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.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rock History And How It's Made

Several blog entries ago I discussed Art Laboe's first Oldies But Goodies (1959) compilation, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”) and The Medallions (“The Letter”). By issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, so I argued, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era, represented by the album title itself emblazoned in gold. While I think I was correct in that observation, in retrospect I don’t think at the time I wrote the entry I had fully considered all of the implications of my remarks. What I should have said in that earlier post is that the initial Oldies But Goodies collection serves to mark or distinguish the first from the second generation of rock ‘n’ rollers.

Although he’s writing about the idea of “nationhood” and the formation of modern nations, Benedict Anderson makes the trenchant observation in Imagined Communities that since it was impossible for the generation that came of age after the historic ruptures of 1776 (America) and 1789 (France) to recapture the spirit and inspiration that gave rise to these revolutionary moments, the following, or second, generation began “the process of reading nationalism genealogically—as the expression of an historic tradition of serial continuity” (1991 paperback ed., p. 195). The process of reading nationalism genealogically, as a process unfolding serially in time, gave rise to the study of history, history itself as a profession—the historian. Those who, for example, take upon themselves the duty of constructing The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll perform the same sort of activities as other historians, selecting representative figures, moments, and events from the past and then ascribing to them value and distinction in a larger pattern of meaning.

Take, for example, the claim widely attributed to Brian Eno, that although just a few thousand people bought the first album by the Velvet Underground, virtually every one who did so was inspired to start a band. While one might legitimately ask how he (or whomever actually uttered the remark) managed to acquire such information and to possess such grand, omnisicent knowledge, that’s really not the point. My point is that he’s taking on the role of the historian—like all historians, his role a self-appointed one—constructing a cause-and-effect narrative history of rock, giving it a genealogy and hence a tradition. In this case, he’s ascribing to the Velvet Underground a key or foundational moment in a larger, sequential narrative called the history of rock, asserting that those who came within earshot of that VU album were the inheritors—the torchbearers—of the spirit and innovation of the band (the proper names of the group normally would follow). By analogy, think of the genealogical style of Biblical chronicles: x begat y, y begat z, and so on.

He has every right to make remarks like that, of course, as Benedict Anderson points out, since those who come after, the second, third, and subsequent generations, have the right to speak for the dead--even when those on whose behalf they speak could have never understood themselves as such (198). (As Anderson points out, Michelet, the self-appointed historian of the French Revolution, claimed to speak for those who sacrificed themselves for the nation of France, insisting that he could speak on behalf of the dead, saying what they "really" meant and what they "really" wanted.) In the creation of a narrative in which the Velvet Underground serves as the grand ur-precursor to every subsequent avant-garde, experimental, glam rock, punk, post-punk, new wave, goth, and indie rock band to follow, the historian is actually speaking his own history, in actuality his own desire, articulating a faith, for he is really designating as a precursor a band whose members authored a future that they could have neither predicted nor fully comprehended.

Here’s the same general point, stated more poetically, by Gertrude Stein:

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason. . . . Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer. . . . For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. (“Composition as Explanation,” in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (The Modern Library, 1962), 514-15.

Why is the construction of such genealogical histories so important to us? Because to claim that there is no rationally directed development is to open one to the realization, as Karl Popper observed in the 1940s, that history has no discernible meaning or pattern, that the future is radically contingent. His argument has never been answered because it is unanswerable (except by an appeal to faith, a belief in teleology). Popper claimed that the human future will be as it has always been, dominated by technological changes. The history of rock has been dominated by technological change; a book ought to be written exploring the role of technology rather than, as most all are, as genealogical influence. What would rock music be if not for the electric guitar? The programmable synthesizer? And way back when: how else would have Elvis burst onto the national spotlight if not for television?

Genealogical history has the virtue of connecting the present to a past that consequently becomes meaningful, and hence providing the semblance of continuity from one generation to the next. But as for the creation of rock histories, influence (however defined) is a faith, and hence undemonstrable.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston, 1923-2008

There is a story that Jean-Luc Godard, although he despised John Wayne’s politics, nonetheless burst into tears at the moment in The Searchers (1956) when the John Wayne character, Ethan Edwards, rather than killing his niece Debbie as we think he’s going to, sweeps the girl up in his arms and says to her, tenderly, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Thus Godard understood early on something about the cinema that a filmmaker such as Michael Moore, apparently, never has: no amount of ideological demystification can diminish the sheer power of the movies—or movie stars, for that matter. In my undergraduate days at a major midwestern university, I remember standing in line to see Citizen Kane; there were several screenings that day, each of them with packed audiences. As the earlier crowd was leaving the theater so that we, the next audience, could take our seats, as he was leaving a spoilsport who’d just seen the film yelled out, loudly, so that all waiting to see the next screening of the movie might hear him, “Rosebud’s a sled!” But the joke was on him: did he really think that we were all waiting in line to see Citizen Kane merely in order to learn the final revelation of its grand enigma, as if that is what going to the movies is all about?

John Wayne became the biggest movie star of all time because he understood the fundamental principle about being a movie star: play yourself. Robert B. Ray writes:

Film stars, in fact, have always been less actors than personalities, paid to personify (rather than impersonate) a certain character type. As one film historian (Ronald L. Davis) has written, “Most of the old studio stars created a persona, and they acted that persona no matter what role they played. Audiences flocked to the theaters more to see their favorite stars than to watch realistic performances. . . . Most of the great Hollywood stars were almost pure personality, like Clark Gable, who didn’t much like acting.” (“The Riddle of Elvis-the-Actor,” 103-04)

Charlton Heston was a great Hollywood movie star because he was pure personality--he played himself. He can thank Cecil B. DeMille in large part for his magnificent career, for it was DeMille—who didn’t care two pins for so-called “realistic” acting, despite his claims to the contrary—who early on realized that Heston never would be effective at playing “slice-of-life” drama: his personality was too strong, his acting skills too rudimentary, to succeed at that sort of performance. Thus it was only appropriate that his star-making performance should have been in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a superb melodrama that’s really more like vaudeville than “slice-of-life.” As circus boss Brad, Heston commanded that heterogeneous group of circus performers by sheer force of his personality, not by patient, carefully reasoned argument. That movie was the proverbial harbinger of things to come: he played the same role for DeMille again, but under a different name, in The Ten Commandments (1956).

He won an Academy Award for his performance in the Biblical epic Ben-Hur--this time reprising his role from The Ten Commandments rather than The Greatest Show on Earth--and thus became a Big Star. But had Charlton Heston by chance died after making Ben-Hur, he would have become simply the answer to a trivia question: the actor who played Moses. Or perhaps the actor who appeared in one of Orson Welles' best later films, Touch of Evil (1958).

Although I now contradict the standard (sanctioned) career retrospective, his greatness as an actor lies in the films he made in the 1960s and 1970s, films such as El Cid (1961), Khartoum (1966), and Planet of the Apes (1968). It is the latter movie that placed Charlton Heston on that privileged Mount Rushmore of Hollywood stars inside my head--it has remained one of my Top 10 favorite movies for forty years. Planet of the Apes gave Charlton Heston one of the greatest moments--and greatest punch lines--in Hollywood history, and only Heston could have delivered that line addressed to a "damned dirty ape" with such memorable panache, a mixture of arrogance, contempt, loathing, recalcitrance, and seething hatred.

Moreover, after the triumph of Planet of the Apes, he performed in a series of apocalyptic films that I still find remarkable:

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
The Omega Man (1971)
Soylent Green (1973)

He dies the reluctant martyr in each one, going one step further than Brando, who often greatly physically suffered, but seldom died. It has been observed, correctly, that Marlon Brando brought to the movie screen an eroticized violence, in films such as On the Waterfront (1954), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), and The Chase (1966). I think Charlton Heston learned from these films, and like Brando began to take on roles in which he had to suffer great physical violence at the hands of his enemies: he suffered, but like Samson, took his enemies with him. I love his performance as the cynical, corrupt cop in Soylent Green: he's by turns slimy, nasty, thuggish, sentimental, and teary-eyed--and has to suffer a terrible beating by someone who's even more slimy, nasty, and thuggish, and corrupt than he is, Chuck Connors. And at the end of Soylent Green he gets to utter another famous line, but this time not yelled out with arrogance or hatred, but with revulsion and disgust mixed with resignation: "Soylent green is people."

And then, afterwards, with the films he made after that amazing stretch from 1968-1973, he was the movie star, always playing himself, as certain as gravity, his face as instantly recognizable as one's own. He would later appear on a couple episodes of Saturday Night Live, shows which I've seen in re-run; he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself, and having fun puncturing his own image. Always the actor, he couldn't turn down the limelight, accepting the controversial role as figurehead for the NRA--leader once again, defending the U. S. Bill of Rights as Moses defended the ten commandments. But unlike Michael Moore, his politics didn't much interest me. Counterculture figures such as Frank Zappa defended the Bill of Rights, too--remember the Grand Funk Railroad album Zappa produced, Good Singin' Good Playin' (1976), the album which contained the song, "Don't Let 'em Take Your Gun"?

Charlton Heston will forever remain one of my favorite Hollywood stars, one of the stars who in my lifetime conjured up the magic of the cinema, and drew me under its spell. He did so for a reason I hope he would take as a sincere compliment: by sheer force of his personality.