Friday, October 9, 2009


“Fantasy is a place where it rains,” writes Italy Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Vintage, 1988). His use of “rain” is figurative, of course; our “mind’s eye” is the movie screen upon which the imagination “rains” down the images that form our fantasies. “The mental cinema is always at work in each one of us, and it always has been, even before the invention of the cinema. Nor does it ever stop projecting images before our mind’s eye” (83). Rain—the Parisian rain that announces the dissolution of love, the end of Rick and Lisa’s relationship in Casablanca, metaphorically realized by the note from Ilsa Rick reads at the train station. Rain as sadness and melancholy: the implied link between “Rainy Days and Mondays” about which the Carpenters sing. Rain as adversity, as hard times, as the bad things in life, as in James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”

But what about the association of rain and fantasy, poetically rendered by the image of the introspective child staring out of a window as raindrops patter against the windowpane? There are many wonderful songs about rain (e.g., Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), but the songs on the following playlist explore the connection between rain and fantasy, fantasy as a place where it is always raining. “Rainy Night in Georgia” does not simply express melancholy, but is also about the singer’s (Brook Benton’s) visual imagination, as is one of Elvis’s last truly great songs, “Kentucky Rain.” (Rain as anxiety.) For rain as the frustration of Erotic fulfillment (the Reality Principle), go here. My favorite? The Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain.” Why? Well, as Louis Armstrong famously said, “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.”

Fantasy As A Place Where It Rains:
The Beatles – Rain
Brook Benton – Rainy Night in Georgia
The Carpenters – Rainy Days and Mondays
The Cascades – Rhythm of the Rain
Eric Clapton – Let It Rain
The Cowsills – The Rain, The Park & Other Things
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Who’ll Stop the Rain?
The Doors – People Are Strange
Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
Peter Gabriel – Red Rain
The Grateful Dead – Box Of Rain
Willie Nelson – Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
The Police – Shadows in the Rain
Eddie Rabbit – I Love A Rainy Night
Prince and The Revolution – Purple Rain
Neil Sedaka – Laughter in the Rain
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The The – Kingdom of Rain
XTC – 1,000 Umbrellas

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Déclassé—To be demoted from a high status or rank to a lower one, especially in social status. The word déclassé is also applied to weapons considered obsolete or antiquated. It refers to that which is no longer viable or operational. The déclassé is not “kitsch”—tawdry, overly sentimentalized art of the banal representational sort—but refers to those features of our inherited culture that make us uncomfortable. It refers to those cultural behaviors that are now obsolete, forming the basis of an unwritten protocol that silently censors and marks the limits of proper taste. It proscribes movies that cannot be made, jokes that can no longer be recited, pop songs that now seem starkly ludicrous, silly, and pretentious. The interest in cultural productions that are considered déclassé is primarily historical, that is, scholarly: they are museum pieces which Time and History have rendered quaint, but nonetheless strange, artifacts. The déclassé may once have been highly fashionable, but is no longer—it no longer “speaks” to contemporary audiences and hence is out of fashion. These things may have a nostalgic appeal, but they no longer carry the sting of truth. A recovery or revival is unlikely.

Examples Of The Déclassé (In Language Or Sentiment), Hardly Exhaustive:
Harpers Bizarre – The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) [1960s]
The Beach Boys – Be True To Your School [1960s]
Jimmy Dean – I Won’t Go Hunting With You Jake (But, I’ll go chasin’ wimmin) [1950s]
Leroy Van Dyke – I Fell In Love With a Pony Tail [1950s]
Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders – A Groovy Kind Of Love [1960s]
Bobby Goldsboro – Honey [1960s]
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra – The Umbrella Man [1930s]
John Lennon – Woman Is The Nigger Of The World [1970s]
Loretta Lynn – The Pill [1970s]
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) [1940s]
Joni Mitchell – Woodstock [1960s]
Wayne Newton – Dreams of the Everyday Housewife [1960s]
The Plasmatics – Metal Priestess [1980s]
Helen Reddy – I Am Woman [1970s]
SSgt. Barry Sadler – Ballad of the Green Berets [1960s]

Monday, October 5, 2009


The German inventor Emile Berliner patented the Gramophone in 1887. Unlike Thomas Edison, Berliner eschewed recording onto cylinders, and instead started recording onto flat disks—records. These early records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic, onto which sound information was etched into a spiral groove. The (figurative) arm of the gramophone (pictured), the playback device, contained a needle that “read” the sound vibrations in the grooves, transmitting this information to the speaker, which amplified the sounds. Berliner founded The Gramophone Company in order to manufacture both records and the technology to play them, Gramophones. Significantly, in 1908 Berliner began using Francis Barraud’s painting His Master’s Voice as his company’s logo, an image familiar to anyone who owns a few older RCA records. (The inventor eventually sold the licensing rights to his patent for the Gramophone and method of making records to the Victor Talking Machine Company, which in turn became RCA-Victor.)

I’ve always assumed that Berliner chose this now famous image as his logo in homage to Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog. If you remember, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca in the twentieth year of his absence, disguised as a beggar. Nonetheless, that remorselessly old, dying dog, which manages to keep warm only by lying on a composting manure pile, manages to recognize his master, Odysseus, when he speaks—by his master’s voice. Despite Odysseus’ disguise, despite the long absence, the keen ears of Argos can recognize his true master by the authenticating sound of his voice. Presumably, Berliner chose Berraud’s painting in order to suggest the crystal clarity of sounds etched on his records, that his records captured authentic sound.

Berliner was a very smart and clever man, and he chose to record popular singers of the day—Enrico Caruso, for instance—to help advertise his records and the Gramophone. But as Friedrich Kittler has argued, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford UP, 1999), from around 1880 on, composers of music have been “allied with engineers” (24). After this date, he writes, “The undermining of articulateness becomes the order of the day” (24). As a consequence of sound recording, noise itself became an object of scientific research, and the previous conceptions that governed musical theory became antiquated.

The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such. Articulateness becomes a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise. (23)

He’s right, of course: recording is a process by which sounds are made, not “captured.” It’s a form of engineering. Consider the sort of composers considered significant and important since 1887: Schoenberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), and Stockhausen (born 1928). The latter’s Kontakte owes as much to electrical engineers as it does to the redefinition of music theory that occurred when sounds (and music) became understood as sonic vibrations. I don’t think contemporary musicians who also happen to be music theorists, such as Brian Eno and Chris Cutler, would dispute Kittler’s characterization of the recording of music as an “acoustic event,” nor dispute the idea that articulateness (of voice) is “a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise.” Such is the impact of technology on our idea of (popular) music.

Some Acoustic Events:
The Beach Boys, Caroline, No [album version]
The Beatles, Revolution 9
The Doors, Horse Latitudes
Electric Light Orchestra, Telephone Line
Brian Eno, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks [album]
King Crimson, 21st Century Schizoid Man
Pink Floyd, Money
Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music [album]
The Residents, Eskimo
The Shangri-Las, Leader of the Pack
Frank Zappa, Lumpy Gravy [album]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mermaid, Nymph, Siren

A siren, in Greek mythology, was an assemblage or portmanteau, part bird, part woman, and was both dangerous (a “siren” to this day warns of danger, a usage derived from the siren’s song that lured men to their doom) and seductive—a prototype of the femme fatale. At least originally. In later folklore, they lost their wings, and became fully aquatic and mermaid-like (“la mer” meaning “the sea” in French, hence mermaid means “sea-maiden”), revealed by the fact that in the Spanish and French languages, for instance, the word for mermaid is respectively Sirena and Sirène. Hence sirens and mermaids are often confused in the popular imagination. In contrast, the Greek word nymph, a female spirit usually associated with a specific geographical place, has both “bride” and “veiled” among its meanings; a “nymph” has come to mean a young woman of marriageable age. Hence the words mermaid, nymph, and siren all refer to highly seductive and desirable women, although potentially dangerous: for the Victorians, a “nymphomaniac” was a fundamentally disturbed woman, revealed by her excessive interest in sex. Perhaps because of its association with the word “nymphomania,” the word “nymph” seldom occurs in the lyrics of popular music. Mermaids and sirens, however, are mythical creatures that often make appearances, figures of elusive beauty. I’m including Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” in the following playlist, primarily because it is the precursor song of Van Morrison’s “Queen of the Slipstream” (“Going away far across the sea/But I’ll be back for you/Tell you everything I know”): both are romantic songs are about nymphs, beautiful young women waiting for the return of their lovers. But both “Can't Get It Out of My Head” and “Queen of the Slipstream” are also figurations of the Muse, signaling the singer is among the poetic elect.

Mermaids, Nymphs, And Sirens:
Aeon – Nymph
Tori Amos – Siren
Tim Buckley – Song to the Siren
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Bobby Darin – Beyond the Sea
Electric Light Orchestra – Can’t Get It Out My Head
Hall and Oates – Maneater
Van Morrison – Queen of the Slipstream
Nightwish – Siren
Robert Plant – Song to the Siren
Sade – Mermaid
Shel Silverstein – Mermaid Song
XTC – Mermaid Smiled