Monday, September 01, 2014
Freedom from choice: Goodbye, Jimi Jamison
I've just heard the sad news that Jimi Jamison has died of a heart attack at age 63. I first learned of Jamison a couple years back, after hearing the song "High on You" somewhere. If you grew up on any kind of rock radio, you'll probably recognize that one after sampling a few seconds of the opening keyboard riff. The song grabbed me, just as it had when I was a kid, and I realized I had no idea what band was responsible. I found out that it was Survivor, and that Jamison was the lead singer.
Survivor's history is pretty convoluted. Their biggest song is, of course, "Eye of the Tiger." Jamison didn't sing that one; he joined in 1984 after his predecessor, Dave Bickler, left the band due to vocal-cord polyps. Jamison's first album with the band, ’84's Vital Signs, was a big one, yielding three hits that remain radio-rock staples to this day: "High on You," "The Search Is Over" and "I Can't Hold Back."
To me, the last one is about as good as mainstream rock gets. It's got a pretty ingenious structure (kudos to cowriters Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan, Survivor's keyboardist and guitarist, respectively): a majestic acoustic intro segueing into a nice chorus fakeout before the big kick-in, a great moody little bridge. But let's be real—like any great pop song, this isn't a track we need to analyze. It just works, and a lot of that working has to do with Jamison's incredible vocal. Listen to the "…froooooom you!" at :58, or the title line at 1:24. It's hard to know how to describe Jamison's singing aside from simply great. There's no quirk or idiosyncrasy to what he does; he's basically the archetypal ’80s-style arena-rock frontman. His is the kind of voice that anyone who's ever belted karaoke would kill for. Perhaps he's not on Steve Perry's level—I don't really think anyone is—but in terms of nailing the notes and projecting urgency and emotion, he's got this thing sewed up.
We're taught to mock, dismiss or even hate this kind of music. We're taught that "I Can't Hold Back" is the kind of bombastic stadium-rock dragon that our punk-rock heroes had to come along and slay. Perhaps, for some, that is the way music works, in these tidy binaries. For me, it was never that simple. I grew up adoring big mainstream rock of the ’80s: Journey, Foreigner, Survivor, Loverboy, whatever else was on the radio, as well as all the hair-metal bands that were my first true musical heroes. Of course, I got into punk and all sorts of underground miscellany later on; any curious music obsessive eventually does. And if you start reading about DIY music, you start reading about this adversarial underground vs. mainstream idea(l)—how you're supposed to ditch all that big, catchy, steroidal above-ground rock once you discover the seething, visceral, difficult subterranean stuff.
People love punk, so they buy into its antagonism—the idea that to really sign up for it, to go all in, you have to renounce all the pop stuff that it openly combated. Over time, I've cared less and less and less about that kind of thinking. Right now, my position is: Fuck that. I adore the Misfits, the Descendents, the Wipers, Black Flag, and on and on; I also adore Survivor, to name just one of hundreds of similarly big, populist rock bands who have managed to compose/perform perfect-10 singles like "I Can't Hold Back." (Just before I clicked onto Twitter and saw the news about Jamison, in fact, I was reading Bob Mould's memoir, See a Little Light, which is a really good book. I'd just finished the section on Zen Arcade, which came out in ’84, just two months before Vital Signs. I give equal props to both albums.) Loving music, or any art form, grants you the freedom not to choose, to factionalize, to pit styles against one another, even if your heroes took pride in, and drew inspiration from, their own adversarial stances.
So I may have once attempted to conform my own experience of music to the tidy "punk killed off Big Rock" narrative. But over time, I'd hear songs like "I Can't Hold Back" on the radio, and they'd absolutely captivate me. I realized that I bought them entirely, and that I always had. Sure, I can see the surface absurdity in ’80s stadium rock. But honestly, I identify way more with the screaming, fist-pumping hordes of fans in the live vid above. In the end, I vastly prefer submitting to music to thinking about it, or standing apart from it, and this music is custom-built to induce submission. I adore songs like this without shame. (I touched on a lot of these same themes in one of the earliest posts on this blog, written nearly eight years ago.) In fact, it feels shameful to even bring up the topic of shame when I'm discussing musical experiences such as this, which I basically consider holy. It's just you, your soul and a song. You've heard it 10,000 times, and it never gets old. You dial it up on your iPod, and for those three minutes or so, you're invincible. This is what "I Can't Hold Back" has done for me, and will no doubt continue to do. So for that, I thank you, Jimi Jamison and the rest of Survivor.
There's no either/or here. I'm still on the Cecil Taylor kick that I wrote about a couple weeks ago. Earlier today, I listened to Cecil with both Louis Moholo and The Feel Trio. I may throw one of those on again later on tonight. But right now, I'm paying respects to Jimi Jamison.
A few weeks ago, I was at a get-together with my bandmate and dear friend Joe. We commandeered the stereo, as we often do, threw on some Strokes and started geeking out. Another friend mentioned that he was surprised that two guys whose musical stock-in-trade was labyrinthine math rock were so into such a straightforward, poppy band. In so many words, I responded that I just like music that goes really, really far in whatever direction it goes in. So, in a macro sense, Craw, for example, holds the same appeal for me as Survivor does. Artists who knew exactly what they wanted to do, who dreamed up a sound and just went there.
Jimi Jamison was a singer who went there. Every time I listen to him, he helps me go there. I thank him for that, and I bid him a sincere fan's farewell.
P.S. I realize that the punk vs. Big Rock dialogue is more nuanced than I've made it seem. The SST crew in particular have always given it up for select mainstream favorites (the Dead, Creedence, etc.); Ian MacKaye frequently namechecks Ted Nugent; and Mould's book recounts an early Kiss obsession. But in general, you'll hear very few undergeround-oriented tastemakers copping to a love—specifically, one that's not couched in the idea of love/hate—for the kind of grandiose stadium rock that Survivor epitomizes.