Dear visiting music professor who taught History of Jazz at Connecticut College spring semester 1990:
I’m sorry for comparing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”
I can only imagine what your reaction was. You there, grading papers, sitting in your office, or at home in your apartment in New Haven-you were visiting from Yale. Maybe as part of a sort of exchange? A professor from my school was up there, teaching your regular students at the time? Man, you got the short end of that one, huh? I picture you reading the little blue test booklet I’d turned in, gnashing your teeth and going red in the face, then ripping the beret off your head and throwing it across the room. (You never wore a beret in class, but I assume you put you one on as soon as you got home, right?)
It was our first assignment. We were to go to the listening library and listen to a selection of records from a list you’d handed out, and write down our impressions. We were supposed to log six hours worth, I think. Due at the end of the second week of class.
I didn’t know a thing about jazz. I listened to rock music and rap. I had signed up for the course because it sounded easy. I was not a good student. Still, I liked what I heard, sitting in the library cubicle with those big old-fashioned headphones over my ears. One of the first records on the list was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue-the consensus “greatest jazz album of all time,” a work many people would say stands at the very top of American musical achievement. Some would argue (and considering your field of study, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are one of them) that it stands at the top of American artistic achievement of any kind.
Somehow, I doubt you feel similarly about Bob Seger’s classic-rock-radio standard, “Turn the Page.” Frankly, I don’t either. Seger is a poor man’s Springsteen in my opinion. A very poor man’s. (Though I’ll never be able to turn the dial when “Night Moves” comes on.) Still, hearing the mournful, haunting trumpet Davis plays on “Blues in Green” for the first time, my closest frame of reference was the mournful, haunting saxophone (all right, the cheesy, melodramatic saxophone) the Silver Bullet Band’s Alto Reed played on “Turn the Page.” So that’s what I wrote. That was my impression. That was the assignment, right? (I Googl- searched to get Reed’s name, by the way. It is not his real one. He was born Thomas Neal Cartmell.)
Pressed, to give my younger self a break, I can drum up a defense of a “Turn the Page.” Yes, it’s a plodding, over-serious account of a rocker’s life on the road. There are lots like it. Journey’s wretched “Faithfully” comes to mind. And Bon Jovi basically rewrote it for “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” But the part where Seegs talks about feeling eyes on him as he walks into a restaurant-“Most times you can’t hear ’em talk/Other times you can/Always those same old clichÃƒÂ©s/Is that a woman or a man?”-that’s resonated with me since I was a 7th grader, brushing my own hair out of my face, keeping my finger on “record” while I listened to 102.7 WNEW on my box.
The song is very effective in its way. It caught something just right and, at least for a certain audience, stands the test of time. There’s a reason Metallica chose to cover it 25 years after it was recorded, though I wish they hadn’t.
But Seger also wrote “Like A Rock,” from the Chevy commercials, which begins with the lyrics, “I stood there boldy, sweating in the sun/I felt like a million/Felt like number one.” That can ruin anybody’s day. He belongs in a conversation with Journey, Bon Jovi and latter-day Metallica. Mentioning him alongside Miles Davis, in hindsight, is embarrassing. Comparing Kind of Blue to “Turn the Page” is sort of like looking at “Guernica” and saying it reminds you of The Horse Whisperer. Y’know, because of the horse.
Luckily for me, that first assignment wasn’t graded. Unfortunately for me, subsequent tests were. I stopped attending your lectures after a few weeks. (Class met at eleven o’clock in the morning, which conflicted with my sleep schedule at that point in my life.) But I was also too lazy and stupid to get myself to the registrar’s office and drop the course. So that June, I became perhaps the first person in the history of college to actually fail History of Jazz. Not that I didn’t deserve it.
Previously: Dear Guy In A Brown Corduroy Jacket
Dave Bry is now, in a strange and perhaps ironic twist of fate, The Awl’s Wonderful Associate Editor For Comparing Musical Acts to Other Musical Acts!