Friday, January 9, 2009

Dave Dee, 1943—2009

British pop star Dave Dee, born David Harman—who holds the distinction of having one of best whip cracks on record in pop music history—died early this morning at the age of 65 following a long battle with cancer, the BBC has reported. Originally a police officer before entering the music business (legend has it that he was one of the officers at the scene of the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran and injured Gene Vincent in April 1960, although he would have been a mere seventeen years old at the time), Dave Dee was the lead singer of the inimitable Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, a group named after the members’ nicknames. Incorrectly perceived as a bubblegum act, the music of DDDBMT (as the band is referred to in its acronym form), actually employed a number of musical styles, and while they didn’t shy away from the fuzzy, distorted guitar of early psychedelia, they might best be characterized as “power pop,” although that term didn’t gain currency until the early 70s, by which time DDDBMT had disbanded. The band learned its chops in the same Beat clubs in Hamburg in which the Beatles played, and during their career the group had a run of eight Top 10 hits in the UK, including a #1 single in early 1968, The Legend of Xanadu (click on the link for the video), in which Dave Dee, famously, cracks a whip, a la Zorro. Other hit singles included “Bend It!,” “Save Me,” “Zabadak”—and of course “Hold Tight!” (1966; check out the video), the song on the radio in Quentin Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE (2007) feature, Death Proof, during the brutal car crash scene.

According to the BBC report, in the 1970s Dave Dee “was a founding committee member of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity and was actively involved in fundraising and increasing the profile of the organisation for more than 30 years. He later worked as a magistrate in Cheshire,” although DDDBMT continued on as oldies act; they’d in fact recently performed dates in the UK and in Germany. No doubt, due in large part to Quentin Tarantino, a younger generation has discovered the music of DDDBMT, and that is a good thing. The band’s first album (1966) has been released on CD with a number of singles-only tracks, B-sides, and other rarities, and is well worth tracking down. Gotta love that whip!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Buffalo Springfield Again

A few days ago, in my post titled “Year One: Reflections,” I mentioned that my interpretations of pop songs such as “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and “Crimson and Clover” have consistently received hits through web searches over the past few months. I neglected to mention in that list my discussion (from last June) of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—the entry is available here—which has also received a good number of hits over the past few months as well. Looking back on that post after the distance of a few months, however, left me dissatisfied with my discussion, not because I think I was especially “wrong” about the song, but because the discussion stopped short, leaving unstated the larger point I was trying to make.

While I think my essential point is correct—that the song, upon close inspection, really doesn’t express a coherent position about much of anything—in retrospect I think I was foolish, for one thing, to expect a pop song to express a coherent position about politics, much less complex social problems: pop songs are basically reactionary in nature. But more importantly, the larger, theoretical, point was left unstated. What I was trying to say is that the song is a sign without a referent: it means, but it doesn’t refer. The song doesn’t depict any “real” or actual event, despite being putatively inspired by the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot” in November 1966. (“Riot” was the word used by the media to represent the event, presumably instigated by discontented youth; whether it actually was an event of such proportion I have no idea.) Bertrand Russell illustrated the distinction between meaning and reference in his famous example, “The King of France is bald.” The sentence means, but it doesn’t refer—because there is no King of France.

Records, like movies, are signs without referents. As Robert Ray explains:

...behind Casablanca or “Fight the Power” lies no single, “real” event that has been transcribed and reproduced…. In 1967, situationist leader Guy Debord warned that in “societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (How A Film Theory Got Lost, 69)

Debord’s last sentence can be amended to say, “What was once directly lived has moved away into a construction”—whether that is a record titled “For What It’s Worth” or a movie called Riot on Sunset Strip (1967). Simon Reynolds observed, “The power of pop lies not in its meaning but its noise, not in its import but its force” (Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, 10)—as this performance of “For What It’s Worth” from American television in 1967 should remind us. The television appearance occurred in 1967, the same year as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was initially published. Ironically, Neil Young explicitly acknowledged the replacement of the live by the recording during the TV appearance.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pop Aphorisms: XI

1. Keith Richards drinks and smokes, Madonna works out—while the display of the body is central to rock culture, their bodies reveal distinct obsessions: one with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, the other with money and power.

2. Spandex is to flannel what Arena Rock is to grunge: each reveals the impact of commercial budget on musical form, but more importantly, how musical taste determines fashion.

3. There would have been no such thing as “Art Rock” or “Progressive Rock” had not the vinyl “Long Play” record—the LP—been embraced as the basic material artifact of rock ‘n’ roll.

4. Rock ‘n’ roll privileges the record, while jazz privileges the live performance: the unstated reason why rock music’s most successful acts always sound, in concert, like their records.

5. Mixing is to recording what editing is to the cinema: the assemblage of fragments into a simulacrum of live performance.

6. Alternative: Punk Rock that makes money.

7. Silver Threads and Golden Needles—poetic expression for an aging rock star with a drug habit.

8. The greatest recordings in rock history were a consequence of making all the right decisions about technical problems.

9. Cult Album: record made by an artist or artists who understood that high-minded political correctness equaled artistic death.

10. Rock stars, like movie stars, seldom grant interviews: the secret of their success is to make it impossible to determine the fictive from the real.

No Fun: Ron Asheton, 1948-2009

Ron Asheton, guitarist with The Stooges, has been found dead at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, according to this report; he was 60 years old. Police indicated the musician’s death appeared to be from natural causes. Ranked as the 29th greatest rock guitarist by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003, Asheton also acted in a few low-budget horror films beginning in the late 80s, most recently appearing in the horror comedy FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO (1996). The Stooges, which included Asheton’s brother Scott on drums and the late Dave Alexander on bass, are among the nominees for the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class this April. One hopes that they will be inducted.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Year One: Reflections

Yesterday, January 4, represented the first anniversary of 60x50. I made my first post one year ago yesterday. As of yesterday, I have posted 222 entries on this blog, which averages out to about one post every forty hours over the past year. Not bad—considering that during that time I also completed an extensive essay on Ingmar Bergman’s THE SERPENT’S EGG (1977) for a forthcoming book on European horror films, continued to write reviews for VIDEO WATCHDOG (although the number was down from previous years, which doesn’t please me at all, as Tim and Donna Lucas are my friends as well as editors), completed two book proposals (one of which I mentioned on this blog just a few entries ago), presented one conference paper, and directed two plays for my University Theatre: Eugene Ionesco’s THE LESSON this past spring and Mary Chase’s classic comedy, HARVEY, this fall. Directing those two plays was a wonderful experience for me, as well as a privilege, and in that sense 2008 was a great and productive year. And I continue to work on POE PICTURES, to be published by Tomahawk Press (UK). I anticipate completing that book this summer, and I thank Bruce Sachs very much for his patience with me given my other commitments this past year—one of which has been this blog.

The task I set for myself with 60x50 (you can read the full explanation on the right)—to find a process that will bring about new things I would not have thought of if I had not started to say them—has, for the most part, been successful. I discovered things by writing for this blog, things I would not have learned had I not imposed this writing requirement upon myself. I cannot say that there weren’t some duds among my posts of the past year: if Sturgeon’s Law is correct, then 96% of them were duds—which means only about 4% (i.e., about nine of them) were any good. Some achieved more success than others: my interpretations of pop songs such as “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and “Crimson and Clover” consistently garner hits through web searches, and certain posts—such as the one on Bob Dylan and existential cool—did extremely well, as did my “pop aphorisms” series (a series I promise to return to very soon). My discussion of the relationship between psychedelia and bubblegum has also done very well. Are those the nine posts of quality that verify Sturgeon’s Law? A few kind souls, Tim Lucas and Bent Sørensen among them, have been generous enough to serve as blog rollers for me (providing a link to my blog on their respective blog sites), and all in all the experience has been a positive one.

There is, however, a downside, and it is the amount of work this blog requires given the number of page views it receives. I checked the page views a moment ago; subtracting those that have visited since midnight last night, I calculate a grand total of 24,119 views over the past year. (Just think if my friends weren’t blog rolling for me.) I’m quite sure there are sites that receive that number every day, other sites that receive that number every week, and others that receive that number every month. Subtract from this grand total the hits that can be attributed to roving web bots and such, then it becomes an even more paltry number. Foolishly, I neglected to attach a site meter until the end of February last year, meaning the figure above really reflects about a week plus ten months, but the fact is, the amount of work this blog has required hardly seems worth it given the number of visitors. Given that the first month’s visitors would have been negligible because I had just started up the blog, the total number above is reasonably accurate, I think. Make no mistake—I appreciate each and every visitor I have had over the past year, and I appreciate those who return to my blog on a regular basis. I am grateful for all the visits I’ve had over the past year. But as a wise old mentor of mine used to say, “Sam, always ask yourself whether the increment is worth the excrement.” If I were to apply that sage piece of advice to the question of whether to maintain this blog, then the answer would be very simple: NO.

My blog has a number of problems. For one thing, to employ the language of cyberspace, my site is “sticky”—it doesn’t consist of “news,” where readers come for current or up-to-date information, then move on. In other words, readers have to make a dedicated effort to get here (by web searches, mostly), and to get out. Moreover, it’s focus is not entirely clear. It has gravitated toward popular music (primarily the Sixties, as the blog title would suggest), but not the current scene (although I would hope that most if not all of the insights I’ve made are applicable in theory to the “current” music scene nonetheless—the pop aphorisms, for instance). Additionally, my posts are for the most part unusual in that they read more like essays than blog entries. I am not claiming that this is bad, since it’s a form I prefer. The topics I write about I have set as assignments or tasks for myself, in order to teach myself something. So when I look up information, and track down information, I pass those sources of information on to others, but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t read like an academic essay—a form many readers, I’m sure, dislike. Lecturing for most people often is, as it is for myself, counter-productive. I think this is why my posts such as the pop aphorisms have been so successful, because they fit the sound bite form preferred in the cyberspace environment—the technology drives the form, in other words (nothing new there).

So, in reflecting upon the past year, I’ve concluded that 60x50, while not an utter failure, isn’t a success, either. It exists in that liminal space somewhere between (mediocrity?), which, rather like a visit to the “twilight zone,” isn’t an ideal place to be. I’m not quite ready to give it up, as I still have hopes for it (although don’t ask me to enumerate precisely what they are), but I don’t see myself continuing on at the rate I have—posting over two hundred times during the next year, for example. The research component for many posts is extensive, and while I hope readers have found my research valuable, I have done it for free. I will continue to assess this weblog’s personal importance to me as well (I have many other proverbial “irons in the fire” to which I can dedicate my time), and set out to determine the answer to that fundamental problem, a problem I’m quite sure other bloggers struggle with as well: whether the increment is worth the excrement.