Please, Mr. Postman

Nothing ever dies on the Internet. Last week, drummer Mark Holland of the North Carolina band Jennyanykind--which released its fourth album, Big John's, late last year--was searching for any references to his band on the Web, when he stumbled across the following: "30 years later, there still exists no band like The Band, not even young acolytes such as Jennyanykind, mimics without meaning." That was from a February 4, 1999, Dallas Observer story titled "The great divide," which was about The Band's drummer Levon Helm and his revered group's impact on modern rock and roll--and lack thereof.

Holland's brother and bandmate Michael (the band's singer and guitarist) took enough umbrage at the remark to send an e-mail this way. What follows is the collected correspondence, included here because it reveals the sometimes deep and always unnecessary gulf that exists between performers and critics, the deep-felt reasons (talented) musicians do what they do, and how this stuff gets talked about when there's no tape recorder involved. Holland graciously allowed for his missives, which were originally not meant for publication, to be reprinted.

--Robert Wilonsky

Dear Robert,
You don't know anything about my music. I have never been an acolyte for anybody. You may or may not like my music, but let me just tell you one thing, and I hope you remember it...I hate The Band. They are the most overrated bunch ever, and you are either very naive, or uninformed. Please e-mail me your address so I can send you more of Jennyanykind music. I think you will find it is much more than mimic without meaning.

Michael Holland

Dear Michael,
I certainly understand your taking umbrage with the comment that Jennyanykind is "mimics without meaning"--that was indeed a bit hyperbolic, a point made with a railroad spike instead of a thumbtack. But I do find your comment about hating The Band a bit disingenuous: I mean, you have heard "The Heat, The Hot, And The Hard Luck Swill" [off Big John's], right? Sorry you think me to be naive or misinformed--maybe my ears are just a bit out of tune.

Maybe you're just angry because you've received this sort of criticism (or praise--you be the judge) for so long. To wit:

"To get an idea of the mood and sound, picture The Band wearing their Amish outfits and Quaker hats, imagine the Violent Femmes' first album played on electric instruments, or consider the way Lou Reed whispered the words to 'Jesus' on the really quiet, black Velvet Underground album."

--CMJ New Music Report, reviewing Revelater, Jennyanykind's 1996 Elektra Records debut...and finale

Or: "Waltz-like, 3/4 time rhythms show up often and "Day of the Dead" has a calypso feel. "Cross Of Jesus" sounds like a traditional hymn being performed in a barroom, much like The Band might sound if they were the same age."

--Music Monitor, from a Jennyanykind feature (you were interviewed).

Or: "A bastard hybrid of Syd Barrett, Flaming Lips, Small Faces, Sonic Youth, Allman Bros., Moby Grape, and Spaceman 3..."

--The Bob, which apparently has never heard of The Band.

That took a six-minute Internet search, by the way, begun immediately after receiving your e-mail. But I don't trust rock critics either. I firmly believe that every band is a true original whose sound came from out of thin air. Comparisons--ah, they're meaningless.

I'm apologizing for so callously dismissing your body of work in one sentence; had the story been about Jennyanykind, perhaps I would have been more careful with my choice of words...perhaps, "mimics with meaning" (who, according to two other magazines, also sound like Randy Newman, while four out of five dentists also pick the Flaming Lips as a point of reference.) Believe it or not, I do in fact like Revelater and Mythic [1995] quite a bit, though I must admit it has been years since I've heard 1994's Etc. (and Revelater, actually, since I long ago loaned out the disc and have yet to see its return--which is the mark of a truly great work).

So feel free to send me some music; it's either that, or I spend the rest of my summer listening to Ricky Martin, Ben Folds Five, Britney Spears, and porn soundtracks. You, sir, are a true original. What the fuck do I know.

Your humble servant,
Robert Wilonsky

That is a good point, and well taken. I guess as a musician I look for the latent meanings, not for the immediate and obvious. How wrong I've been all along! I mean, I'm not really having to write for public consumption, and I certainly don't have to worry about an editor cutting my work to shreds.

I would argue that there have been many, many gifted writers and musicians in modern music history, all touching upon the same idea--many unheralded. What peeves me about critics and especially what you have written is the notion that it is all so linear and derived from a few sources. Do you really believe that, or are you subscribing to an agenda? Could you say Jesus was an acolyte of Buddha?

Music is not created but pulled out of the air from the rhythms of life, and the way you presented it in such a narrow, stylized point of view, as if Jennyanykind had listened to The Band and made a conscious effort to do the same thing, seemed well, uninformed. That is very far from the truth.

But what do I know about music? I'm just a musician, not a music critic. It's very easy to look at days gone by and judge, but very difficult to judge the present. You can think what you want, but I'll wager time is on my side. In the meantime, I hope you'll get a chance to listen to Jennyanykind more closely. You may find, like many people do, that it is redeeming to hear, and better yet, very unique and very real. And don't get me wrong. I say this as light as a feather, but, like you, I have an opinion...I just don't get paid for it.

Best of luck,
Michael Holland

This letter followed shortly afterward:
No derision is intended. But I believe growth is a better word than change. What makes you think we are mimics? What is your criteria for making that conclusion? Is it what other people have written or is it what you think? Mythic is terrible; so is Etc.--self-indulgent crap. Do you judge bodies of work en masse, or do you look for a pattern of growth?

I am not looking for accolades or redemption from you. I don't care about what you think that much, but I saw the chance for dialogue and I took it. I don't need patronizing. I work hard, just as you. Remember "The Heat..."--that is real, not imitated. I may be sensitive, but I am not stupid enough to get into a tit for tat with you over this. I respect your right to your opinion. I am not angry or bitter and out for blood. Please come see our show next time we are in Dallas.

Michael Holland

Hey, hey, hey.
I apologize, honestly and sincerely I do. I didn't mean to be patronizing; you just caught me on the wrong day. I don't want you to think for a second I am belittling you or your body of work. I truly do respect any band that does what you're doing-i.e., making music for yourselves, honoring tradition enough to destroy it, and all those other things rock critics tend to celebrate their favorite bands for. Not that it makes a diff, but a few months before the Levon piece ran, I did mention how Big John's was one of 1998's most ambitious, honest pieces of work--and how much I respect the band for it. Not that it makes a diff. I don't expect it to.

Yes, you began a dialogue, and I foolishly, immaturely turned it into a schoolyard war of words; such is the limit of my wit without the first cup of coffee. I appreciate it. You are not being sensitive. You are simply the artist as parent, protecting his well you should be.

I look forward to your next visit through these parts, for, perhaps, the chance to discuss such issues as homage, history, and musical evolution over several bourbons or beers, my treat.

And again, all apologies. Not much of a dialogue, is it, when one side can be a bit of a defensive asshole. Least, that's what my daddy tells me.


I respect you for your patience with me. I am trying to lose my ego, so I took a chance on confronting you. Your pointed words did not offend me. I should listen to the old advice of never directly responding to your critics. I have the luxury of masking my views in song, and you do not. Thank you for your honesty, even when it hurts.

Best wishes,
Michael Holland

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky