Taste, or Y I Do

I first heard Jethro Tull when I was 11 or 12.  That's one of the benefits of having older siblings: you hear things you might not otherwise hear earlier than you might otherwise hear them. When I heard "Aqualung" — the album, not just the song — I was versed in the ways of Fleetwood Mac, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits (a new band at that time).

But Tull was fundamentally different. Sure, I was captivated by the album cover which folded open, an uncommon trait among single albums. But I was intrigued by the fact that the album was making a concerted argument about religion (pro-God, anti-Church). I think I was as much intrigued by the fact that it was making an argument as I was by the argument itself.

And then there was the music. The album as a whole careened between whimsical, acoustic guitar ditties and blistering, electric rock. But even individual songs careened, suggesting an imminent chaos, potential collapse, the world giving way. It was alternately whimsical, angry, sexual, goofy.

I quickly moved into the rest of the Tull oeuvre and was taken. I love that phrase, to be taken by something. It's so palpable. There was an undeniable resonance — call it a metabolic resonance — between Tull and me. That surging syncopated movement that was so articulate: everything from the flute licks to the distorted guitar to the lyrics was making a complex argument. It was self-aware, filled with irony and double entendres. It was light and heavy at the same time. Above all, I think, was that it was controlled but also on the verge of being out of control. The music just moved well with me at that time, with how my adolescence moved.

The things I really love are uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar. They tend to speak a dialect I didn't know I knew. I am — we are — an infinite set of possibilities that is always changing. Such is the way of becoming. I don't know what I might become or, better, how I might become. And yet I have a style; I have taste. There are things I go to and that go to me; I take and am taken. I spit out certain things not necessarily because they're good or bad but because I can't stomach them. My kid cringes at mushrooms. The only album I ever returned after buying was Elliott Smith — not because it was bad but because it moved badly with me. There was a melancholia there that simply did not resonate with me. I've kept records I think are banal but innocuously so. Elliott Smith is not innocuous. His combination of affective intensity and speed fucked me up in a bad way.  It's not that it made me sad; I like sad music. It's that it made me sick.

There's a reason we use the word taste to refer to all things that enter our bodies: it's all a matter of digestion, of how our bodies can digest this or that.  I love cheese, stanky ass cheese, but it does foul things to my constitution. According to Nietzsche, this is a sign of an ill constituted person: I enjoy things that make me sick. That, alas, is bad taste. But I've trained myself not to eat it.

When I got to college, Tull was not "in" — it became a more private pleasure —so I soon found REM whose "Document" had just been released and remains an astounding album that shakes me to my DNA. I've dated many women who really hate Michael Stipe's voice; it rubs them the wrong way. But he melts me, usually ("Everybody Hurts" is so bad, so absolutely horrendous, it almost erases an oeuvre that runneth over with resonant gems. Its crime us unabashed bathos.) Showing my age, I will admit that I still crank up this or that REM — "Fables," "Reckoning," "Automatic for the People" — and dance about.

But when I was 17, REM didn't move me so much. It didn't have the mania my taste demanded. My body was still quite wiry. I needed something like Tull, something careening. I found it in Throwing Muses. And, despite musical dogma and absurd categories and genres, Throwing Muses and Tull are quite similar: careening, syncopated, smart, passionate madness. Both bands veer in and out of chaos and back into exquisite melody. And back again. Such is my taste, what moved well with me, what drove me, excited me, made me feel healthy. It would take some bodily changes, a slowing down, before REM's jangly pathetic melodies vibrated at a frequency my body wanted to digest. Taste forges the series — at once predictable and unpredictable — that constitutes a person's way of going. A certain thing becomes Coffeenesque. 

This is the first song, post-Tull, that resonated with my DNA. This was 1988, a lifetime ago, but this still riles me up, makes me vibrate at a very high frequency.

How and why do we like the things we like? It's this impossible but actual calculus of elements that make your heart and belly and loins and blood go: Yes! That! I see it as a matter of resonance and shape, a kind of four dimensional puzzle of vibrations and forms that move together well — or don't. We are these shapes and speeds and we desire certain shapes and speeds that resonate well with us. Well, hopefully. Sometimes there are things that seem to resonate with us but kill us. It's a matter of shape and speed and intensity and propensity. REM makes me vibrate more slowly, less manically than Throwing Muses. What drives me is different from what drives you.

But this doesn't mean taste is subjective. It means taste is particular, a matter of how my body goes with other bodies — their speed, intensity, temperature, density. Do you like light and airy sponge cakes? Or do you prefer them rich, flourless, and chocolate? Sushi? Or a hot pastrami ruben? Of course, it need not be one or the other. I, for one, like both. But sushi tends to move better with me and so I've trained myself not to reach for the Russian dressing but for the wasabi. It's not that I experience a different sushi than you do; it's that I experience sushi differently. That may seem pedantic but wars have been fought over much finer distinctions.

Needless to say, there are historical, cultural, ideologic reasons I resonate with Throwing Muses and not, say, NWA (both ascending at the same time). But that seems, well, obvious and not that interesting — at least not for this discussion. (As you can tell, I've developed a taste for the m dash and an increasing predilection for parentheses.  This tells you, the reader, a good amount about my constitution. I rarely just finish a thought; I qualify and extend with more words than some might deem unnecessary. I've always preferred Nabokov to Hemingway. I am, needless to say, a prolific pooper — never quite finished with what's I've consumed. Which is why I watch what I eat in every sense — from meat and melodies to books and people and ideas.) Where was I? Oh, yeah: the nature/nurture distinction is specious: we are as we go which includes our intestines and our address. I am this way of going. To reduce me to category is dehumanizing, fascisitic even (This is not to discount class or socio-cultural analysis only to remember that it has its time and place.)

I love walking through a museum, flipping through an art magazine, scanning a radio and looking for something that resonates with me. Ah! There! That! Stop! Often, we skip right to things we already know, to the dialect we already speak. I remember going into the Tower Records on 8th Street in Manhattan and heading right to the Tull section — to look at the albums I already owned! We pass over the country music radio station or symphony of strings or, depending on your tendency, the indie whine or rap polemic. This is why I don't enjoy going into a random bookstore or music store (one or two still exist). How would I know to pick up anything I don't know? The title? The cover? Oy!

(Aquarius Records in San Francisco is different: they write elaborate reviews to entice different tastes. Many years ago, before the dawn of responsibility, I used to go into Aquarius every day and ask them for new music. They'd play me this — No, too boy bandy! Then that — No, too spacious. Eventually, they learned my taste and no longer had to play me anything. They simply put aside records for me which I'd buy without hearing. Like any relationship, we had to work together to get to know each other, how each other moved, how each other made sense of things. I can safely say that my relationship with aQ was more beautiful, honest, and rewarding than any relationship I've had with a woman. Indeed, I had a woman recently scream at me for not liking Italian food — which makes me shit like a banshee. aQ wanted to serve me music I loved; this woman hated that I had taste that differed from her. Needless to say, aQ is still in my life....)

To me, the pleasure of scanning the radio or shelves is to find those things I wouldn't think resonated with me, to be lead astray so I can discover other fuels for my engine. What some might think a silly pop film (Gore Verbinksi's "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, for instance, or Jason Bourne or "Kung Pu Panda"). A pop 40 song (Lourde's "Royals"!). The rap the kids love so much (Kendrick Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle.") It's so delicious to find something you love outside of your socio-cultural-historical place or simply outside your familiar wheelhouse. Jerked chicken hearts! Yum! I didn't know I could digest this! A new source of fuel!

To find something new that resonates with you is downright exhilarating. Suddenly, you discover new ways of your own going. What's beautiful about taste is that it does traverse race and class and genre, that I can find myself resonating with the music of gay, black rappers and feel right at home while feeling worlds away. I didn't know I could do that! That I could digest that! That that could drive my little engine, too! 

Nietzsche says that good taste is liking those things, instinctively, that make you healthier and more vital. Bad taste, meanwhile, is instinctively reaching for the things that make you sick. We all know these people: they absent mindedly reach for another Dorito even though they're rotting from the inside out and you kind of want to retch. Or they return to the men or women who abuse them, one way or another. I, without doubt, have not only been attracted to, but actually dated, terrible women who have eaten at my very being (they may very well say the same about me). It's ugly in every way to witness in ourselves as well as in others: it's to watch someone deteriorate before your eyes. 

This is bad taste, liking things that make you worse. Something about that Dorito or extra shot of bourbon or that woman does indeed resonate with me but in a way that destroys me. I think about alcoholics: they are fueled by the very thing that kills them. Sometimes, that's just the way things go: the drunk's engine is, as Nietzsche might say, ill constituted. Good and bad taste are matters of the highest order. Taste is a matter of health, of ethics, of life itself.  Do you desire things that drive life? Or do you desire things that kill life, shut it down?

What Nietzsche argues is that the aesthetic — the things we like — is not superfluous or after the fact of our being. On the contrary, we are what and how we like what we like. We are this way of going, of making our way through the world. And taste is what leads the way, that interface with the world that reveals and defines our constitution.

Of course, we change over time. Our metabolism speeds up or slows down. We can train ourselves to be other, to desire other things — not to always drink eight bourbons in a row; not to immediately go after the nuttiest, most available lay at the party; not to eat gluten or dairy. Train ourselves to enjoy things that actually make us healthier. Nietzsche says that the strong are artists and their bodies, the canvas: they keep working it over, whipping it if need be, to make it beautiful, vital, a work worthy of life. To breed good taste is an ongoing practice.

Every day I ask myself of each thing I want to eat, drink, of each person I want to see or fuck: Does this make me better? Sometimes, I answer no and consume it anyway. Such, alas, is my weakness. But I believe I'm asking the right question.


Jim H. said...

"I may make you feel, but I can't make you think. ... And your wise men don't know how it feels to be thick as a brick..."

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

i'd love to hear the words to dylan's "all along the watchtower" performed to the music of "locomotive breath" - fiddle with a couple of syllables and it would fit exactly

Daniel Coffeen said...

And the Tull fans emerge from the shadows.....

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Once upon a time, during the question period after a lecture by Robert Nozick, I asked, "You've mentioned two ways of examining the morality of an action - whether it corresponds to a received code of conduct, and what its effect will be on those who are the object of the action. But what about its effect on the person who DOES the action?"

My account of his response is in the comments at


under the title, Nozick as pure academic - a personal encounter