In his witty and insightful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) William Goldman, a highly successful screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but also a wry critic of Hollywood, observes that a Hollywood studio head is very much like the manager of a baseball team: each and every day he wakes up knowing that sooner or later he is going to be fired.
No doubt the vast majority of today’s critics--of the theater, movies, music, contemporary fine arts--wake up each morning in a similarly precarious position, not necessarily thinking they will be fired from their privileged critical occupation, but that most certainly and with a creeping, unavoidable inevitability--like the day of their death--they will be wrong. What is a critic’s deepest fear? To have erred in judgment, to have made the wrong call, in short, to have missed the boat.
No music critic wants to miss the boat--to have critically underestimated, or what’s worse, to have dismissed the next Velvet Underground, for instance--so in order to avoid making such an unwitting mistake, the critic engages in what Robert Ray, employing a term coined by Max Ernst, calls overcomprehension (How a Film Theory Got Lost, Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 82). Ray writes:
Aware of previous mistakes, reviewers become increasingly afraid to condemn anything....Hence ... [one] ... of modern criticism’s ... great dangers, what Max Ernst called “overcomprehension” or “the waning of indignation”.... (82)
No critic, of course, can see beyond the curtain of time. Time is the ultimate critic, and the critic’s limited perspective doesn’t allow him to see beyond his own pitifully narrow moment in history. Critical overcomprehension--the act of giving every new record an equally glowing reception--is a result of the critic’s deep fear of being judged by history as wrong. No one wants to be, for instance, television critic Jack Gould, who reviewed the Milton Berle Show appearance of Elvis Presley for the New York Times in 1956:
Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter's rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater. (qtd. in Robert Ray, 80)
Of course, as Ray points out, Gould’s kind of critical error had its own unintended consequences: such gross critical mistakes, Ray argues, led to “rejection and incomprehensibility as promises of ultimate value” (82). In other words, if an album sold poorly, or the artist who recorded it was given scant attention--or worse, completely neglected in his time, the record must therefore be great, perhaps even a masterpiece.
I suppose we all have adopted our favorite neglected artist, the artist whose critical neglect or, if you will, martyrdom, ironically, is the sign of greatness, of ultimate value. In my own music collection, this sort of artist is represented by, among others, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs.
But I’m wondering, what do we do with the opposite case, the artist who is the critical establishment’s darling and whose records we therefore own, but never play? (Perhaps I'm a heretic, but I find myself playing only certain selections of Trout Mask Replica, not the entire disc.) The presence of both sorts of records, side by side in our music collections, reveals the persistent problem of what Robert Ray calls the Gap, the problem of assimilation, the failure of a new or unusual artistic style to be made intelligible to the public. Although rock 'n' roll is now over fifty years old, we still find ourselves struggling to fully comprehend its challenges and complexities, rather like a person who has difficulty reading or understanding the lines indicating contours and elevations on a topographic map.
Monday, March 31, 2008
In his witty and insightful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) William Goldman, a highly successful screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but also a wry critic of Hollywood, observes that a Hollywood studio head is very much like the manager of a baseball team: each and every day he wakes up knowing that sooner or later he is going to be fired.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Last night my fellow Video Watchdog kennel member Kim Newman left a comment on my “DIDs” entry (DIDs=Desert Island Discs) that I found so interesting I was prompted to share it:
I assume you know this, but sometimes bits of British pop culture are surprisingly obscure outside the UK. The term “Desert Island Discs” comes from a long-running BBC Radio 4 program--it started in 1942, and is running [!]--in which a celebrity selects the eight records they’d take to a desert island (along with one book and one “luxury”) and is interviewed about their life, work and how they’d survive in this situation. It’s such a simple format that it’s lasted forever in broadcasting terms (its creator, Roy Plomley, was the host until 1985, and only three other presenters have succeeded him). I’d be surprised if it hadn't been done in other countries.
I very much appreciate Kim taking the time to post this information, because in fact I did not know the origin of the practice of selecting Desert Island Discs. In the U.S., most lists default to a “Top 10,” so I’d always assumed a DIDs list consisted of ten albums. But, as Kim points out, the original practice was to select eight records, one book, and one “luxury.” As Tim Lucas pointed out in his comment on the DIDs entry, there are books on the subject of DIDs (the one I know about being Greil Marcus’s), but I’ll admit having never read any of them (see Tim's comment for a discussion). As I mentioned in my earlier blog entry, I find most DIDs lists uninteresting: either they consist of a recitation of the same old titles, or they are so willfully obscure as to be intellectually impenetrable.
The fact that the practice of selecting DIDs originated in England during wartime--that is, during a time of shortages, of scarcity, of rationing (frugality mandated by the government)--in short, a time of widespread lack of the necessities and comforts of life requiring of all civilians the necessity of sacrifice--is quite revealing, really, for in my initial post I’d connected the practice of DIDs to the Principle of Parsimony, an unstated linkage I’m now convinced, thanks to Kim’s post, is correct.
The Principle of Parsimony (parsimony generally being defined as excessive frugality or stinginess, especially with regard to money) is sometimes called “Occam’s Razor” after its putative originator, William of Occam (pictured above). His specific purpose was to formulate the rules of logic that would minimize the proliferation of causal and/or explanatory hypotheses--in colloquial terms, "the simplest explanation is most often the best," or in its laconic, Dragnet formulation, "just the facts, m'am." However, the Principle of Parsimony became more popularly formulated as, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” a utilitarian principle that not only justifies stinginess (“parsimoniousness,” sometimes referred to as “miserliness”--the Scrooge syndrome) or excessive frugality but forms the basis--seriously--of the Puritanical injunction against recreational sex: recreational sex violates the Principle of Parsimony. In strictly utilitarian terms, you have sexual intercourse when you intend to procreate--period. Parsimony, like the Reality Principle, strives to restrict or inhibit the various expressions of pleasure.
The adage, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” is just about as good a Puritanical justification as one could find for the practice of compiling DIDs lists. However, if the Principle of Parsimony is the Puritanical underpinning of DIDs lists, the actual mental activity that dictates the selection of the list itself is perversity (resistance, obstinacy). In other words, when faced with the choice of having something or nothing (even if that something is “just a little,” i.e., the Reality Principle), desire chooses something: perversely--out of necessity--it selects a single object of pleasure out of a vast number of possibilities: the rarified, fetishized object--one DID out of a possible 8 or 10 (the total set). Each element of the set is like a game piece one must select before the game starts, the game being how to negotiate the operation of pleasure with a highly restricted economy premised on lack.
There’s a Warner Brothers cartoon (I think) that expresses this mental operation of lack determining desire in a wonderfully concrete form. If my memory serves, the scene depicts a weak, starving, sad-eyed character (a dog?) placing a lone, small bean in the center of an immense plate. With his napkin, knife and fork on his left, he very carefully salts and peppers the single bean. He then ceremonially ties on a bib and raises his knife and fork over the bean . . . and then oh so delicately, with tender, loving care, cuts the bean in half, raising the parsimonious morsel to his mouth and begins to chew it, savoring its delicate, subtle flavors.
Can someone leave a comment with the name of that cartoon? If I happen to have it, I'll try to post a frame grab on a future blog entry.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
This morning I was pleased to discover that the number of hits on my blogspot had taken a noticeable spike, I suspect in part because of the stimulating exchange (stimulating to me, anyway) Tim Lucas and I have had the past couple of days regarding the relationship between psychedelia and bubblegum music. I invite all my blogspot visitors to read his comments, available through the comments link at the end of my “Bubblegum Breakthrough (Slight Return)” entry. (His initial comment, that prompted the subsequent discussion, is available at the end of the previous day’s entry.)
I am especially gratified by the number of visitors because I think he and I have, in the space of about 48 hours, generated more ideas about how to read (as in interpret) popular music than one can find on websites specifically dedicated to the task of reviewing albums. It’s true that we have been focused on a rather narrow slice of popular music history--admittedly, a slice that is perhaps not interesting to all readers. But what I’ve found so stimulating (as I think Tim has) is not so much our individual valuations of the individual albums or songs--disagreement is a healthy thing, not a “bad” thing, because it promotes further discussion that usually translates into knowledge--but the various methods we’ve employed to make the music meaningful in the first place. After all, popular music doesn’t “mean” anything at all—doesn’t gain any adherents--until it conforms to certain trends and ideas that make it valuable to listeners.
Perhaps the point is best expressed by James Lincoln Collier, in Jazz: The American Theme Song (Oxford University Press, 1993), a critic whose knowledge about jazz is encyclopedic in its breadth. Although he is writing about how jazz music came to represent the new modern spirit of America in the 1920s (“Modernism”), his point is applicable to the way all popular music is ascribed meaning and value:
The point is that a particular style or form in art gains adherents not simply from purely aesthetic considerations, but also from how well it appears to agree with fashionable social, philosophic, or even political considerations . . . . (p. 9)
It was Collier’s insight that formed the basis of my initial assertion, that psychedelia is the aural equivalent of a hallucinogenic drug trip: the particular “sound” that became known as psychedelia meant nothing until it was ascribed a certain analogical meaning.
I think exchanges of the sort Tim and I have the past couple of days are rare in the sense that they happen because the individual participants coincidentally have the time to dedicate to such pursuits. (He’s trying to assemble the latest issue of Video Watchdog while I’m trying to provide him with the material to do just that.) Although Tim has been writing on the cinema since he was a teenager, and I’ve been writing for Video Watchdog for the past 11 years, both of us have keen interest in popular music and it has always been a pleasure for me to share ideas and views about music with him. I don’t think our mutual love of movies and music should be surprising to those who know us primarily through Video Watchdog, as we’re both extremely interested in what in the most general terms is called the “entertainment industry,” the way it has formed our identities and contributed to the life of our individual imaginations. We’re also interested in it because we’re both striving to understand ourselves as individuals whose identities were formed during a particular historical moment when the cultural influence of the entertainment industry had finally achieved the cultural dominance that we now accept as a given, like a fact of nature.
In short, we take popular music very seriously. Last year he and I both submitted proposals to Contiuum’s 33 1/3 series, only to have our proposals rejected by the editor. The manuscript for his book, on Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation, has been completed for a year now if not longer; my manuscript, on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West, is perhaps half completed, as I stopped working on it once I received the rejection notice (an email). Both of us obviously were disappointed by the outcome, as we’d each completed a considerable amount of original research, and a number of original interviews. In my case, I had the complete cooperation and total support of the defunct band’s leader, Stan Ridgway, who is still active touring and making albums. If anyone knows of a potential publisher for these books, please let Tim or me know.
Last night my friend Tim Lucas took the time to post comments to my recent entries, “Bubblegum Breakthrough” and “DIDs,” a gesture that I very much appreciate--one hopes that one’s blog entries are taken seriously by somebody. While I’d like to respond at length to the many ideas in both of his posts, for the moment I’ll confine my remarks to Tim’s remarks on my most recent entry, “Bubblegum Breakthrough,” simply because it’s the most recent.
Having mentioned the co-songwriters of “The Rain, the Park & Other Things”--Artie Kornfeld (pictured, at the Woodstock festival) and Steve Duboff--he was right to remind readers that I’d overlooked the fact that Artie Kornfeld was one of the co-producers of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Those interested might want to visit his webpage, where one can find biographical information as well as behind-the-scenes information on the complexities of staging the famous music and arts festival. (Alternatively, a brief bio of Kornfeld is available here.)
Tim makes an intriguing link between “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” and the heavy rains that festival-goers had to endure while at Woodstock:
No wonder he [Kornfeld] . . . looks so blissed out while standing onstage and rapping to the ABC newsman about all the people sitting in the rain in the Woodstock movie. His rap is the one Charlton Heston has memorized in The Omega Man.
Having read Tim’s comment, it occurred to me that one could think of “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” as a sort of virtual rehearsal for the Woodstock festival itself, as if Kornfeld had, in some half-formed or perhaps unconscious way, the idea for the Woodstock festival in his head when he wrote the song years before, thus making the lyrical content an example of what rhetoricians call prolepsis—speaking of something that has not yet happened as if it already has happened. One wonders if Kornfeld being “blissed out” during the interview isn’t, in part, his own bewildered reaction to the literal realization that “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” was, remarkably, unfolding before him.
In response to my assertion that "The Rain, the Park, & Other Things" was bubblegum music, Tim responded:
The Cowsills may have been a bubblegum act by definition, but I would personally categorize their performance of this song as psychedelia. There is no insincerity or irony in the vocals, for one thing, and the instrumentation has a wonderfully iridescent quality. Wholesome yes, but psychedelic nonetheless--like a black light poster or a strawberry scented candle.
In response, I would say that a fundamental problem--and what makes writing about this sort of music difficult--is that the categories of “bubblegum” and “psychedelia” are ill-defined concepts: they have “fuzzy boundaries” (no pun intended). As an old philosophy professor of mine once warned me: avoid creating false dichotomies between ill-defined concepts. The problem is this: is psychedelia defined by instrumentation, that is, by sound, or by lyrical content, or, as Tim suggests, by a certain rhetorical posture toward the subject matter? (Irony being a defining feature of bubblegum as I understand his argument.)
I agree with him in his characterization of the song’s instrumentation (sound being essential to psychedelic music), and I also think he’s correct in his observation that there’s no “insincerity or irony in the vocals.” But we disagree over the issue of irony: actually, I would take the opposite position, and say that it is psychedelia that is defined by irony, not bubblegum, the latter music being the one characterized by a certain naïvete and lack of irony--an absence of self-consciousness. In order to illustrate my point, juxtapose “The Rain, the Park, & Other Things” with, say, the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home”--a song which, historically speaking, has the virtue of being released almost exactly at the same time as “The Rain, the Park, & Other Things.” Which song seems more obviously psychedelic? To me, it is “2000 Light Years From Home,” certainly the more irony-laden and self-conscious of the two. What’s more, the lyrics are more “surreal” as opposed to those of “The Rain, the Park…,” which form a more coherent narrative, even if the narrator can’t decide if the event really happened or was a dream. In contrast, psychedelic lyrics are often highly fragmented, repetitive, and, as I mentioned earlier, surrealistic. As an example, think of the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”:
Have you seen her all in gold?
Like a queen in days of old
She shoots colors all around
Like a sunset going down
Have you seen a lady fairer?
She comes in colors everywhere;
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow
Coming, colors in the air
She comes in colors
She’s like a rainbow
Coming, colors in the air
She comes in colors
I see psychedelic music as the aural equivalent of an hallucinogenic drug trip--“She’s a Rainbow” being the Stones’ answer to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”--while bubblegum is the aural equivalent of non-alcoholic beer (or, alternatively, psychedelic music played by a band that doesn't inhale).
I think the Cowsills’ (cleaned-up) cover of “Hair” also works as wholesome psychedelia--listen to the sound effects during the “It can get caught in the trees” stanza--but “Indian Lake” is unabashed bubblegum.
Yes, and yes--although I was never a fan of the musical Hair nor the Cowsills (which doesn’t mean, incidentally, that just because I wasn’t “for” them meant I was “against” them). “Indian Lake” is on The Best of the Cowsills, but when I play that CD I usually press the “skip” button when “Indian Lake” cues up. To be honest, the only Cowsills record to which I really ever gave a listen was The Cowsills In Concert (which included “Hair” live), an album that a friend insisted I borrow, along with the first Vanilla Fudge album. I have to say that at the time, for some now long-forgotten reason, my tastes gravitated toward Vanilla Fudge, although the last time I listened to their first album (on CD), probably a year or so ago, I found it extraordinarily dull and turgid. Some critic once remarked about the work of the novelist Henry James, “He chewed rather more than he bit off,” a remark that is an apt description of the first Vanilla Fudge album. I probably thought at the time that it was “psychedelic,” but now I think it is just “pulverizedelic,” a plodding, Hammond organ-heavy album that is utterly devoid of any humor or imagination. You can’t imagine how many local bands at the time tried to copy its sound, bands that played so many high school proms I don’t even wish to think about it. In contrast, and to its credit, The Cowsills in Concert is, now, what it was, then--completely innocuous and benign.
Looking back at my previous post, I see that the fundamental issues became even more complicated when I suggested that "Power Pop" developed out of "bubblegum." Anyone wish to chime in on (for example), the relation between . . . the Cowsills and . . . Big Star?
Thursday, March 27, 2008
It is no accident that virtually every album considered among the greatest in rock history is not a live album but made in the studio. To name some obvious examples, think of Elvis Presley's first LP for RCA (1956), The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (1973)--all products of improvements in studio recording and engineering technology. Moreover, in the case of Dark Side of the Moon, developments in electronic music and the invention of the Moog synthesizer both contributed to its success and its achievement. Because of developments in electronic music and recording methods, by 1967 popular music had begun to provide an aural, electronic equivalent to the hallucinogenic drug experience, known as “psychedelic rock” or simply “psychedelia.”
What came to be referred to, pejoratively, as Bubblegum Music emerged from, and was a response to, psychedelia. The acknowledged masters of this form of pop music were Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz (known as Super K Productions), who were to Bubblegum music what Alan Parsons was to psychedelic rock. Under the banner of Super K Productions, Kasenetz-Katz were responsible for hits such as “Simon Says” by The 1910 Fruitgum Company and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” by the Ohio Express, both released in 1968.
In my mind, though, Bubblegum’s first big hit was recorded by The Cowsills, who, as everyone knows, became the model for the musical family depicted in the TV show The Partridge Family (1970-74). The hit, released late in 1967, was titled “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” It was written by Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff, who’d also written the hit “The Pied Piper” for Crispian St. Peters.
I saw her sitting in the rain, raindrops falling on her
She didn't seem to care, she sat there and smiled at me
Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew) she could make me happy (happy, happy!)
Flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere!
I love the flower girl! Oh, I don't know just why, she simply caught my eye
I love the flower girl! She seemed so sweet and kind, she crept into my mind
I knew I had to say hello
She smiled up at me, and she took my hand and we walked through the park alone
And I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew) she had made me happy (happy, happy!)
Flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere!
I love the flower girl! Oh, I don't know just why, she simply caught my eye
I love the flower girl! She seemed so sweet and kind, she crept into my mind
Suddenly the sun broke through (see the sun)
I turned around she was gone (where did she go?)
And all I had left was one little flower in my hand
But I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew) she had made me happy (happy, happy!)
Flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere!
I love the flower girl! Was she reality or just a dream to me?
I love the flower girl! Her love showed me the way to find a sunny day
Betraying Bubblegum’s psychedelic origins, the singer is unsure whether he’s just experienced something real or an hallucination. “The Rain, The Park & Other Things” can also be understood as a benign version of The Association’s “Along Comes Mary” with its supposedly cloaked drug reference (“Mary,” so the story goes, is short for “Mary Jane,” one of the many coded names for marijuana).
Although providing similar titillations as rock but for a younger, teenage set, Bubblegum was psychedelic music deprived of its substance. It was psychedelia with the malignant property removed, the 1960s equivalent of today’s decaffeinated coffee, fat free cream, beer without alcohol, sugarless soda pop. It was The Monkees rather than The Beatles, “I Think We’re Alone Now” rather than “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Crimson and Clover” as the good (drug) trip rather than the bad one of “2000 Light Years From Home.”
Bubblegum’s novel flavor dissipated fast, and by the early 1970s it was gone, supplanted by what’s since become known as “Power Pop”—think of The Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” instead of Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky.”
The collocation “Desert Island Discs”—DIDs— normally refers to a music critic’s list of revered recordings, usually consisting of ten (10) albums, as in Top 10. The term is derived from the question, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what ten albums (normally ten, out of respect to the commandments), out of all the albums you own, would you want to have with you?” Given the hypothetical nature of the question, it might just as easily be phrased as, “If your house were on fire, what ten albums would you grab on the way out?” Implicit in the question is the assumption that the critic compiling the list has hoarded, in a grossly materialistic way, more albums than he could ever possibly listen to (or rather, listen to carefully). Actually, the compilation of a “DIDs” list is a tacit admission by the critic that he really listens only to a small portion of the many hundreds (or thousands) he owns.
I vividly remember a conversation I had about ten years ago or so with my friend Mike Jarrett, a music critic himself and a world expert on jazz, when the topic of DIDs came up. In the context of a conversation regarding what each of us might include on a DIDs list, he paused to ask me a question that he prefaced by insisting he was asking in all seriousness. Of course, I said, ask it. Why would I think you were not asking a serious question? The question was this, brilliant really, which I’ve pondered many times in the years since: What makes up God’s record collection: Every record ever made, or just the best records ever made?
You don’t have to have any sort of conventional religious belief--even none--to answer the question. How do you answer it--not in a “theoretical” way, meaning, how “would” you answer it assuming the off-chance that someone ever asked you--but how do you? Does the most ideal of album collections in God’s place consist of all the albums ever made, or only the best (however the Almighty should decide that)? Is heaven (a desert island, of the tropical paradise sort) a place of plenty, of excess, of everything, or is it premised on the Puritan Principle of Parsimony—that is, DIDs. (When you go to heaven, in other words, and you’ve got only ten choices, what shall they be?) Is it all-inclusive, or exclusive? If you had your druthers, do you invite everybody, or only a select few? Certain Christian traditions, of course, tell us that those selected are an elite few—the Chosen. But I recall answering Mike’s question, “all of them. God has all of them.” Mike’s response was, “But does He listen to them all?” Isn’t this the real paradox of desire: Is desire polymorphously perverse (indiscriminate), or fetishistically perverse (rarified)?
I have never seen a list of DIDs that was really anything more than a particular critic’s fetishized list, selected from a standardized list of “Rock Greats”—the critic’s favorite Beatles album, favorite Rolling Stones album, favorite Pink Floyd album, Led Zeppelin album, Bob Dylan album—you get the idea. And outside of some occasional, unexpected flourishes—Cream, perhaps, or U2, Grateful Dead, Nirvana—the list never contains surprises. (Or, if it does, it’s the “Guilty Pleasure” sort, that is, the fetishized sort, meaning the critic "can’t explain it," "just likes it" sort, meaning it eludes rational explication--he’s a mystery even to himself.) In other words, we all know the critical darlings that are going to be there—Rock music’s Great Tradition—the suspense is simply finding out which album by the canonical bands happens to be the critic’s favorite (at the moment).
The problem is that many music critics are really just fans who’ve learned how to write and found a forum to expound from, fans in the sense that their judgment is uncritical—everything by the band (Beatles, Pink Floyd, fill in the blank) is great. Every song, every album, every note by the band is just as good as every other one. Now this just can’t be true--or can it?
By way of analogy, think of the work by a major literary figure—Shakespeare, for example. As Harold Bloom points out—Bloom being one of America’s best critics—had Shakespeare died at the same age as his contemporary, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and Marlowe lived on instead, Marlowe would have been considered historically the greater playwright. Shakespeare’s early plays do not have the level of sophistication and craft of Marlowe’s early plays. At a younger age, the fact is, Marlowe was the stronger playwright of the two. Of course, history is radically contingent: Marlowe was murdered, and Shakespeare lived, eventually composing the great tragedies upon which his reputation largely, and justly, rests. Likewise, of all the many volumes of his writings, the crucial importance of British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) rests, according to Bloom, on a mere nine poems—but what a brilliant nine they are. In popular music criticism, most critics refuse to make such keen discriminations, partly because they are afraid history will prove them wrong, and so overestimate the importance of every album ("five stars"), or else invent an ad hoc system on which to base their judgment--yet another mechanism of desire--which is presented as “objective.”
Question: Is Meet the Beatles as good a record as the White Album? Or, alternatively: Does God have all the Beatles albums, are only the very best?
Some, rightly so, will cry foul and claim a category error: first I asked about records, and then I asked about albums. In an earlier post, I claimed the two were not the same, a record being a material artifact, an album a concept. But if an album is a concept, does God, then, prefer "Greatest Hits" packages, or the individual albums, in the sense of particular records? Example: Does God have The Eagles' Hotel California, or The Eagles' Greatest Hits? Or all of the individual albums, avoiding the Greatest Hits?
Monday, March 24, 2008
Four years earlier than the above date, in his first national television appearance on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show, broadcast January 28 1956, Elvis Presley chose to open with “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” a song that Frank Sinatra, for one, would never have condescended to perform. Sinatra probably snorted in derision at Elvis’s second song that evening, too: “Flip, Flop & Fly.” Three months later, when Elvis again appeared on the Stage Show, he sang “Tutti Frutti.” Forget what young females thought about Elvis’s bad boy sneer, his gyrating hips, his wiggling and shimmying, his clamorous shouts and erotic moans—that’s legendary. The more important question is, why did Elvis choose to perform, on a national stage, such “nonsensical” songs?
One of the reasons Elvis was derided early on was that his choice of material seemed so ludicrous: “Flip Flop & Fly”? “Tutti Frutti”? Why not the deep yearning of classic ballads such as “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” or “When Your Lover Has Gone”? Why choose songs that are so devoid of substance—so apparently trivial? Why not perform the old standards instead? Frank Sinatra was so incensed by Elvis’s music that he wrote a magazine article condemning rock as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear.” He averred that rock ‘n’ roll is “sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact—dirty lyrics, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” (qtd. from Kitty Kelley, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, Bantam Books, p. 277).
However, according to Donald Clarke, by the time Elvis appeared on the historical scene, the music business wasn’t the same as it had been when Sinatra began his career slightly over a decade earlier. By the early 1950s, “good white songs were becoming scarce. The Berlins, Gershwins and the rest had died or retired, and the classic songs they had written could not be imitated.” Hence, Elvis never had access to the sort of material to which Sinatra had access (“standards”), and perhaps that made all the difference. (As a corollary, Elvis was never offered the sort of strong dramatic roles in movies that Sinatra was offered, either.) The composers of many of Elvis’s early songs were black, who were writing for the black music market, and who had a different sensibility than the Berlins and Gershwins. So, in answer to the question as to why Elvis chose to perform songs such as “Flip Flop & Fly” and “Tutti Frutti,” the reason is because Elvis chose songs that didn’t sound like anything else. But to Frank Sinatra, if songs weren’t standards, they were aberrations.
Simon Frith offers a way of understanding the difference between Sinatra and Elvis by referring to Dave Laing’s book, Buddy Holly (1972). Laing says that those interested in understanding rock music need to have the musical equivalent of film studies’ distinction between the auteur and the metteur en scene. According to Laing:
The musical equivalent of the metteur en scene is the performer who regards a song as an actor does his part—as something to be expressed, something to get across . . . . The vocal style of the singer is determined almost entirely by the emotional connotations of the words.
Frank Sinatra, then, was the musical equivalent of the metteur en scene. In contrast, says Laing, the rock auteur
is determined not by the unique features of the song but by his personal style, the ensemble of vocal effects that characterize the whole body his work.
Elvis, then, was the equivalent of an auteur: the meaning of the song is not simply organized around the words, but rather in the exceptional nature of his singing style. Sinatra condemned Elvis because he didn’t understand his music, nor could he, at the time, quite grasp the historic rupture in American popular music that Elvis represented. In film historical terms, Sinatra was the old, “classical” Hollywood, while Elvis anticipated the age—our age—of the independent film, the age of the auteur.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Although there are rather sophisticated Site Meter services available for monitoring website traffic, I use only the “basic” service—in other words, the free one. Other than page views, I don’t pay any attention to the various sorts of traffic data available to me—this isn’t a commercial site, after all, so such information is not critically important to me. The other day, however, I decided to take a look at the data as listed in the category “By Referrals,” information on how one’s particular website is found by a particular viewer other than by directly entering the specific URL (that is, data on re-directed traffic).
I was mildly astonished to discover how many individuals had been directed to my blogspot as a consequence of searching the key words, “Betty and the Jets lyrics.” The reason for this is that a few blog entries ago I wrote a blog entry on the mondegreen, “Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind,” followed a few days later by a second entry, a follow-up that I’d titled, as a jape, “Betty and the Jets.”
After learning how many page visits my blogspot had received as a consequence of individuals searching for the lyrics to “Betty and the Jets,” I felt a tad bit guilty: wasn’t I perpetuating what is clearly a rather widespread misunderstanding, adding to, rather than clarifying, the essential homophonic ambiguity regarding “Bennie and the Jets” by disseminating the deformed, mondegreen version, “Betty and the Jets”? On the other hand, I decided, perhaps having read about the mondegreen, the searchers might, in a sort of roundabout way, figure out the song’s actual title, and hence find the lyrics they had set out to find.
In my earlier “Betty and the Jets” blog entry, I’d suggested the existence of the mondegreen, at least insofar as lyrics are concerned, is a consequence of a message being deformed once it is subject to electronic transmission, a technology which emphasizes the received nature of messages.
But perhaps on this Easter Sunday, we might want to consider an entirely different theoretical issue, that of the (invisible) effect of homophonic ambiguity (the mondegreen) on the transmission of messages that were originally made within a largely oral (that is, largely illiterate) culture, and consider whether the transmission of Biblical texts might also have been subject to deformation by the mondegreen. I’m sure such a possibility has given many a Biblical scholar a sleepless night or two (or three). I know it has been exploited for comic effect: think, for instance, of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the line, "Blessed are the cheesemakers," although this is an example of an intentional deformation, not an unintentional one, as is the mondegreen. However, the point is clear enough.
There is certainly textual evidence that serves as a sort of “smoking gun” for the existence of the Biblical mondegreen, as Frank Kermode has astutely pointed out in his fascinating book, The Genesis of Secrecy. In his discussion of figura (i.e., typology, a method of Biblical interpretation premised on the assumption that events in the New Testament are “pre-figured,” or anticipated, by textual material found in the Old Testament), Kermode discusses the evidence that Old Testament texts were sometimes “christologized,” that is, “rewritten in a more convenient form.” He writes:
A famous instance is the Christian version of Psalms 96:10, as found in Justin, where the words “from the tree” are added to the original text, “The Lord has reigned.” (107)
The footnote Kermode adds to this passage is worth looking at in detail:
I have heard this example contested on the ground that we cannot be sure there were not Septuagint manuscripts that included the words apo tou xulou (“from the tree”). An explanation of how such an intrusive reading might have come about is this: a translator, coming across the Hebrew word selah, which, though it is not infrequent in the Psalms, has no certain meaning, transliterated it into Greek xela or even xyla, so that the text read “The Lord shall reign xyla.” The addition was modified to xylou, and somebody then made sense of it by inserting apo and reading apo xulou, “from the tree”—thus “manufacturing a prophecy of the crucifixion which was to be welcomed by Christian exegetes” . . . . (158-59).
In other words, the actual text was modified by the exegete’s desire for the New Testament to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament. The analogy, of course, is that one hears what one wants to hear. True, Kermode’s specific example is one of scribal corruption of the orthographic sort (orthography concerns spelling, but also the issue of how sounds are expressed by written symbols), but it is only one of the many kinds of ambiguity in language. Some words have one sound but multiple spellings, with different meanings for each spelling (e.g., main/mane), homophones in the strict sense. But there are words that have one spelling but have multiple meanings (e.g., “bank,” as in river bank, but also “bank” as in financial institution) called polysemous words. Obviously, both kinds of words can confuse listeners. In Kermode’s example, the argument for the addition of “from the tree” is based on the assumption that some ancient redactor, confused by the Hebrew word selah, decided it was a pseudohomophone (for a contemporary example, for instance, think of the use of “luv” for “love”) and therefore made an orthographic error, substituting either the Greek word xela or possibly xyla. A subsequent redactor then modified xela/xyla to xylou, creating yet another confusion, one subsequently resolved by yet another redactor, the later one adding of the word apo and reading apo xulou, “from the tree.” Note the progressive deformation caused by the original substitution.
There’s a famous example in the history of literary criticism of a scholarly article having been written based on a text that had an error of the orthographic kind. The literary scholar in question (nameless) wrote a long, involved interpretation of the profound religious and metaphysical implications of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, mistakenly basing his interpretation on a textual source in which the phrase, “soiled fish of the sea” was, unknown to the critic, a corruption of the phrase found in the first and early editions of the novel, “coiled fish of the sea.” (“Soiled fish” vaguely suggesting of the idea of original sin, while “coiled fish” suggesting the meaning of the Old English “wyrm,” a serpent or dragon, and hence the Devil.) How easily some later copy-editor could have made such a mistake; how seemingly minor such a simple substitution of the glyph “s” for the glyph “c”—but how astonishing the interpretive flight made possible by such a seemingly insignificant error!
I’ve made the same sort of mistake myself. I am one of those listeners who for years thought Bob Dylan sang, in “Tangled Up in Blue,”
Split up on the docks that night
rather than the lyric as published on his website:
Split up on a dark sad night
Obviously, my interpretation of the song had always rested, in part, on mishearing this particular lyric. I still prefer my version over the actual lyric (the role of desire in hearing). That the song’s narrator and the unnamed woman “split up on the docks that night” always had a wonderfully cinematic, mysterious quality to it: a foggy, dockside scene in chiaroscuro, two figures in silhouette, illuminated from behind by a single bulb beneath a metal canopy overhanging the entrance to some small, dilapidated shack, with the small squibs of light marking the portholes of the docked ships behind them. I thought it was a suitably romantic image for such a somber parting. How non-cinematic is the actual lyric (to me), but the point is how one’s interpretation rests on how one has decoded the message.
And just think, all this time, you wanted to be a rockin’ polestar? Or how about a rockin' pollster? Examine not the boat in your neighbor's eye, remove the bead from your own!
Saturday, March 22, 2008
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh...
Having turned 25 years old in January, 1960, Elvis would have turned 73 years old in January of this year. Sharing the same birthday as Elvis, January 8, David Bowie turned 61 a couple of months ago (having turned 13 years old in January, 1960). In a few more months, Mick Jagger will be 65. (Astonishingly, Bill Wyman of the Stones already celebrated his 71st birthday.) In the history of rock ‘n’ roll, eventually it may come to pass that British artists such as Jagger and Bowie will be perceived as more provocative rock stars than Elvis Presley, although Elvis in a very real sense created them, that is, made them both possible, enabling their later elaborations on the image of the (white) rock star he pioneered.
One reason for this eventuality may be that both Bowie and Jagger were willing to experiment with their masculine image much more than Elvis. Although extraordinarily erotic to a generation of young women, Elvis never tried any such experimentation--it probably never occurred to him. What this difference suggests, among other things, is that Bowie’s and Jagger’s particular allure is not Elvis’s—and never was. Critic Greil Marcus has argued that what Elvis did was to purge the Sunday morning sobriety from folk and country music and expunge the dread from the blues. In doing so, he transformed a regional music into a national music, and in doing so invented party music. Elvis popularized an amalgam of musical forms and styles into “rock ‘n’ roll,” a black American euphemism for sexual intercourse. What the Rolling Stones did to rock music (and Bowie after them) some years after Elvis made sex an integral part of rock music’s appeal, was to infuse rock with a bohemian theatricality, at first through the key figure of Brian Jones, who was the first British pop star to cultivate actively a flamboyant, androgynous image. For a time, Jones even found his female double in Anita Pallenberg. Brian Jones and the Stones thus re-introduced into rock music its erotic allure, and hence made it threatening (again).
History will recognize that the cultivated androgyny and transvestitism of 1960s rock stars such as Jagger and Bowie destabilized and subverted stable categories of the self and sexual identity, which is why as cultural practices they were perceived by some as so threatening and so subversive to genteel, bourgeois culture. (Indeed, Brian Jones seems to have had deep disdain for middle-class puritanism and sexuality morality.) By the late 1960s and early 1970s, roughly four decades ago, rock music had become synonymous with decadence. The connection was cemented when Mick Jagger appeared in Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (1970) as a bohemian rock star living in a ménage à trois with two women--one of whom was Anita Pallenberg. A few years later, in 1976, David Bowie appeared as a sexually ambiguous alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, in The Man Who Fell to Earth (although, as David Cammell recently told me, Peter O'Toole was first considered for the part of Newton.) The Bowie character was similar to the Michael Rennie character (Klaatu, aka “Mr. Carpenter”) in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) by virtue of his possessing advanced technology. But he was utterly unlike the Rennie character in that his alien sexuality was foregrounded; it was essential to defining his difference. (Michael Rennie is to The Day the Earth Stood Still what Elvis Presley is, now, to rock culture—a benign, handsome, paternal, Christ-like figure purged of any real sexual menace).
The performances of Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth now stand as grand subversions of the wholesome but bland image of the rock star created by Elvis in his 31 feature films (1956—1969). Elvis might have sung Leiber and Stoller’s “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” to a group of girls on a dude ranch in 1965’s Tickle Me (“It’s Fun!.....It’s Girls!.....It’s Song!.....It’s Color!”) but Jagger and Bowie (and the girls) were “dirty.” By literalizing in their films what Elvis had only sung about in his, Jagger and Bowie forever transformed the image of the rock star, and in so doing transformed rock culture.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Most certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) made Arthur C. Clarke the most famous science fiction writer in the world. I’m not claiming that he was the best nor even the greatest—although for many he is the very epitome of the SF writer—but unquestionably he was the most famous, a simple matter of fact. His closest rival in that regard may be Ray Bradbury. My personal tastes gravitate toward SF authors such as Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, but it was the writing of Arthur C. Clarke that initially drew me to science fiction decades ago.
When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was at the impressionable age of fourteen. As everyone knows, although the one sheet of 2001: A Space Odyssey promoted the film as a Cinerama presentation, it wasn’t, of course, projected in movie theaters in true Cinerama. But for me that’s a moot point, anyway, because I didn’t see it in Super Panavision 70, what MGM was then calling Cinerama; in fact, I never have seen it in that format--and never will. I first saw it at the drive-in, of all places, and, subsequently, in the years after, during its re-release, in 35mm prints. And yet despite the less than ideal venue in which I first saw it, the film so profoundly captured my imagination that I subsequently went back to see it again, perhaps five or six times. What did I care whether it was at the drive-in? I would have gone to see it anywhere. Its power is not simply in its images, but in its ideas--and its music.
The soundtrack to 2001 became the first album I ever purchased (with my own money). I had saved up my allowance, and of all the albums on the racks—albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Association, Vanilla Fudge, Tommy James and the Shondells, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, on and on and on—the album about which I carefully deliberated, and eventually selected, was the soundtrack to 2001. I have that album to this day, and, alas, it has all of the tell-tale signs of age, e.g., “cover wear,” “corner dings,” “seam splits, “surface markings on record,” etc. Assuming my home is never subject some catastrophic event—fire, explosion, lightning, aircraft damage—I always will own it, until the day when my heirs are left to dispose of it, an antiquated, tattered material artifact connected to some decades-old movie.
Having read the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey around age fifteen, I was compelled to find more work by its author. My high school library had a few of Clarke's books; of those I read, I remember very much liking Islands in the Sky. A juvenile novel, I remember it being about a boy living on a space station, where human problems take second place in a world in which the imaginative reach of science was boundless. Soon after, I came across a few of Clarke’s short stories in some SF anthologies that I purchased off the carousel book rack at Garvey’s Rexall Drugs store. In due time Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (Signet, 1970) was published in paperback, followed a couple of years later by the book I found even more interesting, Clarke’s The Lost Worlds of 2001 (Signet, 1972), a detailed account of the making of 2001 that had the virtue of including Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” (primary source for the film), as well as alternative script material that wasn’t used in the finished film.
I was a freshman in college, though, when I first read Childhood’s End, the novel that, for me, is the great Arthur C. Clarke novel. In the many years since I’ve become a college English teacher, I’ve taught it whenever I’ve had the opportunity to teach a course in science fiction. Childhood’s End employs the idea Clarke had first used in “The Sentinel” (and hence, subsequently, in 2001) in which humankind achieves transcendence under the tutelage of benevolent but inscrutable aliens—which in the case of Childhood’s End happen to have a strong resemblance to the Devil (vaguely reptilian, with horns and tail). I choose to think Clarke never abandoned the fundamental premise of American writer Charles Fort (1874-1932). Fort, a student of the paranormal and strange and unusual phenomena, postulated the utterly paranoid idea, “We are property,” meaning that the earth and its inhabitants are the playthings of unknown but immensely intelligent creatures from outer space. I’m not aware of any criticism that has been written about 2001: A Space Odyssey that explores the way in which it is a Fortean film. Fort’s assertion that “We are property” is the unstated premise of “The Sentinel,” as it is for 2001. As it turns out, many years later, in one of those unexpected turns of which life consists, as part of the research for the book I co-authored with Rebecca Umland, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), I was given a copy of the screenplay adaptation of Childhood's End Abraham Polonsky wrote in the early 1970s, which Donald Cammell had hoped to direct. Although not widely known, and seldom if ever referred to in discussions of Polonsky's work after he ceased film directing, I'd love to know what Clarke thought of it.
Some years ago Peter Nicholls observed in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), that the paradoxical legacy of Arthur C. Clarke may be that while he is associated with technological progress, he at the same time may also be
best remembered for the image of mankind being as children next to the ancient, inscrutable wisdom of alien races. There is something attractive, even moving, in what can be seen in Freudian terms as an unhappy mankind crying out for a lost father; certainly it is the closest thing SF has yet produced to an analogy for religion, and the longing for God. (230)
But a recent BBC news report published this week reported:
Sir Arthur was quoted as saying religion was “a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species,” and he left written instructions that his funeral be completely secular.
I am not at all surprised by this revelation, among the last wishes of a supremely intelligent writer of great imaginative reach, a man whose remarkable life spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
aka Bop Girl Goes Calypso
1957, 79m 43s
Trivia question: What was the name of the film in which Judy Tyler (pictured, left) appeared prior to starring in Jailhouse Rock with Elvis?
Answer: Bop Girl Goes Calypso (the on-screen title; the one-sheet and lobby cards I've seen simply read Bop Girl), which was shown on Turner Classic Movies late last night. Most sources I’ve consulted indicate that Bop Girl Goes Calypso was released through United Artists in July 1957, meaning that Judy Tyler had already died (4 July 1957) by the time it and her subsequent film, Jailhouse Rock, were released in theaters. Two years ago I had a student enrolled in one of my classes who grew up near the small town in Wyoming where Judy Tyler was critically injured in an automobile crash; she avers there is a commemorative marker to this day marking the spot where the terrible event occurred. She also told me the name of the small town, but for the life of me I can’t remember it. The location of the accident is sometimes listed as Laramie, Wyoming, but that would seem to be the place where she was taken by ambulance to the city hospital, not the actual location of the automobile accident. However, it seems to me there's some confusion over this matter, as the aforementioned student told me that local lore has it that Tyler was instantly killed in the crash and pronounced DOA at the Laramie hospital. I cannot claim to be able to resolve this matter.
Fifty years on, the primary interest of Bop Girl is as a museum piece. I'm not entirely sure of the meaning of “bop” in the title, as it doesn’t refer to jazz music (as in the truncated form of the term, bebop). I believe “bop” in this case may be a slang term for “hit," as in a musical hit—a "hit single." The movie’s narrative formula is similar to that found in other films made for teenagers at the time—Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), for instance, is a good example—in which a romantic rivalry serves as a sort of corollary to the competing forms of popular music foregrounded in each film. (Career and romance go hand-in-hand, success in one complementing success in the other.) The nerdy protagonist of Bop Girl is Bob Hilton (Bobby Troup, pictured above, right), a graduate student in psychology. His thesis is tentatively titled, “Mass Hysteria and the Popular Singer,” and he is attempting to demonstrate empirically (by means of an applause meter, a clunky apparatus that appears throughout the film) that rock ‘n’ roll is on the verge of being displaced by calypso music. Improbably, his balding, equally nerdy academic mentor, Professor Winthrop (Lucien Littlefield, then nearing the end of a long acting career in the movies, dating back to the silent era), is a fan of rock ‘n’ roll. Upon hearing the conclusions Bob has drawn from his “scientific” research, he is distressed to learn that rock ‘n’ roll is yet just another passing fad. In contrast, Professor Winthrop’s good friend, Barney (prolific character actor George O'Hanlon, later the voice of TV’s George Jetson), the hot-tempered owner of a club, the Down Beat, catering to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd, dismisses Bob’s conclusions, averring rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. But in order to save his friend’s economic future, however, Professor Winthrop convinces the Down Beat’s primary audience draw, the lovely singer, dancer, and bop girl Jo Thomas (Judy Tyler), to learn calypso in her spare time. Her calypso music adviser is none other than egghead Bob Hilton, with whom she becomes romantically involved, despite the fact that Bob is currently engaged to fellow brainy graduate student Marion Hendricks (Margo Woode). In the meantime, the recalcitrant club-owner Barney discovers the growing popularity of calypso music. He goes native, adopting the requisite clothing (including the straw hat) and renaming his establishment Club Trinidad. Just as Bob had predicted, the (former) rock ‘n’ roll fans go calypso crazy, and Jo Thomas becomes a calypso performer eagerly sought out by A&R talent scouts seeking to sign her to a recording contract. At the conclusion of the narrative, she and Bob have become a romantic couple, her career is on its way, while Marion is shown dancing with Professor Winthrop. [!]
As directed by Howard W. Koch, who the next year would direct Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Bop Girl is neither better nor worse than other “topical” films of the period that in one way or another were reactions to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Clearly the film was attempting to ride the crest of the huge popularity of Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso (1956), the first vinyl LP (as opposed to single) to sell over one million copies (31 weeks at #1, 58 weeks in the top 10, 99 weeks on the music charts). Yet unlike Don’t Knock the Rock, in which the postwar collapse of swing served as a means to historically validate the rise of rock ‘n’ roll as a popular form of music, Bop Girl simply manufactures any supposed competition between calypso and rock ‘n’ roll. Oddly, despite its titular reference to calypso, most of the songs are rock ‘n’ roll numbers, interspersed with a hybrid form of calypso music (such as “Calypso Boogie”), written or co-written by Les Baxter. The only calypso music as such in the film is performed by Lord Flea. Other performers, many of whom went on to have rather substantial careers, include saxophonist Nino Tempo (who opens the film with a fine jump tune), The Titans (doo wop), The Goofers (quirky R&B, quirky in a good way), and the Las Vegas lounge act, The Mary Kaye Trio. I'll confess my primary motive for seeing Bop Girl was to see Judy Tyler in a pre-Jailhouse Rock role, and in this regard I was not disappointed. In fact, she's prettier and sexier in Bop Girl than she is in Jailhouse Rock, in which performance was more restrained, more matronly. (The movie was all about Elvis, after all, not her.)
My original intention was to perform an analysis of Bop Girl Goes Calypso using the terms I’d employed in my earlier, January 16 blog entry on Nat King Cole (in the entry titled “The Pale Gaze”), but instead I’ll simply point readers to my earlier post as well as a very interesting analysis of the film that can be found here.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
According to John Tobler’s book, This Day in Rock: Day by Day Record of Rock’s Biggest News Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Elvis Presley’s first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One, was released on January 25, 1956--exactly four years earlier than the above date. (Certain web sources proffer a slightly later date, although the discrepancy is minor and ultimately insignificant.)
On January 25, 1960, Elvis had just about five weeks left in the Army. No one had yet heard of the Beatles; the band as such didn't exist. The band that would become the Beatles was still known as The Quarrymen--the band members hadn’t yet decided on the name The Silver Beetles. In a wonderful sort of symmetry, precisely four years later--January 25, 1964--the Beatles first American single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” was one week away from becoming the band’s first #1 hit on the American charts, where it would remain perched for almost two months. As everyone knows, 1964 was the annus mirabilis of the Beatles, during which they had nine different singles sharing either the #1 or #2 spot on and off throughout the year. Chart information for 1964 is as follows (courtesy Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1991):
Song Title/Peak Date/Peak Position/Weeks at Peak Position
I Want to Hold Your Hand/February 1/#1/7 weeks
Please Please Me/March 14/#2/3 weeks
She Loves You/March 21/#1/2 weeks
Can’t Buy Me Love/April 4/#1/5 weeks
Twist and Shout/April 4/#2/4 weeks
Do You Want To Know a Secret/May 9/#2/1 week
Love Me Do/May 30/#1/1 week
A Hard Day’s Night/August 1/#1/2 weeks
I Feel Fine/Dec. 26/#1/3 weeks
In contrast, Elvis Presley had no songs in the Top 40 in 1964 (or 1965, or 1966, or 1967, or…). It wasn’t until late 1969 that Elvis had another #1 hit, his first big hit in many years. Instead of making records, he was busy making movies. During the years from 1960 (Post-Army, Pre-Beatles) to 1964 (Beatlemania), Elvis made the following movies, released in the following order:
G.I. Blues (1960)
Flaming Star (1960)
Wild in the Country (1961)
Blue Hawaii (1961)
Follow That Dream (1962)
Kid Galahad (1962)
Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
It Happened at the World's Fair (1963)
Fun in Acapulco (1963)
Kissin’ Cousins (1964) [Arguably his worst film, the absolute bottom of the barrel, infelicitously released at the onset of Beatlemania]
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Hence, while Elvis was preoccupied with his movie career, the Fab Four were becoming one of the most famous bands in popular music history. The criss-cross that occurred in 1964 (one's fortunes up, the other's fortunes down, and I don't mean by fortunes "money") could not have gone unnoticed by either the Beatles or Elvis. In his biography, Elvis (1980) Albert Goldman writes:
No wonder then, that when the Beatles first came to America--welcomed on the Ed Sullivan Show by a telegram wishing them every success and signed by Elvis Presley (though dispatched without his knowledge by Colonel Parker)--Elvis refused point-blank to meet these dubious young men who aspired to the hand of his daughter, the American youth audience. “Hell, I don’t wanna meet them sons o’ bitches!” exploded Elvis when the Colonel ran the proposition by him for the first time during the Beatles’ initial tour in 1964. (Avon Books paperback, 1981, p. 447)
Elvis didn’t meet the Beatles until the third week of August 1965 (the event recounted with different rhetorical flourishes in different biographies) while in Los Angeles filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), which could be considered his worst film--if it weren't for Kissin' Cousins. He hadn’t been in the recording studio for years, except, of course, for the purpose of recording material for his soundtracks. After the Beatles met Elvis in August, the rest of 1965 worked out as follows:
The Beatles--Rubber Soul (album), December 1965 (U. S.)
Elvis Presley--Harum Scarum (movie), December 1965 (U. S.)
Thus the remark John Lennon made just a few months later, “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” uttered during an interview conducted on March 4, 1966, was made only after he and the other members of the Beatles had met Elvis. Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks, A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), interprets Lennon’s infamous remark as follows:
When John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, what’s the chance that he really meant--in Bible Code--that they were more popular than Elvis? In both Hebrew and the language of rock ‘n’ roll, El means “God.” Lennon, however, couldn’t bring himself to say what he meant. Why? It would have been sacrilegious. Remember, it was Lennon who said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” (84)
In other words, Lennon could not bring himself to utter the terrible truth. He could not say, “The Beatles have become more popular than Elvis,” but perhaps, nonetheless, that's what he meant. It’s worth looking at the entire infamous remark Lennon made in 1966, the following quotation taken from Newsoftheodd.com:
When they reached the subject of religion, Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first--rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”
What if he really meant the following? I have supplied the appropriate substitutions:
Elvis will go. He will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Elvis now; I don’t know which will go first--us or Elvis.
Was Lennon consciously aware of what he really meant? Could he imagine the improbability that he had displaced his precursor, the one who had, in a very real sense, made him possible in the first place? That he had, figuratively speaking, like Oedipus, committed patricide? What are we to make out of the following juxtaposition, each album representing the first formal studio recordings made by each of the artists subsequent to their August 1965 meeting?
The Beatles: Revolver (August 1966)
Elvis Presley: How Great Thou Art (February 1967; recorded 1966 except for "Crying in the Chapel," 1960)
Thursday, March 13, 2008
According to Joel Whitburn’s The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums (Revised & Enlarged 3rd Edition, 1995), by Sunday, January 24, 1960, the compilation album Oldies But Goodies, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”), The Teen Queens (“Eddie My Love”), The Medallions (“The Letter”), The Cadets (“Stranded in the Jungle”), and others, released on Art Laboe’s Original Sound Record Co. label, had been on the charts for well over twenty weeks. Peaking at #12 on September 28, 1959, Oldies But Goodies would remain on the charts—this again according to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums—for a total of 61 weeks, that is, well over a year.
Most famously known (at least in the Los Angeles area) in the late 50s as a disc jockey for radio station KPOP, Art Laboe (pictured) is credited with having invented the phrase “Oldies But Goodies.” But in addition, by issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era--"The Original Recordings of the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits Of All Time" is boasted on the album cover (in Hi-Fi to boot, a sonic upgrade in the form of "reprocessed" stereo), while the title itself is emblazoned in gold. Outside of Atlantic’s Rock & Roll Forever (which had the virtue of including Joe Turner’s versions of “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and “Flip, Flop & Fly,” popularized by Elvis), which briefly peaked at #20 on the charts in late 1956, the huge success of Oldies But Goodies (peaking at #12, but remaining on the charts, as I indicated earlier, for well over a year) has to be the reason why rock ‘n’ roll compilation albums became such a defining feature in the later consumption of rock 'n' roll--including, of course, numerous additional volumes of Oldies But Goodies.
I’m using the word “album” here in contrast to the word “record,” following my friend Mike Jarrett on this matter, who observes that while a record is a material object, an album is a concept. (As Jarrett points out, the word “album” is from the Latin, albus, “white,” meaning “blank tablet.”) Thus all compilation albums are conceptual, however banal that concept might be. For instance:
Various Artists, Oldies But Goodies (Original Sound) (pre-Elvis R&B, with special attention to L.A.-based R&B bands)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box (Rhino) (historical reconstruction of doo wop as a baroque reinvention—this according to Mike Jarrett--of rhythm & blues)
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box II (Rhino) (same as above, with the designation "II," meaning that if you own both box sets, you have most of the songs defining the genre, enough to be considered "exhaustive")
Various Artists, The Time-Life History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Teenage Years 1957-1964 (Time Life Music) (diachronic slice of popular hits as determined by chart ranking, duplicating Top 40 radio format)
But Art Laboe did more than historicize rock with his compilation album. By giving rock a past, he thereby also gave it a future, and so significantly contributed to the institution of rock music developing a self-reflexive discourse (aware of itself)—all of which happened rather quickly, in fact. After the Oldies But Goodies album, in 1960, Art Laboe issued yet another compilation album on his Original Sound label, Memories of El Monte, the title alluding to Laboe’s rock ‘n’ roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. The title of Laboe’s compilation album, in turn, became the inspiration for one of Frank Zappa’s very first compositions, “Memories of El Monte” (co-written with Ray Collins), a pastiche of doo wop incorporating allusions to several of its biggest hits (according to biographers, Zappa had fond memories of seeing shows in the 1950s at the El Monte Legion Stadium). Eventually recorded with lead vocal by Cleve Duncan of The Penguins, the single was released on Laboe’s Original Sound label in 1963. Here’s an instance of the song’s self-reflexivity:
And I, Cleve Duncan, along with the Penguins will sing:/
"Earth Angel, Earth Angel/
Will you be mine?"/
At El Monte
But the story doesn’t end there. Just a few years later, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded an entire (concept) album of doo wop pastiche, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). Subsequently, according to a statement to be found about the impact of the album at wikipedia.org, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets led to the formation of Sha Na Na, an “oldies” act that early on in its history (1969) appeared at Woodstock (“At the Hop”). But there’s a crucial difference between a band such as Sha Na Na and a band such as The Mothers of Invention. Sha Na Na misread Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, thinking it was homage, a self-conscious tribute hearkening back to a more “innocent” age. Hence, Sha Na Na sang and played “oldies” music as an act of homage--meaning band members sang and played as fans. In contrast, the music of Zappa and the Mothers consisted of parody and pastiche--mock imitation--that is, their music was created by artists, by those who are self-consciously aware of traditions, styles, as well as historic periods and movements.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Based on the personal emails I’ve received as well as a rather significant increase in the number of hits on my blogspot the past couple of days, my previous entry on the mondegreen would seem to have been a popular success.
For the record, there are several websites devoted to mondegreens, so I can't claim any originality in that regard. I probably should have referred to a couple of websites in my earlier entry that collect mondegreens, at least those dedicated to misheard popular song lyrics:
There are also a couple books I’m aware of that collect mondegreens, and there are probably several more of which I’m unaware: Charles Grosvenor, Jr., Hold Me Closer Tony Danza, and Gavin Edwards, Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.
I do hope that my previous blog entry hasn’t left readers with the impression that my view of mondegreens is that they are simply another form of widespread or popular "error," that is, that I was trying to diminish their (unwitting) achievement. Rather, I was trying to illustrate how mondegreens can be highly creative (the writing of an entirely new song, as it were), but also, in psychoanalytic terms, how the mondegreen has the potential for activating meaning(s) that were repressed or unacknowledged in the original set of lyrics. Moreover, there is at least one popular song lyric that was sung differently than in the form it is widely known in print. According to amiright.com, The Beatles’ "Ticket to Ride" is known in its "incorrect" form. Listeners who have claimed to hear
She’s got a ticket to Rye [as in the town in East Sussex] and she don't care
are not, in fact, hearing “incorrectly”—that’s the way The Beatles sang it. As sung, the song lyric is not
She’s got a ticket to ride and she don't care
According to amiright.com:
The Beatles cut the record, it was confusing to U.S. audiences, the record execs changed the title and lyrics. The song was never re-recorded. Listen carefully--you hear no ‘d’ sound in the word. Thus, Rye isn’t a misheard lyric. This is according to Casey Kasem.
How many bands in the history of rock have covered "Ticket to Ride," never knowing that they were singing the lyric incorrectly? Of course, it doesn't really matter. Referring in my previous entry to Dave Marsh’s book Louie Louie, I was trying to reiterate a point made throughout his book that the lesson many early rock and rollers learned from the controversy over the lyrics to “Louie Louie” was that the best rock lyrics should be purposely enigmatic. Hence, aural ambiguity isn't an accident, but necessary for the best rock lyrics to resonate, to be provocative. More abstractly put, rock lyricists exploit the susceptibility of messages to be deformed when received by the listener: they exploit the potential deformation made possible through the electronic transformation of messages. Although there is a widespread rumor (perhaps true) that the lead singer for Iron Butterfly was so heavily intoxicated that the words, "In the garden of eden," emerged in slurred form as, "In-a-gadda-da-vida," my own view is that the band's decision to leave them in their garbled version was absolutely brilliant, and no doubt contributed in no small way to the success of the song. How mysterious and enticing, how provocative, how mystery-laden those nonsense syllables were to a young generation of listeners.
The aural ambiguity enabled by the homophone hence isn't merely an "accident" that occurs in the transmission of the message, but instead reveals the received nature of the message itself. Of course, it doesn’t help when, for instance, The Kingsmen recorded "Louie Louie" with the microphone hanging from the ceiling so that there was no way the lyrics could be properly heard--but this is yet another instance of the interference that is inherently part of any electronically transmitted message. How many popular songs are themselves about this interference?
I’ve Got To Get a Message to You
Hanging on the Telephone
I made this list off the top of my head. Some enterprising person ought to assemble a CD compilation of such songs, to be called, what? Maybe The Girl With Colitis Goes By.