Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley: Outlaw Hero, 1928-2008

And so Bo Diddley, author of the so-called “Bo Diddley Beat,” one of the foundational figures in rock ‘n’ roll, is dead at age 79. There is a comprehensive obituary here, a fine appreciation by Iggy Pop (written some years ago for Rolling Stone Magazine) here, and a post-mortem tribute to Bo by Dave Alvin, once of The Blasters, here. I cannot add anything substantial to what others have astutely observed about his contributions to American popular music, but I do think that his influence on rock ‘n’ roll is more than simply musical. Although, ironically, he later became a law enforcement official, I think a great part of his allure was his image as an outlaw hero.

Pictured above is the album cover to Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger (Checker, 1960), in which Bo anticipated the black cowboy, and hired sheriff of Rock Ridge, Cleavon Little, in Blazing Saddles (1974) by some fourteen years. (The Count Basie Orchestra, incidentally, was featured in Mel Brooks' film playing jazz in the wide-open desert.) Bo Diddley wasn’t the first black musician to appropriate the iconography of the American West for an album cover—jazz great Sonny Rollins did that, with Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957)—and Herb Jeffries, who once sang with Duke Ellington’s band, had played a black cowboy in the 1930s, in Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Bronze Buckaroo (1938) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). I choose to think that Bo Diddley saw these films as a kid, later inspiring him to conceive of this album cover.

But if the album cover of Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West, as Michael Jarrett observes, associated the jazz musician with the myths of the American West—“the musician as outlaw hero; the music as a movement or push outward” (p. 197)—Bo Diddley appropriated the image of the outlaw hero for a generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, and in doing so became an iconic figure of rock 'n' roll, not simply a musical inspiration. Bo Diddley's album was released at the beginning of the 1960s, and during the 1960s, notes Robert Ray, the Radical Left became obsessed with the iconography of the American frontier:

Clothes (jeans, boots, buckskins) and hairstyles (long and unkempt, moustaches) derived from daguerrotypes of nineteenth-century gunfighters; and pop music returned repeatedly to frontier images: The Buffalo Springfield's "Broken Arrow," The Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones," The Band's "Across the Great Divide," James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James," Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and the Eagles' Desperado. (pp. 255-56)

His musical influence on subsequent figures such as Jimi Hendrix is widely acknowledged, but no one has acknowledged his power as an iconic western figure, as one can see by the pictures found on the back cover of the Jimi Hendrix Experience' Smash Hits, released in 1969. While most certainly a foundational figure in rock music terms of his music, perhaps we ought to think of Bo Diddley's influence in inspiring any number of outlaw rockers as well.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Digital Divide

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my weekly (more or less) visit to the local Goodwill Store, where one can, occasionally, find something interesting. I stopped by the store yesterday, and as usual perused the record albums (why are there always so many damned gospel records?), 8-Tracks, and cassettes. The numbers of CDs are increasing (replaced by digital downloads?) but usually the CDs themselves are not in the greatest shape. I also noticed a new trend: the growing number of VHS tapes. I saw many dozens of VHS tapes, so many in fact that the managers had to construct a new bin just to handle them. I didn't find anything interesting yesterday, but that's not why I'm writing.

I also noticed four older model televisions, ranging from 13”-26”, one an old black & white, sitting next to each on a shelf, but each of the sets had a bold yellow disclaimer pasted to it stating that after February 18, 2009, the antenna would not work unless it was attached to a converter box: in other words, buy at your own risk, because come next February 18, analog signals will be turned off forever.

Seeing those old TV sets served as a reminder that in fewer than nine months, old-fashioned (analogue) broadcast television will go the way of the vinyl LP, 78s, 45s, 8-Tracks, music cassettes, VHS tapes, and so on. I suspect that many Goodwill stores around the country will find themselves inundated with old television sets within the year. It occurred to me the Goodwill store is a repository of déclassé technology—typewriters, record turntables, 8-Track players, for instance—even old DOS computers. Essentially, the function of the Goodwill Store is in part to serve as a waiting room for discarded technology, until these inert objects, perhaps, someday end up in a dusty museum or in the hands of collectors with enough disposable income to restore the things to their original glory.

Of course, the store's bins also serve to hold other discarded things as well: T-shirts emblazoned with bowl games won or lost, old toys included with Happy Meals, bestselling paperbacks with yellowing pages, gauche lamps, clunky radios, scads of coffee cups emblazoned with arcane organizations, old bed frames which once supported lovers embracing in desire. Was it Walter Pater who said he hated museums because they always inevitably gave him the impression that no one was ever young?

I read an article the other day stating that roughly 20% of U.S. households still rely on antennas to receive TV signals, which for some reason I found astonishing. And if these households don’t have sets with digital tuners, they won’t be able to pick up a digital signal--in other words, come February 18, or about nine months from now, no more television. Moreover, households with new digital TVs or special converter boxes for older sets also may need to upgrade their antennas because of a unique aspect of digital television: the signals that produce digital images can be more difficult to pick up than the old analog waves. In other words, it is quite clear that the digital transition will be more costly to people than at first anticipated. I read that the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association have a website,, that shows which stations’ signals you can get where you live and also offers help choosing an antenna. Goodwill Stores around the country better start now constructing additions, because I suspect there will be lots of TV sets showing up a few months from now. How many, instead, will show up in landfills?

Just as the Western Union Company—a company that became synonymous with the telegram—sent its last telegram in January 2006 because it could not compete with emails and cell phones, so too do the old analogue airwaves give way to digital transmission. One technology replaceth another.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time, Peace, And A Saucerful of Friends

In my blog entry of May 16 I discussed my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the year of 1968 in the order, as best as I could determine, in which they were released. Why 1968? I'll refer readers to the earlier blog for an explanation of the motivation for such an unusual project. At any rate, I promised I would post a June listening schedule, which can be found below. Since posting that earlier blog entry, however, I've discovered additional information which has prompted me to emend that earlier list, both adding and removing albums to more accurately reflect the current state of my knowledge. For instance, I'd listed Nilsson's Aerial Ballet as being released in March--at the time, an educated guess on my part. Information in the liner notes to the 2-CD BMG/Camden Deluxe 2000 reissue indicate July as the release date, which I accept as accurate, so I removed the album from the March set of albums and will include it as part of the July list. I still cannot claim that my list is infallible, but I continue to work on it. What I've found is that there were dozens of albums released in July and August, so those months' lists will be rather long (assuming the information I've come across is accurate). Perhaps record companies heavily slated album releases for the summer months, or, alternatively, some of the albums many sources indicate as being released in July were in fact released a bit earlier, that is, June. At any rate, here is what I currently have on tap for June, if anyone would care to listen along:

The Rascals, Time Peace: The Rascals’ Greatest Hits
The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble
The Beach Boys, Friends
Pink Floyd, A Saucerful of Secrets
Fairport Convention, Fairport Convention
Manfred Mann, Mighty Garvey! (6/28)
Otis Redding, The Immortal Otis Redding
Vanilla Fudge, Renaissance

List emended 7/22/68

Friday, May 30, 2008

Man of 1000 Voices at 100

Perhaps the most talented voice actor of the twentieth century, Mel Blanc, nicknamed "Man of 1000 Voices," was born 100 years ago today. Blanc died in 1989, but his memorable vocal creations live on in Warner Brothers cartoons and elsewhere. We all instantly recognize the images of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester Pussycat, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd--but rarely do we conceive of them separately from their distinctive voices. Indeed, these 'toon characters' bodily movements seem irrevocably sutured to their voice: if they couldn't move, they couldn't speak, and vice versa. In a sense, their voices animate them. Among his other vocal characterizations were Pepe le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote (when he spoke--rarely), Marvin the Martian, Barney Rubble, Woody Woodpecker (initially), the Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Yosemite Sam, the diminutive but feisty cowboy who was "the blood-thirstiest, shoot-'em firstiest, goshdarn worstiest bandit North, South, East and West of the Pecos!"

Because Mel Blanc is so strongly associated with his vocal characterizations, one doesn't immediately think of the few feature motion pictures in which he had supporting roles--Neptune's Daughter (1949) and Kiss Me Stupid (1964)--for instance; if not classics, they are still well worth seeking out simply to see the man as an actor. Although there are many websites devoted to Mel Blanc, a good overview of the "Man of 1000 Voices," by Kim Newman (find his link to the right), is available here.

That's all, folks!

Joseph Pevney, 1911-2008

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Joseph Pevney, the film and television director who directed some of the most memorable episodes of the original Star Trek TV series, died on May 18 at the venerable age of 96.

Pevney was a former Broadway actor who played supporting roles in several notable films noir—always inevitably the “sidekick”—in the late 1940s before turning his talents to directing feature films. If the Internet Movie Database is correct, I count he directed 32 feature films during the period 1950-1961, many of these B pictures with short shooting schedules, to be sure, but a remarkable stretch in any case. He made his debut as a director with Shakedown (1950), a film noir with Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy and the inimitable Lawrence Tierney. I seem to be one of the few who admire Pevney's atmospheric The Strange Door (1951), featuring two fine performances by Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton. And although the film was made late in the actor's career, the Errol Flynn-starring Instanbul (1957) has a lot to recommend it, including a reasonably good role for Nat King Cole. The James Cagney-starring Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), about the silent film star Lon Chaney, is also widely admired, while Torpedo Run (1958) is a classic of the subgenre (pun intended). Other films Pevney directed during that prolific decade include Meet Danny Wilson (1951), starring Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters; 3 Ring Circus (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Female on the Beach (1955), starring Joan Crawford; and Twilight for the Gods (1958), starring Rock Hudson and Cyd Charisse.

Beginning in 1961, he turned to television, directing episodes of numerous series such as Wagon Train, The Munsters, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Virginian, Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D., Emergency, The Incredible Hulk, and Fantasy Island—all of which are television shows that are as familiar, to me anyway, as old friends. But it was, of course, Star Trek (TOS) that became Pevney’s most enduring television credit as a director and made him a familiar name to Star Trek fans.

Since his death, several Star Trek fan sites have noted that Pevney directed fourteen episodes of the original series—many of them fan favorites—tying with the late Marc Daniels as the credited director of the most episodes. He directed those favored episodes over the course of 1967, averaging slightly over one show a month:

Arena – 1/19/67
The Return of the Archons – 2/9/67
A Taste of Armageddon – 2/23/67
The Devil in the Dark – 3/9/67
The City on the Edge of Forever – 4/6/67
Amok Time – 9/15/67
The Apple – 10/13/67
Catspaw – 10/27/67
Journey to Babel – 11/17/67
Friday’s Child – 12/1/67
The Deadly Years – 12/8/67
Wolf in the Fold – 12/22/67
The Trouble with Tribbles – 12/29/67
The Immunity Syndrome – 1/19/68

The episodes he directed exhibit a wide range of subject matter, from some of the strongest dramatic episodes to comedy. “The City on the Edge of Forever,” from a script by Harlan Ellison, is generally considered to be the best episode of the original series by virtue of its compelling moral drama, although “Arena,” in which Captain Kirk battles the nasty, thuggish, and devious Gorn (pictured), is perhaps more famous episode among “non-Trekkies.” But there are some very good episodes in the above list: the Robert Bloch authored “Catspaw” featuring two byzantine aliens named Korob and Sylvia; “Journey to Babel,” in which Mr. Spock’s parents were featured, played by Jane Wyatt and Mark Lenard; "Wolf in the Fold" (also written by Robert Bloch), in which the soul of Jack the Ripper (Red Jack, or “Redjac”) has managed to transmigrate from planet to planet through outer space; and, of course, the inevitable “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a comedy in which the Enterprise gets infested with a gaggle of little furry creatures. (I've always loved the bit at the end of the show when Captain Kirk prepares to sit in the Captain's Chair and stops himself, thinking he might be crushing a Tribble.) I was barely a teenager when I first saw these episodes, and they have remained indelibly etched in my mind ever since. They are classic television.

Not a director ever likely to be championed by auteur critics, the films of Joseph Pevney have nonetheless formed a part of my identity every bit as significant as those made by more celebrated names, those of the putative "Great Tradition."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Name Game

Part 3 of The Squonk

At the conclusion of my discussion of the Buoys’ “Timothy” the day before yesterday, I observed that some readers might take issue with my interpretation of that somewhat obscure pop song, thinking it to be an aberrant decoding of the song’s meaning. An aberrant reading is simply a way of remotivating an artistic object, the switching of the external context surrounding it. Perhaps the most famous illustration of a remotivated art object is Marcel Duchamp’s goateed Mona Lisa, retitled “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919; pictured).

Duchamp later said that the new name of his remotivated art work was a phonetic game. The most common claim is that L.H.O.O.Q., when said out loud in French, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul,” meaning “she has a hot ass" (or is "hot in the ass"), suggesting that the famous subject of the painting was not only in a state of sexual arousal, but sexually available as well. In a 1966 interview, Duchamp said, “I really like this kind of game, because I find that you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen” (see Pierre Cabanne, p. 63).

The androgynized, goateed figure of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q is the visual equivalent of the androgynous figure of "Rikki" in Steely Dan’s "Rikki Don’t Loose That Number," a song title that proves Duchamp's insight that with any series of letters, some astonishing things can happen. Like Duchamp’s letters, L.H.O.O.Q, the name RIKKI likewise invites us to play a phonetic game. While spelled Rikki, phonetically speaking, of course, it is the diminutive form of that most familiar of American nicknames, Rick—Ricky. For instance, Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy; in Casablanca, Ricky is what Captain Renault (Claude Rains) calls Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), rather than the more formal “Mr. Richard” that Sam uses, or the “Richard” Ilsa uses (at least in Paris). Rikki shares the same unusual spelling as the titular figure of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And yet, the lyrics of “Rikki Don’t Loose That Number” suggest not a world of innocence, but rather a sophisticated world in which people play sophisticated games:

We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart

Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

I have a friend in town, he’s heard your name
We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row
We could stay inside and play games I don’t know
And you could have a change of heart


You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don't even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart


I assume the "you" referred to is Rikki. Although initially the singer says he hears Rikki is "leaving," in fact Rikki is a coward ("you turn and run"). Rikki is a coward because he is "scared," scared of himself, that is, scared of what he is doing and what he has done. What is he doing, what has he done? We're not told, just that he was having a "little wild time" with the singer, a "little wild time" that had just started. Rikki has a number, the singer's phone number, and he's invited to phone (call) once he feels better about himself. Rikki is invited to "send it off in a letter to yourself," which I take to mean, "look at it to remind yourself who you are," the number in the letter serving as a reminder to himself of who he really is.

In the song, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," also on the same Steely Dan album, Pretzel Logic, the singer tells the unnamed you (Rikki?), "You can try to run but you can't hide from what's inside of you," a virtual restatement of what is being said, in this song, to Rikki. "We could stay inside and play games," the singer says, meaning hide away and pretend, but again, the implication is that Rikki can try to run, but can't hide avoid the truth about himself, despite what he pretends to be true. Rikki's "change of heart" I take to mean the moment when he comes to terms with who and what he is, when he eventually can "feel better" about his true self. I've said "himself" because the rather inescapable implication is that singer is trying to make Rikki come to terms with his homosexuality, to feel comfortable about it, to stop denying it. "You tell yourself you're not my kind," a highly ambiguous phrase susceptible to many meanings, but its meaning in this context is highly suggestive of the similarity between the singer and Rikki. ("But honey, he's not our kind," is used in Janis Ian's "Society's Child" as a sign of racial difference, but in light of Janis Ian's subsequent outing, the song takes on an added level of meaning. Racial (external) difference is not the issue in Steely Dan's song.) That the relationship between the two is sexual can be inferred from the meaning of "our little wild time," "wild" a word in English having the same colloquial meaning as Duchamp's "chaud au cul," hot ass, or hot in the ass. I should point out that there's nothing to prevent my decoding of the song in this way, as I've simply expanded the meaningful context of the possible meanings of the deliberately ambiguous spelling of "Rikki." It seems to me I'm being invited to play this name game.

In my discussion of "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" of a couple blog entries ago, I linked that song with "Timothy" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," and subsequently I've queered all three songs. Initially, the key figure for me was the figure of the Squonk, invoked in the context of an unnamed figure in the midst of a personal crisis. In that song, the singer asks, "Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine," the use of a fantastic creature suggesting some fundamental difference, an otherness, that the singer and the unnamed "you" share. The same idea is used in "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," although obviously without the figure of the Squonk.

I also earlier mentioned the song titled "The Squonk" on the Genesis album, Trick of the Tail (1976), made a couple years after Pretzel Logic. The song is used in that album as part of its general concept, songs about realities or things that no longer exist, are imaginary.