Saturday, February 16, 2008

Friday, January 15, 1960: Electric Guitar

This is the meaning of life
To tune this electric guitar
--Talking Heads, “Electric Guitar”

According to Dik de Heer’s exhaustive In the Can page, on Friday, January 15, 1960, rock guitarist Duane Eddy completed the recording of his acoustic album Songs of Our Heritage, a strong candidate for rock music’s first “unplugged” album. Eddy, known for his “twangy” guitar—a 1956 Gretsch model 6120, aka a “Chet Atkins Hollow Body” (an example of this particular 1956 production model is pictured above)—had been extraordinarily successful with a series of rock instrumental albums in the late 1950s, beginning with the colossal best-seller, Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar—Will Travel, which entered the charts in January 1959 and remained there for the next 42 weeks. With Songs of Our Heritage (Jamie Records, 1960), he unplugged, performing a number of American folk tunes, including “John Henry,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” “Mule Train,” and others.

Duane Eddy, along with guitarists such as Link Wray (who in contrast to Eddy’s “twangy” guitar played a “fuzzy” or distorted guitar) and, later, Dick Dale, eroticized the electric guitar, transforming it into a hypermasculine symbol of phallic power. Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” and Wray’s “Rumble” were much more than rock instrumentals featuring the electric guitar: the guitar became a signifier of masculine rebellion. (There’s a direct link, for instance, from Wray’s “Rumble” to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” as both are “biker” favorites.) The Who’s Pete Townshend has said that he was compelled to learn the guitar because of Link Wray’s “Rumble.” Likewise, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival said he picked up the guitar because of the bold image of Duane Eddy standing before his band, his authority determined by the fact that he wielded the scepter-like electric guitar. In retrospect, Jimi Hendrix’s act of setting his guitar on fire at the end of his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival seven years later seems not so much a “sacrifice” in the ritual (religious) sense as it is an act of self-emasculation. Sigmund Freud would no doubt be compelled to explore the question as to why no guitar heroes in rock music have ever been female. He'd probably give the same answer as he did in Civilization and Its Discontents in his speculations as to why women are no good with baseball bats.

The album cover of Songs of Our Heritage reveals the extent to which rock musicians (and hence rock music) consciously or unconsciously identified itself with a certain set of distinctive values (among them, the American frontier) all of which helped distinguish it from Pop. According to Mike Jarrett’s wonderful Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), a book I find myself returning to again and again, rock music has defined itself against pop by a number of associations derived from the signifer of the guitar. I’ve only listed a few of these structural oppositions here from Jarrett’s more comprehensive list (pp. 68-69 in his book):


To which one might “hard” and “soft,” as in “hard rock” vs. “soft rock” (i.e., “pop,” sometimes derisively referred to as “bubblegum,” the later associated with “boys” or "boy bands" rather than “men.”) The symbolic underpinnings of this structural opposition hardly need to be made explicit.

In response to what I anticipate to be the many objections the psychoanalytic approach I’ve employed here, I’ll simply point out the way certain American filmmakers subsequently appropriated this music for the aural backdrop in films exploring hypermasculine violence (its later use proves the point). Oliver Stone used “Rebel Rouser” in Natural Born Killers, while Quentin Tarantino used Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and Wray’s “Ace of Spades” and “Rumble” in Pulp Fiction. And David Lynch has used the so-called “dirty boogie” inspired by Link Wray for songs such as “Blue Frank." Have a listen "Blue Frank," included on the Twin Peaks: Season 2 soundtrack, that was used in Fire Walk With Me during the Partyland scenes, the corresponding sonic counterpart to scenes of eroticized violence.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Thursday, January 14, 1960: The Pale Gaze

Nat “King” Cole’s album At the Sands was recorded live on January 14, 1960 at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. At the time of Cole’s concert, the Sands’ Copa Room was the place where one might see a so-called “summit” or ensemble performance of the “Rat Pack,” a group of entertainers (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, et al.) whose extravagant lifestyle was characterized by real or symbolic (makes no difference) excess: the American Dream realized through dissipation. A popular singer, Cole--having long since surrendered his primary identity as a jazz pianist--performed at the Sands for a white audience that for well over a decade had associated him with “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire...”). The Sands concert exhibits a range of musical styles that allowed Cole to highlight the mellower inflections of his voice; he sang some old hits and some old standards, including ballads (“I Wish You Love”), the blues (Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” W. C. Handy’s “Joe Turner Blues”), Rodgers & Hart (“Thou Swell,” “Where or When”), and Rodgers & Hammerstein (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”), variously arranged by Nelson Riddle, Pete Rugolo, and Dave Cavanaugh.

Hence the Sands show seems to have followed the format of Cole’s 1956-57 television show that had been cancelled slightly over two years earlier. As Krin Gabbard explains in Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1996): “Throughout the run of his [television] program, Cole was surrounded by white performers playing “white” music, most notably vocal groups such as the Boateneers and the Cheerleaders and an orchestra led by Nelson Riddle. And on many episodes he was surrounded by groups of all-white dancers and singers.” Perhaps most importantly, observes Gabbard, the TV show’s producers “had numerous strategies for containing his sexuality, at some points playing up his status as a family man....More often than not, Cole was photographed from the waist up in much the same way that Elvis Presley’s lower body was concealed when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, an event that took place during the run of Cole’s own television show. Although, in a sense, Cole was the inverse of Presley--a restrained black man acting “white” rather than a shameless white man acting “black”--NBC felt a need to conceal his hips in the same way that CBS attempted to censor Presley” (246). Moreover, Cole’s significant film career, argues Gabbard, was consistently characterized by attempts to neutralize the exotic allure of “a sexually attractive black male whose singing voice had already been the source of fantasy for many of his listeners” (245).

By “neutralize the exotic allure” I mean the attempt to utterly repress the (forbidden) possibility of interracial sex--that is, the lure of transgressive sex. The album cover of At the Sands would seem to do just that: it consists of a photograph (presumably) taken during the actual concert, in which Cole, illuminated by the glare of the spot lights, stands at the microphone, smiling, confident, and relaxed. Behind him is the largely white orchestra; in front, looking on, the white audience, barely visible in the smoky shadows beyond the edge of stage. The photograph would seem to be nothing more than just what it is, a snapshot taken the night of January 14, 1960 of a Nat “King” Cole concert: since he’s the star, of course he’s on the album cover. The cover is simply an unadorned moment frozen in time, perhaps stereotypical of such things, a picture of a highly popular singer on stage in concert benignly recorded for posterity. Nothing like, for instance, the presumably “lurid” album cover of Tabu, an album featuring the music of Ralph Font and His Orchestra, released by Westminster Records just a few months prior to Cole’s Sands concert.

And yet, they both depict the same scene. The earlier cover, Tabu, makes explicit what is (almost) concealed in the later cover. Following Eric Lott, Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998) calls this concealment the phenomenon of the “pale gaze,” a gaze “motivated by the lure of transgressive sex--the bliss promised by miscegenation”(254). Both album covers enact a scene depicting “White eyes watching objectified and sexualized black bodies” (254).

Even so, Jarrett would have a problem with my argument if I would end the analysis having provided only these two instances of album art as my examples, because the minstrel model, the operation of which I’ve explained here, “expresses white interests alone, even if only to castigate and, ultimately, atone for those interests” (254). Like all models of “cooptation,” says Jarrett, the minstrel model “ignores, discounts, or represses the possibility of reciprocity. White fantasies and desires don’t just prey upon black fantasies and desires, they also feed them. They’re reciprocal, forming a feedback loop.” Instead of a minstrel model, what is needed is a minstrel cycle, a model which can account for “mutually defining desire” (254-55). British music critic Simon Frith explains the minstrel cycle in this way: “white youth becomes an object of black pleasure exactly to the degree that the recurring fantasy of being black is coded into white style, white anxiety, white posture” (Village Voice, 3 September 1991, p. 78). The virtue of the minstrel cycle over the minstrel model, Jarrett argues, is that race can be seen, not as “one of the raw materials from which culture is produced,” but rather one of the “byproducts” of a “complex social machine” (255). The operation of the minstrel cycle explains how Nat “King” Cole became, as Krin Gabbard puts it, “one of the few black actors who functioned [in a few significant films] essentially as a white hero,” although to do so he “had to surrender a good deal of his masculine presence and sex appeal." The reciprocal example? Gabbard uses white actor Hoagy Carmichael, whose screen persona was irrevocably altered by his association with African American musicians. He “ended up playing parts that could just as easily have been played by blacks” (240).