Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s creation—the “monster”—eventually sees his reflection in the water, and is shocked by it, understanding at that moment why others find him so hideous. There’s a similar moment in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) too, when the monster (Boris Karloff, in his last appearance as the monster in a feature film) sees his reflection, and has a similar reaction. It’s a great moment, one that hearkens back to Shelley’s source novel. In the horror film, as in Gothic literature, the mirror is an instrument of truth—it cannot lie, and therefore can only reveal to us the terrible truth. The mirror shows us the real, and it is for this reason why so few of us wish to gaze too long at our reflection in it. Jean Cocteau said, “We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” by which he meant, mirrors do not lie, and serve as constant reminders of our mortality.

The mirror figures in blues great Robert Pete Williams’ song, I’ve Grown So Ugly, included on the album Free Again (1961), recorded soon after Williams had been released from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he’d spent the previous several years of his life. The years in prison have been hard and long, and Williams sings about a moment of (mis-)recognition similar to that of the Frankenstein monster in Shelley’s novel. He sees himself in the mirror, but doesn’t know himself anymore: “Oh baby, baby this ain’t me. I’ve got so ugly I don’t even know myself.” Years have gone by, and he has grown old while locked away in prison, and can no longer recognize himself.

Captain Beefheart covered “I’ve Grown So Ugly” on the album Safe As Milk (1967), as Grown So Ugly. His electrified version of the song, interpreted as if it were being sung by Howlin’ Wolf, is perhaps most significant because it allows us to decipher the role of the mirror in Beefheart’s music. There is, of course, the album Mirror Man, belatedly released in 1971, but there’s also “Son of Mirror Man—Mere Man,” on Strictly Personal (1968). The homonymy of mirror/mere reminds us of Cocteau’s insight, the link between the mirror and mortality (“mere man”), but “Son of Mirror Man” also happens to be an enticing link to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Surely your imagination is not so impoverished as to think that “Son of Mirror Man” refers only to one particular “take” or version of the song. The link explains why Beefheart's music has often been characterized as “gothic blues.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Chess Game

Cadillac Records (2008) probably should have been a TV mini-series, which would have allowed the filmmakers to sort out what is now essentially a jumbled mess. There is a great film in here somewhere, but not in the form it currently exists (why no extended “director’s cut” of a film that desperately needs it?). Although titled Cadillac Records, the film is, more accurately, about the rise of Chicago-based Chess Records and its founder, Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), who founded the blues label in the early 1950s along with his brother Phil (what happened to his character in the movie?). (The title is inspired by Chess’s habit of paying his artists with Cadillacs.) The film also features Chess Records’ first major recording artist, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), as well as other artists who began or established their careers at Chess, including Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The ensemble cast gives fine performances (Beyonce gives a notable performance as Etta James), but we get only brief glimpses into their individual lives, and, astonishingly, by the film’s end it remains unclear why Chess Records should be the subject of a film in the first place. Apparently biopics of the individual artists represented are not a viable option.

Of course, the soundtrack has good music, but then again, it should. But outside of some Number One hits on the R&B charts and the occasional cross-over hit, though, we learn very little about these artists’ contributions to American music or about the importance of the individual albums released on the Chess label in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Nor do we learn much about so-called “Chicago Blues” or “electrified blues,” and why the sound was, and has been, found so compelling by so many blues enthusiasts. At one point, the Rolling Stones show up and give proper obeisance to their idol, Muddy Waters, although historically one of the songs they recorded while at Chess in 1964 was the Willie Dixon-penned “The Red Rooster” (issued by the Stones as “Little Red Rooster”), first recorded by Waters’ rival, Howlin’ Wolf, on his famous and highly influential second album, Howlin’ Wolf (1962), often referred to as “The Rockin’ Chair Album.” Howlin’ Wolf’s album includes many songs that helped shape rock ‘n’ roll in the Sixties and after. In addition to “The Red Rooster,” it includes “Wang Dang Doodle” (recorded by Savoy Brown, The Grateful Dead, Charlie Watts, and others), “Spoonful” (Cream, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Ten Years After, and others), and “Back Door Man” (The Doors; others). It’s very easy for me to say what the movie “should have done,” of course, but I would have liked to see the movie explore the motives for amplification in greater detail (touched on in the opening moments, and in the early key sequences featuring Little Walter), and why Leonard Chess pushed the music in that direction. (He was obviously aware of what Sam Phillips was doing in Memphis; it was Sam Phillips who recommended Howlin’ Wolf to Leonard Chess.) The film’s contention that the (white) music industry exploited black people is a valid point—of course. While the fact is undeniably true, the film nonetheless works a rather tired idea, namely the antithesis between “authentic” music (the outpouring of real feeling, authenticity as understood as the proximity to the blues) and “commercial” music (rock ‘n’ roll in this case). The fact is,“authentic” African-American music was an effect of industrialization (by which I mean it was supported and marketed by institutions such as radio, authorized by music publishing and licensing, and affected by developments in recording technology). Chicago blues helped shape the direction of rock ‘n’ roll, to be sure, but the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is the “commercial” imitation of some Real Thing (commercialization as corruption) is simply a myth, the result of a confusion, as Simon Frith has pointed out, “that music is the starting point of the industrial process—the raw material over which everyone fights—when it is, in fact, the final product.”

I was slightly perturbed by the way the film distorts history (and does so on several occasions), but perhaps the most egregious is the way it suggests, falsely, that Elvis had a hit from Little Walter’s “My Babe” early in his career. Most any detailed Elvis discography will show that Elvis didn’t record “My Babe” until August 1969, during one of his Las Vegas shows, by which time Little Walter had been dead for almost a year and a half (Little Walter died in February 1968), and—who knows—perhaps Elvis performed the song as an homage (it was not a song he performed often, suggesting this may be possible). The film also portrays Little Walter’s death as occurring before Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon travel to England in 1967 rather than after, and also suggests that Muddy Waters was slightly surprised by the reception of blues music in England in 1967, but in fact he’d toured there previously in 1958. Beyonce Knowles’ performance as Etta James is quite good; it’s unfortunate that the film has little else to recommend it. Would that I could say otherwise.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Being Bored

The nightmarish scenario of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1975), depicts time travelers (“tempunauts”) stuck in a time loop. In Dick’s novel A Maze of Death (1970), a group of space travelers is stuck forever in an orbit around a dead star, unable to break free of its powerful gravitational field. And in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an astronaut is forced to remain in orbit around the earth, doomed to die alone in his space ship, unable to return home because the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Dick’s idea of Hell as being stuck in a loop (time, or an endlessly reiterated orbit) was plundered for comic effect in Groundhog Day (1993), perhaps the most truly Phildickian film ever made, although ironically it doesn’t bear his name. (As T. S. Eliot once observed, “Strong poets steal; weak poets imitate.” The filmmakers obviously recognized a good idea when they saw one.) Once, after having shown the film to the students in one of my classes, a nonplussed student asked me to say exactly how many times Bill Murray had lived through Groundhog Day. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer, I say. So I replied simply, “a lot.”

Personally I thought the question itself demonstrated a colossal misunderstanding of the movie, on the order of, say, someone having seen Citizen Kane and then asking what “Rosebud” meant. In other words, she didn’t “get” it. While stuck in the loop, we see Bill Murray—a Dickian hero if there ever was—go through several phases, among them a suicidal one, a prankish one, and, of course, one in which he is profoundly bored. But his boredom is a kind that comes not simply from repetition, but from the recognition that the repetition will never end. Of course, for Philip K. Dick, the loopiness I’ve remarked upon is more of a metaphysical nightmare than the sort of crushing spiritual effect of boredom known as ennui.

But Philip K. Dick wrote about that, too. In perhaps his greatest novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian colonists seek escape from their dreary lives through the ingestion of a drug, Chew-Z, that enables what we would now call “virtual” experience, fantasies that are almost impossible to distinguish from actual reality. The irony is that while the colonists presumably live in an exotic locale like Mars, and presumably are enacting the nineteenth-century American form of individualism known as “pioneering” or “settling the frontier,” they suffer from profound boredom, from ennui. Their lives are very much like those of the space travelers in A Maze of Death: stuck in an endless loop, with no hope of escape, escape in this case being returning to Earth. The world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, of course, uncannily similar to our own: the spirit of the Martian colonists is crushed because the colonists live in a world that claims it prizes and values individualism, yet is really dominated by mindless, unrewarding labor.

Walter Benjamin observed over seven decades ago, in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that mechanically reproduced art had rendered obsolete aesthetic concepts like “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime” because they both depend upon the idea of aura—that there is just one of a particular art work, an original. (In other words, most of us encounter the reproduction of a work of art before we encounter the actual thing, e.g., we know the Mona Lisa because we’ve seen a reproduction of it, not because we’ve actually been to the Louvre to see it.) While our so-called “entertainment industry” is premised on individualism—the “artist”—it is actually premised on reiteration and redundancy, on immediate recognition—what we call “genre” or “type.” But if our system of artistic evaluation no longer employs concepts such as “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime,” it no longer employs “the Boring,” either. Critics avoid using the term if at all possible. Thus in the same way that the modern world prizes individualism while the life of most people is comprised of mindless labor, modern critics laud originality in the form of generic innovation (the same, only different).

Most of us experience what we call “boredom” much like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, the same, in an endless loop, day in, day out. One must recognize that the entertainment industry is premised on this sort of reiteration. The repeat, the re-run, the second run, the golden oldie, the classic, classic rock—all of these institutional practices are based on redundancy, and in fact, encourage repetitive behaviors such as “fan favorites” and, in radio, for instance, “make a request” programming. I’m not sure about you, but my idea of Hell would be to hear endlessly looped Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the scenario Bill Murray endures in Groundhog Day. The trouble is, with no concept like “the Boring” anymore, there’s no way of making the simple aesthetic observation that what was a bad song then is a bad song now. Nostalgia, often understood as the longing for an earlier and hence simpler time, is actually a peculiar expression of boredom, a consequence of having forgotten the monotonous redundancies of an earlier age. If you don't believe that, put on “I Got You Babe” and hit the repeat button, promising not to stop the process, minimally, for at least 36 hours.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon

July 20, 1969: As Bogey says in Casablanca, “That was so long ago I don’t remember.” Actually, I do remember where I was, at least, when Neil Armstrong placed his foot onto the moon: in a trailer house, on a horse ranch, about twenty miles or so west of Wichita, Kansas. I was fifteen years old, just barely, and I remember the moon being full and bright that night. I was younger than my son John is now, who will turn sixteen years old in slightly under two weeks. I can’t remember the brand of television on which I watched the moon landing, but it was a small 13” or 14” black and white with “rabbit ears.” I remember the startling contrast between the technological leap the moon landing represented and the moonlit ranch surrounding me, an image straight out of the nineteenth-century American West. It happened that just a few days ago, Walter Cronkite died at 92—would that he could have lived a few days longer in order to celebrate this momentous 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon. The nightly news has replayed his reaction to the historic event many times the past few days, his rubbing his hands together in joy and saying, “Oh Boy!,” like a little kid. I think his child-like expression of glee captures my reaction as well: in order to recover what I felt, I simply have to watch that small piece of footage depicting Walter Cronkite’s response.

Mythology about the moon is vast, of course. I remember as a little boy being asked if I could see the man in the moon—of course I could. In one of his early shorts, fantasist Georges Méliès spoofed the mythology of the moon being made of green cheese (pictured). But perhaps more importantly, the moon is heavily romanticized. Traditionally, it is associated with the Romantic Other—Romantic in the sense of lovers, yes, but also in the sense that it sparks the imaginative faculties. There’s the image of “man in the moon,” but actually the moon is more strongly associated with the feminine. “Happily the queen moon is on her throne,” Keats wrote, suggesting that the moon is an image of calmness and serenity—and didn’t the first moon landing occur in the Sea of Tranquility? But Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, instructed Romeo not to swear by the moon, because the moon is “inconstant,” meaning that its phases imply an incapacity for steadiness and a tendency to change. The inconstant moon gave rise to the metaphor of the “lunatic,” someone whose mind is unsteady and erratic, too heavily influenced by the either waxing or waning moon. And there’s the phenomenon of “moon madness,” the association of the moon with an increase in erratic, often criminal human behavior, which possibly influenced Curt Siodmak’s famous couplet from The Wolfman, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the Wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Some great pop songs have been written about the moon, of course, and hence I dedicate the following playlist to both to the inconstant moon and the 40th anniversary of humankind’s first step upon it.

Two Dozen Or So Tunes Of Inspired Lunacy:
Walking on the Moon – The Police
Man on the Moon – REM
Moondance – Van Morrison
Dancing in the Moonlight – King Harvest
Mr. Moonlight – The Beatles
Moon River – Henry Mancini
Mississippi Moon – Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Moon of Kentucky – Elvis
Blue Moon – The Marcels
Blue Moon Baby – The Cramps
Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – Jonathan King
Fly Me to the Moon – Bobby Womack
Moon at the Window – Joni Mitchell
Mad Man Moon - Genesis
I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (The Moon Song) – Conway Twitty
Moonlight Becomes You – Bing Crosby
Moonlight Feels Right – Starbuck
Moonlight Mile – The Rolling Stones
Moonlight Drive – The Doors
Marquee Moon – Television
The Killing Moon – Echo & the Bunnymen
The Moon of Manakoora – Dorothy Lamour
Other Side of the Moon – Moon Men (with Link Wray)
Bad Side of the Moon – Bo Diddley
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Eclipse (from Dark Side of the Moon) – Pink Floyd

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Look Back

Son of the god Apollo (proficient on the lyre) and Calliope (Muse of epic poetry), Orpheus was a richly gifted musician admired for his immense skill with the lyre as well as his lyrical acumen. Orpheus is thus largely seen as an archetypal figure for the poet and musician. Legend has it that soon after he married Eurydice, his young bride, she died. The inconsolable Orpheus descended into Hell in order to get her back. Improbably, he charmed the gods of the underworld into accepting his demand that she return to the land of the living with him. His demand, though, was subject to one fundamental condition: he had to walk ahead of her from Hell, and must not look back until both of them were safely in the sunlight. But, alas, Orpheus looked back at the very last moment, and Eurydice vanished. (Milton: “I woke, she fled, and day brought back my night.”) Having lost his beloved wife twice, Orpheus vowed never again to touch a woman. His swearing off women earned him the wrath of the Maenads, devotees of the god Dionysus, and as a consequence he was torn to pieces. His dismembered body parts were gathered by the Muses and buried, and his lyre became the constellation Lyra. (In J. W. Waterhouse’s famous painting, “Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus,” his head and lyre are discovered floating side by side.) The figure of Orpheus is thus more than the archetype of the artist as poet and musician, but also the figure of the artist who has the power to exorcise death by his song, the power to descend into Hell—and return. As a figure unafraid to confront the darkness—and more importantly, to conquer it—Orpheus is a figure for immortality.

I’m by no means the first to observe that the blues is Orphic in the sense that it confronts the darkness and conquers it. Understanding the blues is much like understanding jazz, which reminds me of the famous line of Louis Armstrong, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin characterized the blues as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness,” while Langston Hughes observed, “For sad as Blues may be, there’s almost always something humorous about them—even if it’s the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying” (qtd. in Saadi A. Simawe, ed., Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction From The Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison, p. 66). The existential theme underlying the blues—I can’t go on, I will go on—is one that Samuel Beckett recognized: the hope that emerges from recognizing one’s despair. Freud observed that the feeling of anxiety couldn’t be questioned because it is absolutely and unquestionably real: one doesn’t “doubt” the feeling of anxiety because it is indisputably true. Despair is also real, in the sense that it can’t be doubted. But it can be fought, which is what I take to be the meaning of the injunction at the center of the Orphic myth, “don’t look back.”

In “Run Through the Jungle,” a song I take to have been inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” (as was Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising”), John Fogerty sings:

Thought it was a nightmare,
Lo, it’s all so true,
They told me, “Don’t go walking slow
‘Cause Devil’s on the loose.”
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Don’t look back to see.

The Devil, the Hellhound, “the voice of rage and ruin”—these are all tropes for the darkness that the music serve to dispel (or at least ward off, like apotropaic magic), and why Orpheus’ singing is capable of transformation, why he allegedly could charm nature itself.

A Few Songs With the “Don’t Look Back” Theme:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Lyre of Orpheus”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle”
Charlie Daniels, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
Madonna, “Jump”
Robert Pete Williams, “Prisoner’s Talking Blues”

This article explores the Orphic theme that informs the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). There’s also Belle & Sebastian’s “Like Bob Dylan in the Movies” that references D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), an orthographically incorrect title that is apparently a deliberate reference to the Orpheus myth. The early Bob Dylan was also inspired by Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail”: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” owes as much to Johnson’s surreal, apocalyptic image of “Blues falling down like hail” as it does to metaphorical nuclear fallout. Later Dylan songs such as “Man in the Long Black Coat” also strike me as being influenced by Robert Johnson’s demonic Hellhound as well.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tomorrow Never Knows

As a form of literacy, lists are undoubtedly provocative. Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” posted on the web November 2003, is nearing six years old, but is still capable of eliciting a response. At the top of the heap is that old workhorse, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 42 years ago this summer. Modern critics never tire of compiling lists of favorites, a practice that was once a Victorian parlor game, a way to pass the idle hours. Apparently nothing recorded during the past forty years has managed to dislodge Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band from the revered #1 spot; in fact, the Beatles have four albums in the RS top ten (I’ve reproduced RS’s top twenty below). Of course, such lists are historically volatile and no doubt will change tomorrow, figuratively speaking.

It is remarkable—meaning it deserves to be remarked upon—that nine of the top ten greatest albums were recorded during the period 1965 – 1972 (the sole exception is the Clash’s London Calling, released in 1979, thus making the deck not appear too stacked). Four albums in the second group of ten (spots 11 through 20) also happen to be recorded during the same period, meaning thirteen of the twenty best were recorded 1965-72—65%. The sole Generation X album in the top twenty, Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991), is also the only surprise of the lot. Released late September 1991, the album sold six million copies during the first six months of its release (that is, through April 1992), but has sold only around two million copies in all the years since, thus proving that grunge, like bubblegum, has had its fifteen minutes of fame. Nevermind’s inclusion is a surprise because no rock critic who takes himself seriously would ever think of including an album of bubblegum music on any list of the greatest rock albums (except maybe Lester Bangs), given that bubblegum is considered the tawdriest form of commercialized pop music. As a form of symbolic cultural capital, apparently flannel is considered more authentic than polyester.

Fifteen years ago (summer 1994), my friend Michael Jarrett interviewed several renowned producers of jazz recordings, asking them about the influence of Sgt. Pepper’s. The answers were surprising. The specific question he asked was: “Did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band affect jazz production?”

TEO MACERO: It didn’t influence me. I always thought we were far ahead of the Beatles. We did experimental things back in the fifties. With Miles Davis, we used to use two or three different microphones, and when we came to the age of eight-tracks and so forth, we had a chance to pick up different sounds. We used to use all kinds of filters and reverb machines to give him the right amount of echo. If the echo didn’t please me, we would put it through another monaural machine, play it back at half the speed. We used to do all kinds of experimental things in the studios that nobody was doing.

HAL WILLNER: For me, some other things are more influential: records that inspired Sgt. Pepper. Absolutely Free meant a little more to me, and as an adult, I probably followed the Velvet Underground more and how that stuff came out of Varèse and out of A Love Supreme and Sketches of Spain. Those are amazing concept records.

MICHAEL CUSCUNA: It made me take more drugs for a little while. For some reason I was quite taken by the White Album, but Sgt. Pepper’s—the idea of album as a concept—didn’t seem to me that revolutionary. Surrealistic Pillow, which was the first album that really made me think of rock ‘n’ roll as not a top-40 situation, it had that effect on me. (Sound Tracks, pp. 92-93)

The significance and importance of Sgt. Pepper’s has no doubt been over-estimated, but that’s not my primary point. The reason two-thirds of the twenty greatest records in rock history were released 1965-1972 is because that is the period in which the majority of the first generation of rock critics—those who became rock critics, that is—came of age, during which rock music captured their imaginations. The key point is, in order to establish itself an institution, rock criticism necessarily had to establish a canon, a core group of essential and influential works that demonstrated rock music was a legitimate form of art. It is thus no coincidence that the “greatest” records were released during the formative years of the critics who would eventually champion them. Here’s a short representative list of what I would call the “first generation” of rock critics, all of whom (with the exception of Robert Christgau) graduated high school during the years 1963-68. All of them (with the exception of Lester Bangs, who was also the least academic in tone) were college educated, or attended college for awhile. All of them, I suspect, are deep admirers of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, key figures who enabled the establishment of rock music as art.

Robert Christgau (“Dean of American Rock Critics,” meaning the oldest) (b. April 18, 1942) – Began writing on rock ‘n’ roll for Esquire in 1967 (age 25), moved to The Village Voice in 1969.
Greil Marcus (b. 1945) – Began writing for Rolling Stone beginning in his early 20s, later Creem, The Village Voice, and other magazines.
Richard Meltzer (b. May 11, 1945) – Began writing for Crawdaddy! in 1967; authored an important early work of rock criticism, The Aesthetics of Rock (1970).
Jann Wenner (b. January 7, 1946) – Co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, the first issue of which was published November 9, 1967.
Paul Williams (b. May 19, 1948) – Started the first magazine of rock music criticism in America, Crawdaddy!, January, 1966 (age 17).
Lester Bangs (December 13, 1948 – April 30, 1982) – Wrote for Creem (first issue of which was published March 1969)
Nick Tosches (b. 1949) – Began writing rock criticism for Creem.
Dave Marsh (b. March 1, 1950) – Began writing rock criticism for Creem.

The Top 20 Of The RS 500 Greatest:
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
2. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys
3. Revolver, The Beatles
4. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan
5. Rubber Soul, The Beatles
6. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
7. Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones
8. London Calling, The Clash
9. Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan
10. The Beatles (“The White Album”), The Beatles
11. The Sun Sessions, Elvis Presley
12. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
13. Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground
14. Abbey Road, The Beatles
15. Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
16. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan
17. Nevermind, Nirvana
18. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
19. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison
20. Thriller, Michael Jackson

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Synesthete: Tom Wilkes, 1939 – 2009

Grammy Award-winning art director, writer, and photographer Tom Wilkes, who designed album covers for George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and many others, died on June 28 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at age 69. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times is available here. While still in his 20s, Wilkes became art director for the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival, for which he created the festival’s iconic psychedelic poster (at left) that was printed on foil stock, for which he won an award from Reynolds aluminum for the most creative use of aluminum foil. Formally trained in graphic design, Wilkes was one of several Los Angeles area artists, including John Van Hamersveld, Warren Dayton and Art Bevacqua, who would eventually create concert posters. But Wilkes clearly was highly influenced by the posters emerging from the San Francisco Psychedelic Art movement beginning around 1966.

Wilkes’s now quite valuable poster for the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival obviously is influenced by early psychedelic art: its ornate lettering and highly symmetrical composition, for instance, is a characteristic feature of such art, as well as its collage-like, black-and-white insertion of a photograph of a young woman, gazing at some unseen person or thing off to her right, clothed in garb that would have been considered, in the nineteenth century, both exotic and erotic, her feminine figure surrounded by curlicue-etched cones that imitate, in abstract form, her pronounced breasts. Perhaps that assemblage of spirals is meant to be an ocean wave-inspired motif, given the festival location’s proximity to the Pacific, but they are abstract enough to suggest both rolling waves and female breasts simultaneously (music as a synthesis of nature and culture, both nurturing and nourishing?). In any case, the most pronounced and inspired feature, for me, is that fanciful, pop-arty, Duchamp-inspired necktie, invoking both Duchamp’s goateed Mona Lisa but which also gives the young woman a slightly androgynous appearance. The L. A. Times report quotes Wilkes’ long-time friend, Lou Adler, who observed:

“Most of the artwork in that particular culture was coming out of San Francisco, and what Tom did was he took a San Francisco look, or niche, and made it international,” Adler said. “You can see a lot of the posters from that period and say, ‘Oh, that’s the ‘60s.’ With Tom, it isn’t dated. There's a very special look to it.”

Perhaps what was most influential about Wilkes’ poster for the Monterey Pop Festival, though, was that it was printed on foil stock. That silvery sheen (ink, however, not actual foil) almost immediately graced several covers of rock albums released within the next year, giving each of them a vaguely psychedelic, or at least acidic, aura (none of which, so far as I know, were designed by Tom Wilkes): Steppenwolf’s eponymous first album (1968), Cream’s Wheels of Fire (1968), and the eponymous first album by Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968). The use of faux aluminum stock, in fact, has graced many albums over the years since.

His design of the printed and visual materials associated with the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 led to Wilkes’ career in the music industry, first as art director at A&M Records. He subsequently designed (or provided art direction or graphic design) for dozens of album covers (a list is available here and images of a few are here), some of them among my all-time favorites, including Beggars Banquet (The Rolling Stones), Harvest (Neil Young), Mad Dogs & Englishmen (Joe Cocker), On Tour (Delaney & Bonnie), and Concert for Bangladesh and All things Must Pass (George Harrison). He also took the famous cover photo of Joplin Joplin for her posthumous album Pearl (1971). The particular effectiveness of Tom Wilkes as an album cover designer was that he was a synesthete, explaining why his images always largely formed an enticing visual equivalent to the music to be found inside.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pick Drag

A consequence of the sonic potential of an amplified electric guitar, pick drag is the sound made when a guitarist slides the tip or edge of his pick along a single string. It is widely assumed that Bo Diddley introduced pick drag, in the song “Road Runner” (1957), in which the sound he made with his guitar is the aural equivalent of a car accelerating from 0 to 60 MPH. (Check out this demonstration of pick drag.) If it is true that from its inception the opposition structuring rock was groove (a redundant riff) versus sonics, then Bo Diddley is an interesting case. Although widely known for the “Bo Diddley beat” (“shave and a haircut, six bits”), his interest in exploring sonics — the size and shape of the imaginary spaces that hold music — is perhaps more influential. Pick drag is an example of exteriorized sound (acceleration, distance as a function of time), while Bo’s uses of reverberation, echo, and delay are examples of interiorized sound, prefiguring psychedelia. Did Bo Diddley ever record “The Pusher,” written by Hoyt Axton but famously recorded by Steppenwolf? For Steppenwolf's rendition owes much to Bo Diddley’s sonic explorations.

Thanks to Stan Ridgway for the suggestion.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mo' Better Blu

A few days ago I wrote a blog entry on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Woodstock (1970), the 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition and BD-Live with Amazon Exclusive Bonus Content version that I ordered from Amazon. Subsequently, I’ve learned that the Amazon set is not the only “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” available, but that there are different exclusives included on the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” on Blu-ray for sale by Target. I was motivated to search out these differences, and with a little help from my friends, I’ve identified the differences here, for those interested:

Exclusive Extras on BD from
The Grateful Dead – “Mama Tried”
Jefferson Airplane – “Volunteers”
Country Joe and the Fish – “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine”
“Technical Difficulties: The Obstacles to a Smoothly Run Festival Posed by Nature and Technology”
“Woodstock: A Turning Point - When Organizers Realized a Concert Became a Statement About Peace”
“Food, Lodging & First Aid: Making Adequate Provisions for a Musical Multitude”

Exclusive Extras on BD from Target:
Canned Heat – “Woodstock Boogie”
The Who – “Sparks”
Jimi Hendrix – “Spanish Castle Magic”
“Reflections of an Era: Director Michael Wadleigh on Two Signature 1969 events—Woodstock and the Moon Landing”
“A Farm In Bethel: Reflections on Landholder Max Yasgur’s Legacy”
“Cinematic Revolution: The Origins of the Film’s 3-Panel Look”
“Woodstock Generation: Sons and Daughters of the 1960s Share Their Memories”

Additional Note: The BD edition of Woodstock issued in the UK includes the Target exclusive material, with different cover art.

However, if you really want to assemble as many Woodstock performances as you can, you’ll also need the set of three OOP laser discs issued on VideoArts in Japan in 1994, referred to as Woodstock Diary, a film by Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer, and D. A. Pennebaker. For convenience, I’ve listed the material available on these discs here:

1969.8.15 (VideoArts Music VALJ-3412)
Richie Havens: I Can’t Make It Anymore; Freedom
Country Joe McDonald: I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag
John Sebastian: Rainbows All Over Your Blues
The Incredible String Band: When You Find Out Who You Are
Bert Sommers: Jennifer
Tim Hardin: If I Were A Carpenter
Ravi Shankar: Evening Raga
Arlo Guthrie: Walkin’ Down the Line
Joan Baez: Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man; Sweet Sir Galahad
Interviews with: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang

1969.8.16 (VideoArts Music VALJ-3413)
Quill: Waiting For You
Santana: Soul Sacrifice
Canned Heat: Leaving This Town
Mountain: Southbound Train
Sly & the Family Stone: Love City
Janis Joplin: Try (Just A Little Bit Harder); Ball & Chain
The Who: My Generation
Jefferson Airplane: Somebody To Love; White Rabbit
Interviews with: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang

1969.8.17 (VideoArts Music VALJ-3413)
Joe Cocker: Let’s Go Get Stoned
Country Joe and the Fish: (Thing Called) Love
Ten Years After: I’m Going Home
The Band: The Weight
Johnny Winter: Mean Time [sic] Blues
Crosby, Stills and Nash: Blackbird
Paul Butterfield: Everything Gonna Be Alright
Sha Na Na: Duke of Earl
Jimi Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner; Woodstock Instrumental; Villanova Junction
Interviews with: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang, Lisa Law and Wavy Gravy

In addition, you may wish to pick up the Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock 2-disc DVD set (which includes “Spanish Castle Magic,” an extra on the Target set) as well. And go here for Tim Lucas’s discussion of the 2CD set Jefferson Airplane—The Woodstock Experience, consisting of JA’s complete performance at Woodstock.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mile Marker 150

This morning I discovered that late last night Tim Lucas sent Becky and me an email informing us that the preview of VIDEO WATCHDOG #150 had been posted on the VW website so that Becky and I could get an early look at our opening spread in the “150th smash issue.” Last month I wrote about my and Becky’s decade long plus association with Video Watchdog that began in 1998 with issue #45, 105 issues ago. While we’ve contributed to VW for over a decade, that’s certainly not as long as Steve Bissette (whose name, you’ll notice, is on the cover) who has contributed to VW off and on over the two decades of its existence. As I indicated in my blog last month, Becky and I always have been deeply pleased that Tim and Donna showed an almost instant willingness to publish our work, and we’re especially pleased to be part of issue 150. Publishing 150 issues of a specialized journal in the turbulent economic conditions and the technological revolution of the past twenty years is no small feat—many venerable journals have either folded up entirely, or gone strictly to an on-line format. I know that Tim and Donna are justly proud of their accomplishment, as they should be.

I remember telling Becky, immediately after we had finished our first two reviews and emailed them off to Tim, that even if he doesn’t accept them, at least we’ve learned something. We’ve found that to be true to this day: writing about a film (or book, or record, etc.) has both deepened our understanding of it various complexities (e.g., themes, characters) and ambiguities, but also its special singularity. Our latest long review of 2008’s superhero films required us to do a bit of homework, forcing us to refreshen our relationship with the characters by doing some additional reading as well as view the films more than once. And like always, we learned something. Not only do we learn by writing the reviews, but once we turn over our material to Tim—and the past few years, to a second pair of eyes, those belonging to John Charles—whose combined editing skills are simply outstanding, we have the comfort of knowing that not only will our work be, proverbially speaking, gone over with a fine-tooth comb, but any factual errors will be corrected as well. And since Donna Lucas is so masterful with design and layout—she’s careful, thoughtful, and meticulous in her work—the published product is thoroughly professional. Both Becky and I have profited greatly from working with Tim and Donna over the years, and we heartily congratulate them on landmark issue 150. We are pleased to be part of it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blu Blues at Woodstock

I finally had a chance to screen most of the material included on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Woodstock (1970)—the 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition and BD-Live with Amazon Exclusive Bonus Content version, to be precise, that I ordered from Amazon about a month ago. Touted on as “one of the most impressive Blu-Ray releases of 2009 or any other year,” the Collector’s Edition has lots of what is called, in marketing lingo, “value-added content.” The box (enclosed in a protective plastic sleeve), for instance, is designed to resemble a faux fringe leather jacket, while inside there’s an iron-on patch with the familiar logo, a Lucite paperweight with pictures, a reprint of the 60-page Life Magazine special issue about the 1969 event, a reproduction of a three-day ticket, and some other memorabilia (of the miniaturized and simulated sort). Such materials make the event no more “real” than it ever was, but serve as an illustration of the conceit that an important social and cultural event presumably can be fully represented as a series of fragments, making the past seem as visible and proximate as the world you see outside the window as you eat your daily breakfast.

To be honest, I was most interested in the Amazon-exclusive bonus content included on the Blu-ray edition, that is, the additional concert footage consisting of performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, Mountain, and others. Screening the film this time, though, and having viewed the additional footage, I had a rather strong experience of déjà vu, as it occurred to me that many of the artists and bands who’d appeared at Woodstock had already (earlier) appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, e.g., Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company), the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish (duplicating a couple songs at Woodstock previously performed at Monterey), Jimi Hendrix (ditto), the Butterfield Blues Band, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar, as well as musicians such as Stephen Stills and David Crosby, who’d appeared at Monterey in different bands. Woodstock has always been pitched as a more significant and historic “cultural event” than Monterey, a perception that unwittingly reaffirms the widespread (mis)conception that “The Sixties” consists of events that occurred from 1968 to the end of the decade. It seems to me that the difference between Woodstock and Monterey is all about “authenticity,” which event is seen as the more “authentic” representation of “The Sixties.” My subjective impression is that Woodstock has won out as the more “authentic” event of “The Sixties” . . . but, as Simon Frith has observed, “authenticity” has always been premised on the opposition between “music-as-expression and music-as-commodity.” Hence Woodstock is generally perceived, historically, as being all about “music-as-expression” (expression of historical moment, crystallization of sensibility, and so on), while Monterey has been viewed as being all about “music-as-commodity.” I offer this observation purely as speculation, not as accepted fact.

In any case, this time around I noticed the number of blues and blues-based bands that appeared at Woodstock: Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Mountain, and Ten Years After—but, ironically, how few black blues artists were represented (none). Black artists were represented at Woodstock, yes, of course; that’s not my point. Blues music was well-represented at Woodstock, but was played exclusively by white musicians—Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (one of the few bands with black musicians), Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and—the whitest of all—Johnny Winter, who gave the best blues performance at the festival (“Mean Town Blues”), in my view, based on the footage included on the bonus disc. By no means am I claiming that the blues played by white artists is “inauthentic,” but viewing the Woodstock material this time was a painful reminder of the way white people have historically exploited black people, particularly in the popular music industry. Black music is the ghostly presence of Woodstock. I do not make this observation as a so-called “white liberal,” but as someone who is simply stating a central tenet of the American musical industry. About 99% of those who attended the Woodstock festival were white kids who had the wherewithal, as well as the leisure time, to be able to burn a weekend listening to rock music. The documentary associates primitive behavior (lack of regimentation, nudity, communal bathing, nature worship, fucking in the tall grass, non-Western religious practices, magical thinking—the “no rain, no rain” chant”—and so on) with authentic expression. Monterey has not had this sort of mythology attached to it, but that ought to make the point(s) I am making all the more obvious. Of course I love the music, and the documentary itself is an example of great filmmaking, but speaking for myself, I have few illusions that hippies (middle and upper-class white kids with lots of disposable income and leisure time, still possible in the 60s) are worth all the ideological obfuscation that have been granted them through the Woodstock documentary. Would that I could believe otherwise.