Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Death Valley Days: One

An update on yesterday afternoon's blog about the archaeological/forensic dig going on at the Barker Ranch, the remote set of buildings in the Panamint Mountains at the southwestern edge of Death Valley used by Charles Manson and his “Family” as a refuge in 1968-69: this afternoon the Los Angeles Times provided an update on the excavation, but no new details were added to the report.

However, after having re-read yesterday’s blog, it occurred to me that I might have given too much emphasis to the issue of the “snuff” film rather than the issue of whether there might be bodies buried near the Barker Ranch in that remote area of Death Valley. As I pointed out, the use of “snuff” to refer to films (or videotape) purportedly containing scenes of actual murder was originated by Ed Sanders in his 1971 book on Manson, The Family (most recently reissued in 2002). But it occurred to me that there are actually two, unrelated, issues here: whether there were, in fact, any “snuff films” ever made, by Manson and his “Family” or by others, on 8mm or other storage media; and whether there might be any bodies to be found buried in the environs of the Barker Ranch.

Having reflected on the issue, I'm now wondering why law enforcement authorities believe there might be bodies buried near the Barker Ranch in the first place. My interest rekindled by the archaeological/forensic research mission presently going on, this morning I was motivated to re-read Ed Sanders' The Family, the first edition hardcover I bought in the early 1970s (the edition published prior to a lawsuit that required its author to remove any references to "The Process"). He makes no reference to murders or burials that might have taken place at the Barker Ranch, although he does refer to murders in the state that occurred when Manson Family members were placed in the area. One brief sentence, however, in today's report explains the reason for the recent investigation:

A member of the Manson family later suggested that there were bodies buried at Barker Ranch.

Apparently this information surfaced many years after Sanders published his book. I should note that a preliminary dig occurred at the ranch in February of this year, so perhaps the information surfaced only recently.

To reiterate the conclusion I made at the end of yesterday's blog: we shall see.

Silly Love Songs

I am sure it will come as no surprise to anyone for me to say that the vast majority of popular songs are love songs. And although this fact may surprise no one at all--indeed, may be a painfully banal observation--no one, to my knowledge, discusses it. Indeed, it is one of those "obvious" facts of our daily lives that is rarely, if ever, discussed. I'm sure we've heard it said a thousand times, "it is a fundamental desire for human beings to love and to want to be loved," but the insight is no more startling or profound or meaningful, as a simple declarative sentence, than "the sky is blue." For scholars who approach popular music from a sociologist's perspective, such as Simon Frith, the fact that the bulk of popular songs are love songs "is more than an interesting statistic; it is a centrally important aspect of how pop music is used" ("Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music," in Music and Society, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 141). For Simon Frith, it is one of the social functions of popular music "to give us a way of managing the relationship between our public and private emotional lives." Why are love songs so important to us? Frith asks.

Because people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence. Love songs are a way of giving emotional intensity to the sorts of intimate things we say to each other (and to ourselves) in words that are, in themselves, quite flat. It is a peculiarity of everyday language that our most fraught and revealing declarations of feeling have to use phrases--'I love/hate you', 'Help me!', 'I'm angry/scared'--which are boring and banal; and so our culture has a supply of a million pop songs, which say these things for us in numerous interesting and involving ways. (141)

There's another way to explain why our culture has a million songs about love, though, and it has been expressed by a prominent musician and songwriter, jazz sage Mose Allison. During an interview with Joel Dorn (cited in the liner notes to Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology, Atlantic, 1994) Allison said this, which I hope we'll ponder the next time we hear one of those "silly" love songs on the radio:

A prominent white educator was studying the culture of the Hopi, a desert-dwelling Native American tribe of the Southwest. He found it strange that almost all Hopi music was about water and asked one of the musicians why. He explained that so much of their music was about water because that was what they had the least of. And then he told the white man, "Most of your music is about love."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Death Valley Days

According to a report published this afternoon on the Los Angeles Times website, early tomorrow morning (Tuesday), Inyo County Sheriff’s investigators, accompanied by forensic scientists, will begin lugging portable ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers, shovels, and other excavating tools up to the Barker Ranch at the edge of Death Valley on a mission to confirm or deny speculation that there may be graves at the ranch, used in 1969 as a secluded hideout by Charles Manson and his so-called “Family.” The excavation at the Barker Ranch, located at the southern end of Death Valley National Park—in terrain so formidable that it can only be reached by 4-wheel drive vehicles—is expected to continue through Thursday.

I look forward to the findings of this intriguing archaeological/forensic research mission, as it has been rumored for almost forty years that the Manson Family committed murders that were recorded on film (or video, depending on the specific version of the rumor). I invite readers to read David Kerekes and David Slater’s book, Killing For Culture (Creation Books, 1994) for further information on the putative Barker Ranch murders. Kerekes and Slater aver that the idea of the Manson family making “snuff” films dates back to Ed Sanders’ book on Charles Manson, The Family (first published by E.P. Dutton, 1971). It was Ed Sanders, in this book, who coined the term “snuff” to describe the content of these elusive films purportedly containing scenes of actual murder. Kerekes and Slater write:

These “whispers” [of snuff films] date back to Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. Here, Sanders states that Family members stole an NBC-TV wagon loaded with film equipment sometime during the Summer of 1969. The truck was subsequently dumped and most of the film given away, but Manson took one of the NBC cameras with him to Death Valley in September [1969]. The Family were also in possession of three Super-8 cameras. It is alleged that they shot porn-movies and, determines Sanders, “the Barker Ranch chop-stab dance, where they [the Family] danced in a circle, then pretended to go into frenzies—attacking trees, rocks and one another with knives.” He adds, “God knows what else they shot with their stolen NBC camera”.... Speaking with an anonymous one-time member of the Family, Sanders learns of a “short movie depicting a female victim dead on a beach” (Killing For Culture, p. 223).

According to the Los Angeles Times report, locals in the area predict the investigators will turn up nothing but ancient Indian graves. Others, however, say the situation is more problematic in that some California state park rangers claim that if indeed human remains are discovered at the Barker Ranch, they may be connected to an unrelated Death Valley mystery from 1996, the mysterious disappearance of four German tourists.

We shall see.

Something's Up My Sleeve

Yesterday’s blog on the art of rock art prompted me to think about the art of the album cover—the vinyl LP album cover specifically. I say “cover,” but is that the proper nomenclature? Why not “jacket,” or “sleeve”? With the advent of the compact disc jewel case, the material aspect of a vinyl LP’s “jacket,” “cover,” “sleeve,” or “wrapper” is no longer applicable, although a recent development in the music industry has been to reissue albums on compact disc in CD-sized sleeves that duplicate the “original art work" of the LP. The restoration of the original album art reflects a desire, I suppose, for presence, an attempt, writes John Corbett, “to stitch the cut that separates seeing from hearing in the contemporary listening scenario” (Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein, Duke University Press, 1994, p. 39). For Corbett, the album cover is an "attempt to reconstitute the image of the disembodied voice" (p. 39) to recorded sound.

Having thought about the issue the past twenty-four hours, and having spent some time browsing through my LP collection, I here present my Top 11 favorite album covers—and why eleven? Because I can do as I please; I don't have to limit myself to ten. Why are they my favorites? Because they enchant me without my knowing exactly why: as Roland Barthes observed, "such ignorance is the very nature of fascination" (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 3). Do my selections belie my age? Probably, but I would hope that others find my choices as inherently fascinating as I do.

1. Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969); designer, George Hardie.

2. Steppenwolf—Steppenwolf (Dunhill, 1968); designer: Gary Burden; photographer: Tom Gundelfinger.

3. Elvis Presley—Elvis Presley (RCA, 1956); designer: Colonel Tom Parker; photographer: Popsie [William S. Randolph].

4. London Calling—The Clash (Epic, 1979); designer: Ray Lowry; photographer: Pennie Smith.

5. News of the World—Queen (Elektra, 1977); designer: Roger; painting: Frank Kelly Freas (1953).

6. In the Court of the Crimson King—King Crimson (Atlantic, 1969); painting: Barry Godber.

7. The Pleasure Principle—Gary Numan (Atco, 1979); designer: Malti Kidia; photographer: Geoff Howes.

8. Electric Warrior—T. Rex (Warner Brothers, 1971); designer: Hipgnosis.

9. Meet the Residents—The Residents (Ralph, 1974); designer: Porno/Graphics; photographer: Robert Freeman.

10. Dark Continent—Wall of Voodoo (I.R.S., 1981); designer: Philip Culp; photographer: Scott Lindgren.

11. The Very Best of the Lovin’ Spooful—The Lovin’ Spoonful (Kama Sutra, 1970); sculpture: Ollie Alpert.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Art of Rock

At Bonhams New York this past Wednesday, May 14, The Peter Golding Collection of Rock & Roll Art fetched close to $795,000, according to a spokesman for the auction house. While many of the pieces were original works of art, some of the items included preliminary drawings and sketches for album covers and concert posters. The Peter Golding collection represents about forty years of collecting such work; Golding is the British designer of the first stretch jeans. Go here for a closer look at the 164 lots offered at the auction. The auction's top seller was an 48"x36" acrylic on canvas by the late Rick Griffin--considered by some to be psychedelia's grand master--for the Grateful Dead's 1990 "Without a Net" European tour, which sold for $114,000; go here to see the piece.

One of the more interesting items for sale was an exhibitor's brochure for the movies Psychedelic Sex Kicks and Wild Hippie Orgy, presented by "Pot Heads Experimental Films." The brochure's cover promises "2 Big Hits" in "Hullucinary Color" [sic]. If you always wanted to own the item, you still have a chance--although the brochure was estimated to go between $150-250, it didn't sell. The films boast scenes in which "Up-tight squares join the hippies and their hip chicks...this trip is for real!"

By Hook or by Crook

What’s the difference between a hook and a ditty? Available definitions don’t offer much help, I’ve discovered. The following definitions are available from answers.com:

Hook (n.):
1. a. A curved or sharply bent device, usually of metal, used to catch, drag, suspend, or fasten something else.
b. A fishhook.
2. Something shaped like a hook, especially:
a. A curved or barbed plant or animal part.
b. A short angled or curved line on a letter.
c. A sickle.
3. a. A sharp bend or curve, as in a river.
b. A point or spit of land with a sharply curved end.
4. A means of catching or ensnaring; a trap.
5. Slang. a. A means of attracting interest or attention; an enticement: a sales hook.
b. Music. A catchy motif or refrain: “sugary hard rock melodies [and] ear candy hooks” (Boston Globe).

Ditty (n., pl. –ties):
A simple song.
[Middle English dite, a literary composition, from Old French dite, from Latin dictātum, thing dictated, from neuter past participle of dictāre, to dictate.]

So apparently the word “ditty” refers to a complete song, while “hook” refers to a rhythmic figure or melodic line, that is, a specific element of a song. So is a ditty (song) necessarily composed of more than one hook, or just one? To me, anyway, the origin of the word “ditty” from the Latin dictātum (“thing dictated”) suggests that a ditty is easy to remember (“simple”). Information theory would then tell us that a ditty has a low probability of being transmitted incorrectly (“distorted”), another way of saying it is easily remembered: how many times did you have to hear “Happy Birthday” before you remembered the whole song? Once? The popular TV game show Name That Tune is premised precisely on this insight, that one needs only a few notes in order to have total recall of a song. (I best remember the version of the show in the Seventies hosted by Tom Kennedy, but historically there have been several incarnations of Name That Tune, beginning in the 1950s.)

Are the best pop songs, then, no more than ditties? According to Gary Burns, in “A typology of ‘hooks’ in popular records” [Popular Music 6:1 (Jan., 1987) p. 1], the word hook

connotes being caught or trapped, as when a fish is hooked, and also addiction, as when one is hooked on a drug. These connotations, together with the idea of repetition, are captured in the Songwriter’s Market definition of hook: ‘A memorable “catch” phrase or melody line which is repeated in a song’ (Kuroff 1982, p. 397. Bennett (1983) defines hook as an ‘attention grabber’ (pp. 30, 41).

Music critic Lester Bangs was never comfortable with the multiple connotations of hook as “catchy,” meaning hook as that which catches or ensnares the prey, is addictive, and is seductive and appealing as candy. He wrote:

Listen, I hate hooks. The first time I saw the word “hook” was in a review of a Shocking Blue album in Rolling Stone in 1969. The author had evidently discovered that songwriters sometimes used it and now informed us that the bass riff was the almighty “hook” in their hit “Venus,” that one irresistible little melodic or rhythmic twist that’ll keep you just coming back and back and back and buy and buy and buy. (“Every Song a Hooker,” in Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, Anchor Books, 2003, pp. 351-52)

Freud argued that repetition is pleasurable because we associate it with the pleasure of the mother’s breast (or bottle) from which we nursed (sucked, in the sense of reiterated action) as infants. Whether one believes this argument is irrelevant, because in fact the most successful pop songs (measured in terms of economic success) prove the point anyway, with their relentless repetition--reiteration--of melodic lines and rhythmic figures, a practice justified in order to make a song "suitable for dancing".

Lester Bangs cited “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las as a positive example of a song with hooks, while Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” is a negative example (an instance of music business "cynicism"). I might cite “My Guy” by Mary Wells as a positive example, or The Temptations' "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," the type of song that if I hear it early in the day I hear it the rest of the day (in a good way). But if Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” comes on the radio, the radio goes off--as fast as my synapses can fire.

For further reading: