For an essay to be great, it must be balanced. The writer must be overly knowledgeable about his subject and yet also accessibly present said subject. I don’t want to read essays written by an author who knows less about his subject than I do, nor do I want to read essays by a writer who makes me feel like an ass for not knowing enough. I want to feel like I’m learning, not like I’m being preached to.
In his collection On Celestial Music, Rick Moody displays his deft ability to write essays. In all thirteen of the collection’s pieces, Moody finds the sweet spot, striking that balance between teaching and preaching. The book is presented as a collection about music, but the essays are really much broader, covering creativity, and life itself.
For an example of this, readers need look no further than the first essay in the collection, “Against Cool.” At just under 50 pages, “Against Cool” is too long to be a prototypical modern essay, and it is a fair assessment that Moody takes more stylistic cues from Montaigne than from Sedaris. Yet, despite being a detailed etymology of the word “cool” traced through decades of music culture, the essay never comes across as stodgy or academic. Some of this may be a result of Moody’s subject matter (is there an egghead alive who can make Miles Davis stodgy or Sid Vicious academic?) but mostly the essay is compelling because of Moody’s passion for the music about which he writes. When Moody writes about Miles, the Sex Pistols, and Coolio, he does so as a fan, as an ardent proponent of the music.
It’s that passion that helps Moody stick his landing. “Against Cool” is about how the word cool has lost any meaning, how it’s gone from representing a mindset and a subculture to being a space filler. “Cool is spent. Cool is empty. Cool is ex post facto,” he writes. By the end, when Moody is looking for a replacement word, I too believe we need one. I’m even a little fired up when he ends:
But the job is best left to you, users of the American tongue. Seize control of your splendid language. Work your alchemical mumbo jumbo. Mix up your slang. Blow your innumerable horns. Play with feeling.
Show me an egghead who can do that. Am I right? You with me? Maybe you have to read the whole thing.
Like most good writing about music, Moody’s words and structure draw attention to the musical qualities of prose. While the work isn’t quite Toni Morrison’s Jazz, it does follow the same aesthetic. Moody is a writer who understands that the ebb and flow of language can mimic musical composition, and he uses that to his advantage. The short, choppy sentences excerpted above embody the last, enthusiastic beats rock bands play before they leave the stage. And in two long sentences in an essay about Pete Townsend, Moody captures the frantic weaving of a guitar solo:
Pete Townshend, no matter his condition, was not a god, was not anything but a man when he played guitar, but even so, yes, he was the best that man had to offer, strumming thirty-second notes faster than almost anyone else could do it, and using his thumb on the low E string so that he always had a big fat bass note on the bottom of the chord, using amplification so that he righteously fucked up his hearing ever after, bobbing up and down in the air like he was trying to get himself to coast on the sound waves coming out of the amplifiers—a great guitar player, who did as much if not more than the better practitioners of guitar craft in terms of advancing the instrument. Playing guitar is about surviving, playing guitar is about overcoming, playing guitar is about distracting, in great waves of distortion and feedback, from the problems out there in the world, or playing guitar is about distracting the player from his past.
Often, I found myself rereading the prose simply because I liked the way it sounded. Like any good song, it’s worth hearing again.
Ultimately, reading On Celestial Music was like taking a class with that really cool (Miles Davis cool) professor in college, the one who just seemed to talk with you for an hour and by the end of class you realized that you had learned something. If you like the music that Moody writes about, I’m willing to bet his essays will deepen your appreciation. And if you’re indifferent to or unaware of said music, you might find yourself downloading Lounge Lizards albums. I know I did.
Similar Reads: Changing My Mindby Zadie Smith, How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen, Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace