Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Beginning To The Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Free Range

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Country Rock

Yesterday’s blog post on folk rock prompted me to give some serious thought to country rock, a rock form to which folk rock is a distant cousin. In contrast to folk rock, which during the short time of its existence produced some classic songs, country rock is yet another instance of a hyphenated rock form that has been only marginally successful, artistically speaking. I’m not using country rock as a synonym for rockabilly, hillbilly song forms sung with blues-gospel feeling (e.g., Elvis’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”). Indeed, as the Sun recordings of Elvis suggest, rockabilly characterized the lives of working-class Southerners (pejoratively referred to as “white trash”) the way the blues characterized the lives of black Americans throughout the Delta. Country rock is neither rockabilly nor the blues, although it borrowed certain elements of rockabilly, certainly. Arising in the late 1960s, the earliest performers of country rock--the Byrds during the Sweetheart of the Rodeo period (1968), the Flying Burrito Brothers during Gram Parsons’s tenure (The Gilded Palace of Sin, 1969)--all had long hair, signaling they had at the very least borrowed the youthful insolence of rockabilly (that is, the threatening aspects of the Fifties Elvis). In short, country rock was country music played with loud electric guitars by musicians with long hair. Gram Parsons, the figure most associated with country rock, actually hated the designation country rock and referred to it as “plastic dry fuck,” meaning that as far as he was concerned, he played authentic country music. In this sense, country rock was to the arch-conservative country music establishment what folk rock was to the folk establishment: it largely considered electric instruments as “inauthentic,” especially so when played by a bunch of hippies. Of the form’s practitioners, the later Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers are arguably the best, although groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones also recorded songs that might be considered country rock. Of the Beatles, Ringo Starr had the best feel for country, as exemplified by his singular solo album issued in 1970, Beaucoups of Blues, which I highly recommend.

Required Listening:
The International Submarine Band, Safe At Home (1968; recorded 1967)
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)
The Flying Burrito Brothers, Burrito Deluxe (1970)
Ringo Starr, Beaucoups of Blues (1970)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Folk Rock

The designation “folk rock” rather obviously referred to rock derived from folk music sources. Bob Dylan’s controversial “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival on 25 July 1965 seems now to be a reaction against the arch-conservatism of the folk movement, for which electric instruments were considered “inauthentic.” The first major folk-rock hit, The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was released in April 1965, quickly following the release of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home the previous month, on which the song had first appeared. Early on, folk rock managed to avoid charges of being meretricious by virtue of its lyrical content, which reflected the left-liberal bohemianism of the folk movement it largely supplanted. (The music of the folk revival prospered in the coffee houses and intimate clubs near college campuses and in the bigger cities.) The Byrds’ follow-up to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” released later in 1965, with lyrics derived from Ecclesiastes and a melody by Pete Seeger, is a good example of folk rock, as musically it sounded similar to the Beatles, although lyrically speaking it was reasonably sophisticated--and the inspirational source of the lyrics gave it a certain prestige. It may be that folk rock sought to bridge the college campus and the general, popular culture, then in the throngs of Beatlemania. “Topical” songs, such as Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (also 1965), betray the demand for “relevance” that sought to appeal to the campus and the coffee house. (As a “topical” song, McGuire’s hit has aged badly, unlike the music of the Byrds.) Why did the popularity of folk rock last only for a short time? Perhaps the reason lay in the influence of Modernist aesthetics, which demanded the singular perception of a discrete, that is solo, artist. Hence folk rock gave way to the “singer/songwriter” movement, revealed in the subsequent careers of certain members of folk rock bands such as The Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield: the former launched the career of John Sebastian, the latter Neil Young.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eat To The Beat

With Thanksgiving approaching, I inevitably thought of Arlo Guthrie’s classic song, “Alice’s Restaurant” (“it all started two Thanksgivings ago”), which then prompted me to think about food. As a (secular) national holiday, Thanksgiving (originally associated with our Puritan roots), ironically, has come to be associated with excessive appetite, the propensity to over-consume. I say this because the day after Thanksgiving is now referred to as “Black Friday,” a celebration of the consumer mentality, the biggest shopping day of the year. Oral excess is to be matched by excessive spending: in one massive mashup of excessive appetite, one is to over-eat and then to over-spend. Material acquisition, health, and decadence all merge into one colossal celebration of figurative orality.

In metaphorical terms, “appetite” is to sexual fulfillment what “thirst” is to spiritual fulfillment; both terms are used as figurations of human longing and desire: “sexual appetite,” and “spiritual thirst.” Both terms collide in the figure of dead Elvis, celebrated on the one hand as a nice boy with deep religious convictions, and on the other as someone with an insatiable appetite for snacks and so-called “junk” food. His life story is contained in images, from his well-known baby photo to the picture of Elvis in his coffin, as published in National Enquirer. So many rock ‘n’ roll songs have celebrated appetite, I thought I’d list a few to coincide with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Appetizers:
The B-52’s - “Rock Lobster”
The Beatles - “Savoy Truffle”
James Brown (as Nat Kendrick and the Swans) - “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes”
Jimmy Buffett - “Cheeseburger in Paradise”
Steve Goodman - “Chicken Cordon Blues”
Hot Butter - “Popcorn”
Jay & The Techniques - “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”
The Newbeats - “Bread and Butter”
Harry Nilsson - “Coconut”
Paul Revere & The Raiders- “Hungry”
O. C. Smith - “Little Green Apples”
Tin Tin - “Toast and Marmalade for Tea”
Warrant - “Cherry Pie”

Sunday, November 15, 2009


No one remembers happy lovers. “Happily ever after” simply means stirring the oatmeal and doing the laundry, and that sort of scenario is uninteresting. Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa, Antony and Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere, all are famous lovers whose stories end tragically. James Cameron’s Titanic is the biggest grossing film of all time—and it’s not because it’s just another disaster film. Without the tragic love story, and the obstacle of the class barrier that in large part creates it, you have another Poseidon Adventure. As Lysander observes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Ay me! For aught that I could ever read,/Could ever hear by tale or history,/The course of true love never did run smooth.” The greatest obstacle to love is death, but one of the most prevalent obstacles is that of class—even in America, where we’re not supposed to care about such things.

Songs About The Class Barrier:
Phil Collins – Like China
Billy Joel – Only the Good Die Young
Dickey Lee – Patches
Gene Pitney – Princess In Rags
Johnny Rivers – The Poor Side of Town
Sonny & Cher – Baby Don’t Go
George Strait – Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Conway Twitty – Tight Fightin’ Jeans
The 4 Seasons – Rag Doll
The 4 Seasons – Dawn (Go Away)
Charlie Walker – Pick Me Up On Your Way Down
Hank Williams, Jr. – This Ain’t Dallas
Mark Wills – Jacob’s Ladder
Faron Young – Country Girl

Required Reading:
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Long before “rhythm and blues” records replaced the use of “race records,” there was gutbucket, the kind of R&B played in dives and cheap saloons, the sort of places where you could gamble, buy hard liquor, and, if you so desired, hire a prostitute (the sort of cheap saloons that characterized New Orleans’ Storyville district). My guess is that “gutbucket” is a reference to the can (or bucket) in which customers could put money to support the musicians that played in these places. According to Ricky Riccardi, a self-proclaimed “Louis Armstrong freak,” “Gut Bucket” is a term used among the fish markets in New Orleans. According to Riccardi, “the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket.” After one of the historic recording sessions in 1925, Louis Armstrong was asked what name to give to song he and his Hot Five had just recorded—he said call it “Gut Bucket Blues,” a name for “low down blues.” He might also have said, “low down dirty blues.”

A washtub bass, which uses a washtub as a resonator, once was referred to as a “gutbucket”; the washtub bass was used in African American jug (folk) bands. In the 1920s and 1930s, jazz bands that played traditional (“New Orleans”) jazz referred to themselves jug bands, as for instance, with Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band. Bands such as Tampa Red’s often performed songs with raunchy lyrics, such as “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll),” one of the songs which eventually inspired the use of the term “Rock ‘n’ roll” to describe a certain form of R&B.

Some Collections of Gutbucket:
Various Artists - Risqué Rhythm: Nasty 50s R&B
Various Artists - Copulatin' Blues
Various Artists - Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon: The Ultimate Rude Blues Collection
Various Artists - Bed Spring Poker: Meat In Motion, 1926-1951
Various Artists - Eat to the Beat: The Dirtiest of them Dirty Blues

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ode to Billy Joel

Swamp Rock is a term coined by producer Jerry Wexler in the late 1960s to describe the sound of records made by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Bayou Country, 1969) and Louisiana-born singer/songwriter Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie,” also 1969). Swamp rock is the musical equivalent of the literary genre known as “local color,” and while it isn’t generally considered an instance of so-called Swamp Rock, the popularity of this particular musical form was jump-started by Bobbie Gentry’s huge hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” a Number 1 single released in 1967. In fact, Gentry’s debut album, Ode to Billie Joe, knocked the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of charts in the late summer of 1967. (Incidentally, as an instance of local color, I think it’s arguable that Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 smash hit, “Harper Valley PTA” profited greatly by the success of “Ode to Billie Joe.”) Coincidentally released at about the same as the “The Golliwogs” were reinventing themselves as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the musically sparse, lyrically haunting “Ode to Billie Joe,” often considered an example of “Southern Gothic” and not Swamp Rock, sounded “down-home”—and therefore authentic. Hence Swamp Rock, characterized by a heavy, fluid bass and distorted reverb guitar, was perceived to have actually emerged from the Louisiana bayous (the inspiration for the term), as CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” (1969) suggests. Since the lyrical content of the music often spoke to backwoods, rural experience and relied heavily on colloquial expression and local idioms—Tony Joe White actually was from Louisiana and his thick Southern accent was immediately noticeable—it was therefore considered “authentic.” However, since Creedence Clearwater Revival was from the Bay Area of San Francisco and not from the Louisiana bayou country, Swamp Rock may be considered an instance of the way the perception of authenticity can legitimize a certain form of popular music, and hence raise its cultural cachet in the marketplace. Just as the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” (from Abbey Road) was initially believed to have been recorded by a local band by “Swamp pop” enthusiasts in the New Orleans area, so, too, could CCR’s John Fogerty sound convincingly Southern.

Required Listening:
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Born on the Bayou (1969)
John Fogerty – Blue Moon Swamp (Geffen, 2004)
Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe (1967)
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Swamp Music (1974)
Jerry Reed – Amos Moses (1970)
Jim Stafford – Swamp Witch (1973)
Tail Gators – Swamp Rock (Wrestler Records, 1992)
The Ventures – Hawaii Five-O/Swamp Rock (One Way, 1996)
Tony Joe White – Polk Salad Annie (1969)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Earth’s Diurnal Course

Today’s blog entry represents my 146th of this year, and 365th overall. Because it’s my 365th post—the number of days in a year, except when leap year makes it 366—I thought it appropriate to blog, briefly, about songs featuring the word “year” (not as a calendar year, but as a long ago season, a specific time in one’s life which invokes a powerful memory, or a generalized time period in one’s life) as well as songs about years. After all, one of my favorite British blues-rock bands is Ten Years After (the cover to 1968’s Undead is pictured) formed in November 1966 and named in honor of Elvis Presley (an idol of Alvin Lee’s), who popularized rock ‘n’ roll in the year 1956—a very good year indeed.

The Year As A Season:
David Bowie – Golden Years (Station to Station)
David Bowie – Five Years (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars)
Death Cab For Cutie – The New Year (Studio X Sessions EP)
George Jones – A Good Year For the Roses (A Good Year For The Roses: The Complete Musicor Recordings 1965-1971, Part 2)
Norah Jones – Seven Years (Come Away With Me)
Van Morrison – Celtic New Year (Magic Time)
Frank Sinatra – It Was A Very Good Year (September of My Years)
Al Stewart – Year of the Cat (Year of the Cat)
U2 – New Year’s Day (War)
Zager & Evans – In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) (Billboard Top Pop Hits: 1969)

Songs About Years:
Bryan Adams – Summer Of ‘69 (Reckless)
Ryan Adams – 1974 (Rock N Roll)
David Bowie – 1984 (Diamond Dogs)
John Cale – Paris 1919 (Paris 1919)
The Clash – 1977 (Super Black Market Clash)
Robyn Hitchcock – 1974 (A Star For Bram)
Rickie Lee Jones – On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 (Rickie Lee Jones)
Paul McCartney & Wings – Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five (Band On The Run)
Neutral Milk Hotel – Holland, 1945 (In The Aeroplane Over The Sea)
New Order – 1963 (Singles)
Harry Nilsson – 1941 (Aerial Pandemonium Ballet)
Josh Rouse – 1972 (1972)
Smashing Pumpkins – 1979 (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness)
The Stooges – 1969 (The Stooges)
Prefab Sprout – Carnival 2000 (Jordan: The Comeback)
Prince – 1999 (1999)
Rush – 2112 (2112)
Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons – December 1963 (Oh What A Night) (Who Loves You)
The Who – 1921 (Tommy)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

B's Wax

B side—Sometimes referred to as the “flip side” during the era of the 7” vinyl, 45 rpm single, meaningful only in contrast to the A side, which contained the more heavily promoted song, presumably the “hit.” The alternate (non-hit) song on the B side could well become a hit, of course, revealing the slipperiness of the A/B distinction. In contemporary marketing terminology, the B side could be considered the equivalent of “value-added content,” but in the era of the compact disc the B side has largely been supplanted by value-added content referred to as the “exclusive” or “unreleased” track, the “bonus” track, the “non-album” track, or “rare” track (which may once have been a B side if the group has been recording long enough). The “outtake,” which once referred to a performance of a song left off a release, is now sometimes disingenuously referred to as an “alternate” version, and is considered as an additional, exploitable revenue stream by the “content provider” of the artist’s music.

In its song about the hellish, self-destructive life of the rock star, “Burnin’ For You,” Blue Oyster Cult’s vocalist laments all the time he’s sacrificed to his life on the road, speaking of “Time I’ll never know,” and realizing “Time ain’t on my side.” He also wryly observes that unlike his fans, he has no time “to play B sides” (the mondegreen version of this line widely available on the web renders it, “Time to play besides”). For the music consumer, the collectable value of the B side exceeds its potential aesthetic value. Just as the automobile exceeds its strictly utilitarian value as a means of transportation and possesses a symbolic cultural capital (“status”), so to does the B side to music collectors. To possess all of a band’s released singles means that one also possesses all of the B sides. The B side gives the collector a sense of completion, of plenitude, but it also exemplifies a world of chronic overchoice and oppressive abundance. To lack all of the B sides, though, is to render one’s life incomplete and unfulfilled, and contributes to the development of obsessive behavior and excessive monetary expenditure.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Perusing a portion of my vinyl LP collection the other day, I noticed how many of them bore the tell-tale mark of the cut-out bin. (A cut-out was a record deleted from a company’s catalogue, either because the record failed to sell, or did not sell a requisite number of copies within a specified period of time.) Some have a hole in the cover (some clearly punched through, some done with what seems to have been a screwdriver, tearing the cover unnecessarily), and some have a cut corner. I suppose that’s one activity I miss from the old vinyl record store days, perusing the cut-out bins, searching for a bargain and occasionally finding a great record in the process. But in addition to the cut-out bin, there was the import bin; I frequented both places. As one might imagine, the records in the import bin were normally priced a bit higher than domestic LPs, but the imports were always worth checking out, and many titles were only available there. My vinyl LP copy of King Crimson’s Earthbound, for instance, bears the cover sticker marking it a “Jem Records Import,” as does my copy of The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson.

One band that seemed to dwell nowhere else but in those two places—the cut-out bins and the import bins—was Nektar (ancient Greek spelling of nectar). I came across these albums the other day, and I noticed that I had purchased every single one of them as a cut-out. Not that I have a complete collection of the band’s albums. I have only a few of the albums that were issued domestically by Passport—A Tab in the Ocean (1972), Remember the Future (1973), Recycled (1975), and my favorite, Down to Earth (1974). Nektar was composed of five Britons who played psychedelic-tinged progressive rock à la Hawkwind or Gentle Giant. Their first records were issued by the German Bellaphon label, which is why the band’s records could be found in the import bins. Not nearly as popular as progressive bands such as Genesis or Yes, as I mentioned above I never found any of Nektar’s albums issued by Passport anywhere but in the cut-out bins. I know Nektar maintains a small cult following, largely (I’m speculating) because of Roye Albrighton’s hot guitar playing. I first heard them on FM radio as a consequence of the local DJ’s fondness for Remember the Future (1973), or at least, one side of that album. Remember the Future is a concept album that only a group of spacey hippies could produce, and is so profoundly corny, so painfully silly, and so woefully déclassé that I find it impossible to write about seriously. It’s about an extraterrestrial bluebird that allows a blind boy to see the future. The only reason this sort of hokum (however sincerely meant) has never been parodied is because the band’s records never existed anywhere but in the bargain basement, and therefore wasn’t a big enough target for a parody.

Lest I seem too harsh, however, I will say that I’ve always had a special fondness for Down to Earth (1974), although Recycled (1975) is very good as well. Down to Earth is a sort of loose concept album, in which the band’s music is presented in the context of a circus, with Hawkwind’s Robert Calvert acting as the “ringmaster.” Rather than sprawling jams (or Remember the Future’s single composition spread over the LP’s two sides), the band tried its hand at shorter, more melodic compositions, eschewing the bombast of previous albums, and created a minor classic of “space rock”—“Astral Man” is the album’s first track, followed by equally catchy tunes such as “Nelly the Elephant,” “That’s Life,” “Fidgety Queen,” “Oh Willy,” and perhaps the album’s finest track, “Show Me the Way,” which in 1974-75 received a good deal of airplay on FM radio. It seems to me that to understand the way Nektar’s cult reputation developed is to understand the way the way economics shapes the patterns of consumption of popular music. Nektar’s cult reputation revealed the market that existed in parallel to the mainstream commercial market, and it may be that its existence is what allowed the mainstream market to flourish—spurring it to be more imaginative and productive.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

High School Confidential

Legend has it that Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll generation’s first “wild man,” was troubled by the sinful nature of his songs, particularly those that contained scarcely disguised sexual content. Nonetheless, in May 1958, while on a British tour, it was revealed that Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown, was a mere thirteen years old; he was twenty-two, and had been married previously. Apparently, Myra Gale Brown also happened to be Lewis’s third cousin twice removed (thus raising the issue of incest), but the basis of the scandal that followed the revelation was clearly because of her age. Legend also has it that at the time of their marriage, the young girl still believed in Santa Claus. Predictably, the ensuing scandal ruined Lewis’s promising career as a rock musician. Comparisons to fellow Southerner Edgar Allan Poe are inevitable, I suppose, as it has been well-documented that Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822–1847), when she was thirteen years old (he was twenty-seven). Some of Poe’s biographers have argued the couple’s relationship was more like a brother and sister than husband and wife, meaning the marriage may never have been consummated. Whether one can claim pedophilia in Poe’s case is therefore contestable.

The term paedophilia erotica was coined by nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his study Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Jerry Lee Lewis does not fit Krafft-Ebing’s profile for a pedophile, and indeed, he is not, despite his marriage to his quite young female cousin. But other known rockers do fit the profile of the pedophile, such as British rocker Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender. In November 1997, Gary Glitter was arrested after files containing images of child pornography were discovered on his laptop. He was later charged with having sex with an underage girl, an event that the victim claimed occurred two decades earlier. In any case, some years later, in 2005, Gary Glitter was again arrested and charged with molesting two girls, ages 10 and 11, at his home in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam. The specter of pedophilia has lurked on the fringes of popular music for many years, as the following list of songs suggests. Pete Townshend and Carlos Santana have both acknowledged being child sexual abuse victims, so the issue is hardly incidental one. Please note that I am not suggesting that the artists who recorded these songs are pedophiles. The point is the that issue has lurked in the shadows of pop music for many years, and perhaps it is time to listen to these songs anew.

Neil Diamond – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon
Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
Major Lance – Hey Little Girl
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Younger Girl
Oingo Boingo – Little Girls
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Claire
Plan B - Charmaine
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap – Young Girl
Tommy Roe – Sheila
Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs – Li’l Red Riding Hood
Syndicate of Sound – Little Girl
Bobby Vee – Come Back When You Grow Up

Monday, November 2, 2009


The pedal steel guitar is to drunken self-pity what the amplified, distorted electric guitar is to drunken licentiousness. Two instruments, two forms of implied behavior as expressed in American popular music. When Elvis was growing up, country music was the music of community, of a shared culture. That community was represented by the Carter Family, who sang about home, about death, and about the acceptance of limits. In contrast, the so-called “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers, was actually country music’s outlaw, a man who refused to live within proscribed limits. The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers thus formed two sides of the same coin, and each has their advantages and their downsides (see Greil Marcus, “Elvis: Presliad,” in Mystery Train). The community side could be intolerably oppressive and stifling, while the outlaw side led to exclusion and tragedy.

According to Marcus, what had virtually disappeared from country music by the time Elvis came along was the celebration of the outlaw style, the refusal to live within established boundaries—country music had become too moralistic and realistic. It lacked, Marcus says, “excitement, rage, fantasy, delight” (Mystery Train 131). Elvis dreamed of making the transgressive side of country music—the wild Saturday nights—the whole of life. Instead of being merely a temporary escape from established limits, the music Elvis made at Sun suggested that escape from limits could be established as a permanent way of life, but one in which acceptance alternated with liberation. Arguably, the Beatles kept alive the transgressive side of Elvis’s music and it was this feature upon which Sixties rock was founded. Feedback, distortion, playing loud—noise—became the aural equivalent of transgression, to the giddy excesses of being completely drunk and totally stoned. The so-called “Nashville Sound” that emerged in the Sixties became the aural equivalent of the virtues of the (staid) community, and hence of boundaries and limits. Rock and country music thus came to embody certain values, and music became an expression of ideology. The Western shirt was to country what the tie-dyed T-shirt was to rock. Music was worn like clothes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


There is a long history of mixed couples in American literature and popular culture: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chigachgook, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Daniel Boone and Mingo, Jay Leno and Branford Marsalis. I’ve written before about the way many American pop songs belie a certain repressed anxiety about black Otherness. Within the most avid white believer in the virtue of black Americans, there may reside a modicum of repressed anxiety about black bodies. As Calvin Hernton has written, “There is a sexual involvement, at once real and vicarious, connecting white and black people in America that spans the history of this country from the era of slavery to the present, an involvement so immaculate and yet so perverse, so ethereal and yet so concrete, that all race relations tend to be, however subtle, sex relations” (Sexism and Racism in America, p. 7).

Songs Linking Sensuality With Anxiety:
Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd. – Black Pearl
Merle Haggard – Irma Jackson
Janis Ian – Society’s Child
Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder – Ebony and Ivory
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Reuben James
The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar
Stories – Brother Louie
Three Dog Night – Black & White
Tribe “Supremes” Trio – White Boys (from the musical Hair)
Neil Young – Southern Man