A Musical Odyssey: Issue #10

by Kurt Keefner

In this issue: A Long Strange Trip through the Music Collection of Dirk Douglas

Ayn Rand claimed that our philosophical premises, conscious and subconscious, give rise to our aesthetic preferences. If anecdotal accounts are to be trusted, she went so far as to judge others on little more than artistic evidence: so-and-so likes Beethoven — therefore he has a malevolent sense of life — therefore he is not my kind of person.

I share Rand's moderate, "official" position, but not the extreme version she appears to have held in private. Against Rand's private view one thing that can be said is that Rand seems not to have considered the possibility that multiple premises might lead to the same taste, or that the same one premise might be expressed in multiple tastes. Instead of regarding artistic taste as an unequivocal symptom of an unambiguous spiritual condition, I regard it as more of a magnifying glass; it delivers no occult knowledge, but it can help you see something you are already familiar with a lot better.

An opportunity recently arose for me to put the Randian theory to the test. A few months ago I was given the entire CD collection of a man named Dirk Douglas, a musician of my acquaintance who died unexpectedly in June 2000. I don't think he'd mind if I spoke frankly, even bluntly, about the lessons I have learned from studying his collection: I knew Dirk for many years, and candor was one of his highest values.

Dirk had surprisingly narrow affinities. At least 75% of his collection, which numbered 72 discs, came from the 1970s or from bands whose heyday was in the 70s. He had five or six albums each by Kansas and Yes as well as greatest hits albums by Foreigner, Starship and the like. He also had a few greatest hits discs from early 80s performers like Mr Mister and Kenny Loggins who were essentially holdovers from the 70s. He had almost no classic 60s rock — an album of Blood, Sweat and Tears from his own brass-band days was about it. He did have a few more recent discs: one by Tori Amos, one by Joan Osborne. He also had several upbeat white gospel albums of recent vintage, presumably acquired during the last few years of his life when his health was poor and he once again turned to Christianity.

There were a few classical and jazz items. Dirk's mother, I know, was a big fan of Chopin and encouraged Dirk's piano playing. (Dirk was a keyboard player, singer and arranger.) So there was a disc of Chopin performed by Vladimir Horowitz, a soundtrack from the movie "Shine" and one or two cheesy "Great Classical Piano Works" compilations. The principle behind his jazz collection I cannot discern, but he did have the good taste to like classic jazz like Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" and not modern anti-jazz like Kenny G.

It is obvious that Dirk favored keyboards, but he also favored vocal harmonies. He had a couple of CDs he'd burned himself featuring songs with tight harmonies, including one song by the Carpenters, a group he would have little to do with otherwise. He had greatest hits albums by Queen and Earth, Wind and Fire (among the rare black performers in Dirk's catalogue). Dirk himself had a good, versatile voice, and was not only very proud of his harmonizing but was also a connoisseur of other people's. I remember him almost 25 years ago explaining to me how the Wilson brothers of the Beach Boys and Freddie Mercury of Queen worked their miracles.

It should be clear that Dirk's musical taste followed his professional interests with regard to the technical dimension. I suspect this is a common correlation among musicians. But there are plenty of musical acts that employ keyboards and/or tight vocals. Why did Dirk pick the ones he did?

Dirk started trying to make it as a pro when he was 17, in 1972. He only attended a community college and that only for a year or two. Despite his impressive intelligence, his formal education in music and everything else ended in the middle 70s. The 70s was Dirk's era: he liked the questioning of authority, the sexual freedom, the flamboyance of attire and hairstyle and the drugs.

It is my belief that Dirk was so at home in this era that he simply stopped growing when it ended. It's common for a person's tastes (and beliefs) to stop developing once they surpass college age, especially if drugs are a part of their life. Dirk ceased being of college age around 1977. To be sure, he did still follow trends after 1977, but not ones that started after 1977. And this means that he missed out on punk and new wave. Whatever you want to say about punk, it did clean out the system of its self-indulgent excesses and made it possible for something ironic and worldly-wise to grow. But there was nothing like the Clash, Elvis Costello or even Squeeze in Dirk's collection.

And Dirk's limited taste was reflected in the music he wrote and performed too. The boy was simply lost in the 70s and that fact along with his personality and health problems no doubt accounts for his failure to make it as a musician.

But even this biographical analysis does not peg Dirk and his tastes. If he was so in love with the 70s why didn't he own any Eagles or ELO? Perhaps the technical criteria would knock out some of the great bands of the era, but not all. Here we need to appeal to Dirk's sense of life and psycho-epistemology. Let me try to weave an image of Dirk with the music he owned as the warp and my personal recollections as the woof.

The groups most represented in his collection were Yes and Kansas. What they have in common, other than the obvious, is that both use keyboards as their foundation, both are "hyper" or strident in their pacing and emotional tone, both have pretensions to the "lyrical." The main point of difference is that Yes is more impersonal and arty where Kansas is more intimate and "sincere."

Interestingly, if I had to pick a band that represented a synthesis of Yes and Kansas, I would choose Rush. Yet Dirk didn't own any Rush and never said a word to me about them. Dirk was no Objectivist, and his libertarianism, if we may loosely call it that, was purely of the "Defy authority — do drugs" variety. More importantly, Rush stylistically as well as philosophically dedicated itself to reason: they were always crystal clear and they never encouraged self-indulgence of an emotionalistic kind. In this way, they were light-years away from Yes and Kansas. (And no, I do not like Rush. But we can talk about that another time.)

From knowing him, I would say that the decisive element shared by most of the bands in Dirk's collection was "sincerity." Dirk hit his teens in the late 60s and while he was not a "60s person," he was one of that era's many heirs. Those of you old enough to remember the 70s or who have studied it have surely gleaned that one of its key concepts was "the natural." Partly this was due to the ecology movement, and partly it was due to the 1960s rejection of process in favor of immediate, "authentic" action, experience and emotion. Put these two influences together and you get a worship of human nature conceived of as bodily functions and spontaneous feelings. According to this "code of the natural," either you acknowledged those functions and feelings or you futilely tried to deny them. Dirk's attitude towards what was "natural" ranged from the matter-of-fact to outright wallowing. In short, if Dirk had an itch he would scratch it — sometimes in public.

Lest I sound one-sidedly critical of Dirk's "naturalism," let me say that it made him a frank and open person, bolstered his sense of humor (because it helped him puncture people's pretensions) and contributed to his largely healthy pro-sex attitudes. That having been said, I hope it's obvious that I do not take Dirk's beliefs at face value — and that I do not blame him for the errors of an entire generation.

The attitude of "sincerity" and "naturalness" is clearly reflected in Dirk's music. As I write, I am listening to his copy of "Starship: Greatest Hits (Ten Years and Change 1979-1991)." For those of you who don't know, Starship was the successor group to Jefferson Starship, which was in turn the successor to Jefferson Airplane. Each successor represents a diminution of its predecessor. The original Airplane was a band of undisciplined geniuses fronted by two amazing vocalists, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Starship was fronted by a third-generation clone of Marty Balin, an histrionic little man named Mickey Thomas, with Grace Slick as little more than a back-up vocalist.

If Starship has one salient quality, it's a loudly-proclaimed earnestness. With his trademark wail, Thomas squeezes every ounce of feeling out of songs like "Jane," "Sara" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," the last of which, improbably, seems to be intended as a wedding anthem for the trailer set. Now I could see a completist fan of the Airplane in all its incarnations buying such a disc, but Dirk didn't own anything by Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. He headed straight for the trough of emotion that is just plain Starship. This album is a particularly clear magnifying glass of Dirk's values.

With the concept of "sincerity" we have a pretty good hold on Dirk's ethos (sense of life or metaphysical value judgments), but what about his psycho-epistemology? This is somewhat harder to identify, but again his music can be of assistance, especially a group like Yes.

What distinguishes Yes is its motoric, almost impersonal drive and complexity. I don't think it's the impersonality as such that attracted Dirk, since most of his collection was anything but impersonal. Rather it would seem to be the machine-like drive and the complexity. (Think of the paradigmatic Yes song "Roundabout.") These qualities are shared by Kansas (think of the relentlessness and the Bach-like piano of "Carry On Our Native Son"). Starship and some of Dirk's other discs also share them to a lesser degree.

There are three reasons why Dirk and the strident style were made for each other. First is that naturalism in the 70s frequently took an assertive, theatrical cast. (Dirk was largely indifferent to "mellow" groups like Bread.)

Second is Dirk's personality. Dirk was clinically hyperactive and congenitally melodramatic. Truth be told, when Dirk was "up" it was difficult to share a room with him.

Third and most relevant is a more specifically psycho-epistemological factor. Dirk loved fast, driving, complex, prestidigitation in music. I call this esthetic complex "razzmatazz." I choose the colloquial name because it seems to capture exactly what Dirk loved about the music in question: its ability to impress by attracting the listener's attention and then almost losing it along the way, like a game of three-card monty. Razzmatazz represents the energy and enthusiasm Dirk loved and had in his own life. (And Dirk would have liked it that I chose a colloquial term, since he generally believed that a technical or orderly approach to a subject was mere pomposity.)

Razzmatazz may help explain why Dirk gravitated toward synthesizers and the like when he was also proficient on piano, guitar, drums and brass instruments: the gee-whiz, high-tech factor appealed to the fast-talking showman in him.

I suppose we could say that a composer like Bach displayed razzmatazz too, but that doesn't seem right, does it? Bach was reflecting his view of a complex, orderly universe. Razzmatazz, although it surely reflected Dirk's ability quickly to take up information and to deal with multiple channels at the same time, seems more to have been about Dirk than about a view of reality.

In loving Yes or Kansas or Kenny Loggins, what Dirk loved was his own feeling that he could bop through the world getting by on his sense of life. His love of complexity was not primarily about the adoration of some crystalline aspect of the world; it was always about asserting his own personality. He was trying to impress, and the person he sought most to impress was himself.

The history of Dirk's belief structure confirms this analysis: Throughout his various ideological phases, whether he was a born-again Christian, a free-flowing mystic, or a semi-rational student of psychology (a la Myers-Briggs), behind it all was always Dirk, the prodigy whose smarts and intuition could discern the truth and deal with it, not by submission to something external (like reality or God), but by sheer panache.

Now we are able to integrate what we know about Dirk's music with what we know about Dirk. The linchpin is an intelligent yet rigid subjectivism. Dirk had a concept of feelings as the ultimate authority and of conjuring the right "groove" as the proper method for success. For him style, or what I call pseudo sense of life, was everything.

And thus it was he failed. Not in a glorious battle with the forces of mediocrity and conformity that he loved to fight, but in sad loneliness. Botched back surgery and a low tolerance for pain (no doubt exacerbated by decades of drug abuse) led him to incapacity and to dependence on prescription medicine. The last and most pathetic in a long series of damaged women whom he both financially exploited and emotionally bolstered had died. His father, who had helped get him on public assistance and provided some emotional sustenance when he was crippled, had died. Most importantly, even Dirk could surely see that finally his dreams had died.

One morning in June of 2000, the nurse who helped Dirk with his morphine patches found him dead. He had six of the patches on him and over 100 barbiturate tablets in him. Whether as his friends believe, it was an accidental overdose with pill after pill being taken in a daze, or, as his family believes, it was a suicide, will never be determined with certainty. There was no note.

I don't admire subjectivism, and I know it doesn't work. But I do have to respect Dirk, subjectivism and all. Misguided and crazy as he was his whole life, he did have a dream and he did pursue it. I am reminded of a song from Dirk's collection, perhaps not so atypical as it first may appear to be: "Deacon Blues" by Steely Dan. The song tells the mythic tale of a young man who goes from being a "nobody" to being a jazz musician, very much a part of "the life." The refrain goes:

Learned to work the saxophone.
I play just what I feel.
Drink scotch whiskey all night long
and die behind the wheel.
They got a name for the winners in the world.
I want a name when I lose.
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide.
Call me Deacon Blues.

I've always loved the twisted perseverance and authenticity of that song, and I guess that's how it was possible for me to love Dirk.

So it appears that Ayn Rand was right, that your personality does determine your musical choices, and one can use your musical tastes to get a handle on your premises.

But Ayn Rand was wrong on another subject: not all values are chosen values and not all scars on one's view of existence can be avoided. Here I am referring to myself. Dirk's life and death have a greater hold on me than I would ever choose to give them. For you see, "Dirk Douglas" was a stage name which Dirk took as his legal name a decade ago. His given name was Dirk Douglas Keefner, and he was my brother. Perhaps I understand his brilliance and his madness because they are partly mine as well. For the rest of my life Dirk will have the power to tear me in two, as I laud his intelligence, talent and decency, loathe his self-indulgence and blind spots and lament his mental illness. No matter how I agonize over his memory, however, I will always be grateful to him for helping to kindle the love of music in me. It is a gift which can never die.

Now forgive me, gentle reader, for the deception of not revealing my true relation to Dirk sooner. The only way I could stand to write about him and the only way I could trust others to think about what I had to say about him, was by making the subject seem impersonal. Dirk would have enjoyed the gag.