Friday, April 30, 2010

Mortarboard Society

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry praising Steven Beasley’s biography of Big Band leader Kay Kyser, titled Kay Kyser: The Ol’ Professor of Swing! America’s Forgotten Superstar (Richland Creek Publishing, 2009). I received a cheerful email from Steve yesterday, who wrote to tell me that he’d just returned from an exhilarating 4-day tour of North Carolina promoting the book, a tour financially supported by the Chapel Hill Museum (Kyser, as everyone from those parts knows, was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina). Steve indicated he did a 30-minute oral presentation and Q&A session at two of the larger locations, followed by book signings at each of the four cities he visited—Chapel Hill, Durham, Rocky Mount, and Raleigh. In Rocky Mount he spoke to several (elderly) people who’d known Kyser and heard some good stories. He also stopped by to say hello to Kyser’s widow, Georgia (pictured in the 40s, with Kyser), who at age ninety I’m happy to report is doing very well. Georgia graciously presented Steven with a couple of absolutely amazing gifts, truly historic items which you can read all about on his latest blog, available at I’ll let Steven tell you about the gifts she presented to him on his blog, but I will add that I, too, can’t think of a person more deserving of the gifts. I believe him when he says the gifts brought tears to his eyes, and I would have loved to have been there for the occasion.

Steve also indicated in his email that his publishing company, Richland Creek, has just issued a new 18-track CD titled Kay Kyser: The Ol’ Professor of Swing! Live Air Checks 1937-44, which he compiled, produced and annotated. Since he is a world authority on Kyser, you can be sure it is historically and factually accurate. You can purchase the CD at the book site, I should add that Steve owns one of the largest collections of Kyser memorabilia in the world (now, thanks to Georgia, grown a bit larger). As I stated in my earlier blog post, Steven’s book is the first (and only) full-length biography about the once popular band leader. In addition to its many fascinating biographical details, it is loaded with rare and unpublished photographs and interviews, sheet music and magazine covers, and the definitive Kyser discography. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in America’s musical past, especially the Swing Era. To reiterate: Kay Kyser and His Orchestra had 11 “Number 1” records and 35 “Top 10” hits. In addition, Kyser had a top-rated radio show for eleven years on NBC, featuring the Ol’ Professor of Swing along with his show, “Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge.” No band leader of the Swing Era has a more extensive filmography than Kay Kyser, who starred in seven feature films and had appearances in several others. He frequently outdrew the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman orchestras in live appearances; ballroom attendance records set by the Kyser orchestra during the Swing Era have never been toppled. In short, Kay Kyser was one of the most and popular and beloved entertainers in America from the late 1930s to the late 1940s.

I’d also like to applaud the Chapel Hill Museum for helping support Steven’s tour through North Carolina, as it seems to me such activities are an indication of its commitment to championing regional artists and culture. Incidentally, in addition to Kay Kyser, another of Chapel Hill’s favorite sons is James Taylor, for whom the museum maintains a website, available here.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ghostly Apparitions

Perhaps the most famous ghostly apparition in Western literature is in Act I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when the titular protagonist confronts the ghost of his father. The moment in the play is an example of what Freud described as unheimlich, translated into English as the uncanny. In German, heimlich refers to that which is as familiar as one’s home, that is, “home-like.” A less common meaning of the word, though, is secretive or deceitful. Thus unheimlich can refer to something unfamiliar or strange, but also to something that was to have remained a secret, but has been unintentionally disclosed. Hence the familiar become alien is linked by Freud to the return of the repressed, and both such experiences are “weird,” odd, and perhaps frightening—i. e., uncanny. When that which is hidden away wishes itself to be disclosed, the person or persons who are chosen to disclose it are said to be “haunted.”

Interestingly, if a popular song about an uncanny experience is done well, it usually becomes a hit. For instance, although Burl Ives apparently first recorded “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” early in 1949, the Vaughn Monroe version was the best-selling one. Monroe’s version, released around the first of April 1949, spent 22 weeks on the chart and reached No. 1. Bing Crosby’s version appeared on the charts soon after, and peaked at No. 14. Meanwhile, Burl Ives’ version spent six weeks on the charts and nearly made the Top 20. The popularity of Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis,” in which the singer sees the ghost of Elvis, helped Cohn win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1991. David Allan Coe’s “The Ride,” in which the singer is given a ride by the ghost of Hank Williams, reached No. 1 on the Country charts, and Stan Ridgway’s “Camouflage,” the jungle warfare equivalent of Red Sovine’s “Phantom 309,” reached No. 4 in the UK in 1986. In Sovine’s “Phantom 309” (1967), the singer is hitchhiking home after being unable to find work. Stuck at a crossroads on a rainy night, the singer is kindly given a lift by Big Joe, the driver of a rig named Phantom 309. Big Joe eventually deposits the singer at a truck stop, giving him a dime for a cup of coffee. The singer informs everyone at the truck stop of Big Joe’s largesse, only to learn from a waitress that Big Joe is a ghost. At the particular intersection where he, the singer, was picked up, years before Big Joe had avoided certain collision with a school bus by deliberately driving his tractor-trailer off of the road, killing himself but sparing the lives of the children. The song’s final twist is that the ghost of Big Joe has given rides to many hitchhikers. “Phantom 309” thus activates both meanings of unheimlich, a common activity made strange, but also the return of the repressed—the unknown or hidden is revealed, in this case the story of Big Joe. The song was later burlesqued in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) during a sequence in which the hitchhiking Pee-Wee Herman is given a lift by a ghost driver named “Large Marge.”

In songs such as Joni Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “Trams of Old London,” ghosts are meant to invoke a way of life long past, suggesting belatedness, a situation in which one has arrived on the scene too late. The singers cast themselves as epigones, those born after the Golden Age is already over, and all the heroes have vanished. The singer in Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Ghost” is likewise haunted by the past, but especially haunted by the figure of Anne Frank, a young person whose bodily existence was reduced to ashes during the Holocaust.

A Few Close Encounters Of The Ghostly Kind:
David Allan Coe – The Ride
Marc Cohn – Walking In Memphis
Crash Test Dummies – The Ghosts That Haunt Me
Robyn Hitchcock – Trams of Old London
Dickey Lee – Laurie (Strange Things Happen)
Joni Mitchell – Furry Sings the Blues
Vaughn Monroe – (Ghost) Riders in the Sky
Neutral Milk Hotel – Ghost
Stan Ridgway – Camouflage
Red Sovine – Phantom 309

Monday, April 26, 2010

What The Dead Men Say

An interesting article on the late Alex Chilton has been posted on, well worth reading for anyone interested in the enigmatic rocker’s life in New Orleans after leaving Memphis in the early 80s. However, the article encourages at least one illusion about the musician, that he was actually a “professional” musician rather than an amateur one. I don’t use the designation “amateur” in any pejorative sense here, but only to suggest that a professional has a career, and Chilton did not. Practicing amateurs are the rule rather than the exception in rock. What is meant by career other than a narrative that charts an artist’s development through time? Since Chilton had a largely elusive life (and career, if one must use that word) after leaving Big Star, and is now dead and therefore no longer able to speak for himself, others will speak on his behalf, writing such narratives as can be found by clicking on the link above. For the act of speaking on a dead person’s behalf is always done retroactively. As Michelet observed about the writing of history, the living have every right to speak for the dead, articulating their wishes and desires, even if they themselves were not fully aware of them. As evidence of this, consider the declaration in bold at the beginning of the article: “Alex Chilton’s life in New Orleans was a mystery, and that’s how the Big Star singer wanted it.” Oh yeah? Says who? Why, we the living do. The article also reveals how his “career” is now open to (re)negotiation, and his greatness, however that is to be weighed and measured, shall be posthumously conferred. Certainly Big Star has undergone institutional ratification, that is, has earned institutional distinction (canonization), indicated by its albums being listed on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time”. I admit I do not know Rolling Stone magazine’s critical assessment of the band’s albums at the time of their initial release in the early 70s, but what their appearance (years later) on the “500 Greatest” list means is that the band’s music has been designated, retroactively, as “genuinely” innovative by one of rock’s sanctioning institutions. That is, the institution has brought the band into the realm of discourse, validating its musical endeavors. In any case, Big Star’s greatness was bestowed posthumously, and hence so, too, has Alex Chilton’s.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Boom 168

It goes without saying that recording technology has had a huge impact on rock music, primarily in terms of performance. Virtually every rap and hip hop group today performs to taped music and/or lip-synchs to prerecorded vocal tracks, an example of how the “live” has been influenced by the recorded. One often refers to a “vocalist” rather than “singer.” In his book, The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture From Aristotle to Zappa (Yale UP, Second Ed., 2005), Evan Eisenberg asserts that “Records and radio were the proximate cause of the Jazz Age. . . . Intellectuals and society matrons who hesitated to seek the music out in its lair played the records. . . . [R]ecords not only disseminated jazz, but inseminated it—. . . . [I]n some ways they created what we call jazz” (118). In the same way, digital storage and recording technology shapes contemporary musical creation, and is, in fact, to use Eisenberg’s term, the “proximate cause” of rap and hip hop. An illustration of this idea can be found in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine (April 29, 2010), which has a cover story on The Black Eyed Peas. At one point, the article states:

As a songwriter, ascribes to Moore’s Law, the software principle whereby increasingly smaller devices hold increasingly more information. “Right now, every chorus is getting shorter and shorter,” he says. “Soon we’ll be listening to blips. . . .” [A]n apparently simple song, like “Boom Boom Pow,” is actually downright avant-garde. “It has one note,” says “It says ‘boom’ 168 times. The structure has three beats in one song. It’s not lyrics – it’s audio patterns, structure, architecture.” (56)

More a product of computer software and the recording studio, how are software platforms and recording technologies influencing music itself? For, says the RS article, “songs aren’t discrete works of art but multi-use applications – hit singles, ad jingles, film trailers – all serving a purpose larger than music consumption” (50). In other words, the discrete song is no longer to be contemplated or celebrated as is a work of art, but is instead analogous to Warhol’s serial reproductions of found photographs of famous stars. Remember that Warhol, appropriately, called his studio The Factory.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cloud Nine

The number nine seems to be highly regarded in our culture. For instance, when we “dress to the nines” we mean we are dressed immaculately, and when we say we’ve got “the whole nine yards” it means we have everything necessary. “Cloud nine” seems to be the perfect place to be. Our word noon, for instance, is derived from Latin nona hora, the ninth hour of the day, that is, is from 2-3:00 p.m. (in the middle ages the monastic day began at 6:00 a.m., therefore the ninth hour began at 2:00 p.m.). The familiar Eveready Battery logo consisting of the black cat jumping through the loop in the number nine is inspired by the colloquial belief in cats having nine lives. In the 1920s, G. I. Gurdjieff introduced the Enneagram (from the Greek ennea, nine and grammos meaning “model”), a guide for understanding the human personality. The symbol of the Bahá’i faith is a nine-pointed star that represents the principle of ecumenicalism. The magic square, within which is nine smaller squares, is a numerical configuration based on the order of three in which every row, horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, has a constant sum. So what is the secret of “Love Potion No. 9”? Why, the power of the number nine of course, representing both magic and ecumenicalism. We can imagine the singer having read Gurdjieff and hence studied the Enneagram, becoming aware of the hidden, negative aspects of his personality. He subsequently seeks an elixir that will both enervate him and restore his sense of wholeness. After he has drunk the gypsy’s love potion, the singer tells us:

I didn’t know if it was day or night
I started kissin’ everything in sight
But when I kissed a cop down on 34th and Vine
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion No. 9

Why, he’s suddenly so high on life, so fond of humankind, he even kisses a cop. That’s the all-inclusive principle of ecumenicalism at its best, and the magical power of nine.

Nine Instances Of Nine:
Alice Cooper – Public Animal #9
The Clovers – Love Potion No. 9
The Beatles – Revolution 9
Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Karn Evil 9
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – If 6 Was 9
Roger Miller – Engine Engine #9
Nena – 99 Luftballons
Damien Rice – 9 Crimes
Bruce Springsteen – Johnny 99

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Looking For A Brighter Day

The media has dutifully reminded us that today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s understandable why: the media loves anniversaries because they are a form of ready-made news. Additionally, reporting on the event serves to maintain the illusion that the powerful corporations that own the media are both progressive and eco-friendly, that is, “concerned about the environment.” Around here, as usual – rather like the investors on Wall Street – most people went about their daily lives, the difference today being that many thousands of people around the country chose to drive their automobiles to gatherings where they joined others in advocating for action on climate change and energy reform . . . and then drove home again, all the while concerned about the passage of a new federal mandate regulating greenhouse gases. Nothing is got for nothing, Emerson shrewdly observed, meaning that for anything to be gained, something must be given up, that is, sacrificed. It’s easy to talk change when one actually has had to sacrifice nothing, nor has been required to do so. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with such practices, using high-efficiency outdoor lighting or loading up the washing machine hardly constitutes sacrifice.

As a boy, I grew up about five blocks from the J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) home in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Morton himself, a politician originally from Michigan, had died decades earlier (he had served as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture). After his death, for many years, his former Nebraska City mansion served as the summer home for his son, Joy Morton, a wealthy man who had founded the Morton Salt Company. By the time I was born, the Morton residence had become part of Arbor Lodge State Park, an ideal place for kids to play. Because it was a rather large, rolling expanse and heavily wooded, the Park offered ample opportunities for adventure. Moreover, you could tour the mansion for a mere ten cents, an activity I remember doing many times. Growing up as I did in Nebraska City, it was impossible to ignore the signs at the edge of town proudly proclaiming that Nebraska City was the home of Arbor Day. As is well known, Arbor Day was the creation of J. Sterling Morton, and political achievements aside, it remains his most enduring legacy. The first Arbor Day celebration took place in Nebraska on 10 April 1872, in other words, about a hundred years before the first Earth Day celebration. I see no reason to be suspicious of the official story behind the creation of Arbor Day: Morton believed strongly in the principle of conservation, perhaps inspired by the story of “Johnny Appleseed” (born John Chapman) and his deep reverence for the earth and the mythology surrounding the apple. Morton thought, no doubt correctly, that Nebraska’s landscape and economy would benefit from the large-scale planting of trees. Following Appleseed’s example, he began planting orchards (Nebraska City is known for its many apple orchards), shade trees, and windbreaks. He urged others to do the same. Eventually, as a consequence of Morton becoming a member of the Nebraska state board of agriculture, he proposed that a special day be set aside dedicated to tree planting and increasing awareness of the importance of trees. According to the website, Nebraska’s first Arbor Day “was an amazing success. More than one million trees were planted. A second Arbor Day took place in 1884 and the young state made it an annual legal holiday in 1885, using April 22nd to coincide with Morton’s birthday.”

All 50 American states now have Arbor Day celebrations, although with varying dates in keeping with the local climate. Additionally, in 1970, President Richard Nixon proclaimed the last Friday in April as National Arbor Day. Hence, in contrast to Earth Day, Arbor Day, at least at the state level, encourages individuals to (re)enact the lesson of Johnny Appleseed, reproducing the occupation of the nurseryman. Earth Day requires nothing on the order of plant husbandry, which makes me wonder why it usurped the date originally designated for Arbor Day. In any case, in addition to whatever you did today in recognition of Earth Day, I recommend planting a tree or two. I did; two small Rosebud trees on the bank behind my house. I've always loved those trees, and so visited the local Earl May nursery and purchased a couple. They were small, but so much the better to watch them grow.

Incidentally, the title I gave to this blog comes from Gil Scott-Heron's poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” for reasons that by now should be clear: conservation is not something the media can truly encourage or influence. Earth Day, like any other anniversary, is merely a convenient and ready-made story that fills the space between commercials.

A Few Ecologically-Minded Tunes:
Crosby & Nash – Wind on the Water
John Denver – Rocky Mountain High
The Grateful Dead – We Can Run
Guided By Voices – Johnny Appleseed
Tom Lehrer – Pollution
Marvin Gaye – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
NOFX – Johnny Appleseed
The Pretenders – My City Was Gone
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Fresh Air
The Rascals – A Beautiful Morning
Pete Seeger – God Bless The Grass
Stephen Stills – Ecology Song
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – Johnny Appleseed

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Weed Day

In case you didn’t know, yesterday, April 20th or 4/20, was “Weed Day.” 420 is, of course, a coded reference to marijuana use, and in order to observe properly the pot smokers’ national holiday, Walking Shadows released on DVD yesterday Reefer Madness: 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (cover pictured). Originally released in 1936 as Tell Your Children, the film is celebrated as a classic of anti-marijuana propaganda, depicting innocent (i.e., naïve) high school kids being duped into trying marijuana by unscrupulous pushers. As a consequence of marijuana use, the teens are propelled down a road of vice and—given the fact that such cautionary films are inevitably plotted as an apocalyptic sequence, as a Platonic deviation from the Good—death. Happily, Walking Shadows’ Collector’s Edition includes several bonus shorts, including High on the Range (originally released as Notch Number One, 1924), Betty Boop in Happy You and Merry Me (1936), Marihuana: Sins of Youth (1936), That Funny Reefer Man (1936), the feature length Marijuana: Threat or Menace? (1939), Hemp for Victory (1942), The Pusher (1951), and other shorts. If anyone is interested, several months ago I compiled a chronology of the rise of cannabis culture, available here. But remember: If you smoke it...You will  GO INSANE!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beyond Good and Elvis

The word fan is the shortened form of the word fanatic, from the Latin word fānāticus, an individual belonging to a particular temple, from fānum, meaning temple. The fanatic, in contrast to the dilettante—someone having only a casual or superficial interest in an art or discipline, a “dabbler”—is characterized by excessive (obsessive) enthusiasm and deep, uncritical devotion to an art or discipline. I claim no original insight in the observation that the investment of deep emotional energies in a particular person or object—what Freud called cathexis—reveals that fanaticism is actually a form of fetishism.

The connection of fanaticism and fetishism is conveniently revealed in a video currently available on that I consider required viewing for anyone interested in the phenomenon, consisting of an excerpt from Thomas Corboy’s short documentary Rock ‘n’ Roll Disciples (1986). A range of Elvis fans are interviewed, including Artie Mentz (an Elvis impersonator), Jenny and Judy Carroll (identical twins who believe they may be Elvis’s illegitimate offspring), and Frankie “Buttons” Horrocks, who has devoted her life to the witnessing and the celebration of Elvis. There’s a moment in the video during which Horrocks observes that no true female Elvis fan denies her deep desire to have had sex with Elvis. As she speaks, she is shown posing with the Elvis statue now standing in Memphis, her hand firmly gripping its crotch. Greil Marcus observes the image “is reminiscent of nothing so much as the statues of Catholic saints that in present-day Europe good Christian women straddle in pagan ecstasy, telling anyone who asks that their mothers said it was a good way to ensure fertility” (Dead Elvis 119)—that is, the image reveals the nature of the relationship between the fan and the fetish object.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cowry Shell

Simon Frith has observed that music “is more like clothes than any other art form” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996), suggesting, among other things, how the consumption of music can be considered a fashion statement, that is, as a statement of taste. But what can we say of music about clothes? Legend has it that Carl Perkins, upon hearing the story of the prized pair of blue suede shoes, was chagrined that a man actually would value his lowly shoes over a beautiful girl. Put in another way, Perkins wondered how it is possible that a signifying object (even one possessing materiality, such as a pair of blue suede shoes) could provide even the partial satisfaction of the instinctual object (a beautiful girl). The paradox certainly confounded Freud as well, and would seem to be the primary reason for Freud’s interest in fetishism, especially in those cases where the fetish is unrelated to the instinctual object by metonymy, e.g., when a cowry shell, for instance, is more mysterious to the fetishist than the female foot. Unlike the cowry shell, though, at least the shoe is metonymically related to the foot. The paradox is why the shoe should have more affective import than the foot. The psychiatric literature describes broadly two kinds of fetishes: the form fetish, in which the object and its shape presumably is the most important, such as the high-heeled shoe or spiked boot; and the media fetish, in which the material out of which the object is made carries the affective import, such as (blue) velvet or leather or lace, the case with the majority of the songs below. In some instances the actual nature of the fetish is ambiguous, as in Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” – form, or media fetish? The ambiguity reveals the limited analytical value of the form-media distinction, as it tells us nothing whatsoever about the meaning of the fetish itself. In any case, in each of the songs listed below, the peculiar nature of the sexual fetish is transformed into a public spectacle by the singer, and the fetish object is both celebrated and made explicit.

A Few Explicit Fetishes:
Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones – Black Slacks
Tony Bennett – Blue Velvet
Big Bopper – Chantilly Lace
Dee Clark – Hey Little Girl (In the High School Sweater)
David Allan Coe – Angels in Red
Derek and the Dominos – Bell Bottom Blues
Bob Dylan – Boots of Spanish Leather
The Eagles – Those Shoes
Brian Hyland – Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
The Hollies – Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress
Kenny Owen – High School Sweater
Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes
Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels – Devil With A Blue Dress On
Rod Stewart – You Wear It Well
Royal Teens – Short Shorts
Conway Twitty – Tight Fittin’ Jeans

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Steal This Blog

Some may remember puppeteer Shari Lewis’s children’s show, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, that aired on PBS from 1992-97. At the end of the show, Charlie Horse, Lamb Chop and the other puppets would start singing “The Song That Never Ends,” a recursive (“loopy”) and self-referential song consisting of a single verse that repeats over and over. The lyrics are as follows (although individual flourishes are allowed):

This is the song that doesn’t end,
Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.
Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because . . . [repeat]

In art and literature, self-referentiality is sometimes referred to as self-reflexivity, occurring when the artist or writer refers to the work in the context of the work itself – as does “The Song That Never Ends.” There are many children's songs that privilege recursivity and self-reflexivity, but there are also many great examples of self-reflexive pop songs as well. Perhaps the most well known of these songs is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” in which she sings, “You probably think this song is about you.” Another is Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” when Donald Fagen sings, “I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I play too long.” My favorite illustration, though, is probably Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune,” from Tonight’s the Night:

I’m singing this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own

In the 60s self-reflexivity was often employed as a form of culture jamming, the act of defamiliarizing signs and slogans in order to disrupt habitual, or largely uncritical, patterns of perception and consumption. A famous example of culture jamming from the era is Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, published in 1971 (pictured), which, ironically, sold extremely well, primarily because much of the book offered advice on how to survive with little or no money. There have been entire albums created based on the principle of culture jamming; one of the most singular is The Residents’ The Third Reich 'N' Roll (1976), consisting of defamiliarized versions of Top 40 radio hits of the 1960s. Not all self-reflexive pop songs have such a radical agenda, of course, but all have the effect of disrupting the usual, that is, habitual, patterns of communication.

A Self-Reflexive Play List:
Edward Bear – Last Song
Elton John – Your Song
David Allan Coe – You Never Even Called Me By My Name
Arlo Guthrie – Alice’s Restaurant
Pink Floyd – Mother
Public Image Ltd. – This Is Not A Love Song
Carly Simon – You’re So Vain
Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The Who – Gettin’ In Tune
“Weird Al” Yankovic – Smells Like Nirvana
Neil Young – Borrowed Tune

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pop Guns

On 17 April 1983—twenty-seven years ago today—Felix Pappalardi was shot and killed by his wife, Gail Collins Pappalardi. Charged with second-degree murder, she claimed the shooting of her husband was an accident. Although Pappalardi is perhaps not well remembered today, in the late 60s he produced three of Cream’s four studio albums, and later founded the band Mountain with guitarist Leslie West (“Mississippi Queen”). While reminding us of the ubiquity of the gun in American culture, the domestic context of Pappalardi’s death should also remind us of the story of Cain and Abel. As Michael Jarrett has observed, when popular musicians “recast the Cain-and-Abel story as public spectacle, they also confirm the pleasures of sublimated violence in their music” (Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC 136). In all of the following songs, the violence is pretty close to the surface, allowing the singer to verbalize or own up to a murderous intent or action.

Blame It On Cain:
Aerosmith – Janie’s Got A Gun
Black Velvet Flag – I Shot JFK
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues
Steve Earle – The Devil’s Right Hand
Bobby Fuller Four – I Fought The Law
Pat Hare – I’m Gonna Murder My Baby
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Hey Joe
The Kingston Trio – Tom Dooley
The Louvin Brothers – Knoxville Girl
Nas – I Gave You Power
Gene Pitney – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Kenny Rogers and The First Edition – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town
The Rolling Stones – Midnight Rambler
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
The Wailers – I Shot the Sheriff
Hank Williams, Jr. – I’ve Got Rights
Neil Young – Down by the River

Friday, April 16, 2010

Wind and Wuthering

In pre-literate, oral civilizations, people experienced their thoughts not as coming from within themselves, but from outside, as Spirit. A thought seemed to come from the gods, or a tree, or a bird, that is, from the outside. Literacy, however, transformed the nature of the subject. To the literate mind, the experience of Self is the experience of interiority: Spirit resides within, as Psyche. In literate experience, therefore, thought originates from inside. Of course, as a consequence of literacy, there was a huge reduction in our relationship with Nature, but for the Romantics, we also won a kind of liberty, the virtue of self-reflection that came with being a discrete self. In order to renew their relationship with Nature, Coleridge and the other Romantics sought to recreate the experience of orality, conveyed by the image of the Aeolian harp, a common household instrument before and during the Romantic Era. (By way of analogy, think of the wind chime.) Just as the harp depends upon the wind for its sound, so, too, does the (passive) poet depend upon the wind for poetic inspiration, as expressed, for instance, in Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind.” Having become strongly associated with the activity of the creative mind, Ralph Waldo Emerson also used the Aeolian harp as a metaphor for the mind of the (Romantic) poet.

Through the principle of contiguity (metonymy), a thing can be referred to not by its name but by the name of something associated with it. I can say, “Let’s stand in the shade,” but I may be actually saying, “Let’s stand under the leafy branches of that tree over there.” Wind and sand have come to be associated in such a manner, represented by the image of the sand dune, sculpted by the wind. Because wind and sand are interchangeable, and sand is a conventional image for Time (think: hourglass), a phrase such as “dust in the wind” actually refers to power of Time to erase everything one knows, including the trace of one’s own existence. Wind is a constant reminder of one’s mortality. The figurative phrase, “wind of change,” thus names the ineluctable activity of Time. Hence when Jimi Hendrix sings of the wind in his meditation on fame and mortality, “The Wind Cries Mary,” he’s actually reflecting on his own historical significance:

Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past,
And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom
It whispers, “No, this will be the last.”

Substitute “my name” for “the names it has blown in the past,” and the point seems clear enough. For a recent song that attempts to reestablish the link between wind and Spirit, listen to “Colors of the Wind,” from the Pocahontas soundtrack.

Songs Of The Wind, Hot And Cold:
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
The Association – Windy
The Byrds – Hickory Wind
Bob Dylan – Blowin’ in the Wind
Patsy Cline – Wayward Wind
Julee Cruise – Slow Hot Wind
Donovan – Catch the Wind
Elton John – Candle in the Wind
England Dan & John Ford Coley – I’d Really Love to See You Tonight
Jethro Tull – Cold Wind to Valhalla
Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary
Kansas – Dust in the Wind
Judy Kuhn – Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas Original Soundtrack)
Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
Frank Sinatra – Summer Wind
Traffic – Walking in the Wind

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Punk Muse

I came across an interesting comment by Nick Tosches in Gene Gregorits’ fine book, Midnight Mavericks: Reports From the Underground (FAB Press, 2007), which I began reading today. During an interview, Gregorits asked Tosches if he were “the first to coin the term ‘punk rock’?” Tosches replied:

Maybe I did coin that term, or at least the “punk” part of it, without knowing it. I don’t know. I wrote a long piece called “The Punk Muse” for a rag called Fusion in 1970. The title referred to the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in general, not to what later become known as punk rock. (318)

So what does Tosches mean, exactly, by the “punk” spirit of rock ‘n’ roll? Perhaps the answer can be found in Tosches’ own Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He writes:

There was an affinity between rockabilly and black music of the 1940s and ‘50s, as there had been an affinity between Western swing and black music of the 1920s and ‘30s. But it was not, really, more than an affinity. Of the sixteen known titles Elvis recorded as a Sun artist, five were derived from R&B records…. What made rockabilly such a drastically new music was its spirit [my emphasis], a thing that bordered on mania. Elvis’s ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ was not merely a party song, but an invitation to a holocaust…. Rockabilly was the face of Dionysus, full of febrile sexuality and senselessness; it flushed the skin of new housewives and made pink teenage boys reinvent themselves as flaming creatures. (58-59).

So what is the “spirit” of rock ‘n’ roll? Primitivism, at least according to Tosches. Remarkably, his claims were echoed by the late punk rock manager Malcolm McLaren in an interview published some years ago, in the magazine Rock, in August 1983. McLaren said, “Rock ‘n’ roll is pagan and primitive, and very jungle, and that’s how it should be! The moment it stops being those things, it’s dead: the true meaning of rock is sex, subversion and style” (60). McLaren’s claim that rock is “very jungle” seems like a virtually paraphrase of Tosches’ observation about rockabilly and black music having “an affinity.” In other words, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll resides in its affinity to “jungle” music, that is, its “primitive” roots.

Thus the academic discourse on rock often resembles the early academic discourse on jazz. Belgian critic Robert Goffin, in his early work on American jazz, titled Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan (1944), said of Louis Armstrong, for instance, “[he] is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music” (167). Goffin was the first to formulate the stereotype which lingers with jazz even now, the stereotype, according to Ted Gioia, “which views jazz as a music charged with emotion but largely devoid of intellectual content, and which sees the jazz musician as the inarticulate and unsophisticated practitioner of an art which he himself scarcely understands” (The Imperfect Art, 30-31). Gioia calls this “the primitivist myth,” a stereotype that rests upon a belief in the primitive’s unreflective and instinctive relationship with his art. Lest one think the primitivist myth is exclusively European, I should point out that the association of jazz and primitivism was uncritically accepted by American jazz critics once the works of the first European critics reached American shores. Few insightful works were written by Americans in the early years of jazz, primarily because it was generally perceived—as was rock ‘n’ roll during the early stage of its popularization by Elvis—as both passing fad and as the musical form of a “decadent” race.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

7 And 7 Is

Long before the rise of Christianity, the cycle of the moon was associated with fertility and goddess worship. Our word moon is a remote cognate of the Latin mensis, for month. Mensis is also the root of the word menstrual, as in the female menstrual cycle. The four quarters of the moon (first, new, third, and full) each consist of seven days, the number seven in the book of Genesis representing the process of creation. Significantly, the seven-sided shape is the only one that cannot be constructed out of a mother circle, and hence is considered the “virgin” number because it can never be “born” as other shapes. Nature refuses to employ the physical structure of seven because it is inefficient, in contrast to the hexagon, a very efficient structure found, for instance, in honeycombs, snowflakes, and in human-made objects such as faucet handles and buckyballs. There are seven colors in a rainbow, Seven Wonders of the World, and the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas. There are seven continents and seven seas, the diatonic musical scale has seven tones, and in many world religions seven is a holy number. In Roman mythology, Diana was known as the virgin goddess, looking after virgins and women, and in some accounts, perhaps not surprisingly, she is the goddess of the moon. Interestingly, in the ancient world the Temple of Diana was long known by its reputation as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the beautiful Rosaline is sworn to chastity, and is said to have “Dian’s wit.” When Romeo says, famously, “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun. Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon,” he’s praising Juliet’s decision to spend the night with him and hence surrender her virginity, while also condemning Rosaline’s decision to remain chaste. Unlike Diana, the goddess Venus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, was associated with love and fertility, and was widely worshiped in Roman religious festivals. Christianity supposedly suppressed Venus worship, although she remains a durable goddess in our popular music.

A Few Venusian Anthems, And Other Goddess Worship:
Frankie Avalon – Venus
Ash - Aphrodite
Jimmy Clanton – Venus In Blue Jeans
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Miles Davis – Venus de Milo
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Mike Oldfield – Hymn To Diana
The Shocking Blue – Venus
The Velvet Underground & Nico – Venus In Furs
Wings – Venus And Mars

Friday, April 9, 2010

Cords Of Fame

It was on this day in April in 1976, thirty-four years ago today, that musician Phil Ochs committed suicide. Although Ochs is generally known as a folk-protest, singer-songwriter strongly associated with the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, his career actually consisted of two stages: his early, folk-topical material on Elektra, and his later, more personal material on A&M. I prefer his later, rock-oriented albums on A&M, such as Tape From California (1968) and Rehearsals For Retirement (1969); the latter album is, in my view, the best album he ever made. However, perhaps the best introduction to his work for the uninitiated is the now OOP three-disc box set Farewells & Fantasies (Rhino, 1997), a comprehensive career retrospective, that also happened to be nominated for a 1998 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes, comprised of contributions by Michael Ventura, Mark Kemp, his daughter Meegan Ochs, and Ben Edmonds.

For many years I’ve held Phil Ochs in sentimental regard, perhaps because he died so young, at age 35. His short, troubled life has been the subject of two biographies, both of which painfully recount the decline of Ochs’s mental condition in the 1970s, including his career-ruining alcoholism. So far as I know there’s never been published a formal professional opinion regarding the nature of Ochs’s mental illness; neither biographer indicates that Ochs ever sought psychiatric care nor help for his alcoholism. Marc Eliot, in the updated and expanded edition of his biography Death of a Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs (Franklin Watts, 1989; orig. pub. 1979) mentions Ochs’s “manic depression,” while Michael Schumacher, in There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (Hyperion, 1996), simply refers to his recurring depressions. Surprisingly, there’s much about Ochs’s life that remains unknown. For instance, it wasn’t until the publication of David Cohen’s Phil Ochs: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1999) that anyone knew Ochs had anonymously recorded the LP Camp Favorites (Cameo, 1962 or 1963), an album rather obviously consisting of traditional campfire songs. Apparently no one in Ochs’s family had ever seen a copy. In addition, there are certain events, accepted as fact, that frankly are poorly documented.

As an example of an event in Ochs’ life generally accepted as fact, but which begs credibility, consider the alleged strangling and robbery incident that took place in the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in late 1973. As the story goes, Ochs was walking along the beach—alone—when he was attacked, strangled, and robbed. Both biographers dramatically recount the event, as follows:

Eliot: In September, Phil decided to take a trip to Africa. . . . He set up several concerts in African cities to coincide with a month long safari he planned to take. . . . The first evening he was in Tanzania, he took a long walk, alone, on the beach at Dar es Salaam, as the ocean glowed a gelatinous white. Suddenly, without provocation, he was jumped from behind by three black men. One held him around the neck, while the other two went through his pickets. Phil tried to scream as the arm tightened around his neck, rupturing the vocal cords. He couldn’t breathe, he tore frantically at the steel-like arm with his hands. His knees began to buckle, he felt himself starting to fall, blacking out on the way down. The men beat him savagely before taking off with his cash, leaving him sprawled on the beach. They found him early the next morning and rushed him to the hospital. His wounds were mostly superficial, except for his throat. The upper register was gone. He had no high notes. (221)

Schumacher: In late September, Phil flew to Africa for what he hoped would be a two-month period of restful travel and relaxation. . . . Dar-es-Salaam proved to be his undoing. One evening, while walking alone on the beach, he was attacked by three men, who jumped him from behind, strangling him and beating him to unconsciousness before robbing him and leaving him for dead. He was found early the next morning, still unconscious, and was taken to a nearby hospital. His vocal chords [sic] had been ruptured while he was being choked, and to Phil’s horror, he could no longer sing the upper three or four notes in his vocal range. . . . Phil stayed in the hospital for several days, during which he replayed the mugging over and over in his head. (279-80).

There are, of course, differences in the dramatic accents in each account. While both writers aver robbery as the motive for the assault, for Eliot, it was the first evening in Dar es Salaam; for Schumacher, it was “one evening.” Eliot indicates the attackers were black men; Schumacher doesn’t say. More significantly, Schumacher indicates Ochs was left for dead, while Eliot avers the wounds “were mostly superficial, except for his throat.” Nonetheless, while the wounds “were mostly superficial,” both biographers indicate he spent the night unconscious on the beach, because he wasn’t found (by whom?) until the next morning. These accounts raise some puzzling questions. Were the three attackers indeed black men? For if he were jumped from behind, as both biographers claim, how did he know the muggers were black, according to Eliot? And if he were beaten so severely by the attackers, so badly that he remained unconscious on the beach the entire night, why does Eliot aver the wounds were “mostly superficial”? Eliot indicates a “steel-like arm” was wrapped tightly around Ochs’ neck, while Schumacher doesn’t mention the powerful arm, just that he was strangled and choked. If Ochs’ vocal cords were indeed damaged, that would suggest the act of strangulation, in which case Ochs very likely would have known the racial identity of his assailant.

Frankly, the entire episode begs credibility. Although Schumacher refers on several occasions to a diary Ochs began keeping in the early 70s, he makes no reference to this diary during his recounting of the attack in Dar es Salaam. Since Ochs purportedly was alone at the time of the attack, on what basis do the biographers take the event as credible? When did the story originate? A clue is provided by Marc Eliot, who at least provides an actual quotation. Apparently Ochs was committed to a concert in Johannesburg, South Africa (which Schumacher also acknowledges), a performance that was something of an embarrassment. Eliot:

During that show [at Johannesburg], which lasted all of forty minutes, Phil drank beer continuously on stage, the icy brew helping to cool his burning throat. He put it down next to him at one point and kicked it over. He stopped singing until the bottle of beer was replaced. Then, while slurring something about his voice not being in the best condition, he fell completely off the stage, headfirst, into the orchestra pit. The next day, the front page of the Johannesburg Star headlined the story.

“Yeah, man, I was pretty crazy,” he told a reporter. “Getting all that beer down was not a normal part of my act. I’ve been in a dilemma for days, as I can’t decide whether to stay in South Africa or go back to America. I’ve got trouble with my voice. In Dar es Salaam three guys jumped me and strangled me as they robbed me. My voice is not right yet. I’m seeing a doctor.” (222)

Hence the evidence for the event, so far as I can tell, is from this remark in the Johannesburg Star (the date is not indicated in the text). Schumacher interviewed a friend of Ochs’s named David Ifshin (spelled “Ifshkin” on p. 206 of Eliot’s biography, the only time he is mentioned), who met up with Ochs in Kenya—after the Dar es Salaam incident, in other words. Schumacher:

“I vividly remember waiting for him outdoors as his plane landed in Nairobi,” said Ifshin. “He’d been strangled by muggers and he was really out of it. He had deteriorated badly from our adventure in South America. Almost the first thing he said was, ‘We’re going to have to control the drinking. You gotta help me stop on this trip. All I want is one beer a day.’ (281)

Since neither biographer indicates that Ifshin was with Ochs in Dar es Salaam, he obviously learned of the alleged strangulation from Ochs himself (again, both biographers indicate Ochs was alone at the time of the attack). Surprisingly, Schumacher places the recording of the songs “Bwatue” and “Niko Mchumba Ngambe” after the mugging, while Ifshin and Ochs were in Kenya, as is widely acknowledged. He also places the disastrous Johannesburg performance after the recording of these two songs in Kenya, so one is left to wonder just how badly his vocal cords were damaged. (Ochs simply indicated he was having trouble with voice, having been strangled while being robbed. Nothing about being beaten unconscious or ruptured vocal cords.) I should indicate that I have a fan-club reissue of the “Bwatue”/”Niko Mchumba Ngambe” single, and I notice no discernable difference in Ochs’ voice from previous recordings, although I don't claim to be an expert. But then again, I’m assuming, based on the biographical accounts, the recording of these songs took place after the Dar es Salaam event, not before.

As should be clear by now, based on the available evidence, I am dubious of the Dar es Salaam strangulation incident. I say this for another reason as well. While I’ve done no extensive research on the subject—and I state this explicitly—I feel it necessary to bring up the robbery of a rock star that serendipitously took place on the west coast of Africa at about the same time as the strangulation incident in Dar es Salaam. I’m referring, of course, to the mugging of Paul and Linda McCartney that happened while they were recording Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria in August and September of 1973. According to the liner includes included in the 2-disc, 25th anniversary box set of Band on the Run issued in 1999, Paul McCartney and Wings left for Lagos on 9 August 1973. They spent roughly the next six weeks there working on the album, returning to London on 23 September. Again, I don’t know the actual date, but during the time they were in Lagos recording the album, they were robbed at knife-point by a group of black men (young men?) who took their belongings but spared their lives. I accept this event as true, primarily because McCartney was with his wife at the time of the attack, that is, not alone. My question is whether this robbery was reported in the press, rock or otherwise; if it were, then Ochs might well have known about it and been inspired by its dramatic impact, using the same story as an excuse for his embarrassing performance in Johannesburg. Was the event reported by the press (print or electronic, that is, television)? I don’t know, but I find it a remarkable coincidence that it happened at about the same time as the event in Dar es Salaam, especially since Ochs was in Africa to make a recording as well.

The problem is the dating. On p. 279, Schumacher writes that Ochs left for Africa in "late September." Eight pages later, on p. 287, he writes that Ochs was in Africa on 11 September 1973, that is, during the military coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. (The two biographers do not seem to be definite as to whether Ochs knew about the coup before, or after, his trip to Africa.) Is 11 September considered late in the month, as Schumacher suggests? In contrast, Eliot simply indicates the month was September, without indicating a specific time. These sorts of broad approximations of dates and places are extremely frustrating when trying to determine the authenticity of a specific event, as I hope I have demonstrated here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Punk It Up

On this day in 1977 The Clash released their first album (pictured). Hence it is somewhat serendipitous that Malcolm McLaren died today, at age 64, of cancer, on the thirty-third anniversary of the release of this revered British “punk” album—not an album, of course, by the famous band McLaren packaged, The Sex Pistols, but a band that represented the British punk movement nonetheless. When McLaren was sued for “appropriating” others’ music to make his own album, Duck Rock (1983), he said: “All I can say is that accusations of plagiarism don’t bother me. As far as I’m concerned it’s all I’m useful for” (qtd. in Paul Taylor, “The Impresarios of Do-It-Yourself,” in Impresario: Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave, p. 16). McLaren’s old adversary, John Lydon (no doubt deliberately adopting his former stage name for the occasion), posted on his website today the statement, “For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you.” The L. A. Times obituary is available here.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Today I screened for my students Elvis ’56, a documentary about Elvis’s emergence as a national figure in 1956. While I was aware of how quickly Elvis became a controversial figure, I hadn’t realized until watching the film today how swiftly Elvis was domesticated, by which I mean how swiftly his “wildness” was controlled, overcome, tamed, made tractable, “hemmed in.” Humiliation was a key strategy in Elviss domestication, as revealed when, properly attired in a nicely-fitted tuxedo, he sang “Hound Dog” to a basset hound on The Steve Allen Show on 1 July 1956. It was Jacques Ellul who introduced the concept of the “propaganda of integration” in his book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. By integrative propaganda, Ellul means the sort of propaganda that promotes acceptance of the status quo, conformity, and passivity, and by the use of the word domestication in this context I mean to invoke the idea of integrative propaganda, that is, made to conform and the diminishment of a threat. Elvis’s national humiliation—being required to sing “Hound Dog” to a dog on the nationally-televised Steve Allen Show on 1 July—took place a mere five months and three days after his first appearance—his first exposure to a national audience—on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on 28 January. It is often claimed that Elvis’s crucial period took place from January 1956 through September 1958 (not even three years), but arguably it was a much shorter period than is commonly understood. According to, Elvis appeared on American national television in 1956 on the following dates. His performance of the ballad, “Love Me Tender,” and the gospel tune, “Peace in the Valley,” represent further stages of his domestication, the final step being his military career. After the following dates, he would appear on television just three more times during his lifetime.

·      1.28 Stage Show
·      2.4 Stage Show
·      2.11 Stage Show
·      2.18 Stage Show
·      3.17 Stage Show
·      3.24 Stage Show
·      4.3 Milton Berle Show
·      6.5 Milton Berle Show
·      7.1 Steve Allen Show
·      9.9 Ed Sullivan Show (“Love Me Tender”)
·      10.28 Ed Sullivan Show
·      1.6.57 Ed Sullivan Show (“Peace in the Valley”)