Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock In The Year 2525

It should be rather obvious that this weekend’s 40th anniversary of Woodstock is producing a torrent of recollections about the event, on the assumption there’s something worth remembering, or that hasn’t been remembered before. For the fact is, we all know what there is to know: that it was a financial flop, that there were heavy rainstorms, overcrowding, overdoses, and lots of very hungry people, etc., etc. What it’s really about, of course, is merchandising—Woodstock has been sold for 40 years now—and has become one of the most heavily mythologized events of the 1960s. The event has come to “represent” the Sixties, even though it occurred in August 1969, at the end of the decade, yet more evidence that in the popular imagination what is referred to as “The Sixties” is primarily composed of events that took place from 1968 on.

Assuming that somehow “The Sixties” can be understood exclusively by the events defining youth culture at the time, what was the No. 1 hit on the Top 40 charts the weekend of Woodstock? Was it a song by The Beatles? The Jackson 5? Jimi Hendrix? Janis Joplin? Actually it was by none of these artists or groups. The No. 1 hit in the country the weekend of Woodstock, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, was Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus),” and had been at that spot since July 12. In other words, assuming popular music “reflected” the times like a mirror, what preoccupied most people was the annihilation of the human race, not nude bathing and port-o-potties. (Let’s face it, if there were indeed 300,000 people on Max Yasgur’s 600 acre farm for seventy-two hours or so, there was a whole lotta excrement goin’ on.) And what song finally knocked “In The Year 2525” out of the No. 1 spot? The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” How does that song “reflect” the times? Neither Zager & Evans nor the Rolling Stones were at Woodstock, at least not as performers. Neither was the group that knocked the Rolling Stones and “Honky Tonk Women” out of Number 1: The Archies, with “Sugar, Sugar.” And by then we’re almost into 1970, and images of crazed hippies (Manson et al.) replaced images of mud-and-rain-drenched hippies in the mass media.

History has impressed upon us by now virtually all the names of the 32 acts at Woodstock, but do we know the names of the acts that were invited but declined the offer to perform? According to digitaldreamdoor, the acts were as follows; this list is more revealing of the times than the bands who actually did perform.

The Beatles – They couldn’t come together
Led Zeppelin – Better paying gig
Bob Dylan – Didn’t like hippies
The Byrds – Turned it down because of a fracas during a performance earlier that year
Tommy James & the Shondells – Apparently misinformed about the size of the event
Jethro Tull – It was no big deal
The Moody Blues – Unknown; perhaps still searching for the lost chord
Mind Garage – Thought it was no big deal, and anyway had a better paying gig

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Virtue of Forgettable Records

The French film critic André Bazin was able to find a moment of redeeming value in an otherwise forgettable movie. For him, a mediocre film always had a moment of real beauty. He was the Will Rogers of movie critics, for it was Will Rogers who is claimed to have said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Bazin was like that with movies. Bazin’s attitude about movie going was remarkably similar to that of the Surrealist Man Ray, who wrote, “The worst films I’ve ever seen, the ones that send me to sleep, contain ten or fifteen valid minutes. The best films I’ve ever seen only contain ten or fifteen valid minutes” (qtd. in Paul Hammond, Ed., The Shadow and Its Shadow, p. 84). Man Ray also had the habit of watching movies through his fingers, so that he could see only isolated parts of the screen. Actually, I perfectly understand the impulse behind Man Ray’s habit. For many years I had a movie-going habit that my friends found very annoying: I would never arrive at the movie theater on time, that is to say, before the movie started. I was always late, deliberately, meaning I would miss the first few minutes. I preferred watching movies this way because it always seemed to make the movie more provocative and interesting. After all, watching a movie isn’t all about the narrative, and besides, since movies are a mass art (e.g., Hollywood), they are simply variations on familiar forms. Hollywood isn’t interested in redefining the way people watch movies; on the contrary, its success largely depends upon deep-rooted viewing habits. Habits don’t develop simply because of compulsive behavior; they are learned and reinforced. Example: people go the movie theater early to avoid lines and to get the best seats. Consequently, they sit through the opening credits and endure the dreary opening minutes. After several iterations of this pattern, it becomes a habit.

For in fact most movies are dull and mediocre. Remember Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” The typical record album is very much like one of Bazin’s movies: dull and mediocre, with merely a few remarkable minutes. The upside to this situation, though, is that these two or three valid minutes are very much worth hearing. No doubt this realization prompted Mitch Miller to invent the type of album known as “greatest hits,” even though he himself is responsible for making some of the most boring music ever put to record. In the days of the hegemony of vinyl records, I always found that I preferred one side of the record to the other, a listening habit not encouraged by the digital storage medium (I suppose the digital equivalent of preferring one side to the other is the “playlist,” allowing the programmer to skip or omit altogether the crappy stuff). For instance, I always preferred side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road to side one (although I’d play side one on occasion primarily just so I could listen to “Octopus’s Garden”), while I vastly preferred side one of the James Gang’s Rides Again. I think side two of Van Morrison’s Into the Music is the greatest single side of music he ever recorded, and I much prefer the second side of Led Zeppelin III. So in honor of André Bazin, I’ve compiled a list of mediocre and largely forgettable albums that contain an utterly remarkable few minutes. It’s the proverbial drop in the bucket.

Aerosmith, Toys in the Attic
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu
The Doors, Strange Days
The Eagles, Greatest Hits
Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
The Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits 1974-78
The Moody Blues, On the Threshold of a Dream
The Mothers of Invention, Burnt Weeny Sandwich
Traffic, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Yes, Fragile
Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cult Records

Like any avant-garde movement, rock ‘n’ roll became “popular” because it found a glamorous figure that attracted the interest and attention of outsiders—Elvis Presley. The so-called “rock revolution” of the 1960s did much the same thing, acquiring a key group of figures—a band—around which it could organize and define itself—The Beatles. Most importantly, The Beatles happened to be musically prolific, but also charming, clever, and witty—that is to say, articulate. While not as charming, clever, or witty as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones had what it needed the most, a star, in this case Mick Jagger, an individual provocative and garrulous enough to overcome the band’s basic inarticulateness. Bob Dylan was articulate, too, but he also, as the documentary Dont Look Back (1967) demonstrated, had an additional ingredient—he gave the impression of being a true rebel.

The spectacular careers of the Beatles and of Bob Dylan, among others, serve as illustrations of the effectiveness of thinking not in terms of the single but in terms of the album. The musical failure of Elvis during much of the 60s was the result of mismanagement, of handlers who didn’t really understand the youth of the day and who thought pop songs were novelty tunes for teenagers—singles—around which the films of the 60s were built (“Viva Las Vegas,” “Do the Clam”). The Beatles and Bob Dylan, in contrast, refocused their energies on the long-term, on having a career. And what is a career but a narrative that charts an artistic evolution? Their energies were focused on development, on “growth,” not simply on the individual album.

While so-called “cult” albums have the reputations they do in part because of the manner of their consumption—in the form of the strong attachments and mild obsessions to which they give rise—a cult album is also the sign of a figure or band whose career failed, meaning there is no narrative that can be written that can make sense of the album’s creation. The aura of mystery that surrounds the band and its members is largely due to the lack of any coherent narrative that can explain the band’s artistic development: the album emerges as if “from nowhere,” with no clear antecedent and with no comparable album released afterward. Those albums that have become cult failed to find an audience upon their release; this initial commercial reception is crucial to laying the groundwork for its later recognition as a classic, based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground & Nico album, 1967)—that initial neglect guarantees greatness.

11 Cult Albums, 1967—1998:
Tim Buckley – Starsailor
Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
Francoise Hardy – La Question
Penelope Houston – Birdboys
Love – Forever Changes
The Modern Lovers – The Original Modern Lovers
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Skip Spence – Oar
The United States of America – The United States of America
The Unknowns – The Unknowns
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico