Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time, Peace, And A Saucerful of Friends

In my blog entry of May 16 I discussed my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the year of 1968 in the order, as best as I could determine, in which they were released. Why 1968? I'll refer readers to the earlier blog for an explanation of the motivation for such an unusual project. At any rate, I promised I would post a June listening schedule, which can be found below. Since posting that earlier blog entry, however, I've discovered additional information which has prompted me to emend that earlier list, both adding and removing albums to more accurately reflect the current state of my knowledge. For instance, I'd listed Nilsson's Aerial Ballet as being released in March--at the time, an educated guess on my part. Information in the liner notes to the 2-CD BMG/Camden Deluxe 2000 reissue indicate July as the release date, which I accept as accurate, so I removed the album from the March set of albums and will include it as part of the July list. I still cannot claim that my list is infallible, but I continue to work on it. What I've found is that there were dozens of albums released in July and August, so those months' lists will be rather long (assuming the information I've come across is accurate). Perhaps record companies heavily slated album releases for the summer months, or, alternatively, some of the albums many sources indicate as being released in July were in fact released a bit earlier, that is, June. At any rate, here is what I currently have on tap for June, if anyone would care to listen along:

The Rascals, Time Peace: The Rascals’ Greatest Hits
The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble
The Beach Boys, Friends
Pink Floyd, A Saucerful of Secrets
Fairport Convention, Fairport Convention
Manfred Mann, Mighty Garvey! (6/28)
Otis Redding, The Immortal Otis Redding
Vanilla Fudge, Renaissance

List emended 7/22/68

Friday, May 30, 2008

Man of 1000 Voices at 100

Perhaps the most talented voice actor of the twentieth century, Mel Blanc, nicknamed "Man of 1000 Voices," was born 100 years ago today. Blanc died in 1989, but his memorable vocal creations live on in Warner Brothers cartoons and elsewhere. We all instantly recognize the images of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester Pussycat, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd--but rarely do we conceive of them separately from their distinctive voices. Indeed, these 'toon characters' bodily movements seem irrevocably sutured to their voice: if they couldn't move, they couldn't speak, and vice versa. In a sense, their voices animate them. Among his other vocal characterizations were Pepe le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote (when he spoke--rarely), Marvin the Martian, Barney Rubble, Woody Woodpecker (initially), the Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Yosemite Sam, the diminutive but feisty cowboy who was "the blood-thirstiest, shoot-'em firstiest, goshdarn worstiest bandit North, South, East and West of the Pecos!"

Because Mel Blanc is so strongly associated with his vocal characterizations, one doesn't immediately think of the few feature motion pictures in which he had supporting roles--Neptune's Daughter (1949) and Kiss Me Stupid (1964)--for instance; if not classics, they are still well worth seeking out simply to see the man as an actor. Although there are many websites devoted to Mel Blanc, a good overview of the "Man of 1000 Voices," by Kim Newman (find his link to the right), is available here.

That's all, folks!

Joseph Pevney, 1911-2008

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Joseph Pevney, the film and television director who directed some of the most memorable episodes of the original Star Trek TV series, died on May 18 at the venerable age of 96.

Pevney was a former Broadway actor who played supporting roles in several notable films noir—always inevitably the “sidekick”—in the late 1940s before turning his talents to directing feature films. If the Internet Movie Database is correct, I count he directed 32 feature films during the period 1950-1961, many of these B pictures with short shooting schedules, to be sure, but a remarkable stretch in any case. He made his debut as a director with Shakedown (1950), a film noir with Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy and the inimitable Lawrence Tierney. I seem to be one of the few who admire Pevney's atmospheric The Strange Door (1951), featuring two fine performances by Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton. And although the film was made late in the actor's career, the Errol Flynn-starring Instanbul (1957) has a lot to recommend it, including a reasonably good role for Nat King Cole. The James Cagney-starring Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), about the silent film star Lon Chaney, is also widely admired, while Torpedo Run (1958) is a classic of the subgenre (pun intended). Other films Pevney directed during that prolific decade include Meet Danny Wilson (1951), starring Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters; 3 Ring Circus (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Female on the Beach (1955), starring Joan Crawford; and Twilight for the Gods (1958), starring Rock Hudson and Cyd Charisse.

Beginning in 1961, he turned to television, directing episodes of numerous series such as Wagon Train, The Munsters, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Virginian, Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D., Emergency, The Incredible Hulk, and Fantasy Island—all of which are television shows that are as familiar, to me anyway, as old friends. But it was, of course, Star Trek (TOS) that became Pevney’s most enduring television credit as a director and made him a familiar name to Star Trek fans.

Since his death, several Star Trek fan sites have noted that Pevney directed fourteen episodes of the original series—many of them fan favorites—tying with the late Marc Daniels as the credited director of the most episodes. He directed those favored episodes over the course of 1967, averaging slightly over one show a month:

Arena – 1/19/67
The Return of the Archons – 2/9/67
A Taste of Armageddon – 2/23/67
The Devil in the Dark – 3/9/67
The City on the Edge of Forever – 4/6/67
Amok Time – 9/15/67
The Apple – 10/13/67
Catspaw – 10/27/67
Journey to Babel – 11/17/67
Friday’s Child – 12/1/67
The Deadly Years – 12/8/67
Wolf in the Fold – 12/22/67
The Trouble with Tribbles – 12/29/67
The Immunity Syndrome – 1/19/68

The episodes he directed exhibit a wide range of subject matter, from some of the strongest dramatic episodes to comedy. “The City on the Edge of Forever,” from a script by Harlan Ellison, is generally considered to be the best episode of the original series by virtue of its compelling moral drama, although “Arena,” in which Captain Kirk battles the nasty, thuggish, and devious Gorn (pictured), is perhaps more famous episode among “non-Trekkies.” But there are some very good episodes in the above list: the Robert Bloch authored “Catspaw” featuring two byzantine aliens named Korob and Sylvia; “Journey to Babel,” in which Mr. Spock’s parents were featured, played by Jane Wyatt and Mark Lenard; "Wolf in the Fold" (also written by Robert Bloch), in which the soul of Jack the Ripper (Red Jack, or “Redjac”) has managed to transmigrate from planet to planet through outer space; and, of course, the inevitable “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a comedy in which the Enterprise gets infested with a gaggle of little furry creatures. (I've always loved the bit at the end of the show when Captain Kirk prepares to sit in the Captain's Chair and stops himself, thinking he might be crushing a Tribble.) I was barely a teenager when I first saw these episodes, and they have remained indelibly etched in my mind ever since. They are classic television.

Not a director ever likely to be championed by auteur critics, the films of Joseph Pevney have nonetheless formed a part of my identity every bit as significant as those made by more celebrated names, those of the putative "Great Tradition."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Name Game

Part 3 of The Squonk

At the conclusion of my discussion of the Buoys’ “Timothy” the day before yesterday, I observed that some readers might take issue with my interpretation of that somewhat obscure pop song, thinking it to be an aberrant decoding of the song’s meaning. An aberrant reading is simply a way of remotivating an artistic object, the switching of the external context surrounding it. Perhaps the most famous illustration of a remotivated art object is Marcel Duchamp’s goateed Mona Lisa, retitled “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919; pictured).

Duchamp later said that the new name of his remotivated art work was a phonetic game. The most common claim is that L.H.O.O.Q., when said out loud in French, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul,” meaning “she has a hot ass" (or is "hot in the ass"), suggesting that the famous subject of the painting was not only in a state of sexual arousal, but sexually available as well. In a 1966 interview, Duchamp said, “I really like this kind of game, because I find that you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen” (see Pierre Cabanne, p. 63).

The androgynized, goateed figure of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q is the visual equivalent of the androgynous figure of "Rikki" in Steely Dan’s "Rikki Don’t Loose That Number," a song title that proves Duchamp's insight that with any series of letters, some astonishing things can happen. Like Duchamp’s letters, L.H.O.O.Q, the name RIKKI likewise invites us to play a phonetic game. While spelled Rikki, phonetically speaking, of course, it is the diminutive form of that most familiar of American nicknames, Rick—Ricky. For instance, Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy; in Casablanca, Ricky is what Captain Renault (Claude Rains) calls Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), rather than the more formal “Mr. Richard” that Sam uses, or the “Richard” Ilsa uses (at least in Paris). Rikki shares the same unusual spelling as the titular figure of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And yet, the lyrics of “Rikki Don’t Loose That Number” suggest not a world of innocence, but rather a sophisticated world in which people play sophisticated games:

We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart

Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

I have a friend in town, he’s heard your name
We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row
We could stay inside and play games I don’t know
And you could have a change of heart


You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don't even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart


I assume the "you" referred to is Rikki. Although initially the singer says he hears Rikki is "leaving," in fact Rikki is a coward ("you turn and run"). Rikki is a coward because he is "scared," scared of himself, that is, scared of what he is doing and what he has done. What is he doing, what has he done? We're not told, just that he was having a "little wild time" with the singer, a "little wild time" that had just started. Rikki has a number, the singer's phone number, and he's invited to phone (call) once he feels better about himself. Rikki is invited to "send it off in a letter to yourself," which I take to mean, "look at it to remind yourself who you are," the number in the letter serving as a reminder to himself of who he really is.

In the song, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," also on the same Steely Dan album, Pretzel Logic, the singer tells the unnamed you (Rikki?), "You can try to run but you can't hide from what's inside of you," a virtual restatement of what is being said, in this song, to Rikki. "We could stay inside and play games," the singer says, meaning hide away and pretend, but again, the implication is that Rikki can try to run, but can't hide avoid the truth about himself, despite what he pretends to be true. Rikki's "change of heart" I take to mean the moment when he comes to terms with who and what he is, when he eventually can "feel better" about his true self. I've said "himself" because the rather inescapable implication is that singer is trying to make Rikki come to terms with his homosexuality, to feel comfortable about it, to stop denying it. "You tell yourself you're not my kind," a highly ambiguous phrase susceptible to many meanings, but its meaning in this context is highly suggestive of the similarity between the singer and Rikki. ("But honey, he's not our kind," is used in Janis Ian's "Society's Child" as a sign of racial difference, but in light of Janis Ian's subsequent outing, the song takes on an added level of meaning. Racial (external) difference is not the issue in Steely Dan's song.) That the relationship between the two is sexual can be inferred from the meaning of "our little wild time," "wild" a word in English having the same colloquial meaning as Duchamp's "chaud au cul," hot ass, or hot in the ass. I should point out that there's nothing to prevent my decoding of the song in this way, as I've simply expanded the meaningful context of the possible meanings of the deliberately ambiguous spelling of "Rikki." It seems to me I'm being invited to play this name game.

In my discussion of "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" of a couple blog entries ago, I linked that song with "Timothy" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," and subsequently I've queered all three songs. Initially, the key figure for me was the figure of the Squonk, invoked in the context of an unnamed figure in the midst of a personal crisis. In that song, the singer asks, "Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine," the use of a fantastic creature suggesting some fundamental difference, an otherness, that the singer and the unnamed "you" share. The same idea is used in "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," although obviously without the figure of the Squonk.

I also earlier mentioned the song titled "The Squonk" on the Genesis album, Trick of the Tail (1976), made a couple years after Pretzel Logic. The song is used in that album as part of its general concept, songs about realities or things that no longer exist, are imaginary.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

Although highly feted during his lifetime, Sydney Pollack (pictured, with award), who died yesterday, May 26, at age 73, was never a director championed among auteur critics, and probably never shall be. While he had a long career in both television and the movies, as a director he was not as prolific as, say, Robert Altman (1925-2006), a director of his generation whose work ultimately is more significant and, overall, more interesting. But like Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, John Frankenheimer, and many other directors born during the decade 1925-1935, he is one of a select group of film directors who began in television in the 1950s and later moved to a distinguished career in motion pictures.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Sydney Pollack began acting in television in 1959 and directing in 1961. His first feature motion picture, A Slender Thread, starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, was released in 1965, but most certainly it was They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), based on Horace McCoy's excellent depression-era Hollywood novel, that was his first significant work, and one widely admired by the critics. And despite the hesitations of its writer, John Milius, I still find Jeremiah Johnson (1972) a highly compelling, very watchable Western. However, nothing Sydney Pollack directed in the decade after much interested me--until Tootsie (1982), a fine comedy, in which Pollack himself acted and was excellent.

For me, though, his best film shall always be Out of Africa (1985), based on the remarkable memoir of Isak Dinesen, an old-fashioned screen romance to be sure, but which for reasons I cannot completely explain, I find the story of Karen Blixen at turns disturbing, compelling--and devastating. It was a film in development for at least a decade--in the early 1970s, for instance, Nicolas Roeg was attached to direct--but somehow, Pollack managed to get the film made, and won an Academy Award as Best Director in the process. I note that his audio commentary for the 2000 DVD release of the film release is excellent, and it remains one of my favorite films.

Perhaps that Best Director award was enough, for afterwards, he directed only five features in the next twenty years. I remember most vividly his acting appearance in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but I saw none of the pictures he directed after the mediocre Havana (1990). I found a very good obituary of Pollack here, in which critic Jeanine Basinger is quoted as saying, "Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades." I'm not deeply convinced of this alleged truth, but that he made at least one of my favorite films is quite enough for me.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Anthrophagic Killer

Part 2 of The Squonk

The linking of homosexuality and cannibalism in literature and art has been noted by both gay and straight critics. Critics have found the linkage of homosexuality and cannibalism in the work of Freud, Herman Melville, Yukio Mishima, and, as we shall see, Tobias Schneebaum. Rupert Holmes, songwriter of the Buoys’ “Timothy” (1971) claims to have been inspired to write the song as a result of the serendipitous juxtaposition of working on an arrangement of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” (“...a coal man's made out of muscle and blood”) while watching a gourmet cooking show on TV, shortly after seeing the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959) on television. I should point out that Williams’ play also links homosexuality and cannibalism, a feature of the story which Holmes doesn't mention but which would have been hard for him to have missed. A remarkable serendipity, to be sure, although most certainly the lyrics to "Timothy" support his claim about the song's diegetic action:

Trapped in a mine that had caved in
And everyone knows the only ones left
Was Joe and me and Tim
When they broke through to pull us free
The only ones left to tell the tale
Was Joe and me

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

Hungry as hell no food to eat
And Joe said that he would sell his soul
For just a piece of meat
Water enough to drink for two
And Joe said to me, “I”ll take a swig
And then there’s some for you”

Timothy, Timothy, Joe was looking at you
Timothy, Timothy, God what did we do?

I must have blacked out just around then
Cause the very next thing that I could see
Was the light of the day again
My stomach was full as it could be
And nobody ever got around
To finding Timothy

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go
Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

If the act of cannibalism in the song is hard to miss, so, too, is the act of homosexuality, although both events are repressed by the traumatic blackout, hence the amnesia ("God why don't I know?"). A traumatic blackout, remember, also occurs in Ode to Billy Joe (1976), the film based on the song by Bobbie Gentry, in which a young man commits suicide after a homosexual encounter with an older man.

While Rupert Holmes, perhaps best known for the song “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” cites Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer as part of the inspiration for "Timothy," there was a more sensational event linking homosexuality and cannibalism that Holmes might well have known about by 1971: the publication in 1969, by Grove Press, of Tobias Schneebaum’s memoir, Keep the River on Your Right. The memoir by Schneebaum (1922-2005) has become something of a cult classic, an early exploration into the question of embracing otherness (although an anthropologist might say it is instance of someone arguing for the principle of cultural relativism). In it, Schneebaum told how he, a gay New York painter, wound up living for about seven months among the Arakmbut (also spelled Harakumbut), cannibalistic people living in the rainforest of Peru.

In 1955, Schneebaum was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Peru. Shortly after his arrival, he vanished into the Peruvian jungle and was presumed dead. Several months later, he emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He later said the experience had transformed him, although in a way he hardly could have imagined.

He wrote in Keep the River on Your Right:

...I knew that out there in the forest were other peoples more primitive, other jungles wilder, other worlds that existed that needed my eyes to look at them. A flash of real terror came over me.... My first thought was: I’m going; the second thought: I’ll stay there. No coming back ever. Death or life, it’s all the same. (Grove Press, 1994, p. 50)

The Arakmbut, however, welcomed him. Moreover, he discovered that homosexuality was not stigmatized there. Apparently Arakmbut men routinely had sex with women and with other men, a practice Schneebaum himself soon adopted. At any rate, perhaps the most profound experience for him was the day he accompanied the men on what he thought was a hunting trip, but which turned out to be a raid on a nearby village. The men of the nearby village were massacred by the Arakmbut (so much for the idea of "the noble savage"), and in the ensuing celebration, parts of the men were cooked and eaten. While not precisely offered a pound of flesh, Schneebaum was indeed offered a portion of a roasted human male, which he ate. Later during the celebration, he said, he ate part of a man’s heart (hence he was, for a time, an anthrophage, like the narrator of "Timothy"). Although some have found Schneebaum’s story very dubious, the author maintained the story was true to the end of his life. The documentary film, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale (2000), corroborates his claim that he indeed lived among the Arakmbut, although the issue of cannibalism remains unconfirmed.

Nonetheless, the important point is that the linkage of homosexuality and cannibalism is well established, allowing us to explore the meaning of a pop song such as "Timothy." While some may see my reading of the song as an aberrant decoding of the song, I'll point out that "Timothy" is not about cannibalism--that is the diegetic action we are encouraged to construct based on the clues the narrator gives us. To say what the narrative action consists of is not to say anything about what it means.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Squonk: Part 1

Please forgive the splitting of my recent blog entries into parts, but I have a number of writing projects going on at the moment and as you know usually what I’m writing about on these blogs demands a rather time-consuming, detailed exposition.

The Squonk, an imaginary being whose existence was first written about in a book of American regional folklore published in 1910 titled Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by William T. Cox, became popularly known in the late 1960s after the English language publication of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (E. P. Dutton, 1969; co-authored with Margarita Guerrero). I’ve always believed the word is a portmanteau comprised of “squawk” and “honk,” both onomatopoeic words (that is, derived from a primarily oral culture) the squawk associated with a chicken and the honk with a goose. But the Squonk is described by William T. Cox not as a fantastic, bird-like creature but rather as a four-legged beast having “a very retiring disposition” and having “misfitting skin . . . covered with warts and moles” (pictured, image courtesy of the online edition of Cox's book).

The first edition of Borges’ and Guerrero’s book, containing 82 pieces about mythical creatures, was published in Mexico in 1957, titled Manual de zoologia fantastica (Handbook of Fantastic Zoology). A second edition, re-titled El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings) was published in Buenos Aires a decade later (Editorial Kier, S. A., Buenos Aires, 1967), with thirty-four additional articles (now totaling 116 pieces). For the English-language edition, several of the original articles were corrected, emended, and/or revised with four new ones added. Thus the E. P. Dutton edition, published in 1969, contains 120 entries about fantastical creatures.

I do not know the year of the Italian translation of Borges' book, but so far as I know the Squonk was first referred to in the popular arts in Mario Bava’s film Ecologia del delitto (Ecology of Murder, 1971), released in the U. S. in 1972 first as Carnage and subsequently as Twitch of the Death Nerve. According to Tim Lucas, in his IPPY Award-winning Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007), the Squonk was, rather interestingly, first popularly invoked in the context of post-coital pillow talk, when the character Frank asks his sex partner Laura, "Can't you hear it calling? It was a squonk." When asked by Laura what a Squonk is, Frank says the Squonk is a "dark-colored creature...covered with moles...And do you know what it does when it's captured? It dissolves into tears. Some of its peculiar qualities are sulkiness, diffidence, and possessiveness" (864). Tim subsequently observes that the Squonk is a figurative substitution for the figure of the female (Laura), who also has the traits of "sulkiness, diffidence, and possessiveness." Hence, early in its popular usage, the Squonk serves as a heteroclite, figurative displacement for a sexualized human being.

The Squonk soon reappeared in Steely Dan's song “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” included on the album Pretzel Logic, recorded late in 1973 and released in March 1974. One wonders whether Walter Becker and Donald Fagen learned of the Squonk through Mario Bava’s horror film or through the 1969 English-language version of Borges’ book. Given the lyrics it is hard to tell.

I never seen you looking so bad my funky one
You tell me that your super fine mind has come undone

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
Any major dude will tell you

Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times


I can tell you all I know, the where to go, the what to do
You can try to run but you can't hide from what’s inside of you


Although Borges placed the Squonk in the category of fantastic creatures, I prefer to say that the Squonk is a cryptozoological creature. I know this is not precisely the correct usage of the word cryptozoological, but the reason I prefer this term is that carries the meaning of “hidden” or “hidden away" or even “secluded,” all behavioral characteristics associated with the Squonk, a solitary, acutely self-conscious, innately morbid creature that lurks in the woods, avoiding civilization and hence human beings, preferring to keep its own company. The Squonk hides itself away during the day, preferring, according to Borges (and his source, William Cox), the twilight and dusk.

The singer of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” asks “you”—the unnamed person that would seem to be in the midst of some personal crisis—the rhetorical question, Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? assuming that the answer has to be no: since the Squonk is a very retiring creature that leads a solitary lifestyle and is rarely seen by people, the singer assumes you has never seen a Squonk, let alone a Squonk’s tears. “Well, look at mine,” the singer says, the point of which is to tell you that while the singer may not be a Squonk, he is figuratively much like a Squonk, and perhaps even strongly identifies with a Squonk—an unhappy creature with a misfitting skin covered in warts and moles—that is, a highly singular, solitary species given to a morbid personality which, as the result of a certain genetic birthright, not a curse as such, simply a matter of genetics, has a rather unattractive, if not ugly, appearance (hence the self-consciousness). Moreover, the unnamed you can “try to run” but cannot “hide from what’s inside” of himself, meaning despite himself he must be acutely aware of his real self, his true identity, the ineluctable reality that you wants to run away from, to hide from, to deny—but cannot. He—you—cannot escape what he is; like the Squonk he cannot escape his own freakishness. The singer speaks to you as one can do only when one is like the one to whom one speaks. They are two of the same kind, equals: I and Thou. The same. Hence the Squonk is used here, figuratively, as a creature with whom one can identify that is not like other people, one that is different because of genetics, a certain ugliness as perceived by others.

Steely Dan likes such singular, solitary creatures, especially crepuscular ones—those who come out when the sun sets, like the Squonk. A bat is a crepuscular creature, as is the rather ungainly, awkward creature known the opossum, the closest actual living analogue to the Squonk, I think. Steely Dan likes such crepuscular figures; take, for instance, the figure of Deacon Blues, a figure that likens himself to a snake (viper), a creature that comes out at night. He tells us:

I crawl like a viper
Through these suburban streets
Make love to these women
Languid and bittersweet
I’ll rise when the sun goes down
Cover every game in town
A world of my own
I’ll make it my home sweet home

The next appearance of the Squonk was in the eponymously named song by Genesis, on the album A Trick of the Tail (1976), where the text of Cox's 1910 depiction of the Squonk was more or less re-told in narrative form. As in Steely Dan's song, there is a figure referred to as "you" to whom the lyrics are presumably addressed, but "you" is a much different kind of figure than the one in Steely Dan, the latter the one that interests me the most.

Part 2: "Timothy," Cannibalism, and the Queering of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"

Friday, May 23, 2008

What Lies Beneath

In yesterday's mail I received the copy of Ed Sanders' 2002 update of The Family (Thunder's Mouth Press) I'd ordered, and last night I had the chance to (re)read it, looking specifically for references to any mention of bodies being buried at the Barker Ranch. I'm getting too old to sit up reading late in the night, especially when accompanied by a bottle of good red wine. But I did so, against my better judgment, but I'm happy to report that I did find the information about the Barker Ranch that I was looking for.

Apparently in late March 1971 Sanders flew from New York to California for what he says was his final visit of the year: his publisher, E. P. Dutton, was pushing him to finish the book as soon as possible (it was published in the fall of 1971). On March 31, he and a fellow investigator, Larry Larsen, met in Berkeley with an individual claiming to have "access to Family films made as far back as 1967" (462), taping the conversation. Among the assertions made at that meeting by this unnamed informant was the following:

Vern Plumlee [a Manson associate] had told him, he said, that there were three people who got killed in Death Valley. He said they were buried "in back of the main house--maybe fifty feet in back of it. He said they were buried about eight feet deep." The informant also claimed that he had been up in Death Valley that fall of 1969, a claim difficult to verify because he was not on any arrest record up there. "I have six I.D.'s," he told us, and then rattled off the names. (463)

I'd speculated, based on the news articles published on the L. A. Times website, that perhaps the existence of these graves had only recently come to light, but that is obviously not so--their possible existence has been known about by law enforcement officials for the past 37 years. One wonders, then, whether this week's forensic dig at the Barker Ranch was prompted by other (unpublicized) information emerging that corroborated the decades-old rumor, or whether, more cynically, the dig was prompted simply in order to test the reliability of new forensic technology, as one can infer from this article. One also wonders, if the possible existence of these graves has been known for over three decades, why a serious forensic investigation took so long to occur--unless the possibility was never taken especially seriously by the authorities. Although I've visited Death Valley three times, I've never been to the Goler Wash area. Nonetheless, I doubt seriously whether Manson and his "Family" members had the wherewithal to dig graves eight feet deep in such difficult terrain comprised of such rocky soil. Even if the figure of eight feet is an exaggeration, I suspect the digging of graves in that area would be something of a formidable task. Perhaps for the same reason law enforcement officials thought the graves would be relatively shallow, and hence easier to locate--if there at all.

Given that the possible existence of graves at the Barker Ranch is now revealed to be nothing but sheer legerdemain, it necessarily calls into question the veracity of other testimony by the informant with whom Sanders spoke on 31 March 1971. I'm thinking specifically of the existence of the so-called "snuff" films alluded to by this informant, what Sanders calls in this latest, 2002 edition of his book "hemic films," hemic an adjective meaning "of or relating to the blood." Is his use of "hemic," rather than "snuff" (the term he used in the 1971 edition), a tacit admission that he no longer believes in the existence of so-called "snuff" films? During the same interview I alluded to above, the unnamed individual also reported the following information:

Then he spoke about some short films he claimed to have viewed, one of which he claimed to have stolen from a house not far from the Spahn Ranch inhabited by cultists and bikers. He said he'd seen two movies filmed in a beach locale. One, he volunteered, was on a beach near the Los Angeles and Ventura county lines. (464)

I'll spare you the gruesome details, but essentially the subject of these putative films were, 1) the killing and subsequent dismemberment of a dog, followed by the dog's blood being poured over two naked girls who then engaged in orgiastic sex; 2) "orgy films" with Charles Manson and the members of his "Family"; 3) a cat blown to pieces by an explosive; and 4) a film about five minutes in length "of a woman dead on a beach" (464). Sanders goes on to write that he believed this individual making these claims was involved in making sleazy films in the Berkeley area, and also writes that his associate, Larry Larsen, subsequently interviewed someone who claimed that the said informant had recently made a pornographic film featuring a thirteen year-old girl.

It is a well-known fact that the FBI has been seeking to verify the existence of snuff films for the past several decades, and has never discovered any evidence to verify their existence. I've contended in previous blog entries that the theoretical existence of the snuff film is made possible by photography's automatism, but even if we allow for the possibility that they were actually made, there's an additional, more practical problem: developing the exposed film. Assuming this footage was shot (at the time) on an easily accessible, 8mm home movie camera, how was this footage developed? By whom? If one says that the footage could be developed at the same locations as, say, pornographic films, then suddenly the number of conspirators has grown larger, making the possibility of containment of the conspiracy even more difficult to maintain. Two individuals might be able to keep a secret (although law enforcement officials use the "prisoner's dilemma" tactic, in which two conspirators are separated and then given false information about what the other one said or claimed), but three individuals compounds the problem, four makes it more difficult, five even more so, and so on. In other words, the greater the number of individuals involved, the more precarious the conspiracy becomes to contain. Indeed, the Manson "Family" itself, a rather large group of mercurial individuals, was incriminated by an off-hand remark by Susan Atkins to a fellow cellmate. (As Sanders notes, Inyo County officials had rather flimsy evidence to justify holding Charles Manson following his October 1969 arrest at the Barker Ranch; if things hadn't unraveled quickly in Los Angeles, he might well have had to be set free.)

It is this principle that makes the existence of snuff--or even hemic--films unlikely. Certainly there are films in which animals are killed on camera--Cannibal Holocaust (1980) immediately comes to mind--but if Manson "Family" members had made such films--call them what you will--where would they have been developed? And if shot using 35mm film rather than 8mm, the problem of developing the exposed film is even more daunting. Of course, videotape is a different matter entirely, not requiring development as does camera negative. But in 1968-69, video cameras were rather daunting pieces of equipment--heavy, awkward, and cumbersome, and while portable cameras existed, they were quite unwieldy. Moreover, the only way one could see the footage one had shot with the camera was either to have the proper playback equipment, or the necessary cables to play the footage through a television set (monitor) directly from the camera. Certainly none of this could have taken place at the Barker Ranch, which didn't even have electricity--meaning no television, and no way to recharge the portable batteries. Assuming the "Family" had video equipment at all, the equipment therefore could have been more easily used at the Spahn Ranch, which had electricity, but again, whatever sort of events, how terrible, took place, there still must be some degree of coordination between the camera operator and the action being recorded, the instantaneous reaction that is second nature to a trained cameraman. Would any of these individuals have had the technical skill to film rapidly unfolding events with cumbersome video equipment?

Hence I think the probable existence of these so-called hemic films is very, very near zero, not only for reasons I've explained, but because I also have deep hesitations about the trustworthiness of the informant who claimed to have seen these short films.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Snuff, Reality TV, and the Issue of the "Too Real": Part 2

I concluded yesterday’s blog with the observation that although its existence has never been proven, the theoretical existence of the “snuff film” was made thinkable because of photographic technology’s automatism, its vulnerability to intrusions of the too real. The intrusion of the too real marks the limit of representation; to go beyond this limit is to be “obscene,” “pornographic,” to be subject to prosecution, and so on. While the proscribed limit is popularly understood as restrictions on the representation of sexual acts, the other side of the same token, of course, is the representation of death.

An example that immediately comes to mind to illustrate the vulnerability of which I speak is Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald on national television, this in 1963, long before the invention of “Reality TV.” And a non-televised example is, of course, the 8mm “home movie” footage of President Kennedy’s assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder—the famous “Zapruder film.”

In a sense, the vulnerability of photography to intrusions of the too real always threatens to put the viewer in the same situation as Abraham Zapruder: eye-witness to disaster. There is an infamous short film by Stan Brakhage that was shot in a morgue, consisting of the dissection and study of cadavers, titled “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes,” the title of Brakhage’s film a pun derived from the dictionary definition of the word autopsy: “Seeing with one’s own eyes, eye-witnessing; personal observation or inspection” (OED). The word autopsy is an example of an interdisciplinary homonym, the locus where two or more fields converge at a single set of terms. While autopsy literally translated means, “seeing with one’s own eyes,” it is also defined in the OED in the more common understanding of the word, as “dissection of a dead body; so as to ascertain by actual inspection its internal structure, and esp. to find out the cause or seat of disease; post-mortem examination.”

Brakhage’s film thus links the discipline of cinematography with that of coroner: the eye-witnessing of the camera and the “I witness” of the coroner. Brakhage’s film is an act of revelation (Andre Bazin’s privileged mode of mimesis) of the hidden mystery of the body’s dead end, similar to the disassembly of a machine. In a cold, clinical fashion, he showed how faces are peeled off the skull, how the top of the cranium is sawed off in order to allow access to the brain beneath (which is subsequently removed), how the blood is washed out of an eviscerated torso—the truth, as Godard once said, twenty-four frames per second. Jorge Luis Borges, in a short story, once linked death and the compass; Brakhage’s film links death and the camera.

The ability to record cold, implacable death is an illustration of the revenge effect of photography’s automatism. Indeed, the clinical recording of death is almost as old as the cinema itself. The title of the Thomas Edison short, Electrocuting an Elephant (1903; pictured) blatantly names its diegetic action; although the electrocution of the elephant was staged for the camera to demonstrate to onlookers the dangers of electricity, the film nonetheless recorded an actual event: the electrocution of an elephant named Topsy. Did Thomas Edison make the first snuff film?

Of course, “Reality TV” is not premised on the capturing of atrocity, but that is precisely its vulnerability. In order to reveal just how vulnerable the medium is to intrusions of the too real, an example is in order. For my example, I’m going to refer to an event that occurred over thirty years ago, doing so in hope that the event will be largely unknown to a majority of present-day readers. In the years since, similar events have occurred, but my example serves as an illustration of the sort of vulnerabilities of the medium I wish to identify. It was sufficiently sensational to have influenced the medium since, and inspired at least one motion picture.

On Monday, 15 July 1974, a 29 year-old anchorwoman for Sarasota, Florida TV station WXLT, named Christine Chubbuck, committed suicide while delivering the station’s morning newscast. (In the years since she seems to have been transformed into a sort of folk hero, as witnessed by the number of websites devoted to her; there's even footage of her on youtube. Whether there's a link to her theatricalized suicide and later events such as Columbine is a subject for further research.) The following account comes from a UPI report filed by Sally Quinn, dated August 4, 1974.

Christine Chubbuck flicked her long dark hair back away from her face, swallowed, twitched her lips only slightly and reached with her left hand to turn the next page of her script. Looking down on the anchor desk she began to read: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in”—she looked up from the script, directly into the camera and smiled a tentative smile. Her voice took on a sarcastic tone as she emphasized “blood and guts…and in living color.” She looked back down at her script, her left hand shook almost unnoticeably.

Her right arm stiffened. “We bring you another first.” Her voice was steady. She looked up again into the camera. Her eyes were dark, direct and challenging. “An attempted suicide.” Her right hand came up from under the anchor desk. In it was a .38 caliber revolver. She pointed it at the lower back of her head and pulled the trigger. A loud crack was heard. A puff of smoke blew out from the gun and her hair flew up around her face as though a sudden gust of wind had caught it. Her face took on a fierce, contorted look, her mouth wrenched downward, her head shook. Then her body fell forward with a resounding thud against the anchor desk and slowly slipped out of sight.

She died roughly fourteen hours later at a local hospital. Predictably, the story was soon reported on radio and television, and on front pages of newspapers around the world: “TV Star Kills Self,” “TV Personality Takes Own Life on Air,” “On Camera Suicide,” and so on. The event was immediately likened to similar intrusions of the too real which had preceded it: Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Bremer’s attempted assassination of George Wallace in 1972, Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of the execution of the Viet Cong prisoner, yet, “Never in history had anyone deliberately killed herself on live television,” Sally Quinn wrote. “It was a first.”

Christine Chubbuck’s suicide prompted Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay Network (1976), and is intertextually related to films such as Videodrome (1983). Directed by Sidney Lumet, Network stars Peter Finch (who won an Academy Award for his performance), William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall. Although her suicide was the inspiration for Chayefsky’s screenplay, the line in which her suicide is alluded to is not actually in included in the released version of the film. However, Sam Hedrin’s novelization (Pocket Books, 1976) of the screenplay contains the allusion: protagonist Howard Beale (the character played by Peter Finch in the film), during a drunken conversation, says, “I’m going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news, like that girl in Florida a couple of months ago” (8).

Christine Chubbuck’s suicide is one of many instances of the intrusion of the too real in television, suggesting that if indeed television is a window to the world, that window better be made of bullet-proof glass. Hers was not the only such event. A similar event occurred on 22 January 1987, when, again on live television, R. Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania state treasurer then under criminal investigation, during a press conference placed a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, committing suicide. In yet another example, during an episode of 60 Minutes that aired on 22 November 1998, footage of Dr. Jack Kevorkian euthanizing Thomas Youk was shown on national television, prompting great outrage: viewers compared the footage of Kevorkian’s assisted suicide to a “snuff film”—the limits of representation had been exceeded, prompting public outcry. Exploiting photography's automatism, Kevorkian videotaped the entire procedure and made the tape available for broadcast on 60 Minutes. Subsequently, he was charged with first-degree murder and convicted of second-degree murder, and was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison—was he actually guilty of murder, or was he punished for violating the limit of the representation of death?

I could provide many, many other examples of the too real intruding on the little theater called television—a device the function of which obviously is not to show us the world, but rather to shield us from it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Death Valley Days: Two (Over And Out)

The L. A. Times reported late this afternoon (4:58 PDT) that the two areas near the Barker Ranch site where bodies were suspected of being buried yielded nothing but a shell casing, ash and small animal bones. According to the latest report, Inyo County sheriff's investigators today apparently called off their search for human remains at the site. Lt. Jim Jones of the Inyo Country Sheriff's office is quoted as saying, "forensic testing indicates that there were no human remains in or around that site." Whether Charles Manson and his "Family" committed murders heretofore unaccounted for thus remains unconfirmed.

Initial reports indicated the investigation would continue through Thursday, but apparently the investigation was ended today given the complete absence of any promising evidence. As I noted in an early blog entry, there was a similar kind of search at the ranch a couple of months ago, which also turned up nothing. The claim that there were bodies buried there was never entirely believable, but now, in any case, the matter can be laid to rest in the absence of any leads.

And that, as they say, is that. The question remains as to why investigators found the assertion "within the realm of probability." I should add that I have no idea how often Ed Sanders (author of The Family) updates his website, but I noticed no comment on the investigation on his website, which could be interpreted as an indication of his skepticism regarding the recent endeavor. I have ordered a copy of his 2002 update of The Family; if there is any information in it that can shed light on this recent activity, I will certainly let you know.

Snuff, Reality TV, and the Issue of the "Too Real": Part 1

The question of Charles Manson and the “snuff film” has preoccupied my thoughts the past few days, prompted, of course, by the forensic investigation currently going on at the Barker Ranch (see my recent blog entries on the subject, below).

It occurs to me that the controversy surrounding the possible existence of the “snuff film” (never proven) is in fact no longer relevant—if the issue is simply one of transgression, the exhibition of content that is putatively considered “obscene”: this is merely a question of propriety, what ought to be shown and not shown. In a culture such as ours that is so preoccupied with the technology of war, we are able to see snuff film, in the sense of the filming of murder and the recording of death, just about every night on the national news, comprised as it is of video footage of missiles striking enemy strongholds, rockets raining down on “insurgents” hiding behind city walls or within buildings, the aftermath of car bombs with bodies littering the street, and numerous other atrocities.

The issue of televised snuff reveals that the so-called problem or controversy surrounding the snuff film exists because of photographic technology. In his essay on the art of the cinema, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945), André Bazin argued that photography had a privileged access to truth because it was the result of a mechanical, reproductive process over which human agency had no control. He thus regarded the cinema primarily as a vehicle of revelation, rather than transformation, of reality. “For the first time,” he wrote, “an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative invention of man.” Bazin’s idea of an image being formed “automatically” is called the principle of automatism. Historically considered, Bazin privileges the form of mimesis known as aletheia (revelation), in contrast to adaequatio (correspondence). But in both of these modes of truth, the act of representation brings into appearance the physis (essence of life) of that which is imitated.

The history of photography reveals that automatism, the potential for revelation, became one of its primary attractions. A marketing campaign by Kodak once touted the importance of photography’s automatism—there was a camera nicknamed the “Kodak Automatic”—by its ability to capture “precious moments”—weddings, births, anniversaries, graduations, award ceremonies, family reunions and the like, all of those “once in a lifetime” events upon which so much of our modern memory is formed. By the same token, photography’s automatism has enabled some catastrophic historic moments to be captured on film: the explosion of the Hindenburg, for instance, on May 6, 1937, at the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey (pictured), or the stark truth of the Nazi death camps. There’s the famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by photojournalist Eddie Adams in Saigon in 1968, capturing the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner. Most Americans, I imagine, have the images of the collapsing World Trade Center Towers indelibly etched in their memory—I certainly do—an event made possible by the automatism of photography and the ubiquity of the inexpensive video camera.

Thus the principle of automatism allows photographic technology to capture atrocity as well. Considered strictly as a form of technology, photography illustrates what Edward Tenner calls the “revenge effect” of all technology: a process designed for one purpose turns out not only to subvert that purpose but to achieve its opposite.

The principle of photography’s automatism enables “Reality TV” as a form of representation but, paradoxically, creates a problem it must simultaneously overcome: there is the real, but there is also the too real. Reality TV must disclose (reveal) but also occlude (shut off, hide) at the same time. For instance, the subject of a "Reality TV" may use the toilet, but the camera doesn't intrude on the subject's privacy. In order to illustrate the nature of this dilemma, an anecdote is in order. Some years ago, I read a letter in Ann Landers’ column from a woman who, while snooping through her teenage daughter’s purse, had discovered birth control pills. She was writing to Ann Landers for advice on how to best handle her dilemma: she wanted to talk to her daughter about the daughter’s presumed promiscuity, but to do so she would have to admit to her daughter that she had been snooping through her daughter’s purse. (In her reply, Ann Landers suggested the problem originated with the mother’s lack of trust in her daughter, which is precisely why the daughter kept the pills hidden away.) The moral of the story is that in her remorseless, voyeuristic search for what was real, the mother became an eye-witness to something she didn’t wish to see—to know (knowledge as seeing). The mother should have been more familiar with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

The makers of “Reality TV” programs face the same daunting problem that the nosy mother did while rummaging through her daughter’s purse: how to reveal the truth, but not to go too far, not to pass a certain proscribed limit. The problem isn't so much what you can show as what you can't show. If you go too far, for example, you find yourself confronting the outrage caused by the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show (2004)—the problem of the intrusion of the real, which gets you into trouble. On the other hand, if you don’t show (reveal) enough, you can’t claim to be presenting “reality.”

The Lacanian critic Slavoj Zizek conveniently addresses this problem by using as an illustration a love scene in a Hollywood film:

Let us take an old-fashioned, nostalgic melodrama like Out of Africa and let us assume that the film is precisely the one shown in cinemas, except for an additional ten minutes. When Robert Redford and Meryl Streep have their first love encounter, the scene—in this slightly longer version of the film—is not interrupted, the camera “shows it all,” details of their aroused sexual organs, penetration, orgasm, etc. Then, after the act, the story goes on as usual, we return to the film we all know. The problem is that such a movie is structurally impossible. Even if it were to be shot, it simply “would not function”; the additional ten minutes would derail us, for the rest of the movie we would be unable to regain our balance and follow the narration with the usual disavowed belief in the diegetic reality. The sexual act would function as an intrusion of the real undermining the consistency of this diegetic reality. (Looking Awry, MIT Press, 1992, p. 111)

Stated another way, movies are commercially successful only to the extent that they are magical, that they enchant the viewer. They cease to enchant or enthrall when brute fact intrudes on the theatrical frame: dreary fact is rather like a spoilsport who destroys the illusory world of the game. To “show it all” is to go way too far, to dispel the illusion, that is, to allow the real to intrude—just ask Janet Jackson. The revenge effect of photography’s automatism is the vulnerability of the photographic medium to the too real. For his example, Zizek uses sex; in my subsequent blog, I will use death—flip side of the same token. While its existence has never been proven, the theoretical existence of the "snuff film" was made thinkable in the first place because of the potential for photographic technology to so easily—automatically—record the too real.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Death Valley Days: 1.1

The current dig at the Barker Ranch is promising to become the equivalent of Geraldo Rivera's opening of Al Capone's vault. Here are excerpts from this afternoon’s Los Angeles Times website report, filed by Louis Sahagun at 4:36 p.m. PDT (updates may supplant this initial report):

A day’s work in 100-degree heat at a remote ranch once used as a hangout for the notorious Charles Manson family yielded only a .38-caliber shell casing today. But a posse of Inyo County sheriff’s investigators was expected to continue the dig in Death Valley National Park.


Of particular interest today were two sites where cadaver dogs and analyses of soil samples produced mixed but somewhat encouraging results that could possibly support lingering rumors that bodies may be buried at Barker Ranch. The collection of sheds and a rock-and-plaster ranch house are five miles up a rugged black rock canyon at the park’s southwestern boundary.

Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze has said a total of five sites may be excavated over the next few days amid temperatures forecast to hover near 110 degrees. Sheriff’s authorities were expected to provide reporters with a progress report later today.

To reiterate: we shall see. Aside from the allegation, without source, by a former Manson "Family" member that there are bodies buried at the Barker Ranch, there may be other motivations for the dig that are, in fact, unrelated to the Mansion "Family."

Death Valley Days: One

An update on yesterday afternoon's blog about the archaeological/forensic dig going on at the Barker Ranch, the remote set of buildings in the Panamint Mountains at the southwestern edge of Death Valley used by Charles Manson and his “Family” as a refuge in 1968-69: this afternoon the Los Angeles Times provided an update on the excavation, but no new details were added to the report.

However, after having re-read yesterday’s blog, it occurred to me that I might have given too much emphasis to the issue of the “snuff” film rather than the issue of whether there might be bodies buried near the Barker Ranch in that remote area of Death Valley. As I pointed out, the use of “snuff” to refer to films (or videotape) purportedly containing scenes of actual murder was originated by Ed Sanders in his 1971 book on Manson, The Family (most recently reissued in 2002). But it occurred to me that there are actually two, unrelated, issues here: whether there were, in fact, any “snuff films” ever made, by Manson and his “Family” or by others, on 8mm or other storage media; and whether there might be any bodies to be found buried in the environs of the Barker Ranch.

Having reflected on the issue, I'm now wondering why law enforcement authorities believe there might be bodies buried near the Barker Ranch in the first place. My interest rekindled by the archaeological/forensic research mission presently going on, this morning I was motivated to re-read Ed Sanders' The Family, the first edition hardcover I bought in the early 1970s (the edition published prior to a lawsuit that required its author to remove any references to "The Process"). He makes no reference to murders or burials that might have taken place at the Barker Ranch, although he does refer to murders in the state that occurred when Manson Family members were placed in the area. One brief sentence, however, in today's report explains the reason for the recent investigation:

A member of the Manson family later suggested that there were bodies buried at Barker Ranch.

Apparently this information surfaced many years after Sanders published his book. I should note that a preliminary dig occurred at the ranch in February of this year, so perhaps the information surfaced only recently.

To reiterate the conclusion I made at the end of yesterday's blog: we shall see.

Silly Love Songs

I am sure it will come as no surprise to anyone for me to say that the vast majority of popular songs are love songs. And although this fact may surprise no one at all--indeed, may be a painfully banal observation--no one, to my knowledge, discusses it. Indeed, it is one of those "obvious" facts of our daily lives that is rarely, if ever, discussed. I'm sure we've heard it said a thousand times, "it is a fundamental desire for human beings to love and to want to be loved," but the insight is no more startling or profound or meaningful, as a simple declarative sentence, than "the sky is blue." For scholars who approach popular music from a sociologist's perspective, such as Simon Frith, the fact that the bulk of popular songs are love songs "is more than an interesting statistic; it is a centrally important aspect of how pop music is used" ("Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music," in Music and Society, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 141). For Simon Frith, it is one of the social functions of popular music "to give us a way of managing the relationship between our public and private emotional lives." Why are love songs so important to us? Frith asks.

Because people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence. Love songs are a way of giving emotional intensity to the sorts of intimate things we say to each other (and to ourselves) in words that are, in themselves, quite flat. It is a peculiarity of everyday language that our most fraught and revealing declarations of feeling have to use phrases--'I love/hate you', 'Help me!', 'I'm angry/scared'--which are boring and banal; and so our culture has a supply of a million pop songs, which say these things for us in numerous interesting and involving ways. (141)

There's another way to explain why our culture has a million songs about love, though, and it has been expressed by a prominent musician and songwriter, jazz sage Mose Allison. During an interview with Joel Dorn (cited in the liner notes to Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology, Atlantic, 1994) Allison said this, which I hope we'll ponder the next time we hear one of those "silly" love songs on the radio:

A prominent white educator was studying the culture of the Hopi, a desert-dwelling Native American tribe of the Southwest. He found it strange that almost all Hopi music was about water and asked one of the musicians why. He explained that so much of their music was about water because that was what they had the least of. And then he told the white man, "Most of your music is about love."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Death Valley Days

According to a report published this afternoon on the Los Angeles Times website, early tomorrow morning (Tuesday), Inyo County Sheriff’s investigators, accompanied by forensic scientists, will begin lugging portable ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers, shovels, and other excavating tools up to the Barker Ranch at the edge of Death Valley on a mission to confirm or deny speculation that there may be graves at the ranch, used in 1969 as a secluded hideout by Charles Manson and his so-called “Family.” The excavation at the Barker Ranch, located at the southern end of Death Valley National Park—in terrain so formidable that it can only be reached by 4-wheel drive vehicles—is expected to continue through Thursday.

I look forward to the findings of this intriguing archaeological/forensic research mission, as it has been rumored for almost forty years that the Manson Family committed murders that were recorded on film (or video, depending on the specific version of the rumor). I invite readers to read David Kerekes and David Slater’s book, Killing For Culture (Creation Books, 1994) for further information on the putative Barker Ranch murders. Kerekes and Slater aver that the idea of the Manson family making “snuff” films dates back to Ed Sanders’ book on Charles Manson, The Family (first published by E.P. Dutton, 1971). It was Ed Sanders, in this book, who coined the term “snuff” to describe the content of these elusive films purportedly containing scenes of actual murder. Kerekes and Slater write:

These “whispers” [of snuff films] date back to Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. Here, Sanders states that Family members stole an NBC-TV wagon loaded with film equipment sometime during the Summer of 1969. The truck was subsequently dumped and most of the film given away, but Manson took one of the NBC cameras with him to Death Valley in September [1969]. The Family were also in possession of three Super-8 cameras. It is alleged that they shot porn-movies and, determines Sanders, “the Barker Ranch chop-stab dance, where they [the Family] danced in a circle, then pretended to go into frenzies—attacking trees, rocks and one another with knives.” He adds, “God knows what else they shot with their stolen NBC camera”.... Speaking with an anonymous one-time member of the Family, Sanders learns of a “short movie depicting a female victim dead on a beach” (Killing For Culture, p. 223).

According to the Los Angeles Times report, locals in the area predict the investigators will turn up nothing but ancient Indian graves. Others, however, say the situation is more problematic in that some California state park rangers claim that if indeed human remains are discovered at the Barker Ranch, they may be connected to an unrelated Death Valley mystery from 1996, the mysterious disappearance of four German tourists.

We shall see.

Something's Up My Sleeve

Yesterday’s blog on the art of rock art prompted me to think about the art of the album cover—the vinyl LP album cover specifically. I say “cover,” but is that the proper nomenclature? Why not “jacket,” or “sleeve”? With the advent of the compact disc jewel case, the material aspect of a vinyl LP’s “jacket,” “cover,” “sleeve,” or “wrapper” is no longer applicable, although a recent development in the music industry has been to reissue albums on compact disc in CD-sized sleeves that duplicate the “original art work" of the LP. The restoration of the original album art reflects a desire, I suppose, for presence, an attempt, writes John Corbett, “to stitch the cut that separates seeing from hearing in the contemporary listening scenario” (Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein, Duke University Press, 1994, p. 39). For Corbett, the album cover is an "attempt to reconstitute the image of the disembodied voice" (p. 39) to recorded sound.

Having thought about the issue the past twenty-four hours, and having spent some time browsing through my LP collection, I here present my Top 11 favorite album covers—and why eleven? Because I can do as I please; I don't have to limit myself to ten. Why are they my favorites? Because they enchant me without my knowing exactly why: as Roland Barthes observed, "such ignorance is the very nature of fascination" (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 3). Do my selections belie my age? Probably, but I would hope that others find my choices as inherently fascinating as I do.

1. Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969); designer, George Hardie.

2. Steppenwolf—Steppenwolf (Dunhill, 1968); designer: Gary Burden; photographer: Tom Gundelfinger.

3. Elvis Presley—Elvis Presley (RCA, 1956); designer: Colonel Tom Parker; photographer: Popsie [William S. Randolph].

4. London Calling—The Clash (Epic, 1979); designer: Ray Lowry; photographer: Pennie Smith.

5. News of the World—Queen (Elektra, 1977); designer: Roger; painting: Frank Kelly Freas (1953).

6. In the Court of the Crimson King—King Crimson (Atlantic, 1969); painting: Barry Godber.

7. The Pleasure Principle—Gary Numan (Atco, 1979); designer: Malti Kidia; photographer: Geoff Howes.

8. Electric Warrior—T. Rex (Warner Brothers, 1971); designer: Hipgnosis.

9. Meet the Residents—The Residents (Ralph, 1974); designer: Porno/Graphics; photographer: Robert Freeman.

10. Dark Continent—Wall of Voodoo (I.R.S., 1981); designer: Philip Culp; photographer: Scott Lindgren.

11. The Very Best of the Lovin’ Spooful—The Lovin’ Spoonful (Kama Sutra, 1970); sculpture: Ollie Alpert.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Art of Rock

At Bonhams New York this past Wednesday, May 14, The Peter Golding Collection of Rock & Roll Art fetched close to $795,000, according to a spokesman for the auction house. While many of the pieces were original works of art, some of the items included preliminary drawings and sketches for album covers and concert posters. The Peter Golding collection represents about forty years of collecting such work; Golding is the British designer of the first stretch jeans. Go here for a closer look at the 164 lots offered at the auction. The auction's top seller was an 48"x36" acrylic on canvas by the late Rick Griffin--considered by some to be psychedelia's grand master--for the Grateful Dead's 1990 "Without a Net" European tour, which sold for $114,000; go here to see the piece.

One of the more interesting items for sale was an exhibitor's brochure for the movies Psychedelic Sex Kicks and Wild Hippie Orgy, presented by "Pot Heads Experimental Films." The brochure's cover promises "2 Big Hits" in "Hullucinary Color" [sic]. If you always wanted to own the item, you still have a chance--although the brochure was estimated to go between $150-250, it didn't sell. The films boast scenes in which "Up-tight squares join the hippies and their hip chicks...this trip is for real!"

By Hook or by Crook

What’s the difference between a hook and a ditty? Available definitions don’t offer much help, I’ve discovered. The following definitions are available from

Hook (n.):
1. a. A curved or sharply bent device, usually of metal, used to catch, drag, suspend, or fasten something else.
b. A fishhook.
2. Something shaped like a hook, especially:
a. A curved or barbed plant or animal part.
b. A short angled or curved line on a letter.
c. A sickle.
3. a. A sharp bend or curve, as in a river.
b. A point or spit of land with a sharply curved end.
4. A means of catching or ensnaring; a trap.
5. Slang. a. A means of attracting interest or attention; an enticement: a sales hook.
b. Music. A catchy motif or refrain: “sugary hard rock melodies [and] ear candy hooks” (Boston Globe).

Ditty (n., pl. –ties):
A simple song.
[Middle English dite, a literary composition, from Old French dite, from Latin dictātum, thing dictated, from neuter past participle of dictāre, to dictate.]

So apparently the word “ditty” refers to a complete song, while “hook” refers to a rhythmic figure or melodic line, that is, a specific element of a song. So is a ditty (song) necessarily composed of more than one hook, or just one? To me, anyway, the origin of the word “ditty” from the Latin dictātum (“thing dictated”) suggests that a ditty is easy to remember (“simple”). Information theory would then tell us that a ditty has a low probability of being transmitted incorrectly (“distorted”), another way of saying it is easily remembered: how many times did you have to hear “Happy Birthday” before you remembered the whole song? Once? The popular TV game show Name That Tune is premised precisely on this insight, that one needs only a few notes in order to have total recall of a song. (I best remember the version of the show in the Seventies hosted by Tom Kennedy, but historically there have been several incarnations of Name That Tune, beginning in the 1950s.)

Are the best pop songs, then, no more than ditties? According to Gary Burns, in “A typology of ‘hooks’ in popular records” [Popular Music 6:1 (Jan., 1987) p. 1], the word hook

connotes being caught or trapped, as when a fish is hooked, and also addiction, as when one is hooked on a drug. These connotations, together with the idea of repetition, are captured in the Songwriter’s Market definition of hook: ‘A memorable “catch” phrase or melody line which is repeated in a song’ (Kuroff 1982, p. 397. Bennett (1983) defines hook as an ‘attention grabber’ (pp. 30, 41).

Music critic Lester Bangs was never comfortable with the multiple connotations of hook as “catchy,” meaning hook as that which catches or ensnares the prey, is addictive, and is seductive and appealing as candy. He wrote:

Listen, I hate hooks. The first time I saw the word “hook” was in a review of a Shocking Blue album in Rolling Stone in 1969. The author had evidently discovered that songwriters sometimes used it and now informed us that the bass riff was the almighty “hook” in their hit “Venus,” that one irresistible little melodic or rhythmic twist that’ll keep you just coming back and back and back and buy and buy and buy. (“Every Song a Hooker,” in Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, Anchor Books, 2003, pp. 351-52)

Freud argued that repetition is pleasurable because we associate it with the pleasure of the mother’s breast (or bottle) from which we nursed (sucked, in the sense of reiterated action) as infants. Whether one believes this argument is irrelevant, because in fact the most successful pop songs (measured in terms of economic success) prove the point anyway, with their relentless repetition--reiteration--of melodic lines and rhythmic figures, a practice justified in order to make a song "suitable for dancing".

Lester Bangs cited “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las as a positive example of a song with hooks, while Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” is a negative example (an instance of music business "cynicism"). I might cite “My Guy” by Mary Wells as a positive example, or The Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," the type of song that if I hear it early in the day I hear it the rest of the day (in a good way). But if Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” comes on the radio, the radio goes off--as fast as my synapses can fire.

For further reading: