Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Have A Funky New Year!

Have a Funky New Year everyone! And thanks very much for visiting my blog! See you next year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Junkie Business

Prompted by a notice in yesterday’s paper that on this December 29 Marianne Faithfull celebrated her sixty-second birthday, I began thinking about the records made under the influence of drugs—and the undeniably voyeuristic pleasures of listening to these records. I remembered a story British film director Stephen Weeks told me about the making of his movie GHOST STORY (1974), in which Marianne Faithfull had a supporting role. It was filmed in 1973, when, unbeknownst to Stephen, she was a full-blown junkie. He told me about shooting the scene in the film in which she approaches her brother (played by Leigh Lawson) across a ballroom dance floor. She was so loaded when she was being filmed for the scene that he had to have grips crouch down behind her, out of sight of the camera, and prop her up so she wouldn’t collapse on the floor. Happily she has kicked the habit and is now drug-free, but perhaps her greatest record, BROKEN ENGLISH (1979), was made while she was still struggling with addiction. While there are many songs warning of the dangers of drugs, none of them, unfortunately, approach the experience of listening to records in which the musicians were still gettin’ their kicks. I have assembled here ten instances of records made under the influence, although there are, of course, many others.

Chet Baker, Chet Baker Sings and Plays from the Film “Let’s Get Lost” (Novus)
Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor)
Marianne Faithfull, Broken English (Island)
New York Dolls, New York Dolls (Mercury)
Charlie Parker, The Legendary Dial Masters, Vols. 1 & 2 (Stash)
Art Pepper Quintet, Smack Up (Contemporary)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Capitol)
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones)
Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Sony)
Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night (Reprise)


In the dead of winter, you dream of warmer climes—such as the Caribbean. Jamaica, for instance. About the time Elvis was popularizing rock ‘n’ roll in 1956, a group of young black men in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica were transforming American rhythm and blues, that they picked up from radio stations located in Miami and New Orleans, into ska. The called themselves the Skatalites after the Jamaican English imitation of the music’s energetic rhythm, ska-aska-ska-aksa. While ska antedated both rocksteady and reggae (the latter a form of ska that incorporated Rastafarian-derived rhythms—or “ridims”), interest in late 50s and early 60s ska surged as a result of the 2 Tone movement in Britain in the mid to late 1970s, a form of music that developed as a result of British bands re-inventing the Jamaican music they heard growing up—bands such as The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat, Bad Manners, and The Bodysnatchers. While 2 Tone records were imported into the United States, those whose tastes inclined toward punk encountered the British form of ska through bands such as the Clash. The evidence for this can be found in the soundtracks of two films. Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (1976) appeared in Guy Ritchie’s LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998), a British film, while the Clash’s version (1977) was used in Wes Anderson’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), an American film.

Interviewed by Michael Jarrett in May 1995, Mick Jones, former lead guitarist with the Clash, explained how reggae and ska became forms of music embraced by punk rockers:

Reggae was punk’s other chosen music. There weren’t enough good punk records, and so DJs used to supplement them with what was happening on the reggae scene. One of the main DJs was Don Letts.... He used to turn everybody on to new records from Jamaica. Also, where we grew up [in Brixton], there was a big West Indian population. There was bluebeat and ska--before reggae. We grew up around that music as well. In the way that the Stones used to cover the latest r&b hits, when they started, the Clash did “Police and Thieves.” It was the latest hit of that summer [1976]. That’s how we ended up doing it. We weren’t trying to do reggae. We were trying to do our approximation--where we were coming from. It turned out differently. It wasn’t like the Police doing a “wet” reggae thing. (166-67)

Various, A Checkered Past: The 2 Tone Collection (Chrysalis)
Various, The Real Jamaica Ska (Sony)
Various, Roots of Reggae, Volume One: Ska (Rhino)
Various, Respect to Studio One: 33 Dancehall, Reggae and Ska Classics (Heartbeat)
Various, The Rough Guide to Ska (World Music Network)

“Police and Thieves”:
by Junior Murvin - This Is Reggae Music, Vol. 3 (Island)
by The Clash - The Clash (Sony)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pop Tones

I came across the following article, Music of a Generation: 19 Songs That Transformed America, at, the on-line version of American Profile, a magazine that is bundled once a week with our local newspaper. For those interested, I have reproduced the list of 19 songs below, and despite the fact that there are some very good songs on the list, the article accompanying the list, as well as the list itself, warrants some remarks. For one thing, as Donald Clarke observes in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), post-World War II popular music “was the era of the white pop singer,” and while this is undeniably true, many of the most successful white pop singers of the era are not represented in the American Profile list, conspicuous in their absence. As Clarke observes:

Between 1950-1955 inclusive, Sinatra had seven hit singles . . . Nat Cole twenty-one, Tony Bennett eleven, Perry Como twenty-five, Eddie Fisher thirty, Frankie Laine twenty, Johnnie Ray ten and Guy Mitchell nine. (306-07)

Remarkably, only one (Johnnie Ray) of these pop singers is represented on the list of “19 Songs That Transformed America.” About the post-war, early 1950s era, Clarke observes, “It is evident in retrospect that the new technology of the long-playing record had an effect on the pop chart and on radio broadcasting right from the beginning,” and of course he’s right (302). His point is that it is deceptive to look to the pop charts as a true index of post-war American musical tastes. While most of the 19 songs that putatively “transformed America” reached #1 on the charts, in the post-war era such charts hardly reflected the vast diversity of music in America, the data itself gathered from sources located for the most part only in the major cities, those radio stations with the largest demographic. What about jazz music (largely album-oriented)? Bebop? As Clarke claims,

As a measure of artistry, even in the heyday of the pop singer, the singles chart had ceased to matter as an indicator of quality as soon as grown-ups could buy albums. . . . If anything, there were even more girl singers making hits in the early 1950s, but a direct comparison with the males is difficult. To begin with, the list of hits for each female artist is shorter on average, suggesting that they received less promotion from their record companies and/or less attention from the DJs; or perhaps they simply made fewer records. On the whole, the women were more diffident about success, or less able to chase it for personal reasons: Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Joni James each retired from the music scene, for various reasons, while Peggy Lee seems to have left it and come back as she pleased. As in the case of the males, however, most had made their start during the Big Band Era. One of the best, and best loved, was Jo Stafford.... (307)

Jo Stafford (pictured), most certainly one of the most popular, if not most popular, female vocalists of the 1940s and early 50s, later excelled in the genre of musical parody, which I remarked upon briefly in my last blog. Sometime in the 1950s she, along with her husband Paul Weston, formed a comedy duo known as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, releasing an album in 1960 titled JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS, in which they parody a bad lounge act—many years before Bill Murray, in the late 1970s, did the same sort of thing on Saturday Night Live. Incidentally, JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS won a Grammy Award in 1961 for Best Comedy Album. And speaking of the late 70s, Jo Stafford came out of retirement to record a parody, in the Darlene Edwards style, of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” which is available on her page. Incidentally, she died about five months ago at the venerable age of 90.

In any case, here’s the list of the “19 Songs That Transformed America” as published in the American Profile article. It is, of course, provocative, but that is essentially the purpose of any list in the first place.

1946 “The Gypsy” – The Ink Spots
1947 “Near You” – Francis Craig and His Orchestra
1948 “Buttons and Bows” – Dinah Shore and Her Happy Valley Boys
1949 “Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” – Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra
1950 “The Tennessee Waltz” – Patti Page
1951 “Cry” – Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads
1952 “You Belong to Me” – Jo Stafford
1953 “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You)” – Les Paul and Mary Ford
1954 “Little Things Mean a Lot” – Kitty Kallen
1955 “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)” – Perez “Prez” Prado
1956 “Don’t Be Cruel” – Elvis Presley
1957 “All Shook Up” – Elvis Presley
1958 “At the Hop” – Danny & The Juniors
1959 “Mack the Knife” – Bobby Darin
1960 “The Theme From A Summer Place” – Percy Faith and His Orchestra
1961 “Tossin’ and Turnin’” – Bobby Lewis
1962 “I Can’t Stop Loving You” – Ray Charles
1963 “Sugar Shack” – Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – The Beatles

The Answer Song

An “answer song” is a recording made in response (“answer”) to a previously released recording. In literary theory, the answer song would be considered an example of intertextuality, a term used to describe the way any particular text depends upon prior texts for its meaning. Hence a parodic imitation of an earlier song may also be considered a form of answer song—for instance, John Zacherle’s “I’m the Ghoul From Wolverton Mountain” as a parody of Jo Ann Campbell’s “(I’m the Girl On) Wolverton Mountain,” which in turn was an answer song to Claude King’s “Wolverton Mountain,” or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s many parodies, such as “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s Beat It.” The answer song is usually an attempt to exploit the popularity of an earlier song for economic motives, although the answer song can be motivated out of other reasons as well—to argue a different philosophical or ideological position, for instance. By way of analogy, think of the way the Darwin fish depended upon an individual’s knowledge of the Christian fish sign, but thoroughly subverted its meaning. A good example of this latter relationship is Kitty Wells’ indignant answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Usually the answer song is made by a different artist than recorded the original, but there are interesting exceptions to this rule, such as Sly Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” which is a response to his own earlier song, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” In the late 1950s and 60s many answer songs were often cast as female responses to a (hit) song by a male artist—Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House” was a female (domestic) response to Roger Miller’s carefree song of the road, “King of the Road,” for instance. And sometimes, the answer song can actually be used as a form of rhetorical response in a feud between antagonistic artists, such as the famous one between Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Some Examples Of Answer Songs:

Shake, Rattle and Roll (Bill Haley & His Comets) – Bark, Battle, And Brawl (The Platters)
The Wild Side of Life (Hank Thompson) – It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (Kitty Wells)
King of the Road (Roger Miller) – Queen of the House (Jody Miller)
It’s My Party (Lesley Gore) – Judy’s Turn to Cry (Leslie Gore)
Blue Navy (Diane Renay) – Kiss Me, Sailor (Diane Renay)
My Guy (Mary Wells) – My Girl (The Temptations)
Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire) – Dawn of Correction (The Spokesmen)
Universal Soldier (Donovan) – The Universal Coward (Jan & Dean)
Southern Man (Neil Young) – Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
White Christmas (Bing Crosby) – Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley)
Stand By Your Man (Tammy Wynette) – (I’m A) Stand By My Woman Man (Ronnie Milsap)
Norwegian Wood (The Beatles) – Fourth Time Around (Bob Dylan)
Street Fighting Man (The Rolling Stones) – Revolution (The Beatles)
Too Many People (Paul McCartney) – How Do You Sleep? (John Lennon)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Today's The Day

I apologize for not being the most diligent blogger of late, but I’ve been extremely busy working on my book proposal for consideration in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books on significant rock albums of the past forty years. Note that I avoided using the term “classic,” using “significant” instead, although many of the albums written about so far in the series I would consider classic rock albums. Many of the albums that have been the basis of books in the series, while not necessarily considered “classic” by the rock establishment, have shown a continuous market value and a stubbornly persistent public presence, and albums that have shown such resilience have been favored by the series editors as well.

I am happy to announce that I’m now finished with the proposal—three weeks later than I’d intended, however—and that it has now been officially submitted to the editors. I happen to consider the album I chose to write a proposal for a classic—Neil Young’s TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (1975). I noticed that neither Neil Young nor TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT was listed among the artists in the first hundred proposals received by series editor David Barker, although that isn’t the reason I chose to write a proposal on it; indeed, I’d already decided to write on the album some time ago, even before the latest call for proposals was announced in early November. Of course, just because Neil Young wasn’t among the musicians listed in the first hundred proposals doesn’t mean one hasn’t since been received on Young, nor does it mean in the weeks since the posting of that list that the editor hasn’t received a proposal (or two) on TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (A proposal for a book on the album was not submitted during the last call for proposals since the editors were then enforcing the one artist/one album rule.) In fact, I would be surprised if he hasn’t.

Why did I choose to write on TONIGHTS THE NIGHT? Not for the obvious reason that the album is acknowledged as a classic, but rather out of a desire to interrogate the very idea of what we mean by “classic” in the first place. While endorsed by the critical establishment—it is listed as #331 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, just above The Beatles’ HELP!—its total sales (this again according to Rolling Stone) are fewer than 500,000 in contrast to HARVEST’s 4.3 million copies sold. But the fact is, TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT speaks to me in a way that HARVEST does not, and as a sage old writer once remarked, you should write about what you know, so I chose to write about TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT.

What are my expectations? Hopeful . . . but realistic. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, odds for acceptance are about 1 in 25—not very good. But of course I assume I stand a chance or I wouldn’t have taken the time to submit a proposal. Please wish me luck! And if you’re that individual who submitted a book proposal on TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT and it is accepted rather than mine, then I can honestly say that I look forward to reading your book, because I'm very convinced the album merits such a focused discussion.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Orpheus And The Boys of Summer

Yesterday afternoon while running errands I happened to hear on the car radio Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” a very compelling tune that I hadn’t heard in quite some time. Inevitably I began to think about its meaning. While the lyrics invite us to unpack the meaning of its repeated figure, “the boys of summer,” I’m convinced its underlying meaning resides (consciously or unconsciously, it makes no difference) in its invoking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. First of all, here are the lyrics:

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air, the summer’s out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone
I’m drivin’ by your house though I know you’re not home

But I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

I never will forget those nights
I wonder if it was a dream
Remember how you made me crazy?
Remember how I made you scream
Now I don’t understand what happened to our love
But babe, I’m gonna get you back
I’m gonna show you what I’m made of

I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
I see you walkin’ real slow and you’re smilin’ at everyone
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said, “Don't look back. You can never look back”
I thought I knew what love was, what did I know
Those days are gone forever, I should just let them go

But I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got that top pulled down and radio on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun
You got that hair slicked back and those Wayfarers on, baby
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

And here’s a version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For convenience I’ve taken the version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from the Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology (the full version can be found here):

Orpheus fell in love with a nymph named Eurydice and blissful was their life together until one day she was pursued by a son of Apollo, the minor deity Aristaeus. In her headlong eagerness to escape, she stepped on a poisonous snake, was bitten and died. Disconsolate, Orpheus found a cave which lead to Hades and followed Eurydice to the Underworld. Here his musical charms were so persuasive that the King of the Dead permitted the minstrel to take his sweetheart Home with him—on one condition.

This condition was so simple that it takes some explaining to account for Orpheus’s failure to heed it. Perhaps he could not bear to keep his eyes off their beloved object for a moment longer…. In any case, he did the one thing he had been forbidden. He turned around and looked at Eurydice, and she was lost to him forever.

The meaning of “The Boys of Summer” hinges, like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, on seeing. “I can see you” is repeated five times; “I saw” is used once. And while the “I” insists on his vision (and vision incites his desire—his “love” for the object of desire), the “I”/eye fails both to control and grasp his desire—as in the Orpheus myth. He seeks it, possesses it, but ultimately loses it. Orpheus-like, the “I” vows “I’m gonna get you back,” but like Orpheus comes to the realization that he cannot “look back. You can never look back….Those days are gone forever,” a realization this is reiterated wherever he turns his gaze, for instance, “I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.” Interpreted psychoanalytically, Jacques Lacan would say that the song enacts a “world of the Other” in which the subject (the “I”) has no place. The “I” is continually cast out from the very world constructed by his desire—the underlying meaning of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth:

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air, the summer’s out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone
I’m drivin’ by your house though I know you’re not home

A once vital and vibrant world is “empty,” drained of meaning. Interestingly, the “I” consistently remarks on the desired’s sunglasses (later referred to as “Wayfarers,” a brand of sunglasses). An inevitable association, it seems to me, is John Fred & His Playboy Band’s “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)”—see my interpretation of the song here. In the context of “The Boys of Summer,” the meaning resides in the fact that he can’t see her eyes, only the (sun)glasses which cover them. He remembers her recurrent “look,” but not her actual reality.

And “the boys of summer”? His own lost youth, a figure for loss that becomes sentimentalized. Again, the “I” is alienated from his own desire: most certainly memories, strong memories, are constructed out of desire.

The award-winning video to the song can be found here and is worth watching.

Friday, December 19, 2008

When The Whip Comes Down

While watching Jailhouse Rock last night I realized I’d forgotten about the scene in which Elvis is flogged by order of the prison warden as a consequence of striking a guard following a food riot in the prison commissary. Presumably a conventional feature of prison dramas—in which such brutality is often inflicted upon the prisoners—so far as I know the scene in Jailhouse Rock has received scant critical commentary. The purpose of the scene is ambiguous. Why does the warden order a whipping as punishment rather than, say, solitary confinement? One might argue that the scene is “required,” as it were, because of the Hollywood production code: violent criminal behavior must be dealt with swiftly and without impunity. Impulsive, unable to control his inner rage, Elvis punches the prison guard (i.e., the Authority Figure), and so must be disciplined through violence himself. But of course the flogging isn’t merely or only disciplinary: he’s severely lacerated by the whip, as the facial reaction of his cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), implies when he raises Elvis’s shirt in order to examine his back.

I was too young to see Jailhouse Rock in the movie theater when it was released in the fall of 1957. I do, however, vividly recall the first enactment of sadism I ever saw in the movie theater: the moment early on in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), when Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance, an outlaw) sadistically—like a man possessed—beats James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer) with his silver-handled whip. The crucial difference, of course, is that Liberty Valance is a sadistic villain, not a (presumably) benign prison warden as in Jailhouse Rock (the distinction being the legitimate vs. illegitimate uses of violence). Interestingly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released almost precisely a year to the day after Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which also featured a scene with a flogging, a scene in which Brando is lashed to a hitching post and viciously whipped by his old friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), who is now a Sheriff, that is, an official Authority Figure. Although One-Eyed Jacks was based on a novel by Charles Neider, its screenplay was co-written by Guy Trosper—who also wrote Jailhouse Rock.

In his definitive book on the subject, Acting in the Cinema (1988), James Naremore convincingly argues that it was Marlon Brando who brought to the cinema “a frighteningly eroticized quality to violence” (for example, in A Streetcar Named Desire), and it was Brando who in several films—On the Waterfront, One-Eyed Jacks, and The Chase—was “shown being horribly maimed or beaten by people who take pleasure in giving out punishment” (p. 230). Indeed, in both On the Waterfront and The Chase, Brando suffers especially vicious and prolonged beatings. But only in One-Eyed Jacks is he whipped, although the whip (the lash) figures prominently in the Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), in which it becomes a symbol of tyrannical authority. On the Waterfront, of course, precedes Jailhouse Rock, but in retrospect the importance of the scene in which Elvis is flogged while in the slammer cannot be underestimated: the presence of Elvis lends the whipping scene in Jailhouse Rock a degree of eroticized violence.

“Taste the whip” is a partial lyric in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” a demo for which (according to the box set Peel Slowly and See, a compilation of Lou Reed-era VU material) dates from July 1965—that is, after all of the aforementioned films save The Chase (filmed in 1965, but released in 1966). “Venus In Furs” later appeared on the first VU album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, released in March 1967, over a year before filming began on Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (filmed the late summer of 1968), which featured the brutal whipping of James Fox—a scene that was, incidentally, inspired by the scene of Dad Longworth’s whipping of Brando in One-Eyed Jacks.

I fully realize the obvious cinematic sources of inspiration (as opposed to the putative source, the more “respectable”—as in sophisticated—literary source, Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth-century short novel Venus In Furs) for the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” likely were the silent 8mm and 16mm “stag” films models such as Bettie Page made in New York for exploitation filmmaker Irving Klaw in the 1950s rather than Brando movies, but the point cannot be overlooked. Klaw’s films, like the VU song, contain highly fetishized imagery of women clad in lingerie and stiletto heels enacting scenes of bondage, spanking, whipping, and domination—which is to say, the dark underbelly of modern urban life. But in terms of lyrical content, “Venus In Furs” is simply an aberrant reading of a pop song such as “Blue Velvet,” that is, a rock song with “adult” as opposed to “adolescent” content (R as opposed to G).

There are very few rock songs featuring the whip even though the whip has been associated with rock music since Jailhouse Rock in 1957. Most have followed the Velvet Underground’s lead—the whip as fetish object—as opposed to using the whip as a symbol of brutal authority (as in Neil Young’s “Southern Man”). Only those from the American South, such as The Allman Brothers Band (and Elvis), seem to understand that the whip cannot be extricated from the institution of slavery. And, of course, those from the so-called “Third World,” such as The Ethiopians.

10 Tracks Guaranteed To Whip It Up:

“Venus In Furs” – The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
“Whipping Post” – The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
“Southern Man” – Neil Young, After the Gold Rush (1970)
“When the Whip Comes Down” – The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)
“Whip In My Valise” – Adam and the Ants, Dirk Wears White Sox (1979; 2004)
“Whip It” – Devo, Freedom of Choice (1980)
“Let It Whip” – Dazz Band, Keep It Live (1982)
“Love Whip” – The Reverend Horton Heat, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em (1991)
“The Whip” – The Ethiopians, Train to Skaville: Anthology 1966-1975 (2002)
“Wrong Side of the Whip” – Substitutes, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (2005)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nutted By Reality

In Act III, Scene iv (lines 178-79) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play’s eponymous hero, Hamlet, turns to his mother and says: “I must be cruel only to be kind./This bad begins and worse remains behind.” The fact that the line, “cruel to be kind” (which expresses an ancient idea, incidentally), occurs in the midst of a scene in which Hamlet is berating his mother for betraying the memory of her dead husband—Hamlet believes she is an adulterer and is guilty of incest as well—is significant. In the vernacular, “cruel to be kind” typically means that one must inflict pain on another for his or her own good—that is, the harsher the medicine, the better to effect the cure. “Cruel to be kind” is a standard sort of psychological strategy used by parents on children, which is what makes Shakespeare’s use of it all the more audacious, as in this case it is a child (son) speaking to a parent (mother). What’s more, it’s a child speaking to a parent about her sexual behavior.

The euphemistic version of “cruel to be kind” is most often expressed in the form, “this is going to hurt me a lot worse than it hurts you,” which reveals the masochism underlying the expression. And masochism, as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out (in Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, English translation 1971), operates by explicit or implicit contract, that is, the role for each participant is determined beforehand, prior to the enactment of dominance and debasement.

As might be expected, popular music has explored this psychology with great acuity. And according to Peter Lehman, there was no popular musician better at expressing masochistic desire than Roy Orbison. Discussing the hysteria implicit in Orbison’s “Running Scared,” Peter Lehman writes:

At the end of “Running Scared,” Orbison’s voice thrills at the unbearable suspense of wondering whether his girlfriend will chose [sic] him or his phallic rival: “Then all at once he was standing there/So sure of himself, his head in the air/My heart was breaking, which one would it be?/You turned around and walked away with me.” I will return later to the importance of the Orbison person’s passivity and paralysis, but notice here the suddenness with which the rival appears (“all at once”) and the drawn-out moment during which the outcome is unknown (“my heart was breaking, which one would it be?”). Only the last word of the song relieves the suspense. The song’s happy ending is almost irrelevant given the virtual panic that pervades the song: “Every relationship I’d ever been in, the girl already had one going when we first met. Even as far back as kindergarten” (Kent 1994, 291). Although Orbison seems unaware of it, such a pattern itself bespeaks masochistic desire, since being attracted to a woman who already has a boyfriend raises not only the risk of failure but also, in the event of success, the specter of the rival’s return. (Roy Orbison: The Invention of An Alternative Rock Masculinity, 93)

One might well include in the list below many songs by Roy Orbison, but I’ve tried to give a sense of the way masochistic desire has been explored in popular music.

The Top Ten Acid-Laced Sugar Cubes All About Being Cruel To Be Kind:

“Cecilia” – Simon and Garfunkel
“Cold, Cold Heart” – Hank Williams
“Cruel to Be Kind” – Nick Lowe
“Girl” – The Beatles
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
“Lyin’ Eyes” – The Eagles
“Maggie May” – Rod Stewart
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” – Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
“Running Scared” – Roy Orbison
“These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” – Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

Incidentally, the title of this blog is taken from a song by Nick Lowe (on Jesus of Cool, 1978) because I thought the phrase sufficiently captured the peculiar psychological torment of masochistic desire.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Although the holiday season obviously is a popular time for the Christmas carol, the word carol did not always refer to a type of song, but a type of dance—a popular dance in the Middle Ages, in fact. The word carol comes from the French word carole, a word derived from the Latin chorus, probably derived from the Greek word choreia, meaning dance. So how did carole, a word that means dance, become the carol, as in “Christmas carol”? An explanation is provided by this article, “Secular Music in 15th-Century England”:

The word carol . . . [meaning dance-song] . . . is used in this meaning up until the 15th century, when its function begins to change. It becomes more and more a purely vocal piece, but still maintaining the traditional form of a four-line verse followed by a two-line burden. According to R. L. Greene, carol is “a song on any subject, composed of uniform stanzas and provided with a burden. The burden makes and marks the carol. It is not a refrain (which might appear at the end of each stanza) but a self-contained formal and metrical unit.” It is simple, direct and unpretentious in style, mainly cheerful, using stock phrases and traditional imagery. Its basic form is related to other continental popular forms of the time like the French ballade, the Italian ballata or the Spanish villancico. However, all these were monophonic, whereas the English introduced a unique feature: the polyphonic carols, which first appeared around 1400. . . . According to John Stevens, “the popular carol, rough and direct, combines a warmth of human feeling with a matter-of-factness and a sense of wonder. The clerical carol, complex and often ornate, dwells with dramatic intensity on the physical and spiritual anguish of the Passion. The one didactic but gay; the other solemnly devotional.”

The distinction John Stevens makes between popular carols and clerical carols is still with us today: popular carols would include “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” while clerical carols would include, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and that old workhorse, “Silent Night.”

But for rock ‘n’ rollers, the classic carol, of course, has to be Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” later covered, famously, by the Rolling Stones. In Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” the earlier meaning of carol, as dance, or dance-song, is restored: “Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away/I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”

I wish everybody happy Caroling--of the Chuck Berry sort, that is--this holiday season!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jet, Suffragette

My friend Tim Lucas wrote to me last night asking me what I understood to be the meaning of Paul McCartney’s song “Jet,” a song that can be found on Paul McCartney and Wings’ highly regarded album Band on the Run (released December 1973). I answered his query about “Jet” with a rather lengthy response. Shortly after receiving my response, he emailed me back urging me to re-post my email as a blog entry, given all the work I’d put in to it. To be honest, the response didn’t take me a whole lot of time, but having been laid up with a terrible cold the past few days and as a consequence not having the energy to blog for the past several days, I thought I’d honor his suggestion and post my response to him as today’s blog, which hopefully might have the additional benefit of getting me back into the habit of blogging again. I apologize to everyone for having been silent for the past few days, but there have been extenuating circumstances. Hopefully today’s post will make up for my absence from cyberspace.

I’ve tweaked a few things and added some additional thoughts, but what follows is the gist of what I wrote to Tim earlier today. The first set of lyrics below (beginning “Ah Mater . . .”) are the set of lyrics Tim had a specific question about. [Addendum--6:43 p.m. CST: See Tim's comment below. As he indicates, he'd always misunderstood "much later" as "Paul Schrader," and one of his motives for writing to me was to ask me if indeed he had misheard the lyric.] I think the image I’ve included with this blog entry is entirely appropriate, as it is the cover of Rolling Stone No. 153, dated January 31, 1974, featuring Paul and Linda McCartney—an issue of the magazine published just a few weeks after the release of Band on the Run.

Tim -- I’d always heard (I say “always,” although I don’t know from what point I heard this claim) that “Jet” was, in part, a satirical jab at David Bowie and the then trendy androgyny of so-called “glam” rockers. My understanding is that the title “Jet” serves as a dual reference, one to his then wife Linda (as suggested by the lyrics “Jet, I can almost remember their funny faces/That time you told them that you were going to be marrying soon,” and “Jet/A little lady/My little lady . . . yes”) but also as a cloaked reference to Bowie by way of a play on words to the song “Suffragette City” (1972)—a verbal wordplay similar to Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” According to lyrics reprinted in the 25th Anniversary Edition 2-CD set of Band on the Run, the lyrics are:

Ah Mater want Jet to always love me
Ah Mater want Jet to always love me
Ah Mater . . . much later

“Mater” is the Latin word “mother,” of course, but I think "Mater" is also an old-fashioned British usage for “mother” as well.

Just to confirm this interpretation I did some checking on release dates and such. I pulled out my 30th Anniversary 2-CD Edition of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust—the Ziggy Stardust period being the one in which Bowie was really pursuing his androgynous image, although he had already by this time posed in a dress on the cover of the album The Man Who Sold the World—and it indicates in the liner notes that the 7” single of “Starman”/”Suffragette City” was released on 28 April 1972, that is, well over a year before McCartney began recording Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria. Bowie’s album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, was released 6 June 1972, and Bowie started doing his famed act of simulating fellatio on Mick Ronson's guitar during a stage show on 17 June 1972. Subsequently, the cultivated androgyny—and homosexual subtext—of “glam” rock was born (most certainly you know of Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine).

Hence I think there’s some to support this interpretation; most certainly particular lyrics support this line of thought. For instance,

And Jet I thought the major was a lady suffragette

“I” (McCartney?) is saying that he initially mistook Bowie to be a female, a “lady suffragette.” “The major,” is a reference to the “Major Tom” of “Space Oddity” and “lady suffragette,” as I indicated earlier, also refers to Bowie via the song “Suffragette City.” And the line,

And Jet I thought the only lonely place was on the moon

would seem to refer to “Space Oddity” as well (“Here am I floating round my tin can/Far above the moon”). In contrast, lines such as, “Jet with the wind in your hair/Of a thousand laces/Climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky” would seem to refer both to Linda McCartney and his band (their band), Wings.

I think this general line of interpretation is born out by other songs on the album Band on the Run, which may carry allusions to many other songs contemporary to that period, although I haven’t done extensive research on this topic. For instance, I think the title song, “Band on the Run,” alludes to another band popular at the time, particularly in 1973, the year Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was released:

Well, the undertaker drew a heavy sigh
Seeing no one else had come
And a bell was ringing in the village square
For the rabbits on the run

The lines, “the undertaker drew a heavy sigh” is an allusion to Pink Floyd’s “Time” and the lyrics

The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
And shorter of breath and one day closer to death

The reference to “a bell was ringing” alludes to the famed alarm clocks on Dark Side of the Moon, while the line “For the rabbits on the run” refers to “Breathe”:

Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun

The entire album may be filled with such crafty allusions, but again, I haven’t done extensive research on the subject.

Hope this has been of some use.


Addendum, 7:06 p.m. CST: My wife Rebecca confirms that "mater" is indeed a common British vernacular term for "mother": she says, read your D. H. Lawrence.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Other Side

Last night I posted a blog entry on the trope of “magic” in popular music, a word used, so I argued, to name various physical and/or emotional effects, from pheromonal sexual excitement to psychotropic drugs. Serendipitously, in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, an article appeared titled “Ghosts, aliens and us” by David Klinghoffer discussing popular belief in the occult and supernatural which, admittedly, is not precisely claiming that there is a popular belief in magic, but it is close enough. Citing various polls to suggest how widespread beliefs in the supernatural are, the author refers to “the impressive diversity within what psychologist William James called ‘the reality of the unseen,’ or Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather called the ‘invisible world.’” The author also claims that further evidence of such beliefs is provided by the popularity of George Noory’s “Coast to Coast AM” radio show, which draws 3 million listeners and is dedicated to the sharing of all types of experiences with ghosts, aliens, and garrulous spirits inhabiting the noosphere. Discussing Noory’s Coast to Coast AM, Klinghoffer writes:

Listeners call up, one after another, with personal narratives of what Jewish mysticism would describe as the “other side” of existence. Sure, I’m skeptical about crop circles, conspiracy theories and cryptozoology. However, I’m also sympathetic to the late conservative philosopher and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk, who valued the paranormal for its suggestion that reality consists of more than mundane material processes. I get the persistent sense that something profound is affirmed by the eerie accounts on Noory’s show.

Eventually, one learns what the author means by “something profound”: “the human need to believe in the unseen world.” Another name for this impulse for the “something profound,” I think, is “faith,” but in yesterday’s blog, I chose to refer to it as “magic.” Popular music gives expression to this “unseen or invisible world.” Simon Frith has observed:

It should be apparent by now that people do hear the music they like as something special: not, as orthodox rock criticism would have it, because this music is more ‘authentic’ (though that may be how it is described), but because, more directly, it seems to provide an experience that transcends the mundane, that takes us ‘out of ourselves’. It is special, that is, not necessarily with reference to other music, but to the rest of life. This sense of specialness, the way in which music seems to make possible a new kind of self-recognition, frees us from the everyday routines and expectations that encumber our social identities, is a key part of the way in which people experience and thus value music: if we believe we possess our music, we also often feel that we are possessed by it. Transcendence is, then, as much a part of the popular music aesthetic as it is of the serious music aesthetic. . . . (“Towards an aesthetic of popular music,” 144)

In other words, the more mundane and unfulfilling one’s daily existence—work, labor, the narrowing range of options our everyday life offers us—the more attractive “the reality of the unseen,” the sheer potential of transcendence, becomes. “You Can Do Magic” the song by America avers, but perhaps that expresses more of a wish or hope than a valid option “life offers.” Is it a song about faith? You decide. Here’s the opening lyric: “I never believed in things that I couldn’t see/I said if I can’t feel it then how can it be/No, no magic could happen to me/And then I saw you.”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Do You Believe in Magic?

The word “magic,” in its adjectival form—the form used in most popular music—means to make or produce “as if by magic,” that is, to have the conjuring power of a magus, that is, a magician. For instance, you know of Madame Rue, that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth, the one who’s got the pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine—she uses magic, and she is a (female) magus. In “Love Potion No. 9,” for instance, the singer tells us, “She [Madame Rue] looked at my palm and she made a magic sign/She said, ‘What you need is Love Potion No. 9’.” Too bad: the singer ended up kissing a cop down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine. Such is the power of magic.

The word magic is derived from the Middle English magik, from Old French magique, from Late Latin magica, from Latin magicē, from Greek magikē, from feminine of magikos, of the Magi, magical, from magos, magician, magus. And magus, of course, is the root of the word “magician.” In popular music, magic is mystery (and fear), magic is enchantment, magic is power, magic is a drug-induced hallucination (and the accompanying trip), magic is the ecstasis of erotic fulfillment. Aleister Crowley referred to the orgasm as “sex magick,” perhaps an intentional conflation of the categories of erotic and spiritual love. Popular musicians frequently confuse the erotic and the spiritual, revealing that as a culture we seek in profane love what we can only get from religious belief. To confirm these various uses, seek out and listen to the following songs:

America, “You Can Do Magic” The Complete Greatest Hits
Badfinger, Magic Christian Music (album, 1970)
The Beatles, “Magical Mystery Tour” Magical Mystery Tour (album, 1967)
The Cars, “Magic” Heartbeat City
Nick Drake, “Magic” Made to Love Magic
The Drifters, “This Magic Moment” All-Time Greatest Hits
Electric Light Orchestra, “Strange Magic” Face the Music
Fleetwood Mac, “Black Magic Woman” English Rose
Heart, “Magic Man” Dreamboat Annie
The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Do You Believe in Magic” Do You Believe in Magic
Ennio Morricone, “Magic and Ecstasy” Exorcist II: The Heretic (soundtrack)
Van Morrison, “Magic Time” Magic Time
Pilot, “Magic” Anthology
The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” Ghost in the Machine
Frank Sinatra, “That Old Black Magic” Come Swing With Me!
Snakefinger, “Magic and Ecstasy” (Morricone cover) Chewing Hides the Sound
Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride” Steppenwolf the Second
Tyrannosaurus Rex, “By the Light of the Magical Moon” Beard of Stars
The Who, “Magic Bus” Magic Bus

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Forrest J. Ackerman, 1916-2008

This morning’s Los Angeles Times bore the news that Forrest J. Ackerman, the writer-editor who influenced a generation of horror movie fans with Famous Monsters of Filmland, who coined the term “sci-fi” (a pejorative term despised by fans of science fiction, incidentally), and who spent much of his life assembling a collection of SF and fantasy memorabilia, died Thursday night at age 92. Somehow I find it remarkable to observe that even if one were never to have read Famous Monsters, even if one were not aware of his name or precisely sure why he was held in such esteem by horror movie fans, Forrest J. Ackerman influenced the way an entire generation—my generation—consumed movies. He did for horror movie actors what fan magazines such as Photoplay, Silver Screen, Motion Picture World and others did for mainstream Hollywood actors: he transformed them into “stars.” Somehow, therefore, it is appropriate that he was born in 1916, the year Motion Picture Classic—not the first but among the first of the Hollywood fan magazines—began publication. It was also the year the United States—or rather “Hollywood”—became one of the top leading motion picture producers in the world, by which time the name “Hollywood” had become a synonym for the American filmmaking industry around the world.

My own close encounter with Forrest J. Ackerman occurred at a convention in 1991. The meeting was brief and unremarkable, and as I recall somewhat awkward. Seeing him standing alone amid a crowd, I introduced myself to him and offered him my hand, saying something banal regarding how it was a pleasure to meet him, finally, and as I did so someone standing behind me caught his eye—author David J. Schow, I believe, someone he already knew and most certainly a person much more famous than I was or ever shall be—a conversation ensued, and I quietly slunk away, realizing at the time that that moment was the first and last time I will have met Forrest J. Ackerman. Some years later my friend David Del Valle drove me past the Ackermansion in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles (prior to it being sold); those two moments are my sole connection to Forrest J. Ackerman, except of course for reading Famous Monsters when I was kid at the newsstand at the local drug store. I don't recall every purchasing a copy of Famous Monsters, primarily because I had a cousin who did, so I saved my money for other important items (I was one of those kids who purchased Classics Illustrated and such).

So he is no more. While my connection to him is slight, I nonetheless acknowledge his influence, both on my imagination and in the way I, even now, consume movies. The L. A. Times obituary can be found here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Odds Are 4 In 100

On two occasions last month I posted blog entries concerning the latest call for proposals for books in Continuum’s 33 & 1/3 series examining classic albums of the rock era. A few weeks ago, the editor of the 33 & 1/3 series, David Barker, posted on his blog a list of the first ten proposals he’d received so far. Since that time, he’s received forty more proposals; I’ve re-posted the complete list below. Mr. Barker insists that those interested in writing a book for the series should not be discouraged if one of the artists on the list below is the subject of the proposal they are currently working on. The first ten artists listed below I posted earlier; proposals received since that earlier post are listed after the lacuna. Last time Continuum announced a call for proposals, 450 proposals were submitted, with about 20 of those being accepted (that is, roughly 4%). Assuming that figure still holds (and I assume it will), then only 2-3 of the proposals listed below have a chance for being accepted for publication. Your odds are hence about 4 in 100 (in other words, don't bet your life on being accepted).

Have I submitted my proposal yet? Not yet, but I’m getting close. And no, the artist whose album I’m writing about is not on the list—not so far. For those interested in submitting a proposal, you have slightly over three weeks left to do so. Redundant artists in the list below include Yo La Tengo and David Bowie (Low is already a title in the series, so these latest proposals are for yet another album(s) by him). I am pleased to see proposals for books on Devo, King Crimson, John Cale, and Van Morrison show up; there are not a whole lot of proposals on girl singers yet, but I'm sure that will change. In any case, I wish us all the best of luck.

The Fall
The Jam
Van Halen
The Zombies
Against Me!
Jefferson Airplane
Mary Margaret O'Hara
Yo La Tengo



Various Artists

Smashing Pumpkins


Herb Alpert

De La Soul

David Thomas and Two Pale Boys

King Crimson

John Cale
Allman Brothers Band

Songs Ohia

Iron Maiden


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
George Harrison
Van Morrison

The Rolling Stones


Paul Westerberg

The Cars

Incredible String Band

David Bowie

Cat Stevens
New Order
The Electric Prunes

Ol' Dirty Bastard


Sigur Ros

Red House Painters


Big Black

Lou Reed

Yo La Tengo

David Bowie

Britney Spears

The White Stripes

Robert Calvert

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rock Candy

It has been observed many times by many music critics that the most successful popular music always has been sentimental. For an illustration of this insight, one need look no further than the Beatles. As Simon Frith observed (“Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music”):

Twentieth-century popular music has, on the whole, been a nostalgic form. The Beatles, for example, made nostalgic music from the start, which is why they were so popular. Even on hearing a Beatles song for the first time there was a sense of the memories to come, a feeling that this could not last but that it was surely going to be pleasant to remember. (142)

I thought of Frith’s insight while driving to the store today, when I happened to hear on the radio Edison Lighthouse’s 1970 one-hit wonder, “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” (to hear, go here). Subsequently, I thought of the fundamental opposition between so-called “hard” rock and “soft” rock. The structural oppositions of hard and soft, of course, are designations of an underlying aesthetic distinguishing two distinct kinds of musical taste. While the sexual innuendo inherent in these designations can scarcely be denied, more importantly, each form comprises an aesthetic suggesting certain values. There are those who like their rock hard--that is, loud, and, by implication, their whiskey straight and their meat rare. In contrast, those who like their rock soft prefer the volume low, fish or chicken to beef, beer to bourbon, and are highly likely to be girls, pansies, or pussies (from the perspective of those who like hard rock). Thus their oppositional tastes are structured around the following sets of oppositions, and these structural oppositions determine virtually all discourse on popular music today:



Guitars/Keyboards (and Strings)






Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blue Yodel (#2)

Slightly over a week ago, I posted a blog entry on the yodel, followed by a second entry on the so-called “blue yodel.” At the time I posted the first entry, I fully realized that the issue regarding the relationship between the American cultural origins of the yodel and its subsequent use in popular music demanded more extensive treatment than what I was giving it, although the insights were quite valid, if also quite general. In the second, follow-up post, a short entry containing a link to an article exploring the possible origins of the blue yodel, I mentioned the importance of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. However, in that second post, I neglected to mention the rather significant figure of Emmett Miller (1900-1962), a former minstrel show performer—a white man who performed in blackface—and recording artist about whose life little is known except what has been excavated by certain dedicated music historians, among them, most especially, Nick Tosches. As Tosches points out in his fascinating and well-researched exploration into the life (or rather, what little is known of his life) and times of Emmett Miller, titled Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown and Co., 2001), Miller’s musical career is, sadly, largely undocumented, primarily because the portable recording equipment that could have captured his act in the late Teens and early Twenties didn’t yet exist (he did make several recordings in the late 1920s, however, backed by the Georgia Crackers). And while there is no hard evidence establishing the influence of Emmett Miller on Jimmie Rodgers, at the very least there is one of convergence, as both were drawing on a tradition of which both appeared to be quite knowledgeable. Tosches observes, “Were it not for the black sources from which Rodgers [and Emmett Miller] drew, there would have been no substance through which to wreak the rare brilliance of his style.” (97)

About the relationship between Miller and Rodgers, Tosches writes:

. . . it is with . . . [Emmett Miller’s] Miami engagement of July 1926, that the phrase “yodeling blues” does indeed appear to be for the first time applied to a style, an inflection, of singing: the style and inflection of singing that Emmett Miller had given voice to since at least the earliest recorded evidence of it, in 1924, and, as fully developed as that earliest evidence is, almost certainly for some years predating that evidence. That style, that inflection—that wild rushing flight of swarming inflections—eludes and defies any other more accurate single word. And yet it cried for a name. For while powers need no names, nothing can be sold without a name.

Thus, sometime between the spring and summer of 1926, either from wile and wit within or bestowed, or raised from the common, spreading descriptive of the fleeting masses of his fleeting fame, Emmett Miller became the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer. (70-71)

As is well known, Rodgers’s first recording session for Victor took place on 4 August 1927, although this session contained nothing close to his famous blue yodeling style. Indeed, his first blue yodel recording, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas),” did not take place until 30 November 1927, which, as Tosches points out, was sixteen months after Miller had been labeled “the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer.”


It is irrefutable that, as Jerry Lee Lewis said, again and again, Jimmie Rodgers was, essentially and above all, a stylist. There were, as Jerry Lee saw it, only four stylists that ever mattered a damn: Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Hank Williams, and himself. Of these four, only Williams was a songwriter of significance; and, even in his case, his biggest success, far from being an original composition, was a version of Emmett Miller’s rendition of “Lovesick Blues.” (97)

About Jimmie Rodgers’s vocal style, Michael Jarrett has written:

Rodgers’s style frequently seems an imitation, a simplification, of Miller’s. Which is not to declare Rodgers a pretender. (Installing Miller as an original is equally problematic, given his now obscure but equally certain “borrowings.” ) It’s to emphasize a key point about the blue yodel: This device, critical to distinguishing white country music from black blues, arrives already vexed. To whom should Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard pay tribute? (230)

For those interested, footage of Emmett Miller performing in blackface has been posted on; footage of Jimmie Rodgers performing “T For Texas” has also been posted on as well.

Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather. Little, Brown and Co., 2001.
Charles Wolfe, Liner notes to Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man From Georgia. Columbia/Legacy, 1996. Reissued 2001.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Family Moth Head Confesses

Previously, in my entries of May 16, May 31, July 1, July 22, August 18, September 8, and October 8, I have discussed at length my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the calendar year 1968 in the order in which they were released. Please refer to these earlier blog entries for the explanation for such an unusual project (and all many pitfalls). Listed below is the December 1968 listening schedule, for anyone wishing to duplicate my experiment. I’ve reiterated many times that I cannot claim my list is infallible, but I continue to work to improve it. If you look back over the previous postings, you'll notice that I have continued to add to, and revise, them once I've received new or updated information. Here's the list I have assembled for December 1968, as well as a list of albums I refer to as "the remainder," those albums for which I could not determine a month of release. Hopefully that list will be diminished as I continue to work on this project.

13th Floor Elevators, Bull of the Woods
The Animals, Love Is
Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, [The Lost Concert Tapes] 12/13/68 [2003]
The Monkees, Head
The Neon Philharmonic, The Moth Confesses
Harry Nilsson, Skidoo
The Pretty Things, S. F. Sorrow
The Rolling Stones, [Rock and Roll Circus] 12/11/68 [VHS 1996; DVD 2004]
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
Tom Rush, The Circle Game
Santana, [Live at the Fillmore] 12/19-22 [1997]
The Soft Machine, The Soft Machine
Spirit, The Family That Plays Together
James Taylor, James Taylor
Stevie Wonder, For Once in My Life
Neil Young, Neil Young

The Remainder:
American Blues, American Blues Is Here
Aphrodite’s Child, Aphrodite’s Child
Aphrodite’s Child, Rain & Tears
Asylum Choir, Look Inside
Arthur Brown, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Can, [Delay 1968]
The Fraternity of Man, The Fraternity of Man
The Great Society, Conspicuous Only in its Absence
Richard Harris, A Tramp Shining
The Idle Race, The Birthday Party
Albert King, Live Wire/Blues Power
Melanie, Born to Be
The Millennium, Begin
The Moving Sidewalks, Flash
The Pacific Gas & Electric Blues Band, Get It On
Pearls Before Swine, Balaklava
Shocking Blue, Beat With Us
Silver Apples, Silver Apples
Steppenwolf, Steppenwolf The Second
The Sundowners, Captain Nemo
The Troggs, Mixed Bag

Thursday, November 27, 2008

X The Unknown

X is typically used as the variable (the unknown quantity) in algebraic equations. According to this post by Dr. Ali Khounsary of the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, one possible reason why the letter X is used to denote the unknown factor in algebraic equations dates back to the origins of algebra itself in Arabic civilization. Dr. Khounsary writes:

Algebra has its roots in the Middle East where sciences including mathematics and astronomy flourished in the Islamic world in the 700-1450 period. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (780­-850) was one of the major mathematicians of his time and the author of a number of influential books. One of his major books is on arithmetic and another on algebra. In fact, it is his transmuted name ‘algorithm’ which we now use to refer to the step-by-step procedures for solving a problem. His algebra book is titled Kitab al-jabr wal-muqabala which translates to “the book of calculation by completion and reduction.” The Arabic word “al-jabr” is the origin of the word “algebra” which describes the process of moving terms from one side of an algebraic equation to the other to find the value of an unknown. . . .

In algebraic equations, one solves equations to obtain the value(s) of one or more unknown(s). The word for “thing” or “object” (presumably unknown thing or object) in Arabic—which was the principal language of sciences during the Islamic civilization—is “shei” which was translated into Green as xei, and shortened to x, and is considered by some to be the reason for using x. It is also noteworthy that “xenos” is the Greek word for unknown, stranger, guest, or foreigner, and that might explain the reasons Europeans used the letter x to denote the “unknown” in algebraic equations.

Xenos, of course, is the root of the word xenophobia: the fear of foreigners or strangers. Interestingly, as it happened, the call letters of all Mexican radio stations—also referred to as “border radio”—begin with an X. The first Mexican radio station, located in Reynosa, started broadcasting in 1930, with the call letters XED, possibly a pun on “crossed [Xed] out,” a reference to the marginalized and dispossessed. Only one major company uses X in its name—Xerox—and very few bands have used X in the group’s proper name—X-ray Spex (a play on "X-ray Specs," ads for which used to appear in comic books, pictured), the L. A. punk band X, and XTC come to mind—and very few albums and songs have used X in the title. One should perhaps remember that X is also an abbreviation for Christ, as in “Xmas,” and that once John Lennon named an album Shaved Fish, perhaps a play on ICTHUS, the Greek word for “fish”—ICTHUS being an acrostic referring to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Some Albums:
Electric Light Orchestra, Xanadu
David Lindley, El Rayo-X
Iron Maiden, The X Factor
Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu
Def Leppard, X
Mushroomhead, XX
Toto, XX (1977-97)

Some Songs:
Blondie, “X Offender”
Coldplay, “X & Y”
John Lennon, Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Mushroomhead, “Xeroxed”
Olivia Newton-John, “Xanadu”
Rush, “Xanadu”
System Of A Down, “X”
U2, “Xanax and Wine”
Frank Zappa, “Project X”
ZZ Top, “Heard It On The X”

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiber Y

According to an article that can be found in the Time magazine on-line archives, the synthetic fabric Qiana (“kee-ah-nah”)—the name the result of a computer generating random combinations of letters—was introduced by Du Pont Laboratories in June 1968. Apparently the fabric took twenty years to develop. Thus research on the fabric that was eventually named Qiana—a light-weight, nylon-like fabric intended to be a simulacrum of silk—dates back to the years that comprised the collapse of Swing music in post-World War II America (in 1948, Du Pont's nylon was then a decade old). The Time magazine article, dated 5 July 1968, also contains the following information:

Boasting qualities that are superior to the most luxurious silk fabrics, Qiana gives all the appearance of silk. . . . It took 20 years and $75 million to develop (compared with $27 million for nylon). Thus it was no wonder that the security at Du Pont’s Chattanooga, Tenn., pilot plant took on Pentagon proportions. To the trade, it was known simply as “Fiber Y.” Even at the press preview, Du Pont took no chances of leaking the process before it hits the market at year’s end. Six models wearing Qiana garments were escorted by armed guards to prevent any overanxious competitor from the common practice of snipping a sample swatch. The versatile new fabric, which sells for about $5 to $8 per pound (versus $9.30 for silk), will be found initially only in women’s fine apparel, but eventually will be used in all types of clothing. For Du Pont . . . costly Qiana is not expected to mean an overnight boom.

Indeed, clothing made of Qiana was not “an overnight boom,” just as the Time article predicted—it took a few years. But . . . when Qiana caught on, a few years later, it had become the disco fabric of choice. Qiana is to 1970s disco music what flannel is to grunge, what the tie-died cotton shirt is to Sixties psychedelic rock. In Saturday Night Fever (1977)—the film that is to the disco era what Woodstock is to the 1960s—whenever Tony Manero (John Travolta), a member of the vast working class of America used to the sweat that comes from hard labor, took to the discotheque dance floor, he wore a cool, light-weight, faux-silk Qiana shirt.

Eventually, though, this synthetic fabric became an emblem of the tawdry artifice that many saw in disco music (a form of urban pop). Subsequently, as disco music fell from favor, so too did Qiana. Clothing made of Qiana, inexpensive but trendy, became the style of clothing that for many represented the plasticity (artifice) of disco music. Conversely, by the late 1980s—by which time Qiana shirts numbering in the scores could be found in Goodwill stores throughout the United States—flannel came to represent the putative working-class “authenticity” of grunge. Thus it happened that Du Pont’s Qiana gave way to L. L. Bean.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blue Yodel

An update on my post from yesterday titled “Yodel”: Bent Sørensen (find the link to his blog on the right) kindly shared the URL for a short blog entry he wrote a few weeks back on his Tumblr, Ordinary Finds, about Jimmie Rodgers, which in turn contains a link to an article titled “America’s Blue Yodel” on the possible black origins of Jimmie Rodgers’ “blue yodel.” The serendipity of our both posting on Jimmie Rodgers within a short period of time suggests another remarkable way in which our interests overlap; as usual I thank Bent very much for sharing this fascinating piece of information.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strictly Commercial?

Earlier this month I posted a blog entry on Continuum’s 33 & 1/3 series of books examining classic albums of the rock era. A couple of weeks ago, the editor of the 33 & 1/3 series, David Barker, posted a list of the first ten proposals he’s received so far for new books in the series, none of which—so he avers—he’s yet read. While it is a little too early yet to get any real sense of the range of groups and albums that will be submitted, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that it is a little too early yet in the series’ publishing history to give up on albums of the classic rock era. As Mr. Barker has made clear, Continuum is looking to sell books, and I have no problem with this policy as long as it doesn’t prevent albums that have proved their durability through time from being neglected for the sake of potential book sales. Case in point: Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) sold six million copies in its first six months, but sold fewer than two million in the next twelve years. The question is whether the commercial success of an album (at least in its first year) qualifies it for consideration as a "classic" album. I suppose he would say that he might be convinced if the proposal were good enough. At any rate, the proposals he’s received so far are for books on albums by:

The Fall
The Jam
Van Halen
The Zombies
Against Me!
Jefferson Airplane
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Yo La Tengo

In my earlier entry I stated that an album ripe for discussion would be The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle, and while I have no idea if the book proposal is for this album specifically, I strongly suspect it is. I would welcome a book on that album, and depending upon the particular album, the books on The Jam, Van Halen, and Jefferson Airplane interest me, while the other groups on the list only marginally so.

On a different note, Mr. Barker posted a fascinating excerpt from the forthcoming 33 & 1/3 book by Bruce Eaton on Big Star’s Radio City, another installment in the 33 & 1/3 series that I look forward to reading (click on the above link to Mr. Barker's blog to read the excerpt). I have not yet submitted my book proposal to Mr. Barker, but I hope to do so by December 1, well before the deadline of December 31st. The last time such a call for proposals was posted, I think the proposals numbered around 400, with about 20 of those being accepted for publication. As I mentioned earlier, my proposal on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West was rejected, but I intend to submit another proposal this time as well.