Monday, August 31, 2009

High Time

Marijuana use is, of course, illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin and peyote) and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations. But according to this article that appeared in yesterday’s L. A. Times, marijuana is going mainstream: so-called “cannabis culture” is purportedly “coming out of the closet.” For instance, just this past June, roughly 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo Hemp and Art show in downtown Los Angeles. In addition, Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock 40th anniversary by selling $78 “Hashish” candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves. Cheech and Chong recently concluded an international tour and claim to be at work on another movie.

Once depicted as a drug that could incite a murderous rage (Tell Your Children, aka Reefer Madness, 1936) and recently blamed as the cause for burger runs gone awry (2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), marijuana is now just another banal fixture in film and popular music. According to the L. A. Times article, cannabis crops up on shows such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood and Desperate Housewives, and on animated shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy. The article goes on to say:

Marijuana’s role on TV and in the movies is no surprise, says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers - a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana’s presence in society, but probably as consumers themselves of it.”

“As a result,” Thompson said, “it’s almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks - their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag - that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk.”

I thought it might be interesting to assemble a brief cannabis culture chronology, beginning with its emergence as part of modern life with its use by jazz musicians in the 1920s and 30s.

March. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong pot smoker, is busted outside of an L.A. jazz club. Gage, tea, muggles, and reefer are some of the many names for marijuana among jazz musicians.

The cautionary tale, Tell Your Children, is first released; it is re-titled many years later as Reefer Madness.

Devil's Harvest (thanks Bent for providing a link to the poster art! Go here)

Actor Robert Mitchum is busted for marijuana possession during an undercover stakeout in Laurel Canyon.

The TV documentary, A Boy Called Donovan, about the British pop singer Donovan, reveals the singer smoking pot with friends. Later in the year, Donovan becomes the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Members of The Rolling Stones are busted several times this year.

May. Easy Rider premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, depicting scenes of marijuana use. The same year, Tommy Chong hires stand-up comedian Richard “Cheech” Marin to perform between the bands and strippers at his family’s Vancouver, Canada, night club. The rest is history.

Sometime during this period, future President Bill Clinton experiments with marijuana, but doesn’t inhale.

New York-based magazine High Times is first published; the magazine does for pot what Playboy did for sex.

Reggae musician Peter Tosh releases the album Legalize It.

The first classic stoner flick, Up In Smoke, is released starring Cheech and Chong.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with Sean Penn as a bong-smoking surfer.

The Breakfast Club: five high school stereotypes bond as a consequence of smoking of a joint.

Dr. Dre’s The Chronic—taking its name from a slang term for powerful weed and its cover art from a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers—is released. It and 2001 (1999), the latter with a marijuana leaf depicted on the cover, together sell over 10 million copies.

Set in 1976, the pro-pot Dazed and Confused is released with tag lines such as “Weed rules.”

California voters pass Proposition 215 allowing the medical use of marijuana.

October. Dazed and Confused star Matthew McConaughey is busted at his Texas home by officers who arrest him after observing him dancing naked and playing bongos.

Showtime’s Weeds depicts a widowed suburban mother played by Mary-Louise Parker becoming pot peddler. The show recently began its fifth season.

March. The UK Daily Mail publishes a story indicating that Keith Richards says he smokes weed “all the time.” He admits, “I smoke my head off. I smoke weed all the damn time. But that's my benign weed. That’s all I take, that's all I do. But I do smoke, and I've got some really good hash.”
August. Cannabis comedy Pineapple Express opens and becomes a hit.
November. Michael Phelps, the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history, is photographed at a South Carolina party smoking pot.

April. Kalpen Modi, who as Kal Penn played stoner Kumar of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), accepts a position as the associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Last Time

The last – it speaks of fatality and finality, the end of one historic moment and the beginning of another, but without the reassuring comfort of any continuity between them. The last (of anything) names an apocalyptic rupture, an unrecoverable end marking death and extinction—the last Passenger Pigeon, for instance, named Martha, which died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 p.m. on September 1, 1914. The last thus reaffirms our perception of time as linear, and the moment that is the last, as in “our last breath,” is a point in time that is inevitable and unavoidable, although we ourselves, ironically, will not actually observe it. The last is a point in time that erases the past but therefore also leaves the future radically open to new, and therefore terrifying, possibility. Last, of course, can mean an earlier or previous time, as in “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” And the expression, “at last,” names a long anticipated moment that has finally come to pass. But songs such as “Last Kiss” are about a moment in time that is both fatal and final, the conjoining of Eros and Thanatos, the embracing of the beautiful corpse.

Ten Lasting Moments:
The Band – The Last Waltz
The Drifters – Save the Last Dance For Me
The Eagles – The Last Resort
Edward Bear – Last Song
Don Henley – The Last Worthless Evening
The Monkees – Last Train to Clarksville
The Motels – Suddenly, Last Summer
The Rolling Stones – The Last Time
Bruce Springsteen – Last To Die
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers – Last Kiss

Saturday, August 29, 2009


An interrogation—a lengthy and methodical series of questions used by the police and the military to acquire crucial information—typically occurs after some sort of crime has been committed. The interviewees—the individuals who are asked this series of questions—are considered sources of information, or else suspects believed to be involved in the crime in some way. Linguistically speaking, an interrogative is a function word, used to acquire information that is stated in the form of a declarative statement. Interrogatives are sometimes also called WH- words because the majority of interrogatives in English start with WH-. They are used in questions (e.g., Where is she going?) and interrogative content clauses (I wonder where she is going?). Interrogatives include which, what, whose, who, whom (human), what, which (nonhuman), where (place), whence (origin), whither (goal), when, how (manner), why (motive), wherefore (reason), and whether (a question posed as alternatives among a series of choices).

Many pop songs employing the interrogative (“question songs”) are orthographically incorrect because they almost always omit the question mark. The wherefore behind this omission may be to suggest that while the song title is written using a wh- word and would therefore seem to be a question, it is really being asked by someone who already knows the answer—in other words, it is a question posed for its emotional effect (e.g., “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”). Question songs may therefore be considered as posing what is known as a “rhetorical question,” a question asked for its persuasive effect without expectation of a reply (e.g., Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?).

Interrogatives A—Z
Ace – How Long
Jimmy Buffett – Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)
The Cramps – Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?
Derek and The Dominos – Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad
The Everly Brothers – When Will I Be Loved
Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like We Do
Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On?
George Harrison – What Is Life
The Isley Brothers – Who’s That Lady
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Where Have All The Good Times Gone
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Do You Believe in Magic?
Lee Michaels – Do You Know What I Mean
Nine Inch Nails – Where Is Everybody?
The Offspring – Why Don’t You get A Job?
Elvis Presley – Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Who Do You Love?
The Rolling Stones – Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?
The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow
The Tubes – What Do You Want From Life?
U2 – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Van Halen – Could This Be Magic?
Hank Williams - Why Don't You Love Me
XTC – Are You Receiving Me?
Neil Young – Are You Ready For The Country?
Frank Zappa – Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Primitivist Myth

A few months ago I wrote a blog dealing with adjectival criticism and music, complaining that many popular music writers—like the AMG sort, for example—have a limited repertoire, preferring to label rather than to critique or interpret. Part of the problem is in understanding music as an art, and part is that the writing is shallow. The fact is, most writing on popular music, perhaps unintentionally, has the effect of dumbing it down. It is difficult to translate sonic experience into definition, and the standard deployment for some writers is predication of names on (adjectival) descriptions.

One individual who came across my blog a couple of months ago wrote to me personally (I hesitate to mention his name because he wrote to me in a private email, not in a blog comment), largely agreeing with me, observing that there are, of course, some good writers on popular music: Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Rob Bowman, James Lincoln Collier, Gunther Schuller, and Nat Hentoff, to name a few. These individuals are all exceptionally good writers—learned, passionate, insightful, dedicated, who demonstrate a remarkably vast erudition. He also made the point—and I think he’s right—that some of the best writing on music is on so-called “legitimate music,” observing that the problems of writing about “legitimate music” (jazz, for instance) are intrinsically different than those of popular music, simply because the rhetoric, diction, style, and assumptions about audience are so different. Much of the writing about pop music is purposefully dumbed down on the assumption that its presumed audience views anything remotely intellectual with utter contempt. He mentioned to me that one of his favorite books happened to be Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988), which he characterized as exploring jazz by channeling Walter Benjamin.

Two decades after the fact, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of Ted Gioia’s slim volume (152 pp.), and read it all in one sitting. For what it’s worth, I found it rich, learned, well-written, and—yes—thought-provoking. I was particularly taken with the chapter, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth,” which explores how jazz was embraced as a modernist art form because its earliest and most enthusiastic writers (mostly European) were also immensely interested in the idealization and theorization of the primitive. He observes that primitivism was a source of modernist art, but also served as a critique. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “primitive” and “exotic” others of non-Western cultures started attracting the attention of Western artists and became sources of new ideas and new forms: Picasso’s “Cubism” for example, or Puccini’s “Oriental” operas such as Madame Butterfly and Turandot. (The plundering of so-called “world music” by many contemporary pop music artists is an expression of the same impulse.) In other words, primitivism and exoticism became a fashion and also sources for “high” art. Gioia points out that one of the distortions of jazz by its early theorists resulted from the treatment of jazz as “natural” and “primitive”: French theorist and jazz lover Hugues Panassie—the “Venerable Frog”—was capable of writing:

primitive man generally has greater talent than civilized man. An excess of culture atrophies inspiration, and men crammed with culture tend too much to play tricks, to replace inspiration by lush technique under which one finds music stripped of real vitality (qtd. by Gioia, pp. 29-30)

Such presuppositions led to critiques of Louis Armstrong, for instance, as a “primitive genius.” Robert Goffin was to observe about Louis Armstrong, in Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, that Armstrong “is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music.”

Thus primitivism became a source for modernist art, and an individual who claimed to be a “modern” embraced jazz, even if he or she didn’t quite understand what it was doing musically. The influence of African masks on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, pictured), for instance, is an illustration of the way primitivism influenced modernist art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses. But their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes, their eyes are lopsided, and two of them have masks for heads. Their faces were influenced by African masks that Picasso assumed had once functioned as a kind of apotropaic magic—protection against evil spirits. Indeed, he was to say later that this painting was his “first exorcism painting,” and a particular danger he had in mind was life-threatening sexual disease, a source of considerable anxiety in Paris at the time—after all, these were days before penicillin.

Of course, as Gioia points out, “jazz is not primitive art. Nor, like the works of Picasso or Modigliani, is it imitative of primitive art. The jazz artist could not achieve the naïve attitude of the Lascoux cave painter even if he tried. And far from trying to imitate such artlessness, the jazz musician has strived, from as far back as we can trace, to increase his level of sophistication and his knowledge of his craft” (p. 45) But such was the power of the “Primitivist Myth” to distort perceptions of jazz music. As Gene Lees (b. 1928, author for years of the monthly Jazzletter) observes in his review of Barry Singer’s Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf (1992):

If the work of black songwriters and performers emphasized the torrid and wanton sexuality that was supposed to be a racial characteristic, it was because that was the way white publishers and producers perceived black people and because they demanded that black people be shown as lascivious exotics in entertainment designed for white audiences. Jazz as we know it emerged not as a black music meant for black audiences but largely as a black music for white audiences; blacks were barred from the audiences of Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Valuable Vinyl

According to ElvisMatters, the Belgian website dedicated to all things Elvis, MusicStack has tried to put together a list of the ten most valuable vinyl records, using different sources to come up with the list (eBay, Record Collector magazine, and others). The most expensive vinyl record? A copy of John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy, autographed by Lennon five hours before he was murdered. Beatles-related material holds the top three spots, followed by early stereo pressings, containing songs later removed, of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in the 4th most expensive spot. A record by Elvis comes in at 8th place, a one-sided promotional release for Stay Away, Joe (US, RCA Victor UNRM-9408, 1967), which sold for $25,000.

The complete Top Ten is as follows:

1. John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (Geffen, US LP, 1980) Autographed by Lennon five hours before Mark David Chapman assassinated him. Value: $525,000

2. The Quarrymen, “That’ll Be the Day”/“In Spite Of All The Danger” (UK 78 RPM, Acetate in plain sleeve, 1958) Only one copy made. Value: $180,000

3. The Beatles, Yesterday and Today (Capitol, US LP in “butcher” sleeve, 1966) Value: $38,500. Typically prices range from $150-$7,500

4. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (CBS, US LP, stereo 1963) Contains 4 tracks deleted from subsequent releases. Value: $35,000

5. Long Cleve Reed & Little Harvey Hull, “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” (Black Patti, US 78 RPM in plain sleeve, 1927) Value: $30,000

6. Frank Wilson, “Do I Love You?” (Tamla/Motown, US 7” 45 RPM in plain sleeve, 1965) Value: $30,000

7. Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico (US Album Acetate, in plain sleeve, 1966 with alternate versions of tracks from official release) Value: estimate $25,200

8. Elvis Presley, Stay Away, Joe (US, RCA Victor UNRM-9408, 1967) One sided promotional album. Value: $25,000

9. The Five Sharps, “Stormy Weather” (US, Jubilee 5104, 78 RPM, 1953) Value: $25,000

10. The Hornets, “I Can’t Believe” (US, States 127, 78 RPM, 1953) Value: $25,000

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Generation Jones, or Killing By Category

The mass media is fond of “sound bites,” utterances that, putatively, compress a great deal of information within a few words or a short phrase. The sound bite is a wonderful example of the way technology impacts the form messages take, in the same way, for instance, that cell phone texting has led to verbal constructions such as “THX” (thanks), “OMG!” (Oh My God!), “TBH” (To Be Honest), “L8R” (later), and so on. In the early days of internet discussion boards, there arose a phenomenon referred to as “flame wars” (another sound bite), the mutual misunderstanding of a series of messages that eventually culminated in vicious ad hominem attacks and name-calling. The so-called “flame war” is yet another consequence of technology impacting communication: e-mail and other forms of electronic communication tend to emphasize what rhetoricians call the “perlocutive” dimensions of a message (the meaning, the “point”) rather than the elocutive dimensions (how the message is worded and phrased). Just as eloquence is a consequence of literacy, so too is the sound bite a consequence of the (electronic) mass media. It’s an example of what Marshall McLuhan meant by his slogan, “The medium is the message.” I’m distrustful of sound bites, although I use them. The problem is that they distort and reduce the complexity of issues and problems, and because they are short and often alliterative, they are easy to remember, and hence to repeat. As a consequence they are frequently invoked and get passed around perhaps too easily, and give their user the illusion of intellectual mastery of a topic or issue that he or she knows actually very little about.

I instinctively distrust someone who doesn’t wish to debate or argue. When someone tells me something is “clear” or “obvious,” then I immediately know it isn’t. To tell me that something is “clear” or “obvious” is, in effect, telling me the discussion is over, that the conversation is ended. Imagine my reaction, then, when a reader of my previous blog, which I titled “Dead Elvis” but which was about how both “dead Elvis” and “Woodstock” are now collective constructions (those who remain or come after have the right to speak for those who are gone), left a comment calling my blog “interesting.” When someone tells me something I’ve written is “interesting,” my reaction is the same as that when someone tells me something is “clear” or “obvious”: I immediately know it isn’t. So an “interesting” blog is really “not interesting,” or, more likely, poorly written and argued, or intellectually shallow, simplistic, and probably just plain wrong. Of course, he or she may be right about my previous blog, for while I had, of course, heard of the “Baby Boom Generation” and “Generation X,” until I read the comment I had never heard of the sound bite “Generation Jones”—and that’s just what it is, a sound bite, a consequence of the mass media disseminating a phrase which gives its user the illusion of mastery of a tremendously complicated issue:

Arguably, the biggest legacy of Woodstock is its huge impact on the real children of the sixties: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). This USA TODAY op-ed speaks to the relevance today of the sixties counterculture impact on GenJones:

Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report forcast [sic] the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

My initial reaction to the comment was that the phrase, “Generation Jones,” as opposed to “Baby Boom Generation,” is a distinction without a difference. Moreover, if commentators have picked up the phrase so quickly and it is moving with viral-like speed through the media, then I’m immediately suspicious, because it is not the function of the mass media to educate. The function of the mass media is to amuse, entertain, and inform (e.g., gains and losses on the stock market, relative humidity, weekend box-office receipts, baseball scores, amounts of rainfall, etc.), and, perhaps most importantly, to inculcate individuals with the “proper” values (one aspect of advertising). That is to say, the primary function of the mass media is not to give us the truth, but to disseminate hearsay, conjecture, assumptions, speculations, opinions, and theories, and to reduce tremendously complex issues to matters of assent, that is, “for” or “against,” as if issues are that simple.

For a sound bite such as “Generation Jones” is not particularly informative or insightful. It may be generating a lot of heat within the media, but I suspect very little light. What’s more, it is an essentializing concept. The whole point of my “Dead Elvis” blog was to avoid the limitations of an essentialist understanding of the “Woodstock generation.” Essentialism, Trina Grillo writes,

is the notion that there is a single woman’s, or Black person’s, or any other group’s experience that can be described independently from other aspects of the person—that there is an “essence” to that experience. An essentialist outlook assumes that the experience of being a member of the group under discussion is a stable one, one with a clear meaning, a meaning constant through time, space, and different historical, social, political, and personal contexts. (qtd. in Sherene H. Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, p. 157)

In other words, to essentialize is to kill by category. For in fact, multiple scripts determine people’s lives, and their complex interaction cannot be comprehended by essentializing concepts such as “Generation Jones.” However, I invite all those who care or are interested to read the article on Generation Jones available through the link above, and I thank the reader for taking the time to write the comment on my previous blog.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dead Elvis

Elvis Presley died 32 years ago yesterday (August 16). Preoccupied as it was with selling Woodstock this past weekend, the mass media failed to commemorate Elvis’s death with similar aplomb. Indeed, so far as I know, there was no mention of the fact that while the Woodstock festival as going on, precisely at the same time, Elvis was at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the midst of doing four weeks of sold out shows, making some of the finest music of his career. (His successful return to the stage is the subject of an excellent new book by Ken Sharp, pictured at the left.) By the end of October 1969, “Suspicious Minds” would reach No. 1 in the charts, the culmination of Elvis’s so-called “comeback” after eight years of making largely mediocre films—25 of them since he was discharged from the Army in 1960. He made 27 films 1960-69, but The Trouble With Girls would not be released until September 1969, and Change of Habit, his final dramatic feature film, would not be released until November.

For those who care, Elvis Presley shall always be a daunting hermeneutic enigma. The Woodstock festival and Elvis are similar in that they have both become collective representations, but the fact is, the Woodstock festival simply doesn’t hold the same daunting, elusive mystery as Elvis does. In his book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Greil Marcus calls the invention of dead Elvis, “a great common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?” Because dead Elvis is a collective representation, it both legitimizes and subverts “Elvis” the man. Perhaps the whole issue is irrelevant, except that Marcus can’t get past the vast amount of cultural expenditure invested in constructing dead Elvis. Nor can I. But a great deal of cultural production has gone into the invention of “Woodstock” as well, and the event, too, has been both legitimized, and subverted, the past four decades. The difference between the two cultural emblems, though, is that dead Elvis is largely perceived as an exemplar of tastelessness (inauthenticity), while Woodstock is perceived as a genuine expression of cultural yearning (authenticity), of a generation’s “innocence.” What are the reasons for these distinct cultural perceptions?

The reasons underlying these perceptions are astutely explored in an essay by Linda Ray Pratt, “Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity,” which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, Dr. Pratt, writing as a Southerner herself, discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis is held in such contempt by so many. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was “the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants”.... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis “remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music,” she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern “paranoia” because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape the Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners. The contempt for his Southern cracker origins may have been why he was never allowed to be the great actor he could have been. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn’t escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy.

It is widely accepted as fact that over the years many people have claimed to have been at Woodstock although they actually were not, as if being there is a badge of honor, symbolic cultural capital like having received a wartime medal of valor. One wonders whether Woodstock would still have its aura had it been held in Mississippi or Alabama. I suspect not, for “Woodstock” has had the fortune of being attached to no place (it wasn’t actually in Woodstock, it was on a farm), while in contrast, Elvis has never escaped the widespread stigma of being from the South.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock In The Year 2525

It should be rather obvious that this weekend’s 40th anniversary of Woodstock is producing a torrent of recollections about the event, on the assumption there’s something worth remembering, or that hasn’t been remembered before. For the fact is, we all know what there is to know: that it was a financial flop, that there were heavy rainstorms, overcrowding, overdoses, and lots of very hungry people, etc., etc. What it’s really about, of course, is merchandising—Woodstock has been sold for 40 years now—and has become one of the most heavily mythologized events of the 1960s. The event has come to “represent” the Sixties, even though it occurred in August 1969, at the end of the decade, yet more evidence that in the popular imagination what is referred to as “The Sixties” is primarily composed of events that took place from 1968 on.

Assuming that somehow “The Sixties” can be understood exclusively by the events defining youth culture at the time, what was the No. 1 hit on the Top 40 charts the weekend of Woodstock? Was it a song by The Beatles? The Jackson 5? Jimi Hendrix? Janis Joplin? Actually it was by none of these artists or groups. The No. 1 hit in the country the weekend of Woodstock, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, was Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus),” and had been at that spot since July 12. In other words, assuming popular music “reflected” the times like a mirror, what preoccupied most people was the annihilation of the human race, not nude bathing and port-o-potties. (Let’s face it, if there were indeed 300,000 people on Max Yasgur’s 600 acre farm for seventy-two hours or so, there was a whole lotta excrement goin’ on.) And what song finally knocked “In The Year 2525” out of the No. 1 spot? The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” How does that song “reflect” the times? Neither Zager & Evans nor the Rolling Stones were at Woodstock, at least not as performers. Neither was the group that knocked the Rolling Stones and “Honky Tonk Women” out of Number 1: The Archies, with “Sugar, Sugar.” And by then we’re almost into 1970, and images of crazed hippies (Manson et al.) replaced images of mud-and-rain-drenched hippies in the mass media.

History has impressed upon us by now virtually all the names of the 32 acts at Woodstock, but do we know the names of the acts that were invited but declined the offer to perform? According to digitaldreamdoor, the acts were as follows; this list is more revealing of the times than the bands who actually did perform.

The Beatles – They couldn’t come together
Led Zeppelin – Better paying gig
Bob Dylan – Didn’t like hippies
The Byrds – Turned it down because of a fracas during a performance earlier that year
Tommy James & the Shondells – Apparently misinformed about the size of the event
Jethro Tull – It was no big deal
The Moody Blues – Unknown; perhaps still searching for the lost chord
Mind Garage – Thought it was no big deal, and anyway had a better paying gig

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Virtue of Forgettable Records

The French film critic André Bazin was able to find a moment of redeeming value in an otherwise forgettable movie. For him, a mediocre film always had a moment of real beauty. He was the Will Rogers of movie critics, for it was Will Rogers who is claimed to have said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Bazin was like that with movies. Bazin’s attitude about movie going was remarkably similar to that of the Surrealist Man Ray, who wrote, “The worst films I’ve ever seen, the ones that send me to sleep, contain ten or fifteen valid minutes. The best films I’ve ever seen only contain ten or fifteen valid minutes” (qtd. in Paul Hammond, Ed., The Shadow and Its Shadow, p. 84). Man Ray also had the habit of watching movies through his fingers, so that he could see only isolated parts of the screen. Actually, I perfectly understand the impulse behind Man Ray’s habit. For many years I had a movie-going habit that my friends found very annoying: I would never arrive at the movie theater on time, that is to say, before the movie started. I was always late, deliberately, meaning I would miss the first few minutes. I preferred watching movies this way because it always seemed to make the movie more provocative and interesting. After all, watching a movie isn’t all about the narrative, and besides, since movies are a mass art (e.g., Hollywood), they are simply variations on familiar forms. Hollywood isn’t interested in redefining the way people watch movies; on the contrary, its success largely depends upon deep-rooted viewing habits. Habits don’t develop simply because of compulsive behavior; they are learned and reinforced. Example: people go the movie theater early to avoid lines and to get the best seats. Consequently, they sit through the opening credits and endure the dreary opening minutes. After several iterations of this pattern, it becomes a habit.

For in fact most movies are dull and mediocre. Remember Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” The typical record album is very much like one of Bazin’s movies: dull and mediocre, with merely a few remarkable minutes. The upside to this situation, though, is that these two or three valid minutes are very much worth hearing. No doubt this realization prompted Mitch Miller to invent the type of album known as “greatest hits,” even though he himself is responsible for making some of the most boring music ever put to record. In the days of the hegemony of vinyl records, I always found that I preferred one side of the record to the other, a listening habit not encouraged by the digital storage medium (I suppose the digital equivalent of preferring one side to the other is the “playlist,” allowing the programmer to skip or omit altogether the crappy stuff). For instance, I always preferred side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road to side one (although I’d play side one on occasion primarily just so I could listen to “Octopus’s Garden”), while I vastly preferred side one of the James Gang’s Rides Again. I think side two of Van Morrison’s Into the Music is the greatest single side of music he ever recorded, and I much prefer the second side of Led Zeppelin III. So in honor of André Bazin, I’ve compiled a list of mediocre and largely forgettable albums that contain an utterly remarkable few minutes. It’s the proverbial drop in the bucket.

Aerosmith, Toys in the Attic
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu
The Doors, Strange Days
The Eagles, Greatest Hits
Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
The Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits 1974-78
The Moody Blues, On the Threshold of a Dream
The Mothers of Invention, Burnt Weeny Sandwich
Traffic, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Yes, Fragile
Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cult Records

Like any avant-garde movement, rock ‘n’ roll became “popular” because it found a glamorous figure that attracted the interest and attention of outsiders—Elvis Presley. The so-called “rock revolution” of the 1960s did much the same thing, acquiring a key group of figures—a band—around which it could organize and define itself—The Beatles. Most importantly, The Beatles happened to be musically prolific, but also charming, clever, and witty—that is to say, articulate. While not as charming, clever, or witty as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones had what it needed the most, a star, in this case Mick Jagger, an individual provocative and garrulous enough to overcome the band’s basic inarticulateness. Bob Dylan was articulate, too, but he also, as the documentary Dont Look Back (1967) demonstrated, had an additional ingredient—he gave the impression of being a true rebel.

The spectacular careers of the Beatles and of Bob Dylan, among others, serve as illustrations of the effectiveness of thinking not in terms of the single but in terms of the album. The musical failure of Elvis during much of the 60s was the result of mismanagement, of handlers who didn’t really understand the youth of the day and who thought pop songs were novelty tunes for teenagers—singles—around which the films of the 60s were built (“Viva Las Vegas,” “Do the Clam”). The Beatles and Bob Dylan, in contrast, refocused their energies on the long-term, on having a career. And what is a career but a narrative that charts an artistic evolution? Their energies were focused on development, on “growth,” not simply on the individual album.

While so-called “cult” albums have the reputations they do in part because of the manner of their consumption—in the form of the strong attachments and mild obsessions to which they give rise—a cult album is also the sign of a figure or band whose career failed, meaning there is no narrative that can be written that can make sense of the album’s creation. The aura of mystery that surrounds the band and its members is largely due to the lack of any coherent narrative that can explain the band’s artistic development: the album emerges as if “from nowhere,” with no clear antecedent and with no comparable album released afterward. Those albums that have become cult failed to find an audience upon their release; this initial commercial reception is crucial to laying the groundwork for its later recognition as a classic, based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground & Nico album, 1967)—that initial neglect guarantees greatness.

11 Cult Albums, 1967—1998:
Tim Buckley – Starsailor
Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
Francoise Hardy – La Question
Penelope Houston – Birdboys
Love – Forever Changes
The Modern Lovers – The Original Modern Lovers
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Skip Spence – Oar
The United States of America – The United States of America
The Unknowns – The Unknowns
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

Thursday, August 6, 2009

That Great Gig in the Sky

There was a painting for sale on eBay a few days ago depicting Elvis, dressed in a white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, poised as if he were about to step from a heavenly cloud, his hand extended in welcome to Michael Jackson. Rock and roll heaven, obviously, for which Elvis serves as gatekeeper, the role of St. Peter. Of course, the word kitsch immediately comes to mind, but what interests me more than the relationship between kitsch and mass culture is the link between Elvis and Michael Jackson. The painting seems to answer the fundamental question, did-he-go-to-heaven-or-did-he-go-to-hell? Apparently every rock star, even Jim Morrison, goes to heaven, as he does in the Righteous Brothers’ 1974 hit, “Rock and Roll Heaven”—speaking of kitsch—in which Morrison, Jim Croce, and Bobby Darin are in “a helluva band” along with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding. The updated, 1990 version of the song added references to Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Dennis Wilson, John Lennon and Roy Orbison. (So far, the only woman privileged enough to enter rock and roll heaven remains Janis Joplin, otherwise it’s a men’s club.) “Rock and Roll Heaven,” of course, is merely the rock incarnation of Tex Ritter’s 1961 country-corn song, “I Dreamed Of A Hillbilly Heaven,” in which all of the dreamed-of elect were also men.

All famous people forge their own spectacularly perverse form of cultural weirdness. Elvis has been perhaps exemplary in this regard, a true cultural obsession. In Dead Elvis (1991), Greil Marcus explores this cultural obsession, the “second life” of Elvis as revealed through “songs, art works, books, movies, dreams . . . advertisements, tabloid headlines, bestsellers, urban legends, [and] nightclub japes.” (One example of Elvis in the popular imagination is his depiction on the Bill Barminski cover for the 12” EP by Death Ride ’69, Elvis Christ [1988], shown above.) And now Michael Jackson, too, has begun his second life, his life after death, having joined Elvis in heaven for a great gig in the sky. The painting I saw for sale on eBay demonstrates as much, that Michael Jackson has entered a new phase, an image detached from his body, during which his image floats around to be attached to all sorts of cultural artifacts. This new, disembodied phase might well be called, Michael: The Ashtray.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blog Days

Since we’re in the dog days, I thought I’d reflect on my blog these days. In an earlier post, in January of this year, I said I anticipated that I would not be able to stay on par with the number of posts I made last year, and this projection has proved to be true. On this date last year I’d posted 126 times; not counting today’s post, this year I’ve posted only 96 times—that’s thirty fewer posts over the course of seven months, or roughly four per month. The drop-off is slightly more than I thought it would be, but it’s not a huge drop in any case. Perhaps I’ll be able to make some of them up by the end of the year; we’ll see. I’ve found that blogging keeps the old writing muscle in good shape, and I think forcing myself to write regularly has actually enabled me to write both faster and with more accuracy. That’s a subjective impression, of course, but in any case I think despite the time it takes away from other activities, blogging has been good for me, and while the number of posts has dropped slightly this year, hopefully the quality has not. I’m quickly closing in on 40,000 page views, meaning that the past few months have seen a rather sharp increase in hits. So although in terms of numbers my posts are down from last year, the number of hits is up considerably.

By far, the most positive outcome of the blogging experience has been that I’ve discovered things I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. In that regard I’ve managed to adhere to one rule I set for myself, not to approach the blog with a predetermined agenda or set of issues. Yesterday’s blog entry is a good example: I had only a vague approximation of what I wanted to write about, namely the subject of the rock ‘n’ roll movie, having seen Rock Around the Clock a couple of months ago. Beyond that general topic I had no idea what I wanted to say. I pulled a couple of books on the subject off the shelf— Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics, first issued in the late 1980s and revised and reissued in 2002, and also David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed’s Rock on Film, published in 1982 and badly in need of updating. The books provided me the gist of my blog on the rock movie, but ironically, by what they did not choose to talk about. As I paged through these books, I found myself forming a question, namely that of how the cinema relied on myths of African Americans to shape the fundamental narratives and ideologies of rock ‘n’ roll movies. I think that’s a legitimate question, especially since the so-called “rock ‘n’ roll movie” was one effect of the rock revolution created by Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and others. Admittedly, my question was formed by skimming two books on the subject, hardly a scholarly approach—but this is a blog, after all, not a scholarly journal. Moreover, my underlying motive is to teach myself something, however modest the insight, not to revolutionize the field of rock studies. I strongly suspect that I’m not the only one to have asked this specific question about the rock movie—in fact, although I have not thoroughly researched the subject, I’m quite sure I’m not. But the more important point is that had I not sat down to write on the subject, I never would have thought seriously about the issue, and that’s the whole point of this blog in the first place. There are days when I feel like throwing in the towel and tearing it all down—I’ve never spoken to a blogger who didn’t have the same inclination—but for now, as long as I’m learning something, I’m content to continue writing. I hope you will stick with me, if for no other reason than the odd pleasure of not knowing where you’re going. Neither do I.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rock On Film

According to Thomas Doherty, in his book Teenagers and Teenpics, it was the use of “Rock Around the Clock” over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle—released March 1955—that revealed to Hollywood producers rock music could heighten the appeal of a movie (p. 76). However, early on, movies featuring rock music and rock musicians are largely an undistinguished lot, and command little interest anymore, except that of an historic kind. I recently tried to watch the Sam Katzman produced Rock Around the Clock (released in March 1956 according to the IMDB, that is, precisely a year after Blackboard Jungle), featuring Bill Haley and His Comets as well as Alan Freed, and found myself dozing off after the first thirty minutes. Its most interesting feature was the way it demonstrated how the jive talk of jazz culture was quickly imitated by early rock ‘n’ rollers—the word “bebop,” for instance, was used early on to refer to rock music. This feature is revealing because it shows how early (white) rockers tried to manage their relationship to black (masculine) culture.

This historic hindsight allows us to see that a fundamental problem of early movies about rock music was how to handle the complex negotiation of white forays into black culture. Certainly this problem was often displaced, as it is, for instance, in Rock Around the Clock, in which the underlying dynamic is between competing forms of music. Little Richard and Chuck Berry each appeared in a film in 1956 (Don’t Knock the Rock and Rock, Rock, Rock, respectively) but the figure—the transitional object—that eventually allowed such white forays was, of course, Elvis Presley, who burst onto the national stage in 1956. And yet, with few exceptions, Elvis’s channeling of black male sexuality was largely confined to his stage performance, and virtually absent from his cinematic performances, revealing how rock culture and cinematic culture had radically distinct racial orientations. This disparate orientation explains, I think, why virtually no rock films of this era now have little intrinsic interest beyond their historic (documentary) value. Elvis’s rise to fame coincided with the huge increase in the number of televisions in American homes; the estimated number of viewers who saw Elvis on television in 1956 reveals as much about the sheer number of TV sets in America at the time as it does Elvis’s dynamic stage presence. However, the key point is that what was perceived as so threatening in Elvis’s TV performances is largely absent in his cinematic performances; the same disjunction explains why so many early rock films are so lifeless.