Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lux Interior, 1946-2009

Lux Interior (born Erick Purkheiser, second from left), leader and voice of The Cramps, died yesterday from a heart ailment at the age of 62. Formed by Lux Interior and his wife, guitarist Poison Ivy, The Cramps were the crucial link between Elvis, Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, and the late Seventies punk era, the period in which aberrant, unconventional readings or interpretations of early rock ‘n’ roll were both allowed and encouraged. Lux’s vocal style got Elvis wrong in the same way that Elvis got Dean Martin wrong (if there were one singer he wanted to sound like, Elvis famously said at the beginning of his career, it was Dean Martin), thus allowing him playfully to explore the image of himself as Elvis returned to life as a zombie—serendipitously, the band’s first Alex Chilton-produced singles were recorded right around the time of Elvis’s death. But despite the band’s so-called “psychobilly” posturings, juvenile gothic trappings, and its aura of sexual decadence and fetishism (Lux often wore high heels on stage and occasionally would get up close and personal with audience members of both sexes) lifted straight from from the New York Dolls, The Cramps played straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, heavily influenced by the guitar stylings of surf and garage band and the so-called “dirty boogie” of Link Wray, and, perhaps most important, an aesthetic derived from low-budget horror movies. The Cramps’ first LP, SONGS THE LORD TAUGHT US (1979), recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ recording studio and produced by Alex Chilton, remains their strongest album in my view, because it isn’t hampered by deadly self-consciousness or self-parody. True, the album contains songs with titles such as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Sunglasses After Dark,” “Zombie Dance” and a pretty good cover of Johnny Burnette’s “Tear It Up” (check this out), but they are all good rock 'n' roll songs despite the titles; they had a distinctive sound. My personal favorite track by The Cramps, though, is probably “Goo Goo Muck,” from PSYCHEDELIC JUNGLE (1981). For various reasons, I lost track of them after A DATE WITH ELVIS (1986), the last album of theirs to which I gave a serious listen, but The Cramps circa 1979-1984 will always remain one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll bands. An interesting article on Lux Interior can be found here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rave On

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) died fifty years ago today in a plane crash that occurred just a few miles from Clear Lake, Iowa. Of course, this is not “news” as such, but the commemoration of the event serves two important functions. One is that such anniversaries give newspapers and websites (and bloggers) a readymade topic. Always on the search for information to fill a news hole (blank space on the page), the dredging up of old news, using as an excuse its intrinsic historicity, gives editors (and bloggers) a slight reprieve from the daily grind. Even stories tangential to the core event, such as the identity of Peggy Sue, becomes news fodder. The second function of such commemorations is, of course, a commercial one: it helps sell merchandise and helps sell tickets to nostalgic concerts. A recent article in the newspaper discussed the economic boon that Clear Lake, Iowa has received as a result of its historic relation to the rock ‘n’ roller’s death: the small resort town has a multimillion-dollar tourist industry as a consequence of being near the location of the fatal crash.

There are very few individuals living today who can claim they knew Buddy Holly. I don’t mean those individuals who claim to have run into him at the drug store one day, or once filled his gas tank. I mean those individuals who were personally close to him. I say this because, even though I was “alive” at the time he died—I was a small boy at the time—he has never existed to me as anything more than a media construct: his image, the lore, the movies and music about him all are products of the mass media. There’s the biopic, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978), which garnered Gary Busey an Academy Award nomination, and there’s THE REAL BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1986), which Paul McCartney produced in response to the biopic because he was unhappy with it. And there’s LA BAMBA (1987), the biopic of Ritchie Valens—has anyone made a biopic or documentary on J. P. Richardson? The cultural memory desires Holly to not fade away. There is a waiter dressed up as Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi) in PULP FICTION (1994), and the John Milner character (Paul Le Mat) in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) laments the fact that “Rock ‘n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died,” a line that makes perfect sense as art, but is implausible in the given historic context of the film (set in the fall of 1962, the characters do not have the requisite historical perspective for the line to resonate properly, although presumably it did to audiences in 1973 when the film was released, and perhaps still does). And there’s the instance of 1980s nostalgia for the Fifties in the Kathleen Turner-starring movie PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).

There have been several songs written about Buddy Holly: Eddie Cochran’s “Three Stars,” The Smithereens’ “Maria Elena” (for Holly’s widow), and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” are a few examples, but the most famous, and perhaps most successful is, of course, Don McLean’s willfully obscure “American Pie.” A web search will lead to several sites dedicated to the interpretation of the lyrics to McLean’s song, but the song’s meaning has never seemed that difficult to me. Perhaps I’m jaded. Elvis’s phenomenal popularity in 1956 enabled nascent rock ‘n’ rollers to respond in at least two ways: imitate him (which was artistic death, although many tried), or opportunistically use the space he opened up to create one’s own unique form of expression, which is precisely what Buddy Holly did. His records never achieved the phenomenal sales of Elvis, but he is a nostalgic figure nonetheless. His life resonates as myth because of what might have been. I’ve always wondered what sort of album Buddy Holly might have made once he heard the Beatles. It’s one of those great “lost albums” of rock history.

Don McLean’s “American Pie,” released in 1971, is a response, on the one hand, to the events of the winter of 1958-59 (“A long, long time ago/I can still remember/How that music used to make me smile”) and on the other to the Sixties (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own”). Elvis had been in the service about five months (departing for Germany late September 1958) when Buddy Holly was killed on 3 February 1959. Hence, within the space of only a few months, both of them were gone: Elvis was overseas in the service, in figurative terms never really to “return” (“While the king was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown/The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned”), and Buddy Holly was killed (“February made me shiver”). Both events are condensed into the hyperbolic, cryptic phrase, “the day the music the died.” Most of the lyrical content is devoted to the Rolling Stones and Beatles, those two emblems of the so-called “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s; the song is at least in part a reaction to the usurpation of American rock ‘n’ roll by the British “pretenders” (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own/And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone/But that’s not how it used to be”). Of course, interpretation is not meaning in the sense that “decoding” this phrase or that symbol reveals to us what the song is “all about.” But most certainly it is not simply or only about Buddy Holly; the allusion to his death is really only the point of departure, the starting point. To me, the song expresses a sort of conservative reaction against the Sixties, a compressed social history that contains both an expression of belatedness (having missed, or arrived too late for, the Golden Age) as well as nostalgia for a “simpler” time. Most of us form emotionally strong attachments to the music of our youth, in this case the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, and the song expresses that, but it is a mistake to think the song is merely “about” Buddy Holly. As far as I know, Don McLean didn’t know him, and that makes all the difference.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Download This

Yesterday, soon after posting my blog, “Post Rock,” I happened to read about Neil Young’s hilarious new single, “Fork in the Road,” in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1071, February 5, 2009, p. 68). Having watched the video for the song on, I was so struck by the similarity of theme between his single and my blog on “Post Rock” that I’m providing a link to the video here. The video depicts Young rocking along to a blues groove holding what appears to be a pair of iPod earbuds plugged into a big red apple. He sings, “I’m a big rock star/My sales have tanked/But I still got you... thanks.” But he then continues, “Download this,” he sings as he holds up the apple, “it sounds like shit,” only to then take a bite out of the apple and throw it away in disgust, and then pines for the old days of radio. The difference, of course, between his form of communication and mine is that my presentation is more conventional, expository in nature, written for an audience that is expecting me to deliver a particular kind of information. His video, on the other hand, is an example of what Gregory L. Ulmer has called “a dramatic, rather than an epistemological, orientation to knowledge” (Writing and Reading Differently, p. 39). The ideas contained in the two forms, however, are remarkably similar. Rarely has Young been funnier: “There’s a bailout comin’, but it’s not for me/It’s for all those creeps watching tickers on TV.” I urge you to check out the video by clicking on the link above.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Post Rock

This article by Ann Powers in yesterday’s L. A. Times refers to the dwindling significance of rock music as a cultural force. She avers that rock music is in “its Götterdämmerung phase” and writes, “Not only does rock no longer dominate popular culture worldwide, having long been eclipsed by hip-hop and Celine Dion, it’s also past both its youth as an agent of rebellion and its midlife as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ for nonconformists….” Alas, I’m afraid she is right. In my past two blogs, in the context of discussing progressive rock, I have discussed the way modernism supported the conception of the popular musician as artist. My point was a rather simple one: early 1970s progressive rock demonstrated the lingering power of modernist values to bolster the image of the rock musician as “artist.” To some extent, that image is still viable, a testament to the lingering influence of modernism: check out this article in the Telegraph, on the lingering influence of Buddy Holly, whose untimely death fifty years ago will be commemorated this coming Tuesday, February 3.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” was putatively motivated by the death of Buddy Holly, in which the singer refers to the moment he heard of Holly’s death by the cryptic phrase, “the day the music died.” Too bad Don McLean didn’t write a song commemorating the 1 billionth download from Apple’s iTunes store, which happened just about three years ago, on February 23, 2006. (The download, incidentally, happened to be Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound.”) That date should be commemorated as well, because it marks the day when rock music died, or rather, marked the death of the fundamental method of its consumption. If jazz culture is based upon the live performance, being present at the scene and moment of an actual performance, rock culture is based upon the record: the basic material artifact central to its consumption is the record—or, if you will, the discrete physical object, liminally demarcated, one imagines holistically as an “album.”

“Post Rock” musical consumption, in contrast, is entirely different, and is represented by the download. Today a piece of music exists, but it is not anchored in a discrete physical object such as a record (some “albums” exist only in downloadable form), and thus it does not have any liminal demarcation. The piece of music is also ontologically unstable, since it may exist in various states of incompletion known as a “remix.” The song may be found on an album (in the antiquated sense, most likely in the storage format of CD), but the album is not conceived of holistically, but rather as an arbitrary heaping of heterogeneous pieces. Indeed, it is possible now to make a record simply by recombining fragments of sounds sampled by other records—you don’t even need to know how to play an instrument. Some years ago, Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy put it this way:

We don’t like musicians. We don’t respect musicians…. In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music. Trained musicians are not ignorant of music, and they cannot be innocent to it. They understand it, and that’s what keeps them from dealing with things out of the ordinary…. [Public Enemy is] a musician’s nightmare. (Keyboard, September 1990, pp. 82-83).

Interestingly, the trend in popular music identified by Shocklee was anticipated over forty years ago by pianist Glenn Gould. In his famous 1966 essay “The Prospects of Recording,” Gould warned that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbable that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity.” (The Glenn Gould Reader, p. 352)

In the era of Post Rock, there is no equivalent for the discrete material object known as the record. To understand Post Rock, the era of iTunes and the download, one must turn to quantum physics for the cognitive metaphor. A download is like a photon, a liminal object neither particle nor wave, a burst of energy that appears but is anchored nowhere. (Marx: “Everything that is solid melts into air.”) The iPod, the retrieval system for downloads, is by definition a portable device, designed for neither café nor concert hall, but primarily for mobility, a technology whose purpose is to provide an ambient background to a life premised on speed, not reflection, a life in which politics is defined as taste. Viewed in this way, Post Rock represents the triumph of Muzak, the era anticipated by art rockers such as Brian Eno, who settled on the collocation “ambient music” as a name for such decorative sounds, what Erik Satie called furniture or furnishing music.