Saturday, December 6, 2008

Forrest J. Ackerman, 1916-2008

This morning’s Los Angeles Times bore the news that Forrest J. Ackerman, the writer-editor who influenced a generation of horror movie fans with Famous Monsters of Filmland, who coined the term “sci-fi” (a pejorative term despised by fans of science fiction, incidentally), and who spent much of his life assembling a collection of SF and fantasy memorabilia, died Thursday night at age 92. Somehow I find it remarkable to observe that even if one were never to have read Famous Monsters, even if one were not aware of his name or precisely sure why he was held in such esteem by horror movie fans, Forrest J. Ackerman influenced the way an entire generation—my generation—consumed movies. He did for horror movie actors what fan magazines such as Photoplay, Silver Screen, Motion Picture World and others did for mainstream Hollywood actors: he transformed them into “stars.” Somehow, therefore, it is appropriate that he was born in 1916, the year Motion Picture Classic—not the first but among the first of the Hollywood fan magazines—began publication. It was also the year the United States—or rather “Hollywood”—became one of the top leading motion picture producers in the world, by which time the name “Hollywood” had become a synonym for the American filmmaking industry around the world.

My own close encounter with Forrest J. Ackerman occurred at a convention in 1991. The meeting was brief and unremarkable, and as I recall somewhat awkward. Seeing him standing alone amid a crowd, I introduced myself to him and offered him my hand, saying something banal regarding how it was a pleasure to meet him, finally, and as I did so someone standing behind me caught his eye—author David J. Schow, I believe, someone he already knew and most certainly a person much more famous than I was or ever shall be—a conversation ensued, and I quietly slunk away, realizing at the time that that moment was the first and last time I will have met Forrest J. Ackerman. Some years later my friend David Del Valle drove me past the Ackermansion in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles (prior to it being sold); those two moments are my sole connection to Forrest J. Ackerman, except of course for reading Famous Monsters when I was kid at the newsstand at the local drug store. I don't recall every purchasing a copy of Famous Monsters, primarily because I had a cousin who did, so I saved my money for other important items (I was one of those kids who purchased Classics Illustrated and such).

So he is no more. While my connection to him is slight, I nonetheless acknowledge his influence, both on my imagination and in the way I, even now, consume movies. The L. A. Times obituary can be found here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Odds Are 4 In 100

On two occasions last month I posted blog entries concerning the latest call for proposals for books in Continuum’s 33 & 1/3 series examining classic albums of the rock era. A few weeks ago, the editor of the 33 & 1/3 series, David Barker, posted on his blog a list of the first ten proposals he’d received so far. Since that time, he’s received forty more proposals; I’ve re-posted the complete list below. Mr. Barker insists that those interested in writing a book for the series should not be discouraged if one of the artists on the list below is the subject of the proposal they are currently working on. The first ten artists listed below I posted earlier; proposals received since that earlier post are listed after the lacuna. Last time Continuum announced a call for proposals, 450 proposals were submitted, with about 20 of those being accepted (that is, roughly 4%). Assuming that figure still holds (and I assume it will), then only 2-3 of the proposals listed below have a chance for being accepted for publication. Your odds are hence about 4 in 100 (in other words, don't bet your life on being accepted).

Have I submitted my proposal yet? Not yet, but I’m getting close. And no, the artist whose album I’m writing about is not on the list—not so far. For those interested in submitting a proposal, you have slightly over three weeks left to do so. Redundant artists in the list below include Yo La Tengo and David Bowie (Low is already a title in the series, so these latest proposals are for yet another album(s) by him). I am pleased to see proposals for books on Devo, King Crimson, John Cale, and Van Morrison show up; there are not a whole lot of proposals on girl singers yet, but I'm sure that will change. In any case, I wish us all the best of luck.

The Fall
The Jam
Van Halen
The Zombies
Against Me!
Jefferson Airplane
Mary Margaret O'Hara
Yo La Tengo



Various Artists

Smashing Pumpkins


Herb Alpert

De La Soul

David Thomas and Two Pale Boys

King Crimson

John Cale
Allman Brothers Band

Songs Ohia

Iron Maiden


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
George Harrison
Van Morrison

The Rolling Stones


Paul Westerberg

The Cars

Incredible String Band

David Bowie

Cat Stevens
New Order
The Electric Prunes

Ol' Dirty Bastard


Sigur Ros

Red House Painters


Big Black

Lou Reed

Yo La Tengo

David Bowie

Britney Spears

The White Stripes

Robert Calvert

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rock Candy

It has been observed many times by many music critics that the most successful popular music always has been sentimental. For an illustration of this insight, one need look no further than the Beatles. As Simon Frith observed (“Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music”):

Twentieth-century popular music has, on the whole, been a nostalgic form. The Beatles, for example, made nostalgic music from the start, which is why they were so popular. Even on hearing a Beatles song for the first time there was a sense of the memories to come, a feeling that this could not last but that it was surely going to be pleasant to remember. (142)

I thought of Frith’s insight while driving to the store today, when I happened to hear on the radio Edison Lighthouse’s 1970 one-hit wonder, “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” (to hear, go here). Subsequently, I thought of the fundamental opposition between so-called “hard” rock and “soft” rock. The structural oppositions of hard and soft, of course, are designations of an underlying aesthetic distinguishing two distinct kinds of musical taste. While the sexual innuendo inherent in these designations can scarcely be denied, more importantly, each form comprises an aesthetic suggesting certain values. There are those who like their rock hard--that is, loud, and, by implication, their whiskey straight and their meat rare. In contrast, those who like their rock soft prefer the volume low, fish or chicken to beef, beer to bourbon, and are highly likely to be girls, pansies, or pussies (from the perspective of those who like hard rock). Thus their oppositional tastes are structured around the following sets of oppositions, and these structural oppositions determine virtually all discourse on popular music today:



Guitars/Keyboards (and Strings)






Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blue Yodel (#2)

Slightly over a week ago, I posted a blog entry on the yodel, followed by a second entry on the so-called “blue yodel.” At the time I posted the first entry, I fully realized that the issue regarding the relationship between the American cultural origins of the yodel and its subsequent use in popular music demanded more extensive treatment than what I was giving it, although the insights were quite valid, if also quite general. In the second, follow-up post, a short entry containing a link to an article exploring the possible origins of the blue yodel, I mentioned the importance of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. However, in that second post, I neglected to mention the rather significant figure of Emmett Miller (1900-1962), a former minstrel show performer—a white man who performed in blackface—and recording artist about whose life little is known except what has been excavated by certain dedicated music historians, among them, most especially, Nick Tosches. As Tosches points out in his fascinating and well-researched exploration into the life (or rather, what little is known of his life) and times of Emmett Miller, titled Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown and Co., 2001), Miller’s musical career is, sadly, largely undocumented, primarily because the portable recording equipment that could have captured his act in the late Teens and early Twenties didn’t yet exist (he did make several recordings in the late 1920s, however, backed by the Georgia Crackers). And while there is no hard evidence establishing the influence of Emmett Miller on Jimmie Rodgers, at the very least there is one of convergence, as both were drawing on a tradition of which both appeared to be quite knowledgeable. Tosches observes, “Were it not for the black sources from which Rodgers [and Emmett Miller] drew, there would have been no substance through which to wreak the rare brilliance of his style.” (97)

About the relationship between Miller and Rodgers, Tosches writes:

. . . it is with . . . [Emmett Miller’s] Miami engagement of July 1926, that the phrase “yodeling blues” does indeed appear to be for the first time applied to a style, an inflection, of singing: the style and inflection of singing that Emmett Miller had given voice to since at least the earliest recorded evidence of it, in 1924, and, as fully developed as that earliest evidence is, almost certainly for some years predating that evidence. That style, that inflection—that wild rushing flight of swarming inflections—eludes and defies any other more accurate single word. And yet it cried for a name. For while powers need no names, nothing can be sold without a name.

Thus, sometime between the spring and summer of 1926, either from wile and wit within or bestowed, or raised from the common, spreading descriptive of the fleeting masses of his fleeting fame, Emmett Miller became the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer. (70-71)

As is well known, Rodgers’s first recording session for Victor took place on 4 August 1927, although this session contained nothing close to his famous blue yodeling style. Indeed, his first blue yodel recording, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas),” did not take place until 30 November 1927, which, as Tosches points out, was sixteen months after Miller had been labeled “the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer.”


It is irrefutable that, as Jerry Lee Lewis said, again and again, Jimmie Rodgers was, essentially and above all, a stylist. There were, as Jerry Lee saw it, only four stylists that ever mattered a damn: Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Hank Williams, and himself. Of these four, only Williams was a songwriter of significance; and, even in his case, his biggest success, far from being an original composition, was a version of Emmett Miller’s rendition of “Lovesick Blues.” (97)

About Jimmie Rodgers’s vocal style, Michael Jarrett has written:

Rodgers’s style frequently seems an imitation, a simplification, of Miller’s. Which is not to declare Rodgers a pretender. (Installing Miller as an original is equally problematic, given his now obscure but equally certain “borrowings.” ) It’s to emphasize a key point about the blue yodel: This device, critical to distinguishing white country music from black blues, arrives already vexed. To whom should Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard pay tribute? (230)

For those interested, footage of Emmett Miller performing in blackface has been posted on; footage of Jimmie Rodgers performing “T For Texas” has also been posted on as well.

Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather. Little, Brown and Co., 2001.
Charles Wolfe, Liner notes to Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man From Georgia. Columbia/Legacy, 1996. Reissued 2001.