Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hofmann, 1906-2008

Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who devised the technique to make derivatives of lysergic acid and who eventually synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), has died of heart failure at the ripe old age of 102.

Hofmann was a chemist at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, when in the late 1930s he turned to the study of ergot, the name for a fungus that grows on rye, barley and certain other plants. Studying the active ingredient of ergot, a chemical identified by American researchers in the 1930s as lysergic acid, Hofmann invented a method to synthesize a series of compounds of that substance. The 25th one he synthesized was lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. As is well known, he subsequently, in 1943, became the first person to take an acid trip. LSD-25, Hofmann’s so-called “problem child” as he referred to his creation in his autobiography, subsequently influenced an entire generation, and had a profound influence on the lives of individuals such as Timothy Leary.

Thus Albert Hofmann can be understood as an author, although not necessarily an author of the novelistic sort (he did, though, author numerous scientific articles). In calling Albert Hofmann an author, I have in mind Michel Foucault’s essay, “What Is an Author?,” and his discussion of an uncommon but profound kind of author that Foucault named a “founder of discursivity.” About such authors, Foucault wrote:

They are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts. In this sense, they are very different, for example, from a novelist.... Freud is not just the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; Marx is not just the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both have established an endless possibility of discourse.... the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its subsequent transformations. To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open it up to a certain number of possible applications. (See Josue V. Harari, Textual Strategies, Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 154-56.)

Albert Hofmann was an author of the sort Foucault outlines here: he enabled and initiated the creation of many other texts, in film, literature, art, and perhaps most especially, in music--particularly the form of music that developed in the 1960s, psychedelia. Hence Albert Hofmann can be understood as one of the more significant and influential authors of the twentieth century, and perhaps should be remembered as such.

A compelling obituary can be found here.

Are You Experienced (Enough)?

Several news articles have appeared on the web this morning claiming that a roughly 11-minute video has been released for sale on the internet that shows the late Jimi Hendrix having sex with two women “in a dimly lit bedroom.”

Although the DVD version (and perhaps the version available for download, I don't know) apparently contains the testimony of two former Sixties groupies—one the well-known fellatrix Pamela Des Barres, the other Cynthia Albritton aka “Cynthia Plaster Caster” averring the authenticity of the footage—there is every reason to believe the video is a hoax, as “authentic” as the video purportedly containing footage of an alien autopsy. Whether Jimi Hendrix indulged in the ménage is not the issue here; I’ll leave that for others to fret over (assuming it makes any difference to anyone). However, the reasons for my suspicion that this video is a hoax are as follows:

1. Anecdotal Evidence:

A.) Vivid Entertainment Group (VEG) averred “in a press release” (i.e., a photocopied sheet of paper, not a sworn affidavit) that they consulted with many “experts.” Experts on what? The anatomy of Jimi Hendrix? (Are there such experts?) The period authenticity of the putative source materials, the alleged film footage—it was the pre-video time period, remember, when the footage was shot? The décor, meaning they can ascertain whether the location was Britain or America by means of furniture, wall fixtures, etc.? The aforementioned former groupies are among the so-called experts. VEG’s claim is that the former groupies, more so than anyone, ought to recognize the genitals of someone with whom they were intimate, even if that intimacy (of whatever sort) was forty years ago. After all, claims VEG, their chosen area of expertise was male genitalia.

B.) Vague, questionable provenance: Some news articles refer to a “tape,” although again if the event recorded actually took place forty years ago, it is highly unlikely that the footage was shot on video, but more likely film (one article I read did in fact refer to “8mm footage”). VEG purchased the “tape” from an individual named Howie Klein, who brought the “tape” to Vivid after he, Klein, acquired it from a collector “who found it.” How and where was it found? Where has the footage been stored for the past forty years, and how was it discovered? Who is the unidentified “rock and roll memorabilia collector” referred to in some news articles, and how did he (or she) acquire it? What was the method by which Mr. Klein authenticated the “tape”--or film--prior to purchasing it? Who is the cameraman who claims to have shot the footage? Why and under what particular circumstances was he hired (or designated) to do so? If the material object in question were a painting rather than very easily faked video footage, would its authenticity be unquestionably guaranteed by such a dubious provenance?

C.) The location of the ménage, “a dimly lit bedroom,” smacks of the “unidentified location” where, for instance, the alien autopsy took place. Moreover, the fact that the bedroom is "dimly lit" is suspicious, as it makes the identity of the individuals in the scene more difficult to determine. VEG claims the footage is forty years old, but unless the 8mm footage can be produced and can be subject to the same intense scrutiny as the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination, VEG's claim has the same truth value as an opinion of belief.

D.) VEG lawyers allegedly hired “private investigators” to track down the man who claims to have been the cinematographer of the event. Even if this is true, it doesn’t “authenticate” the footage. There have been individuals over the years swearing to have seen dead alien bodies after the supposed Roswell UFO crash. Neither lawyers nor private investigators have access to the private contents of a person’s mind; all they can do is verify the actual identity of the person making the claim, and verify that this person, so identified, swears (believes) he or she is telling the truth about the matter. An individual may swear he or she is telling the truth about seeing the body of a dead alien, but this does not prove whatsoever the existence of the alien body. As many studies of perceptual cognition have revealed, what one sees isn't simply a matter of sensory apparatus (the eyes), but what thinks one sees (think of the famous example of the "duck-rabbit"). Perceptual ambiguity is precisely the issue here: who is that person in the footage?

2. Counter-Evidence:

A.) Kathy Etchingham, Jimi Hendrix’s long-time girlfriend, after viewing several still photographs of the footage, has told several newspapers, “It is not him.” Doesn’t she qualify as an expert?

B.) Charles R. Cross, author of the excellent Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors, who saw the footage while he was researching his book and dismissed it at the time as fake, also disputes the identity of the man in the "tape," claiming among other things that Hendrix was too painfully shy to have agreed to perform sexual acts on camera. Like Kathy Etchingham, he also claims the person is not Hendrix. Doesn’t he qualify as an expert? The fact that Mr. Cross saw the footage while researching his biography means the existence of the footage has been known for, at the very least, four years (the hardcover edition of his biography was published in 2005), and perhaps longer, but no one took it seriously.

C.) At the time (ca. 1968), most enthusiasts purchased unexposed negative for 8mm cameras in the form of cartridges containing a film spool three minutes in length. While it is possible the alleged footage could have been shot using several such cartridges, the color film in each cartridge, unless the conditions were extremely well-controlled, often would often develop with minor differences in contrast levels and color saturation. I haven’t seen the footage of the menage, but if it consists of one uninterrupted eleven-minute sequence, it’s likely faked. However, someone trying to pull off a clever hoax, knowing how amateurs purchased 8mm film stock at the time, might well have used computer technology to imitate different color and contrast levels in roughly three-minute segments.

3. Legal Status of the Footage:

A spokesman for Experience Hendrix, the Seattle company owned by Hendrix’s relatives that controls the rights to his music, said, “We’re in no position to verify [the tape’s authenticity],” meaning his company doesn’t claim to have anyone on staff with the competency (expertise) to very the authenticity of the footage--in contrast, to, say, VEG--meaning the company isn't saying one way or the other. The company's denial of expertise thus enables VEG legally to distribute the footage because as far as VEG is concerned, the person being filmed doesn’t have to be really Hendrix anyway, but merely a person possessing “Hendrix’s likeness.” Surprisingly, it seems that the rights to Hendrix’s likeness remains an unsettled legal issue--the loophole necessary to have enabled VEG to distribute the video.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Reassurance of Fratricide

The title of my entry is taken from Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities (Revised Edition, Verso, 1991), and his discussion of memory and forgetting, that is, the way the writing of history constitutes an act that consists both of remembering (anamnesis) and its opposite, amnesia. Since history is written by the victors, the Civil War, for example, is consequently the enactment of the hostility of “brother against brother,” that is, the story of Cain and Abel (hence the inspiration for his homiletic parody, "the reassurance of patricide"). Had the Confederacy won, however, it might well have been about something, speculates Anderson, "quite unbrotherly" (201).

Fratricide: the story of brother against brother, the mythic archetype of Cain and Abel. Elvis Costello wrote “Blame it on Cain,” but I choose to blame it on Elvis, primarily for the act of fratricide that drives the plot of his first movie, Love Me Tender (1956). In his first film role, Elvis played Clint Reno, who during the Civil War remained home while his older brother, Vance (Richard Egan), fought on the side of the Confederacy. At war’s end, Vance returns home to discover that during his absence his former beloved, Cathy (Debra Paget), has married his brother Clint. But...there is an alibi, or excuse, for this state of affairs, because Clint and Cathy had been told that Vance had been killed in battle. Predictably, as one might expect, the story moves inexorably toward its tragic conclusion, foregrounded as it is by brotherly strife.

Since Elvis, or perhaps because of Elvis, there have been many songs reenacting, in various guises, the story of Cain and Abel. Here are a few representative recordings:

The Boomtown Rats, "I Don't Like Mondays"
The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”
Johnny Cash, “Frankie and Johnny” & “Folsom Prison Blues”
The Doors, “The End” (parricide) & “Riders on the Storm”
The Eagles, “Doolin-Dalton”
Lefty Frizzell, “Long Black Veil”
Lorne Greene, "Ringo"
Jimi Hendrix, “Hey Joe”
Robert Johnson, "32-20 Blues"
The Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley”
Vicki Lawrence, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”
The Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl”
Bob Marley, “I Shot the Sheriff”
Crispian St. Peters, “The Pied Piper”
Pink Floyd, "Careful With That Axe, Eugene"
Gene Pitney, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"
Stan Ridgway, “Peg and Pete and Me” & "Down the Coast Highway"
Marty Robbins, “El Paso" & "Big Iron"
Jimmy Lee Robinson, “I Shot a Man”
Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”
The Rolling Stones, “Midnight Rambler”
Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”
Hank Snow, “Miller’s Cave”
Suicidal Tendencies, “I Shot the Devil”
Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”
Hank Williams, Jr., “I’ve Got Rights”
Neil Young, “Down by the River” & “Southern Man”

Saturday, April 26, 2008

(Do What You Can Do) Then Move On

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” [1920; pictured] shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

--Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Trans. Harry Zohn)

If Robert B. Ray is correct, we live in an age characterized by a longing for missed opportunities, the age of the catastrophe. Citing Walter Benjamin’s definition of catastrophe—“to have missed the opportunity”—the late twentieth century (and early twenty-first) seems to be an age that pines excessively for lost opportunities, and so longs for omnipotence, for “extensive presence” (15). While Robert Ray’s specific subject in his essay is the origins of photography and its subsequent social impact, the same longing for the unattainable is a persistent feature of the discourse about popular music, for that presumed unrecoverable "lost album"--to have everything. For instance, what masterpiece was lost when Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ Smile was destroyed by flames? What music was left unmade as a consequence of the murder of John Lennon? What albums might have Brian Jones made, or Jimi Hendrix? What would have been the musical response by Buddy Holly upon hearing the Beatles? If only...

What prompted these musings was my reading of Andrew Sandoval’s informative liner notes to the just released 2-CD "Collector’s Edition" of Love’s Forever Changes (1967), and his discussion of a rumored lost album by the original lineup of Love, titled Gethsemane. Sandoval writes:

Though [Arthur] Lee fronted several versions of Love in the years that followed [Forever Changes], rumors of a lost album by the original lineup (the mythical Gethsemane) continue to circulate. “There was no Gethsemane,” said Lee in 2002. “There’s no such thing as that stuff. I don’t know any of those songs. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take being around those guys anymore. There’s no album.”

Mythical elaboration often develops around something about which little is known or understood, in this case a rock band whose definitive lineup didn’t cohere as a group of musicians very long (not that this phenomenon is unusual in the history of rock music; on the contrary, it’s a commonplace). What interested me was the supposed “lost album” titled Gethsemane, whose putative existence I hadn’t heard about before, but that’s not the point. The putative existence of this “lost album” is an example of an excessive, unhealthy pining for a supposed missed opportunity, the catastrophe represented by the image of unreleased masters buried in the wreckage of Time and History.

It is, of course, a grand myth, the Romantic myth of lost, or perhaps neglected, genius, but it is an elusive genius in that it is presupposed on the existence of music that no one has ever heard. The idea is amusing, in that it presumes that the vast majority of mere mortals are either, 1) “not ready” for it or, 2) if they were, wouldn’t have fully comprehended it anyway. But as an idea it is also repulsive, because it presupposes a colossal act of genius that the previously published work simply doesn't support (or anticipate). Moreover, in its actual manifestation, the work could never match the simulacrum of it one has constructed in one's imagination. Of course, none of these realities have prevented the aforementioned Romantic myth from becoming a foundational myth of rock criticism.

We need to move beyond a constant yearning for the unattainable, the continual longing for the missed opportunity—the catastrophe—which is really a sublimated religious impulse that demands of this woefully banal world something that it cannot give to, or provide for, us. Writing in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (Dave Marsh and John Swenson, Eds., Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1983), John Swenson observed of The Beatles:

In retrospect, the group’s much-lamented decision to call it quits as the Seventies began was entirely appropriate; the collected work does not leave you with the impression that there were unfinished statements....They did it all, they did it right, and then they went their separate ways. (32)

The vanished band members of popular music history did what they could do, and then moved inexorably on, moving on through the garden of forking paths. There has been no catastrophe, and never was. (Or rather, if there has been, it lies in the particular circumstance surrounding their premature deaths.) The lesson for all of us: Do what you can do, and then move on, just as they did. Let the dead bury the dead. We shall all hear the incomparable music of the heavenly choir much sooner than we think--or wish.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Red Clover

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)—a species of clover, native to Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa, but planted in many other regions

Trifoliumfrom the Latin tres, “three,” and folium, “leaf,” named after the characteristic form of the leaf having three leaflets (“trifoliate”)

Pratensefrom the Latin, “found in meadows”

The colors red (crimson) and green (the color of a clover leaf) are, of course, primary colors. The two colors, along with blue, are referred to as “additive colors,” meaning that the blending of these colors can create many others, including white. The use of multiple colors, as a metaphor for social harmony, is common. Additionally, in the Western world, the colors of red and green are associated with Christmas, a consequence of the use, during the middle ages, of pine trees adorned with red apples as part of the dramatization of the story of humankind’s Fall, the story of Adam and Eve (the pine-apple tree serving as the stand-in for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Of course, the color red and the color green also have multiple symbolic meanings (e.g., red for passion; green for envy), and so possess what is called "multivalency."

I no longer remember the first time I saw a “black light” (and hence its spectacular alteration of the apparent color of quotidian objects); certainly, at the latest, by 1969. (I may have seen a black light much earlier than this, because natural history museums often used--still use--a black light in order to highlight the presence of certain, colorful, minerals in what seemed to be in the light of common day just plain-looking rocks.) At any rate, by the mid-60s, water-based fluorescent paints were popularly available, thus giving rise to a form of art with especially vivid colors that came to be closely associated with the psychedelic experience—black light paintings. By the mid-60s, black light poster painters were using the “fluorescent” colors of magenta, cerise, blue/azure, chartreuse yellow, red, and, of course, green. The psychedelic experience, at least in its LSD or acid-trip version, came to be associated with vivid, swirling colors, evoked in live rock concerts by what was known as a “light show,” a form of synaesthesia (the swirling colors were to the eye what the sound was to the ear). The black light painting thus served as a single snapshot of an acid trip. But the essential goal of a psychedelic experience was to alter everyday perception, to defamiliarize the familiar, and so, on occasion, to achieve a mystical insight.

Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover” was recorded late in 1968—at the height of the psychedelic era, the period of High Psychedelia—and released as a single in December of that year, a remarkable serendipity considering red and green, crimson and clover, are so conventionally associated with December--and hence Christmas. The 45 rpm single quickly rose to the #1 spot in early 1969, and became one of the band’s biggest hits.

The question is—Is “Crimson & Clover” the aural equivalent of a black light painting (and therefore an example of High Psychedelia)? Or is it about something else? Or, conceivably, both? After all, it isn’t titled “Red, White, & Blue,” or “Magenta & Azure,” although it shares with other songs of its era a color in its title (and I don’t mean the term for a particular musical form, “blues”). Here are a few songs containing colors, right off the top of my head (meaning hardly definitive):

Blue Suede Shoes (Elvis)
Blue Angel (Roy Orbison)
Blue Velvet (Bobby Vinton)
Blue Turns to Grey (The Rolling Stones)
Crystal Blue Persuasion (Tommy James & The Shondells)
Roses Are Red (My Love) (Bobby Vinton)
Red Rubber Ball (The Cyrkle)
1-2-3 Red Light (The 1910 Fruitgum Company)
Black is Black (Los Bravos)
Paint It, Black (The Rolling Stones)
Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac)
Chartreuse (Ken Nordine)
Mellow Yellow (Donovan)
Yellow Submarine (The Beatles)
Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix Experience)
White Room (Cream)
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane)
Green Tambourine (The Lemon Pipers)

“Crimson & Clover” contains rather minimal lyrics, so minimal, in fact, that they seem to elude any definitive meaning:

Now I don’t hardly know her
But I think I could love her
Crimson and clover

Well if she come walkin’ over
Now I been waitin’ to show her
Crimson and clover (over and over)

My mind’s such a sweet thing
I want to do everything
What a beautiful feeling
Crimson and clover (over and over)

Crimson and cl(over) over and over...
Crimson and cl(over) over and over...

I think this song to be unintelligible without referring to occult theories of sexual alchemy—what famed occultist Aleister Crowley called “sex magick.” The trifoliate leaf, a feature of the red clover plant, is very similar to the deliberately phallic letter “A” that Crowley used as part of his obscene signature: a penis with testicles (the outline of the trifoliate clover leaf is used on the cover of the album Crimson & Clover). Red, the color of menstruation, is associated with the female (and perhaps, also, with Crowley’s “Scarlet Woman”).

White Tantrism: a form of sexual alchemy involving a man and woman making sexual contact for the purpose of transmuting sexual energies rather than achieving orgasm.

Hence crimson & clover refers to a form of Tantric sexual alchemy, suggested by the lyric, Now I don’t hardly know her/But I think I could love her, and, Well if she come walkin’ over/Now I been waitin’ to show her. The use of “love” in this context is ambiguous, but it doesn’t seem to suggest merely a Platonic (chaste) relationship. Moreover, our singer avers that he has been waitin’ to show her...what?

White Tantrism (continued): This form of sexual act is considered by its adherents as a spiritual exercise to awaken consciousness, not as an act of erotic love (or rather, the sublimation of sexual energy into mental energy).

My mind’s such a sweet thing
I want to do everything
What a beautiful feeling

Psychedelic music sought to find aural equivalencies to heightened, acute insight, or mystical knowledge, and in that sense, “Crimson & Clover” seeks to express just that desire. The obsessive repetition of crimson and clover over and over serves as a Tantric mantra, the word clover containing both the word “lover” but also the word “over,” as in the sexual action of physical movement repeated over and over (and over).

What we call a flower—as in, for example, the crimson flower of the red clover plant—is in fact the exposed sexual organs of the plant for all the world to see.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


As a tribute to Love’s masterpiece, Forever Changes (1967), (re) issued on CD on Tuesday this week as a (slightly late) two-disc 40th Anniversary Edition by Rhino Records, I thought I would discuss a song on the album that’s always intrigued me. However...I shall not be discussing one of the album’s more obvious choices. Instead, I’ll discuss a song that, unless I simply missed it, goes unmentioned in Andrew Hultkrans’s otherwise quite compelling monograph (2004) on Forever Changes, published as part of Continuum’s Thirty Three and A Third series of books devoted to “classic” (broadly defined) albums of the Rock Era. The song I wish to discuss is one written by Bryan MacLean and not Arthur Lee, which I suppose explains why it is omitted from Hultkrans’s discussion of the album, so exclusively focused as it is on the mercurial figure of Arthur Lee (1945-2006).

Hultkrans places Forever Changes within the tradition of American apocalyptic prophecy, acknowledging certain unorthodox, or rather heretical, notions in its ideas, particularly gnosticism (I use the lower case rather the upper case in contrast to Hultkrans in order to suggest that gnosticism is hardly a homogeneous set of beliefs that have passed hermetically sealed, or unaltered, through time). I have no difficulty accepting his argument on this matter, as I think he is right, although I might have tried to distinguish religious (orthodox, and hence organized and formalized) thought (whether that be Druidic, Christian, Islamic, or whatever) from spiritual thought, the latter being that which is not properly something that is part of a group or collective experience, more personalized, and hence unorthodox (see my previous entry on the song “Bristlecone Pine”).

At the outset, let me say that I think the compositional styles of the group's two late songwriters, Arthur Lee (primarily) and Bryan MacLean (1947-1998), can be distinguished. In one of our recent email discussions, my friend Tim Lucas speculated that the cryptic qualities of much lyrical content in rock music is rooted in songwriters building up lyrics nonsensically and/or onomatopoeically, using as an example Paul McCartney’s original words for “Yesterday”: “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs...” In other words, nonsense words and phrases are substituted as syllabic “place holders” during the composition of the melody, with the assumption that the actual set of lyrics will be finalized later. A wonderfully comic enactment of Tim’s idea can be found in David Byrne’s fine film True Stories (1987), in a scene in which John Goodman previews a song he is writing titled “People Like Us.” As he sings the unfinished song to a female friend of his, he is forced to substitute phrases and monosyllables for the unfinished lyrics while attempting to maintain the melody: “In 1950 when I was born, papa...I haven’t written this verse quite yet...Six feet tall in size 12, na, na, na, na, na, people like us.”

Given this insight into lyrical composition, I think it is therefore possible to distinguish between songs written by Arthur Lee and by Bryan MacLean (setting aside the obvious designation of authorship by the use of the proper name, of course) simply by examining the formal qualities of the lyrics. I’m especially interested in Bryan MacLean’s song “Old Man,” which has neither the “stream-of-consciousness” features of most of Lee’s songs on the album, nor their rather fanciful, nonsensical aspects, either (“Oh, the snot has caked against my pants, it’s turned to crystal”). According to information published on his website, Bryan MacLean did not declare his actual religious conversion until December 1970, but I think a close look at his song “Old Man” reveals the process had begun years earlier. I especially like the way the lyrical material is structured in the song, so that the meaning of events mentioned early on can only be fully understood by events recounted later (this idea is discussed further below):

I once knew a man
Been everywhere in the world
Gave me a tiny ivory ball
Said it would bring me good
Never believed it would until
I have been loving you

Dear old man
He’d seen most everything
Gave me a piece of good advice
Said it would do me well
I couldn’t really tell until
I have been loving you

Now it seems
Things are not so strange
I can see more clearly
Suddenly I’ve found my way
I know the old man would laugh
He spoke of love’s sweeter days
And in his eloquent way
I think he was speaking of you
You are so lovely
You didn't have to say a thing

But I remember that old man
Telling me he’d seen the light
Gave me a small brown leather book
Insisted that he was right
I only heard him slightly
Til I heard you whisper
Took you up all in my arms

Dear old man
Wise old man
Fine old man, now

I once: “Once,” as in “Once upon a time,” reveals at the outset that we are in the realm of parable, the extended use of analogy in narrative form. The fact that the “old man” of the title is unnamed (remains a common rather than proper name) is in this regard a reiteration of the song's parabolic purpose; the “old man” is explicitly associated with worldly experience (“been everywhere…seen most everything”) but seems to be, remarkably, unjaded by his vast experiences. “Old man” will also come to suggest the wisdom that comes only through age ("Wise old man"). The significance of the "old man" is not that he is a close friend, and hence does not need to be properly named; rather, his importance is the symbolic gift(s) he bequeathed to our singer. Moreover, the fact that he is "old" suggests that the opposite is true of our singer (only someone young would remark upon the man being older, on his old age).

A tiny ivory ball: Ivory, of course, is a highly prized and extremely valuable substance. It is possible to understand the “tiny ivory ball” to be a reference to the ball Christ is often depicted as holding in his left hand in Medieval and Renaissance art, interpreted as a symbol of His power over the world (I've included for the purposes of illustration an image of the painting attributed to Michelangelo titled Salvator Mundi, “Savior of the world”). The ball in His left hand is interpreted as signifying his dominion over the entire world (which, I'll note in passing, reveals that Medieval Europeans did not, in fact, believe the world was "flat," a piece of sheer legerdemain). The point is not that our singer is Christ, but that he's been given a symbolic gift of great value. The meaning of the gift lies in its resemblance to the ball Christ holds in his left hand, not that it is that ball.

I have been loving you: An interesting grammatical construction, as one would think the line would read, “I had been loving you,” or “I’d loved you.” The identity of “you,” of course, is ambiguous, and remains so. If “you” were capitalized throughout, the identity would be clearer, I think, but in any case the meaning of the utterance, "I have been loving you," is that the love is not a recent development, but one that has been ongoing for some time. It may also mean that our singer was only made consciously aware of the fact that he has been loving the unnamed "you" for quite some time, but only after the old man's presence made the reality of the love manifest. In other words, I could say, "I have been loving you," a confession that the love has always been there, but only at this very moment did I become consciously aware of the love I have for you. Freud would probably refer to such a moment of (re)cognition an instance of the sudden awareness of one's "reaction formation," the conscious denial of a truth which one's behavior has actually confirmed.

A piece of good advice: A symbolic gift of value yet again, although we are left to speculate what, precisely, the "piece of good advice" is. However, certain translations of the Bible in the late 60s and early 70s carried not the title Bible but rather, Good News.

I can see more clearly/Suddenly I’ve found my way: Religious conversion is frequently metaphorically presented as a person's finding the right path (think of the lyric in “Amazing Grace,” I was lost but now am found...) and seeing clearly, as in better understanding (...Was blind, but now, I see). The word sin is actually a ancient term taken from the practice of archery: to sin is to be off-the-mark, to miss the bullseye, to be off-target. The archetypal figure for conversion, of course, is Saul of Tarsus: blinded by the light of God, he is compensated for his loss through greater knowledge and insight (“inner seeing”), and becomes Paul the Christian apologist. Symbolically, through the change of his name to Paul, he announces his new identity to all the world. Additionally, Dante begins his Inferno with the image of himself as lost in a dark wood:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost. (J. D. Sinclair)

Danteworlds glosses Dante’s decision to begin the poem in a dark wood as follows:

The dark forest--selva oscura--in which Dante finds himself at the beginning of the poem (Inf. 1.2) is described in vague terms, perhaps as an indication of the protagonist’s own disorientation. The precise nature of this disorientation--spiritual, physical, psychological, moral, political--is itself difficult to determine at this point and thus underscores two very important ideas for reading this poem: first, we are encouraged to identify with Dante (the character) and understand knowledge to be a learning process; second, the poem is carefully structured so that we must sometimes read “backwards” from later events to gain a fuller understanding of what happened earlier.

Characteristic of Dante's way of working, this “dark wood” is a product of the poet's imagination likely based on ideas from various traditions. These include the medieval Platonic image of chaotic matter--unformed, unnamed--as a type of primordial wood (silva); the forest at the entrance to the classical underworld (Hades) as described by Virgil (Aeneid 6.179); Augustine's association of spiritual error (sin) with a "region of unlikeness" (Confessions 7.10); and the dangerous forests from which the wandering knights of medieval Romances must extricate themselves. In an earlier work (Convivio 4.24.12), Dante imagines the bewildering period of adolescence--in which one needs guidance to keep from losing the "good way"--as a sort of "meandering forest" (erronea selva).

Other popular songs using similar language: Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now,” or the old gospel standard, "The Unclouded Day," covered by Don Henley on his first solo album.

Love’s sweeter days: In contrast to our singer, the old man is beyond sexual desire, the physical expression of erotic love; all passion is spent. Here’s Tristran in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, speaking to Iseult: “May God be with thee, sweet, when old and gray, / And past desire!” Remember that there is sexual love, or eros, and a "higher" love, Platonic, chaste, and done in good faith: caritas ("charity").

And in his eloquent way/I think he was speaking of you: Do not be fooled into thinking that the “you” being addressed is necessarily the singer’s “lover” in an erotic sense. Indeed, the use of love in this song seems idealized in the Platonic sense. The lyrics are deliberately ambiguous on this point, and besides, religious conversion is often imagined figuratively in physical terms--even sexual. Notice the figurative language in the following poem by John Donne (“Batter my heart, three-person'd God...”), with its use of terms such as “enthrall” (a double entendre meaning to enslave or to enchant, beguile) and “ravish” (to be taken sexually by force):

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

You are so lovely/You didn't have to say a thing: “You” remains silent and mute throughout, the object of attention and desire, but “lovely” as well, rather like a picture--"pretty as a picture." To me, an unavoidable association with the image of silent loveliness is the subject of Da Vinci’s sphinx-like figure in the painting titled Mona Lisa.

The light: Again, the use of the metaphor of seeing as religious awakening and understanding, although the phrase can mean knowledge in a general sense. Additionally, Jesus Christ is "the light of the world."

A small brown leather book: As in the use of the term “old man,” here again is the substitution of general terms (common nouns/names) where one might expect a proper name (e.g., “Bible”). Nonetheless, the deliberately vague identity of the book doesn't compromise what we are to understand is its great value. The phrase, small brown leather book, allows us to associate the word “book” with wisdom (just as we associate wisdom with the “old man”). Still, the book, made of brown leather, presumably rules out a math textbook, phone book, match book, sociology textbook, and so on, and activates the inevitable association of the word “leather” with the word “Bible.” Is the old man to be understood as a preacher, a minister, a priest? Or simply a mysterious wanderer who passed on to our narrator the wisdom he had acquired through his travels, written down (contained) in the book?

Til I heard you whisper/Took you up all in my arms: These lines are delivered at the climactic, emotional peak of the music. The use of “whisper” suggests the personal nature of his religious experience, although the word is (again) sufficiently ambiguous to also allow us to imagine his lover whispering the sweeter things of love in his ear (The Beatles: “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” The answer: “I’m in love with you”). "Til I heard you whisper" also suggests "the calling" that accompanies any kind of profound religious conversion. Why is it a whisper, a calling? Because God doesn't mail letters to his chosen: he speaks. “Took you up all in my arms” speaks both to the embrace of a loved one but also the full embrace of an idea, the act of surrendering physically to an overwhelming desire, the fulfillment of an emotional need, a reconciliation, the end of a powerful struggle, the embracing act of antagonists at the end of a long battle.

Dedicated to the memory of Bryan MacLean and Arthur Lee

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bristlecone Pine

In respect to Earth Day 2008, I thought I'd write in honor of North America's oldest known living tree, the Methuselah Tree, a bristlecone pine estimated to be very near 5,000 years old (not the one pictured, although the picture is of a bristlecone pine). I first heard of the bristlecone pine through a song I first heard performed by Jim Salestrom about a decade ago. At the time, I was acting as Interim Director of the Museum of Nebraska Art, and Jim had contacted me about the possibility of doing a concert (a one-man show) at the museum in the spring of 1999. Given that I'd known of Jim (which is to say, not personally) for over twenty years--originally from Kearney, Nebraska, he had formed in the mid-1970s a band called Timberline which had a Top 10 chart hit in 1976 entitled "Timberline"--I immediately agreed. I spoke with Jim after his marvelous concert, and he signed several CDs for me, among them his album The Messenger, which contains the song titled "Bristlecone Pine." He performed many songs that day, but to me the most brilliant was "Bristlecone Pine," which I must say is one of the most sublimely beautiful, which is to say, haunting, songs I've ever heard.

Way up in the mountains on a high timberline
There's a twisted old tree called the bristlecone pine

The wind there is bitter; it cuts like a knife

It keeps that tree holding on for dear life

But hold on it does, standing its ground
Standing as empires rise and fall down
When Jesus was gathering lambs to his fold
The tree was already a thousand years old

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell
So when I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine
To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

And as I would slowly return to this earth
What little this body of mine might be worth
Would soon start to nourish the roots of that tree
And it would partake of the essence of me

And who knows what's found as the centuries turn
A small spark of me might continue to burn
As long as the sun does continue to shine
Down on the limbs of the bristlecone pine

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell

When I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

Music and Lyrics by Hugh Prestwood
© Hugh Prestwood Music

I love the image of the bristlecone pine, an utterly pagan conception of eternity, and the way the singer imagines himself achieving eternal life through his body's nourishing of that old, gnarled tree. What I also like about the song is the way it enacts a sort of Nietzschean, pre-Christian, concept of religious thought, of a religion that imagines both the soul and eternity, or eternal life, as a part of a natural process, with the images of eternity found in nature itself.

Scientists have refused to disclose the precise location of California's Methuselah Tree, fearing acts of vandalism. I have no trouble with this policy, primarily because the potential vandals are surely misguided, and not for the obvious reasons: they have imagined their relationship with the tree totally backwards. The point is not to take apart the tree, and hence have a sterile piece of eternity; the point is to partake of the tree's existence, to nourish the tree with one's own body, and achieve eternity thereby.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mondegreen, Pt. 4: Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds

A few weeks ago I began to explore the mondegreen, the unintentional mishearing of a verbal utterance enabled by homophonic ambiguity. The first venture, "Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind," was followed by a second entry, "Betty and the Jets." The third, which I wrote on Easter Sunday exploring the implications of the Biblical mondegreen, I titled "Melon Calling Baby." I have said throughout my discussions of the mondegreen that I'm not so much interested in it as a form of "error" as I am in the way it is a sort of creative interaction with the song's actual lyrics. In my “Betty and the Jets” 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.

If information available on the web is correct, then the origin of John Fred (pictured) & His Playboy Band’s marvelous #1 hit of early 1968, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” was the result of John Fred's (actual name: John Fred Gourrier) mishearing The Beatles' lyric, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," as "Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds." Hence, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” is one song, at least, that we can definitively point to as a song actually invented or created through mondegreen deformation. The relationship between the two songs is rather obvious, with "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" being a pastiche of the earlier tune. There is a match between the bi-syllabic names Lucy/Judy, in which the glyph "L" of Lucy is turned around in mirror-image form to become a "J" (as in "John"), while the phoneme "d" in Judy (and also "Fred") nicely alliterates with the "d" in disguise, just as the "-cy" of Lucy alliterates with the "s" phoneme of “sky.” Additionally, "With Glasses" is a sort of deliberate devaluation of "With Diamonds" (glass being a sort of cheap imitation of a diamond).

Many websites are available that contain the lyrics to "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," but I'll present the following lyrics as being a faithful transcription--with one exception, clearly indicated. Highlighted words or phrases are glossed below:

Judy in disguise, well that’s what you are
Lemonade pies with your brand new car
So cantaloupe eyes come to me tonight
Judy in disguise with glasses

Keep wearin’ your bracelets, and your new Rara
And cross your heart, yeah, with your livin’ bra
A chimney sweep sparrow with guise [guys?]
Judy in disguise with glasses

Come to me tonight
Come to me tonight
Taking everything in sight
Except for the strings on my kite

Judy in disguise, hey that’s what you are
Lemonade pies, you got your brand new car
So cantaloupe eyes come to me tonight
Judy in disguise with glasses

Come to me tonight
Come to me tonight
Taking everything in sight
Except for the strings on my kite

Judy in disguise, what you aiming for
A circus of horror, yeah yeah,
Well that’s what you are,
You made me a life of ashes

Lemonade Pies: At the very least, this phrase is a pastiche of "marmalade skies" of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" (LSD), although the phrase may be a reference to the sheer size of Lucy's stylish (and presumably yellow) sunglasses, possibly large hooped (yellow) earrings, or perhaps even the characteristic color of her clothing. An inevitable association, I'm somewhat hesitant to mention, is the word "Pie" with female genitalia. The slang phrase, "Hair Pie" (cf. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica), is a slang term for female genitalia that one may "eat," that is, perform oral sex. The meaning of "lemonade" given the terms of this reading hardly needs to be made explicit.

Cantaloupe eyes: Again, a pastiche, this time of of the collocation "kaleidoscope eyes" of LSD. The word kaleidoscope is derived from the Greek words kalos, meaning beautiful, and eidos, meaning form, and hence does not refer to colors as such, although the child's toy referred to as a "kaleidoscope" often produces startling color combinations. Actually, the word "kaleidoscope" refers to the shifting colored shapes one can see at the end of the scope, not the colors themselves. "Cantaloupe eyes" therefore seems to be a surreal metaphor at its farthest reach, but in any case refers to the shape of her eyes (or perhaps her glasses) and not their color.

Your new Rara: "Rara" is a reference to a chic brand of women's clothing, particularly a stylish kind of sexy dress. Hence "new Rara" reiterates the "new car" of the previous stanza, suggesting the vast disposable income of the femme fatale's parents. The implication is that she is spoiled and pampered, like the "rich bitch girl" in Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl" ("You can rely on the old man's money").

Cross your heart, yeah, with your livin' bra: A reference to the "Playtex Living Bra," that is, a brand of brassiere introduced in the mid-60s employing an innovative "cross your heart" means of breast support (as the adman's slogan went), meaning a brassiere that could provide more comfortable and more shapely support. In 1968 this particular lyric was quite provocative, although it may be hard to believe now. My wife Becky and I both remember the "livin' bra" lyric to be the subject of sensational conversation when we (at the time) were still in junior high. As my friend Tim Lucas pointed out to me, John Fred ventured into territory with this lyric that The Beatles wouldn't tackle until "Ob La Di, Ob La Da" ("Life goes on...bra!") in late 1968. "Burn your bra," was a feminist slogan in the 1960s, the symbolic casting off of middle-class, bourgeoisie repression. Our femme fatale is not a feminist.

Chimney sweep sparrow with guise: Most sites containing the lyrics to this song have the word "guise"--but is it actually the homophone of "guise," guys? For me, this is probably the most elusive line in the entire song. If the word is "guise," then to what does the metaphorical phrase, "Chimney sweep sparrow," refer? But if the word is "guys," then the lyric is more intelligible, the swift, swooping, darting flight of a chimney sweep sparrow being the key image. "Chimney sweep sparrow with guys" would then be descriptive of her behavior, flitting from one "guy" (boy) to the next, the repetitive behavior of our femme fatale to "seduce and abandon" the boys who fall under her spell. She engages in "serial dating," but is loyal to no one boy--"guy." Mary Wells, in "My Guy," sings, "I'm stickin' to my guy like a stamp to letter/Like birds of a feather we stick together." Not so of our "Judy in disguise."

Except for the strings on my kite: Perhaps an oblique reference to The Beatles song, "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from Sgt. Pepper's. It seems more likely, however, that "the strings on my kite" is a metaphor for male sexual arousal, the erection our narrator has whenever he's near our femme fatale. Thus the utterance, "Taking everything in sight/Except the strings on my kite," means she's quite willing to "make out," indeed, is quite aggressive when doing so, but refuses to "put out," or engage in sex. Hence our narrator is turned on by her behavior, but complains of the lack of sexual fulfillment, of consummation. In other words, she's a "tease."

What you aiming for: Our narrator's admission that he's suspicious of her motives, that is, is fundamentally afraid of her. That she's a mystery to him is suggested by her (sun)glasses which disguise her, not her appearance, but what she actually desires "in her heart."

Circus of horror: Circus of Horrors was a British film released in 1960, a loose adaptation of Phantom of the Opera set within a circus. Interestingly, several of its characters figuratively wear masks: either disfigured or seeking a disguise, their visages are restored and/or modified by reconstructive surgery. Additionally, the film featured prominently the pop song Look for a Star on its soundtrack. The lyric, "A circus of what you are," is actually the most explicit lyric in the entire song in terms of its characterization of the femme fatale: she may be beautiful in appearance, but in reality she is a monster, hiding her real nature by means of her disguise.

You made me a life of ashes: The goal of the femme fatale may or may not be conscious, but in any case she initiates a series events that result in the complete destruction of the male--not his death, but the complete destruction of his world. Her objective is not to destroy him, but rather his world, to initiate in the male a crisis of subjectivity, the ontological destruction of everything he believed to be certain. Hence the appropriateness of the metaphor, "life of ashes." While I cannot "prove" it--nor do I have any inclination to do so--I choose to believe that John Fred had in mind the famous image of Sue Lyon from Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), which seems to me an image which sufficiently captures the femme fatale he was trying, impressionistically, to sketch.

One final remark: "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" is referred to by some as "bubblegum," but I think this incorrect. Prior to recording the song, John Fred had worked with several prominent New Orleans musicians, including members of Fats Domino's band and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John). I agree with those who see the song as R&B with psychedelic features; its overt allusion to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" also recommends it as an example of psychedelia.

Exergue: For those interested, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)" is one of the mid-60s Top 40 songs "covered" (as it were) on the Residents' album "The Third Reich 'n' Roll," apparently because the Residents were from Louisiana, as was John Fred.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Whistle While You Read

Whistle [OE. hwistle] An act of whistling; a clear shrill sound produced by forcing the breath through the narrow opening made by contracting the lips; esp. as a call or signal to a person or animal; also as an expression of surprise or astonishment; rarely, the action of whistling a tune. [OED]

TCM's screening a few months ago of several films in Columbia's Whistler series (eight films 1944-48, seven of them starring Richard Dix) prompted me to think about how whistling is used in movies and in music, the way it is employed and what it signifies when it is used. I've always very much enjoyed the Whistler series--several installments of which, incidentally, were directed by William Castle. The Whistler began as a CBS radio series in 1942 and ran until 1955 (during which time, additionally, were made the eight films mentioned above). Each episode began with the haunting opening theme--whistled, of course--while the slightly sinister narrator introduced himself, saying to the listener, "I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak."

The god-like omniscience of the Whistler has always vaguely suggested to me the mechanism of Fate or Destiny itself, since He (the voice was male) knows the secret desires (what is "hidden in the hearts") of men and women, what obsessive, overwhelming desire drives them and has distorted or deformed them--and hence will destroy them ("character is fate"). Although I haven't researched this topic in depth, the figure of the Whistler is most likely distantly related to the figure of the Pied Piper (a pipe is form of whistle), the mysterious musician dressed in many colors whose piping hypnotically lures the children of Hameln off to their doom (the Grimm Brothers' version). It is this association we have with whistling that Peter Gabriel, for instance, invokes in "Intruder" (Peter Gabriel, 1980).

In movies whistling is often associated with surprise (just about every World War II movie) but also a signal of attraction, a culturally symbolic gesture made by an American male to proclaim (without the use of speech) his approval, erotically speaking, of a particular dame. In music, whistling can also signify contentment or happiness ("Don't Worry, Be Happy"), solitary, melancholy contemplation ("(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay"), self-absorbed autoeroticism ("Centerfold"), pleasant, relaxing idleness ("I Love to Whistle"; also, the theme from The Andy Griffith Show), or even merely a way to pass the time, to avoid monotony when speech is either impossible or forbidden ("Colonel Bogey March"; "Whistle While You Work" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but it is always is associated with a solitary individual alone with his thoughts, even if that individual is within a crowd. A popular "crooner" such as Bing Crosby frequently whistled in his songs, an act often signifying self-contentment but also an unrestrained joie de vivre.

Ten Representative Recordings Featuring Whistling:

“Colonel Bogey March”—A song popularized by British soldiers during World War I. In the game of golf, a “bogey” is, of course, a designation for being one stroke over par. Legend has it that the tune was inspired by two golfers, known to the song’s composer, who preferred to whistle two descending notes rather than shouting “Fore!” Although written in 1914, “Colonel Bogey March” later became, famously, the theme song to the highly successful World War II movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Widely known as an avid golfer, Bing Crosby may have been inspired to adopt his frequent practice of whistling because of this song (long before the 1957 film, of course).
The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”
Bobby Bloom, “Montego Bay”
Bing Crosby, “Moonlight Becomes You”
Peter Gabriel, “Intruder”
Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”
J. Geils Band, “Centerfold”
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, “I Love to Whistle” (Sully Mason, vocal)
Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
Otis Redding, "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay"

Virtually all of these songs were huge hits, incidentally. Is the fact that they all contain whistling simply coincidental, or do most people enjoy songs with whistling as much as I do?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hazel Court, 1926-2008

The sad news arrived yesterday that British actress Hazel Court died at age 82. I never met her, although she was very supportive of my and David's forthcoming book on the Roger Corman Poe Cycle (1960-64), Nevermore (link is on the right), to be published by Tomahawk Press. Indeed, Hazel's own autobiography is forthcoming--very soon--from Tomahawk Press, and it saddens me that she never lived to see it in print. Hazel had expressed great interest to David about our Nevermore book, and had agreed to read the relevant chapters on the films in which she had appeared and contribute additional relevant information to our discussion. Sadly, that will never happen, but it only reaffirms the urgency with which David and I must complete the work, as many of the surviving individuals involved in the Poe films are also in their 80s. An overview of Hazel's career can be found here, while Tim Lucas wrote a brief eulogy that I found quite touching.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Making Cottage Cheese Out of the Air

You never know what’s going to turn up at a Goodwill Store. While running a few quick errands late yesterday morning I thought I’d stop by and check out the Goodwill store’s music bins, a weekly habit of mine (more or less) for the past several years, just to see if by chance anything interesting might have shown up since the last time I visited. While browsing through the vinyl records—an antiquated form of musical storage in this digital age, most always in terrible shape and not worth buying, even for the price of $1—I happened across a well-preserved copy of the soundtrack to the AIP release Hell’s Angels ’69 (Capitol Records) actually autographed on the front cover by Sonny Barger, at the time of the film head of the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels and later a key player in the Rolling Stones’ infamous concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969.

I’ve never seen Hell’s Angels ‘69, although I’ve read a few on-line reviews of Media Blasters’ 2004 DVD release of the film (none of which compelled me to purchase the DVD). Having listened, now, to the soundtrack (about 28 minutes or so in length), I’m still not inclined to see the film, although as a result of the inevitable process of mental association, I began thinking about so-called “biker music” and, consequently, the band Blue Cheer (initially formed by Bruce Stephens, Dickie Peterson, and Paul Whaley).

Certainly Blue Cheer--perhaps best known for its riotous metal version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” a Top 20 hit in 1968--has to be considered the biker band, not necessarily because they played louder than everybody else (although the band’s volume is legendary), but because early on, at least, their manager was a Hell’s Angel nicknamed “Gut,” mentioned several times throughout Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels (1966):

At that time [1965], Gut was not technically a Hell’s Angel. Several years earlier he had been one of the charter members of the Sacramento chapter—which like the Frisco chapter, began with a distinctly bohemian flavor. (127)

Thompson also notes that Gut had completed a year of junior college and “wanted to be a commercial artist.” Apparently he got the chance by hooking up with Blue Cheer sometime in 1967. He received co-credit for the artwork of Blue Cheer’s first album, Vincebus Eruptum (1968, pictured above), along with John Van Hamersveld (Van Hamersveld took the cover photograph, but the now famous cover design is Gut’s). Gut is also credited with the LP album cover design (not cover painting) for Blue Cheer’s second album, Outsideinside (1968), which opens into an “L” shape when fully unfolded. He is not explicitly connected with any album artwork on the third or subsequent albums, so I assume by that time his relationship with the band had ended. (The group itself subsequently disbanded around 1971, but re-formed in the late 1980s.) Gut is also credited with some producing some poster art in connection with Blue Cheer concerts as well.

Donald Clarke’s The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Penguin paperback, 1990), contains a quotation by Gut that I’m compelled to reproduce here. Gut said of Blue Cheer: "They play so hard and heavy they make cottage cheese out of the air" (124). I take this as a psychedelicized form of compliment, but clearly Blue Cheer’s appeal was more than the fact that they simply played loud. Although the band members had hippie credentials--the band was supposedly named in homage to a form of LSD, plus they had long hair, bell bottoms, in short, all the appropriate attire--the association of Blue Cheer with “biker music” has to have its origins in that curious, improbable relationship the Hell's Angels had with the hippie counterculture. In his autobiography, Hell's Angel, Sonny Barger says that "The sixties were the best thing that ever happened to the Hell's Angels" (p. 130). The Hell's Angels liked hippies (in contrast to Berkeley radicals), he says, because it was understood that women were always to be the means of exchange: he claims that a hippie would let him screw his girlfriend in return for a ride on his motorcycle (130). Moreover, some members of the Hell's Angels, such as Gut, weaved their lives "into the hippie scene." Certainly both groups saw themselves in the broadest sense as rebels, and both groups saw themselves as unsuited to the demands of a conventional, middle-class life, and held deep disdain for genteel, bourgeoisie sexual morality. Interviewed in 2006, Dickie Peterson tends to confirm what Sonny Barger wrote in his autobiography:

Gut liked our band and came on as our manager. Now through Gut we played a lot of the earlier Hell's Angels parties, along with Big Brother and the Holding Company. There would be Angels coming over to our house, we always had plenty of chicks around and we were always in a party mode, and at the time that's basically what the Angels were. We didn't have a big affiliation with the club, we just knew some of these guys that were friends of Gut's and they would come over to the house and we would party around. These people were all very nice to us, they were the ones that first put me on a Harley. To me it was sort of a childhood dream come true, because when I was growing up in San Francisco sometimes I would cut school to get down to Frederick's street by two o'clock in the afternoon, because these guys would come roaring by on their way out to Playland by the ocean where they hung out at the funhouse. Me and my friends didn't want to miss this, and I wanted to grow up to be like that. So how this all tied in and how it all came together was always a mystery to me, but I'm glad it did. Gut, the Angel that was managing us then, he was a mentor to me.

But how did the music of a power trio serve as the common ground between these groups? Perhaps the lyrics of "Summertime Blues" provide a clue:

I'm gonna raise a fuss, I'm gonna raise a holler
About a-workin' all summer just to try to earn a dollar
Every time I call my baby, and ask to get a date
My boss says, "No dice son, you gotta work late"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

Well my mom and pop told me, "Son you gotta make some money"
If you want to use the car to go ridin' next Sunday
Well I didn't go to work, told the boss I was sick
"Well you can't use the car 'cause you didn't work a lick"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues

In retrospect, these lyrics suggest a countercultural sensibility avant le lettre, a deep frustration with the prospect of a banal, middle-class existence. But what, precisely, was Blue Cheer's particular innovation? The band made this (by 1968) decade-old song sound new and contemporary; the band brought it "up to date," not simply by covering its lyrics but by altering its sound. The thunderous roar of a heavy metal guitar mimics not only the roar of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the exhaust mufflers removed; it also mimics the drone of the factory. It represents not the polished technique of a trained professional, but instead the rough playing of an inspired amateur: it is a blue collar, working class sound, one that is perceived by its listeners as authentic, "hard" as in "hard-working," but equally important, visceral. Regarding Gut's comment about Blue Cheer's sound making "cottage cheese out of the air," Peterson said:

At the time when we first started music was solely an audio sensation that you got with your ears. After standing in front our our amps and feeling the vibration from the speakers, we said, "Wait a minute. This is what people gotta feel, this is what they gotta experience, they gotta experience the air, the wind, the waves hitting them from these speakers. That's what they've gotta experience in order to really experience music." This is what prompted us to keep crankin' it up! That's why he used the term "they turn the air into cottage cheese." Because we would, we would make the air thick with the vibration of those cabinets to where it was quite a physical experience.

Which band took the same approach as Blue Cheer but had far greater success? Grand Funk Railroad. They were also loud, long-haired, sweaty, and shirtless, with a working-class sensibility (We're An American Band"). What happened to Grand Funk once they dropped their metal edge and became more "pop" sounding ("Some Kind of Wonderful")? They were dropped by their constituency, and didn't survive the 1970s, either.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Grease For Peace

Joe Sasfy, who created Time-Life’s 50-album, 1, 100 song, Rock 'n' Roll Era series some years ago, emailed me in connection with my March 13 blog entry, in which I discussed Art Laboe’s Oldies But Goodies series of compilation albums. I’m quite sure that Time-Life’s Rock 'n' Roll Era is the biggest and biggest-selling oldies series of all time.

Mr. Sasfy reports that Time-Life has just inked a deal with Art Laboe and will issue a new, 10-CD collection titled The Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection, to be sold primarily as an infomercial. The host of the infomercial will be Bowzer (Jon Bauman, pictured) of the group Sha Na Na. Readers are invited to review my earlier blog entry, in which I linked Art Laboe and the Mothers of Invention album Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968) to the formation of Sha Na Na in the late 60s, an “oldies” act that very early in its performing history appeared, somewhat improbably, at the Woodstock Festival (August 1969).

Like many people did, I first saw Sha Na Na in Warner Brother’s documentary of the Woodstock Festival, Woodstock (1970), performing "At the Hop." For some reason, although my parents primarily listened to swing music, they always seemed for some reason to have on Sha Na Na’s television variety show (1977-81) at the appropriate time--episodes of which, surprisingly, have never appeared on DVD. During those same years, in 1978, Sha Na Na appeared in the hugely successful motion picture version of the musical Grease, under the name of Johnny Casino and the Gamblers; their songs can be heard on that movie’s very popular soundtrack. The group still performs to this day.

Regarding the Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection, Mr. Sasfy says, “You might say that, as we teeter here at the edge of rock ‘n’ roll history, all the remaining players in the oldies 'game' have joined together for one last un-ironic nostalgia fest.” I have written Mr. Sasfy asking him to keep me posted regarding the availability of the forthcoming Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection; I will let you know as soon as I hear something.

In the meantime, to quote Bowzer's parting message that closed each Sha Na Na television show: “Grease for Peace!”

Thursday, April 10, 2008

University of Nebraska at Kearney student Grant Campbell responded to an observation I made in my previous (April 9) blog entry, “Rock History and How It’s Made,” prompting me to expand on some comments I made in that post. In response to my previous entry, he made the following comment:

The technology aspect is most certainly a driving force behind the change in “style” of the era’s [the 1960s] music. However, wouldn't it be genealogical for a certain era’s musicians to find their own way of utilizing that technology? I know you aren't taking ALL the credit away from musicians and giving it to technology. But if technology is going to advance anyway, I still think that it is the artists who need to be primarily recognized for their creative genius.

I should add that he’s responding to an observation I made at the end of my post, that most histories of rock ‘n’ roll focus on influence understood rather narrowly as artistic influence, rather than on the influential role of technological innovation, an “invisible” factor driving popular musical change. While I was by no means trying to diminish the role of the musician, I should say that what is meant by “artistry” might well in fact mean, in part, how the musician exploits the potential of a new technology, meaning on that point I'm in agreement with Grant when he talks about a musician’s finding his “own way of utilizing” a specific technology. But I would add that technological changes continue to challenge and modify what we mean by "artist" in the first place.

Since I suspect there are many who share his thoughts (or rather, hesitations), perhaps I ought to provide some examples of what I meant by my earlier assertion about the role of technology in popular music in order to illustrate my general point (not an entirely original one, I might add):

--Frank Sinatra responded to the development of the LP (long-play) record by creating albums unified by a sense of mood or tone, e.g., In the Wee Small Hours (1955). With an entire side available consisting of roughly twenty minutes, he was no longer restricted by the limitations of one side of a 78, or roughly five minutes. The second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969) exploits the length of a side of the LP in a similar way. Remember that the word “album” used to refer to a heavy cardboard portfolio that consisted of several 78s tucked inside separate sleeves, not a single 12" LP record.

--In the 1960s, rock musicians responded to the potential of the LP by “stretching out” or “jamming”—the “jam session,” which sometimes took up the entire side of an LP. While I certainly don’t wish to get into a simple “chicken-or-egg” dialectical argument, one wonders whether the storage capacity of one side of an LP didn’t in fact prompt musicians to stretch out or jam in the first place. A case in point is a band such as the Grateful Dead, a band that made records attempting to duplicate the ambiance of their live concerts, a practice in flat contradiction to that of most bands at the time, which tried to make their concerts sound like their records.

--The development of multitrack recording, among other engineering innovations, enabled the development of psychedelic music, the aural equivalent of an hallucinogenic trip. As Jim DeRogatis observes:

Musicians couldn’t specifically reproduce any of these [hallucinogenic] sensations, but drug users also talked about a transfigured view of the everyday world and a sense that time was elastic. These feelings could be invoked—onstage [synaesthesia, the “psychedelic light show”] but even more effectively in the recording studio—with circular, mandala-like song structures; sustained or droning melodies; altered and effected instrumental sounds; reverb, echoes, and tape delays that created a sense of space, and layered mixes that rewarded repeated listening by revealing new and mysterious elements. (Turn On Your Mind, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003, p. 12)

The “altered and effected” instrumental sounds to which DeRogatis refers are technically known as “non-linear synthesis,” meaning that the sound that goes in to a particular electronic device is not the sound that comes out—think, for example, of the use of the Leslie (see my earlier entry) or the ring modulator. In this sense, I suppose, the use of technology to approximate a drug trip is an example of the banal insight that technology follows the path of ideology.

--After a live concert, the Velvet Underground--the band which I specifically mentioned in my last post--frequently left the stage leaving their plugged-in guitars behind, thus enabling a self-sustaining feedback effect (the amplifiers would generate sound waves that in turn would vibrate the guitars' strings, thus creating a loopiness, or self-sustaining feedback). Jimi Hendrix often did the same thing, exploiting electronic technology’s potential to operate independent of any conscious (human) control. Lou Reed's later Metal Machine Music (1975) is an entire album consisting of self-sustained feedback, pushing the point of technology's ability to operate autonomously of human control to the extreme--see below.

--In a further development since the 1960s, digital sampling enables one to make a record by combining fragments of songs compiled entirely from previous recordings—yet another challenge to what is traditionally meant by the word artist. Certainly the Velvet Underground was—in the traditional sense of the word—influenced by Andy Warhol’s notion of the pop artist, since he was at the time the VU formed using found photographs for the making of prints. Remember that Warhol referred to his studio as the Factory, suggesting the potential for “art” to be a mass-produced item just like any other, or perhaps, no different than any other. Think of Duchamp's "Fountain," a urinal to which he applied the signature "R. Mutt" and placed in an art gallery.

The larger point, I think, is that the language we use to talk about popular music is itself problematic, for as the practice of digital sampling reveals, terms such as "artist" and "musician" no longer really function. The question we need to consider seriously is whether they were terms antiquated decades ago, when rapid changing technologies began to profoundly change popular music.