Tuesday, April 28, 2009

White Black Singers, Part II

Yesterday I discussed the way white male rockers have appropriated codes of black masculinity to define their identities. In the study I mentioned, Krin Gabbard’s Black Magic, Gabbard has relied in part on the work of Eric Lott, particularly an essay titled “Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness,” that can be found in Simon During, Ed., The Cultural Studies Reader, Second Edition. Lott argues that whites perform “whiteness” in many ways, and that these performances are addressed, not necessarily explicitly, to blacks. As part of his analysis, Lott explores one form of white impersonation of blackness, what is known historically as “blackface,” which Lott interprets as perhaps more significant than whites merely “pretending” to be black, but in fact an illustration of a deep desire in white performers to be black. My point yesterday simply was to observe that the most obvious cultural activity in which whites have expressed their fascination with black culture (at least since the rise of Elvis Presley) is rock ‘n’ roll.

I assume it is widely known, though perhaps the point needs to be reiterated, that Elvis was so “controversial” at the time he burst on the scene in the 1950s was because his stage persona was so obviously modeled on black codes of masculinity: his greased and oiled hair, for instance, and his vocal style, borrowed from Otis Blackwell and other rhythm and blues singers of the 1940s and 50s. Consider this information, taken from Greil Marcus’s book Dead Elvis, quoting Robert Henry, a Beale Street promoter: “…he [Elvis] would watch the colored singers, understand me, and then he got to doing it the same way as them. He got that shaking, that wiggle, from Charlie Burse, Ukelele Ike we called him, right there at the Gray Mule on Beale. Elvis, he wasn’t doing nothing but what the colored people had been doing for the last hundred years. But people . . . people went wild over him” (p. 57). Marcus also quotes Nat D. Williams, “the unofficial mayor of Beale Street”: “We had a lot of fun with him [Elvis]. Elvis Presley on Beale Street when he first started out was a favorite man. When they saw him coming out, the audience always gave him as much recognition as they gave any musician—black. He had a way of singing the blues that was distinctive. He could sing ‘em not necessarily like a Negro, but he didn’t sing ‘em altogether like a typical white musician. He had something in between that made the blues sort of different . . . . Always he had that certain humanness about him that Negroes like to put in their songs. So when he had a show down there at the Palace, everybody got ready for something good. Yeah. They were crazy about Presley” (p. 57). I should add that Henry and Williams are talking about events before Elvis ever showed up at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records, when Elvis, then a teenager, was also spending time in Memphis’s black neighborhoods having sex with young black girls. (See McKee and Chisenhall’s Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s Main Street (1981).

What I failed to mention in yesterday’s post, however, is that white rock ‘n’ roll performers may reflect the “withering-away” of blackface. As John Szwed has observed, “The fact that, say, a Mick Jagger can today perform in the [blackface] tradition without blackface simply marks the detachment of culture from race and the almost full absorption of a black tradition into white culture” (qtd. in Lott, “Racial Cross-Dressing,” p. 243). Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate the sort of performance of “whiteness” that is derived from black masculine codes than to see it. I’ve provided a link here to a performance of “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon and War, an interracial group that made some fine music integrating Latin rhythms, rhythm and blues, rock, and funk into a highly distinctive mixture. Eric Burdon is to be included among those white rockers (many of them from a working class background, as he is) that I mentioned yesterday, who always expressed great love of the blues; he also happened to be a good friend of the late blues great John Lee Hooker. I see a bit of Mick Jagger in Burdon’s performance as captured in this video, but then, as I mentioned above, Jagger himself has so thoroughly internalized blackface style that he is no longer even aware of it. I should also add that when I die and am reincarnated, I want to come back able to sing like Eric Burdon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

White Black Singers

Although the subject of his book, Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture, is the racial appropriation of black culture in white American film, Krin Gabbard discusses the way white male performers of Rhythm & Blues (and the music derived from it, Rock ‘n’ Roll) have appropriated black masculinity to define their identities. Quoting John Gennari, Gabbard observes that white male appropriation of black masculinity

operates through gender displacement, i.e., sexual freedom and carefree abandon were expressed through feminized gestures (emotion, flamboyance, etc.) that, paradoxically, end up coded as masculine. I think here of Elvis’s hair styling, his obsession with pink, etc.; of Mick Jagger’s striptease; the spandex, long-hair, girlish torsos of the cock rockers. To try to get this point across to my students, I show footage of . . . Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talking about how everything they did came out of Willie Dixon and other macho black bluesmen. Then you see them aggressively pelvic thrusting through “Whole Lotta Love,” looking like Cher and Twiggy on speed. (Gabbard, p. 33)

Eric Lott has argued that Elvis imitators play out their fascination with black male sexuality (safely) by becoming a simulacrum of Elvis as he appeared in the 1950s, “as though such performance were a sort of second-order blackface, in which, blackface having for the most part disappeared, the figure of Elvis himself is now the apparently still necessary signifier of white ventures into black culture . . .” (p. 36). The appropriation of black masculinity by white performers, in which black masculinity is (paradoxically) displayed by androgynous display, in the form of sexual freedom and abandon, flamboyant dress (including the wearing of ornate jewelry), and also by feminine coding (long hair, make-up, etc.) can be seen in, for instance, Transformer-era Lou Reed; Alice Cooper; Tommy Bolin; the New York Dolls; Kiss; and figures such as the Cramps’ Lux Interior. Gennari’s insight, quoted above, also explains the seeming paradox of why so many cock rockers, all of whom had an expressed love of black blues records, have always had such girlish figures and feminized mannerisms: Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, T. Rex, Allen Collins (of Lynyrd Skynyrd), and those “second generation” rockers who consciously inherited these mannerisms, such as Mötley Crüe (former band member Tommy Lee is pictured), Ratt, and Poison.

In Vino Veritas

There is a long tradition in the Western world of likening the effects of alcohol to the ecstatic frenzy of divine possession. Socrates likened poets to bacchants, the followers of Bacchus or Dionysus, god of wine and inspired madness, that is, giddy intoxication and frenzied hysteria. Country music came to employ the pedal steel guitar as the musical equivalent of drunken self-pity and indulgence, and many a country song has been written on the self-pitying drunk’s best friend, Jack Daniels. By getting drunk, one seeks the pleasure principle. But when booze doesn’t work, as in Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” it forces the singer to confront the harsh reality principle, allowing old memories (of love) to “come around.” Hence drunkenness in popular music is frequently sought as a way to achieve drug-induced amnesia, a way to escape the terrible realities of existence, most often heartbreak. As Samuel Johnson observed, “He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Hard whiskey, however, is a double-edged sword, because its effects are unpredictable: it may allow the drinker to escape acute self-consciousness, or do just the opposite, bring about a state of hyper self-awareness, and only exacerbate one’s crippling misery. Wine is often perceived to be a safer path to drunken self-indulgence than hard whiskey: wine is perceived to be a more benign, slower, and pleasurable--mellower--path to inebriation than the drastic measure of being knocked to your knees with just a few shots.

Here Are A Few Instances Of The Veritas In Vino:
Eric Clapton – Bottle of Red Wine
Cream – Sweet Wine
The Electric Flag – Wine
David Frizzell – I’m Going To Hire a Wino (To Decorate Our Home)
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band – Midnight Choir (Mogen David)
George Jones – Wine Colored Roses
Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs – Bottle of Wine
Tommy James & the Shondells – Sweet Cherry Wine
Jerry Lee Lewis – Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
Henry Mancini – Days of Wine and Roses
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – Summer Wine
Eric Burdon & War – Spill the Wine
J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – Wine, Wine, Wine
Faron Young – Wine Me Up

Here are three versions of “Red Red Wine” I have. Take your pick, as all of them are good:
Neil Diamond – Red Red Wine
Tee-Set (“Ma Belle Amie” ) – Red Red Wine
UB40 – Red Red Wine

Originally written and recorded by Neil Diamond in 1968, “Red Red Wine” was soon covered by Tony Tribe, a Jamaican rocksteady singer, who recorded a reggae-influenced version. Tony Tribe’s version in turn influenced UB40’s later, 1983 cover of the song—I suspect UB40 band members may never even have heard Neil Diamond’s version when they recorded their hit version.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Return Of The Record

According to this article from today’s L. A. Times, there’s been a “mini-boom” of neighborhood record stores in the Los Angeles area. Sales figures indicate that sales of vinyl LPs were up 89% in 2008, signaling a renewed interest in the venerable musical storage medium. According to the article,

Between 2003 and last year, more than 3,000 record stores closed in the U.S., including such Los Angeles landmarks as Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. Independent shops such as Rhino Westwood and Aron’s Records in Hollywood accounted for nearly half the losses, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a database and marketing firm. Today, there are 185 record stores in the L.A. area, down from 259 at the beginning of 2007.

Several factors are cited for the resurgence of interest in the decades-old format, among them the assertion by audiophiles that a vinyl record sounds better than a compact disc. Even if that were indisputably true (and it may be), I would argue that a major factor accounting for interest in the format is the appeal of an album’s artwork over that of a CD—a CD booklet simply can’t compete with the visual and tactile appeal of a vinyl LP cover. Additionally, the vinyl LP has an aura of historicity about it that a CD doesn’t. The L. A. Times article cites Marc Weinstein, founder of Amoeba Music, the chain whose Hollywood venue is among the largest independent retail record stores in the country. He is quoted as saying, “I’ve always marveled at every new generation of 15-year-old boys who go to the Doors vinyl section and say, ‘Wow, an original Doors LP!’” I would argue that their fascination lies in the fact that the record was issued when the Doors were still actually recording and performing, a tangible connection to that era, unlike a later CD reissue.

Whether the vinyl LP “mini-boom” will continue in its present robust fashion is hard to say, although it’s worth pointing out that the introduction of television didn’t render the radio obsolete, no more than the Internet has displaced television. As Marshall McLuhan observed, the content of the new media is the old media: digital downloading of classic movies and television shows is an illustration of McLuhan’s point. Digital downloading of music is yet another illustration of his point. But since the record is the basic material artifact of rock culture, integral to its initial manner of distribution and consumption, it is no wonder that the vinyl record’s appeal has not entirely disappeared.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Hunger Artists

Etymologically, the word hunger derives from the Old English hungor, akin to the Old High German hungar, and is related to the Lithuanian word kanka, “torture.” To be hungry means to have an urgent need for food or some other special form of nutrition, but by metaphorical elaboration, hunger has come to refer to any strong desire—“a hunger for success,” for instance, or, as is quite common, hunger for another, an expression of strong sexual desire. “For always roaming with a hungry heart/Much have I seen and known,” wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem about the mythic hero Ulysses, although in his poem about the heroic figure, Tennyson invented survivors in addition to Ulysses after the end of the Odyssey as recorded by Homer. Hence hunger refers not only to an urgent need for “food,” as in nourishment, but also to appetite, an appetite that can never be satisfied or satiated. What Tennyson’s Ulysses craves is experience itself, and since experience is boundless, what Ulysses wants is the impossible—that which can never be satisfied. His desire to know is apparently boundless, without limits.

In the same way, sexual desire can never be sated; it is a thirst that can never be quenched. Desire can be understood as a quest, a search or hunt that never ends: “Mouth is alive with juices like wine/And I’m hungry like the wolf,” sings Duran Duran in “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Since hunger is recurring, insistent, and never-ending, the singer speaks of a desire that is “hungry like the wolf”—always and forever seeking more and more, insatiable—no wonder that the word hunger is related to the word torture.

Various Hors d’oeuvres:
Eric Clapton – “Hungry,” No Reason to Cry
Deep Purple – “Hungry Daze,” Perfect Strangers
Duran Duran – “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Rio
Merle Haggard – “Hungry Eyes,” Untamed Hawk: The Early Recordings of Merle Haggard
INXS – “Hungry,” Switch
Van Morrison – “Hungry For Your Love,” An Officer and a Gentleman (OST)
Paul Revere & The Raiders – “Hungry,” Greatest Hits
Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart,” The River
Twisted Sister, “Stay Hungry,” Stay Hungry
White Lion – “Hungry,” Pride

Pillow Talk

“Come on baby, I’m tired of talking,” Elvis sings in “A Little Less Conversation” (in Live A Little, Love A Little), telling his baby he wants “A little less conversation/A little more action please/A little more bite and a little less bark/A little less fight and a little more spark/Close your mouth and open up your heart/And baby satisfy me.” We all know what he means by “satisfy me,” in the same way we know what Mick Jagger means when he complains he “can’t get no satisfaction.” Since the articulation of sexual desire was proscribed by the apparatus of censorship when Elvis and Mick sang about wanting to have sex, it seems appropriate that what can be said, and what can’t, is what songs about conversations are all about. That is, conversation songs are not about having a conversation at all: they are about not having a conversation, being forced to converse about things one doesn’t want to converse about, talking “around” an issue. Elvis wants “a little less conversation,” meaning none, and “a little more spark,” meaning he wants her to use her mouth for something other than conversing. “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for,” Chrissie Hynde sings in “Tattooed Love Boys,” and we all know what she means: she wasn’t having a conversation. There’s talk and there’s conversation—talk is reserved for the pillow, and conservation fills up the time before pillow talk. Hence talk is to fulfillment what conversation is to delay. “Let’s talk about love”—yes, but no one ever wants to have “a conversation” about love—as Elvis so astutely observed.

A Few Songs About (Not Having) A Conversation:
Alesana – This Conversation Is Over (On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax)
Atlanta Rhythm Section – Conversation (Champagne Jam)
Colin Hay – Conversation (Peaks & Valleys)
Simon and Garfunkel – The Dangling Conversation (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme)
Elvis – A Little Less Conversation (Live A Little, Love A Little)
Lyle Lovett – Private Conversation (The Road to Ensenada)
Joni Mitchell – Conversation (Ladies of the Canyon)
Jason Mraz – Conversation With Myself (Live & Acoustic)
Gary Numan – Conversation (The Pleasure Principle)
Lou Reed – New York Telephone Conversation (Transformer)
Hank Williams, Jr. with Waylon Jennings – The Conversation (Whiskey Bent And Hell Bound)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April In Paris

Since April is National Poetry Month, why not talk about music and poetry? After all, the month of April figures rather significantly in a famous Modernist poem from the early 20th century, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot’s poem begins with a famous sentence, composed of four lines: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” Most scholars agree that these lines from Eliot are intertextually linked to the first lines of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . .

(When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower . . .)

According to Answers.com, the derivation of the name (Latin Aprilis) is uncertain. The traditional etymology from the Latin aperire, “to open,” in allusion to its being the season when trees and flowers begin to “open,” is supported by comparison with the modern Greek use of ἁνοιξις (opening) for spring. Since most of the Roman months were named in honor of divinities, and as April was sacred to Venus, the Festum Veneris et Fortunae Virilis being held on the first day, it has been suggested that Aprilis was originally her month Aphrilis, from her Greek name Aphrodite (Aphros), or from the Etruscan name Apru.

Thus, while for Eliot (who apparently would prefer the oblivion of winter) April is the cruelest month, for the vast majority of poets April is a month to celebrate. If indeed it is the month honoring Venus, the goddess of Love, then it is also the month of rebirth, renewal and discovery, the month celebrating love and lovers. I know of two bands named after the month of April, April Wine (“Say Hello”) and Making April, but there have been many songs written in homage to April as well.

A Playlist Of Songs Featuring April:
Pat Boone – April Love
Deep Purple – April
Ella Fitzgerald – April in Paris
Ian Moore – April
The Jesus and Mary Chain – April Skies
John Phillips – April Anne
Prince – Sometimes It Snows In April
Ron Sexsmith – April After All
Simon and Garfunkel – April Come She Will
Three Dog Night – Pieces of April

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bristlecone Pine

I feel a slight bit of guilt in recycling a blog entry from last year, but then again, since today is Earth Day 2009, I think recycling is entirely appropriate. Last year, I wrote in honor of North America's oldest known living tree, the Methuselah Tree, a bristlecone pine estimated to be near 5,000 years old (not the one pictured, although the picture is of a bristlecone pine). I first heard of the bristlecone pine through a song I heard performed by Jim Salestrom about a decade or so ago. In case you didn't know, Jim--originally from Kearney, Nebraska--formed in the mid-1970s a band called Timberline which had a Top 10 chart hit in 1976 entitled "Timberline," a John Denverish-sounding tune about the beauty of the mountains. After Timberline broke up a few years later--I actually had a former member of the band in an English class of mine in the fall of 1982--Jim became a solo artist. Among his many fine albums is The Messenger, which contains "Bristlecone Pine," which I must say is one of the most sublimely beautiful, which is to say, haunting, songs I've ever heard. The song is available on iTunes, with versions by Michael Johnson, Pat Surface, and Nancy Cook, but I guess I prefer Jim's rendition to theirs.

Way up in the mountains on a high timberline
There's a twisted old tree called the bristlecone pine

The wind there is bitter; it cuts like a knife

It keeps that tree holding on for dear life

But hold on it does, standing its ground
Standing as empires rise and fall down
When Jesus was gathering lambs to his fold
The tree was already a thousand years old

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell
So when I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine
To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

And as I would slowly return to this earth
What little this body of mine might be worth
Would soon start to nourish the roots of that tree
And it would partake of the essence of me

And who knows what's found as the centuries turn
A small spark of me might continue to burn
As long as the sun does continue to shine
Down on the limbs of the bristlecone pine

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell

When I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

Music and Lyrics by Hugh Prestwood
© Hugh Prestwood Music

I love the image of the bristlecone pine, an utterly pagan conception of eternity, and the way the singer imagines himself achieving eternal life through his body's nourishing of that astonishingly old, gnarled tree. What I also like about the song is the way it enacts a sort of Nietzschean, pre-Christian, concept of religious thought, of a religion that imagines both the soul and eternity, or eternal life, as a part of a natural process, with the images of eternity found in nature itself.

Scientists have refused to disclose the precise location of California's Methuselah Tree, fearing acts of vandalism. I have no trouble with this policy, primarily because the potential vandals are surely misguided, and not for the obvious reasons: they have imagined their relationship with the tree totally backwards. The point is not to take apart the tree, and hence have a sterile piece of eternity; the point is to partake of the tree's existence, to nourish the tree with one's own body, and achieve eternity thereby.

Today marks the third day this week my wife Becky and I have conducted all of our errands by walking; I intend to walk with her when leaves to teach her class in about an hour. I know our acts don't in themselves amount to much, but it's a litte something to do in honor of Earth Day. That, and acknowledge the world's oldest known living organism.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Scene Of The Accident

The recent (April 15) ninety-seventh anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic reminded me of the many popular songs written about disasters. There’s a long tradition in popular music of disaster songs, in which the terrible event serves as a sort of cautionary fable, having a homiletic value (“the story teaches us that…”). I can’t say definitively how many songs have been written over the years about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, probably over two dozen, but the Titanic event became indelibly associated in the popular imagination with industrial or “man-made” disasters of all kinds—songs about shipwrecks, plane crashes, automobile accidents, and derailed trains, all of which comprise a long precession of misfortune and disaster. And, of course, there are songs about so-called “natural” disasters, such as floods, droughts (Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads), hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Probably one ought to include as well the many murder ballads (“Tom Dooley” being a famous example) among disaster songs.

Thus disaster songs form a rather heterogeneous genre, largely about Fate, and hence really about the human response to adversity: courage and cowardice, the instinct for survival and heroic sacrifice. I’ve listed below a few representative songs, and also the amazing soundtrack to the must-see film ATOMIC CAFÉ (1982), which includes songs such as the Golden Gate Quartet’s “Atom and Evil” and the Slim Gaillard Quartette’s “Atomic Cocktail.” According to information at Conelrad.com on ATOMIC CAFÉ, some songs the producers wanted to include on the soundtrack, but couldn’t find, included “Atomic Polka” and “Atomic Boogie,” and a song titled “Fallout Shelter” in the “Tell Laura I Love Her” vein, a song about a father telling his son that he can’t bring his girlfriend into the family fallout shelter, so the boy and girl abandon the shelter only to die in the streets.

A Lethal Mix Of Disaster Songs:
Atomic Café (Soundtrack)
The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Bee Gees – New York Mining Disaster 1941
Bloodrock – D.O.A.
The Buoys – Timothy
Johnny Cash – The Wreck of Old ‘97
David Allan Coe – Widow Maker
Jimmy Dean – Big Bad John
Elvis – In the Ghetto
The Everly Brothers – Ebony Eyes
Lefty Frizzell – Long Black Veil
Jan and Dean – Dead Man’s Curve
The Kinks – Life Goes On
Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks
Gordon Lightfoot – The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Don McLean – American Pie
Randy Newman – Louisiana 1927
Procol Harum – Wreck of the Hesperus
R.E.M. – It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Porter Wagoner – The Carroll County Accident
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss

Thursday, April 16, 2009

To Those Who Live and Die For Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock music is, and shall always be, a hopelessly overcrowded field, analogous to the Darwinian state of nature, in which only the strongest survive. A recent documentary directed Sacha Gervasi, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008) – reviewed here by Los Angeles Times’ critic Kenneth Turan – reveals the harsh truth of this reality. Although I only vaguely remember hearing about them, once, apparently – about twenty-six years ago or so – Anvil was the hottest thing in heavy metal. The band never caught on, though, despite making a rather big splash early on in its career, with an album titled Metal on Metal (1982). Turan writes, “Once upon a time, interviews with superstars such as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Motorhead’s Lemmy and Guns n’ Roses’ Slash make clear, this Canadian band was the hottest thing in metal, touring with the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other groups that ended up selling millions of records.” Yet despite the high praise from peers, and despite the historical significance of Metal on Metal, fame proved elusive for the band. Nonetheless, the band has soldiered on for a quarter century. Kenneth Turan argues that ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL is not so much about the failed career of a metal band as about “eternally hopeful rockers who cling to optimism about a glorious future despite harsh reality’s repeated blows.”

There’s another way to think about the story of Anvil, though, one that seems to me to be about more than bad luck, poor sales, or poor management: it is about the sacrifice made to honor a set of cultural values, in this case, rock ‘n’ roll. Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison – they and many others have sacrificed for it. But what, precisely, does it mean to sacrifice for something? Georges Bataille would say sacrifice is the wasteful expenditure of something to honor a particular set of cultural values. In “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933), Bataille explores what he calls the principle of loss, that is, of extravagant wasteful expenditure. Examples of unproductive, wasteful expenditure include: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality) – all these represent activities which . . . have no end beyond themselves.” These activities constitute a group “characterized by the fact that in each case the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning,” that is, a loss that must be both considerable and extravagant. Stated another way: For any cultural activity to have real value, the loss must be maximized – excessive. For example, the value of diamonds to their owner is determined by how great is the loss in terms of financial expenditure: the more unreasonable and extravagant the expenditure, the greater the value of the diamond jewels. Bataille writes: “Jewels must not only be beautiful and dazzling (which would make the substitution of imitations possible): one sacrifices a fortune, preferring a diamond necklace; such a sacrifice is necessary for the constitution of this necklace’s fascinating character.” In other words, if you aren’t willing to sacrifice for something, it isn’t a value at all.

This principle justifies the inevitable continuation of warfare: as losses, i.e., deaths and maimings, increase, a nation’s stake in a war escalates. As the deaths remorselessly accumulate, the easier it becomes to justify the war’s continuation because the stakes have grown higher. By the continuation of the war, the nation consequently becomes increasingly indebted to those who have died and have been severely maimed in battle; the acknowledgment of this mounting debt ensures that the soldiers’ sacrifices are not in vain – that they will not become non-productive expenditure (that they “died for nothing”). The principle of mounting debt as a justification for continued sacrifice applies to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle all too well – rather like a gambler who cannot quit gambling because that would mean his tremendous financial sacrifice was all for nothing – just non-productive sacrifice (loss).

Comparisons to the mock documentary THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) are inevitable – in his review, Turan likens ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL to Rob Reiner’s popular pastiche of metal music and musicians – except that the story of Anvil is “real life.” Such a comparison is fine, as long as we recognize that THIS IS SPINAL TAP reveals the way certain cultural values, despite their centrality to the culture, are consistently denied or degraded. In contrast to Reiner’s film, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL doesn’t deny or degrade the impulse to sacrifice for rock ‘n’ roll, but rather celebrates it, attempting to transform non-productive expenditure into productive sacrifice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Down To The Last Man

Today’s paper carried the news (news to me) that Billy Bob Thornton’s band, the Boxmasters, canceled the remainder of its Canadian tour, no doubt the result of the damaged relations with audiences that occurred as a consequence of the actor saying during a contentious radio interview on CBC radio’s “Q” program that Canadian fans were “mashed potatoes but no gravy.” The movie star apparently didn’t like the fact that the “Q” program’s interlocutor, Jian Ghomeshi, began the interview with references to his film career, a subject the actor had proscribed as off limits. The actor also took strong offense to Ghomeshi’s question as to whether he was passionate about music, a question which the actor felt, so it would seem, was motivated by the underlying perception that he was nothing but a musical dilettante.

Despite his protestations, though, perhaps he is a dilettante. Movie stars wanting to be pop stars are nothing new, but Thornton’s situation reveals something else about life in Western societies today, true for many, many people as well as the actor, that it is difficult to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one can be deeply passionate. Apparently, in Thornton’s case, he is not deeply passionate about movie acting. Hence he faces a choice many confront today: the choice between leading a comfortable, satisfying life of material wealth and pleasure, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause – the choice, in other words, between what Friedrich Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism.

The modern malaise was diagnosed over a century ago by Nietzsche, who observed that Western civilization is moving in the direction of what he called, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the last man” – an effete, apathetic human being with no great passion or commitment to anything. Weak-willed, filled with ennui, unable to dream, the last man eschews risks and seeks only security and comfort: “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink” (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 130). The last men of today are those who reject all “higher” Causes and choose instead to dedicate their life to the pursuit of narrow, artificially aroused pleasures – like pursuing the life of a pop star, for instance.

As Thornton’s situation reveals – not at all that unusual – the last man does not wish his private fantasies to be disturbed, which is why during the interview he felt he was being “harassed.” His putative “difficulty” during the interview was merely a form of lashing out, a way of condemning the cloying proximity of another human being, with his own interests and desires, his own “agenda” as is sometimes, pejoratively, said. For two issues determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude toward others: an openness toward Otherness (as long as that presence is not intrusive), and an obsessive fear of harassment. In other words, one displays an openness to the Other as long as his or her presence does not spill over into “harassment,” which is not really tolerance of the Other at all: Do not harass others as you would have them not harass you. What his radio interview painfully reveals is that the central “human right” in our society these days is the fundamental right not to be harassed – to be allowed to have safe distance from all others. Today’s form of liberalism, therefore, maintains that the experience of the Other must be deprived of its Otherness. Hence Thornton’s “mashed potatoes” comment is, in fact, disingenuous. He said, “We tend to play places where people throw things at each other. Here [in Canada], they just sort of sit there. And it doesn’t matter what you say to ‘em . . . . It’s mashed potatoes but no gravy.” But the painful reality is, his metaphorical elaboration reveals the way he really wants things to be – for the Other to be devoid of the substance that actually defines it as distinctly Other.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I mentioned yesterday I awoke preoccupied with songs about animals (see W. J. T. Mitchell’s fine work of theory and criticism, Picture Theory, and the chapter titled “Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking”), and while I was compiling the song list yesterday, I paused when I remembered Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire,” which seems to have retained a remarkably persistent market presence in the thirty-four years since its release in 1975. An example of mid-70s “soft rock” (see my blog on the subject of soft rock here), it also is strongly influenced by both folk and cowboy music, but it is a folk song that also happens to have an appeal to children. While it is arguably part of the same tradition of fabled animals as Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” (1962) and “Stewball” (1963), as well as Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn” (1967), to my knowledge it is seldom grouped with these songs. It was probably largely inspired by Roger McGuinn’s “Chestnut Mare” (1970, inspired in turn by “The Strawberry Roan”), although I can prove this influence only indirectly, by the fact that when Michael Martin Murphey (as he is now called) recorded an entire album of songs about fabled horses, The Horse Legends (1997), he curiously failed to include McGuinn’s famous song—the tell-tale sign of an unconscious repression. Another musical influence is also, obviously, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” a so-called “cowboy legend” about a cowboy who has a sublime vision of a herd of demonic cattle stampeding across the sky pursued forever by the ghosts of damned cowboys.

There are other sources. My wife Rebecca and I watched just last week a film titled WILDFIRE: THE STORY OF A HORSE (1945), standard “B” western stuff starring Bob Steele and Sterling Holloway, included on the DVD collection, Darn Good Westerns Vol. 1 (VCI, 2009). In the 1945 film, the horse named (by Bob Steele) “Wildfire” has the same beauty and intelligence as other screen horses such as the Lone Ranger’s Silver, Fury, Flicka, Black Beauty, and perhaps most importantly, the horse in the Disney film, TONKA (1958), in which Sal Mineo, playing a young Sioux warrior growing to manhood in the 1870s, proves his courage by catching and training a wild pony he names Tonka—“tonka wakan,” “The Great One.” The Mineo character has a deep rapport with the horse, a horse that embodies for the young warrior the values of bravery, strength, grace—and a vast, untamed spirit. The song “Wildfire” also trades on certain occult fantasy elements that can be found, for instance, in the “Metzengerstein” segment of HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (1967), a film of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The “Metzengerstein” segment features the transmigration of a human soul into a horse. Hence the horse is an ideal object for the projection of human desire, a creature that is both “tamed” (civilized), but also wild—an emblem of Marvell’s oxymoronic “wild civility.”

The lyrics to “Wildfire” are as follows:

She comes down from Yellow MountainOn a dark flat land she ridesOn a pony she named WildfireWith a whirlwind by her sideOn a cold Nebraska night
They say she died one winterWhen there came a killin’ frostAnd the pony she name WildfireBusted down his stallIn a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling WildfireShe ran calling WildfireShe ran calling Wildfire
By the dark of the moon I plantedBut there came an early snowThere's been a hoot owl howlin’ by my window nowFor six nights in a rowShe’s coming for me I knowAnd on Wildfire we’re both gonna go
We’ll be riding WildfireWe’ll be riding Wildfire
On Wildfire we’re both going to rideWe’re going to leave sodbustin’ behindGet these hard times right on out of our mindsRiding Wildfire

“She” remains unnamed, but like many of the women portrayed in rock songs of the 60s and 70s, “she” is a benign female fantasy figure, a quasi-supernatural creature existing in a dreamlike and unreal world. Her intimidating supernaturalism is suggested by the “whirlwind by her side” (think of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”), and her dark feminine power is also suggested by her having tamed the potentially dangerous, impetuous, and unpredictable horse, Wildfire. That we’re in a fantasy world, or mythical realm, is suggested by the improbable existence of “Yellow Mountain” in Nebraska—there are no mountains in Nebraska. The singer also refers to leaving “sodbustin’ behind,” “sodbusting” a Western movie colloquialism for farming, which also makes the setting in time of the song ambiguous, that is, mythic. The lyrics invoke certain venerable superstitions about the time of year and human calamity (think of the warning given Julius Caesar, “beware the Ides of March”), a classic confusion of Nature and Culture. Her death (in the Fall of the year?) both frees the horse’s obligation to her but also drives it mad, and is an instance of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which Nature itself responds to human disaster and suffering (think, for instance, of the faithful dog in a Disney animated film that is sad when it its owner is sad or despondent). The horse is “lost,” which I take to mean, “never seen again,” although it’s possible to understand it to mean the death of the horse; it is also possible to interpret Wildfire’s running off after the death of “she” as meaning the soul of “she” has transmigrated into the body of the horse: she is now the horse, that now runs free. The reference to the “hoot owl” is taken from the song “Stewball,” a song about a horse on which the singer should have bet everything, but did not: “If I’d have bet on ol’ Stewball, I'd be a free man today/Oh the hoot owl, she hollers, and the turtle dove moans/I’m a poor boy in trouble/I'm a long way from home.” According to The Owl Pages, “To hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all predicted by an Owl.” But unlike “Stewball,” which leaves the singer’s situation unresolved, the singer in “Wildfire” imagines his own imminent death. His death, however, will not be an ending but a transcendent experience, the beginning of a new life or new form of existence, in which he leaves behind his dreary life and rides off, “into the sunset” as it were, with, literally, the woman of his dreams. The song’s insistent melancholy, so remarked upon, is perhaps no more insistent than that of “The Unicorn” or “Stewball,” musical melancholy being the aural equivalent of a failed love song, a love song not based on the fulfillment of need, but one in which the object of affection is recognized as dead (as in “The Unicorn”).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Great Speckled Bird

Today is Easter Sunday, and I woke up this morning thinking of songs about animals. My thoughts inevitably turned to songs about birds, and perhaps because it is Easter, the one that first came to mind was The Great Speckled Bird (click the link for the lyrics). Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the lyrics were apparently written by the Reverend Guy Smith. The image of the “speckled bird,” most experts agree, is a reference to Jeremiah 12:9: Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her. The use of “heritage” here means the life one must lead as a consequence of the way one was “raised,” but also the one determined by dint of personality: in contrast to an oral tradition, in which thought is spirit, from the outside (as from God), the song is an example of psyche, the experience of literacy, in which thought comes from within. Although the lyrics would suggest gospel music inspirations (they were written by a minister, after all), the music was inspired by a song from the secular realm, and as such the song would seem to be a fierce statement of self-reliance, perseverance, and the perils of the individual within a mass society. Most sources I’ve come across claim the melody is traditional, used first (in recorded history; it is no doubt much older) in “I Am Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” a song recorded in the 1920s. The same melody was also used in Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” and in Kitty Wells’ answer song to “The Wild Side of Life,” titled “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” To my knowledge, the fact that the four songs all used the same melody was first pointed out, in recorded form anyway, by David Allan Coe, on the best album he ever did, RIDES AGAIN (1977), and the song, “Punkin Center Barn Dance.”

Despite the lyrics’ rather obvious allegorizing and the rhetoric of righteousness, the Modernist influence is quite noticeable — using difficulty as a means to protect an art work from mass appropriation. The lyrical content of “The Great Speckled Bird” is elusive for many listeners, as I discovered after a short web search. Hence, while the song has been recorded many times the past seventy years and is something of a country music “standard,” its meaning is hardly transparent.

Friday, April 10, 2009

White Out

I apologize for not being the best of bloggers this past week. I’ll plead the usual: too many things going on, too many irons in the fire. I’m writing at the moment from New Orleans, where I’m attending the PCA/ACA Annual Conference. Most of this past week was devoted to putting the finishing touches on my paper, which I delivered yesterday morning and went very well. I suppose, since I’m in New Orleans, I ought to talk about the food—strongly associated with this Southern city in the popular imagination—which is, of course, excellent. Cutting my lunch hour short yesterday in order to attend a session on popular music (one particular paper on the role of stuttering in The Who’s “My Generation” was fascinating, which I’ll discuss in a forthcoming blog), I ordered fish and chips in the bistro of the hotel where the conference was being held, and even this so-called “fast food” sort of meal was very good—the fish was fresh and delicious. More importantly, the conference sessions I’ve attended have been extraordinarily stimulating intellectually, and on the personal side I’m delighted to have hooked up with some old friends I haven’t seen in years, as well as met some new ones. In short, attending this conference has been a great experience for me.

For whatever inexplicable reason, I woke up this morning thinking of Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle.” None of the sessions I attended these past couple of days discussed this example of psychedelic music; in fact, none of the popular music sessions I attended discussed psychedelia at all. My thoughts moved from “My White Bicycle,” to the wider use of “white” as an adjective within rock music. I say this because in the late 1960s—a result of the lore that emerged surrounding Albert Hoffmann’s first experimental use of LSD-25 while riding home on his bicycle, the anecdote that prompted Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” and other songs as well—“white” seems linked, not always but early on, with the drug experience. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” also seems to confirm this initial impression of the adjective’s use. The adjective “white” thus has a rather interesting place in the history of rock, and while in Melville’s Moby-Dick Captain Ahab sees evil symbolized in the “whiteness of the whale,” “white” seems to be associated in rock culture with the drug experience, a sort of shorthand for a startling revelation, a new way of seeing, a keen insight. Of course, there are racial uses of “white,” as in Three Dog Night’s “Black and White”—musical tropes for social “harmony” are centuries old—the number of rock songs using “white” in the title without obvious racial connotations is worth remarking upon, as I realized today while jotting down some titles during my lunch hour. I haven’t included songs such as Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” or George Jones “White Lightning,” but I easily could have done so. One famous band—The Average White Band—employed the word in their group’s name. And while the song isn’t listed below, I’d always assumed the title of Wild Cherry’s biggest hit was “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” but I learned I was incorrect: it is simply “Play That Funky Music,” as I discovered after a quick web search displayed the label of the 45 rpm single. Incidentally, the root of the word “album” is from the Latin, “albus,” meaning blank, or white. So the common reference to the Beatles’ The Beatles as “the white album” is actually redundant. The color of the album was a pun on the meaning of the word album.

The White List:
Elvis – “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)”
Tomorrow – “My White Bicycle”
Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit”
Procol Harum – “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
The Moody Blues – “Nights in White Satin”
Cream – “White Room”
The Beatles – The Beatles (aka “The White Album”)
Merry Clayton – “Poor White Hound Dog” (Performance soundtrack)
Big Star – “Life is White”
Jimmy Buffett – “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Crustacean)”
Boz Scaggs – “Sail On White Moon”
Billy Idol – “White Wedding”
MX-80 Sound – “White Night”

Friday, April 3, 2009

Magneto and Titanium Man

While there’s a rather obvious connection between comics (“sequential narratives”) and motion pictures, the connection between comics and popular music is less obvious. Although it’s unusual to see a reference to comics invoked in the context of popular music, this article, on Esoteric’s new SERVE OR SUFFER hip hop album, reveals some interesting connections between the two media. One of the earliest explicit connections I remember between comics and music, revealing that the two could come into confluence, was Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Magneto and Titanium Man,” from VENUS AND MARS (1975), a sort of ekphrastic attempt at a comic book. The music on Esoteric’s new album may not appeal to everyone, but it is interesting to see a concept album focused on the idea nonetheless.

In the 1960s, there was perhaps a closer connection to rock culture and the so-called “underground“ comics of the time--the cover of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s CHEAP THRILLS, for instance, was drawn by R. Crumb. Some years later, John Byrne would create the Silver Surfer illustration used on the cover of Joe Satriani’s album SURFING WITH THE ALIEN; a webpage of album covers drawn by comic book artists can be found here. So far as I’ve been able to discover, the first rock band inspired to take its name from a comic book was Suicide. According to Simon Reynolds (Rip It Up and Start Again, p. 143) the band took its name from the title of a Ghost Rider comic titled “Satan Suicide,“ “an issue of [Alan] Vega’s favorite comic book.” In 1979, Marvel Comics released a comic book (pictured) based on the characters in Alice Cooper’s FROM THE INSIDE (1978). The typographic design for The Cramps’ name was inspired by EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt (EC Comics’ influence can also be seen in the cover of the Alice Cooper comic).

I’ve assembled below a playlist with references to comic characters. I’ve listed The Jam’s version of Neil Hefti’s “Batman Theme,” which has been covered many times over the years; it’s interesting that all the rock songs that I could find with comics references appeared after the Batman TV series premiered in January 1966.

A Rock Comic Con:
Donovan – “Sunshine Superman,” Sunshine Superman (1966)
The Kinks – “Johnny Thunder,” The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
The Beatles – “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (“So Captain Marvel zapped him right between the eyes”), The Beatles (1968)
T. Rex – “Mambo Sun,” (“I’m Dr. Strange for you”), Electric Warrior (1971)
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – “Sergeant Fury,” The Impossible Dream (1974)
Paul McCartney and Wings – “Magneto and Titanium Man,” Venus and Mars (1975)
The Jam – “Batman Theme,” In The City (1977)
Suicide – “Ghost Rider,” Suicide (1977)
XTC – “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me),” Black Sea (1980)
Joe Satriani – Surfing With the Alien (album of instrumentals), 1987
Prince – “Batdance,” Batman (1989)
Crash Test Dummies – “Superman’s Song,” The Ghosts That Haunt Me (1991)
Spin Doctors – “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” Pocket Full of Kryptonite (1991)
Esoteric vs. Gary Numan – “General Zod,” Pterodactyl Tubeway (2007)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Soft Rock

Perusing the used record bins in the local Goodwill Store the other day, I came across the worn, tattered cover (no LP inside) of a K-Tel compilation album consisting of “Soft Rock” hits, issued in 1975 or thereabouts. I don’t remember all the songs listed on the back cover, but I do recall the album including, for instance, Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Three Dog Night’s “Old-Fashioned Love Song,” Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain,” Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston,” Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You,” and America’s “Tin Man.” Since coming across that old album cover, I’ve been thinking about what constitutes “Soft Rock,” its features and characteristics.

What the phrase “Soft Rock” refers to, musically speaking, is very elusive. I don’t recall hearing the term prior to the mid-70s, when compilations of the K-Tel kind (pictured) began to be heavily marketed and sold through television advertisements. Obviously “Soft Rock” is feminine-coded as opposed to the masculine-coded “Hard Rock,” thus linking “Soft Rock” to the “Singer/Songwriter” tradition, also feminine-coded (Carole King, James Taylor). “Soft Rock” suggests that there’s something about the contents of the K-Tel album that fundamentally distinguishes it from other forms of rock, rather like “light” sour cream is different in some basic way from “regular” sour cream, or “fat free” Half and Half from regular Half and Half. If, by analogy, “Soft Rock” is different from “normal” rock in the same way fat free Half and Half is different from “normal” Half and Half, then presumably it refers to rock music purged of some feature of “normal” rock that is perceived as pernicious or “unhealthy.” Of course it is much more complicated than this (based on list of songs I remember being on the album, I would say that Soft Rock is characterized by traditional romantic themes, for instance), but as a rhetorical gesture, perhaps it is enough to understand what it, at least in part, refers: as a phrase peculiar to the 1970s, “Soft Rock” means, this music ain’t that 60s “free love” and “got to revolution” crap. As opposed to being “raw,” Soft Rock is “cooked”—that is, it has so-called “high” production values, medium tempos, orchestrations (“strings”), pop-like melodic hooks, and lyrics focusing on traditional romance (and heartbreak): “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” “Old-Fashioned Love Song,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Laughter in the Rain.” And while the designation is rife with problems (as Simon Frith and others have pointed out), the general consensus at the time, as I remember, was that Soft Rock was commercialized rock—an accusation bolstered by the aggressive marketing of K-Tel albums, among other sorts of compilations, on TV. The K-Tel compilation albums of the 1970s are the antecedent of the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series of CDs currently found in stores and on-line.

In fact, the phrase “Soft Rock,” rather like that of “Garage Rock,” represents the reinterpretation of the past by a later generation. “Garage Rock,” as a term, didn’t exist until 1972, thanks to Jac Holzman and Lenny Kaye’s NUGGETS anthology, in which the value and significance of aspiring rock musicians rehearsing in their parents’ garage was reinterpreted as “authentic,” that is, non-commercialized, rock. The same principle applies to the history of “Punk Rock.” “Punk,” as a term used to describe the culture gathered around a particular type of rock music, had no musical application until around 1975. Immediately afterward, the word “punk” gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started stitiching together a history, memorializing certain figures that came before them and ascribing to those figures their own desires--which those illustrious predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some historiographers memorialize the MC5 and The Stooges as punk precursors, while others memorialize the Velvet Underground. The narratives that grew up around punk are, in effect, reinterpretations of the past, establishing predecessors on the analogy of the pilgrims who settled America, who sacrificed for a future they could not have fully known or understood. To refer to, say, The Byrds or The Beau Brummels as “Soft Rock” would have made no sense in the mid-60s; the term can only make sense in retrospect, as a consequence of the reinterpretation of the past by a later generation.