Make a Jazz Noise Here, one of the live albums documenting Frank Zappa’s final tour, kicks off with a rousing version of “Stinkfoot” which ends, as his opening numbers tend to do, with an introduction of the various people in the band. At the end of the roster is Ed Mann, Zappa’s long-time percussionist. Zappa explains that prior to the show one of the fans came up to Mann and “treated like a war criminal” because he “fucked up” a riff in a song called “Dicky’s Such an Asshole” (it’s about Nixon) at a show weeks before. Zappa explains how the people who come to the show listen so carefully that he wanted to take time to allow Mann to “warm up” for that big riff by practicing it right now. The band drops out and Mann plays the riff perfectly. Then he says something to the effect of “here’s how we played it that night” and plays a different riff. The band cranks on, point made.
The point was, of course, that Mann hadn’t “fucked up” anything weeks before, he’d played the riff differently on purpose (at Zappa’s insistence, or at least with his blessing, surely). In other words, when a professional is doing something, maybe assume that they’ve got everything under control and what seems like a mistake to you might actually be completely intentional.
I thought about that episode when I came across this column from April by Damon Young. It’s entitled “A letter to that man who emailed me to correct my grammar” and, well, it’s brilliant. Young is a regular at the Washington Post and has a long string of credits, including a book of essays that won the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor. It’s safe to say he knows his way around words.
He certainly has no problem claiming that expertise, as the first line of the response column is “I’m better at this than you are at everything you do.” Harsh, but probably fair. Later, he digs into the specific complaints of the email:
In your email, you declared that my use of the word “ain’t” was a “really poor choice,” corrected my use of “them,” and demanded that I don’t try to sound like I’m “still in the street.”
If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive.
You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music. And that both sentences and music are math. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Microbursts of energy clustered and cut and culled to find balance. You would know that sometimes “ain’t” just fits in a way that “isn’t” or “is not” does not. Same with “them” instead of “those.” You would know that even the choice of “does not” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, because of the repetitious rhythm of “does not” existing immediately after “is not.” You would know that short phrases lead to shorter sentences, which punch in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. Like this just did. You would know that “ain’t” ain’t a signifier of being “still in the street.” You would know that “still in the street” ain’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.
I mean, damn, that’s gotta’ sting.
Young is right, of course – rules are meant to be broken. But beyond that, what he’s saying (I think) is that people who break rules know they’re doing it and have a good reason to do so. That’s why as a writer or musician or whatever it’s important to learn the rules, even if you intend to ignore them completely in your creations. Rules, even as suggestions, have some value in generating expectations among your audience and if you’re going to confront them with something different it’s best to both realize it and question whether it’s worth it. Young, clearly, knew the score and what he was doing.
Of course, when it comes to rules, Young has broken one of the cardinal ones in even writing this piece. Writers are repeatedly (and correctly, in my opinion) advised never to engage with critics or reviews of their work, even positive ones. It’s a hard firewall we’re supposed to put up to avoid being dragged into the social media muck. Go blow off steam with your spouse or writing buddies, but, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond online.
But again, Young knows what he’s doing. He knows the rule about responding to critics and decided that, in this instance and in this way, he should break it. As such, this pieces serves as a bit of wish fulfillment for writers everywhere who don’t have the courage (or the skill) to clap back at critics.