Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fan Mail From A Philosopher

Last month, for the first time, I did something I'd long and often thought about -- but never actually decided to do -- to write a fan letter.  Or, really, since it's on a relatively small card, I suppose one could call it a fan note.  To many metalheads -- even among those who know me well -- it might appear a rather odd gesture, not so much in its origins or its expression, but rather in its object.

I wrote what is in effect a kind of note of appreciation -- on the same embossed "Dr. Gregory B. Sadler" stationary that I normally reserve for expressions of gratitude or friendship, confined primarily to academic and institutional recipients -- and I mailed it off back in October to a Mr. Ian Hill, Bassist, of Judas Priest. 

One might wonder, not so much at the gesture, but more about why I singled out that particular bandmember.  Or why that particular bass player.  Some time ago I wrote a post enumerating (and explaining my reasons for their selection) ten of the long-axemen I considered most important and influential in the history of metal. But Ian Hill wasn't numbered among them.  So, why write to him?

Ian Hill: Simply A Great Metal Bassist

I've long loved Judas Priest as a band.  I can't say that I actually have a favorite metal band anymore (and if I had any favorite band. . .  well, it would be a metal band) -- back when I did, in my teens and twenties, it was Iron Maiden.  But I can say that there's a kind of pantheon, a pleiade -- in the classical senses of those terms -- of acts that I never hesitate to play once again and listen to, sometimes just enjoying or appreciating, sometimes marking something still new to me I'd missed in all my previous listening.  Among them, I'd still place Iron Maiden, along with Motorhead, the (up to Love at First Sting) Scorpions, Accept, Black Sabbath, Rainbow -- and of course, Judas Priest.

We got to see Priest again very recently -- last month, in New Jersey -- on their tour for the Redeemer of Souls album.  We'd seen them on their last "farewell" tour, driving all the way out to Reading, Pennsylvania (I wrote a bit about that show at the time in one of my other blogs, Orexis Dianoētikē).  They were touring already with a replacement for K.K. Downing (Richie Faulkner), and Rob Halford definitely had to pace himself -- both in movement and in his vocal performance -- through the long show.  One of the things that particularly struck me at that time, however, was Ian Hill's outright defiance of the effects of age.

In that show, as in the one which we just saw, the only time that I saw Hill stand still -- most of the time, if not actually headbanging (which he did some of the time), he had his bass in constant motion as he plucked and hammered at the strings -- was during lulls between songs.  This is a man in his early sixties -- and he could take it easy if he wanted to, but clearly he doesn't, and in his sheer energy, reliability, and enthusiasm, he reminded me of nobody more than Udo Dirkschneider (who we also saw in recent years, discussed here) -- grizzled, greyed, but still entirely committed to making metal for the fans.

People often downplay Ian Hill as a bassist I think, by setting him next to figures such as Iron Maiden's Steve Harris, Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister, or Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler (all of whom ended up -- no surprise there -- in my own top 10).  To some degree, I suppose that is natural -- these are all bands that jockey for position among the best that classic metal had to offer, and each of those bassists makes distinctive contributions to the root sounds and riffs of the groups they anchor.

It probably doesn't help matters to be in a band that includes a luminary larger-even-than-larger-than life frontman like Rob Halford, or the kind of guitar duo that Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing were until recently.  It would be easy to recede a bit into the shadows . . . particularly for a bassist.  But, if you listen across the Judas Priest body of work -- and you don't have to strain yourself to hear this -- you'll quickly notice how essential Hill is to the very fabric of their compositions.

In many of their songs he acts as genuine rhythm-section "glue" -- in that respect, comparable to AC/DC's Cliff Williams, Accept's Peter Baltes, or The Scorpion's Francis Buchholz.  But like many of these great, less often recognized metal bassists, he's often doing far more than merely playing root notes, or echoing the main riff in a lower register -- he's a master of the minimalist, don't-call-attention, texture-adding fill and of bass note as punctuation.  And, what could some of their songs -- particularly early works like "The Rage" or "Beyond the Realms of Death" -- be without the melodic lines Hill's bass established, carrying the rest of the band along with him?

Reflections on Music, Metal, and His Role

Over the years, here and there -- going all the way back to when I'd purchase and page through Circus and Hit Parader at the supermarket as a teen -- I'd read a few interviews with Ian Hill.  Being a pretty typical hold-it-down, keep-it-all-together behind the scenes bassist -- rather than a frontman like Blackie Lawless, Lemmy Kilmister, or John Gallagher -- Hill tended to get less press than Halford, Tipton, and Downing.  I suspect that in my adolescence, I was hardly in a position to do much thinking about what he did get to say back then anyway.

In more recent interviews though, he's struck me as the kind of thoughtful person, reflective about the music he helps produce and about his own role in it, with whom I'd welcome -- and likely greatly enjoy -- a chance meeting or a conversation.  Much of classic metal has turned out, to many people's surprise, to have matured, to have aged quite well.  We can look at that in terms of the music itself, the compositions, the performances.  But we can also look at that -- and this perhaps is even more interesting -- in terms of the persons involved.  I don't mean the larger than life characters or personas -- but rather the actual persons practicing, developing, exhibiting, and eventually attaining mastery of a kind of craft.

One of the most interesting interview is a recent one -- ostensibly discussing the new album Redeemer of Souls.  Two passages stood out to me in particular.  In one, Hill reflects upon what has in effect occupied and shaped two thirds of his lifetime -- his career with Judas Priest.
. . . I look back with a deep sense of privilege really. I am extremely lucky I have been able to do what I do….and make some money from it. Like a living, you know, and to still enjoy it and be enthusiastic about it after all this time. 
That realization, or you might call it, sentiment, is one which I've heard echoed by quite a few of the bands and musicians whose work spans decades back into the classic era, when they were young, hungry, often quite wild -- there's a measure of perspective that has been attained, at least by many, particularly by those who have soldiered through the lean years to some sort of renewed success.

The other particularly interesting observation -- touching on several points which bear some further discussion in later blog posts -- has to do with what has happened to metal as a genre of music:
It seems to have fragmented hasn’t? Not just how we see it but the verses and the ballads and anthems have changed. The commercial scope also has changed. It seems that it has gotten a lot angrier, but the commercial audience has increased just the same even though it was never really designed that way. It seems to have fragmented but it is all heavy metal.
In response to the interviewer's suggestion, "It is like the sub-genres have diluted the genre itself": Hill responds:
I think that is right. All those bands and avenues are all regarded as heavy metal. I think one of the aspects that has changed is the softness and commercial aspects of it. It seems that it has to be loud and angry or it isn’t considered metal. It was never like that originally.
Several other interviews strike me as particularly interesting, and since I want to quickly move into another related topic, I just list them for you here (though some of them pick up and amplify the themes of the passages just cited):


 What Is The Point To Fan Mail?

As I remarked, I've never actually sent out any fan mail to musicians before.  I've written to other people in the philosophy racket whose presentations or works I particularly liked and found not only useful or on-point, but inspiring.  I actually helped my daughter years back pen a letter to Stan Lee (to which we never received any response -- a tough lesson about celebrity and fans for a three-year old!).  I've shouted and sang, thrashed and headbanged, at many a concert.  And my wife and I are even card-carrying members of the KISS Army . . . . but like I noted, it never did occur to me to actually sit down and write a note to a band or to a musician.

You have to wonder about just what happens with fan mail.  There's one obvious constraint that even in our current technologically enhanced society imposes itself upon any possibilities for communication -- the one resource none of us can ever get any more of, and can't get back whether we spend it or just allow it to pass -- time.  Any conversations, even one-sided or purely imaginary ones, require and consume time.  So, how do stars divvy out their time for fan mail -- or do they even do so?

I can't imagine given the sheer volume of mail that many musicians must have received in their heydays that they could have glanced at more than a tiny proportion of the fan mail sent to them.  I'd guess -- and this is probably something I ought to research, since it likely would yield some interesting observations -- that bands or individual musicians must employ staff who at the very least open, skim, and then send off some previously formulated responses to the fans who wrote to them.

It sounds rather cold, mechanical, businesslike when one puts matters like that -- but it's actually a quite reasonable thing to do.  Even if a prominent metal musician were to devote one hour a day to addressing correspondence -- and just on a one-time-response basis, not keeping up entire epistolary conversations! -- he or she would probably just  fall further and further behind.  The letters and mailbags would start and keep piling up, ad infinitum -- a postal equivalent of Zeno's paradoxes!

Perhaps what goes on is a somewhat more attentive, more complex and flexible process.  Maybe someone actually does read through each piece of mail that makes its way to the band address.  Likely some of them contain threats, unreasonable demands, or just plain nut-job craziness -- and those would presumably get addressed by circular-filing the ones that can be ignored, and referring the ones that can't on to the proper authorities.

Just as likely the bulk of the letters contain well-meaning but fairly generically expressed fan expressions of excitement, pleasure, gratitude -- nothing wrong with that.  After all, that's what we do in large part as audience response at live shows!  Perhaps all that sort of mail -- and the sentiment of all those fans -- gets aggregated in some manner, then reported to the band?  Possibly some letters are deemed to deserve more individualized attention -- even being placed before the band-member(s) directly -- on the basis of being outside of the norms, and, needless to say, interesting. . .

What implications do all of these reflections bear then for the time, the energy and enthusiasm, the effort and labor a fan puts into a letter?  Is this exercise less a matter of communication between fan and musician, and more (when we get right down to it) something that has its principal effect upon -- and meaning for -- the fan?  Should we understand this possibly one-sided interaction or exchange along lines analogous to the way some people regard the act of prayer -- where it does much more for, and to, the petitioner than to the one petitioned?

Or does fan mail really matter?  Matter, that is, in some other sense, other than making one feel a sense of connection that, united too closely to an idea of some sort of two-way communication, might really be a phantasy?  I suppose perhaps one easy way to conceptualize writing fan mail is as an extension of what one does in going to a concert, applauding, participating, enjoying, contributing energy -- but that's probably a bad analogy.  At this point, though, I can't say I have a much better analogy to work with.  And so, for me, this remains a puzzlingly open question.  In any case, I did write and send off the letter.