Showing posts with label American Popular Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American Popular Music. Show all posts

Sunday, October 1, 2023

On the Road to Shambala

As is well-known, James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933) is the origin of Shangri-La, the fictional utopia nestled high in the remote mountains of Tibet. Apparently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt admired the novel—and perhaps the 1937 Hollywood film adaptation as well. In 1942, given increased German submarine activity along the Atlantic coast, the Secret Service, concerned about the President’s safety, requested FDR discontinue his frequent cruises aboard his yacht, the USS Potomac, along the eastern waterways. Seeking a retreat that would not interfere with the President’s medical conditions of asthma and polio, FDR's physician recommended a summer camp for federal employees as well as Boy Scout groups called Camp Hi-Catoctin, located in Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Upon seeing his mountain retreat in 1942, President Roosevelt named it Shangri-La. In 1953, several years after President Roosevelt’s death, the retreat was renamed Camp David by President Dwight Eisenhower, after his father and grandson, the name it retains to this day.

That the utopian promise represented by Shangri-La (Shambala) captured President Roosevelt’s imagination is certain. Pure speculation, but I wonder whether the film adaptation of Lost Horizon (1937), directed by Frank Capra, was perhaps more influential on Roosevelt in its conception of Shangri-La than the novel. Capra’s adaptation makes several (important) changes to the novel, one of them being to intensify Conway’s internal conflict about whether to stay in Shangri-La. In Hilton's novel, Mallinson is his protégé, vice-consul to Robert Conway’s role as consul in the British diplomatic service, but in the film adaptation he is replaced by George, Conway’s brother. In the film adaptation, there are two women who live in Shangri-La, Maria and Sondra. Maria’s role is similar to that of Lo-Tsen’s in the novel, but Sondra is introduced in order to develop a love interest for Conway. Robert Conway’s love for Sondra makes his decision to leave even more difficult: he is torn between his protective and filial affection for his younger brother and his romantic yearning for Sondra, along with his conviction that he has found his utopia and place in the world. Hence, the stakes for Conway are far higher in the adaptation than in the novel.

Perhaps the most important change in Capra’s film adaptation, though, is the addition of the character of Gloria, who replaces the kind but largely ineffectual missionary, Miss Brinklow. As the terminally ill, cynical consumptive, Gloria recovers her health, an indication of the restorative quality of the (magical) “air” in Shangri-La (mountain cures were a common belief). The magical quality of Shangri-La is represented by the High Lama, who dies at the age of 249. He was originally a Christian missionary monk who became converted to the east, although Shangri-La, with its motto of “moderation,” is ecumenical rather than dogmatic in its approach to spiritual tenets. I believe it was these features of Shangri-La, its restorative, healing powers, and its ecumenicalism, that appealed to the polio-stricken Roosevelt. I am sure this is not a startling new insight. Rather, what it does suggest is the power of Frank Capra’s film adaptation in influencing our (mis)conceptions about James Hilton’s Shangri-La. Certainly we can see it in popular music, such as “Shambala” (1973), in which the healing powers of Shangri-La are invoked: "Wash away my troubles, wash away my pain / With the rain in Shambala / Wash away my sorrow, wash away my shame / With the rain in Shambala."

Here are some other songs inspired by Shangri-La/Shambala (not to mention the 60s pop group, The Shangri-Las):

Shangri-La – Matty Malneck and Robert Maxwell (1946) (covered by numerous artists)

Shangri-La – The Kinks (1969) (from the album Arthur)

Shambala – Daniel Moore (covered by B. W. Stevenson and The Three Dog Night, 1973)

Shangri-La – Electric Light Orchestra (from the album, A New World Record, 1976)

Our Shangri-La – Mark Knopfler (from the album, Shangri-La, 2004)


I must not neglect Johnny Mathis’ album, The Wonderful World of Make Believe (pictured, 1964), a collection of songs largely about imaginary, utopian places (Shangri-La, Camelot), the longing for a place in the world (I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, When You Wish Upon a Star), and the hope for everlasting love (Beyond the Sea, Beyond the Blue Horizon) – all fulfilled by a utopian Shangri-La.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Beginning To The Week

According to James R. Kincaid, when discussing the issue of laughter, “some degree of oversimplification is inevitable.” At the core of the debate about laughter is whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy or geniality, that is, with empathy. Kincaid identifies two camps, the “dark-laughter” theorists, deriving from Thomas Hobbes, and the “genial-laughter” theorists, deriving from Jean Paul Richter. As I understand it, at the heart of the debate is whether laughter is ever anything but disguised hostility and aggression. Laughter may be a consequence of so-called “civilized” behavior, in which one’s real attitudes and beliefs must constantly be disguised and hidden.

In one of the world’s great books, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud argues that the technique of the joke is similar to that of the “dream-work”: the latent content of the joke, like the latent content of the dream, is disguised through the operations of condensation, displacement, and so on. “Wit,” a means of producing laughter, originates in aggressive or “obscene” tendencies, but the aggressive (or obscene) content is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the joke-work so that the psychic energy aroused can be safely relieved. A successful joke results in what Freud describes as “the economy of psychic expenditure” - the psychic energy required to repress the dangerous or obscene content is released as laughter, which (presumably) nullifies the actual threat posed by the obscene material (e.g., the humor of scatological jokes). The so-called “pleasure” of a joke lies in the psychic release called laughter.

But in his essay “Humour” (1928), Freud says humor is also a way of dealing with pain. As an example, he uses a prisoner on the way to the gallows, who remarks, “Well, this is a good beginning to the week.” The prisoner’s humorous comment is a way of denying his existential pain, the ego declaring that it is invulnerable and indomitable. However, and more importantly, for the listener the humor in the condemned prisoner’s remark is derived from what Freud calls the “economized expenditure of affect,” by which he means that the energies associated with any strong emotion such as pity are aroused but then shown to be unnecessary. As a consequence, they are, happily, available for laughter instead.

Perhaps Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears Of A Clown” is good example of the “economized expenditure of affect”:

People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

By saying that his inner heartbreak is disguised by laughter, as listeners our empathy is aroused but shown to be unnecessary. That is, despite his situation, if the singer is able to muster a laugh, then our pity is not required. In the face of his self-described clownish behavior, we can repress the need for empathy. The song does not arouse laughter as such, but reveals the operation of the joke-work nonetheless.

Required Listening:
The Beau Brummels - Laugh, Laugh
Bob Dylan - It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
The Guess Who - Laughing
Charles Jolly - The Laughing Policeman
Napoleon XIV - They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!
Randy Newman - Laughing Boy
The Residents - Laughing Song
Neil Sedaka - Laughter in the Rain
The Teardrop Explodes - Ha-ha I’m Drowning
Mary Wells - Laughing Boy

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eat To The Beat

With Thanksgiving approaching, I inevitably thought of Arlo Guthrie’s classic song, “Alice’s Restaurant” (“it all started two Thanksgivings ago”), which then prompted me to think about food. As a (secular) national holiday, Thanksgiving (originally associated with our Puritan roots), ironically, has come to be associated with excessive appetite, the propensity to over-consume. I say this because the day after Thanksgiving is now referred to as “Black Friday,” a celebration of the consumer mentality, the biggest shopping day of the year. Oral excess is to be matched by excessive spending: in one massive mashup of excessive appetite, one is to over-eat and then to over-spend. Material acquisition, health, and decadence all merge into one colossal celebration of figurative orality.

In metaphorical terms, “appetite” is to sexual fulfillment what “thirst” is to spiritual fulfillment; both terms are used as figurations of human longing and desire: “sexual appetite,” and “spiritual thirst.” Both terms collide in the figure of dead Elvis, celebrated on the one hand as a nice boy with deep religious convictions, and on the other as someone with an insatiable appetite for snacks and so-called “junk” food. His life story is contained in images, from his well-known baby photo to the picture of Elvis in his coffin, as published in National Enquirer. So many rock ‘n’ roll songs have celebrated appetite, I thought I’d list a few to coincide with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Appetizers:
The B-52’s - “Rock Lobster”
The Beatles - “Savoy Truffle”
James Brown (as Nat Kendrick and the Swans) - “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes”
Jimmy Buffett - “Cheeseburger in Paradise”
Steve Goodman - “Chicken Cordon Blues”
Hot Butter - “Popcorn”
Jay & The Techniques - “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”
The Newbeats - “Bread and Butter”
Harry Nilsson - “Coconut”
Paul Revere & The Raiders- “Hungry”
O. C. Smith - “Little Green Apples”
Tin Tin - “Toast and Marmalade for Tea”
Warrant - “Cherry Pie”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

High School Confidential

Legend has it that Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll generation’s first “wild man,” was troubled by the sinful nature of his songs, particularly those that contained scarcely disguised sexual content. Nonetheless, in May 1958, while on a British tour, it was revealed that Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown, was a mere thirteen years old; he was twenty-two, and had been married previously. Apparently, Myra Gale Brown also happened to be Lewis’s third cousin twice removed (thus raising the issue of incest), but the basis of the scandal that followed the revelation was clearly because of her age. Legend also has it that at the time of their marriage, the young girl still believed in Santa Claus. Predictably, the ensuing scandal ruined Lewis’s promising career as a rock musician. Comparisons to fellow Southerner Edgar Allan Poe are inevitable, I suppose, as it has been well-documented that Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822–1847), when she was thirteen years old (he was twenty-seven). Some of Poe’s biographers have argued the couple’s relationship was more like a brother and sister than husband and wife, meaning the marriage may never have been consummated. Whether one can claim pedophilia in Poe’s case is therefore contestable.

The term paedophilia erotica was coined by nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his study Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Jerry Lee Lewis does not fit Krafft-Ebing’s profile for a pedophile, and indeed, he is not, despite his marriage to his quite young female cousin. But other known rockers do fit the profile of the pedophile, such as British rocker Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender. In November 1997, Gary Glitter was arrested after files containing images of child pornography were discovered on his laptop. He was later charged with having sex with an underage girl, an event that the victim claimed occurred two decades earlier. In any case, some years later, in 2005, Gary Glitter was again arrested and charged with molesting two girls, ages 10 and 11, at his home in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam. The specter of pedophilia has lurked on the fringes of popular music for many years, as the following list of songs suggests. Pete Townshend and Carlos Santana have both acknowledged being child sexual abuse victims, so the issue is hardly incidental one. Please note that I am not suggesting that the artists who recorded these songs are pedophiles. The point is the that issue has lurked in the shadows of pop music for many years, and perhaps it is time to listen to these songs anew.

Neil Diamond – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon
Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
Major Lance – Hey Little Girl
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Younger Girl
Oingo Boingo – Little Girls
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Claire
Plan B - Charmaine
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap – Young Girl
Tommy Roe – Sheila
Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs – Li’l Red Riding Hood
Syndicate of Sound – Little Girl
Bobby Vee – Come Back When You Grow Up

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How The West Was Won

In the chapter of Tristes Tropiques entitled “A Little Glass of Rum,” Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that anthropology is born of remorse. In Of Grammatology, the now famous deconstruction of Tristes Tropiques, Jacques Derrida observed that Lévi-Strauss’s critique of ethnocentricism had the function of “constituting the other as a model of original and natural goodness,” by engaging in the act of “accusing and humiliating oneself. The impulse behind such reverse ethnocentricism is romantic and, ultimately, racist. Like Rousseaus Confessions, it imagines non-European peoples as the index to a hidden good Nature, as a native soil recovered, of a 'zero degree' with reference to which one could outline the structure, the growth, and above all the degradation of our society and our culture.

Several years prior to the 1967 publication of Derrida’s book, Theodora Kroeber, wife of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, published Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), “A Biography of the Last Wild Indian of North America,” which explores the degradation of Ishi’s tribe and culture. A few years later, Kroeber issued a partially fictionalized version of Ishi’s story under the title Ishi: Last of His Tribe (1964). (Recently, in 2003, her sons Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber co-edited a book on the Ishi affair, Ishi in Three Centuries, the first scholarly book on the subject to contain essays by Indians.) There were popular songs about Indians before the publication of Theodora Kroeber’s first book on Ishi in 1961, of course—“Indian Love Call,” “Oklahoma Hills,” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga”—but beginning in the Sixties, many songs were written celebrating the Indian as an emblem of natural goodness, mightily sinned against. They might be understood as songs expressing remorse, but by engaging in self-accusation and self-humiliation.

Songs About The Indian:
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
Brooks & Dunn – Indian Summer
The Cowsills – Indian Lake
Elton John – Indian Sunset
Merle Haggard – Cherokee Maiden
The Holy Modal Rounders – Indian War Whoop
Johnny Horton – Comanche (The Brave Horse)
Johnny Horton – Jim Bridger
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – Indian Love Call
Tim McGraw – Indian Outlaw
John Mellencamp – Hot Dogs and Hamburgers
Johnny Preston – Running Bear
Paul Revere & The Raiders – Indian Reservation
Hank Thompson – Oklahoma Hills
Hank Williams – Kaw-Liga

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Flowers smack of sentimentality. They’ve become a cultural symbol upon which an entire economy thrives—the flower shop. “Say it with flowers”—flowers presumably speak when words fail, yet can say more than the words themselves. The trouble is, flowers are maudlin, mushy, and mawkish, redolent of schmaltz and hokum. “I’m sending you a big bouquet of roses,” sang Eddy Arnold, “one for every time you broke my heart. As the door of love between us closes/Tears will fall like petals when we part.” In the 1960s, flowers were usurped by hippies and deployed as symbols of peace and love, rendered most famously by Scott McKenzie’s “Summer of Love” song, “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” as well as by the image of the flower placed in the barrel of a soldier’s gun. (Donovan’s 1967 album, A Gift From a Flower To A Garden, issued in December of that year as a lavish two-record set, was, according to a blurb by Rob O’Connor found on, “sincerely meant as a possible present for the hippie who has everything.”)

In “Daffodils,” poet William Wordsworth associated flowers—or rather, the daffodil—with pleasurable self-contentment. (That is, if you assume he actually wrote the poem. Ken Russell, in his 1978 Wordsworth bio-pic Clouds of Glory: William and Dorothy, includes a scene in which the Wordsworth character, played by David Warner, tells an admirer that “Daffodils” was a poem composed by his sister—that the poem consists of his “sister’s words.” In exploring the most unusual relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, it seems Ken Russell, more so than any other filmmaker, seems to understand that art can come from the strangest of places.) Of the dazzling field of daffodils, Wordsworth writes:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

In King Vidor’s film Duel in the Sun (1946), the place where the lovers died is marked by an unusual flower known to grow nowhere else: a cactus with a large red blossom. Drawing the motif of the lovers’ graves from folklore (and perhaps Wuthering Heights as well as the poem by Marie de France, “Chevrefoil,” meaning “honeysuckle,” referring to the vine that grows up intertwining the graves of Tristan and Iseult), the cactus-flower symbolizes the lovers’ souls have become mingled in death. Some years later, in John Ford’s magnificent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the film’s central symbol is the cactus rose, the John Wayne character’s favorite flower, an image of “wild civility” (Herrick).

A Bouquet Of Flower Songs:
Eddy Arnold – Big Bouquet of Roses
Patsy Cline – A Poor Man’s Roses
The Cowsills – The Rain, the Park & Other Things
Vic Dana – Red Roses For A Blue Lady
Elvis – Drums of the Islands
The Four Seasons – Watch The Flowers Grow
Ian Hunter – Flowers
The Kingston Trio – Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
Scott McKenzie – San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)
Mountain – Flowers of Evil
Neutral Milk Hotel – King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
Phil Ochs – Flower Lady
Tom Petty – Wildflowers
Johnny Rivers – Mountain of Love
The Rolling Stones – Dead Flowers
Spanky and Our Gang – Lazy Day
The Statler Brothers – Flowers On The Wall
Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond – You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
Talking Heads – (Nothing But) Flowers
XTC – Summer’s Cauldron

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Among the vast repertoire of symbols available to the lyricists of popular music, one of the most frequently used is blindness. A famous use of blindness, in the oft-recorded “Amazing Grace”—I was blind but now I see—corresponds to the dramatic moment named by Aristotle anagnorisis, recognition, the movement from ignorance to knowledge, a moment of sudden, acute insight. Hence blindness more often figurative than it is literal, and this figurative use listeners understand without even thinking about its status as poetry. Moreover, blindness is not only, figuratively speaking, a state of ignorance, but also signals a state of crippling self-absorption or self-preoccupation, leading to selfish, insensitive behavior. However, when writing about the symbolic use of blindness in films, Raymond Durgnat observed:

Terrible as this fate is felt to be, a sentimental style easily transforms it into something almost voluptuous, a kind of graceful helplessness (Chaplin’s City Lights, 1931; Mark Robson’s Lights Out, 1951). Because of our impulsive pity, a barking, aggressive blind person, brutally rejecting it, is not only admirable (for his courage, like Rochester) but frightening, almost magical (Anna Massey’s witch-mother in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). Blindness is, strangely enough, associated with the all-seeing eye. . . . The Peeping Tom, with his apparatus for seeing (camera, mirror) and his spiked tripod is ‘seen through’ by the blind woman. (Films and Feelings, p. 229)

Durgnat might also have included the figure of the blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn in the suspense thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). Of course, he wrote these observations some years before the 1972 debut of Kung Fu on American television as well, a series prominently featuring the blind sage, Master Po (Keye Luke), imbued with a magical, if not superhuman, power of sight, at the continual amazement of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine). In the western world, the model for the blind but all-seeing sage can be traced back to the poet Homer, generally considered to have been blind, then Tiresias, the blind hermaphroditic prophet of Greek mythology, then John Milton, who claimed that because the ordinary way of seeing was prohibited him, his blindness was compensated by an inner “celestial light”—hence his strong identification with the figure of the blinded Samson in his great poem, Samson Agonistes. (Samson’s figurative return was in the form of the Who’s Tommy.) But one can also be blinded by the light of sudden insight—“knocked cold,” stunned—as the Biblical story of Saul of Tarsus reveals. Struck blind, he could then see, an experience leading to his spiritual conversion by which he became the foremost Christian apologist, Paul.

Ten Songs Of The Blind and Blinded:
Tim Buckley – I Must Have Been Blind
Thomas Dolby – She Blinded Me With Science
Everlast – Blinded by the Sun
Lefty Frizzell – Blind Street Singer
Korn – Blind
Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now
Bruce Springsteen – Blinded By the Light (Manfred Mann’s cover is more famous)
Talking Heads - Blind
The Who – Pinball Wizard
Johnny Winter – Blinded By Love

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Last Time

The last – it speaks of fatality and finality, the end of one historic moment and the beginning of another, but without the reassuring comfort of any continuity between them. The last (of anything) names an apocalyptic rupture, an unrecoverable end marking death and extinction—the last Passenger Pigeon, for instance, named Martha, which died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 p.m. on September 1, 1914. The last thus reaffirms our perception of time as linear, and the moment that is the last, as in “our last breath,” is a point in time that is inevitable and unavoidable, although we ourselves, ironically, will not actually observe it. The last is a point in time that erases the past but therefore also leaves the future radically open to new, and therefore terrifying, possibility. Last, of course, can mean an earlier or previous time, as in “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” And the expression, “at last,” names a long anticipated moment that has finally come to pass. But songs such as “Last Kiss” are about a moment in time that is both fatal and final, the conjoining of Eros and Thanatos, the embracing of the beautiful corpse.

Ten Lasting Moments:
The Band – The Last Waltz
The Drifters – Save the Last Dance For Me
The Eagles – The Last Resort
Edward Bear – Last Song
Don Henley – The Last Worthless Evening
The Monkees – Last Train to Clarksville
The Motels – Suddenly, Last Summer
The Rolling Stones – The Last Time
Bruce Springsteen – Last To Die
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers – Last Kiss

Saturday, August 29, 2009


An interrogation—a lengthy and methodical series of questions used by the police and the military to acquire crucial information—typically occurs after some sort of crime has been committed. The interviewees—the individuals who are asked this series of questions—are considered sources of information, or else suspects believed to be involved in the crime in some way. Linguistically speaking, an interrogative is a function word, used to acquire information that is stated in the form of a declarative statement. Interrogatives are sometimes also called WH- words because the majority of interrogatives in English start with WH-. They are used in questions (e.g., Where is she going?) and interrogative content clauses (I wonder where she is going?). Interrogatives include which, what, whose, who, whom (human), what, which (nonhuman), where (place), whence (origin), whither (goal), when, how (manner), why (motive), wherefore (reason), and whether (a question posed as alternatives among a series of choices).

Many pop songs employing the interrogative (“question songs”) are orthographically incorrect because they almost always omit the question mark. The wherefore behind this omission may be to suggest that while the song title is written using a wh- word and would therefore seem to be a question, it is really being asked by someone who already knows the answer—in other words, it is a question posed for its emotional effect (e.g., “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”). Question songs may therefore be considered as posing what is known as a “rhetorical question,” a question asked for its persuasive effect without expectation of a reply (e.g., Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?).

Interrogatives A—Z
Ace – How Long
Jimmy Buffett – Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)
The Cramps – Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?
Derek and The Dominos – Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad
The Everly Brothers – When Will I Be Loved
Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like We Do
Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On?
George Harrison – What Is Life
The Isley Brothers – Who’s That Lady
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Where Have All The Good Times Gone
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Do You Believe in Magic?
Lee Michaels – Do You Know What I Mean
Nine Inch Nails – Where Is Everybody?
The Offspring – Why Don’t You get A Job?
Elvis Presley – Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Who Do You Love?
The Rolling Stones – Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?
The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow
The Tubes – What Do You Want From Life?
U2 – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Van Halen – Could This Be Magic?
Hank Williams - Why Don't You Love Me
XTC – Are You Receiving Me?
Neil Young – Are You Ready For The Country?
Frank Zappa – Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Being Bored

The nightmarish scenario of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1975), depicts time travelers (“tempunauts”) stuck in a time loop. In Dick’s novel A Maze of Death (1970), a group of space travelers is stuck forever in an orbit around a dead star, unable to break free of its powerful gravitational field. And in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an astronaut is forced to remain in orbit around the earth, doomed to die alone in his space ship, unable to return home because the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Dick’s idea of Hell as being stuck in a loop (time, or an endlessly reiterated orbit) was plundered for comic effect in Groundhog Day (1993), perhaps the most truly Phildickian film ever made, although ironically it doesn’t bear his name. (As T. S. Eliot once observed, “Strong poets steal; weak poets imitate.” The filmmakers obviously recognized a good idea when they saw one.) Once, after having shown the film to the students in one of my classes, a nonplussed student asked me to say exactly how many times Bill Murray had lived through Groundhog Day. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer, I say. So I replied simply, “a lot.”

Personally I thought the question itself demonstrated a colossal misunderstanding of the movie, on the order of, say, someone having seen Citizen Kane and then asking what “Rosebud” meant. In other words, she didn’t “get” it. While stuck in the loop, we see Bill Murray—a Dickian hero if there ever was—go through several phases, among them a suicidal one, a prankish one, and, of course, one in which he is profoundly bored. But his boredom is a kind that comes not simply from repetition, but from the recognition that the repetition will never end. Of course, for Philip K. Dick, the loopiness I’ve remarked upon is more of a metaphysical nightmare than the sort of crushing spiritual effect of boredom known as ennui.

But Philip K. Dick wrote about that, too. In perhaps his greatest novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian colonists seek escape from their dreary lives through the ingestion of a drug, Chew-Z, that enables what we would now call “virtual” experience, fantasies that are almost impossible to distinguish from actual reality. The irony is that while the colonists presumably live in an exotic locale like Mars, and presumably are enacting the nineteenth-century American form of individualism known as “pioneering” or “settling the frontier,” they suffer from profound boredom, from ennui. Their lives are very much like those of the space travelers in A Maze of Death: stuck in an endless loop, with no hope of escape, escape in this case being returning to Earth. The world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, of course, uncannily similar to our own: the spirit of the Martian colonists is crushed because the colonists live in a world that claims it prizes and values individualism, yet is really dominated by mindless, unrewarding labor.

Walter Benjamin observed over seven decades ago, in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that mechanically reproduced art had rendered obsolete aesthetic concepts like “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime” because they both depend upon the idea of aura—that there is just one of a particular art work, an original. (In other words, most of us encounter the reproduction of a work of art before we encounter the actual thing, e.g., we know the Mona Lisa because we’ve seen a reproduction of it, not because we’ve actually been to the Louvre to see it.) While our so-called “entertainment industry” is premised on individualism—the “artist”—it is actually premised on reiteration and redundancy, on immediate recognition—what we call “genre” or “type.” But if our system of artistic evaluation no longer employs concepts such as “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime,” it no longer employs “the Boring,” either. Critics avoid using the term if at all possible. Thus in the same way that the modern world prizes individualism while the life of most people is comprised of mindless labor, modern critics laud originality in the form of generic innovation (the same, only different).

Most of us experience what we call “boredom” much like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, the same, in an endless loop, day in, day out. One must recognize that the entertainment industry is premised on this sort of reiteration. The repeat, the re-run, the second run, the golden oldie, the classic, classic rock—all of these institutional practices are based on redundancy, and in fact, encourage repetitive behaviors such as “fan favorites” and, in radio, for instance, “make a request” programming. I’m not sure about you, but my idea of Hell would be to hear endlessly looped Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the scenario Bill Murray endures in Groundhog Day. The trouble is, with no concept like “the Boring” anymore, there’s no way of making the simple aesthetic observation that what was a bad song then is a bad song now. Nostalgia, often understood as the longing for an earlier and hence simpler time, is actually a peculiar expression of boredom, a consequence of having forgotten the monotonous redundancies of an earlier age. If you don't believe that, put on “I Got You Babe” and hit the repeat button, promising not to stop the process, minimally, for at least 36 hours.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon

July 20, 1969: As Bogey says in Casablanca, “That was so long ago I don’t remember.” Actually, I do remember where I was, at least, when Neil Armstrong placed his foot onto the moon: in a trailer house, on a horse ranch, about twenty miles or so west of Wichita, Kansas. I was fifteen years old, just barely, and I remember the moon being full and bright that night. I was younger than my son John is now, who will turn sixteen years old in slightly under two weeks. I can’t remember the brand of television on which I watched the moon landing, but it was a small 13” or 14” black and white with “rabbit ears.” I remember the startling contrast between the technological leap the moon landing represented and the moonlit ranch surrounding me, an image straight out of the nineteenth-century American West. It happened that just a few days ago, Walter Cronkite died at 92—would that he could have lived a few days longer in order to celebrate this momentous 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon. The nightly news has replayed his reaction to the historic event many times the past few days, his rubbing his hands together in joy and saying, “Oh Boy!,” like a little kid. I think his child-like expression of glee captures my reaction as well: in order to recover what I felt, I simply have to watch that small piece of footage depicting Walter Cronkite’s response.

Mythology about the moon is vast, of course. I remember as a little boy being asked if I could see the man in the moon—of course I could. In one of his early shorts, fantasist Georges Méliès spoofed the mythology of the moon being made of green cheese (pictured). But perhaps more importantly, the moon is heavily romanticized. Traditionally, it is associated with the Romantic Other—Romantic in the sense of lovers, yes, but also in the sense that it sparks the imaginative faculties. There’s the image of “man in the moon,” but actually the moon is more strongly associated with the feminine. “Happily the queen moon is on her throne,” Keats wrote, suggesting that the moon is an image of calmness and serenity—and didn’t the first moon landing occur in the Sea of Tranquility? But Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, instructed Romeo not to swear by the moon, because the moon is “inconstant,” meaning that its phases imply an incapacity for steadiness and a tendency to change. The inconstant moon gave rise to the metaphor of the “lunatic,” someone whose mind is unsteady and erratic, too heavily influenced by the either waxing or waning moon. And there’s the phenomenon of “moon madness,” the association of the moon with an increase in erratic, often criminal human behavior, which possibly influenced Curt Siodmak’s famous couplet from The Wolfman, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the Wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Some great pop songs have been written about the moon, of course, and hence I dedicate the following playlist to both to the inconstant moon and the 40th anniversary of humankind’s first step upon it.

Two Dozen Or So Tunes Of Inspired Lunacy:
Walking on the Moon – The Police
Man on the Moon – REM
Moondance – Van Morrison
Dancing in the Moonlight – King Harvest
Mr. Moonlight – The Beatles
Moon River – Henry Mancini
Mississippi Moon – Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Moon of Kentucky – Elvis
Blue Moon – The Marcels
Blue Moon Baby – The Cramps
Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – Jonathan King
Fly Me to the Moon – Bobby Womack
Moon at the Window – Joni Mitchell
Mad Man Moon - Genesis
I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (The Moon Song) – Conway Twitty
Moonlight Becomes You – Bing Crosby
Moonlight Feels Right – Starbuck
Moonlight Mile – The Rolling Stones
Moonlight Drive – The Doors
Marquee Moon – Television
The Killing Moon – Echo & the Bunnymen
The Moon of Manakoora – Dorothy Lamour
Other Side of the Moon – Moon Men (with Link Wray)
Bad Side of the Moon – Bo Diddley
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Eclipse (from Dark Side of the Moon) – Pink Floyd

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Nerd and the Poseur

Last time I wrote about the movies Diner (1982) and High Fidelity (2000), both of which suggest the way that the homosocial behavior of the narrowly obsessed record collector prevents him from having neither a fulfilling relationship with, nor a serious commitment to, a woman. Although I am by no means the first person to make the observation, I pointed out the way record collecting is almost exclusively a male activity, and is all about plentitude: the size of the collection is yet another form of male competition, yet another game of one-upmanship.

Since writing the previous entry, I’ve had the opportunity to read Will Straw’s article, “Sizing up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture,” which can be found in Sheila Whiteley, Ed., Sexing the Grove: Popular Music and Gender (Routledge, 1997). Straw argues there’s a difference between what he calls a “dandy” (a person who accurately mimics the dress and behavior of the musical artist but has only superficial knowledge and no deep passion for the music itself, a “poseur”) from the “nerd.” The nerd collector possesses real knowledge and real passion (if unutterable), but is unable to mime properly the correct masculine codes like the dandy, and hence exhibits the characteristic “performative social failure” of the nerd, so “blatantly indexed” by the nerd’s “unmonitored self-presentation” (p. 8). Straw observes, “Collecting is an important constituent of those male character formations, such as nerdism, which, while offering an alternative to a blatantly patriarchal masculinity, are rarely embraced as subversive challenges to it” (p. 10).

Terry Zwigoff’s movie Ghost World (2001) depicts one such nerdy record collector, named Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi (at right in the above picture). Seymour happens to come to the attention of Enid (Thora Birch, left), a recent high school graduate who exhibits a profound sense of alienation from the culture and who takes an instant liking to anyone who seems different. She finds Seymour, a solitary, unmarried man roughly twice her age, different, primarily because of his atypical musical taste. One day, Enid and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) happen to encounter Seymour selling records at a garage sale. He recommends to Enid the vinyl LP Country Blues Classics, Vol. 3 (an actual record in an actual series). Following his advice, perhaps because she sees the record as a strangely alluring sort of fetish object being offered to her, Enid takes the record home and listens to it. As it turns out, she is drawn to the recording by Skip James, “Devil Got My Woman” (1931)—a track that, strangely, is not actually on that particular record [!] At any rate, I think we are encouraged to believe that Enid is drawn to Seymour precisely because he is a nerd, that is, he presents what Straw describes as a subversive challenge to “patriarchal masculinity.” (Remember that Enid embraces anything different.) However, Seymour tells Enid that “loser collectors” like himself basically define themselves by filling their lives with worthless junk.

It occurred to me that Seymour—a character who is not in the film’s textual source, the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes—seems remarkably similar to the nerdy Jack Isidore character in Philip K. Dick’s great novel Confessions of a Crap Artist (written 1959, published 1975, and adapted into a French film, Confessions dun Barjo, released in 1992). Socially inept, Isidore’s life is devoted to collecting “kipple,” useless bits and pieces of matter that rapidly multiplies as if duplicating itself overnight (the character re-appears in the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which, as everyone knows, was adapted into the film Blade Runner). Like the autist, Jack Isidore is fond of collecting odd and worthless minutae (autists often have improbable collections, such as old bus transfers and obscure birthdates). Indeed, I suspect most of us have known people who have collected odd items and pondered the reason why, and I am not speaking of coins, stamps, beetles, or butterflies. It is interesting that Philip K. Dick was a classical music collector, once worked in a record store, and as a young man was mocked by certain individuals for the vast number of records in his collection. In any case, later in the movie Ghost World, when Seymour admits to Enid that he is just a “dork,” she takes issue with him, saying that he is not at all a “dork,” but rather, her “hero,” perhaps because she admires the way he holds on to himself, while she herself is elusive, still forming an identity. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Enid avers Seymour is her hero, their story doesn’t end happily. By the end of the film, Enid has left town and Seymour is left only with his record collection. The film is yet another example of the way our culture represents the male record collector, a troubled, solitary individual perceived as accumulating worthless and arcane knowledge, and immersed within an incomprehensible fetishized world. Somehow, the behavior of these individuals, particularly their remorseless accumulation of records, is linked to the failed internalization of appropriate masculine codes.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Teacher's Pet

The role of the teacher can be best understood as someone who provides the student with two kinds of knowledge. Following Gilbert Ryle, these kinds of knowledge are knowing how and knowing that. A teacher who “knows how” may teach a special form of craftsmanship (knowing how to make, build, play, design, or draw something), or may teach a specialized vocation (how to install, repair, rebuild, or fix something, for instance). But the form of knowledge of knowing that is different than knowing how: just because I know how to ride a bicycle, for instance, doesn’t mean that you know how to ride a bicycle, while on the other hand, you and I may both know that it is cold, rainy, and windy outside, and therefore not the best time to learn to ride a bicycle. Most teachers are entrusted with their students’ minds, to teach students the way to know that something is true or false (“practical reason” or rationality): mathematics and formal logic, for instance, but also history and politics (“political reason”), and so on.

Within the institution of schooling, teachers are the people entrusted with the minds of students. Hence teaching is, as Tracy Kidder has observed in Among Schoolchildren (1989), one of the few occupations in which any form of measurable success rests on the skill and inspiration of those people “at the bottom of the institutional pyramid” (p. 52). In this sense, teaching is much like police work, and perhaps it’s no wonder, therefore, that both types of people are depicted as virtuous and dedicated, on the one hand, or tyrannical and hypocritical authority figures on the other. These contradictory representations of the teacher are reflected in popular music, in which the male or female teacher often has a special form of attraction distinct from the (repressive) institution itself. The teacher has been the subject of erotic fantasies, in which the pupil desires the teacher to teach a form of knowing how that is not the academic subject itself (“Abigail Beecher,” “Teacher’s Pet”), a figure of hypocrisy (“Society’s Child”), a brutal authority figure instilling mindless submission to power (“Another Brick in the Wall”), or a highly idealized father figure (“To Sir With Love”). Books have been written exploring the depiction of teachers in the movies (see Ann C. Paietta, Teachers in the Movies; McFarland, 2007), and while I know of no book doing the same for popular music, no doubt the range of representations is quite similar. The first movie to link rock music, the school, and the teacher is, of course, Blackboard Jungle (released March 1955), the film that, as Thomas Doherty has observed (Teenagers and Teenpics, p. 76), was also the film that alerted Hollywood filmmakers to the way rock music could contribute to a movie’s appeal. No rock recordings could have represented the teacher in any fashion prior to 1955.

Songs About Teachers And The Lessons Learned:
Abba – “When I Kissed the Teacher”
Chuck Berry – “School Day”
Alice Cooper – “School’s Out”
Freddie Cannon – “Abigail Beecher”
Doris Day – “Teacher’s Pet”
Elton John – “Teacher I Need You”
Janis Ian – “Society’s Child”
Hall & Oates – “Adult Education”
Lulu – “To Sir With Love”
Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall”
The Police – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”
Van Halen – “Hot For Teacher”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pop Tones

I came across the following article, Music of a Generation: 19 Songs That Transformed America, at, the on-line version of American Profile, a magazine that is bundled once a week with our local newspaper. For those interested, I have reproduced the list of 19 songs below, and despite the fact that there are some very good songs on the list, the article accompanying the list, as well as the list itself, warrants some remarks. For one thing, as Donald Clarke observes in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), post-World War II popular music “was the era of the white pop singer,” and while this is undeniably true, many of the most successful white pop singers of the era are not represented in the American Profile list, conspicuous in their absence. As Clarke observes:

Between 1950-1955 inclusive, Sinatra had seven hit singles . . . Nat Cole twenty-one, Tony Bennett eleven, Perry Como twenty-five, Eddie Fisher thirty, Frankie Laine twenty, Johnnie Ray ten and Guy Mitchell nine. (306-07)

Remarkably, only one (Johnnie Ray) of these pop singers is represented on the list of “19 Songs That Transformed America.” About the post-war, early 1950s era, Clarke observes, “It is evident in retrospect that the new technology of the long-playing record had an effect on the pop chart and on radio broadcasting right from the beginning,” and of course he’s right (302). His point is that it is deceptive to look to the pop charts as a true index of post-war American musical tastes. While most of the 19 songs that putatively “transformed America” reached #1 on the charts, in the post-war era such charts hardly reflected the vast diversity of music in America, the data itself gathered from sources located for the most part only in the major cities, those radio stations with the largest demographic. What about jazz music (largely album-oriented)? Bebop? As Clarke claims,

As a measure of artistry, even in the heyday of the pop singer, the singles chart had ceased to matter as an indicator of quality as soon as grown-ups could buy albums. . . . If anything, there were even more girl singers making hits in the early 1950s, but a direct comparison with the males is difficult. To begin with, the list of hits for each female artist is shorter on average, suggesting that they received less promotion from their record companies and/or less attention from the DJs; or perhaps they simply made fewer records. On the whole, the women were more diffident about success, or less able to chase it for personal reasons: Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Joni James each retired from the music scene, for various reasons, while Peggy Lee seems to have left it and come back as she pleased. As in the case of the males, however, most had made their start during the Big Band Era. One of the best, and best loved, was Jo Stafford.... (307)

Jo Stafford (pictured), most certainly one of the most popular, if not most popular, female vocalists of the 1940s and early 50s, later excelled in the genre of musical parody, which I remarked upon briefly in my last blog. Sometime in the 1950s she, along with her husband Paul Weston, formed a comedy duo known as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, releasing an album in 1960 titled JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS, in which they parody a bad lounge act—many years before Bill Murray, in the late 1970s, did the same sort of thing on Saturday Night Live. Incidentally, JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS won a Grammy Award in 1961 for Best Comedy Album. And speaking of the late 70s, Jo Stafford came out of retirement to record a parody, in the Darlene Edwards style, of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” which is available on her page. Incidentally, she died about five months ago at the venerable age of 90.

In any case, here’s the list of the “19 Songs That Transformed America” as published in the American Profile article. It is, of course, provocative, but that is essentially the purpose of any list in the first place.

1946 “The Gypsy” – The Ink Spots
1947 “Near You” – Francis Craig and His Orchestra
1948 “Buttons and Bows” – Dinah Shore and Her Happy Valley Boys
1949 “Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” – Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra
1950 “The Tennessee Waltz” – Patti Page
1951 “Cry” – Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads
1952 “You Belong to Me” – Jo Stafford
1953 “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You)” – Les Paul and Mary Ford
1954 “Little Things Mean a Lot” – Kitty Kallen
1955 “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)” – Perez “Prez” Prado
1956 “Don’t Be Cruel” – Elvis Presley
1957 “All Shook Up” – Elvis Presley
1958 “At the Hop” – Danny & The Juniors
1959 “Mack the Knife” – Bobby Darin
1960 “The Theme From A Summer Place” – Percy Faith and His Orchestra
1961 “Tossin’ and Turnin’” – Bobby Lewis
1962 “I Can’t Stop Loving You” – Ray Charles
1963 “Sugar Shack” – Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – The Beatles