Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lennon's Lost Rolls Royce: End of Year Review

Photo credit: http://kenwoodlennon.blogspot.com
Guest blogger Eric Roberts provides a year-end update on the search for John Lennon's white Rolls Royce.

It's been 18 months since we began researching the whereabouts of John Lennon's white Rolls Royce, registration EUC 100C, chassis 5VD63. Sifting fact from fiction, myth from misinformation, gradually the untold story of Lennon's second 1965 Phantom V, which came to epitomize his public love affair and social activism with Yoko Ono, began to emerge.

However, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to discover who currently owns EUC 100C and where it is located. Indeed, to the best or our knowledge, it has not been seen in public since 1985, when it was withdrawn from a charity auction at Christies in London.

The only clues we have to go on are as follows. According to a New York Times article in 1999, it was once owned by Alan Klein, possibly a part of the financial settlement when he successfully sued the Beatles in the early 1970s. Second, if we are to believe Alan Hobbs - who left a brief but tantalizing comment on this blog nearly 12 months ago - EUC 100C is still residing somewhere in England. Frustratingly, for the time being, the owner wishes to remain anonymous.

The fate of John and Yoko's famous white Rolls Royce could not be more different to that of his original black Phantom V, registration FJB 111C, chassis 5VD73. At one time “the most expensive car in the world”, today Lennon's so-called “psychedelic Rolls Royce” is proudly displayed in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada. Given the anonymity and secrecy surrounding its present ownership and location, it is possible that we shall never know what became of EUC 100C. The information we have gathered below represents only fragments from the “life” of one of the most historically significant automobiles ever built. We can only hope that the world will not continue to be denied closure to the narrative of EUC 100C and that it may one day be put on permanent public display, like its twin in Canada.

In the meantime, no one should be taken in by false claims that Lennon's white Rolls Royce is on view in the town of Pensacola, Florida, or that it is part of the Tebo Auto Collection in Colorado. Both of these look-alikes are left hand drive, and there is no record to our knowledge of EUC 100C ever having been shipped to the United States.

We would welcome your contributions to this on-going research. Any reader's recollections or inside information, no matter how incidental, will be gratefully received and published. The same applies to any photographs of John Lennon's white Phantom V that you may have at your disposal.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Playing Tribute

The "ever popular tortured artist effect" is one of the foundational myths of modern celebrity journalism. Presumably, shiny, "happy" people don't produce art, because art must come from sickness and deprivation. The obituary notices and tributes that follow the death of a celebrity are always and inevitably premised on a Jekyll-Hyde split between the (public) artist and the "private" person. Always, genius is imagined as an autonomous power, something beyond the person's control, a gift but also a curse. Crucially, the appeal to genius serves as the alibi, the explanation (in the sense of apology) for the  "private" person's excesses. It's thoroughly Romantic in its origins, a variation of the powerful myth of the Byronic hero, the isolated, solitary figure who stands outside genteel culture but is nonetheless admired by it. This is the reason why celebrity obituaries and other forms of post-mortem hyperbole are always extraordinarily partisan, pleading the artist's case and making extravagant claims about the immensity of the artist's talent.

I've always imagined what it must have been like inside the Elvis Presley compound the last ninety days of the star's life. Surely everyone -- not only those closest to him -- knew the wheels were about to come off the gravy train. Why didn't someone do something? Why didn't someone try to help him? Perhaps the issue isn't that no one could do anything, but rather, no one wanted to do anything. Surely the issue of drug dependency was the proverbial "elephant in the room," which explains why it was ignored. By way of explanation, I turn to Montaigne's Apology for Raimond Sebond and his discussion of the relationship between the whale and the sea gudgeon:

It is said that the whale never goes abroad without being preceded by a small fish resembling the sea-gudgeon, which is for that reason called the Guide. The whale follows it, allowing itself to be turned and led as easily as a vessel is turned by its rudder; and in return for this service, whilst every other thing, whether animal or vessel, that enters the awful chasm of this monster's mouth is forthwith engulfed and lost, this little fish retires into in all security, and sleeps there. During its sleep the whale never stirs, but as soon as it issues forth, starts and follows it unceasingly; and if by chance the guide goes astray, the whale will go wandering about hither and thither, often knocking itself against the rocks, like ship without a rudder. (Montaigne, Essays, 1927)

The relationship between the guide fish and the whale is analogous to modern celebrity and the institutional apparatus that supports her (the handlers, the agents and secretaries, publicists, the bodyguards and their wives and children, the hangers-on, the sycophants, and so on). The trick is not to mistake the whale for the artist, for in fact the artist is the small guide fish leading the whale around, while the massive whale represents all those whose livelihoods depend upon the artist. The whale's dependency explains why it does nothing but allow the guide fish to do as it wants, even pursue a deadly course. Of course, once the guide fish goes astray, the whale is lost, but the whale is all too aware of its dependency, and therefore does nothing, hoping to stave off the inevitable.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, 1944-2011

Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, who died at age 66 of a heart ailment a little over a week ago, on Thursday, June 16, was an eccentric figure in the late-Sixties L. A. rock scene. A formal mental patient who apparently suffered from both manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia (according to his obituary in the L. A. Times), he spent much of his life living on the streets and in the low-rent motels of Los Angeles, eventually becoming a fixture of the growing hippie scene on the Sunset Strip, UCLA and Venice, offering to sing songs for a dime. If you took him up on his offer, you were rewarded with his pathetic songs, unintentional burlesques of the top hits of the day played on his broken guitar. Never especially subtle in his humor, and frequently unfunny as a consequence, Frank Zappa chose to record Wild Man Fischer in the late Sixties, issuing an album on Bizarre/Reprise titled An Evening With Wild Man Fisher (1969, not 1968 as is widely reported). It was a cruel joke on Larry Fischer. I tend to agree with Dave Marsh, who characterized An Evening With Wild Man Fischer as "a particularly vicious example of Zappa's penchant for sadistic social commentary." History has shown, however, that not everyone got the jape. Marsh would write about the album, "The results are brutal, not funny except to the emotionally immature and the socially callous, and would constitute a deleted embarrassment in recorded history if the record industry had any shame" (The Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979). In other words, what impulse leads us to portray the otherness of the insane? If you think Marsh too harsh, remember that the attribution of "genius" is simply a marketing tool, and that music is a product like any other, manufactured, packaged, and sold. The mistake is to assume that madness is somehow a more "authentic" form of existence than the quotidian reality the rest of us normally inhabit. I should point out that the insane are marked as outsiders not through their music, but through their visual representation, as the album cover pictured above reveals.

I first heard "Merry-Go-Round," the opening track on An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, early in 1970 on Zappéd, a sampler issued on Bizarre of acts on the Bizarre and Straight labels. A year or so later, during a trip to Kansas City, I picked up in a record store a copy of An Evening With . . . in the cut-out bin for 44 cents. As I remember, I could have bought four or five copies for that price at the time. I should have bought them all, for now the album is rather expensive to purchase on eBay. Now primarily a nostalgic artifact, it is of interest to Zappa collectors and students of the outré. Copies on eBay are frequently advertised as mint or mint-, I suspect because those who have owned it seldom have played it (rather like the GTOs' album Permanent Damage, also issued by Zappa in 1969). Of interest only to the socially callous and those unfamiliar with living with those cursed with mental illness, the lesson of Wild Man Fischer is that albums may be consumed, but they are not nutritious.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Days Of Future Past

According to the OED, the word anthem is a corruption of the Old English word antefn, derived from the Greek word antiphon, meaning “A composition, in prose or verse, sung antiphonally, or by two voices or choirs, responsively.” Most current definitions of “anthem” say that an anthem is a song of celebration or praise, any song of devotion, praise, or patriotism, often used in English in the context of “national anthem.” But a national anthem, technically, is a hymn, or a song of praise and devotion. So what, precisely, is an anthem? The question becomes even more complicated when one allows for the so-called “rock anthem,” defined here as “a powerful, celebratory rock song with arena-rock sound often with lyrics celebrating rock music itself and simple sing-a-long choruses, chants, or hooks.” Thus the rock anthem is a song celebrating a way of life (or behavior), as national anthems also do. However, in this context, anthem again simply means hymn.

My wife Becky and I were discussing this question the other day, trying to arrive at a meaning of “anthem” that doesn't simply render it as a synonym for “hymn.” Interestingly, she suggested that an anthem should be considered as any song (or poem) that presents history as prophecy. What she means is that an event that has already occurred is presented in the context of the song or poem as something that is going to happen--the song informs our understanding of the future. It's prophetic in the sense that it uses history as a way to inform the future, but as prophecies often are, it is also often apocalyptic. While the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is hardly apocalyptic, the history it recounts informs our understanding of the future: the nation will go on forever, continuously. A good example of what she means is The Original Caste's song “One Tin Soldier” (later covered perhaps more famously by the band Coven). In “One Tin Soldier,” the narrative is presented as a story that happened “long ago,” but obviously its purpose is to inform our understanding of the future (“Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago...”). The song rather explicitly serves as a moral imperative for the future: although the events happened in the past, they are nonetheless prophetic because, in parabolic fashion, they foretell what will happen (now/ future) if greed isn't held in check. I tend to think that songs such as Neil Young's “Southern Man” also serve as anthems as I've defined them here, because on the one hand, there are images drawn from the antebellum period (the “bullwhip cracking”), while on the other hand there are images drawn from the Reconstruction period and the Ku Klux Klan (“now your crosses are burning fast”). However, the lyric, “Southern change is gonna come at last,” invokes the Civil Rights-era South. This liquid exchange of past and future prompted Lynyrd Skynyrd, as revealed in “Sweet Home Alabama” for instance, to read the song as a condemnation of the present-day South, although Young's song would seem to be set in the frozen, remote past. In contrast, “Sweet Home Alabama” is not an anthem (although it is often referred to as such), but a defense of a way of life, that is to say, a hymn. No Southern man needs him, ol' NY, comin' round or about.

Perhaps because of the nuclear threat of the period as well as the impending ecological catastrophe Rachel Carson  had warned of in Silent Spring (1962), the poets and singers of the 1960s began to engage in apocalyptic expressions as anthems to brave new worlds to come. Just as movies of the early 1960s contained apocalyptic themes (The Seventh Seal, 1957; Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1962; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1962; Behold a Pale Horse, 1964) so, too, did the music. Harold Bloom once observed that Americans are obsessed with prophecies and omens because they are actually Gnostics without realizing it, and his insight is certainly true of the folk song when it became a form of prophesying. In the Sixties, musical prophesying caught on. However, perhaps it's well to remember Walter Benjamin's observation about allegory, "Any person, any thing, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else."

A Few Notable Anthems From The Sixties:
Bob Dylan - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1962)
Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963)
Barry McGuire - Eve of Destruction (1965)
The 5th Dimension - Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (1969)
The Original Caste - One Tin Soldier (1969)
Neil Young - After the Gold Rush (1970)
Neil Young - Southern Man (1970)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Olfactory

The so-called "Generation Gap" of the 1960s distinguished the new from the old not so much by ideological difference as by patterns of symbolic consumption, a polarization of taste by means of music, fashion, goods and services. What Thorstein Veblen identified at the end of the nineteenth century as "conspicuous consumption" had by the 1960s long permeated every aspect of American life, mass consumption playing an essential social and economic role in every dimension of the culture. It so happened there was a widespread presumption in the Sixties and Seventies that hippies wore patchouli oil to hide the smell of marijuana, based on the stereotype that all hippies smoked dope. It's true that hippies marked themselves as socially different through dramatic bodily display, but difference didn't consist only of the manipulation of hairstyle and clothing. Perfumes and aromatic oils are also forms of fashion, which is to say a means of symbolic consumption. Patchouli oil signified rebellion against social norms and class tastes: you couldn't buy it at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. It was alien and strange at least so far as most Americans were concerned, Eastern as opposed to European in origin, and was derived from a plant as opposed to an animal. Its use identified one as bohemian in taste and temperament (and artistic hobbies), in contrast, say, to Old Spice cologne, which at the time identified one as hopelessly middle-class in taste (or perhaps tastelessness) and class adherence. The disposition of the body did play a symbolic role in denoting ideological adherence, of course, through notions of masculinity and femininity (with hippies coded as "feminine," patriots as "masculine") and also through metaphors of filth and cleanliness. In October 1969, for instance, General Earle Wheeler, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to Vietnam War protesters as "vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason," the implication being that one could determine ideological adherence through the chemical senses: if they smell funny, don't trust 'em. Perhaps it's well to remember Kant's observation that smell is "taste at a distance" and is the means by which filth induces nausea, which "is even more intimate than through the absorptive vessels of mouth or gullet."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pictures From Life's Other Side

The standard view of Hank Williams' Luke the Drifter recordings can be found in Barbara Ching's Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture (Oxford UP, 2001), in which she claims that Luke the Drifter is Williams' "alter ego," an alias used to distinguish records that were "hellfire" from those that were "hell-raising" (p. 55). Since jukebox operators preferred the hard-drinking Williams with the "bad reputation" rather than the Williams who engaged in moralistic recitations and sanctimonious rebukes, Williams was urged to create the alter ego, a shadow self representing the fundamentalist side to his normal, hedonistic, pleasure-seeking self. But why would he adopt the alias in 1950 (the year of the first Luke the Drifter recordings) at the very height of his fame, by which time he had become the central figure in country music?

What if it's really the other way around, Luke the Drifter being the real "Hank Williams" while the one singing "Jambalaya" and "Kaw-Liga" is in fact wearing the mask? From this perspective, songs such as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Lost Highway" represent moments when the mask slips, when the real "Hank Williams" reveals himself, especially so since he is singing for a community to which he could never belong. As Greil Marcus observes, "Beneath the surface of his forced smiles and his light, easy sound, Hank Williams was kin to Robert Johnson in a way that the new black singers of his day were not" (Mystery Train, Third Revised Edition, p. 131). The Luke the Drifter records only make sense considered as an aggregate rather than individually; the mistake is to single out any particular one as "typical." It is true that the songs are moralistic in a way easily assimilable to the community, but that's beside the point. They are actually songs of loss, exclusion, and tragedy bordering on the nihilistic (hence Marcus's allusion to Robert Johnson), songs about abject figures who've inherited life's accursed share, too different or too grotesque or too scorned to fit in. "Drifter" is simply another name for someone without a home, without a community, and that is what the songs are about. (In the 1970s "drifter" was replaced by "outlaw," a key figure being Hank Williams, Jr.). "Hank Williams was a poet of limits, fear, and failure," writes Greil Marcus in Mystery Train (131), an important aspect of the country world to be sure. By the time of Hank Williams' death, though, the style had become so pervasive "that it had closed off the possibilities of breaking loose." The other side of the country world, the one consisting of "excitement, rage, fantasy, delight," emerged soon after in the music of Elvis Presley -- in the music known as "rockabilly" rather than "hillbilly."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Armageddon Days Are Here Again

On this Earth Day, what more appropriate topic than the Whole Earth Catalog? The Whole Earth Catalog was a thick, oversized paperback largely written by Stewart Brand. Issued twice yearly from 1968 to 1972, and sporadically thereafter, its purpose was to provide information and access to “tools” in order that a reader could “find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Widely associated with the counterculture movement of the 1960s as well as with the environmentalist movement, the Whole Earth Catalog actually contributed to the survivalist movement that began in the 1960s and gained momentum in the 1970s, appealing to libertarians and conservatives alike. The Whole Earth Catalog wasn't merely a handbook for hippies trying to live off the land; it was also a survivalist's bible, useful in making preparations for Armageddon.

Serendipitously, the first Whole Earth Catalog was issued just about the time George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was released in theaters (October 1968), a movie about a group of humans trying to avoid being eaten by zombies. The protagonists of Night of the Living Dead are, if you think about it, prototypical survivalists. Although they were completely unprepared for the social disruption caused by the rise of the living dead, they clearly understand the need for self-sufficiency, even if they are unable to obtain it. They also understand the need for self-defense, by fitting out an existing building in order to protect themselves against a zombie siege of uncertain duration.

I happened to screen last night the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Shelter” (September 1961), a Cold War-era adaptation of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper. The same fable was the inspiration for Philip Wylie's 1954 novel Tomorrow!, in which two fictional Midwest towns undergo a nuclear attack, but only one of them is prepared for it. (One version of the fable has it that the grasshopper idled away his summer hours doing nothing, while the wise, forward-looking ant stockpiled food for the winter. When winter inevitably arrived, the grasshopper found itself starving. Predictably, the grasshopper begged the ant for food and was rebuked for his indolence.) In "The Shelter," a wise doctor has spent months building a bomb shelter in preparation for a possible nuclear attack. When such an attack seems horribly imminent, the wise doctor installs his family in the shelter, refusing admittance to his friends and neighbors. Like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, the doctor's neighbors and friends are reduced to frightened helpless creatures, viciously turning against themselves and the doctor for refusing to give them refuge. They begin an attack to smash down the door of the shelter in order to get inside to safety. Of course, prior to the "The Shelter," the theme of survivalism had been used by many science fiction writers, but I think it is interesting that between the airing of "The Shelter" and the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog seven years later appeared Don Stephens' Retreater's Bibliography (1967) containing instructions on how to build and equip a remote survival shelter. A 1968 supplement to the Retreater's Bibliography was later issued, and there were subsequent reissues of the book as well. I should make it clear that I'm not claiming any cause-and-effect influence between Don Stephens' book and the Whole Earth Catalog. Rather, it was a matter of convergence of ideas, a prevailing belief in imminent social collapse and a suspicion that modern industrial society was about to undergo a disaster of apocalyptic scale -- the fragility of the social contract.

While certainly not its intent by any means, the Whole Earth Catalog arguably gave rise to a number of associated publications, among them William Powell's The Anarchist Cookbook (1971), which contains instructions for the manufacture of homemade explosives, rudimentary telecommunications phreaking devices, and other things. A few years later, in 1975, Kurt Saxon started The Survivor, a newsletter urging subscribers to build fortified survival structures in rural or lightly populated areas where they might hold out against so-called "killer caravans" of looters from nearby urban centers -- that is, instructions to prepare themselves for the night of the living dead.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ordinary People

The Rolling Stones' album Black and Blue (1976), a minor record in the Stones' vast oeuvre and the first made after the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor, was released 35 years ago today. This fact in itself is trivial and hardly worth mentioning. More interesting, historically speaking, is the controversy surrounding the manner in which the album was promoted (pictured, left). The Rolling Stones, one of the earliest rock bands to model itself consciously on the 1950s jazz subculture (or counterculture), successfully blurred any clear distinctions between being bohemian and being deviant.

The trend began, at least in terms of the band's album covers, with the graffiti-covered bathroom wall of Beggars Banquet (1968), which invoked the stereotypical site, in the popular imagination, of the male homosexual encounter. The origins of the S&M themed promotional image for Black and Blue came out of trends in fashion photography in the mid 70s, in particular the work of photographers such as Helmut Newton and Chris von Wangenheim. A year before Black and Blue's release, Newton had created a controversial May 1975 Vogue spread, "The Story of Ohhh…," which featured an image of a man sadistically grabbing hold of a woman's breast, linking sex, violence, and danger. On his part, Von Wagenheim had created a advertisement depicting a bejeweled model being bitten on the wrist by a Doberman pinscher. Although I no longer remember the moment when I first saw the promotional image for Black and Blue, studying it now it seems to be both a deliberate provocation as well as something of a put-on, perhaps another instance of Pop Art irony, possibly yet another illustration (for some) of art's fundamental donnée, to disturb. While the poster's visual pun on "black and blue" is hardly subtle -- a kid in junior high can get it -- that doesn't seem to be the real point. Album cover aside (in which the Stones seem strangely mannequin-like, alienated, and unfocused, perhaps to suggest the state of the band at the time), the poster for Black and Blue links sexual adventurism with S&M. The poster's self-conscious S&M theatricality, with its cuffs and ropes and its staging of violence and humiliation and the model's unambiguous sexual invitation, suggests domination and enslavement as well as outre´ sex as an exciting way of life. Hence the Stones represent everything hip and Modern--they are with it, man.

In her 1975 essay, Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag observed that this sort of imagery is "a logical extension of an affluent society's tendency to turn every part of people's lives into a taste, a choice; to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental." While Black and Blue's poster is perhaps stereotypical in the way it associates rock music with transgressive behavior, Sontag might argue that the poster's self-conscious imagery of sadomasochism acts as a sort of enticement, suggesting that while rock music to some is ultimately a harmless form of transgression (like driving through a red light at 3:00 a.m. when no cop is around), to the enlightened it is altogether more significant, promising the sort of extravagant life to which only Sade himself aspired, filled with dominance and submission, sex and humiliation, made even more exciting because "it is forbidden to ordinary people." In other words, to consume rock music (especially the Stones) is to surpass the limits of your dull, profane existence. In her essay, Sontag cites Leni Riefenstahl, who said, "What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me." Sontag writes, "As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting." In other words, Altamont was not the disaster that is usually depicted, but rather life at its most extreme, with all of its promise of excitement and danger. Anything but nice. Nice was Woodstock.

Which is also to say, rock itself is a form of gratification that is indirect and vicarious. But that is the way the Stones seem to want it: listen to the music and get your rocks off. The Stones, the dark double of the Beatles, the bad boys of rock, however they wanted to be perceived, certainly it was never as "nice." The Black and Blue poster is certainly not "nice." To be "nice" is to be civilized, which means to be alienated from, or deprived of, the savage experience the poster image promises -- even if that experience is theatrically staged.

Friday, April 15, 2011

History And Myth

According to This Day In Rock, on 15 April 1955 CBS talent scout Arthur Godfrey turned down the chance to sign Elvis Presley. However, according to several biographical sources, April 15 is not the date Elvis, Scotty, and Bill actually auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show in New York City; the actual date was March 23. The April 15 date therefore may represent the date they received formal notification of their rejection. It would turn out that the audition for Arthur Godfrey was not an insignificant moment in Elvis Presley's career, primarily because of the widespread misperceptions of Elvis's career to which it later gave rise. For the March 1955 trip Elvis made to New York City later was used by Eileen Southern as evidence that Bo Diddley was the inspiration for Elvis's "diluted versions" of black music (The Music of Black Americans: A History, 1971). Southern claims that Elvis copied Diddley upon "many hours listening to and watching [his] stage shows produced at the Apollo Theater in Harlem" (p. 499). And yet, if the information over at On-This-Day.com is correct, it would have been impossible for Elvis to have seen Bo Diddley at the Apollo Theater in March 1955, as Diddley did not make his first appearance at the Apollo until August 20. That date may be incorrect, of course, just as This Day in Rock's date of April 15 inaccurately suggests the actual date of Elvis's audition for Arthur Godfrey. It is true that Diddley had recorded his first single, the eponymously titled “Bo Diddley,” early in March 1955, and it may have been released by the end of March (some sources indicate April), but it was Ed Sullivan who saw Diddley perform at the Apollo and booked him for his popular television show on November 20. I have been unable to determine precisely the date(s) when Sullivan saw him perform at the Apollo. Still, Eileen Southern's assertion that Elvis - who did not leave the South until achieving notice for his singular performance style - was merely an imitator of Bo Diddley has remained such a powerful myth that it was mentioned in this 2008 Bo Diddley obituary notice. Michael T. Bertrand, in his excellent book Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2005), argues it may have been Bo Diddley himself who disseminated the story that Elvis had "appropriated his performance style."

"I think maybe Presley copied my dance steps," he said in [October] 1956. "I met him once about a year ago. He was just like any other kid coming backstage at the Apollo. I don't remember much about that meeting except that he asked me a few funny questions, but what the hell they were I don't remember. He said something about sitting out front for a bunch of shows. If he copied me, I don't care - more power to him. I'm not starving." (qtd. in Bertrand 192).

Assuming Bo Diddley was interviewed by Charles Gruenberg (for the 4 October 1956 New York Post story in which the above comment appeared) in September 1956, then Diddley's recollection that he'd met Presley "about a year ago" would seem to suggest that he was indeed performing at the Apollo in September 1955, that is, the August 20 date marking his first appearance may be correct. (The date could be determined by simply researching the archive; I haven't yet had the chance to do so. I'll get around to it; in the meantime, be my guest.) And yet, as Bertrand observes, Diddley's description is vague enough ("like any other kid," "I don't remember") to make it easily adaptable "to the subsequent conviction held by Bo Diddley and many others that Presley 'stole his act' from black artists, Diddley included" (192). It's possible that Elvis could have seen Bo Diddley in late August 1955, as this list of Elvis's live performances in 1955 reveals, but he would have had to make the drive to New York City on his own dime, not as a consequence of his concert schedule taking him there.

The factual accuracy of the matter is important, for to adhere to what might be called the "minstrelsy interpretation" of Elvis's career is really an attempt to undermine his legitimacy. The attempt to discredit and distort his accomplishment is not especially difficult to understand: to depict him as an uneducated white Southern redneck usurping black culture is to suggest his "crime" was becoming financially successful while performing, as Bertrand observes, "a music associated with working-class black culture. . . . He became rich and famous while more qualified black contemporaries remained poor and obscure" (195). Of course, the truth is far more interesting and complex than the one offered by the minstrelsy interpretation. Bertrand suggests that by examining Elvis's early life and career, "it is possible to see how rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll became a shared vehicle of expression for various groups the mainstream had ignored, maligned, or rejected" (195). Bertrand's fine book explores how Elvis was drawn to black musical forms in order to forge an identity within an unfamiliar, post-war urban world, a far more interesting story than the Elvis-in-blackface myth.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Music Box

I haven't yet had the time to explore thoroughly all of the contents included in The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, but one pleasant discovery is the inclusion of several additional tracks, totaling 35m, on the specially-designed USB drive that comes with the set. The USB drive contains mp3 files (192 kbps) of every track on the 16 discs in the set on a program similar to iTunes, thus eliminating the need to rip every CD to iTunes (you can if you wish, obviously). The additional twenty-one tracks on the USB drive are mostly short demos, alternate takes, and outtakes. Also, the DVD included with the set, titled A Conversation With Danny Elfman & Tim Burton, has a running time of 67m 15s (65m 53s of interviews and a 1m 22s promotion trailer for Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). The DVD carries a 2010 copyright.

Listed below are the bonus tracks included on the USB drive (WB Records, 2011):
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
28. Snakey (worktape) - 3:44
29. Reprise (early demo) - 1:16
30. Oogie Boogie - Alternate Melody (demo) - 1:50
31. Mayor's Theme (demo) - 1:26
32. Jingle Bells - 0:14
33. Here Comes Santa Claus – 0:25
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
34. Theme (demos) - 4:09
35. More Dreams (alternate version) - 1:20
Planet of the Apes (2001)
36. Ape Suite (orchestra only) - 2:44
Big Fish (2003)
37. The Hoe Down - 1:58
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
38. Gloop Takes a Plunge (orchestral cue) - 1:29
39. Everlasting Gobstopper (orchestral cue) - 0:48
40. Eye on the Prize (orchestral cue) - 0:40
41. Augustus Gloop (early demo) - 2:03
42. Augustus Gloop (instrumental demo) - 2:28
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)
43. Erased (alternate vocal) - 1:56
44. Unused Bride Theme (worktape) - 1:00
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
45. Alternate Titles - 0:46
46. The Parapet – 1:21
Edward Scissorhands Ballet (2005)
47. Kim’s Music Box (unused score demo) – 0:37
The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box (2011)
48. Music Box Suite - 3:02

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Anamorphosis

I'd never noticed the similarity before, but last night while watching the new Blu-ray release of Soylent Green (1973), I realized how its opening montage sequence provided the blueprint, or set of instructions, for Godfrey Reggio's later film Koyaanisqatsi (1982). The opening montage of Soylent Green begins with a series of late nineteenth-century photographs depicting rural, agrarian (pastoral) life in America, quickly displaced by images of growing industrialization, clogged superhighways, urban clutter, and a polluted environment—Eden despoiled. The entire logic of the montage of Koyaanisqatsi is sketched out in a conveniently truncated fashion. The opening of Soylent Green also employs the same rhythmic montage followed by the later film as well.

Moreover, like Soylent Green, the true focus of Koyaanisqatsi is what is usually the background: the background has become the foreground. The collapsed infrastructure, the streets in which people live in abandoned cars (an index of overpopulation), the oppressive heat caused by the so-called "greenhouse effect," the environmental catastrophe that eventually explains the terrible secret behind "soylent green," all point to the film's actual subject, ideological failure. In addition, both films address oppressive social conditions by means of a process that Slavoj Žižek calls the paradox of anamorphosis:

If you look at the thing too directly at the oppressive social dimension, you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background. . . . This fate of the individual here remains a kind of prism through which you see the background even more sharply.

Although Koyaanisqatsi was first released on the film festival circuit in 1982, like Soylent Green it is a Seventies film. Soylent Green was filmed the late fall of 1972 and released in May 1973. Koyaanisqatsi was created 1975-80, with virtually all of the footage shot for the film (excluding the found footage) done in the 1970s. Although both films depict the consequences of industrialization, arguably the event linking the films is the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of which (pictured above) forms a key montage sequence in Koyaanisqatsi (one of the movements in Philip Glass's music is named Pruitt-Igoe). Pruitt-Igoe was a federal housing project built in St. Louis in the mid-50s intended for poor and low-income families, consisting of roughly 2,800 apartments in 33 eleven-story buildings. By the late 1960s, the crime and squalor associated with Pruitt-Igoe had become a national embarrassment, and the project was closed. In early 1972—only 16 years after construction was finished—the federal government began to demolish the complex, a process eventually completed by 1976. Pruitt-Igoe has lived on, symbolically, as an emblem of failure. It has been immortalized in documentary films and in fiction (J. G. Ballard's High Rise, 1975). Both Koyaanisqatsi and Soylent Green were made in the years following the ideological failure represented by Pruitt-Igoe. Moreover, both films employed technical advisors from the world of academia actively engaged in addressing social problems: Frank R. Bowerman (Soylent Green) and Langdon Winner (Koyaanisqatsi).

Žižek uses as an illustration of anamorphosis Holbein's famous painting The Ambassadors: if looked at straight on, there is a noticeable "stain" or blur in the lower center of the painting, but when looked at from from the proper lateral standpoint, that is, from an anamorphic perspective, the blur reveals itself to be a skull. In Koyaanisqatsi, the background becomes the foreground, allowing us to approach reality anamorphically. The time-lapse photography used in Koyaanisqatsi, for instance, in which an endless stream of automobiles is transformed into a stream of light, is an example of anamorphosis, allowing us to see contemporary life not in its actual form, but as it really is.

Of course, unlike Soylent Green, Koyaanisqatsi also draws on several cinematic traditions, some of them dating to the cinema’s origins in the late nineteenth century: its use of the phantom ride, for instance, and its use of photogénie. Nonetheless, while I haven't yet decided on the validity of the association, I was struck by how similar the viewer of Koyaanisqatsi is to Sol Roth during his assisted suicide, as he watches spectacular film clips of an Edenic Earth while listening to light classical music.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Optic Nerve

Both music and perception are psychophysiological processes (psychophysiology studies the relationship between physiological processes and thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). In the same way that Op Art (short for Optical Art) exploits the illusions or optical effects of perceptual processes, the echoes and reverberations of psychedelic music suggest the illusory interior space of a medieval cathedral. Despite the fact that album covers are now celebrated as a form of art (an expression of art-as-object), with only a few exceptions Op Art, surprisingly, never especially influenced rock album art during the Psychedelic Era (unlike, say, the sculptural illusion of Trompe l'oeil, as revealed by the many rock album covers of the time featuring the work of M. C. Escher), even though Op Art was popularized in 1965 and is characterized by the perceptual ambiguity favored by the psychedelic artists of the Sixties. Several sources indicate the term Op Art was first used in an (unsigned) article in the 23 October 1964 issue of Time magazine, and was soon used to distinguish two-dimensional structures which suggested potential, but not actual, movement (in contrast to Kinetic Art, often lumped together with Op Art). The first Op Art exhibition, curated by William C. Seitz and titled "The Responsive Eye," was held 23 February - 25 April 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (See Mike Wallace's interesting documentary on the MOMA show here; Brian De Palma also made a 1966 documentary short about the exhibition, also titled The Responsive Eye.) Significant Op Artists included Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Josef Albers, but it was the latter who actually created album covers, all of them for Enoch Light's Command Records label, and all created before the popularization of Op Art in 1965. In 2009, the Minus Space Gallery in Brooklyn held an exhibition of seven album covers designed by Josef Albers for Command Records during the period 1959-61. Interestingly, the exhibition also included additional Command Records album covers designed by other artists, such as Charles E. Murphy, Barbara Brown Peters, and Gerry Olin. The album covers displayed in this exhibition reveal the application of Op Art to album cover design, as revealed, for example, by the cover for Vibrations (1962, pictured, but not by Albers), the lines and reiterated shapes suggesting the energetic pace of modern life. As noted on the Minus Space Gallery webpage posted in connection with the Albers exhibition, Enoch Light

went to extraordinary technical lengths, and often great expense, to create recordings of the absolute highest quality possible that took full advantage of new technical capabilities of home audio equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Light specifically perfected stereo effects that bounced sounds between the right and left channel speakers, which was called a “ping-pong effect.”

Hence Light took full advantage of the improved technical reproduction made possible by magnetic tape, which offered him and his engineers a broad range of sonic possibilities. To understand more clearly the significance of what Light was trying to achieve with his Commodore label, I turn to Stephen Struthers' observations in "Recording Music: Technology in the Art of Recording," (Avron Levine White, Ed., Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event, Routledge 1987):

The idea of a contemporary musical recording as a reproduction of a real musical event is not tenable as, using a multi-track magnetic tape recording, the final recording is assembled and "reconstructed" from a number of fragments, and so there is no "original" of which that published recording can be a reproduction. Indeed a significant amount of popular music has never existed in a prerecorded stage, being created as it was being recorded, or as a unique combination of previously recorded process first heard together during editing. Many recordings today are made with the circumstances of reproduction uppermost in mind, either on the radio or for domestic listening. (244-45)

Josef Albers cover, 1961
Thus, as Struthers suggests, sounds are made, not "captured." The Enoch Light records are, among other things, feats of engineering. He emphasized the high sonic quality of his records in order to sell his records not to radio stations but to the home stereo enthusiast (here I mean just that, stereo equipment as opposed to monaural). The stereo effects that characterize his records -- sound-as-movement -- have their analogue in Albers' covers, which imbue the two-dimensional plane of the album cover with the optical illusion of movement. Albers' visual configurations allow for imaginary movement just as Light's stereo recordings suggest an imaginary, three-dimensional space ("concert hall") containing music.

I suspect the reason why Op Art was never a major influence on the album art of the Psychedelic Era was because the drug that came to represent the movement, LSD, was rendered through the swirling, Day-Glo, subtractive colors suggestive of a drug trip, very unlike the achromatic colors preferred by Op Artists such as Josef Albers, whose paintings suggested movement created by lines and patterns in black and white. Perhaps the best known album art influenced by the Op Art movement was Mike McInnerney's cover for The Who's Tommy (1969), but by then the influence of the Op Art movement had waned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pill Box

Below I present the full text of a statement given to a student reporter who is working on an article on the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and the issue of birth control. As a result of having trouble arranging a time to meet, I prepared this statement and emailed it to her. Comments are, of course, welcome:

The so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s is a misconception, largely because whenever anyone refers to the so-called “Sixties,” they are almost always referring to the end of the Sixties, the period 1967-1970, a consequence of the extensive media coverage of the first “Human Be-In” at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in January 1967, which introduced hippie culture to genteel, middle-class America. The hippies were what was then called “sexually liberated,” but actually were a very small percentage of the American population, which I assure you did not participate in the presumed “sexual revolution” of the Sixties. In general, American culture remained as Puritanical as it always had been. The Sixties “sexual revolution” was, in reality, a consequence of the widespread introduction of the antibiotic penicillin after 1945, the result of which removed all fear of venereal disease. In effect, you could have sex with whomever you wanted because there was no reason any longer to fear sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. If you look at the statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control on live birth rates among American women, births among unmarried women compromised 4% of live births in the United States in 1950, up from 3% in 1930. In 1969, at the presumed “height” of the 1960s, that number had climbed to 10%, an increase of only 6% in 20 years (but more than double the increase 1930-1950). One may assume that if there had been a real "sexual revolution," the resulting libertine atmosphere would have prompted a sizable increase in births to unmarried women, which is not borne out by the facts. I suppose one could argue that the birth rate among unwed mothers did not increase as drastically as it could have because of the introduction of the first oral birth control contraceptive in 1960—“the Pill.” But this claim is false. The Pill had virtually no impact on live birth rates among unmarried women during the decade of the 1960s for the simple reason that the Pill was not made (legally) available to unmarried women in all fifty states until 1972. In contrast, preliminary data indicate that in 2008, 40.6% of all live births were to unmarried women. Thus, despite the existence of both contraceptives and of legalized abortion, in the 40 years 1970-2010, births to unmarried women have increased by over 30%, or roughly 15% every twenty years, more than double the 6% rise during the period 1950-1970. If you wish to speak of a sexual revolution, you really need to date it from 1945, as a trend that began after World War II and the introduction of antibiotics such as penicillin.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Bird Sings Sweetly

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). He also observes that the ancients thought the so-called “saturnine” temperament was 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). Yet despite the fact the saturnine or solitary temperament is essential for artistic creation, and for reflection and introspection (“know thyself”), individual (private, solitary) experience is typically denied or devalued by the general culture. Roland Barthes makes the observation in Camera Lucida, “Photography cannot signify (aim at a generality) except by assuming a mask” (35). He goes to say, "Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning: It wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise . . . which will make it less acute" (36). What he is talking about, it seems to me, is the way "society" (to use Barthes' term) prefers the stereotypical (the general truth) rather than the singular (the particular), in this case, the undeniable validity of solitary, contemplative experience. I think Barthes is here making the same point as Michel Leiris in his essay, "The Sacred in Everyday Life" (1938), in which Leiris uses his own past experience to argue for what he calls "the personal sacred" (the need for the sacred in a secular society). Following both thinkers, society tends to avoid the difficulty of the singular or personal, preferring general meaning instead, because the general meaning (the stereotypical) is more easily accessible and therefore "safe"--the comfort of generalities and commonly accepted truths, rather like Flaubert's “received ideas.” Hence Leiris's essay is unusual in that he is trying recover the validity of the personal, singular experience, the undeniable reality and value of his own experience, which the general culture devalues or denies. As Camera Lucida reveals, for Barthes, the value of photography is precisely its ability to capture the This, the singular, irrecoverable moment. In turn, Leiris would say that the validity of singular experience is abject, that is, is degraded (as irrelevant) by the general culture. What Leiris is trying to recover is the value of the personal (private) in human experience.

I was once told by a friend that because my astrological sign is cancer, the crab (one who carries his home on his back), my temperament is to prefer being home. I take this to mean that I'm happy to be alone, to be solitary, and I think that's probably true. Not that I'm a misanthrope, but my temperament is saturnine. I'm perfectly content to be alone because, as the title of the song by XTC says, "my bird performs." The cage is open but I have no urge to fly . . . because my bird sings sweetly. I guess you'd have to call this song by XTC my theme song.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Elfman-Burton Box Set Delayed Until April

I received an email last night informing me that the Danny Elfman and Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box Set has been delayed (again), with the ship date now early April, which I suspect is accurate. The email said, in part, ". . . we ran into some manufacturing issues in China and sadly could not get everything completed by the country's New Year. This delay added weeks to our turn around hence why we could not have the package to you by the end of this month. We have prioritized the Limited "Collectors" Box Sets and these will be delivered before the standard edition. The main piece that we are waiting to have completed is the hand crafted tin box and zoetrope." Wanting to assure buyers that the box is nearing completion, there was an attachment to the email consisting of an image of the exclusive book and USB (shown above). There was also a link to a short video that shows a sample of all the items put together:


Warner Brothers avers it will provide frequent updates and photos "showing we are still on track to deliver this item in early April." Given the delays, perhaps WB should re-title it the 26th Anniversary Box Set.

My previous post on the subject is available here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Lupercalia

Once, long ago, two days after the Ides, on February 15, there took place in Rome a mysterious ritual called the Lupercalia, one of the many festival days named on the pre-Julian calendar. According to the ancient Roman scholar M. Terentius Varro, considered a reliable source on Roman religion, the Lupercalia consisted of a sacrifice made at the Lupercal (the cave where legend has it the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus) by the Luperci. Varro refers to a goddess named Luperca, whom he associates with the aforementioned she-wolf of Roman legend, and hence with the founding of Rome. But Ovid and Plutarch, in contrast, refer to a she-goat, suggesting for some scholars of ancient religions that no single god or goddess was necessarily associated with the festival. The ritual associated with Lupercalia is generally considered to have been a purification and fertility rite involving the sacrifice of goats and a dog. Once the sacrificed goats were dis-membered, the Luperci ran amok, lashing the participants with strips of flesh. Apparently wives were especially eager to be lashed by the Luperci with these bloody pieces of flesh, believing it promoted fertility and facilitated childbirth. (The goat-like satyr -- a later Roman conflation with Faunus, analogous to the Greek god Pan -- was to become a conventional symbol of carnal appetite.) The Lupercalia also consisted of great revelry and drinking, allowing one to infer that the birth rate in Rome significantly rose about nine months after the end of the festival, around the month of November.

No wonder, then, that the Lupercalia survived the onset of Christianity, which required a different form and a different deity, the Roman martyr (as legend has it) Saint Valentinus. (The love for which he died, however, was of a higher form, not that of Eros.) The ancient form of expenditure, ritual sacrifice, is now, of course, replaced by a different kind of expenditure, a financial one, involving the purchase of expensive diamonds and jewels, the value of which is so dear because the financial loss is so tremendous.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mellow Yellow

In yet another development regarding the ongoing search for John Lennon's white 1965 Rolls Royce Phantom V (see the previous and related posts), Steve Barratt in the UK, having read my post which started it all, The Ballad of John and Yoko's Rolls, kindly sent me a message in connection to the past history of EUC 100C. He correctly surmised that I would be quite interested in the following picture taken in 1971 featuring EUC 100C parked next to the automobile which he now owns (center), the Mercedes-Benz 6.3 once owned by Sixties pop star Donovan. Information on JMO 9K, and the fascinating story of its restoration, is available on Steve Barratt's website.

Image taken 1971 at Arbourfield Cross, Wokingham, England

Mr. Barratt's extensively restored Mercedes is classed as one of the best right hand drive models around, and was once on display at Mercedes-Benz World in England. I have not been able to verify the assertion, but Mr. Barratt believes the driver of EUC 100C at the time of the above snap was the famous rock 'n' roll bodyguard Alf Weaver. Eric Roberts, who has been conducting extensive research on the current disposition of EUC 100C, keenly observed about the state of the white Rolls in the above picture: "The twin inlets beneath the headlights are there, but the trophy "badges" usually mounted in front of the radiator are missing. Which is odd. (These "best of show" trophies must have come with the car - they are attached to PPB 1 in Georgy Girl.)" For images of the car as it appeared in Georgy Girl (1966), see the video attached to the previous blog post below.

Like many of us, Mr. Barratt wants to find out the current whereabouts of EUC 100C, but he has a slightly different motivation: he would love to arrange to have a photo of JMO 9K taken next to EUC 100C again, thus reuniting the two famous vehicles after forty years. Mr. Barratt says, "Hopefully the current owner [of EUC 100C] should take me seriously when I find him and ask him about having a picture taken after forty years."

I for one would love to see it happen.

Postscript: Interestingly, the car worth the most money in the picture in today's market is the car at the far right, a Shelby. Apparently it is now worth a fortune, but was not so in 1971.

Special thanks to Steve Barratt for permission to reproduce the above photograph.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ballad of EUC 100C

Frequent guest blogger Eric Roberts has assembled a short informational clip featuring images of the 1965 Rolls Royce Phantom V once owned by John Lennon, license plate EUC 100C, the whereabouts of which remain an ongoing search. The video, available below, consists of extracts from four archival sources:

1. Georgy Girl, 1966
2. ITN NEWSREEL, December 1985
3. DUTCH TV NEWSREEL, Amsterdam Bed-In for Peace, 1969
4. BALLAD OF JOHN & YOKO Music Clip, 1969

video

This video is presented for informational purposes only. Copyright is retained by the respective owners of the material.

During the first months of 1966 in London, a hire company in Chelsea supplied the latest model Rolls Royce for the film Georgy Girl (filmed approximately January – March 1966, released the summer of 1966) starring Lynn Redgrave, James Mason, Alan Bates, and Charlotte Rampling. Shot in black and white, it is impossible to tell the color of the Phantom V, which plays a prominent supporting role in the film. Later the same year, around the time he met Yoko Ono, Lennon purchased this particular 1965 Phantom V from the hire firm. He ordered it to be re-sprayed and reupholstered in pristine white, and at the same time, an 8-track stereo, mobile phone system and polarized windows were installed.

Please note: The number plate of the Phantom V in Georgy Girl is PPB1. Rob Geelen left the confirmation of this on the International Movie Car Database forum: "1965 Rolls Royce Phantom V Limousine By H. J. Mulliner, Park Ward design 2003 5VD63, delivered May 65 to to Patrick Barthropp Ltd., registered PPB1, and used in the movie Georgy Girl (UK, 1966), and subsequently by the Beatles. So not ordered new by Lennon."

When in 1971 John and Yoko decided to settle in New York City, virtually everything they owned was left behind at Tittenhurst Park, including, presumably, their white 1965 Rolls Royce. Ringo Starr acquired Tittenhurst Park from Lennon in September 1973 and lived there until early 1988. At the end of 1985, EUC 100C was put up for a charity auction organized by Christies of London. It was withdrawn from sale and has not been seen in public since.

After moving to New York, it appears that Lennon and Ono acquired a right hand drive white Phantom V to replace EUC 100C. Since 1999, Lennon's American Phantom V has been one of the main attractions in the Tebo Auto Collection in Colorado, USA.

For more about EUC 100C and the search for its current whereabouts please visit: http://www.60x50.com/search/label/John%20Lennon.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Coq au Vin

Yardbird is a slang word for the chicken, usually after having been prepared as a meal. Apparently jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker loved fried chicken, which earned him the nickname “Yardbird,” or most commonly, “Bird.” “Anyone seeking an understanding of American music,” writes Michael Jarrett, “could start by pondering the chicken” (287). Or even, I might add, human culture itself: the excellent PBS documentary, The Natural History of the Chicken (2000) suggests that we must understand the chicken through the stories we have told about it. The chicken isn't simply an animal, but a sign of something other than itself: chickens, like all animals, are symbols representing different relations to larger reality. In other words, any number of issues surround the role of the chicken in human culture: sex, class, race, identity, and other issues. Hence it follows that songs about chickens aren't really about chickens. The name of a couple famous rock bands invoke the chicken, suggesting its importance at least to a few of that music's practitioners. Chicken Shack, Christine Perfect’s first band, named themselves after Jimmy Smith's highly esteemed album released in 1960, Back at the Chicken Shack, the record that popularized the Hammond B-3 organ for a generation of rock musicians. The name of the British quintet, The Yardbirds, also invokes the chicken. Although the band's name would seem to be an homage to Charlie Parker, it also may be an allusion to yet another meaning of yardbird, an untrained military recruit or prison convict. The Yardbirds may have counted on the connotations prompted by this other meaning of the word, to suggest, according to Mike Jarrett, "an outlaw aesthetic that seemed explosive and undisciplined" (287).

A 12-Piece Box Of Tunes And Albums:
The Beastie Boys – “Finger Lickin’ Good” (Check Your Head)
Mel Brown – Chicken Fat (1967)
Cab Calloway – “Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird” (Are You Hep to the Jive? 22 Sensational Tracks)
Ry Cooder – Chicken Skin Music (1976)
Steve Goodman – “Chicken Cordon Bleus” (Somebody Else’s Troubles)
King Kurt – Big Cock (1986)
Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (1973)
Charles Mingus – “Eat That Chicken” (Oh Yeah)
Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack (1960)
Southern Culture on the Skids – “Eight Piece Box” (Peckin’ Party)
Big Joe Turner – “The Chicken and the Hawk (Up, Up and Away)” (Big, Bad & Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology)
Link Wray – “Run Chicken Run” (Rumble! The Best of Link Wray)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hip And Corn

There's hip, and then there's corn, what Louis Armstrong in his autobiography, Swing That Music (1936), calls "corney." Most likely it was Armstrong himself who introduced both of these terms into the American vocabulary. The terms are often used to imply binary oppositions: if hip names some sort of positive existential condition, corney is its opposite. What do we mean by saying something is corney? The terms, vaguely, seem to distinguish the new (the hip) from the old (corn), but corn also seems to mean anything that is déclassé, antiquated, "old-fashioned." Thus hip and corn are what Fredric Jameson calls ideologemes, seemingly neutral or banal words that actually designate different relations to political or cultural domination.

In the late 1930s, by which time swing had caught on, the jazz of the Twenties had become "corney," that is, held in contempt. Previously a slang term within jazz subculture for non-jazz (meaning popular) music, "corney" was redefined by Armstrong in Swing That Music as "the 'razz-mah-jazz' style of the Twenties." It's possibly a metaphor derived from traditional Southern food: fried chicken, barbecue ribs, corn bread, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and collard greens. Thus the word corney implies something common and everyday, ordinary, routine, overly familiar. A basic, if bland, staple. In his marvelous book, Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins believes that corn is the "negative face" of hip. He writes:

Hip is witty and daring. Corn is meretricious and safe. Hip, because it is honest and takes risks, may withstand passing fashions. Corn incarnates those fashions. (89)

How are we to understand GIddins? Hip implies otherness, subjects standing outside of the dominant culture. To be hip is to be real, that is, authentic or genuine, detached from the mainstream, values associated with individualism, and hence with jazz. In contrast, corn suggests the masses (the corn-fed), that which is common or vulgar, that one is a follower of trends and fashions, and hence artificial. If you're hip, you swing, which is to say, you seek genuine pleasure. You acknowledge desire. If you're corney, you displace and defer pleasure, preferring instead material commodities and promoting utilitarian ethics. You're a creature of duty and of habit.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Standard

There is no general agreement on what constitutes a "standard," although the existence of the standard requires, implicitly, a distinction between amateur and professional musicianship. According to the definition found here, a "standard" is "a musical piece of sufficiently enduring popularity to be made part of a permanent repertoire, esp. a popular song." Hence the idea of a "standard" applies to popular music and not to what is commonly known as "classical" music. Assuming the collocation, "sufficiently enduring popularity," means, in colloquial terms, that a song has lasted, at what point in its existence does it stop being a mere "song" and undergo the transformation into a "standard"? Is it a matter of sheer repetition or reiteration (re-recording)? And if, by widespread consensus, a song is considered a standard, does that mean it forever remains so, that it shall for all time be considered a "classic"? Alec Wilder, in his highly regarded American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (1972), shows how the vast majority of the songs considered standards were a consequence of the institutional forms of songwriting known as Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musical theater, and the Hollywood musical. Obviously this is yet another way that "popular" is distinguished from "classical" music (the latter played almost exclusively by professionals), that the standard is a consequence of a certain level of industrial organization that allowed for the manufacture and distribution of music stored in a durable medium: material artifacts (records and sheet music), and methods of dissemination (movies and radio). I therefore note that "storage," in the sense of a storehouse filled with stock, that is, a repertory or archive (repertoire), is essential to the idea of a "standard." The latter practice--the publication of sheet music--also helped bolster the idea of "popular" music, since the printing of sheet music enabled songs to be sold to amateur musicians (beginning in the late nineteenth century, largely comprised of fledgling pianists) in private homes. The publication of sheet music also allowed for the formation of the aforementioned archive, since there could be no such archive without printed music.

Hence the rise of the "song plugger." Song pluggers occupied a curious niche; they were pianists and singers who earned their income selling songs in order to promote the purchase of sheet music, demonstrating the virtues of an individual song rather like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman demonstrated the virtues of the latest home-cleaning appliance. However, the singers who first recorded the songs that became standards were not considered amateurs, but professionals; they were not song pluggers. That is, in order for a song to become a standard, it almost certainly had to be recorded by one of the dominant singers or performers on Broadway and in Hollywood during the period Wilder identifies, 1900-1950: Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby, to name just a few. Many of the songs that became standards were written especially for these highly-regarded singers who were appearing on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals. Most often, standards became more or less identified with the singer that introduced them--they became, as it were, "validated." Hence the standard became a sort of shibboleth: a required performative test, the  purpose of which was to determine the authenticity of the vocalist. The standard became a means of including and excluding authentic performers: in order to demonstrate your "mettle," you had to perform a standard. Every singer "worth his (or her) salt," as they used to say, had to record a standard. Paradoxically, although the very idea of the standard required the existence of printed music, individual performance was valued over the strict adherence to the written composition.

According to Donald Clarke, in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), by 1950 or so standards were no longer originating in the places they had before (that is, in Tin Pan Alley, in Broadway and Hollywood musicals): "By the early 1950s, however, everything had changed. Blacks were doing their own thing in a new era, for labels created especially to sell to the black market; and good white songs were becoming scarce. The Berlins, Gershwins and the rest had died or retired, and the classic songs they had written could not be imitated" (366). Hence Clarke, among others, subscribes to the view that the decline of Tin Pan Alley coincided with the rise of rock & roll. Perhaps he's right.

As a postmodern art form privileging recording (engineering) over live performance, rock & roll was popular music largely written and performed by amateurs, not professionals, operating outside of the traditional music writing and publishing institutions, making records for small labels that were sold to niche (often regional) audiences. The decline of Broadway and Hollywood musicals, ensemble forms, coincided with the rise of the singer-songwriter, which championed individuality. There were, comparatively speaking, fewer new musicals created in the 1950s than in the preceding decades. One way to understand the rise of the singer-songwriter is to understand that they working outside established institutions such as the Broadway and Hollywood musical. When Elvis (for instance), decided to record songs written by Otis Blackwell (for instance), the cultural continuity suggested by the "standard" was broken. Rock & roll, music played by amateurs (Elvis had no professional training) thus represented a break in established traditions. It should therefore be no surprise that the first important record consisting entirely of standards emerged during a period of nostalgia, the early 1970s. That record was Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973), released during the period which saw the popularity of "oldies" groups such as Sha Na Na and nostalgic films such as American Graffiti (1973). Contemporary records such as Rod Stewart's "Great American Songbook" series represent a continuation of this trend in what is now the decline of the rock era.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Confusing Grace With Outer Space

It goes without saying that certain rock stars have the same mysterious allure as movie stars. One lesson these rock stars learned from movie stars is to seldom grant interviews, that is, they learned early on that the secret to success is to make it impossible to determine the fictive from the real. In the same way that "star power" often overcomes the dullness of a bad movie, there's more to great rock 'n' roll than actual music. The allure of The Residents, it seems to me, has always been in the way they went about establishing themselves as different. Like all those who have gone about forming counter-discourses, they exaggerated the power of their antagonist. Taking a cue from The Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It For the Money (1968), they challenged the legitimacy of rock 'n' roll by casting themselves as the dark double of the Beatles, as the anti-Beatles, as the cover of their first album reveals. At the beginning of their career, economics dictated they commit themselves to the medium of music (the manufacture and distribution of records), but as their later career has demonstrated, they were really interested in pursuing the Wagnerian idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "total work of art," an assemblage of music, painting, theater, poetry, and primitive architecture (Vileness Fats). In fact, "primitive" is the sound they sought: they went about making music that rendered the idea of influence extremely difficult to determine. They made records as if in a cultural vacuum and in total isolation, which is why their records sounded like nothing else. The very few live shows they did in the 1970s (they didn't begin to tour until the early 80s after the introduction of the Emulator) were short, cacophonous, and outrageous bursts of Guerilla Theatre, evoking nothing so much as Babel.

I'd never heard of The Residents until the fall of 1979, in October or November of that year when Eskimo (1979) was getting a good deal of play on the stereo system at the record store I often visited. (Gone are the days spent in record stores listening to new music, at least for me.) An employee there who bought and and sold used records highly recommended the album to me. Not having a whole lot of money in my pocket at the time, I begged off, so he sold me instead a used copy of Not Available (released the previous year) for, if I remember correctly, the bargain price of $2.50. Although narratives of personal experience have become commonplace in cultural studies, I'm not convinced they are a particularly good idea, as they have always seemed to me to be too confessional, sounding too much like a religious conversion. So I'll stop there except to say that I began to listen, and to collect, The Residents, and have done so for over three decades now. I cannot speak for others, but for me it seems that the record that first prompted my interest in a band is the record I shall always hold in the highest regard. So it is with Not Available. Had The Residents, say, stopped recording after The Commercial Album (1980), the lukewarm critical response to which, as legend has it anyway, disappointed the band, Not Available would have assured their lasting fame, for in the history of popular music nothing like it has been recorded before or since. It is, as we once used to say, totally off the wall. Personally, I think Not Available and "Walter Westinghouse" are among their very finest moments.

Hence I was very keen to put on the headphones and give a close listen to the latest re-issue of Not Available, released earlier this week on CD through MVDaudio, a version of the album which promised the restoration of 7 minutes edited out of the original (1978) version. In order to find out whether this claim were true, I selected at random three previous releases of the album on CD (those CD issues without any bonus tracks, of course) in order to assemble a representative sample from which to determine the album's running time. The results are as follows:

Label Cat. No. Year No. Tracks Time
East Side Digital ESD 81232 1997 5 35:35
Bomba BOM 22011 1997 5 35:35
Euro Ralph CD O34 2005 5 35:27
MVDaudio MVD5122A 2011 5 42:28

The MVDaudio CD reissue is indeed 7m longer, give or take a few seconds. Conveniently, each of the various CD releases has five tracks corresponding to the five parts or movements on the album, which makes it rather easy to determine in which parts material has been restored. The differences in track length are as follows, taken from the iTunes player on my MacBook Pro:

Track ESD 81232 MVD5122A
19:3410:56
2 10:02 10:04
3 6:36 10:11
4 7:01 8:54
5 2:22 2:22

The restored version indicates that in its original form, Not Available was composed of four parts all of roughly equally length, between ten and eleven minutes long, with the fourth part eventually cut down with the additional fifth part forming the Epilogue. As can be seen, for the original LP release--reiterated on all CD reissues up to this time--most of the material was cut from tracks 3 ("Ship's A'Going Down") and 4 ("Never Known Questions"). The bulk of the material edited out is at the ending of Part Three and the beginning of Part Four, lyrical instrumental passages performed on a synthesizer (is that a Moog or Buchla synth?). Having listened to the MVDaudio release several times now, I think I prefer the longer version to the original (edited) release. After all, it's hard to listen to the previous versions knowing that material has been edited out, and I like the additional music.

Happily, the Residents' website promises an April re-release by MVDaudio of the digitally enhanced stereo mix (43:44) of Meet the Residents from about twenty years ago. If time permits (things for me are pretty busy at that time) I'll post a blog on that reissue, but in the meantime I will continue to enjoy the gloriously restored version of Not Available.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Ring Modulator

For well over a century, music composers have allied themselves with engineers. For an example, consider German engineer Harald Bode, whose groundbreaking work in electronic sound modification was inspired, in whole or part, by the innovations of songwriter and guitarist Les Paul. Bode observed:

Les Paul . . . stimulated many innovators, and due to his success encouraged them to work in the field of new sound effects. His influence in many areas is felt to this day. The author [Bode himself] was so impressed by his work that he later developed a sound modification system consisting of a number of electronic modules, assigned to two separate outputs through a multiple-head tape loop device. These modules also included a ring modulator.

Note that Bode indicates he was interested in the development of sound modification by means of a device with several modules, research which would later influence both Robert Moog and Don Buchla in their development of the modular synthesizer. Bode did not invent the ring modulator, however, which was a device developed for applications in single-sideband (SSB) modulation. (SSB modulation was used early on with long distance telephone lines as part of a technique known as “frequency-division multiplexing” which allowed several voice channels to be sent along a single circuit.) Back then, though, in the early 1930s when long distance telephone service was being developed, it wasn't known as a ring modulator:

The ring modulator was at the time [ca. 1959-60] relatively little known sound modification device, mainly used in single-sideband communication systems. The main reason was that up to the mid- or late 1950s it was known as a switching circuit, which would have sounded too harsh to be usable for sound modification. It was only after ring modulators were built with diodes, which operate in the square law region of their transfer function (as was the case with certain germanium diodes), that they started to perform as four-quadrant multipliers and became musically interesting.

In technical terms, a ring modulator (named as such because the electronic circuit is shaped like a ring) is an analog sound modification system that takes two inputs, one a signal and the other a carrier frequency, and produces a single output. The signal is normally a wave form produced by the output from a microphone (e.g., a voice), while the carrier signal is normally a sine wave. The function of the ring modulator is to produce the sum and difference frequencies of the signal and carrier. In layman's terms, a ring modulator produces a spectrum of noise, or what Karlheinz Stockhausen, here, refers to as “colored noise.”

It was probably electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s use of the ring modulator that inspired an entire generation of rock musicians. Stockhausen’s Mixture (1964), for example, was written for a ring modulated symphony orchestra. In this electronic composition, the orchestra is divided into five groups (wind, brass, two groups of strings, percussion) and individually mic’ed, each group fed to a separate ring modulator. Stockhausen’s next work using the ring modulator was Mikrophonie II (1965; 14:52), composed “for choir, Hammond organ and ring modulators.” In the liner notes to the Columbia Masterworks LP containing Mikrophonie I and Mikrophonie II (MS7355), the composer wrote:

Mikrophonie II offered the possibilities, as does purely electronic music, to compose with a scale of sounds ranging from natural to synthetic, from familiar (nameable) to unfamiliar (unnamable) ones. The ‘what’ (the material) is not separable from the ‘how’ (the forming). I would never have composed as I did, had the ‘what’ of this process not had very specific characteristics which lead to a specific ‘how.’ For example, when one uses ring modulation, one must compose particular kinds of structures - simple superimpositions, many tones of long duration, not-too-rapidly moving layers - since ring modulators create dense symmetrical spectra from simple material, and this can easily lead to an overweight of noise or a stereotyped coloring of the sounds. . . . the transformation of the choral sound in Mikrophonie II has many gradations, that often untransformed layers are found mixed with more or less transformed layer, and that there is a transition from natural to synthetic sound, and vice versa.

Hence, for Stockhausen, live performance was a form of engineering, a process by which sounds were made, not “captured.” Although the ring modulator is often associated with the synthetic voice of the Daleks in the long-running Dr. Who television series (in which the ring modulator, in other words, is used to simulate the synthesized voice of the robot, the simulation of a simulation) there have been some memorable uses of the device by rock musicians following Stockhausen’s rule regarding the inseparability of the what from the how.

Sonic Samples Of The Ring Modulator:
Jeff Beck - With The Jan Hammer Group Live (1977)
Billy Cobham - “Snoopy's Search/Red Baron” Spectrum (1973)
Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead) - “That’s It For the Other One” Anthem of the Sun (1968)
Jan Hammer (The Mahavishnu Orchestra) - “Vital Transformation” The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) - “Paranoid” Paranoid (1970)
Jon Lord (Deep Purple) - Machine Head (1972)
Gordon Marron (The United States of America) - “The Garden of Earthly Delights” The United States of America (1968)
Bob Mothersbaugh (Devo) - “Too Much Paranoias” Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
Bob Mothersbaugh (Devo) - “Mechanical Man (Booji Boy Version)” Mechanical Man EP (1978)
Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath) - “Planet Caravan” Paranoid (1970)