Randall E. Auxier is my bass player. I’m confident in saying so, although I’ve never heard him pick up any instruments and we’ve never met. There are about 40 ways I could introduce him to you, but if you haven’t heard of him already, it’s hard to know where to start.
Auxier pays the bills with a legit tenured professorship at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I went to college nearby at Illinois State, so believe me when I tell you that type of corn field view leaves ample time for philosophizing. Auxier’s academic writing has won awards and he can be ferreted out at major American conferences on philosophy. His curriculum vitae is 50 pages long. His main interests are pragmatism and personalism.
The preceding paragraph is boring as hell, I know, but you have to see the tip of the iceberg first before you can appreciate the reveal of the massive underwater thing. Auxier has a long-standing relationship with Open Court Books, that delicious hit factory of popular culture analysis where all the book titles end in “and philosophy”. Auxier is a long-haired, curmudgeonly wonder who has edited or contributed to many volumes for Open Court, each excellent in its own way. His film interests include Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock and Monty Python. He also has things to say about cats, motorcycles, and the Atkins diet. But above all, Auxier thinks deeply and broadly about rock music.
Metaphysical Graffiti: Deep Cuts in the Philosophy of Rock is a collection of his greatest hits on the subject, and includes four new essays. It’s a terrific entry point into Auxier’s brain and a very representative sample of his otherwise massive and scattered body of work. This cross-section highlights all that there is to love about Auxier, including: an ability to use common sense vocabulary to describe complex or obscure principles without giving in to reductionism; a willingness to admit what facts he doesn’t know and what propositions he thinks are bogus; a strong ability to weave jokes and metaphors into the structure of his argumentation in ways that further the point and’ a voice that conveys genuine blood and bone-deep knowledge of instrumentation as well as the group dynamics of bands. And he knows his philosophers, too.
Musicians discussed in Metaphysical Graffiti that are cribbed from his other works: four chapters on Bruce Springsteen, three chapters on the Rolling Stones, two on David Bowie, one each on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead and Rush and Jimmy Buffett. He wrote four new chapters for this book: The Who, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne. The previously published chapters generally either resolve some long-standing theoretical question about a band, or they show how the music reveals a certain element of ideology.
All four of the new chapters are using a rock star memoir as their anchor, which is kind of a new thing for Auxier and it totally works. Auxier’s body of work is about music that he loves, of course, but saying you love Neil Young is not the same as saying you loved his two memoirs. Auxier frankly assesses those books as basically sucking, yet he goes on to mount a decent set of considerations for how they help us to understand Neil Young. The specter of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize hangs heavy over much of the new writing and Auxier isn’t shy about wading into that, either.
All the chapters are broken into sections that go for one to three pages, so they are digestible for most attention spans. Most sections use song titles, or some type of riff or pun on them, which is cute in a dad joke kind of way but not grating or trying too hard. Most of the chapters will meander at some point. Auxier will step aside to highlight an important philosophical concept and his opinion of its general validity, then return to apply those notions to whatever band. His modus operandi of personalism leads him to sometimes talk about his own life and its connection to the bands, and to the uninitiated, he may often seem to be doing something like band psychoanalysis. His speculations may sometimes verge on the parasocial, but every cultural critic and music fan on this planet is going to bump up against that same challenge.
The tone throughout manages to be convincingly casual despite his relatively focused and structured claims in each chapter. Auxier drops “dude” with comforting frequency and readers will easily be able to imagine him as an extra wandering through the bowling alley of The Big Lebowski. Sometimes he gets carried away and sometimes he makes straw man arguments to get at a certain angle on things. I sometimes disagree with his conclusions, but I’m pretty sure his response would be to ask me to flesh out my own position on it and then shrug over our disagreement. This is because Auxier is a good dude — not an elitist or a jack ass or a dumb ass. The attitude throughout his wide-ranging and highly detailed thoughts in Metaphysical Graffiti makes that amply clear.
I confess that I even once internet stalked his old band, Bone Dry River Band, knowing full well from his writing that he must be a great bass player. His writing shows that rhythm, that vision, that ability to pull back far enough to see how it all ties together. Having been a teacher myself for a fairly long time, I have to say that all evidence points to the fact that Auxier is an awesome philosophy professor. Being from Illinois, I briefly considering going to SIU and reading his work always makes me wonder what could have been. It led me to read some of his less pop, more properly academic writing on Rorty and Whitehead, and that was equally edifying though convincingly dry.
Metaphysical Graffiti is a great way into the fascinating shenanigans of Randall E. Auxier. Deep and casual music fans alike can learn a lot from him. You want an adorable clincher? He asked a former student to write the introduction to this book. The student is a musician and immediately liked Auxier not so much for the content in his classroom as for the fact that Auxier was the only one of his professors who went to see his band play.