Friday, December 19, 2008

When The Whip Comes Down

While watching Jailhouse Rock last night I realized I’d forgotten about the scene in which Elvis is flogged by order of the prison warden as a consequence of striking a guard following a food riot in the prison commissary. Presumably a conventional feature of prison dramas—in which such brutality is often inflicted upon the prisoners—so far as I know the scene in Jailhouse Rock has received scant critical commentary. The purpose of the scene is ambiguous. Why does the warden order a whipping as punishment rather than, say, solitary confinement? One might argue that the scene is “required,” as it were, because of the Hollywood production code: violent criminal behavior must be dealt with swiftly and without impunity. Impulsive, unable to control his inner rage, Elvis punches the prison guard (i.e., the Authority Figure), and so must be disciplined through violence himself. But of course the flogging isn’t merely or only disciplinary: he’s severely lacerated by the whip, as the facial reaction of his cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), implies when he raises Elvis’s shirt in order to examine his back.

I was too young to see Jailhouse Rock in the movie theater when it was released in the fall of 1957. I do, however, vividly recall the first enactment of sadism I ever saw in the movie theater: the moment early on in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), when Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance, an outlaw) sadistically—like a man possessed—beats James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer) with his silver-handled whip. The crucial difference, of course, is that Liberty Valance is a sadistic villain, not a (presumably) benign prison warden as in Jailhouse Rock (the distinction being the legitimate vs. illegitimate uses of violence). Interestingly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released almost precisely a year to the day after Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which also featured a scene with a flogging, a scene in which Brando is lashed to a hitching post and viciously whipped by his old friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), who is now a Sheriff, that is, an official Authority Figure. Although One-Eyed Jacks was based on a novel by Charles Neider, its screenplay was co-written by Guy Trosper—who also wrote Jailhouse Rock.

In his definitive book on the subject, Acting in the Cinema (1988), James Naremore convincingly argues that it was Marlon Brando who brought to the cinema “a frighteningly eroticized quality to violence” (for example, in A Streetcar Named Desire), and it was Brando who in several films—On the Waterfront, One-Eyed Jacks, and The Chase—was “shown being horribly maimed or beaten by people who take pleasure in giving out punishment” (p. 230). Indeed, in both On the Waterfront and The Chase, Brando suffers especially vicious and prolonged beatings. But only in One-Eyed Jacks is he whipped, although the whip (the lash) figures prominently in the Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), in which it becomes a symbol of tyrannical authority. On the Waterfront, of course, precedes Jailhouse Rock, but in retrospect the importance of the scene in which Elvis is flogged while in the slammer cannot be underestimated: the presence of Elvis lends the whipping scene in Jailhouse Rock a degree of eroticized violence.

“Taste the whip” is a partial lyric in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” a demo for which (according to the box set Peel Slowly and See, a compilation of Lou Reed-era VU material) dates from July 1965—that is, after all of the aforementioned films save The Chase (filmed in 1965, but released in 1966). “Venus In Furs” later appeared on the first VU album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, released in March 1967, over a year before filming began on Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (filmed the late summer of 1968), which featured the brutal whipping of James Fox—a scene that was, incidentally, inspired by the scene of Dad Longworth’s whipping of Brando in One-Eyed Jacks.

I fully realize the obvious cinematic sources of inspiration (as opposed to the putative source, the more “respectable”—as in sophisticated—literary source, Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth-century short novel Venus In Furs) for the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” likely were the silent 8mm and 16mm “stag” films models such as Bettie Page made in New York for exploitation filmmaker Irving Klaw in the 1950s rather than Brando movies, but the point cannot be overlooked. Klaw’s films, like the VU song, contain highly fetishized imagery of women clad in lingerie and stiletto heels enacting scenes of bondage, spanking, whipping, and domination—which is to say, the dark underbelly of modern urban life. But in terms of lyrical content, “Venus In Furs” is simply an aberrant reading of a pop song such as “Blue Velvet,” that is, a rock song with “adult” as opposed to “adolescent” content (R as opposed to G).

There are very few rock songs featuring the whip even though the whip has been associated with rock music since Jailhouse Rock in 1957. Most have followed the Velvet Underground’s lead—the whip as fetish object—as opposed to using the whip as a symbol of brutal authority (as in Neil Young’s “Southern Man”). Only those from the American South, such as The Allman Brothers Band (and Elvis), seem to understand that the whip cannot be extricated from the institution of slavery. And, of course, those from the so-called “Third World,” such as The Ethiopians.

10 Tracks Guaranteed To Whip It Up:

“Venus In Furs” – The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
“Whipping Post” – The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
“Southern Man” – Neil Young, After the Gold Rush (1970)
“When the Whip Comes Down” – The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)
“Whip In My Valise” – Adam and the Ants, Dirk Wears White Sox (1979; 2004)
“Whip It” – Devo, Freedom of Choice (1980)
“Let It Whip” – Dazz Band, Keep It Live (1982)
“Love Whip” – The Reverend Horton Heat, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em (1991)
“The Whip” – The Ethiopians, Train to Skaville: Anthology 1966-1975 (2002)
“Wrong Side of the Whip” – Substitutes, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (2005)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nutted By Reality

In Act III, Scene iv (lines 178-79) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play’s eponymous hero, Hamlet, turns to his mother and says: “I must be cruel only to be kind./This bad begins and worse remains behind.” The fact that the line, “cruel to be kind” (which expresses an ancient idea, incidentally), occurs in the midst of a scene in which Hamlet is berating his mother for betraying the memory of her dead husband—Hamlet believes she is an adulterer and is guilty of incest as well—is significant. In the vernacular, “cruel to be kind” typically means that one must inflict pain on another for his or her own good—that is, the harsher the medicine, the better to effect the cure. “Cruel to be kind” is a standard sort of psychological strategy used by parents on children, which is what makes Shakespeare’s use of it all the more audacious, as in this case it is a child (son) speaking to a parent (mother). What’s more, it’s a child speaking to a parent about her sexual behavior.

The euphemistic version of “cruel to be kind” is most often expressed in the form, “this is going to hurt me a lot worse than it hurts you,” which reveals the masochism underlying the expression. And masochism, as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out (in Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, English translation 1971), operates by explicit or implicit contract, that is, the role for each participant is determined beforehand, prior to the enactment of dominance and debasement.

As might be expected, popular music has explored this psychology with great acuity. And according to Peter Lehman, there was no popular musician better at expressing masochistic desire than Roy Orbison. Discussing the hysteria implicit in Orbison’s “Running Scared,” Peter Lehman writes:

At the end of “Running Scared,” Orbison’s voice thrills at the unbearable suspense of wondering whether his girlfriend will chose [sic] him or his phallic rival: “Then all at once he was standing there/So sure of himself, his head in the air/My heart was breaking, which one would it be?/You turned around and walked away with me.” I will return later to the importance of the Orbison person’s passivity and paralysis, but notice here the suddenness with which the rival appears (“all at once”) and the drawn-out moment during which the outcome is unknown (“my heart was breaking, which one would it be?”). Only the last word of the song relieves the suspense. The song’s happy ending is almost irrelevant given the virtual panic that pervades the song: “Every relationship I’d ever been in, the girl already had one going when we first met. Even as far back as kindergarten” (Kent 1994, 291). Although Orbison seems unaware of it, such a pattern itself bespeaks masochistic desire, since being attracted to a woman who already has a boyfriend raises not only the risk of failure but also, in the event of success, the specter of the rival’s return. (Roy Orbison: The Invention of An Alternative Rock Masculinity, 93)

One might well include in the list below many songs by Roy Orbison, but I’ve tried to give a sense of the way masochistic desire has been explored in popular music.

The Top Ten Acid-Laced Sugar Cubes All About Being Cruel To Be Kind:

“Cecilia” – Simon and Garfunkel
“Cold, Cold Heart” – Hank Williams
“Cruel to Be Kind” – Nick Lowe
“Girl” – The Beatles
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
“Lyin’ Eyes” – The Eagles
“Maggie May” – Rod Stewart
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” – Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
“Running Scared” – Roy Orbison
“These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” – Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

Incidentally, the title of this blog is taken from a song by Nick Lowe (on Jesus of Cool, 1978) because I thought the phrase sufficiently captured the peculiar psychological torment of masochistic desire.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Although the holiday season obviously is a popular time for the Christmas carol, the word carol did not always refer to a type of song, but a type of dance—a popular dance in the Middle Ages, in fact. The word carol comes from the French word carole, a word derived from the Latin chorus, probably derived from the Greek word choreia, meaning dance. So how did carole, a word that means dance, become the carol, as in “Christmas carol”? An explanation is provided by this article, “Secular Music in 15th-Century England”:

The word carol . . . [meaning dance-song] . . . is used in this meaning up until the 15th century, when its function begins to change. It becomes more and more a purely vocal piece, but still maintaining the traditional form of a four-line verse followed by a two-line burden. According to R. L. Greene, carol is “a song on any subject, composed of uniform stanzas and provided with a burden. The burden makes and marks the carol. It is not a refrain (which might appear at the end of each stanza) but a self-contained formal and metrical unit.” It is simple, direct and unpretentious in style, mainly cheerful, using stock phrases and traditional imagery. Its basic form is related to other continental popular forms of the time like the French ballade, the Italian ballata or the Spanish villancico. However, all these were monophonic, whereas the English introduced a unique feature: the polyphonic carols, which first appeared around 1400. . . . According to John Stevens, “the popular carol, rough and direct, combines a warmth of human feeling with a matter-of-factness and a sense of wonder. The clerical carol, complex and often ornate, dwells with dramatic intensity on the physical and spiritual anguish of the Passion. The one didactic but gay; the other solemnly devotional.”

The distinction John Stevens makes between popular carols and clerical carols is still with us today: popular carols would include “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” while clerical carols would include, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” and that old workhorse, “Silent Night.”

But for rock ‘n’ rollers, the classic carol, of course, has to be Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” later covered, famously, by the Rolling Stones. In Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” the earlier meaning of carol, as dance, or dance-song, is restored: “Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away/I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.”

I wish everybody happy Caroling--of the Chuck Berry sort, that is--this holiday season!