Friday, October 17, 2008

Folsom Prison News

Glenn Gould scandalized the classical music community in the 1960s when he acknowledged that the recordings on his LPs were spliced together from multiple takes. Appropriately, Gould compared this process to filmmaking, where scenes are often shot out of order and subsequently edited together to form a coherent sequence. By the 60s, though, the splicing or editing together of multiple takes should have been old news. The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for instance, was composed of two different takes, played at different tempos and in different keys, spliced together, synced by speeding up one take and slowing down the other. Equally as famous, Art Garfunkel’s vocal on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was painstakingly assembled from many dozens of takes.

Thus it should come as no surprise that one of most significant moments in 60s music—and in the creation of the Johnny Cash mythos as well—never happened. On “Folsom Prison Blues,” the opening track on perhaps the most important recording of Johnny Cash’s career, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (recorded January 18, 1968; released July 1968), Cash sings the lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” which is followed, memorably, by the cheers and approving applause of the inmates. But as Michael Streissguth reveals in his book, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece (2004), the crowd response to Cash’s lyric was spliced in sometime later by Columbia Records producer Bob Johnston. In short, the moment consists of “canned” crowd noise, and is not the savage response of brutal prison inmates. The moment, although a cornerstone of the Johnny-Cash-as-folk-hero myth, is yet another instance of tape splicing, not the reproduction of an authentically recorded live sound.

Since the recording is so historic, however, Columbia has chosen to leave the moment in its edited, post-recorded, form on its new, 40th anniversary 3-disc boxed set, At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition, choosing not to release it sans cheers and applause. However, the revelation included in the brand new release (this past Tuesday) is that instead of the widely-known opening of the album—silence, until Cash intones “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”—the new Legacy edition begins with radio DJ Hugh Cherry commanding the inmate audience to remain quiet until after Cash greets them. Additionally, the new boxed set includes that day’s opening act, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, and additional duets (besides “Jackson,” of course) with June Carter.

Do these revelations diminish Cash's achievement? Of course not: the Beatles made tape splicing famous, and their legend remains firm, as does Glenn Gould's. As Gould himself pointed out, by the 1960s, studio recording had become analogous to acting in the cinema.

Pop Aphorisms: 6

1. “The Top 500 Albums of All Time”—another name for the outcome of a questionnaire, a device derived from a nineteenth-century parlor game.

2. Certain records—such as Led Zeppelin’s first album—are worth purchasing simply because of the album art; listening to the record is the buyer's choice.

3. Bubblegum is to psychedelic music what fat free Half and Half is to whole milk: the musical equivalent of non-alcoholic beer.

4. Writing rock criticism is both unfulfilling and self-defeating: no matter how much one says or does, the criticism can never be as fun or interesting as the record itself.

5. The Sixties phenomenon of the “Supergroup”: an example of a marketing ploy that is able to flourish exclusively in an age of commerce—and the Age of Warhol.

6. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap, except in the case of rock and pop music—then it’s 95%.

7. CD bonus tracks are the aural equivalent of the cinematic sequel: another way of scraping the last bit of cream from the side of the jar.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 5

1. Marx revised Hegel by averring all great historic personages appear twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. When applied to rock culture, this adage means, for instance, the first time as Elvis, the second time as an Elvis impersonator; or, the first time as Otis Redding, the second as Michael Bolton.

2. Derrida observed that the field of anthropology was born out of remorse and regret; when this insight is applied to American popular music, it is called rock ‘n’ roll, or, the white colonization of black music.

3. To lift a phrase from T. S. Eliot, the weakest musicians imitate, the strongest musicians steal—just look at the Rolling Stones.

4. You don’t have to give up your sense of humor to play avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll—just look at Pere Ubu: David Thomas is the Baby Huey of rock.

5. It is a popular misconception to think that the “cover” song is analogous to the cinematic “remake”: the term “cover” at least implies a benchmark, carrying with it the sanction of a standard—any artist worth his salt must successfully record it—while the designation “remake” is the artistic equivalent of a county fair bake-off.

6. Freud explained that the reason men were good at batting a baseball is because they had lots of practice growing up playing extensively with their penises; for the same reason, that’s why all the great guitarists have been men.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 4

1. To lift a phrase from Brecht, it is the special dignity of rock—entertainment—that makes it so very difficult to be a rock critic: the fun of the music leads to uncritical identification.

2. The Beatles’ career illustrates how a rock band improved with time; Led Zeppelin’s career an illustration of how a rock band became worse.

3. Popularized by Elvis, rock music was reinvented twice: first by the Beatles in the early 1960s, the second by the Punks in the late 1970s. It will be reinvented again only when audiences and musicians both have completely forgotten rock’s past.

4. To say that this band or that band is the greatest in the history of rock music is the same as saying that this band or that band is the worst: both claims reflect extreme, and therefore highly dubious, reactions, and, therefore, are not to be trusted.

5. When at their worst, Bob Dylan’s lyrics ring like the hollow maxims of Polonius, which is why the many who have tried to imitate him are so unredemptively dull and boring.

6. The Who’s lyric, “I hope I die before I get old,” and Neil Young’s later, figurative revision of it, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” are memorable lyrics primarily because they acknowledge the rock star’s real enemy—time—and his inevitable maturation—death.

7. The problem with choosing “Top 100,” “Top 200,” or even “Top 500” rock song and album lists is, by analogy, the same one a major corporation faces when reviewing an overwhelming number of applications for a single job: the search committee ends up looking for applications to get rid of, not ones to keep.