Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

So asks the singer of this venerable Frank Loesser tune, covered many times over the years, but first recorded by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra in 1947. Issued toward the end of Kyser's career and at the beginning of the bebop era, it has a characteristically fine vocal by Harry Babbitt, backed by The Campus Kids (consisting of, at the time, I believe, by Gloria Wood, Loulie Jean Norman, Diane Pendleton, Charlie Parlato, and Jud Conlon). Sweet, romantic, and old-fashioned, the song was issued at the end of the Swing Era, which would be all but snuffed out by the recording ban that began early in 1948 and lasted for almost a year.

Incidentally, Gloria Wood, one of “The Campus Kids” backing group on this recording, achieved fame by going on to record many classic jingles for TV commercials, among them the jingles for “Chicken of the Sea” and “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco Treat” commercials. Covered many times by many different artists, I was unable to find Kyser’s recording of “What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?” on the web, but it is available as a download on iTunes and at

So what are you doing New Year’s Eve?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cat People

There is a famous quotation attributed to Albert Schweitzer, “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” If you have to ask what Schweitzer means, to lift a phrase from Louis Armstrong, you’ll never know. At the conclusion of his Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss speaks of the human experience of nature, referring to “the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity, and spiritual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one sometimes exchanges with a cat.” If only one could approach the vicissitudes of life with the calmness and serenity of a cat.

While it is not precisely clear when the word “cat” began to used to refer to another person, most certainly it emerged from American jazz culture. Bob Yurochko observes:

Another phenomenon that rose from bebop [in 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. Boppers became so aloof that many of their social and musical antics were largely exaggerated, finding much disfavor elsewhere in musical circles. (A Short History of Jazz 103)

To be fair, many of these words were probably invented or perhaps popularized by Louis Armstrong, as Gary Giddens observes in his book Satchmo. To call someone a “cool cat” became a statement of approbation. (Incidentally, a “hepcat,” in Forties bebop culture, was any person who admired, or perhaps played, jazz and swing.) Robert S. Gold calls the word “cool” 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” (A Jazz Lexicon, 65). Since the word “cat” was so strongly associated with jazz culture, as well as the expression “cool cats,” there developed, in comics and cartoons, the practice of using anthropomorphized cats as symbols of jazz musicians. Bob Clampett’s cartoon “Tin Pan Alley Cats” (1943), for instance, features a caricature of jazz musician Fats Waller as a cat – see a discussion of the cartoon here.

Hence it follows that not every song about a cat (or kitten, or pussycat) is really about a cat of the feline sort.

Some Cat (As Opposed To Scat) Tunes:
The Beatles – Leave My Kitten Alone
Bent Fabric [Bent Fabricius-Bjerre] and His Piano – Alley Cat
David Bowie – Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Harry Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle
Petula Clark – The Cat in the Window (The Bird in the Sky)
The Coasters – Three Cool Cats
Elton John – Honky Cat
The Grateful Dead – China Cat Sunflower
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Phenomenal Cat
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Nashville Cats
Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever
The Rolling Stones – Stray Cat Blues
Al Stewart – Year of the Cat
The Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut
Norma Tanega – Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


There’s an old rule of thumb in the film business, “Never take your name off a film.” The reason behind this adage is simple: If the film turns out to be great, you’re considered brilliant. If the film flops, it is quickly forgotten, meaning nobody will remember it, and therefore your involvement in it. The same logic dominates the field of rock criticism, for no rock critic worth his salt wants to miss the boat, that is, wants to fail to miss The Next Big Thing—to condemn the artist or band that might turn out to be the next Elvis or Velvet Underground. Anxious critics therefore praise everything, because anything might be The Next Big Thing, and who wants to be wrong? It is therefore easy to praise bands such as Mudhoney and artists such as Fiona Apple, because if you’re right, you’re a genius, and if you happen to be wrong, few will remember. Ours is the age of the timid critic, whom seldom expresses indignation about anything. For who can claim that posterity will not one day validate everything?

Max Ernst called this tendency to praise everything “overcomprehension,” and it dominates the field of rock criticism. In the history of rock, there have been bands and artists that have been consistently subject to “overcomprehension”—so-called “critical darlings” or “critics’ faves”—contemporary examples would include Lou Reed, for instance, or P. J. Harvey. The latter artist avers she grew up listening to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Beefheart—in other words, impeccable credentials. And the former figure, well, he was a member of VU. But perhaps the better way to become a critics’ fave, other than to invoke the proper artistic inspirations, is to be easily amenable to fashionable critical ideas, such as “schizophonia,” “recontextualization,” “grafting,” and so on. Critical endorsements typically employ the language of fixed-form expressions, such as “Beatles-like melodies,” “Byrds-like harmonies,” “the psychedelic experience of early Pink Floyd,” “the appeal of vintage British pop,” “the turbulent grunge of Nirvana,” “pioneering electronic artistry like the Velvet Underground,” and so forth.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun

On this day in 1975, Ted Nugent—currently on the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—was threatened by a gun while playing a concert in Spokane, Washington. An audience member by the name of David Gelfer raised a .44 magnum and pointed it at the rock star, but fortunately for the Nuge, police (and perhaps audience members, I’m not entirely clear) overpowered the gunman and stopped the possible murder. Gelfer was later charged with “intimidating with a weapon.”

John Lennon’s murder, on 8 December 1980, was still five years away. Lennon was murdered in America, where, according to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Hence the right to bear arms is an unalienable right, as essential to the American way of life as money and automobiles. I support the Constitution, and have no wish to see it modified or altered. But I also recognize that all values and rights require sacrifices—as Emerson observed, “Nothing is got for nothing.” John Lennon’s murder was a terrible tragedy, but his death can be understood as a sacrifice to the American way of life.

He wasn’t the only figure associated with rock culture in America whose destiny became bound up with the gun. It is now widely accepted that Dylan’s motorcycle crash in July 1966, while it actually happened, was exaggerated in terms of its physical injury in order to allow Dylan to remove himself from public life—for his personal safety. In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Al Kooper says as much, averring that he was afraid to tour with Dylan after 1965 because he didn’t want to play John Connelly to Dylan’s JFK. Thus the fear of being shot and killed by a deranged fan was a very real one, many years before the murder of John Lennon. I’ve been unable to find out whether David Gelfer’s gun was actually loaded—perhaps his gesture was merely an unfunny practical joke—but if it were loaded, Ted Nugent might have become the sacrificial victim that John Lennon later, not by choice, became.

The lives of many figures associated with rock music have ended by the gun: Sam Cooke (1964), Johnny Ace (1954), Arlester “Dyke” Christian (1971), Terry Kath (1978), Felix Pappalardi (1983), and Marvin Gaye (1984). The gun has also been used to achieve self-murder: Danny Rapp, of Danny and The Juniors, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1983. Country singer Faron Young also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (1996), and Wendy O. Williams, vocalist for the short-lived Plasmatics, killed herself with a gun in 1998. And famously, on 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain was discovered having murdered a rock star with a gun, the closest one he could find: himself.

Some Wit and Wisdom of Ted Nugent (see the complete article here):

Ban guns? Don’t try it. The National Rifle Association, formed 138 years ago, is dedicated to the self-evident truth of self-defense.

With increased NRA memberships, with guns and ammo sales surging along with concealed weapons permits, never in the history of mankind have more people possessed more firepower.

Fortunately, this level of defenselessness is incomprehensible to about 100 million Americans who own guns.

Because of them, and the NRA, the lunatic fringe left touches the issue of gun control at its own political risk.

Fresh from escaping the tyranny and slavery [sic], our brilliant, sensible Founding Fathers wrote down the self-evident truth that the right to self-defense is God-given.

And write this down: To “keep” means it is mine. You can’t have it. To “bear” means I’ve got them right here on me.

“Shall not be infringed” echoes that beautiful “Don’t tread on me” chorus. Sing it.

Self-defense is the most powerful, driving instinct in good people everywhere. To deny it is evil personified.

All the evidence tells us that calling 9-1-1 is a joke. For those of us for whom self-defense is no joke, we’ll call 9-1-1 after we’ve defended our families. We’ll tell authorities to bring a dustpan and a mop to clean up the dead monster we just shot.

By comparison, here’s gun control a la Ted Nugent: Put the second shot through the same hole as the first shot.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Golden Days Of Yore

Music critics have observed, correctly I think, that the most successful pop songs have always 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.

I thought of Frith’s insight while running a few last minute errands on this Christmas Eve, during which a local radio station played Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Like many of the Christmas songs that are now standards, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” dates from the World War II years, first sung not by Sinatra but by Judy Garland in the musical Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), in which she sings the song to her little sister, played by child actress Margaret O’Brien (see it here), during a scene set on—what else?—Christmas Eve. Although filmed during the war, in 1944, Meet Me In St. Louis is set in a nostalgic and sentimentalized past, late in 1903 just a few months prior to the opening of the Saint Louis World’s Fair—more properly the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—in April 1904. The title of the film is an allusion to a popular song recorded in 1904 in order to popularize the Saint Louis World’s Fair, “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” or, in its truncated form, simply “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Although the Exposition was dedicated to scientific progress—mathematician Henri Poincaré gave a lecture at the Exposition, and various “primitive” cultures were on exhibition in order to emphasize the virtues of industrial civilization—40 years later the Exposition was used as an illustration a simpler, and better, America. Such is the strange distortion of history characteristic of the sentimental impulse.

Perhaps given the long delays and difficulty of air travel this holiday season, pre-9/11/01 America, although not a decade past, is now considered nostalgic. No doubt it shall be someday.

Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were near to us, will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Do On Grass

“The green grass grows all around” is the title of a well-known children’s song, and in fact as a declarative utterance the lyric is quite true, as some form of grass is known all around the world, to all human cultures. For centuries certain grasses, when cut and dried and called “straw,” have been mixed with adobe to form bricks. Hence grasses, while a major source of food around the world, have many other uses, such as feeding animals—it has been estimated that grasses have been grown as food for domesticated animals for close to 10,000 years—and, of course, for lawns. In early twentieth-century jazz culture, a "joint" (a marijuana cigarette) was referred to as a “viper.” I cannot say precisely when, but at some point marijuana, or “Mary Jane,” become known as “grass,” which is how I remember it being called in the 60s. But marijuana was also referred to as “weed” as well, so marijuana, a plant which contains a pleasure-inducing drug, seems to elude conventional nomenclature. It is known as both “grass” and “weed.”

While grass is the name for marijuana (cannabis sativa or cannabis indica) in the drug culture, grass is also the plant used for lawns, that most coveted of American possessions, a sign of invidious distinction. In Arthur Miller’s masterful Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman laments he has no lawn, for in the crowded neighborhood where he lives, there isn’t enough sunlight for things to grow. Grass needs sunlight like rivers need rain. Willy’s desire to have a green lawn, and to raise a garden, isn’t simply a desire to belong to the middle class, but also expresses a desire to return to an idealized past (although for Willy that past is fictive, but he’s convinced himself otherwise). Grass is used in this way, as a metaphor for home but also a highly idealized past, in the song, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a hit for Tom Jones in the mid-60s. The singer sees his childhood home, which he has not seen for a very long time. His parents, as well as his beloved, Mary, greet him as he steps from the train—they have come to meet him. He sees again the landscape of his childhood, including the old oak tree that he once played on. It is “good to touch the green, green grass of home.” But the green grass of home is only a dream: he has not returned home, but awakens in prison. He sees the four drab walls surrounding him and realizes that he was only dreaming. In fact, he is on so-called “Death Row,” and it is the day of his execution. His dream has foreshadowed his fate: he shall return home, but only to be buried. “Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home.” Green lawns also cover the dead. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Safe in their alabaster chambers, / Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, / Sleep the meek members of the resurrection, / Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.”

Green Grass And High Times:
Animal Collective – Grass
The Friends of Distinction – Grazin’ in the Grass
George Jones – When the Grass Grows Over Me
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Gary Lewis and the Playboys – Green Grass
Tim McGraw – Where the Green Grass Grows
The Outlaws – Green Grass And High Tides
The Pretty Things – Grass
Steppenwolf – Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
XTC – Grass

Friday, December 18, 2009

ELVIS In March

According to, John Carpenter’s 1979 Emmy-nominated biopic, Elvis, with Kurt Russell playing Elvis Presley, is scheduled for release on DVD on March 2, 2010. The long-awaited release of the film on DVD coincides with the 75th anniversary of Elvis’s birth on January 8th. The film represents the first collaboration of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, and earned Russell a Golden Globe nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor. Serendipitously, as a child actor, Kurt Russell had a small role in Elvis’s It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), filmed late in 1962. My own memory of John Carpenter's Elvis is imperfect, although I remember liking it. The film appeared on American television in the years before I owned a VCR, and I’ve never had the opportunity to see it in the years since.

From the press release:

Timed closely to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth, Shout! Factory, in association with Dick Clark Productions, present Elvis on DVD for the first time March 2, 2010. This collectible DVD features the main presentation of the movie restored from the original film elements as it was meant to be seen, as well as an array of bonus features including: “Bringing A Legend To Life,” a featurette with archival interviews of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter (1979); commentary by “The Voice Of Elvis,” Ronnie McDowell, and author Edie Hand; rare clips and captivating photo gallery. Even 33 years after his passing, Presley continues to burn a powerful image of rock stardom and still conquers new legions of fans through his indelible mark in worldwide pop culture. Available for the first time in the home entertainment marketplace, this long-awaited DVD debut of the film Elvis is priced to own at $19.97. Directed by John Carpenter, the biopic of Elvis stars Kurt Russell and features the [70s] country music hitmaker Ronnie McDowell re-creating Presley’s signature vocals. Tracing Presley's life from his impoverished childhood to his meteoric rise to stardom to his triumphant return to Las Vegas, this film boasts an all-star ensemble including Academy Award® winner Shelley Winters (A Place In The Sun) as Elvis' mother Gladys; Season Hubley (All My Children) as his wife Priscilla; Kurt Russell’s real-life father Bing Russell (The Magnificent Seven) as Elvis’s father Vernon Presley; Pat Hingle (Batman) as Colonel Tom Parker; Robert Gray (Murder She Wrote) as Red West; Golden Globe nominee Joe Mantegna (Searching for Bobby Fischer) as Memphis mafia member Joe Esposito; and Golden Globe nominee Ed Begley Jr. (St. Elsewhere) as D.J. Fontana.

  • “Bringing A Legend To Life” Featurette With Archival Interviews Of Kurt Russell And John Carpenter (1979)
  • Commentary By “The Voice Of Elvis” Ronnie McDowell And Author Edie Hand
  • Rare Clips From American Bandstand
  • Photo Gallery

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jennifer Jones, 1919-2009

Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones (born Phylis Lee Isley), who won an Academy Award for her performance as saint-to-be Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette (1943), died today at her Malibu home at the age of 90. The accomplished actress was married to two famously self-made men, motion picture producer David O. Selznick, who died in 1965, and millionaire industrialist Norton Simon, who died in 1993. Her first marriage, to actor Robert Walker, ended in divorce in 1945; she married David O. Selznick shortly after the divorce was final. Her final screen appearance was 35 years ago, in the big-budget disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974), but despite a successful Hollywood career in which she won the award for Best Actress and garnered several additional Academy Award nominations for her exceptional acting, she is notorious for having starred in the Sixties film produced by American International Pictures (AIP), Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969), subsequently re-released and re-titled Cult of the Damned.

In writer-director Robert Thom’s Sixties oddity, Jones, then at or near 50 years old and in her penultimate film performance, portrayed the icy, abusive mother of a painfully insecure daughter played by folk singer Holly Near. In the course of the film, Jones delivered perhaps one of the most oft-quoted lines in all of trash cinema, “I’ve made thirty stag films and I never faked an orgasm.” Yet despite its widespread reputation as a trash cinema classic, Angel, Angel Down We Go is not a total waste of time despite the efforts of some to transform it into camp, and is perhaps best described as a low-brow Teorema (1968), although Joseph Losey’s Boom! (with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams) was released earlier the same year, and has a number of contingent connections as well. I cannot say whether Robert Thom was directly influenced by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial film, Teorema, which, according to the IMDB, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1968, but Angel, Angel Down We Go—this again according to the IMDB—opened in New York almost a year after, in August 1969. In Pasolini’s earlier and overtly allegorical film, a strange visitor, played by Terence Stamp, arrives at the household of a wealthy family and sexually seduces all of them—the maid, the son, the mother (played by Silvana Mangano), the daughter, and eventually the father. The family members all seem to have something close to a transcendent experience as a result of their intimate experiences with the charismatic young man, but soon after his final seduction, he leaves, and each member of the family (except for the maid, a peasant woman) undergoes an emotional breakdown, presumably because they are selfish, self-indulgent, and coldly materialistic (except for the good maid—salt of the earth) bourgeoisie.

Produced by Jerome F. Katzman, son of the legendary exploitation film producer Sam Katzman, Angel, Angel Down We Go starred Jones (but why not Thom’s wife, actress Millie Perkins?), Jordan Christopher, Roddy McDowall, Holly Near, Lou Rawls, and Charles Aidman. The Terence Stamp role is played by Jordan Christopher (playing “Bogart Peter Stuyvesant”) who, while not exactly a dead ringer for Jim Morrison, is close enough in appearance to the Lizard King that the resemblance is hard to miss (and just so connection can’t be missed, he’s the leader of a rock band). The band plays a slew of songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, including Angel, Angel Down We Go, “Mother Lover,” “Hey, Hey, Hey,” “The Fat Song,” and “Hi Ho,” and has been considered by some as a sort of companion piece to AIP’s earlier Wild in the Streets (1968), about a pop star becoming President of the United States, which was also written by Thom. (According to Louis Black, Renata Adler and Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “Wild in the Streets is a kind of instant classic, a revved up La Chinoise or Privilege for the drive-ins in summertime.”)

Hence my belief that Angel, Angel Down We Go, which like Wild in the Streets also features a pop star as demigod, should be considered the Teorema of the drive-in set. After insinuating himself into the Steele household, Stuyvesant first seduces the plump neurotic debutante daughter, Tara (Holly Near), then the (neurotic) mother, Astrid (Jones), and finally the ineffectual father (Charles Aidman), with whom he is shown taking a shower - daring stuff for AIP in 1969. Thom seemed to wish to expose the ideological bankruptcy of Tara's materialistic parents, revealing their utter failure to be beneficent, nurturing parents as well as positive role models, in effect encouraging their hapless daughter to seek acceptance from a self-absorbed nihilist such as Bogart Peter Stuyvesant (“Bogie”). Thus, like other films of the 1960s such as The Chase (1966), it explores with a cynical eye the ideological exhaustion of that most cherished of American institutions, the American family. If you go over here, you can find a reasonably accurate transcription of the film’s action and dialogue, along with a rather interesting speculation about the way the film interacts with Gone With the Wind (1939), produced by Jones’ once husband, David O. Selznick (the Holly Near character is named Tara, after the name of the plantation owned by Scarlett O’Hara’s father).

Rather than disparage her participation, I have always considered Jennifer Jones’ appearance in the film as both bold and audacious, a “risk” that someone in her position could, and in fact, was ideally suited, to take. (She certainly did not need to work.) Although she gave up acting decades ago, the death of Jennifer Jones reminds us of the ever-receding cultural distance of Old Hollywood, as well as that elusive quality that made her a star, glamor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Imagining Disaster

Recent releases such as WALL-E (2008), Terminator Salvation (2009), and 9 (2009) reveal that the imagination of disaster is a robust motion picture genre, as popular now as it was during the decades of the Cold War. Stories about the catastrophic end of civilization are ancient, of course. I was about to say that animated films such as Pixar’s WALL-E and the Tim Burton-(co)produced 9 reveal that post-apocalyptic stories are now being made for kids, but it occurred to me that outside of a few exceptions, they always have been. When I was a kid, books such as Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964) transformed nuclear disaster into a big, exciting adventure story, in effect allaying any fears I might have about a nuclear war. (I was one of those kids you have seen in those old civil defense films sliding off his desk chair onto the floor and covering his head with his hands, playing “duck and cover.”) No doubt this is what Susan Sontag meant, in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,“ that fantasy serves to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” She said science fiction disaster films are a kind of “collective nightmare” that “reflect world-wide anxieties” but also “serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alienness, with the grossly familiar.” They are, finally, “in complicity with the abhorrent.”

While I think the vast majority of Sontag’s points are still valid, she wrote the essay 45 years ago, a couple of years after the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis” (October 1962) and decades before 9-11. What the events of that latter event reveal is the relationship between a catastrophic historical event and the subsequent instability of the so-called “metaphysical realm,” the way one’s “world view” is supported and enabled by one’s daily existence. Put in another way, the world looks vastly different depending on which way the gun is pointed. As long as the gun is pointed in the right direction, one’s life is both content and perhaps even banal - “routine.” But once the gun is pointed in the wrong direction, though, the beauty and stability of the world is no longer assured, and complacency is impossible. Do the post-apocalyptic films released since 9-11 reflect this fear? As David Byrne sings in “Life During Wartime,”

This ain’t no party
This ain’t no disco
This ain’t no fooling around

13 Songs About (Mostly Nuclear) Apocalypse:
Black Sabbath – Electric Funeral
The Clash – London Calling
Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Donald Fagen – New Frontier
Jimi Hendrix – 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
Jefferson Airplane – Wooden Ships
King Crimson – Epitaph (including "March For No Reason" and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow")
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Men At Work – It’s A Mistake
Nena – 99 Luftballons
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Enola Gay
Rush – Distant Early Warning
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime

Monday, December 14, 2009

White Christmas

I’ve hardly done an exhaustive study, but I suspect that virtually every major popular singer or band has made a Christmas album, or at the very least recorded a Christmas song. I’m reasonably sure, though, that next to Bing Crosby’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” perhaps the most famous Christmas song is Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire…”). But like Crosby’s version of “White Christmas,” the most widely known version of Cole’s “The Christmas Song” isn’t the original recording. Interestingly, both songs date from the World War II era, the first (surviving) recording of “White Christmas” dating from 1942 (issued on record in conjunction with the release of the film Holiday Inn) and “The Christmas Song” from 1944, written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells and perhaps inspired by the massive popular success of “White Christmas.”

The Nat King Cole Trio recorded “The Christmas Song” twice over the space of two months in 1946, the second version recorded with a small string section. It was this second version, released in November 1946, that became the huge hit. However, the version that receives the most airplay today, and the one I heard on the radio yesterday, is the version Cole re-recorded in stereo in 1961. As a consequence of hearing the song yesterday, I was motivated to peruse James Haskins’ and Kathleen Benson’s Nat King Cole: A Personal and Professional Biography. They indicate that although Cole won over a white audience in 1946 with “The Christmas Song,” he continued to suffer at the hands of white bigots. For instance, when he moved into a largely white neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1948, various acts of vandalism were committed against his house. At another time Cole’s daughter recalled, “Someone came in the night and on the front lawn they burned the word ‘Nigger.’ This was an isolated incident, but it was so powerful—burned in the lawn. I think I went out that morning to wait for the school bus, and here was this word. And it seemed to take the longest time for the grass to grow in. The shadow of that word was always there” (p. 81). In 1949, Cole was unjustly harassed by the IRS, and in April 1956—eighteen months after the release of the “beloved” Christmas movie, White Christmas (1954), starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (pictured above, with Cole)—members of the White Citizens’ Council, an organization advocating regional resistance to the Supreme Court and Federal prerogatives regarding race, attacked Cole on stage in his home town of Birmingham, Alabama. (A month before, Martin Luther King was on trial in Montgomery, Alabama for leading a conspiracy to violate the state’s boycott laws, for which he was found guilty.) I conclude that ten years after Cole’s hit recording of “The Christmas Song,” and in the context of the Civil Rights era, the song could no longer encourage white audiences to believe that the suppressed anger felt by a black man could be channeled into ”harmless” music.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


As a consequence of last night’s extremely rare screening on TCM of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s Performance (1970) starring Mick Jagger, I awoke this morning thinking about the Rolling Stones. I realized that today’s date, 12 December, serendipitously was the date the Stones finished the filming of The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, filmed 11-12 December 1968 (frequent delays on the 11th caused the filming to continue on into the wee hours of 12 December). A true museum piece, the show was designed as a made-for-TV special intended for airing on the BBC as a Christmas special in order to promote the release of the Stones’ album Beggars Banquet, which had been released in the UK a few days earlier, on 6 December. Featuring appearances by Jethro Tull, The Who, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithful, and Eric Clapton, Rock And Roll Circus was to have been the first appearance of the Stones after an absence of several months, a consequence of Mick Jagger making Performance. With most of its featured performers dressed as clowns, and Mick Jagger, improbably, serving as the Ring Master, the outcome was so ludicrously silly that it was deemed unreleasable, and remained so for 28 years, until 1996. Additionally, legend has it that the Stones felt they had been upstaged by The Who. Bootlegged Rolling Stones tracks from the soundtrack appeared in the years after, but Rock and Roll Circus is perhaps more significant as the last time the original Stones—with Brian Jones—performed together. He was fired soon after.

When the show was eventually released on home video in 1996, the music the Stones played on the show was shown not to be as terrible as rumor had it, but the show’s concept—an extravaganza produced and starring the Rolling Stones—simply didn’t fit the Stones’ image. In contrast, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967) concept—in which the Beatles, along with a large number of their friends, drove around the British countryside zonked out of their minds playing psychedelic music—had a certain commercial potential based on its novelty. Critics, however, excoriated it, even if it roughly conformed to the Beatles’ image, given the picaresque films they’d made previously with Richard Lester. The Stones, however, had made no such movies, and simply weren’t convincing as fun-loving hippies, especially when dressed up as clowns. As a joke, it wasn’t funny, or rather, it was painfully funny. The trouble is, the Rolling Stones never made convincing hippies. Bohemians they were, hippies they were not. What Performance would reveal—which had finished filming a few weeks earlier, in mid-October, but would not be released until August 1970—was the threat and danger of Mick Jagger’s persona. I find Rock And Roll Circus a curious misfire, a true oddity in the history of rock, significant only because it represents Brian Jones’s last “live” appearance with the Stones. And for Mick Jagger’s first performance after Performance.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Performance Screening Tonight

I highly recommend you tune in, or set your recorder, to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) tonight as there is a rare screening of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's classic Performance (1970) beginning at roughly 2:00 a.m. Eastern (technically, Saturday morning). The film rarely shows on American television, so if you haven't seen it, or don't have a copy of it, tonight is the opportunity to see it. Additionally, Richard Harland Smith's essay on the film is available here on the TCM website. Put your tie on!

Strength Lies In Improvisation

These are the days when no one should rely unduly on his “competence.” Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed. – Walter Benjamin

The day before yesterday, I blogged on the long forgotten British band Hard Meat. As is usually the case, having written about a particular topic, inevitably my thoughts are preoccupied by it for several days or even weeks after. This morning I woke up thinking about the final song on the second (and final) album Hard Meat released (Through A Window), a song titled “The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes,” and it occurred to me that the song may have been based on an actual couple. (Why the thought had never occurred to me before I have no idea, but I’ve become a firm believer in Salvador Dali’s paranoiac-critical method.) It struck me that perhaps Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes possibly might have been the British equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde. Hence I was compelled this morning to do a web search, and sure enough, there was a British couple named Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes (pictured), although they were not outlaws of the Bonnie and Clyde sort.

Happily, as a result of my search I came across the weblog of Martin Newell—“Performance Poet, Author and Pop-Genius”—who reveals that he had been researching the late Victorian/early Edwardian-era couple and finally uncovered their story. I encourage readers to click on the above link to his blog and read his fascinating post about the couple that inspired Hard Meat’s ballad. Although you can read it there, I was so struck by Mr. Newell’s eloquent analysis of the mendicant couple that I am compelled to reproduce it here:

Still, though, Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes stare out from that wintry picture in a world far removed from the one in which we now live. They’d probably be given short shrift if they existed today. Their begging would be strongly discouraged. On one hand, they’d be descended upon by those agencies whose job it is to sort such problems out. On the other, they’d be at serious risk of attack from any team of drunken yobs who came across them. Hounded from the rural haunts now gentrified and peppered with Neighbourhood Watch stickers, simply bedding-down in the country would be difficult. People would be frightened of them. That haunting old photograph of the pair, however, radiates a robust dignity which you'd be hard-pushed to find in their modern counterparts. It tells you that for all of our improvements, state benefits and social safety-nets, certain elements of individual freedom and basic charity which they knew, have almost completely vanished during the past century.

If there is a problem with my reproducing the image of the couple on my blog (taken from Martin Newell's blog), please contact me about the matter and I’ll remove it.


In Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid, characters frequently entertain each other’s foot fetishes. Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) indulges Monsieur Rabour’s (Jean Ozenne’s) fascination with her feet (pictured), an expression of some sort of fetish, but what it might be isn’t clear—which seems to be precisely the point. Each individual is forced to acknowledge that his understanding of others inevitably must be incomplete; there is no book that, in the space of a few hundred pages, can provide the perfect simulacrum of the many years of a person’s life. The impossibility of perfect understanding, however, does not negate the possibility of partial understanding. But there seems to be a much bigger issue at work: It is not the enigma that lies between the fetishist and the “interpreter” of the fetish, but the greater enigma that lies between the fetishist and the unnameable. The inability to communicate the meaning of the fetish would seem to be essential for a true fetishist.

My understanding of the fetish differs from that put forth by Freud. The later Freud seemed to conclude that the fetishist was not a solipsist. He argues, in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, in his discussion of the fetishist that “the detachment of the ego from the reality of the external world has never succeeded completely” (p. 60; see also p. 61). However, Freud most certainly did not show, finally, that the fetishist is not a solipsist; he simply defined the fetish as “a compromise formed with the help of displacement” (Outline of Psycho-Analysis, p. 60) of cathexis from the instinctual object to some signifying object, an effect that tells us nothing about whether this signifier as such is understood by one, ten, a hundred, or one hundred million people. For instance, the example of the foot-fetishist in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis provides no help given the narrative’s glaring lacunae, as he simply recounts the (illusory?) scene of origin of the fetish, though this explanation tells us nothing of the meaning of the fetish (pp. 348-49). He concedes, in “Fetishism” (1927), that it is not always possible “to ascertain the determination of every fetish” (p. 201) though the impossibility of this determination is unrelated to the more daunting issue of the meaning of the fetish.

What is the fetish? An enduring material object, X, that acts as a signifier of some other object, process or relationship, Y. Fetish is thus to be distinguished from ritual as object is from event, the spatial axis of a related pair whose temporal axis is ritual: The Sacrament of Holy Communion is the ritual, the transubstantiating wine and wafer the fetish. The signified entity, Y, is, in turn, instinctually highly cathected for sexual, religious or economic reasons, or even because of some atypical neurological condition. In the fetish complex the signifier—the fetish object—in turn becomes cathected, acquiring the affective import of the instinctual object. How does the fetish object become cathected? In other words, the question is how it is possible that a signifying object (even one possessing materiality) can provide some part of the satisfaction of the instinctual object. This paradox certainly confounded Freud and would seem to be the primary reason for his interest in fetishism, especially in those cases where the fetish is unrelated to the instinctual object by metonymy—for instance, when a cowry shell is more mysterious than the female foot. Unlike the cowry shell, though, the shoe is more obviously metonymically related to the foot. The paradox is why the shoe (or, as in Diary of a Chambermaid, Céléstine’s high-heeled leather boots) has more affective import that the foot—a paradox expressed by Carl Perkins who, as legend has it, when first hearing about the story of the prized pair of blue suede shoes, was chagrined that a man actually would value his shoes over a beautiful girl. Put it another way, signs may be consumed but they are not nutritious.

Valuable Shoes:
Adam Ant – Goody Two Shoes
The Beatles – Old Brown Shoe
Kate Bush – Red Shoes
Elvis Costello – (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Shoes
Depeche Mode – Walking in My Shoes
The Drifters – I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes
The Eagles – Those Shoes
Elton John – Who Wears These Shoes
K. C. & the Sunshine Band – Boogie Shoes
Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes
Ray Price – My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You
Paul Simon – Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Joe South – Walk A Mile In My Shoes

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Importance Of The Name

I’ve written previously on this blog about one of the central myths informing rock culture (first established by The Velvet Underground and Nico album), that initial commercial neglect guarantees greatness. This myth is so fundamental to rock culture that it enables commercially neglected albums to achieve considerable cult cachet in the years, perhaps decades, following their original release. Often these records acquire greatness because there are legendary circumstances concerning the band’s musicians, and/or troubled or difficult conditions associated with the album’s production. Myths also develop concerning the financial and/or physical conditions that constrained the record’s making that affected the time and moment of its release. An issue frequently surrounding a “cult” record is that for various reasons it was “delayed,” and the causes for this postponement contribute to the formation of its legend. The point is, often non-musical factors contribute to an album's cult status.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, it is a harsh fact that sometimes excellent records are released that just simply do not sell. (One can therefore deduce that the opposite is true as well, that for unclear reasons poor or mediocre records may sell exceptionally well.) One band that released two very good albums that sold poorly at the time of their release—almost forty years ago—and then vanished was a British trio called Hard Meat, composed of brothers Mick Dolan (guitars, vocals), Steve Dolan (bass, vocals), and their friend Mick Carless (drums, percussion). Hard Meat released two records for Warner Brothers Records in 1970, its first the eponymously titled Hard Meat (WS 1852, released ca. February 1970) and the second Through A Window (WS 1879, released ca. September 1970). I mention this band because while perusing eBay the other day, I learned that these two albums are now fetching premium prices. Astonishingly, some dealers are listing sealed copies of these albums for $99 as the “Buy It Now” price. This is a remarkable development, because thirty years ago, give or take a month or two, I was able to pick up sealed copies of these records for 44 cents.

I discovered the music of Hard Meat almost 40 years ago through what were known as Warner Brothers “Samplers.” These were promotional records featuring bands making records for Warner/Reprise that were available for purchase directly from Warner Brothers for $1 (in those days, you could mail in a dollar bill, cold hard cash, with your request and get a record in return). Warner/Reprise also issued some two record promotional sets (e.g., 1969’s Songbook) for $2, and once even issued a three-record set for $3, Looney Tunes Merrie Melodies, this around March 1971 as I recall (some sources indicate 1970 as the year of release, but I think this is incorrect). It was in this latter three-record set that I encountered Hard Meat’s “Smile As You Go Under.” Liking the song, I ordered through a now defunct record club the band’s second album, Through A Window, the only one available through the club. I very much liked the music I heard on the album, and played it frequently. I liked its sparse production (by John Roberton—not Robertson—also producing Steeleye Span at the time); it wasn't what is called “over-produced,” and while there were a couple medium tempo rockers, the bulk of the album had a folk rock sensibility, but was entirely unconventional in its approach. (The band's first album includes a cover of Bob Dylan's “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine” from Blonde on Blonde). (Incidentally, a trio of songs from the second album are available on youtube: A Song of Summer, Free Wheel, and The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes; a couple songs from the first album are available as well, although I haven't conducted an extensive search.)

At the time, 1970-71, although I scoured the record bins for it, I was never able to track down a copy of the band’s first record. However, a decade later I found the band’s eponymously titled first album in a second floor record store in Omaha, in a bin composed primarily of used 70s disco records, 12” dance club mixes, and various cut-outs. In fact, I found six or eight sealed copies of it as I recall, all marked 44 cents. I purchased two of them, opening one in order to play it and leaving the other sealed (to this day). At the same time, I also found a sealed copy (to this day) of Through A Window for the same price. For that little amount of money, why not pick up a second copy?

I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a band’s records so widely available in still-sealed form, a phenomenon made even more remarkable by the fact that so many such copies are for sale on eBay, sealed, 40 years later. I can therefore only surmise that Hard Meat’s records didn’t just sell poorly, they did not sell at all. The wretchedly bad sales ended the band’s career virtually from the get-go, a career that showed great promise. Indulging in a bit of speculation, the band’s poor sales may have had to do with its name, a crucial factor in achieving widespread acceptance. At the time (then a teenager), I remember thinking, perhaps naively, that “Hard Meat” was an oxymoronic name inspired by rock band names like Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly, “hard” as in “hard rock” and “meat” as in “tender” or “raw,” the sort of band name that might invoke one of its prestigious contemporaries such as Soft Machine. I now realize that “hard meat” invokes the language of pornography, and I wonder if this association didn’t have something to do with the band’s utter failure to sell any records. I can’t believe it was the music, as the number of sealed copies to this very day suggests no one ever actually heard it. As is widely known, no major avant-garde group or movement has ever achieved acceptance without a provocative name: think of Surrealism, Cubism, Situationism, Futurism, Deconstruction, Semiotics, and Punk Rock—or even Dada for that matter, which parodied the names for such artistic movements. But no major acceptance is going to occur with a name like Hard Meat. It's neither catchy nor youthfully insolent, like “The Sex Pistols” is, for instance. The name just doesn’t serve as a hook that would allow promoters to further the band's publicity, which would lead to major acceptance. I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned here, in the same way there’s a lesson in the names of other failed bands, such as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and Test Icicles.

Originally from Birmingham, discussion on this board indicates in the early to mid-60s the Dolan Brothers played with local blues sensation Jimmy Powell and while still in Birmingham had a blues band named the Cock-A-Hoops (British slang for being in a state of boastful elation or exultation). The board also indicates band member Steve Dolan died a few years ago; he apparently spent a number of years as a session musician. I've come across various sources that indicate Mick Dolan has worked as a producer and audio engineer for various British bands and musicians, so he obviously stayed active in the industry for many years, and perhaps still is so. For those interested, below is a Hard Meat discography such as I have been able to assemble; I can't claim it is complete, although the major albums and singles are included.

I would welcome any additional information about the band, or additions to the discography.

Hard Meat Discography:
Hard Meat/Through A Window Progressive Line PL582, 2002 [Australia] (pictured)
Hard Meat Warner Bros. WS 1852, 1970
Through A Window Warner Bros. WS 1879, 1970
Rain/Burning Up Years Island WIP 6066, 1969 (pre-Warner Brothers single)
The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes/Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow Warner Bros. A 6100, 1970 [Germany]
Compilation (LP)
Looney Tunes Merrie Melodies Warner Bros. PRO 423, 1971 (3xLP) (“Smile As You Go Under”)
Together Again MH 12915, 1971 [?] [Argentina] (Song unknown)
From Burbank To The Bay Area Warner Strategic Marketing 5046-66294-1, 2005 [UK] (2xLP) (“Free Wheel”)
The Melting Pot Volume 2 Good Groove Musik GGLP002 (Year Unknown) (Bootleg?) (“Free Wheel”)
Compilation (CD)
From Burbank To The Bay Area Warner Strategic Marketing 5046-66294-2, 2005 [UK] (“Free Wheel”)
Feel The Spirit: Other Worldly Folk Music Gems And Psychedelics Optimum Sounds OPTCD002 [UK] 2006 (“Free Wheel”)
Covers (LP)
The Human Instinct [New Zealand blues-rock band], Burning Up Years (Pye, 1969)
Title track of the album is taken from the B side of Hard Meat’s Island single issued in 1969

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Now Playing

In their well-known book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphor is not simply a literary device but an irreducible part of language itself. Moreover, metaphors have a cognitive function, structuring our thoughts and perceptions. A predominant metaphorical concept that governs our perception of life, they argue, is “life is a gambling game.” Some examples they provide to illustrate this metaphorical concept are, “I’ll take my chances,” “The odds are against me,” “He’s a real loser,” “He’s bluffing,” “Maybe we need to sweeten the pot,” “That’s my ace in the hole,” “That’s the luck of the draw,” and so on. The point is, these metaphors reveal how we perceive life, not gambling—life itself is perceived as a gamble, one filled with great risk. Lakoff and Johnson see these kind of common linguistic expressions as “speech formulas,” “fixed-form expressions,” or “phrasal lexical items”—they function “like single words, and the language has thousands of them.” Since popular song lyrics are so dependent on colloquial and vernacular expressions, it should therefore come as no surprise that they are loaded with “speech formulas” and “fixed-form expressions.” A song such as Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” isn’t simply about gambling, it’s about life itself, a way not only of imagining life, but a way of living it. In the gambler’s words, the singer says, “I found an ace that I could keep”:

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away and know when to run
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

The gambler’s simple, homespun words have the force of a homily. Many pop songs have applied the metaphor of “game” and “gambling game” to life, as the following (short) list reveals.

Playing Games, A-Z
Abba – The Name of the Game
Blood, Sweat & Tears – Go Down Gamblin’
Ray Charles – Blackjack
Bob Dylan – Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts
Tommy Edwards – It’s All In the Game
Shirley Ellis – Name Game
Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders – The Game of Love
Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers
Larry Gatlin – Love Is Just A Game
The Hollies – Son of a Rotten Gambler
INXS – Deliver Me
Alan Jackson – Just Playin’ Possum
Kansas – Play The Game Tonight
John Lennon – Mind Games
Steve Miller Band – The Joker
Graham Nash and David Crosby – Games
Otis Redding – The Match Game
The Alan Parsons Project – Games People Play
Queen – Play The Game
The Radiators – Life’s A Gamble
Kenny Rogers – The Gambler
Sonny and Cher – Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
Joe South – Games People Play
Talking Heads – Slippery People
U2 – The Fool
Van Morrison – The Healing Game
Amy Winehouse – Love Is a Losing Game
XTC – Complicated Game
Neil Young – Cowgirl in the Sand
Frank Zappa – A Game of Cards

Monday, December 7, 2009


In contrast to December 7 1941—the date “which will live in infamy,” the day the Japanese navy attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—which shall be commemorated today, the date of December 6 1969, the day of the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, went unacknowledged yesterday by the American mass media. Given that yesterday marked that notorious event’s 40th anniversary, it is strange (hypocritical?) there was no mention of it, given the deluge of Woodstock 40th anniversary commemorations and product tie-ins that occurred this year. The only acknowledgements of the Altamont concert of which I’m aware are last week’s issue by Criterion of the Maysles’ Brothers documentary Gimme Shelter (1970) on Blu-ray Disc, and the box set released last month revisiting the Rolling Stones’ late 1969 U. S. tour, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert—40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set (cover pictured). Otherwise, the event has gone unremarked so far as I know.

The infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival was held on Saturday, December 6 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. Headlined by The Rolling Stones, the concert also featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Ironically, The Grateful Dead, which helped organize the event and were supposed to play, declined the opportunity to perform once the violence got out of hand. Since there was no commemoration of Altamont in the media over the weekend, I’ve excerpted below my and Becky’s discussion of the event, taken from our co-authored book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006). Our discussion below is taken from the word file we submitted for publication, and therefore may not precisely match the version that was printed in our book. Our remarks about Altamont occur in the context of the U. S. release of Performance, starring Mick Jagger, in August 1970.

More than half a year had passed since The Rolling Stones’ tour had culminated sensationally at Altamont on 6 December 1969, but the notoriety of that violent event was still resonating in the media. The Maysles Brothers’ documentary of the last ten days of that tour, Gimme Shelter, was not released until 6 December 1970. The Criterion Collection DVD of Gimme Shelter, released in 2000, included outtakes; among them, filmed backstage at Madison Square Garden on 27 or 28 November 1969, is footage of Tina Turner and Mick Jagger looking at what possibly is an issue of Rolling Stone. Tina Turner is struck by a picture of Mick Jagger in his Harry Flowers guise, telling Mick she’s definitely going to have to see the movie when it comes out. Someone off-camera asks, “What’s the name of the movie?” It would become clear in less than a year that Performance wasn’t just another “movie.”

We are told that in later years, although Donald had helped the Maysles Brothers with Gimme Shelter, he lamented his contribution was traduced by them. The violence that occurred during the concert at Altamont Speedway transformed Gimme Shelter from a mere concert film into something much different. The event actualized—Donald’s term—an aspect of Mick Jagger’s ambiguous persona that Performance didn’t so much create as reveal. Donald later claimed to have done some editing on Gimme Shelter, and while the late Charlotte Zwerin was most certainly a superb film editor, we have no reason to doubt Donald’s claim. Whether Donald performed actual, “hands on,” editing of the film, or was consulted in order to suggest a cutting strategy, we cannot say. Some unused footage was shot in London in early 1970, but we have not been able to determine, how, or in what way Donald participated in that shooting, if he did at all. He was still in London in January and February 1970; the re-edit of Performance had not yet begun. He may not have become involved until later that year, after he finished the re-edit of Performance around the first of May. Donald is given thanks in the credit scroll at the end of the film, though he apparently felt his contribution deserved more than such a perfunctory acknowledgement. Subsequently, although Myriam Gibril indicates Donald remained friends with the Maysles and would try to hook up with them whenever he was in New York, privately his estimation of their friendship had changed. Perhaps he should have known better: don’t get your personal relations mixed up in business.

Pauline Kael attacked Gimme Shelter in a notorious review published in The New Yorker. The Maysles wrote a response, but at the time The New Yorker did not publish letters, so their letter remained unseen by the general public until 1998. The Maysles’ letter refers to the “ambiguous nature of the Stones’ appeal” and the “complexity…of Jagger’s double self…his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke.”* Yet these insights were as much Donald’s as the Maysles’. They are simply reading in Gimme Shelter what already had been revealed in Performance, which had preceded Gimme Shelter in the movie theaters by four months (and was in the can over a year before Altamont). Donald had long recognized the ambiguous allure of Mick Jagger, believing Mick Jagger to be infinitely more interesting—and more dangerous—as a rock icon than, say, Elvis Presley, who dared to do nothing provocative with his masculinity. Indeed, Donald thought Jagger was much more daring in the deliberately ambiguous display of his sexuality. Of course, Donald had great respect for Brian Jones also, and most certainly Mick had taken a few lessons from Brian Jones about the self as art. “[Mick’s] dilemma is that he knows what he’s into.” Donald said. “He knows about the violence. This movie [Performance] was finished before Altamont, and Altamont actualized it.”

*The Maysles’ letter was eventually published in Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, Eds., Imagining Reality, p. 394.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Mono Box

Although I wouldn’t consider myself a “hard core” fan (the designation suggests a degree of irrational obsession), out of curiosity I nonetheless was compelled to purchase the recently issued, and unfortunately rather expensive, Beatles box set, The Beatles in Mono. The box contains the first 10 albums in remastered (as opposed to remixed) mono—Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let It Be were recorded in stereo—as well as a double album of singles and EPs collectively referred to as “Mono Masters.” I happen to agree with those reviewers—meaning the reviewers I’ve happened to have read—that these remastered albums sound fresher and cleaner than any previous issues of the Beatles on CD, and exhibit a heretofore unrealized dynamic range (on CD). Most of these same reviewers agree that the mono versions of the albums collected here are the best the Beatles have sounded on CD, and I have no reason to dispute that assertion—or any interest to dispute it, for that matter. As is quite well known, the stereo mixes were often done days, sometimes weeks after the initial mono mix, and could include different takes by the engineers doing the overdubs. It is also well known that the Beatles’ U.S. recordings evolved from the British releases, revealing the rather banal insight that the two countries, at least for the greater part of the decade of the 1960s, approached rock ‘n’ roll recording quite differently. As Dave Marsh observes in his excellent 2007 book, The Beatles’ Second Album, “In almost all cases, the process by which the 14 songs that were standard on the UK albums were whittled down to the US standard of 12 (or fewer) was haphazardly done by people with no ear whatsoever for what might have been a group’s musical breakthroughs or signature performances” (p. 6).

Yet the bowdlerizations of the Beatles’ albums for U.S. release isn’t what primarily interests me. Most reviewers have suggested, implicitly or explicitly, that the virtue of The Beatles in Mono is that it both recovers and restores the band’s musical breakthroughs and signature performances (to use Marsh's formulation) for the digital era. It also reveals something else about the Beatles, something that tends to be ignored in order to extol the range of their genius. The fact that the Beatles were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet Earth from 1964-69 hardly needs to be restated yet again; rather, what needs to be said is that the effect of so-called “show business” on the Beatles was entirely salubrious. My point is best expressed by analogy, and I’ll quote here jazz critic and historian James Lincoln Collier writing on Duke Ellington:

Ellington thus was deeply enmeshed in the entertainment industry, and the symbiosis had a direct and dramatic effect on his career as a composer. Ellington admitted that he was more prone to look for good times than sit at the piano and write. “Without a deadline, baby, I can’t finish nothing,” he once said. . . . [W]ithout [song publisher Irving] Mills, Ellington would have recorded a lot less than he did. Mills needed tunes to publish and he needed to get the tunes he published recorded. Ellington was . . . eager to establish himself as a songwriter, because there was far more money in writing hit tunes than there was in leading a dance orchestra. The system was circular: it was not economical to go into the studio to cut one tune. You needed at least two to make up a recording, and in fact it was the usual practice to record four or even more at a session.

The consequence was that Ellington was forced to produce a steady freshet of new works. In 1926 and 1927, Ellington had only a hazy grasp of music theory. But, with his great, if untrained, musical intelligence, he began to work out his own methods of composition, in which he would enter the studio with scraps and pieces of music in hand, and develop something on the spot. . . . In sum, a great deal of Ellington’s music, including many of the treasures we revere today, was produced solely to meet the demands of the entertainment industry the Ellington orchestra was part of. . . . Ellington learned by doing; by 1940, when he was turning out some of the greatest works in jazz history . . . he was the undisputed master of the short jazz composition. And he had learned his craft because show business had forced him to do it. (Jazz: The American Theme Song, pp. 107-09)

Mutatis mutandis, what Collier observes about Duke Ellington is true of the Beatles and especially of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team. Albums they made, but the Beatles métier was the single: the bulk of their best music, especially the early breakthrough singles, was made under the duress of what Collier above refers to as “show business” pressures. After 1966’s Revolver, when they turned their energies to more ambitious, album-oriented “conceptual” works such as Sgt. Pepper’s (and therefore freed of the pressures that drove their early career), despite the time and money they lavished upon them, they became musically less compelling and innovative. It is true that Sgt. Pepper’s, along with albums such as Magical Mystery Tour, have their defenders, but few rock critics would trade these records’ experimentalism and grandiosity for the musical breakthroughs found on Rubber Soul and Revolver, to name a couple of examples. Make no mistake: I love the sheer musical diversity of The Beatles (aka “The White Album”) and still cherish the copy of Abbey Road I purchased with a pocketful of quarters and a couple of half-dollars (my allowance) forty years ago last month. I'm not trying to diminish the artistry of these records (and even if I wanted to, I couldn't), but make the point that the musical achievement these albums represent did not simply emerge out of the Beatles' musical imagination, but were, as James Lincoln Collier observes of Duke Ellington, forced out of them by the entertainment industry of which they were a part. The Beatles in Mono allows us to map that development in their first sonic realizations.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

That Ol’ Professor of Swing

I’m extremely happy to report the publication of Steven Beasley’s biography of Big Band leader Kay Kyser, titled Kay Kyser: The Ol’ Professor of Swing! America’s Forgotten Superstar (Richland Creek Publishing, 2009), which I finished reading this morning. Steve Beasley, who owns one of the largest collections of Kyser memorabilia in the world, has worked on this project for twenty years, and the result is clearly evident. The book—remarkably, the first published full-length biography written on the once immensely popular band leader—in addition to its many fascinating biographical details, is loaded with rare and unpublished photographs and interviews, sheet music and magazine covers, and the definitive Kyser discography. I congratulate Steve for his achievement and thank him for his important contribution to our understanding of America’s Swing Era of the 1930s and 40s. The biography was long overdue, but thanks to Steve’s efforts, that problem has now been redressed.

During the course of his career, from the late 1920s until his retirement in 1950, Kay Kyser and His Orchestra had 11 “Number 1” records and 35 “Top 10” hits. In addition, Kyser had a top-rated radio show for eleven years on NBC, featuring the Ol’ Professor of Swing along with his show, “Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge.” No band leader of the Swing Era has a more extensive filmography than Kay Kyser, who starred in seven feature films and had appearances in several others. He frequently outdrew the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman orchestras in live appearances; ballroom attendance records set by the Kyser orchestra during the Swing Era have never been toppled. In short, Kay Kyser was one of the most and popular and beloved entertainers in America from the late 1930s to the late 1940s.

Wearing wire-rim glasses, a mortarboard and an academic gown, the Ol’ Professor of Swing (a stage persona probably inspired by the 1937 comedy Swing It, Professor, starring the obscure comedian Pinky Tomlin) had surrounded himself with equally eccentric personalities, such as “Ish Kabibble,” who sported bangs to his mid-forehead and had a dead-pan demeanor modeled on Buster Keaton, and great talent, including the top-notch arranger and composer George Duning (during the years 1927-1944). In the late 1930s RKO invited Kay Kyser to Hollywood, where it produced his and the band’s first film, That’s Right—You’re Wrong (1939), featuring Lucille Ball in an early, major supporting role. The success of that film lead to Kyser’s second film, the haunted house mystery You’ll Find Out (released Thanksgiving weekend 1940), starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre, in their only film together. He would make three more films for RKO: Playmates (1941), My Favorite Spy (1942), produced by comedy legend Harold Lloyd, and Around the World (1943). Kyser also made features for Columbia and MGM. The viewing pleasure of these films now largely resides in their nostalgic value, as the films’ topical references and allusions, and the presence of a once hugely popular entertainer forgotten by all but a few today, makes them seem now to be woefully antiquated and déclassé. Although Kay Kyser died over twenty years ago, in 1985 at the age of 80, Kyser orchestra hits such as “Three Little Fishes,” “Who Wouldn’t Love You,” “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” have remained durable in the decades since they were first recorded. Serendipitously, just last weekend, my wife Becky and I were doing some Christmas shopping at a local department store when we happened to hear over the store’s stereo system the Kyser orchestra’s fine recording, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Happily, I can report that Kay Kyser's widow, Georgia Carroll, who appeared in several of the aforementioned feature films, celebrated a birthday recently; she has lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina since she and Kay retired there in 1950.

The book’s back cover asks the question, “How could one who accomplished so much be forgotten today?” The answer, to which Beasley dedicates several chapters, is that in 1950 Kyser disappeared from show business “without so much as a word.” Recognizing that the Swing Era had ended after the end of World War II, and tired of show business, Kyser returned home to his beloved state of North Carolina and became a very active statesman, helping bring Public TV to the state and raising millions of dollars for medical services for returning war veterans. He also became a religious leader later in life. A very private man with many contradictions, Beasley explores Kyser’s post-celebrity life in fascinating detail. Because Kyser retired from public life permanently in 1950, his career and accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed by the so-called “Baby Boom Generation,” by far the vast majority of which were born after Kyser had quietly retired, explaining why he is so rarely heard of today.

Almost twenty years ago, Image Entertainment issued on laser disc the films Kay Kyser made for RKO; these titles were also issued on VHS at the same time, and are now long OOP, although they occasionally show up for sale on eBay. These films, as well as the other films starring Kyser made in the 40s, also screen on Turner Classic Movies now and then. Recently, Warner Home Video issued on DVD You’ll Find Out as part of its Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics set, which also included The Walking Dead, Frankenstein 1970, and Zombies on Broadway (You’ll Find Out, tellingly, has no audio commentary, as do two of the three other films).

Again, I must congratulate Steven for his outstanding accomplishment, and commend his tenacity. I should mention that he has, for years, also been working on a documentary film on Kyser, and hopefully the publication of this biography will help him realize that project as well. I spent a few pleasant and enjoyable hours with Steven a few years ago while in Los Angeles, when he shared with me some rare footage from the documentary, and I wish him the best of luck with that important project. Additional information on the book can be found at, and I’ll also direct readers to the Kyser website Steven maintains, He can also be found at

The Wikipedia page for Kay Kyser can be found here, which contains several links to additional sources. C'mon chillen, yess'dance!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Going For Baroque

“Baroque pop,” commonly understood to refer to any ornate, or heavily arranged, pop song, seems to me to be a subgenre of what is sometimes referred to as “Art Songs,” meaning highly ambitious pop songs. Note that I say pop songs, not folk songs or rock songs. In contrast to folk music, the primary mode of which is ritualistic and participatory, that is, for singing and dancing, Art Songs are non-participatory, that is, they are primarily designed for consumption, as commodities to be purchased within the marketplace, not for singing and dancing (see Chris Cutler, “What Is Popular Music?,” in File Under Popular, Autonomedia, 1993, pp. 12-13). It is therefore unlikely, although not impossible, for a folk singer/songwriter (or a rock singer/songwriter for that matter) to find his or her songs referred to as “Art Songs,” a designation generally reserved for pop-based ones. Cutler explains the reason for this by claiming that the Art Song is always “wholly conscious of itself as an aesthetic exchange” (p. 12). The intrinsic aesthetic interest in the art song is the pop song form itself. Baroque pop emerged during the 1966-67 period, and its commercial zenith was probably most fully realized in albums such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967), and in Love’s Forever Changes (1967).

Ten Baroque Pop Classics, 1966 – 67
The Association – Requiem For The Masses
The Beach Boys (with Van Dyke Parks) – Heroes and Villains
The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby
The Electric Prunes (with David Axelrod) – Kyrie Eleison
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
The Merry-Go-Round – You’re A Very Lovely Woman
The Moody Blues – Nights in White Satin
Procol Harum – A Whiter Shader of Pale
Love - Old Man
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – Some Velvet Morning

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Beginning To The Week

According to James R. Kincaid, when discussing the issue of laughter, “some degree of oversimplification is inevitable.” At the core of the debate about laughter is whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy or geniality, that is, with empathy. Kincaid identifies two camps, the “dark-laughter” theorists, deriving from Thomas Hobbes, and the “genial-laughter” theorists, deriving from Jean Paul Richter. As I understand it, at the heart of the debate is whether laughter is ever anything but disguised hostility and aggression. Laughter may be a consequence of so-called “civilized” behavior, in which one’s real attitudes and beliefs must constantly be disguised and hidden.

In one of the world’s great books, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud argues that the technique of the joke is similar to that of the “dream-work”: the latent content of the joke, like the latent content of the dream, is disguised through the operations of condensation, displacement, and so on. “Wit,” a means of producing laughter, originates in aggressive or “obscene” tendencies, but the aggressive (or obscene) content is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the joke-work so that the psychic energy aroused can be safely relieved. A successful joke results in what Freud describes as “the economy of psychic expenditure” - the psychic energy required to repress the dangerous or obscene content is released as laughter, which (presumably) nullifies the actual threat posed by the obscene material (e.g., the humor of scatological jokes). The so-called “pleasure” of a joke lies in the psychic release called laughter.

But in his essay “Humour” (1928), Freud says humor is also a way of dealing with pain. As an example, he uses a prisoner on the way to the gallows, who remarks, “Well, this is a good beginning to the week.” The prisoner’s humorous comment is a way of denying his existential pain, the ego declaring that it is invulnerable and indomitable. However, and more importantly, for the listener the humor in the condemned prisoner’s remark is derived from what Freud calls the “economized expenditure of affect,” by which he means that the energies associated with any strong emotion such as pity are aroused but then shown to be unnecessary. As a consequence, they are, happily, available for laughter instead.

Perhaps Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” is good example of the “economized expenditure of affect”:

People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

By saying that his inner heartbreak is disguised by laughter, as listeners our empathy is aroused but shown to be unnecessary. That is, despite his situation, if the singer is able to muster a laugh, then our pity is not required. In the face of his self-described clownish behavior, we can repress the need for empathy. The song does not arouse laughter as such, but reveals the operation of the joke-work nonetheless.

Required Listening:
The Beau Brummels - Laugh, Laugh
Bob Dylan - It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
The Guess Who - Laughing
Charles Jolly - The Laughing Policeman
Napoleon XIV - They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!
Randy Newman - Laughing Boy
The Residents - Laughing Song
Neil Sedaka - Laughter in the Rain
The Teardrop Explodes - Ha-ha I’m Drowning
Mary Wells - Laughing Boy

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Free Range

Legend has it that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims and took place at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. Americans memorialize the Pilgrims’ deaths as sacrifices made on behalf of the nation, but they, the Pilgrims, could not have understood their deaths as such--the nation didn’t exist for another hundred-and-fifty years. Thus the values honored during Thanksgiving need not have been fully understood by the Pilgrims, those who sacrificed for the American nation. The living can, and do, speak for the dead, expressing for them their aspirations and desires.

Perhaps because the wild turkey is native to North America, roast turkey has graced the American table most commonly for Thanksgiving dinner, and has done so since before Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863. According to a recent statistic, 270 million turkeys were raised in the United States in 2006, representing roughly five billion pounds of turkey meat valued at around $8 billion. A ridiculous-looking creature, here where I live in Kearney, a polygamous male with four or five hens has spent the past few winters, beginning in early November, within the city limits, roaming through people’s yards, holding up in a wooded area near the baseball park. Because they are dwelling within the city limits, they cannot be hunted--pretty smart on their part. Becky and I have had them in our back yard on several occasions, scaring the daylights out of our outdoor-dwelling cats. We therefore consider those turkeys part of our neighbor family, but feel no guilt that one of their species will grace our table tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner, to be celebrated with family and good friends.

Because it is the most common main dish, Thanksgiving is often colloquially called “turkey day.” In celebration of the turkey, and the bird in general (often seen as a figure of transcendence, and of resilience), I’ve compiled the following list of bird songs in honor of the North American turkey, so much a part of American identity.

Bird Songs (Bird Is The Word):
The Beatles - Blackbird
Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan - Tennessee Bird Walk
Pat Boone - When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano
Jimmy Buffett - Strange Bird
Bobby Day - Rockin’ Robin
“Little” Jimmy Dickens - May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose
The Grateful Dead - Bird Song
The Holy Modal Rounders - If You Want To Be A Bird
It’s A Beautiful Day - White Bird
B. B. King - Hummingbird
Lynyrd Skynyrd - Free Bird
Bob Marley - Three Little Birds
Anne Murray - Snowbird
Patti Page - Mockin’ Bird Hill
Carly Simon and James Taylor - Mockingbird
The Trashmen - Surfin’ Bird (Bird is the Word)
XTC - My Bird Performs