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

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cloud Nine

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cowry Shell

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

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

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Steal This Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

Wind and Wuthering

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Arbor Day

In Douglas Sirk’s grand melodrama Written on the Wind (1956), the river represents a sort of lost innocence, a past happiness (however illusory). When in the film the river is finally shown, the actual location associated with this long lost innocence is at the base of a giant old tree (a sycamore?) perched along the bank of the river. The sanctity of the place by the river is like that of a sacred grove. Trees have figured prominently in world mythology, largely figuratively, as in the image of the “tree of life,” for instance, or as a metaphor for family relationships, as in “family tree.” Forbidden fruit is associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but in The Hanging Tree (1959), the titular tree is a multivalent symbol, an emblem of death (crucifixion) as well as life. The lyrics to Marty Robbins’ song, “The Hanging Tree” makes this linkage explicit: the tree of death becomes the tree of life, associated with the moment in the story when the hero is saved by the power of love. Cast in structuralist terms, the hanging tree is an excessive signifier. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks argues the melodramatic form creates an asymmetrical relationship between the signifier and the signified, specifically, a signified in excess of the signifier. This asymmetry “in turn produces an excessive signifier, making large and insubstantial claims on meaning.” Songwriters love trees because their conventional symbolism allows the songwriter to invoke a certain emotion or value—the oak with steadfast endurance, the (weeping) willow with melancholy, the palm tree with the erotic pleasures of paradise, and so on. The yew tree represents the mourning for a lost loved one, and is associated with death. Hence the yew tree is often found near churches and cemeteries as a reminder to the bereaved of the spirit’s ultimate victory over death. Likewise, in the sublime “Bristlecone Pine,” the tree (several thousand years old) is an image of eternal life. The reference to the sycamore tree in “Mama” Cass Elliott’s “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” (first recorded by Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra in 1931) is not entirely capricious given that the song is a love song. Given their longevity, there is a long tradition of sycamore trees being planted by the door of the homes of newlyweds. My remarks are intended only to suggest the richness of the subject of the mythology of trees, and are therefore hardly definitive. What follows is a short playlist of songs with arboreal references.

Songs From The Wood:
The Ames Brothers – Tammy
The Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Joan Armatrading – Willow
The Band – Whispering Pines
The Beach Boys – California Girls
The Beatles – Matchbox
The Brothers Four – Yellow Bird
Mama Cass Elliott – Dream A Little Dream Of Me
James Darren – Under the Yum Yum Tree
Dawn with Tony Orlando – Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree
Dino Fitzgerald – Apple on a Cherry Tree
Ella Fitzgerald – St. Louis Blues (Fitzgerald’s version only)
Fleetwood Mac – Bare Trees
Dick Gaughan – The Yew Tree
Johnny Horton – Whispering Pines
Alan Jackson – Tall, Tall Trees
Jethro Tull – Songs From the Wood
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Lynyrd Skynyrd – That Smell
Peter, Paul and Mary – Lemon Tree
The Platters – Trees
Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
Marty Robbins – The Hanging Tree
Rush – The Trees
Jim Salestrom – Bristlecone Pine
Frank Sinatra – Willow Weep For Me
The Steve Miller Band – The Joker
U2 – One Tree Hill
Stevie Wonder – Tree

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Illegal Smile

Last night I watched Ron Mann’s documentary Grass (1999), not so much a social history of marijuana in the United States as an exploration of the government’s attempt, over a roughly 70-year period, to make marijuana possession (and therefore, presumably, its use) a criminal offense of ever-escalating severity. His film is a marvelous compendium of newsreel footage, clips from educational scare films, period music, and feature film excerpts with references to the herb, from the largely unknown (at least to me) High on the Range (1929) to the well-known cautionary tale, Tell Your Children (1936) AKA Reefer Madness. While Mann, to his credit, reveals the extent of the government’s systematic propaganda campaign against marijuana, for which it has, apparently, spent billions upon billions of dollars over the past century or so, the question that remains unexplored in the film is why—why has the U. S. government spent billions and billions of dollars attempting to discredit an rather benign drug, certainly no worse in terms of wasteful cultural expenditure than alcohol?

Perhaps the answer lies in the sort of behavior with which marijuana has been variously associated during the decades explored by the film, for instance, jazz and swing in the 1930s (racial “mixing,” or miscegenation), R&B in the 1950s (juvenile delinquency), psychedelic rock in the 1960s (“free love,” or sexual promiscuity), and the cults of the 1980s (Satanism and goth rock). In other words, the government's campaigns were as much about attacking marijuana as they were attempts to discredit or proscribe certain social behaviors, broadly understood as youthful insolence. As a Victorian—who held the key government position of “drug czar” for over 30 years—Harry J. Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana seems to have been motivated out of a hatred of the anti-Victorian forces and forms of modernism, of which the popular expression in the 1920s and 1930s was jazz and swing, represented by the Afro-American musician. It was therefore motivated out of racism (toward the black jazz artists of the 20s and 30s, but also toward the rock musicians of the 50s and 60s, e.g., Little Richard, Chuck Berry). It would seem that the government’s anti-drug campaign during those decades is roughly analogous to the idea of censorship. While censorship can operate at the level of production (as in the case of “prior restraint,” the prohibition of certain behaviors or practices, for instance), it can also operate before the production stage, meaning it makes certain thoughts literally unthinkable. Racial mixing, or miscegenation, is an example of such a forbidden thought during the swing era. In the rock era, John Prine’s song, “Illegal Smile,” is a wry critique of the sort of censorship that outlaws certain thoughts. Prine has said that the phrase, “illegal smile,” refers not only to the bemused look on a stoned person’s face, but also the “knowing smile” one exchanges with another when each one understands that a joke or reference has violated certain proscribed thoughts—the silent, non-verbal communication, in the form of a smile, that occurs between individuals living under the threat of punitive action. A video of his performance of the song is available here.

13 Sonic Celebrations Of Grass:
Louis Armstrong, Song of the Vipers (1934)
Black Sabbath, Sweet Leaf (1971)
Black Uhuru, Sinsemilla (1980)
Brewer and Shipley, One Toke Over the Line (1970)
Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Reefer Man (1932)
Bob Dylan, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (1966)
Fraternity of Man, Don’t Bogart Me (1969)
Lil Green, Knockin’ Myself Out (1941)
John Prine, Illegal Smile (1971)
Bessie Smith, Gimme a Reefer (1933)
Steppenwolf, Don't Step on the Grass, Sam (1968)
The Toyes, Smoke Two Joints (1983)
Muddy Waters, Champagne and Reefer (1981)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Free Range

Legend has it that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims and took place at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. Americans memorialize the Pilgrims’ deaths as sacrifices made on behalf of the nation, but they, the Pilgrims, could not have understood their deaths as such--the nation didn’t exist for another hundred-and-fifty years. Thus the values honored during Thanksgiving need not have been fully understood by the Pilgrims, those who sacrificed for the American nation. The living can, and do, speak for the dead, expressing for them their aspirations and desires.

Perhaps because the wild turkey is native to North America, roast turkey has graced the American table most commonly for Thanksgiving dinner, and has done so since before Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863. According to a recent statistic, 270 million turkeys were raised in the United States in 2006, representing roughly five billion pounds of turkey meat valued at around $8 billion. A ridiculous-looking creature, here where I live in Kearney, a polygamous male with four or five hens has spent the past few winters, beginning in early November, within the city limits, roaming through people’s yards, holding up in a wooded area near the baseball park. Because they are dwelling within the city limits, they cannot be hunted--pretty smart on their part. Becky and I have had them in our back yard on several occasions, scaring the daylights out of our outdoor-dwelling cats. We therefore consider those turkeys part of our neighbor family, but feel no guilt that one of their species will grace our table tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner, to be celebrated with family and good friends.

Because it is the most common main dish, Thanksgiving is often colloquially called “turkey day.” In celebration of the turkey, and the bird in general (often seen as a figure of transcendence, and of resilience), I’ve compiled the following list of bird songs in honor of the North American turkey, so much a part of American identity.

Bird Songs (Bird Is The Word):
The Beatles - Blackbird
Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan - Tennessee Bird Walk
Pat Boone - When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano
Jimmy Buffett - Strange Bird
Bobby Day - Rockin’ Robin
“Little” Jimmy Dickens - May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose
The Grateful Dead - Bird Song
The Holy Modal Rounders - If You Want To Be A Bird
It’s A Beautiful Day - White Bird
B. B. King - Hummingbird
Lynyrd Skynyrd - Free Bird
Bob Marley - Three Little Birds
Anne Murray - Snowbird
Patti Page - Mockin’ Bird Hill
Carly Simon and James Taylor - Mockingbird
The Trashmen - Surfin’ Bird (Bird is the Word)
XTC - My Bird Performs

Sunday, November 1, 2009


There is a long history of mixed couples in American literature and popular culture: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chigachgook, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Daniel Boone and Mingo, Jay Leno and Branford Marsalis. I’ve written before about the way many American pop songs belie a certain repressed anxiety about black Otherness. Within the most avid white believer in the virtue of black Americans, there may reside a modicum of repressed anxiety about black bodies. As Calvin Hernton has written, “There is a sexual involvement, at once real and vicarious, connecting white and black people in America that spans the history of this country from the era of slavery to the present, an involvement so immaculate and yet so perverse, so ethereal and yet so concrete, that all race relations tend to be, however subtle, sex relations” (Sexism and Racism in America, p. 7).

Songs Linking Sensuality With Anxiety:
Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd. – Black Pearl
Merle Haggard – Irma Jackson
Janis Ian – Society’s Child
Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder – Ebony and Ivory
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Reuben James
The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar
Stories – Brother Louie
Three Dog Night – Black & White
Tribe “Supremes” Trio – White Boys (from the musical Hair)
Neil Young – Southern Man

Monday, October 12, 2009


From the other side of the mirror, the Other often intrudes: the heroine sees the werewolf reflected in her vanity mirror, the vampire betrays itself by having no reflection. In Dead of Night (1945), a mirror begins to take over the room in which the heroine lives. “A mirror is a latent doppelgänger,” writes Raymond Durgnat in Films and Feelings (231). The Dark Mirror (1946) tells the story of identical twins, one good, the other evil. At a critical moment in Evil Dead 2 (1987), the hero, Ash, stops to inspect himself in the mirror—only to have his evil doppelgänger reach from the other side and grab hold of him, telling him he’s losing his mind. “Mirrors tell the truth, but in a menacing way. . . .,” observes Durgnat (231-32). Hence characters who despise what they are, or what they have become, smash the mirror and hence their own self-image. But mirrors can be also remind us in a positive way of who and what we are, as in the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”: “When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you’re twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/’Cause I see you.” Often a symbol for Narcissistic self-absorption, the mirror nonetheless frequently tells the truth: as Jean Cocteau observed, mirrors are associated with death, because we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors.

Reflections On The Mirror:
Blue Öyster Cult – Mirrors
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Mirror Man
Death Cab For Cutie – My Mirror Speaks
The (English) Beat – Mirror in the Bathroom
Lefty Frizzell – I Never Go Around Mirrors
Chris Isaak – Shadows In a Mirror
Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror
Dave Matthews Band – True Reflections
The Misfits – Die Monster Die
Joni Mitchell – Moon in the Mirror
Mott the Hoople – Through the Looking Glass
Graham Nash – Man in the Mirror
Rush – War Paint
The Velvet Underground – I’ll Be Your Mirror
The Who – Smash the Mirror

Friday, October 9, 2009


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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mermaid, Nymph, Siren

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Fire — “If we go back far enough,” Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, “we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement. . . .” He theorized that the first human (male) to renounce his desire to put out a fire by micturating, “was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire.” In other words, the first major step toward human civilization was the renunciation of instinct. Woman was put in charge of fire—the hearth—because her anatomy made it impossible to put out a fire with the phallic equivalent of a fire hose. As if to link fire and the phallus in an explicitly Freudian way, Jean-Jacques Annaud, in his film Quest For Fire (1981), included a scene a which a female performs fellatio on one of her male companions, presumably for the first time in history (although the ur-fellatrix, unlike Eve, eludes the historical record).

Hence fire is essential to civilization, and yet is also capable of destroying it: it is both fascinating and terrifying—the fire that signals the apocalypse. In the popular imagination fire is most often associated with erotic passion (“c’mon baby light my fire” Jim Morrison implores in the famous song), but when is fire more closely associated with fire in the eschatological sense—the conflagration that signals damnation, the end of the world? The Meat Puppets’ “Lake Of Fire” is once such song; Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” (“Satan’s sitting there, He’s smiling/Watches those flames get higher and higher”) is another, the distant precursor of which is the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Afraid To Die.” Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake” is a song about fire in the Freudian sense, except rather than singing of the renunciation of instinct, the song celebrates its return (return of the repressed). Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring Of Fire” is famous, but Anita Carter’s version is better—passion, yes, but passion linked with self-destruction. Beautiful self-destruction, self-sacrifice, is also explored in Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You.” Setting aside the banality of songs about passion, there have been some very fine songs about fire. As opposed to those who say the world will end in ice, these songs say fire.

A Few Songs About Fire, Not Ice:
Anita Carter – Ring Of Fire
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Blue Oyster Cult – Burnin’ For You
Chrome – Firebomb
The Cramps – Sinners
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
King Crimson – The Court of the Crimson King/The Return of the Fire Witch/The Return of the Puppets
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Meat Puppets – Lake of Fire
Michael Murphy – Wildfire
The Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
Bob Seger – Fire Lake
Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The Marshall Tucker Band – Fire on the Mountain

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Trains have figured prominently in the cinema since its inception—think of the Lumière brothers’ early film, Arrivée d’un train à Perrache (1896), or Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). If you think about it long enough and seriously enough, you’ll realize how many great films, encompassing all film genres, have had either a key sequence involving a train, or are actually set on a train—where does one begin? Many early Hollywood Westerns, Ella Cinders (1926), Laurel and Hardy’s Berth Marks (1929), Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North By Northwest (1959); Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1941); Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944); Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1969); Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; Murder on the Orient Express (1974); Silver Streak (1976); The Cassandra Crossing (1976); Terror Train (1980); Runaway Train (1985); Atomic Train (1999), and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Of course, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the subject: one could go on and on about the fact that there’s scarcely been a bad film when set on a train. At the very least, films in which a train makes an appearance are always interesting. Try asking the question sometime at a party as a form of parlor game, and you’ll be surprised at how many titles people begin listing.

Is it any wonder, then, that Elvis, who worked as an usher in a movie theater, and who had memorized all of James Dean’s lines in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), would record “Mystery Train”? Songs about trains are as varied emotionally as the many associations with the train; as Raymond Durgnat observed, “…their whistles are cries of anger, joy, malevolence, jubilation, or, on the prairie, forlorn and lonely, or, in the blues, the consoling thought of escape” (Films and Feelings, p. 233). To which we could add, the thrill of mystery, as in Elvis’s interpretation of “Mystery Train”: I don’t know where this train his headed, but wherever it’s going, I’m staying on for the ride. Trains have had a distinguished place in popular music as well, as the following list attests. There are many lists of train songs available on the web, but here’s my playlist of choice:

A Few Train Songs:
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues
Guy Clark – Texas, 1947
Tommy Dorsey – On the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Take the ‘A’ Train
Elvis – Mystery Train
Jimmy Forrest – Night Train
Steve Goodman – City of New Orleans
The Grateful Dead – Casey Jones
Tom T. Hall – The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
Gladys Knight & The Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
Alison Krauss – Steel Rails
K. D. Lang – Ridin’ the Rails
John Mayall – Crawling Up A Hill
Jim and Jesse McReynolds – Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Chattanooga Choo Choo (from Sun Valley Serenade, 1941)
Willie Nelson – Railroad Lady
Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
Rank and File – The Conductor Wore Black
Jimmy Rogers – Same Train, Different Time
Doc Watson – Freight Train Boogie
Mary Wells – Soul Train
Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Musical Box

The musical box — a novelty toy that produces music mechanically. The crucial parts of a musical box are the cylinder and the comb. The cylinder is the programming device, the equivalent of the punched card used with early computers. It is studded with tiny pins at the correct spacing to produce music by displacing the teeth of the comb at the proper time. The comb is a flat piece of metal with many dozens (or possibly hundreds) of teeth of different lengths. The tines of the comb “chime,” or sound, as they slip off the pins of the cylinder. There are some musical boxes that have a flat disc rather than a cylinder, but the disc is still the equivalent of the operating program of the cylinder.

Although intricate, the musical box is merely a cold, unfeeling mechanism, yet it nonetheless has come to express nostalgia, delicacy, and lost innocence. British film critic Raymond Durgnat observed that musical boxes, like pianolas and barrel organs, hold a fascination for children, and “together with their ‘period’ feel, outweighs any adult diffidence about their banal ‘pop’ tunes and canned quality. As so often, the popular poetic sense of a symbol is derived [from] its meaning for children. The music comes from long ago and faraway, the popular tunes of yesterday have the charm of memory” (Films and Feelings, p. 231). He means that since the tunes musical boxes are frequently designed to play are gentle or sentimental ones from an earlier era (“lullabies”), they evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia—“lost innocence.”

On the other hand, the “too” sweet, saccharine blandness of musical boxes can make them overly or creepily sentimental, and their unsavory social origins (they were associated with the vice of snuff) allow them to be associated with crime as well. Durgnat uses Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] as an example, in which an aristocrat “expresses his basic spontaneity of soul by enthusing over the latest acquisition to his collection of musical boxes: a huge elaborate Dutch street organ. But its sound acts as background to an attempted crime passionnel, as, again, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train the carousel organ plays, ‘And the band played on . . .’ as a brutal strangling takes place” (p. 231). Hence in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a sinister musical box that can induce eternal sleep when its music is played. In The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2), the Max character played by Mel Gibson uses a musical box to become friends with a strange, seemingly mute child referred to as the Feral Kid. A past crime is signaled by musical boxes in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, in which a murderer betrays his identity by having a pocket watch that is also a musical box that plays a distinctive tune. In Luis Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen [The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz], a musical box also plays a crucial role. An ornate musical box in the form of a monkey with Persian robes playing the cymbals is featured prominently in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. In Japan, where musical boxes are quite popular, the Sankyo Seiki company has specialized in the manufacture of musical boxes which are extremely intricate (there is an entire “Music Box Collection” from Japan consisting of several CDs, generically referred to as “J-Pop,” available on iTunes).

Pop songs incorporating the musical box are rare, but when its used is it is often memorable. The musical box has also been used as inspiration for a few songs as well, e.g., Genesis’ “The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971). Here are a few songs inspired by the musical box, or incorporating it into the music.

Björk – Frosti
Mariah Carey – Music Box
The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde [Robert Cobert] – Josette’s Music Box [used in the TV series Dark Shadows]
Philip Glass – Music Box (“Candyman Theme”)
Genesis – The Musical Box
Korn – Dead Bodies Everywhere
Bobby McFerrin – Music Box
Panic! at the Disco – This Is Halloween [cover of the song from The Nightmare Before Christmas]
Rammstein – Spieluhr [Music Box]
Thrice – Music Box

Monday, September 21, 2009


I’ve blogged in the past about the figure of Orpheus in popular music, but I’ve yet to explore how the music has employed the mythic hero or heroine. A mythic hero is usually defined as a character from myth or legend that is of divine descent and endowed with great strength or ability. The term therefore encompasses demigods as well as gods and goddesses. I should note that my use of the word ability here is broad, since mythological figures such as Cassandra and Io are afflicted by madness as a consequence of the Olympian gods’ capriciousness. The cursed prophetess Cassandra, for instance, who has the gift of prophecy but is never to be believed, is an especially tragic figure. Likewise, Hera transforms poor Io into a cow because Zeus develops an erotic passion for her. Io is thus like Cassandra in that she can never articulate her tragic insight. Venus, the mythical Goddess of Love (of the erotic kind), enthralls the legendary knight Tannhäuser. In his poem Laus Veneris, Swinburne explores the tension between an older, pagan ideal as it comes into clash with the new, Christian religion. Swinburne’s Venus, with whom the young knight Tannhäuser falls in love and with whom he lives in her subterranean home, represents the life of the old religion. Tannhäuser is wracked with remorse and guilt because of his passion for her. Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” invokes the legend of “La belle dame sans merci,” the beautiful woman without pity, which the Tannhäuser legend also employs. And Fleetwood Mac’s famous song, written by Stevie Nicks, “Rhiannon,” was apparently inspired not by the Welsh myth about Rhiannon, a horse goddess, but by Mary Leader’s novel Triad. For years when performing the song live Nicks would introduce the song as being about a “Welsh witch,” but that’s not quite correct, either. At any rate, here are a few pop songs that use the figure of the mythic hero or heroine to interesting effect. They reveal how vibrant and alive these ancient myths and legends still are, even if the figure is encountered without the songwriter ever actually having read the actual source text.

Abba – Cassandra
Jimmy Clanton – Venus In Blue Jeans
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Guinevere
Donovan – Guinevere
Bob Dylan – As I Went Out One Morning
Bob Dylan – Isis
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand
Boz Scaggs – Hercules
The Shocking Blue – Venus
Al Stewart – Merlin’s Time
Steely Dan
Home At Last
Suzanne Vega – Calypso
Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table [album]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On The Town

Raymond Williams observed in his classic, The Country and the City, “’Country’ and ‘city’ are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities.... In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation. . . . On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition . . .”

F. W. Murnau’s justly famous film Sunrise (1927) realizes the contradictions Williams identifies in a rather revealing way: a (naïve) country bumpkin goes to the big city and his life is almost ruined by a wicked temptress. Only the last-minute realization of his deep love for his guileless wife prevents him from certain destruction at the hands of the city woman, the femme fatale. Hence while the city is associated with sophistication and learning, it is also associated with temptation and corruption–feminine guile. In Pretty Woman (1990), for instance, the film that made Julia Roberts into a Hollywood star, the city is also associated with corruption, its opening scenes set on Hollywood Boulevard, with its long parade of hookers and prostitutes. The city woman from Sunrise is among them somewhere.

The word town is derived from the Old English tūn, meaning enclosure, village, or town; the word city is generally used to designate a community of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village. By way of analogy, town is to city as creek is to river, or sea to ocean, although city and town are often used interchangeably, and in any case both actually refer to some geographic place of some indeterminate size. Since the size of the population is irrelevant, to refer to one’s town or hometown is to refer to a community in which one’s identity is remorselessly known and rigidly fixed, a place where one is “stereotyped” and boxed in. In his song, “Small Town,” John Mellencamp sings:

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
eah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

But this is a myth, of course: since anonymity in a small town is impossible (unlike the liminal space opened up by the anonymity of New York City in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town), people will never let you be just what you want to be. Here’s Gene Pitney:

If we stop to gaze upon a star
People talk about how bad we are
Ours is not an easy age
We’re like tigers in a cage
What a town without pity can do

He goes on to ask, “Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?” In a small town, as in a big city, the familiar “townspeople” can very easily transform into the members of a faceless and hostile crowd, as they do in, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The horror realized in that film isn’t that people are replaced by pods, but that anonymous crowds aren’t supposed to exist in small towns. It’s not surprising, then, that popular music expresses the same ambivalence toward the town and city: songs like “Downtown” may talk about the fun of being where the action is, but songs like “Poor Side of Town” talk about the hope of escaping rigid class distinctions.

Twenty Songs On The Town:
The Beach Boys – Leavin’ This Town
Petula Clark – Downtown
Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld, Eric Andersen – Wrong Side Of Town
The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
Steve Earle – Guitar Town
Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown
Gene McDaniels – It’s A Lonely Town
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Roy Orbison – Uptown
Gene Pitney – Town Without Pity
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Stan Ridgway – Lonely Town
Johnny Rivers – Poor Side of Town
Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes – Love On The Wrong Side of Town
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town
The Stray Cats – Rock This Town
U2 – Red Hill Mining Town
The Vogues – Magic Town
Bill Withers – Lonely Town, Lonely Street

Monday, April 27, 2009

In Vino Veritas

There is a long tradition in the Western world of likening the effects of alcohol to the ecstatic frenzy of divine possession. Socrates likened poets to bacchants, the followers of Bacchus or Dionysus, god of wine and inspired madness, that is, giddy intoxication and frenzied hysteria. Country music came to employ the pedal steel guitar as the musical equivalent of drunken self-pity and indulgence, and many a country song has been written on the self-pitying drunk’s best friend, Jack Daniels. By getting drunk, one seeks the pleasure principle. But when booze doesn’t work, as in Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” it forces the singer to confront the harsh reality principle, allowing old memories (of love) to “come around.” Hence drunkenness in popular music is frequently sought as a way to achieve drug-induced amnesia, a way to escape the terrible realities of existence, most often heartbreak. As Samuel Johnson observed, “He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Hard whiskey, however, is a double-edged sword, because its effects are unpredictable: it may allow the drinker to escape acute self-consciousness, or do just the opposite, bring about a state of hyper self-awareness, and only exacerbate one’s crippling misery. Wine is often perceived to be a safer path to drunken self-indulgence than hard whiskey: wine is perceived to be a more benign, slower, and pleasurable--mellower--path to inebriation than the drastic measure of being knocked to your knees with just a few shots.

Here Are A Few Instances Of The Veritas In Vino:
Eric Clapton – Bottle of Red Wine
Cream – Sweet Wine
The Electric Flag – Wine
David Frizzell – I’m Going To Hire a Wino (To Decorate Our Home)
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band – Midnight Choir (Mogen David)
George Jones – Wine Colored Roses
Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs – Bottle of Wine
Tommy James & the Shondells – Sweet Cherry Wine
Jerry Lee Lewis – Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
Henry Mancini – Days of Wine and Roses
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – Summer Wine
Eric Burdon & War – Spill the Wine
J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – Wine, Wine, Wine
Faron Young – Wine Me Up

Here are three versions of “Red Red Wine” I have. Take your pick, as all of them are good:
Neil Diamond – Red Red Wine
Tee-Set (“Ma Belle Amie” ) – Red Red Wine
UB40 – Red Red Wine

Originally written and recorded by Neil Diamond in 1968, “Red Red Wine” was soon covered by Tony Tribe, a Jamaican rocksteady singer, who recorded a reggae-influenced version. Tony Tribe’s version in turn influenced UB40’s later, 1983 cover of the song—I suspect UB40 band members may never even have heard Neil Diamond’s version when they recorded their hit version.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Hunger Artists

Etymologically, the word hunger derives from the Old English hungor, akin to the Old High German hungar, and is related to the Lithuanian word kanka, “torture.” To be hungry means to have an urgent need for food or some other special form of nutrition, but by metaphorical elaboration, hunger has come to refer to any strong desire—“a hunger for success,” for instance, or, as is quite common, hunger for another, an expression of strong sexual desire. “For always roaming with a hungry heart/Much have I seen and known,” wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem about the mythic hero Ulysses, although in his poem about the heroic figure, Tennyson invented survivors in addition to Ulysses after the end of the Odyssey as recorded by Homer. Hence hunger refers not only to an urgent need for “food,” as in nourishment, but also to appetite, an appetite that can never be satisfied or satiated. What Tennyson’s Ulysses craves is experience itself, and since experience is boundless, what Ulysses wants is the impossible—that which can never be satisfied. His desire to know is apparently boundless, without limits.

In the same way, sexual desire can never be sated; it is a thirst that can never be quenched. Desire can be understood as a quest, a search or hunt that never ends: “Mouth is alive with juices like wine/And I’m hungry like the wolf,” sings Duran Duran in “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Since hunger is recurring, insistent, and never-ending, the singer speaks of a desire that is “hungry like the wolf”—always and forever seeking more and more, insatiable—no wonder that the word hunger is related to the word torture.

Various Hors d’oeuvres:
Eric Clapton – “Hungry,” No Reason to Cry
Deep Purple – “Hungry Daze,” Perfect Strangers
Duran Duran – “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Rio
Merle Haggard – “Hungry Eyes,” Untamed Hawk: The Early Recordings of Merle Haggard
INXS – “Hungry,” Switch
Van Morrison – “Hungry For Your Love,” An Officer and a Gentleman (OST)
Paul Revere & The Raiders – “Hungry,” Greatest Hits
Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart,” The River
Twisted Sister, “Stay Hungry,” Stay Hungry
White Lion – “Hungry,” Pride

Monday, April 20, 2009

Scene Of The Accident

The recent (April 15) ninety-seventh anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic reminded me of the many popular songs written about disasters. There’s a long tradition in popular music of disaster songs, in which the terrible event serves as a sort of cautionary fable, having a homiletic value (“the story teaches us that…”). I can’t say definitively how many songs have been written over the years about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, probably over two dozen, but the Titanic event became indelibly associated in the popular imagination with industrial or “man-made” disasters of all kinds—songs about shipwrecks, plane crashes, automobile accidents, and derailed trains, all of which comprise a long precession of misfortune and disaster. And, of course, there are songs about so-called “natural” disasters, such as floods, droughts (Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads), hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Probably one ought to include as well the many murder ballads (“Tom Dooley” being a famous example) among disaster songs.

Thus disaster songs form a rather heterogeneous genre, largely about Fate, and hence really about the human response to adversity: courage and cowardice, the instinct for survival and heroic sacrifice. I’ve listed below a few representative songs, and also the amazing soundtrack to the must-see film ATOMIC CAFÉ (1982), which includes songs such as the Golden Gate Quartet’s “Atom and Evil” and the Slim Gaillard Quartette’s “Atomic Cocktail.” According to information at on ATOMIC CAFÉ, some songs the producers wanted to include on the soundtrack, but couldn’t find, included “Atomic Polka” and “Atomic Boogie,” and a song titled “Fallout Shelter” in the “Tell Laura I Love Her” vein, a song about a father telling his son that he can’t bring his girlfriend into the family fallout shelter, so the boy and girl abandon the shelter only to die in the streets.

A Lethal Mix Of Disaster Songs:
Atomic Café (Soundtrack)
The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Bee Gees – New York Mining Disaster 1941
Bloodrock – D.O.A.
The Buoys – Timothy
Johnny Cash – The Wreck of Old ‘97
David Allan Coe – Widow Maker
Jimmy Dean – Big Bad John
Elvis – In the Ghetto
The Everly Brothers – Ebony Eyes
Lefty Frizzell – Long Black Veil
Jan and Dean – Dead Man’s Curve
The Kinks – Life Goes On
Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks
Gordon Lightfoot – The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Don McLean – American Pie
Randy Newman – Louisiana 1927
Procol Harum – Wreck of the Hesperus
R.E.M. – It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Porter Wagoner – The Carroll County Accident
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss