Friday, February 13, 2009


A few days ago, over at the 33 1/3 blogspot, John Mark posted a link to an article about performance artist Genesis P-Orridge (second from left on the TG album cover), once and present member of the band Throbbing Gristle, and, in the 1980s, the co-founder of Psychic TV. While the article makes rather explicit the masochistic aspects of P-Orridge’s being, his tale is thoroughly Gnostic in its underpinnings (e.g., the conviction of an incomplete and/or inadequate Self that can be overcome by the union with one’s “lost” half or twin; the fundamental distrust of the material world; body hatred; and so on). His quest for identicalness can be understood, in one way, as an attempt to reassure one’s unstable sense of identity through the display of that self-image in the identical image of an Other. But as I read his story, I also found myself thinking of the Frankenstein myth of a body cobbled together with incongruous parts, but also a modern revision of that puissant myth, Pierre Jeunet’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION and the image of the cloned but strangely androgynous body of Ripley, the successfully manufactured eighth clone in a series of failed attempts.

Only one filmmaker could possibly translate the strange story recounted in that article into a film: David Cronenberg. Think of Cronenberg’s films such as DEAD RINGERS (the perverse relationship between the identical twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle, which culminates in their catastrophic re-imagining of themselves as Siamese Twins), THE FLY (the Brundlefly hybrid), CRASH (the masochistically linked couple immersed in the delirium of a Folie à deux), and M. BUTTERFLY (a revision of Balzac’s Sarrasine with its focus on the highly ambiguous gender identity of Song Lilling, as s/he vacillates precariously between female masquerade and femininity). In DEAD RINGERS, the Mantle twins’ desire to merge into one another is similar Seth Brundle’s aspiration at the conclusion of THE FLY, to splice his genetic material with the DNA of Veronica and their unborn child in order to create a male/female/fly/offspring hybrid—“Brundlefly.” This same aspiration for a hybrid form is referred to in the article, and in P-Orridge’ s writings, by the neologism pandrogeny—“There is no reason to accept anymore what was once a God-given form. People can now choose to be even more fictional,” writes Genesis P-Orridge in an article available here. What is fascinating in his remarks is his reconceptualization of what, in Jungian psychology, is called the quest for individuation (psychological differentiation, the development of the individual personality). Normally individuation involves a subject striving for a life that is meaningful, complete, noble, good, and so on. But in the aforementioned essay and elsewhere (a lengthy interview, in parts, with P-Orridge on these topics is available on youtube here), he recasts individuation as the biological transformations enabled by or through technology—as does Seth Brundle, as well as many of the protagonists in Cronenberg's male melodramas.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I’m Singing With My Laptop

Slightly over a week ago, in my February 1st entry, I observed that 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. In the context of that argument, I cited Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, who said almost twenty years ago:

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).

Perhaps instead of citing Hank Shocklee, however, I should have simply included the following commercial advertisement for Microsoft’s Songsmith as proof enough of my claim. Clicking on the link also brings up on the sidebar examples of what is fast becoming a new cottage industry, twisted versions of pop songs (re)made with Microsoft’s Songsmith. Among the most byzantine of these new songs are versions of the Police’s “Roxanne” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.” Anyone yet tried "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"? In the words of Hank Shocklee, Songsmith is a musician’s nightmare, and even more evidence that rock music has received a silicon termination notice.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dewey Martin, 1940—2009

The local paper reported this morning that DEWEY MARTIN (second from left), the former drummer and singer for Buffalo Springfield, has died at the age of 68. Apparently he died over a week ago (accounts vary whether it was on Saturday, January 31 or Sunday, February 1), but this was the first I heard about it. According to this report, Martin was found dead in his Van Nuys apartment; a friend indicated that he’d health problems the past few years, and believed he died of natural causes. Born September 30, 1940 as Walter Dwayne Midkiff, Dewey Martin was one of three Canadians in Buffalo Springfield (the others being Bruce Palmer and Neil Young). At the time he joined the band, he had already been on the road with Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Roy Orbison. Jimmy McDonough, author of Shakey, the biography of Neil Young, wrote:

A few years older than the rest of the Springfield, Martin was perhaps the most incongruous addition to a band full of mutual misfits. Cocky, aggressive and sporting mod attire, he behaved more like an extra from a cop show than some folk-rocker. Dewey liked showbiz: He’d be the only Buffalo to appear as a contestant on The Dating Game. (157)

A short-lived band that stayed together only slightly more than two years, after Martin left Buffalo Springfield his career became rather elusive, but an excellent article on Martin’s post-Buffalo career can be found here. Yesterday, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay issued a statement on Dewey Martin that can be found over here. Bruce Palmer, a fellow Canadian and founding member of Buffalo Springfield, died in 2004.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Virtues of Misreading

In literature classes in our high schools and colleges, the preferred method of study is hermeneutically driven and formally conservative: it favors interpretation and encourages fidelity to the text—to established methods of (re)production through interpretation. There’s a perfectly defensible reason for this method: the acquisition of rereading skills, and the inculcation of the virtue of fidelity, leads to scholarship.

But as literary critic Harold Bloom has argued, creativity (as opposed to scholarly endeavor) must be understood not as a rereading, but as a misreading, of the inherited tradition. Applying Bloom’s insight to rock culture, those artists we perceive to be innovative and influential have actively misread the music that has come before. As Michael Jarrett writes:

Steering a course between repetition (redundancy) and incomprehensibility (entropy), he or she parlays an aberrant or perverse reading of the past into an authorized reading for the present. Elvis Presley’s “misreading” of Dean Martin (a conventionalized version of the saloon singer) offers a good example of this. (196)

Chris Spedding has an excellent article on exactly this idea, “Elvis & Dino,” in which he explores just how Elvis misread Dean Martin. Spedding recounts the anecdote told by Marion Keisker, the office manager of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis:

. . . Marion Keisker . . . tells of a not entirely successful first audition Presley had with Phillips. According to Marion, Sam asked Elvis to run through some of his repertoire, which seemed to lean so heavily on Dean Martin stuff, she thought Elvis had decided “. . . if he was going to sound like anybody, it was going to be Dean Martin.”

Spedding argues that by looking at Elvis’s early career in this way, “we can see how many of those actions previously dismissed (or considered perverse when they could not be conveniently ignored) now fall into place. . . . Elvis was naturally fair-haired. He dyed his hair black. . . . Filmed later in Technicolor, Elvis’s obsidian do had that same almost blue-black sheen you can see in Dean Martin’s movies.” Comparing Martin’s [1955] hit, “Memories Are Made Of This,” with “the song that Elvis always claimed was his favorite cut, “Don’t Be Cruel,” a hit in the summer of the following year,” Spedding observes:

Now, apart from the fact that Elvis borrowed that descending-bass-run-followed-by-guitar-chord ending from the arrangement on Martin’s record, other common elements are that sexy, wobbly, almost hiccuping baritone vocal not yet identifiably “rock” until Elvis made it so and Martin’s novel use of a four-piece male gospel-type vocal group which we may assume helped inspire Elvis, steeped as he was in traditional gospel music, to introduce the Jordanaires on his cut, effectively integrating them into a unique blend with his own lead vocal, thus establishing another rock archetype. Another obvious nod in Martin’s direction, released when Elvis was well established as a pop mega-star in the summer of 1959, was Elvis’s “My Wish Came True,” which had an opening four-note motif identical to Martin’s “Return To Me,” (both titles having four syllables!) released in April 1958. Even the key is the same.

Thus, through his misreading of Dean Martin, Elvis created an individual style and helped both to popularize and to institutionalize rock ‘n’ roll. There are other examples of such perverse misreading contributing to the reinvention of rock, of course: the perversity of Dylan performing American folk with a rock band (“going electric,” Newport, 1965), for instance, or the Sex Pistols’ burlesque of 1960s and early 1970s American pop records (1976-77).