Thursday, April 16, 2009

To Those Who Live and Die For Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock music is, and shall always be, a hopelessly overcrowded field, analogous to the Darwinian state of nature, in which only the strongest survive. A recent documentary directed Sacha Gervasi, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008) – reviewed here by Los Angeles Times’ critic Kenneth Turan – reveals the harsh truth of this reality. Although I only vaguely remember hearing about them, once, apparently – about twenty-six years ago or so – Anvil was the hottest thing in heavy metal. The band never caught on, though, despite making a rather big splash early on in its career, with an album titled Metal on Metal (1982). Turan writes, “Once upon a time, interviews with superstars such as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Motorhead’s Lemmy and Guns n’ Roses’ Slash make clear, this Canadian band was the hottest thing in metal, touring with the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other groups that ended up selling millions of records.” Yet despite the high praise from peers, and despite the historical significance of Metal on Metal, fame proved elusive for the band. Nonetheless, the band has soldiered on for a quarter century. Kenneth Turan argues that ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL is not so much about the failed career of a metal band as about “eternally hopeful rockers who cling to optimism about a glorious future despite harsh reality’s repeated blows.”

There’s another way to think about the story of Anvil, though, one that seems to me to be about more than bad luck, poor sales, or poor management: it is about the sacrifice made to honor a set of cultural values, in this case, rock ‘n’ roll. Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison – they and many others have sacrificed for it. But what, precisely, does it mean to sacrifice for something? Georges Bataille would say sacrifice is the wasteful expenditure of something to honor a particular set of cultural values. In “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933), Bataille explores what he calls the principle of loss, that is, of extravagant wasteful expenditure. Examples of unproductive, wasteful expenditure include: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., deflected from genital finality) – all these represent activities which . . . have no end beyond themselves.” These activities constitute a group “characterized by the fact that in each case the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning,” that is, a loss that must be both considerable and extravagant. Stated another way: For any cultural activity to have real value, the loss must be maximized – excessive. For example, the value of diamonds to their owner is determined by how great is the loss in terms of financial expenditure: the more unreasonable and extravagant the expenditure, the greater the value of the diamond jewels. Bataille writes: “Jewels must not only be beautiful and dazzling (which would make the substitution of imitations possible): one sacrifices a fortune, preferring a diamond necklace; such a sacrifice is necessary for the constitution of this necklace’s fascinating character.” In other words, if you aren’t willing to sacrifice for something, it isn’t a value at all.

This principle justifies the inevitable continuation of warfare: as losses, i.e., deaths and maimings, increase, a nation’s stake in a war escalates. As the deaths remorselessly accumulate, the easier it becomes to justify the war’s continuation because the stakes have grown higher. By the continuation of the war, the nation consequently becomes increasingly indebted to those who have died and have been severely maimed in battle; the acknowledgment of this mounting debt ensures that the soldiers’ sacrifices are not in vain – that they will not become non-productive expenditure (that they “died for nothing”). The principle of mounting debt as a justification for continued sacrifice applies to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle all too well – rather like a gambler who cannot quit gambling because that would mean his tremendous financial sacrifice was all for nothing – just non-productive sacrifice (loss).

Comparisons to the mock documentary THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) are inevitable – in his review, Turan likens ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL to Rob Reiner’s popular pastiche of metal music and musicians – except that the story of Anvil is “real life.” Such a comparison is fine, as long as we recognize that THIS IS SPINAL TAP reveals the way certain cultural values, despite their centrality to the culture, are consistently denied or degraded. In contrast to Reiner’s film, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL doesn’t deny or degrade the impulse to sacrifice for rock ‘n’ roll, but rather celebrates it, attempting to transform non-productive expenditure into productive sacrifice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Down To The Last Man

Today’s paper carried the news (news to me) that Billy Bob Thornton’s band, the Boxmasters, canceled the remainder of its Canadian tour, no doubt the result of the damaged relations with audiences that occurred as a consequence of the actor saying during a contentious radio interview on CBC radio’s “Q” program that Canadian fans were “mashed potatoes but no gravy.” The movie star apparently didn’t like the fact that the “Q” program’s interlocutor, Jian Ghomeshi, began the interview with references to his film career, a subject the actor had proscribed as off limits. The actor also took strong offense to Ghomeshi’s question as to whether he was passionate about music, a question which the actor felt, so it would seem, was motivated by the underlying perception that he was nothing but a musical dilettante.

Despite his protestations, though, perhaps he is a dilettante. Movie stars wanting to be pop stars are nothing new, but Thornton’s situation reveals something else about life in Western societies today, true for many, many people as well as the actor, that it is difficult to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one can be deeply passionate. Apparently, in Thornton’s case, he is not deeply passionate about movie acting. Hence he faces a choice many confront today: the choice between leading a comfortable, satisfying life of material wealth and pleasure, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause – the choice, in other words, between what Friedrich Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism.

The modern malaise was diagnosed over a century ago by Nietzsche, who observed that Western civilization is moving in the direction of what he called, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the last man” – an effete, apathetic human being with no great passion or commitment to anything. Weak-willed, filled with ennui, unable to dream, the last man eschews risks and seeks only security and comfort: “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink” (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 130). The last men of today are those who reject all “higher” Causes and choose instead to dedicate their life to the pursuit of narrow, artificially aroused pleasures – like pursuing the life of a pop star, for instance.

As Thornton’s situation reveals – not at all that unusual – the last man does not wish his private fantasies to be disturbed, which is why during the interview he felt he was being “harassed.” His putative “difficulty” during the interview was merely a form of lashing out, a way of condemning the cloying proximity of another human being, with his own interests and desires, his own “agenda” as is sometimes, pejoratively, said. For two issues determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude toward others: an openness toward Otherness (as long as that presence is not intrusive), and an obsessive fear of harassment. In other words, one displays an openness to the Other as long as his or her presence does not spill over into “harassment,” which is not really tolerance of the Other at all: Do not harass others as you would have them not harass you. What his radio interview painfully reveals is that the central “human right” in our society these days is the fundamental right not to be harassed – to be allowed to have safe distance from all others. Today’s form of liberalism, therefore, maintains that the experience of the Other must be deprived of its Otherness. Hence Thornton’s “mashed potatoes” comment is, in fact, disingenuous. He said, “We tend to play places where people throw things at each other. Here [in Canada], they just sort of sit there. And it doesn’t matter what you say to ‘em . . . . It’s mashed potatoes but no gravy.” But the painful reality is, his metaphorical elaboration reveals the way he really wants things to be – for the Other to be devoid of the substance that actually defines it as distinctly Other.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I mentioned yesterday I awoke preoccupied with songs about animals (see W. J. T. Mitchell’s fine work of theory and criticism, Picture Theory, and the chapter titled “Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking”), and while I was compiling the song list yesterday, I paused when I remembered Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire,” which seems to have retained a remarkably persistent market presence in the thirty-four years since its release in 1975. An example of mid-70s “soft rock” (see my blog on the subject of soft rock here), it also is strongly influenced by both folk and cowboy music, but it is a folk song that also happens to have an appeal to children. While it is arguably part of the same tradition of fabled animals as Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” (1962) and “Stewball” (1963), as well as Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn” (1967), to my knowledge it is seldom grouped with these songs. It was probably largely inspired by Roger McGuinn’s “Chestnut Mare” (1970, inspired in turn by “The Strawberry Roan”), although I can prove this influence only indirectly, by the fact that when Michael Martin Murphey (as he is now called) recorded an entire album of songs about fabled horses, The Horse Legends (1997), he curiously failed to include McGuinn’s famous song—the tell-tale sign of an unconscious repression. Another musical influence is also, obviously, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” a so-called “cowboy legend” about a cowboy who has a sublime vision of a herd of demonic cattle stampeding across the sky pursued forever by the ghosts of damned cowboys.

There are other sources. My wife Rebecca and I watched just last week a film titled WILDFIRE: THE STORY OF A HORSE (1945), standard “B” western stuff starring Bob Steele and Sterling Holloway, included on the DVD collection, Darn Good Westerns Vol. 1 (VCI, 2009). In the 1945 film, the horse named (by Bob Steele) “Wildfire” has the same beauty and intelligence as other screen horses such as the Lone Ranger’s Silver, Fury, Flicka, Black Beauty, and perhaps most importantly, the horse in the Disney film, TONKA (1958), in which Sal Mineo, playing a young Sioux warrior growing to manhood in the 1870s, proves his courage by catching and training a wild pony he names Tonka—“tonka wakan,” “The Great One.” The Mineo character has a deep rapport with the horse, a horse that embodies for the young warrior the values of bravery, strength, grace—and a vast, untamed spirit. The song “Wildfire” also trades on certain occult fantasy elements that can be found, for instance, in the “Metzengerstein” segment of HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (1967), a film of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The “Metzengerstein” segment features the transmigration of a human soul into a horse. Hence the horse is an ideal object for the projection of human desire, a creature that is both “tamed” (civilized), but also wild—an emblem of Marvell’s oxymoronic “wild civility.”

The lyrics to “Wildfire” are as follows:

She comes down from Yellow MountainOn a dark flat land she ridesOn a pony she named WildfireWith a whirlwind by her sideOn a cold Nebraska night
They say she died one winterWhen there came a killin’ frostAnd the pony she name WildfireBusted down his stallIn a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling WildfireShe ran calling WildfireShe ran calling Wildfire
By the dark of the moon I plantedBut there came an early snowThere's been a hoot owl howlin’ by my window nowFor six nights in a rowShe’s coming for me I knowAnd on Wildfire we’re both gonna go
We’ll be riding WildfireWe’ll be riding Wildfire
On Wildfire we’re both going to rideWe’re going to leave sodbustin’ behindGet these hard times right on out of our mindsRiding Wildfire

“She” remains unnamed, but like many of the women portrayed in rock songs of the 60s and 70s, “she” is a benign female fantasy figure, a quasi-supernatural creature existing in a dreamlike and unreal world. Her intimidating supernaturalism is suggested by the “whirlwind by her side” (think of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”), and her dark feminine power is also suggested by her having tamed the potentially dangerous, impetuous, and unpredictable horse, Wildfire. That we’re in a fantasy world, or mythical realm, is suggested by the improbable existence of “Yellow Mountain” in Nebraska—there are no mountains in Nebraska. The singer also refers to leaving “sodbustin’ behind,” “sodbusting” a Western movie colloquialism for farming, which also makes the setting in time of the song ambiguous, that is, mythic. The lyrics invoke certain venerable superstitions about the time of year and human calamity (think of the warning given Julius Caesar, “beware the Ides of March”), a classic confusion of Nature and Culture. Her death (in the Fall of the year?) both frees the horse’s obligation to her but also drives it mad, and is an instance of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which Nature itself responds to human disaster and suffering (think, for instance, of the faithful dog in a Disney animated film that is sad when it its owner is sad or despondent). The horse is “lost,” which I take to mean, “never seen again,” although it’s possible to understand it to mean the death of the horse; it is also possible to interpret Wildfire’s running off after the death of “she” as meaning the soul of “she” has transmigrated into the body of the horse: she is now the horse, that now runs free. The reference to the “hoot owl” is taken from the song “Stewball,” a song about a horse on which the singer should have bet everything, but did not: “If I’d have bet on ol’ Stewball, I'd be a free man today/Oh the hoot owl, she hollers, and the turtle dove moans/I’m a poor boy in trouble/I'm a long way from home.” According to The Owl Pages, “To hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all predicted by an Owl.” But unlike “Stewball,” which leaves the singer’s situation unresolved, the singer in “Wildfire” imagines his own imminent death. His death, however, will not be an ending but a transcendent experience, the beginning of a new life or new form of existence, in which he leaves behind his dreary life and rides off, “into the sunset” as it were, with, literally, the woman of his dreams. The song’s insistent melancholy, so remarked upon, is perhaps no more insistent than that of “The Unicorn” or “Stewball,” musical melancholy being the aural equivalent of a failed love song, a love song not based on the fulfillment of need, but one in which the object of affection is recognized as dead (as in “The Unicorn”).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Great Speckled Bird

Today is Easter Sunday, and I woke up this morning thinking of songs about animals. My thoughts inevitably turned to songs about birds, and perhaps because it is Easter, the one that first came to mind was The Great Speckled Bird (click the link for the lyrics). Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the lyrics were apparently written by the Reverend Guy Smith. The image of the “speckled bird,” most experts agree, is a reference to Jeremiah 12:9: Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her. The use of “heritage” here means the life one must lead as a consequence of the way one was “raised,” but also the one determined by dint of personality: in contrast to an oral tradition, in which thought is spirit, from the outside (as from God), the song is an example of psyche, the experience of literacy, in which thought comes from within. Although the lyrics would suggest gospel music inspirations (they were written by a minister, after all), the music was inspired by a song from the secular realm, and as such the song would seem to be a fierce statement of self-reliance, perseverance, and the perils of the individual within a mass society. Most sources I’ve come across claim the melody is traditional, used first (in recorded history; it is no doubt much older) in “I Am Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” a song recorded in the 1920s. The same melody was also used in Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” and in Kitty Wells’ answer song to “The Wild Side of Life,” titled “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” To my knowledge, the fact that the four songs all used the same melody was first pointed out, in recorded form anyway, by David Allan Coe, on the best album he ever did, RIDES AGAIN (1977), and the song, “Punkin Center Barn Dance.”

Despite the lyrics’ rather obvious allegorizing and the rhetoric of righteousness, the Modernist influence is quite noticeable — using difficulty as a means to protect an art work from mass appropriation. The lyrical content of “The Great Speckled Bird” is elusive for many listeners, as I discovered after a short web search. Hence, while the song has been recorded many times the past seventy years and is something of a country music “standard,” its meaning is hardly transparent.