Saturday, January 30, 2010

In My Tree

About three weeks ago, I wrote a short blog entry on the famous cynic Diogenes, the great anti-Socratic. Diogenes was greatly admired by Alexander the Great for the freedom exemplified by his way of life. According to legend, the famous conqueror approached the sage on a day when he, Diogenes, was sunning himself. Alexander the Great asked him, Diogenes, if there were anything he could do for him. “Yes,” said Diogenes, “Get out of my light.” It’s said that Diogenes asked to be buried standing on his head, because, so he thought, one day down would be up, and up would be down. In the earlier blog, I claimed that one can hear Diogenesian thought in many pop songs, including Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” when Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows.” One can hear him in the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud” and in Ian Hunter’s “Standin’ In My Light.” It occurred to me this morning that one may also hear Diogenes in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” written by John Lennon. I have excerpted a few of the lyrics below:

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low
That is you can't you know tune in, but it’s all right
That is I think it’s not too bad
Always know sometimes think it’s me,
But you know I know when it’s a dream
I think a “No” will mean a “Yes” but it’s all wrong,
That is I think I disagree

I was prompted to revisit “Strawberry Fields Forever”—a recording which, in my view, represents one of the Beatles’ finest moments—because according to Dave Haber’s The Internet Beatles Album, it was on this day in 1967 the Beatles shot the night scenes for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video (available here), in Sevenoaks, Kent. Watching the video this morning, shot over forty years ago, I thought of Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that the cinema also happens to be a documentary record of persons and things at a particular moment in time. Godard said about his film Breathless, for instance, “This film is really a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Thus the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video is really a documentary recording about how the Beatles looked on 30 January 1967—an example of how photography connects us to what we, even now, still call “the real.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Song Of The Vipers

In Chapter 2 (“The Rise of Individualism and the Jazz Solo”) of James Lincoln Collier’s book, Jazz: The American Theme Song (1993), Collier discusses how the forces of modernism enabled the transformation of jazz bands from ensembles to vehicles for soloists. Modernism privileged the individual, championing the virtues of “individualism.” It valued “freedom of the spirit, the virtues of primitivism, belief in living spontaneously . . . and . . . individual expression” (44). Adherence to these values led some to refuse to read, study, or rehearse music, “for fear that a conscious knowing of what they were doing will inhibit spontaneity and the free flow of feeling” (45). However, if modernism privileged freedom of the spirit, primitivism, and spontaneity (the latter expressed in the form of the improvised jazz solo), modernism also was a consequence of the so-called “machine age,” which valued predictability rather than spontaneity, the planned rather than the improvised, and interchangeability (replaceability) rather than individuality.

It’s possible — to theorize a little — that drug use became a fixture of early jazz (sub)culture as a reaction against modernism, that is, the machine age that was dominated by spirit-crushing, that is, mindless and unfulfilling, labor. I’m aware that what was called Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called “Modernism” in the twentieth; drug addiction (such as Charlie Parker’s), as a form of self-destruction, conforms to the Romantic myth of early death as a sign of heightened sensitivity and consciousness. Yet it is also true that the early “drug subcultures” arose in Paris in the early modernist period, the city to which the mercurial Sidney Bechet was drawn in the early 1920s, to the detriment of his recording career in the United States. Among the first of the Parisian drug subcultures (or at least one of the most famous) was the Club des Haschischins, which flourished in Paris in the 1840s and ‘50s. Its members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin revived the myth of the “Hashishin” or “Assassins” — a secret group of drug users at odds with the material culture in which they lived — as a way of conceptualizing the modern “drug subculture” or so-called “drug underground.” The important point is to notice the link between esotericism and the individual’s need for a quasi-religious transcendence that can occur only with the secrecy of ritual. “The structure of modern life tends to eliminate possibilities of radical change,” Luigi Zola astutely notes, which is why secret or esoteric societies hold such imaginative power for individuals in modern desacralized urban society (see Mike Jay, Ed., Artificial Paradises 367). Mike Jay has observed that drug subcultures “share many of the underlying dynamics with initiatory secret societies” (Artificial Paradises 366). Such occult or secret societies are premised on initiation ceremonies  (employing drugs) allowing individuals access to a higher state of being — what is meant by “high” in the first place. The French expression for being high — “il plane” — expresses the meaning of being high as being metaphorically elevated to a different plane, or level of conscious awareness. The urban jazz subculture, in turn, shared many of the features of a secret society (exclusive membership). “Speaking of 1931,” Louis Armstrong wrote in “Tight Like That Gage,” “we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days.”

Coupled with what Ted Gioia has called “the primitivist myth” (The Imperfect Art, 1988) that has informed much of the early critical writing about jazz, drug use (or perhaps excessive drug use, addiction) became the imprimatur of authenticity—the positive indication of tortured artistic genius.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

High Infidelity

Friedrich Kittler (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1999) argues that 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)

Recording is a form of engineering. Consider the composers who became significant since 1887: Schönberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), John Cage (born 1912), and Stockhausen (born 1928). David Morton (Off the Record) indicates that Arnold Schönberg, along with many other composers, writers, and scholars (think of John Lomax, and later Alan, recording folk music “in the field”) became “avid users of sound recording equipment” such as the portable tape recorder (144). (An implication of this development, of course, is that we live in a world in which we will most likely encounter a reproduction of something rather than ever encountering the thing itself.) For tape recording, says David Morton, “destroyed the already tenuous concept of an “original” performance and made the performance a source of content to be refined rather than something to be preserved” (46). Morton cites Steve Jones, who made the observation, “it has become sound—and not music—that is of prime importance in popular music production and consumption” (qtd. in Off the Record, 46). Recently developed (historically speaking) digital recording technologies only made it “easier than ever,” Morton writes, “to create and manipulate new sounds and have little relevance to the concept of high fidelity” (44). Hence the concept of fidelity (truth, accuracy, realism) is no longer relevant when judging a recording (what Kittler calls an “acoustic event”). It must, more than anything, sound good. By way of analogy to the terminology employed in rhetorical theory, perlocution (the effect on the listener) is privileged over elocutio (“purity,” correctness or faithfulness of utterance).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

High Fidelity

The long-playing (“LP”) microgroove record, what is commonly referred to as the vinyl LP, which in its final form held about 20 minutes of music per side, makes sense, as David Morton has observed, only “in the context of the long passages typical of classical music” (Off the Record 38-39). Peter Goldmark and Edward Wallerstein—the CBS employees who after the end of World War II pushed the invention of the “LP” record in that company’s laboratories—had found that the vast majority of classical compositions could fit on two sides of a single record if the storage capacity on each side was around seventeen minutes. Prior to the invention of the long-playing microgroove record, classical recordings were packaged in “albums,” that is, bundles of 78-rpm discs. In their pursuit of a storage medium that could hold 90 percent of all classical music (Morton 38), Goldmark and Wallerstein, perhaps intentionally, linked “high fidelity” with “high brow.” But as Morton points out, while the term fidelity (truth, accuracy) “remains central in the technical vocabulary of music recording and reproduction” (15), an understanding of common music recording practices reveals that sounds are not captured, but made. Nonetheless, companies which issued jazz records, such as Prestige, were formed after CBS' introduction of the long-playing record medium (Prestige, for instance, in 1949).

In contrast, RCA’s introduction in 1948 of the 7” 45-rpm single (which was able to exploit the technical improvements of the LP with the inexpensiveness of the 78-rpm single) was, as Morton observes, “aimed squarely at the largest market in the country,” popular music (155). Serendipitously, jazz music, with its extended improvisations, lent itself to the high fidelity LP format, and so, somewhat improbably, jazz became “high brow.” By 1957, in Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock, jazz music lovers are portrayed as snobs and elitists. Conveniently, a crucial scene in Jailhouse Rock has been recorded by Krin Gabbard in his important work on jazz and the American cinema, Jammin’ at the Margins (1996). The scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s (Judy Tyler’s) parents. Her father, a college professor, is having a party, during which the conversation has turned to jazz music and a jazz figure named “Stubby Ritemeyer,” a fictional musician whom Gabbard indicates is based on West Coast trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers.

“I think Stubby’s gone overboard with those altered chords,” says one of the pompous guests. “I agree,” says another, “I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.” “Oh, nonsense,” says a man, “have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space.” A young woman adds, “Some day they’ll make the cycle and go back to pure old Dixieland.” A well-dressed, older woman says, “I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music.” Turning to Presley, she asks, “What do you think, Mr. Everett?” He answers, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out of the house. (124)

While Gabbard observes in the scene (and movie) a “dizzy mix of black and white music and their imitations” (125), the scene also is about high (jazz) and low (popular) culture, high fidelity—the extradiegetic jazz recording playing the background—and “low” fidelity—the 45-rpm singles Vince Everett (Elvis) wants to record (“Treat Me Nice”). David Morton observes that “high fidelity became a mass market phenomenon after 1952” (39), and that sales of phonographs and high-fidelity equipment grew throughout the 1950s, one consequence of high-fidelity promotional “fairs” that began in 1949. By 1957, of course, Elvis had been signed to RCA, which had made the corporate decision almost a decade earlier to back and heavily to market inexpensive 7” 45-rpm singles to a popular music audience. Elvis, of course, was signed by RCA to produce singles, not LPs.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Historian David Morton indicates in Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (2000) that the first significant mass-market success of audio tape technology in America was the “Stereo 8” cartridge system, otherwise known as the 8-Track. Introduced in 1965, the 8-Track was promoted by William Lear (after whom the Learjet is named), who built it “around an existing endless-loop cartridge for background music applications, the Fidelipac” (159). Morton writes:

After modifying the cartridge enough to win a set of patents on it, he [Lear] wisely combined his company’s resources with those of several other top firms: the manufacturing capability of the Motorola corporation, the record catalog of RCA-Victor, and the marketing organization of the Ford Motor Company. (159-60)

Priced at $128, the Ford 8-Track player was instantly successful, and quickly, Morton indicates, “other U.S. auto manufacturers and third-party equipment retailers offered it as early as 1966” (160). Hence the 8-Track’s success was a consequence of its portability, a factor that has determined the direction of research in home electronics and popular music for the past 45 years (think of the small, inexpensive transistor radio). The 8-Track was to the automobile what the Sony Walkman (in the 1980s) was to jogging, revealing the crucial connection between the home audio system and the need for portable music, otherwise known as compatibility. In other words, the crucial factor determining the consumption of popular music the past several decades is not “high fidelity,” but portability. Since World War II and the rise of home audio, the audio manufacturers have typically touted “high fidelity” as a major factor in determining home audio purchases, and while this feature is still no doubt crucial for many enthusiasts (so-called audiophiles), for the majority of consumers, the crucial factor is mobility. Hence, like so much other cultural activity, the automobile has organized our behavior.

The compact disc brought about the demise of audio tape technology, replacing the cassette (which replaced the 8-Track) with the iPod. Hence the iPod is to the CD what cassettes and 8-Tracks were to the vinyl LP. Reshuffling (randomization) replaces the predictability (stability) of the record, and the déclassé technology assumes the status of a found object, the technological equivalent of the fossil record. The archeologist is replaced by the antiquarian.

Monday, January 18, 2010


There’s an old saw that avers suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher, and this may express a certain truth. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson uses “lead” as a metaphor to approximate mental and emotional suffering: “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” during which “The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” She goes on to write:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow—
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Traditionally, lead has been associated with the planet Saturn; hence, the emotional feeling Dickinson is trying to describe by “the hour of lead” is called saturnine. Freud suggested the mental energy required for this “letting go” was the difference between mourning and melancholy. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), Italo Calvino suggests that “melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness,” just as “humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight” (19). Calvino also observes that the ancients thought the saturnine temperament the one “proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent worlds” (52). Calvino contrasts the saturnine temperament with the mercurial one, the former “melancholy, contemplative, and solitary,” the latter, mercurial one, “inclined toward exchanges and commerce and dexterity” (52). I can think of no better poetic example of the contemplative, solitary artistic temperament than that of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” in which Thomas writes:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

My astrological sign is Cancer, the crab, one who carries his home on his back. Hence my temperament is to prefer the solitary. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve always been attracted to Thomas’ poem, and especially the description of his writing as “spindrift pages.” Spindrift typically refers to the telltale spray blown from cresting waves during gale force winds, but the word is also used to describe the fine sand that is blown off the tips of sand dunes, or the fine snow that the wind blows off the top edges of snow drifts. Thomas’ “spindrift pages” are those pages that are whisked like fine snow from his writing desk, destined for an unknown reader, or perhaps no reader at all. Therefore, for me the image that best captures the saturnine temperament, or melancholy, is one of the ocean, or desert, or hilltop that displays the telltale wisps of spindrift. My personal image of melancholy is not necessarily one that is common or widely endorsed, of course, because it partakes of the wholly personal and private, eluding public endorsement. The musical equivalent of melancholy is perhaps private as well, just as the personal image of melancholy is, and so my list of some melancholic songs may not match those of others.

A Personal List Of A Few Musical Equivalents To Spindrift:
The Beatles – In My Life
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
Neil Diamond – Solitary Man
Elton John – Rocket Man
The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
Harry Nilsson – Everybody’s Talkin’
Phil Ochs – Boy in Ohio
Roy Orbison – In Dreams
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Spindrifter
Marty Robbins – Saddle Tramp
Bob Seger – Turn the Page
XTC – My Bird Performs
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush

Sunday, January 17, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Led Zeppelin’s first album (cover pictured) was released 41 years ago today, on 17 January 1969, during the band’s first American tour. Other sources, however, aver it was released a few days earlier, on 12 January. Perhaps the release dates for the album were different in Britain and America, but in any case the lack of positivistic certainty regarding the album's release date is as elusive as the music the band played—what is it? Led Zeppelin’s music has often been characterized as “heavy metal”—but what is that? Heavy metal as idea, heavy metal as product, heavy metal as mass phenomenon—which one is heavy metal? It has often been observed that Led Zeppelin was to the Seventies what the Beatles were to the Sixties, and there may be some truth to this claim, assuming one believes that the history of rock is the history of a few moments of genuine authentic expression that quickly deteriorates into what might be called “commercial” imitations employing a similar sound—e.g., Led Zeppelin devolves into Heart.

Perhaps there is another way to conceptualize the band’s music. As Ingeborg Hoesterey has observed (Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature, 2001), the term “pastiche” is often used in a negative sense, but the term can be understood more positively. While her study is predominantly interested in the visual arts, she does touch briefly on popular music, observing, “pastiche structuration has been a feature of innovative popular music for more than a decade, registered for the most part under different labels” (p. 112). Her use of the term “pastiche” in this context refers to the conflation or mixing of different kinds of music, the creation of “impure” blends including “funk-rap-rock,” “hiphop/techno/jungle,” “country and hiphop,” “Afro-Celtic,” “Afro-Pop,” “Ethno-Punk,” and so on (p. 113). Whatever one wishes to call it—“hard rock,” “heavy metal,” rock-infused blues and folk—Led Zeppelin’s music was pastiche—a flagrant, ostentatious borrowing from the musical archive of Western culture. A conceptually elusive term, the term pastiche rather obviously has fuzzy boundaries, overlapping with a number of other aesthetic categories. I have extracted of few of these categories from Hoesterey’s book and used them below. The term pastiche overlaps with a number of semantic categories, and I have listed only a few of them here, for purposes of illustration.

Appropriation – A term that gained widespread use in the eighties to stress the “intentionality of the act of borrowing and the historical attitude of the borrower” (p. 10). In the Sixties, the blues, along with folk, came to represent authenticity, what Simon Frith has labelled the widespread perception of “music-as-expression” (as opposed to “music-as-commodity”). White blues musicians considered African-American music as “authentic,” an outpouring of genuine feeling, and authenticity was defined by closeness to the blues. To play authentically, therefore, was to play the blues. Among other kinds of music, Led Zeppelin appropriated the blues, primarily electrified Chicago blues. While “Chicago blues” most certainly was the effect of industrialization (requiring an industry and circulation), Led Zeppelin appropriated the music of Chicago blues artists such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, sometimes without the proper attribution of authorship (e.g., “How Many More Times”). Of course, the music industry had exploited the music of Afro-Americans for commercial profit since the jazz era—it literally banked on their music . . . as did the members of Led Zeppelin. For how appropriation is linked to imitation, see below.

Bricolage – The bricoleur describes a “creative persona who draws his/her work upon heterogeneous models and sources” (p. 10). A number of sources claim Led Zeppelin incorporated rockabilly, reggae, soul, funk, classical, Celtic, Indian, Arabic, pop, Latin, and country. Hence the band members can be considered legitimate bricoleurs.

Farrago – “One of the meanings of pasticcio [from which the French-language word pastiche comes] in common Italian is ‘mental confusion’” (p. 12). Hence the origin of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” a farrago.

Imitation – “The basic structure of pastiche is a degree of imitation. What happens beyond this determines the artistic sense of both the traditional and postmodern pastiche” (p. 12). The band’s first album includes a cover of Otis Spann’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby" and the aforementioned “How Many More Times” first recorded by Howlin' Wolf. It also is worth mentioning that in their stage performance Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to use Krin Gabbard's phrase (Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture, 2004), were “borrowing black masculinity,” that is, imitating the performance styles of the black artists they admired. Gabbard cites John Gennari on the subject of the white male appropriation of black masculinity, suggesting that it “operates through gender displacement, i.e., sexual freedom and carefree abandon . . . [being] . . . expressed through feminized gestures (emotion, flamboyance, etc.) that, paradoxically, end up coded as masculine. I think here of Elvis's hair styling . . . Mick Jagger's striptease . . . the spandex, long-hair, girlish torsos of the cock rockers. To try to get this point across to my students, I show footage of . . . Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talking about how everything they did came out of Willie Dixon and other macho black bluesmen. Then you see them aggressively pelvic thrusting through “Whole Lotta Love,” looking like Cher and Twiggy on speed.” (Gabbard, Black Magic p. 33)

Refiguration – The art of refiguration “takes formal elements of past styles, and brings them forward into a contemporary context, resulting in a sometimes disquieting synthesis of past form and present context” (pp. 12-13) Led Zeppelin’s extraordinarily loud, spacey and druggy refiguration of the Chicago blues might in fact be what is meant by the term “heavy metal.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wild Civility

The soundtrack to the film Pretty Woman (1990) contains Christopher Otcasek’s cover version of Johnny O’Keefe’s 1958 hit, “The Wild One” in its retitled form, “Real Wild Child (Wild One).” The serendipitous linkage is highly revealing, as it suggests that “wildness,” as opposed to “civility,” concerns the projection of proper social behavior, that is, decorum (social appearance), or what we now call “image management.” For the dramatic intrigue of Pretty Woman revolves around the issue of how to behave properly, socially speaking. The special problem of the film is how the Julia Roberts character, a prostitute, must learn proper social decorum from below. Rather like Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), she must make the difficult transition from an ill-mannered street waif (low) to proper lady (high). But the story demands she make this complex negotiation from (private) individual goodness to (public) spiritual elegance (conferred by exposure to “high” culture, such as opera) look easy, and eventually commit to a higher love (monogamy).

Robert Herrick’s much-anthologized poem, “Delight in Disorder,” from which the expression “wild civility” comes, is a poem that interrogates Neoclassical assumptions of decorum—that is, the management of social appearances, the courtier’s emulation of correct models of behavior as set forth by Castiglione (and others). Herrick expresses a certain erotic interest in women who exhibit a “wild civility,” or, in modern parlance, engage in “double articulation,” speaking two different messages to two audiences using one (symbolic) utterance. “Wildness” as such therefore might be understood as a form of Bakhtinian “carnival,” mocking and subverting the mainstream culture rather than a form of “harmless” fun. Hence being “wild” isn’t just about having fun, but about mockery and subterfuge.

What Some Wild Things Are:
.38 Special – Wild-Eyed Southern Boys
The Beach Boys – Wild Honey
Brook Benton – Walk on the Wild Side (from the motion picture)
Donald Byrd – Wild Life
Marshall Crenshaw – Little Wild One (No. 5)
Duran Duran – The Wild Boys
The Escape Club – Wild Wild West
INXS – Wild Life
Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch – Wildside
Paul McCartney & Wings – Wild Life
Mötley Crüe – Wild Side
Johnny O’Keefe – The Wild One AKA Real Wild Child (Wild One)
The Peddlers – Walk on the Wild Side
Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side
Dan Seals – (You Bring Out) The Wild Side of Me
Slaughter – The Wild Life
Steppenwolf – Born To Be Wild
Talking Heads – Wild Wild Life
Hank Thompson – The Wild Side of Life
The Troggs – Wild Thing

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


French filmmaker Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) has died, at age 89, and has been widely written about and eulogized, even by commentators who obviously have seen only a handful of his films. This article by Agnès Poirier, for instance, gets the biographical details correct, although she overemphasizes his contribution to the French Nouvelle Vague, calling him the movement’s “father,” when in fact Rohmer was neither revolutionary in his aesthetics, as was Godard, nor audacious in his film criticism, as was Truffaut—after all, Rohmer didn’t make his first film until he was almost 40 years old. She is no doubt correct, though, in her observation that Rohmer “always followed Rimbaud’s mantra: ‘One must be absolutely modern’,” but then the same also could be said of Godard and Truffaut. Rohmer’s first film that actually showed an active interest in exploring the lives of adventurous young moderns, La Collectionneuse (filmed late 1966, released 1967), was made when he was 46. Featuring Haydée Politoff (pictured left), Patrick Bauchau (right), his wife Mijanou Bardot, and painter Daniel Pommereulle, one would be hard-pressed to say his film unequivocally embraced the sexual mores (and, in one instance, drug use) of hip Parisian bohemians (at least as Rohmer saw them) of the 1960s. According to Sally Shafto (in her important monograph, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, published 2000), Rohmer cast La Collectionneuse with individuals he perceived to be at the forefront of the “Sixties Generation,” in their behavior, attitude, and sensibility. A revealing fact is that Rohmer refused to cast the painter Frédéric Pardo in the film because he thought his hair was too long.

The first film by Rohmer I actually saw in a movie theater was The Marquise of O (1976), which I found utterly fascinating and have always found to be his best film. Ironically, although it is perhaps his most feted film behind My Night at Maud’s (1969)—which I didn’t see until its home video incarnation well over two decades after it’s release—it’s typically neglected in favor of the films that comprise the Six Moral Tales, privileged by critics, I suspect, because they themselves were ambivalent about the provocative sexual lives and sensibilities of young people in the 60s. Although compared by some to a painter, it was actually Robert Bresson—who died just over ten years ago, in December 1999—who’d studied to be a painter, and with whom Rohmer most closely identified, even if Bresson was the better filmmaker. As a consequence of his death, many writers have written rhapsodically about his films, but it seems strange to me that they ignore what was his most significant contribution to film studies—the formation of the auteur theory. For it was the book on Alfred Hitchcock that he co-authored with Claude Chabrol, titled simply Hitchcock and published in 1957 soon after the release of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), that not only bolstered Hitchcock’s critical reputation but was a foundational work of auteur criticism—but not the Nouvelle Vague (they are not synonyms). Hence I would like to see Rohmer’s contribution to the formation of the auteur theory acknowledged every bit as much as his films, for in a very real sense he made the important contribution of making modern film studies thinkable in the first place.

I have found this article by Dave Kehr to be the most balanced of the many obituaries to be found on the web.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hey! Ho! Let's Go!

Songs with nonsense syllables serve to remind us that American music since the jazz era always has been more a matter of sound than sense—scat singing is perhaps the prototype in this regard—but the more important issue is the privileging of sound over sense. These types of songs also reveal the difficulty of writing about music, since those critics who find it difficult if not impossible to write about music as music tend to overappreciate the lyrics, especially those lyrics having a so-called “political” theme. Of course, rock was political—but not because of what it said (think of Elvis appearing on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in 1956 singing “Flip Flop & Fly,” which prompted any number of critics to condemn rock as the sort of music enjoyed by cretinous goons), but because of its revolutionary sound. Indeed, early on, people didn’t even know what to call rock music. As is well known, it was Alan Freed who popularized the use of the term “rock and roll,” but before that the music was often called “bop” (as in Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”), after the postwar rise of “bebop” or “rebop” to describe the contemporary form of jazz, these latter words probably derived from “Arriba! Arriba!” (essentially, C'mon! Let’s go!) used by Latin American bandleaders to strike up their bands. The R&B mutation known as “doo-wop” also popularized the use of nonsense syllables, but there are many instances of its use—Lionel Hampton’s R&B hit “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” from 1946 is an example—in the years prior to Elvis’s popularization of rock ‘n’ roll in 1956. We musn’t forget Frank Sinatra’s famous scat singing consisting of “dobedobedo,” of course, nor should we forget Scooby Doo’s immortal, “Scooby Dooby Doo!”

Hey! Some Blitzkrieg Bop:
Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
The Beatles – I Am the Walrus
The Crystals – Da Doo Ron Ron
The Edsels – Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong
Shirley Ellis – The Name Game
Lionel Hampton – Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop
Little Richard – Tutti Frutti
Barry Mann – Who Put the Bomp (in The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)
Manfred Mann – Do Wah Diddy Diddy
The Marcels – Blue Moon
The Merry Macs – Mairzy Doats
Roy Orbison – Ooby Dooby
The Police – Da Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da
Slim and Slam – The Flat Foot Floogee (With The Floy Floy)
Frank Sinatra – Strangers in the Night
The Ramones – The Blitzkrieg Bop
Gene Vincent – Be-Bop-A-Lula

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Ghost Has Left The Building

Were he alive today, this would have been the human Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday. The story is quite familiar: he was born in 1935 to parents Vernon and Gladys at their home in Tupelo, Mississippi, arriving 35 minutes after his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon, buried in a shoebox in an unmarked grave. The human Elvis died in 1977 at age 42, thirty-three years ago next August, leaving a sole heir, Lisa Marie, born 1968. The Elvis brand still makes tons of money—for years Forbes has ranked Elvis among the top-earning dead celebrities. In 2009, dead Elvis earned roughly $55 million. With a new “Viva Elvis!” Cirque du Soleil show opening in Las Vegas, he is projected to top that figure this year. The place Elvis once owned and called home, Graceland, is the second most visited house in America after the White House, averaging about 700,000 visitors per year. Sales of Elvis CDs and records purportedly have topped one billion. There are more than 350 “official” Elvis Presley Fan Clubs around the world.

But there is another Elvis, an Elvis whose image has come free of his body and moves around the world seemingly enjoying itself, an Elvis who, figuratively speaking, lives on, and not just in the form of impersonators. Greil Marcus calls this free-floating Elvis image “dead Elvis,” and even wrote a book about it, titled Dead Elvis (1991). Marcus called this Elvis “an emptied, triumphantly vague symbol of displaced identity” (p. 33), but it also happens to be the condition of the android, the experience of the ghost having left the building. You can find this Elvis on coffee mugs, ashtrays, crushed black velvet, ties, T-shirts, scarfs, wine labels, billboards, Pez dispensers, limited edition dinner plates, clock faces, and appropriated for album covers. You can find it all over. It’s ubiquitous. Elvis’s meteoric rise to prominence roughly coincided with the new technology of television, so in a sense Elvis has always been an image, in a way like, for instance, Princess Diana, but unlike Elvis, she didn’t actually do anything. Elvis, at least, sang and made some feature films.

The Elvis image is, in fact, the brand of a corporation known as Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). What EPE did was to go around the world gathering up all the free-floating images of Elvis, collecting these images for its own purposes. So what is being celebrated today isn’t the birthday of Elvis, but Elvis the android, the ghost who’s left the building, a brand manufactured by EPE. Whose birthday are we, in fact, celebrating? Or rather, what?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Behold! A Plucked Chicken

According to legend, at the point when Aristotle and his students had refined their definition of “man” to a creature having the qualities of “featherless biped,” the cynic Diogenes burst in holding aloft a plucked chicken, and announced, “Behold, your man!” Legend also has it that Diogenes lived in a large tub (or barrel, as depicted in many paintings), and purportedly walked through the streets of Athens in the daytime carrying a lamp, claiming to be looking for an honest man. Immodestly, he performed all bodily functions in public, and when criticized for publicly masturbating, replied he wished he could satisfy hunger merely by rubbing his stomach. Greatly admired by Alexander the Great for the freedom exemplified by his way of life, the great conqueror approached the cynical sage on a day when he, Diogenes, was sunning himself. Alexander the Great asked him if there were anything he could do for him. “Yes,” said Diogenes, “Get out of my light.” It is also reported that he asked to be buried standing on his head, because, so he thought, one day down would be up, and up would be down.

We find Diogenes to be quite modern, for he was the anti-Socrates. We can hear Diogenes in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” when Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows.” We can hear him in the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud.” We can also hear him in Muddy Waters’ brutal honesty:

I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep my home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you

A Few Diogenesian Performances:
The Cardigans – Hey! Get Out of My Way
Dramatics – Hey You! Get Off My Mountain
Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
Ian Hunter – Standin’ In My Light
Dave Mason – You’re Standing In My Light
? and the Mysterians – 96 Tears
Stan Ridgway – The Last Honest Man
The Rolling Stones – Get Off Of My Cloud
The Rolling Stones – I’m Free
Roy Rogers – Don’t Fence Me In
Steppenwolf – Move Over
Muddy Waters – I Just Want To Make Love To You
Hank Williams – Move It On Over

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cool Sounds

The weather outside is frightful—“bone-chilling,” as the saying goes, in order to suggest, I suppose, the coldness of the grave. Hence, given the bitterly cold weather, it seems entirely appropriate to ponder the ecology of ice. As Eric G. Wilson has shown (The Spiritual History of Ice), at the turn of the nineteenth century, ice became auratic—it was endowed with aura, or believed to have magical or perhaps holy (spiritual) qualities—frozen shapes were not, in fact, dead, “but bearers of vital powers.” Wilson argues crystals, glaciers, and the poles were seen “as revelations of life as well as models of poetic composition” (or perhaps, re-composition). Indeed, ice came to embody scientific, psychological, and even occult insights. Jungian scholar and psychologist M. L. von Franz, in Man and His Symbols observed:

In many dreams the nuclear center, the Self, also appears as a crystal. The mathematically precise arrangement of a crystal evokes in us the intuitive feeling that even in so-called “dead” matter, there is a spiritual ordering principle. Thus the crystal often symbolically stands for the union of extreme opposites—of matter and spirit. Ice still carries that symbolic power, linking matter and spirit.

Yet the dreaded image of the so-called “ice princess,” alluring and beautiful, but emotionally (or spiritually) dead, has captured the modern imagination. Flattened expressive affect, or emotional “distance” (as opposed to proximity or closeness as authenticity), became metaphorically imagined as both blue and cold, as in Hank Williams’ country-blues standard, “Cold, Cold Heart.” Some say the world will end in fire, and some say ice (both used as spiritual emblems, incidentally), but I think the singers of the following songs say ice.

An Ice Cold 12-Pack Of Tunes:
AC/DC – Black Ice
Pat Benatar – Fire And Ice
Albert Collins – Icy Blue
Duran Duran – Silent Icy River
Foreigner – Cold As Ice
John Hiatt – Icy Blue Heart
Jefferson Airplane – Ice Age
Joy Division – Ice Age
Gucci Mane – Icy
Sarah McLachlan – Ice
Pink Floyd – The Thin Ice
Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thoughts On Year Two

Yesterday represented the second anniversary of 60x50. As of yesterday, I have posted 395 entries on this blog, which averages out to about one post every forty-two hours over the past two years—or one every other day for the past two years. The number of posts this past year was down from the first, which I’d predicted in my reflections on year one at this time last year. I realized that I could not continue to blog at the same pace. The first year I managed to write 219 posts, while this past year I posted 174 entries—down 45 posts from the year before. That may seem like a substantial decline, until you do the math—on average, down fewer than four posts a month. As I have stated before, the research component for many of my posts is extensive, although I don’t mind doing it, and while I hope readers have found my research valuable, I have done it “for free.” But that’s fine, because I’ve taught myself something, and that’s the whole point of blogging in the first place, at least for me—to learn something I didn’t know.

Therefore, the task I set for myself with 60x50 (you can read the full explanation on the right)—to find a process that will bring about new things I would not have thought of if I had not started to say them—has, for the most part, been successful. I have discovered things by writing on this blog, things I would not have learned had I not imposed this writing requirement upon myself. All in all the experience has been a positive one. I’ve also found it interesting, for instance, to learn which of my posts has received the most hits over the past year—the entry on Gram Parsons’ Nudie suit. I never would have predicted that, but that’s one of the interesting things you learn by maintaining a blog. The post titled When the Whip Comes Down, prompted by some thoughts I had on re-watching Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock (the whipping scene, obviously), has also done quite well (posted December 2008, however, not in 2009). Interestingly, there is a high number of web searches on the subject of “whipping scenes in movies,” for reasons I cannot imagine. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the post in which I discussed the meaning of “the great speckled bird” has also received a rather significant number of hits.

The downside, of course, is the amount of work this blog requires, but I’m repurposing it for the next few months so as to have it function in a new, and I think better, way for me. I’m going to incorporate my blog as part of a class I’m teaching this spring on “electronic literacy.” One of the requirements of the class is for the students to start up a blog (which they may take down at the end of the semester) not only in order to experience writing in an electronic environment, but also to require them to flex their writing muscle more than they may do normally. Therefore, once in awhile my posts may seem focused on narrowly academic issues or questions, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up my usual ruminations on the subject of popular music. In fact, I’m teaching my “Writing About Popular Music” course again this spring, so some topics may pop up as a consequence of teaching that course as well. Students will be free to visit my blog to learn my thoughts on various subjects related to class discussions, in addition to the Blackboard discussion board I will also moderate. Hence I’m going to make this blog work for me in a way that it hasn’t done the past couple of years, making it a part of my teaching duties rather than an “outside” activity that seems disconnected from them. I do hope that returning readers continue to find my blog as engaging as ever, but a consequence of this slight change in purpose may change occasionally the nature of the posts, at least for the next four months.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Devil’s Dictionary of Pop I

A short list of caustic aphorisms inspired by Ambrose Bierce (pictured), who wrote the first Devil’s Dictionary (1911).

British Invasion: Sound bite, descriptive of a marketing phenomenon as much as an actual movement.

Acid Rock: Sound bite, once (mistakenly) used to refer to any song that referred to drugs; no longer an especially useful collocation, for which we can be thankful.

Bubblegum: Psychedelic rock with its objectionable (drug) elements removed; the contemporary equivalent of a fat-free product.

Groovy: Antiquated term for anything about which the speaker expressed approbation; now déclassé, for which we can be thankful.

Rock Festival: Once the name for the logistical nightmare of holding a sock hop outdoors. Legendary for the wasteful expenditure of non-renewable natural resources, now highly impractical.

Schlock Rock: Any rock music that is considered “trash,” as long as one understands there is worthwhile or valuable schlock, and actual schlock.

Jam Session: Another name for noodling, meaning to play without purpose or direction. Intoxicants are essential.

Space Rock: See Schlock Rock.

Country Rock: Dismissed by the late Gram Parsons as “plastic dry-fuck.” See also Schlock Rock.

45: Antiquated music storage technology in the form a vinyl record 7” in diameter, typically with a song on each side. Now repurposed as coasters.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blue Moon

Roughly every four weeks, or about every twenty-eight days, a full moon rises, which normally means there are twelve full moons a year. But last month, there was a full moon on December 2—and another last night, on December 31. The second full moon in the same month is conventionally referred to as a “blue moon,” the source of the expression, “Once in a blue moon.” Since a blue moon occurs only every two to three years, there are therefore only forty or so blue moons in any given century. It also means that the year that features a blue moon has thirteen moons, as did 2009, for instance. Has the association of the number thirteen with the blue moon led to the popular superstition that a blue moon is a sign of bad luck, or at least some sort of misfortune?

Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” released by Columbia Records in 1947, is a conventional country (hillbilly) ballad that speaks of the sorrow of heartbreak:

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and proved untrue.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue.

It was on a moonlight night, the stars were shining bright,
And they whispered from on high, your love had said goodbye.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and said goodbye.

As is clear, the song isn’t about a blue moon in the conventional sense—rather, it puns on the conventional meaning of a blue moon—but is an instance of the so-called pathetic fallacy, the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that attributes to them human emotions, sensations, and feelings. John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy,” and used as an example of it the lines from Kingsley’s Alton Locke:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam —
The cruel, crawling foam.

George P. Landow explains:

According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker’s mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for “so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley’s above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow.”

But when Elvis got hold of the song, he read it aberrantly, no longer as a ballad. He transformed “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into a song, not of loss, but of love regained. In the process, he also invented rockabilly, which, as Michael Jarrett observes, “was to country music as bebop was to swing.” For rockabilly “signaled a paradigm shift: not harmony and melody, but rhythm and sound—echo from a twangy guitar, slapped bass, pounding piano, or a dixie-fried voice—became the raison d'être of popular music” (Sound Tracks, p. 162).