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New York Times - Written for the Beethoven Bicentennial

Even If You Can't Play Him on the Guitar


By Tim Buckley - rock star

Beethoven's relevance to music for all time has its own reasons--his majesty engulfed humanity's universe 200 years ago, and man's passioned fear of beauty hasn't changed. Reasons have, technology has, and, in turn, ways of doing things have changed, but what we do hasn't.

I thought for a couple of weeks of what to say about Beethoven. Hardly anybody I know listens to him, maybe because they can't play him on the guitar. I listened again to his Ninth Symphony, a few sonatas and his last string quartet pieces, and a few days later I started to wonder if music is really relevant to people or if it just supports a fashionable movement.

Today's protest song is tomorrow's bumper sticker and so on, never ending. Next decade there may be a religious craze, and to save face we'll have to sing gospel songs to keep it ethnic and funky, not to offend our own past. No communication, just part-playing--read the charts and fit in.
"Beethoven would have been the perfect pop star. His entourage would be a bit too expensive to take on the road, of course..."
That's what's so funny to me about our new revolution--on both sides of the white dollar--part-playing. It has to be cultural to be successful, not religious or political but personal. You, alone--like Beethoven's deafness, like Beethoven's genius, the same genius that lets us fall in love--alone, only yourself and what you're good for alone, no banners.

Then maybe you can let John Coltrane fit into your life style. Eric Dolphy, then a cop siren. Prokofiev, a six-pack of beer. Ray Charles, a subway noise--or a riot in the streets. Tolstoy's soul on ice. A bulge in walking pants--hell, it's your festival of legs and breasts.

Black man do the monkey rub while white man gouge out the crocodile eyes--but with a spoon.

But this is a bit too dull for New York. You always need fresh blood to suck and forget, and it's always quick with you, this ego massage. Somehow I always wonder if you ever feel, or if it's all part-playing. So until I trust you I'll hear Beethoven's sonatas in your streets, Fred Astaire around 50th Street on Sunday, a black waltz in Harlem, Stravinsky in airplanes, Harpo Marx in the garment district, and Bud Powell's Requiem in the Bowery.

I think of our culture like I think of bacteria. Rock 'n' roll keeps the traffic moving to an adolescent pulse. Politics, prime-time TV, Danny Thomas and the game shows--it's all bought and sold and planned out to get a response, and the response is planned in order not to get in the way of the next one. But man's music--his bout with the gods--has nothing to do with the latest crimes. It's too personal to isolate, too intimate to forget, and too spiritual to sell.

Of course Beethoven would have been the perfect pop star. His entourage would be a bit too expensive to take on the road, of course. But if he were around today, Rex Reed would be his road manager, Broadway his toilet, and he wouldn't jam the Blues.

Well, at least Rex would hold his own on the talk shows. But no matter. A classic of any kind is put away on the shelves, is always called a classic and is never read or listened to or talked about at parties. Beethoven is just a classic and not relevant today--all because you can't understand him.


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