Saturday, September 6, 2008

Vestis Verum Reddit

In last night’s blog on the subject of “sleaze,” I said that, considered as a matter of fashion or style, sleaze does not immediately invoke glamor—indeed, it seems resolutely anti-glamorous, a fashion statement which is firmly anti-fashion. Since the adjective "sleazy" originally was used as “a slur on cheap products from Silesia,” primarily cheap or inexpensive cloths and fabrics, I woke up this morning, for rather obvious reasons, thinking about clothing. Vestis verum reddit Quintilianus observed, “Clothes make the man,” and that ancient adage seems to be true at least far as popular music is concerned.

Here’s roughly two dozen pop songs exploring the old adage vestis verum reddit:

The Beatles – Baby’s in Black
Clarence Carter – Patches
Bob Dylan – Boots of Spanish Leather
Bob Dylan – Man in the Long Black Coat
The Eagles – Those Shoes
John Fred and His Playboy Band – Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)
The Hard-Ons – Girl in a Sweater
The Hollies – Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)
Brian Hyland – Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
Dickey Lee – Patches
The Steve Miller Band – Abracadabra
Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colors
Buzz Rabin – Angels in Red
Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness
Diane Renay – Navy Blue
Marty Robbins – A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)
The Rolling Stones – Factory Girl
The Royal Teens – Short Shorts
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels – Devil With A Blue Dress
Sonny and Cher – Baby Don’t Go
Rod Stewart – You Wear It Well
Traffic – The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
The Velvet Underground with Nico – Venus in Furs
Bobby Vinton – Blue Velvet
Stevie Wonder – The Woman in Red
ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man


My previous blog entry discussed the word “raunchy,” in which I concluded by saying there was a rather significant difference between the meanings of raunchy and sleazy, insisting that the words are in no way synonymous, and indeed they are not. Raunchy is a term derived originally from the operation of the olfactory organ: the word raunchy was most likely derived from the Latin rancidus, meaning “rank” or “stinky.” In contrast, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the adjective sleazy dates from around 1644 and was used, according to William Safire, as “a slur on cheap products from Silesia,” particularly fabrics:

1644, “hairy, fuzzy,” later “flimsy, unsubstantial” (1670), of unknown origin; one theory traces it somehow to Silesian “of the eastern German province of Silesia” (Ger. Schleisen), where fine linen or cotton fabric was made (Silesia in ref. to cloth is attested in Eng. from 1674; and Sleazy as an abbreviated form is attested from 1670, but OED is against this). Sense of “sordid” is from 1941; sleaze (n.) “condition of squalor” is a 1967 back-formation; meaning “person of low moral standards,” and the adj. form, are attested from 1976.

The word sleaze encompasses the worlds of music, art and fashion in the same way the words “Punk” and “Grunge” do, but whereas the latter two movements (strongly associated with a particular form of popular music, rock) had exemplary figures or “stars” (e.g., Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain) whose striking singularity attracted the interest of outsiders, sleaze does not. Sleaze is not organized around any glamorous key figures, and while it resolutely lacks glamor, it most certainly expresses an “attitude” – an adopted form of behavior and a preferred set of values. To understand sleazy (understood as a form of cheap, or poorly made clothing) as sordid is to invoke the latter word’s etymology: sordid is from the Latin sordidus “dirty,” from sordere “be dirty, be shabby” (as in attire), sordere related to sordes, “dirt.” But to be sleazy can also mean to be morally corrupt, a meaning also derived from sordid by the process of metaphorical elaboration, meaning “festering” (as in corrupted, or infected), but also “foul, low, [and] mean [common, without distinction].”

A Sampling of Sleazy Songs:
[In some instances, the featured artist may not be the composer of the song]

The Doors – The End
Tommy James & the Shondells – Hanky Panky
Mary MacGregor – Torn Between Two Lovers
Meatloaf – Paradise By the Dashboard Light
Nine Inch Nails – Closer
Prince – Darling Nikki
John Prine – Let’s Invite Them Over
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap – Young Girl
The Rolling Stones – When the Whip Comes Down
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs – Li’l Red Riding Hood
Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop
Soft Cell – Seedy Films
Starland Vocal Band – Afternoon Delight
Rod Stewart – Maggie May
Rod Stewart – Tonight’s the Night
Conway Twitty – Tight Fittin’ Jeans

Thursday, September 4, 2008


The word raunch is to raunchy as the word sleaze is to sleazy—or the word grunge is to grungy: by the process known as back-formation, a new noun is created by omitting the -y from an adjective. Raunchy, of course, is a word used by those who disapprove of bawdiness, smuttiness, licentiousness, and various other manifestations of blatant sexual arousal. Rock music in its Dionysian mode—Elvis 1954-58—has frequently been called raunchy, no surprise since the collocation “rock and roll” is, as almost everyone knows, a euphemism for sexual intercourse in Black English Vernacular (BEV). How did the word raunchy get its start? According to William Safire:

There may be a connection to the Latin rancidus, “rank, stinking,” and its English offshoot, with a more general sense of “odious, nasty.” The O.E.D. has a 1903 citation of ranchy, about a “flea-ranchy” old monkey. An early sexual connotation was in a 1959 British book that described a wedding at which the bridegroom spoke of his intent to worship his bride’s body. “There was an embarrassed pause at this; and then one of the bridesmaids remarked, ‘A bit ranchy, that.’”
Along the way, users of the adjective clipped the last letter, turning it into a noun. “Presley made his pelvis central to his act,” wrote Time in 1964, “and the screams of his admirers were straight from the raunch.”

Hence the pelvis is to raunch what sweat is to Funk, and smell, in the sense of body odor, is common to both. Raunchy is etymologically linked to the Latin rancidus (“stinking”), and “bad body odor” is also, according to Michael Jarrett, one of the meanings of Funk as derived from “the African concept of lu-fuki” (33). Raunchy and funky are therefore roughly synonymous, both invoking the body in all its rank, pungent fecundity. But neither raunch nor funk is synonymous with sleazy.

Sleazy songs are a subject for a future blog.

A Few Raunchy Tunes:

James Brown – Cold Sweat
Tim Buckley – Get On Top
The Commodores – Brick House
Confederate Railroad – Trashy Women
Elvis (Presley) – Hound Dog
Exile – Kiss You All Over
Johnny Horton – Sugar Coated Baby
The Isley Brothers – Between the Sheets
Bill Justis – Raunchy
Led Zeppelin – The Lemon Song
Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire
Montrose – Rock Candy
Little Richard – Tutti Frutti
The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Women
Joe Tex – Aint’ Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)
Johnny Winter And – Rock And Roll Hoochie Koo

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I received an interesting email from David Borden, Director, Retired, of the Digital Music Program, Department of Music, at Cornell University, containing information that adds yet another piece of knowledge to our understanding of the Moog synthesizer in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s rock culture. Mr. Borden wrote in response to an entry I posted back in early May about the particular modular Moog that was featured in Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (1970). I encourage readers to refer to, or to re-read, the complete text here, but for purposes of convenience I reproduce below the relevant excerpt from my earlier blog:

The special virtue of the Moog was its durability; there was no “right” or “wrong” way to use it—no particular grouping of patches, or combination of knob settings, could damage it. On the other hand, some patch combinations and knob settings would not yield any sound, so while there may have been no right or wrong way to play around with it, if you didn’t know what you were doing, nothing would happen. At the time, therefore, someone who knew how to use it—such as Jon Weiss, "the man from Moog”—was quite valuable.

However, based on his considerable experience with early versions of the Moog synthesizer, David Borden offered a correction to this passage, saying that I was not quite right about the durability of early Moog synthesizers. He writes:

Actually, there was a way to mess up the Moog modules by patching. I did it many times—in 1967. By the time Jon [Weiss] got there (to the Moog Co.) Bob had redesigned the modules so that (mostly) nothing could ruin a module due to strange patching.

I would encourage those interested to visit David Borden’s website, where one can find lots of information on his very interesting career. For instance, in 1969 he formed one of the first live performance synthesizer ensembles, called Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company, with Steve Drews and Linda Fisher. His work Easter was performed live on Easter Sunday, 1970 featuring the first live performance of a MiniMoog (pictured above; the official debut of which was still months away). At the time, no one else was performing with Moog synthesizers except for Wendy Carlos and Richard Teitelbaum, but Wendy Carlos performed live infrequently (in part due to the patching difficulties of early modular synthesizers--the MiniMoog would change that) and Richard Teitelbaum was still in Europe. Later, director William Friedkin commissioned Borden to write the score for The Exorcist, but as is well known Friedkin opted for Mike Oldfield’s minimalist derivation on his work Tubular Bells, and only about 45 seconds of Borden's material was used in the completed film.

I wish to thank Mr. Borden for writing in and sharing his knowledge about the early period of the Moog synthesizer. We can now better approximate the adoption of the Moog (that is, the MiniMoog) by rock musicians beginning in the early 1970s.

A Few LPs On Which the MiniMoog Appears:

Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Pictures at an Exhibition (1971)
Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company – S/T (1973) [Reissued as 1970-1973 with previously unissued recordings (1999)]
Gary Numan/Tubeway Army – Replicas (1979)
Rush – A Farewell to Kings (1977)
Synergy [Larry Fast] – Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975)
Rick Wakeman – Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)
Yes - Close To The Edge (1972)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Chill, Baby

The word “cool” emerged out of 1940s American jazz culture known as bebop. Bob Yurochko observes: “[One] phenomenon that rose from bebop [of the 1940s] was a new language or slang used by musicians called “bop talk.” Musicians communicated with each other with words like “hip,” “cool,” “man,” “cat,” or “dig” to form their own lexicon, which became part of the jazz musician’s heritage” (A Short History of Jazz, p. 103). “Cool” became a word used to describe an entire way of behaving and managing the self, in short, a behavioral style. Robert S. Gold, in A Jazz Lexicon, calls the word the “most protean of jazz slang terms” and meant, among other things, “convenient . . . off dope . . . on dope, comfortable, respectable, perceptive, shrewd—virtually anything favorably regarded by the speaker” (65). In other words, anything the speaker regarded as Good was “cool.” The approbation, “That’s cool,” first used by the members of the jazz culture, was later enthusiastically adopted by rock culture.

For Beat figure Jack Kerouac—he himself an exemplary figure of cool as both attitude and behavior—bebop was the music that represented modern, that is, hip, America.

At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America, but it hadn’t developed into what it is now. The fellows at the Loop [in Chicago] blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charley Parker Ornithology period and another period that really began with Miles Davis. (On the Road: The Original Scroll, p. 117).

The form of cool associated with Miles Davis is what Michael Jarrett calls prophetic cool, a form of cool “characterized by barely harnessed rage” (19). Exemplary figures of prophetic cool are the young Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Ice-T. But Kerouac himself epitomized what Jarrett calls “philosophical cool,” which might also be called existential cool—the self as an effect of performance. Besides Kerouac, exemplary figures epitomizing existential cool are Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Keith Richards, Nico, Snoop Doggy Dogg—and the old Bob Dylan.

Addendum: 1 September 2008, 11:43:43 a.m. CDT: See Bent Sørensen's article on Kerouac's language titled "An On & Off Beat: Kerouac's Beat Etymologies" available on-line here. Thanks, Bent, for providing the link.