argue, with good reason, against John Lennon’s self-appointed ‘working class hero’ status. In an age where I frequently see the word ‘white’ (i.e. middle class white) used as a synonym for ‘lame’, it is more common for working class to be associated with authenticity and middle class with inauthenticity. When Noel Gallagher says in the Live Forever doco that, compared to the members of Blur, coming from a working class background means that ‘that fundamentally makes my soul a whole lot purer than theirs”, he’s only half-joking. He knows he’s seen as the underdog with the upper hand over Private School Damon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLMc1aKuFWY

    Many artists (I’d say most) that (not necessarily romanticise but) depict working class life, from Charles Dickens to Mike Leigh to Gillian Welch, come from middle class ‘privileged’ backgrounds and I see no problem with this as – and I’m being very idealistic here, but – authenticity (a more appropriate word would be ‘the truth’) should derive from the art, not the artist.

  5. Orange October 22, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Of course rock ‘n’ roll can only be American. It’s like how Indian folk music can only be Indian, no matter how British hippies try to imitate it. You can’t authentically record someone else’s local music when you’ve spent your life half a world away. If you can’t feel a ting of pretentiousness while listening to England’s Newest Hitmakers, then something’s wrong with you. Music, when written with honesty, is entirely related to one’s physical setting. Maybe it’s that abandoned factory yard in Pullman, Illinois. Maybe it’s that molding motel somewhere in New Jersey. Or maybe it’s that rusting rail bridge alongside the Mississippi River in Davensport, Iowa.

    As for a Liverpudlian, though, he’s been breathing a different kind of air since the day he was born. He has to base rock music on his imagination and perception of a foreign land rather than on his own surroundings. Authenticity is therefore impossible. Just because a few English acts helped popularize the genre among American kids doesn’t mean they can pass for the real thing.

    The author also seems to stress the belief that David Thomas is claiming rock for -all- of America, implying that any American can do it. This cannot be further from reality. Thomas once said, quote on quote, that “…not everyone can do it.” He is aware that only a small percentage of the population, the truly talented and motivated, is able to make worthwhile music. He even went on call music a “nearly masonic craft.”

    It’s clear that the writer only possesses a very surface understanding of the Pere Ubu frontman, not having much knowledge beyond those few catchy tunes on The Modern Dance. ‘Cause that’s the only reason anyone would even dare to call his career “…two decent albums made decades ago.”

    I don’t usually go this far to defend someone I’ve never met before, but this article is just ridiculous.

  6. Ron January 17, 2013 at 10:53 am

    I don’t understand Thomas’s comment at all. In America, working class and middle class basically mean the same thing. My moms a low end lawyer who literally takes home less money than the unionized janitor at my manhattan high school, and my dads a construction worker. My dad makes more money than her. See the contradiction behind the myth of ” working class”?

  7. Itchoad January 27, 2013 at 1:49 am

    David Thomas works in polemics, he always has. Here is a person who has made 40 years worth of intractably offbeat music, most of it good to great. Wouldn’t you suppose a recalcitrant personality is fundamental to that?

    Every interview with him is prickly and antisocial. Of course he’s going to contradict any response the interviewer feels is appropriate or factual. You mention Mark E Smith in the article. Is he any different? How many outwardly perverse and offensive things has he claimed in interviews? Does it mean he always believes them?

    I think both David Thomas and Mark E Smith view the interview like they do standard pop music. Don’t give them what they expect. Maybe it will fall flat and come out alienating, all the better! Doesn’t change all the great music they’ve made.

  8. Minkawf September 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Thomas likes to say strange, apparently non-factual things. Not sure what to make of some of it, but as the previous commenter said, he’s been involved with 40 yrs of terrific music. I pay attention to that, not every weird word that comes out of his mouth.

    To say that he’s only done two good records is to just lazily repeat the lazy accepted view of dumb people without imagination or initiative. It’s embarrassing that you would write that.

  9. Geoff The Postman September 12, 2013 at 1:31 am

    “Musicians are liars and cheats. Don’t believe anything that a musician tells you. Stay away from them, they are scum.”
    – David Thomas speaking to a glove puppet.

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