Review: Metaphysical Grafitti: Rock's Most Mind-Bending Questions by Seth Kaufman

review by Vanisa Pankhania

The former New York Times reporter Seth Kaufman takes readers on a journey, asking some of rock music’s most controversial questions. Written in a chatty prose, Kaufman’s book is unafraid to take on and debate the ideas he poses. Everything from why Billy Joel is despised to the question of music archaeology to are air guitars real? Musings that may or may not have crossed a rock fan’s life are covered and explored and debated in a humorous, yet fair manner. Even to a reader who may not have a specific interest in the world of rock, the book welcomes you in and makes you feel like you’re having tea at a friend’s – casual, comical and convincing.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is the colloquial side stories and ‘moronic dialogues’ scattered throughout the novel. It’s a brilliant way to put the bizarre chapter names into context. Nothing in this book is serious but at the same time, you are hearing out what Kaufman has to say and, before you realise, you’re having the debate back. My favourite chapter was ‘What do you call a drummer in a three-piece suit? Or the question of rock band hierarchy’. This is for a number of reasons: 1) it was interesting to understand how a former music store owner viewed this. Having been surrounded by music in his daily life, one can imagine he had a lot of time to regard this question and concludes that they were the blood and water of the group; 2) it was important to me to be reminded of what goes on in the background of a band and I’m sure that there are many people just like me who don’t always think about what it takes for a band to truly tick; and finally 3) I liked the jokes about the drummers. This is just an example of how one of his chapters made me feel. The entire book is just like this. You hear him out, you see what he has to say and then you find yourself formulating your own opinion.

Additionally, Kaufman finds the matters that rock fans have debated for decades and offers a fresh stance on the topic. Beatles or Stones introduces the ongoing debate but then goes onto to suggest that it is more to do with personal identity. Who are you as a person? Then the question, which band speaks most to you. It presents a manner of viewing the debate from a fresh perspective where one can take a step back from what their current views may be in order to reassess the situation. It’s very cleverly done and you almost don’t realise it’s happening.

I learnt a lot from this book. Sometimes is easy to get stuck in your own little musical world. You may be listening to the same album over and over again or the same song. This is completely fine but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that there is a world of music out there. Personally, I have not explored quite as much rock music as I would have liked to and this book gave me a helping hand in trying out different bands and musicians. It did this in such a way that I did not feel isolated from a very established music community. In fact, it excited me to learn more and further explore the topics discussed in this novel. I feel as if I will now delve into music in a manner that is more aware and more open.

You hear him out, you see what he has to say and then you find yourself formulating your own opinion.

Kaufman speaks about the Mekons not wanting to consume their audience, this is interesting – I always assumed that musicians want to devour their fans. It has made me try and understand the motive behind the musician’s music. Are they tactfully creating what they know their audience wants to hear and taking advantage of loyalty or, are they being true to themselves and creating what they feel?  The latter, albeit less relatable, draws an audience in more and seeks to show them a new side to the world.

There is undoubtedly a power in music. A power that has the ability to unite and divide huge groups of people and this is not simply limited to rock. I would recommend this book to anyone who listens to music (so everyone) and not just rock fans. Sure, the topics centre around rock but a lot of the ideas presented by Kaufman can actually be applied to other genres of music. For example, the argument of Billy Joel’s authenticity makes the reader wonder which other musicians are actually presenting us with authentic music. The notions of just how great musicians have the ability to attractive such a magnetic, almost cult-like following triggers one to wonder just what drew them to certain creators and bands in the first place. Loyalty, obsession, admiration and lust are just some of the ingredients in creating a stable, unwavering following.

 

This book had the ability to make me think deeper still. Can the ideas of a following, hierarchy and identity be applied to 21st century life? I believe so! With the normality of social media, the role of the influencer and the ease of information distribution, new ideas seem to be taking a similar stance in the lives of many people. Yet, how many times have we wondered who was being authentic? How many times have we questioned why we love certain profiles so much? Before social media, music did not have to compete with YouTube and streaming services for attention. Now we are presented to more extraordinary figures and, it goes without saying, be careful who you ‘worship’. It seems our lives will always revolve around something greater, something we believe is magnificent. Humans who have the ability to superhuman. Ones whose abilities surpass us mere mortal folk. However, this is not to say we fall in love with any old Tom, Dick and Harry; Kaufman says ‘Nobody on American Idol has had the mesmerising star quality of James Brown, Tina Turner etc.’ We fall in love with those with an edge. Someone who’s a bit different, someone who we can cannot be. It all lies in the mystery of their ‘powers’. In this instance, their sheer musical talent and timeless masterpieces. Ultimately, the ones who hold our attention, are those instil themselves into our lives and take up residence there forever.

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