Friday, July 25, 2008


Although initially invented in response to a request by trumpet player Clyde McCoy, who'd asked the Vox corporation for an electronic device that could simulate the sound of a muted trumpet for use with a keyboard, the wah-wah pedal was quickly appropriated in the late 1960s by rock guitarists. In doing so, they defined both a musical period and instituted an aesthetic, one that, when realized through guitar virtuosos such as Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic, has been referred to as "psychedelic soul." According to Art Thompson, in an article published in Guitar Player Magazine titled "Wah: The Pedal That Wouldn't Die" (May 1992; my source for the article can be found here), Vox was the first company to have success with the wah-wah pedal. Thompson writes: "Vox's entry into the wah-wah pedal business came about thanks to Brad Plunkett, a twenty five year old engineer at Thomas Organ. Around '66 Plunkett was working on a circuit to replace the 3-position MRB, or voicing switch, with a less expensive potentiometer.... To test the idea, a guitar was plugged in and, as Plunkett describes 'all of a sudden people came running in to see what was making this sound--they just freaked out on it.'" Thompson continues:

Apparently Vox management saw lots of potential in this new gizmo, and it was subsequently introduced as the Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal.... These early pedals were manufactured in Italy and have a picture of Clyde on the bottom. They were distributed in the U.S. by the Thomas Organ Company.... Vox also offered a non-signature model around this time that simply said "Wah" on the bottom plate; it was also made in Italy.

About the wah-wah pedal's subsequent development, Thompson writes:

The introduction of the Vox Cry Baby pedal around 1968 came about because the U.S. distributor, Thomas Organ, and the European distributor, JMI, both wanted to sell the wah-wah but neither wanted the other to have the same pedal. Vox solved this by slapping the Cry Baby name on the same model for the American market. The story goes that when Vox needed a new name for the pedal, they asked one of their distributors to describe the wah's sound. The response was "it sounds like a baby crying." Also at this time, Vox and Thomas Organ introduced a new model designated V846 that used a Japanese inductor made by TDK instead of the Italian made inductor. Most purists agree that this change degraded the sound of these pedals, but in the informal tests we conducted, our favorite (because of its almost human vocal quality and vomiting sounds) was an excellent sounding V846....The next major change ocurred when Vox came out with the King Wah, the first unit made completely in the United States.... Many of these devices offered extra sounds like fuzz, sirens, surf, tornado, and God knows what else.... As the late '70s approached, the wah effect was becoming unhip, and the number of manufacturers dropped accordingly.

Unlike the synthesizer, which has continued to undergo continual development well into the digital age, the sound of the wah-wah pedal is what it always has been, and hence has remained stuck in time, indelibly associated with a narrow period of rock history.

Early Recordings Featuring the wah-wah pedal

Cream - “White RoomWheels of Fire (1968)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)Electric Ladyland (1968)
The Temptations - “Cloud NineCloud Nine (1968)
Tommy James and the Shondells - “Crimson & CloverCrimson & Clover (1968)
Sly and the Family Stone - “Sex MachineStand! (1969)
Blind Faith - “Presence of the LordBlind Faith (1969)
Chicago - “25 or 6 to 4Chicago II (1970)
Santana - “Samba Pa TiAbraxas (1970)
Funkadelic - “Maggot BrainMaggot Brain (1971)
Isaac Hayes - “Theme From ShaftShaft (Soundtrack) (1971)

In 1972, Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" won an Academy Award for "Best Original Song," thus making it the first rock song featuring a wah-wah pedal to be honored with a major award.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Border Blasters

“Border blasters” is the phrase broadcasters use to refer to the so-called “X stations”—Mexican radio stations—because the call letters of every Mexican radio station begins with an X. Otherwise known as border radio, perhaps the best known of the border blasters was station XERB, the model for the station featured in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). Peculiar to the United States, border radio inspired countless rock and pop musicians, as the Mexican stations largely played music suppressed by the corporate owned, commercially oriented radio stations in the United States: not only were countless teenagers able to hear country and western, played by the likes of the Carter Family (pictured on the CD cover of Vol. 3 of the XET recordings) and Hank Williams, but blues musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. George Lucas, born in 1944 and raised in Modesto, California, grew up listening to the Xs, many of which featured eccentric disc jockeys such as Wolfman Jack, who would eventually make an appearance in American Graffiti. Lucas was one of those kids who listened to “50,000 watts out of Mexico,” as the Blasters sing in “Border Radio.”

As Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford point out in their book Border Radio, Mexican radio stations developed in the late 1920s as a response to monopolistic American and Canadian corporations carving up the frequencies—in doing so, shutting out Mexico—and, subsequently, in the 1930s, to federal regulations that required standardization of the format and proscription of the content. Station XED, in Reynosa, began transmitting in 1930. Fowler and Crawford write:

The men who first moved to the border began their broadcasting careers when the federal regulatory agency was but a twinkle in Herbert Hoover’s eye. These media trailblazers deeply resented the monopolistic power of the networks and the increasing government interference in their activities. They traveled from the hinterlands of Iowa, Kansas, and Brooklyn to a territory beyond the pale of American law, a sparsely populated land of ocotillo, grapefruit, and Angora goats—la frontera, the border.

Border radio operators came up with a unique method of sidestepping U.S. broadcasting restrictions: They built their stations just across the border, in Mexican territory, and worked out special licensing arrangements with the broadcasting authorities in Mexico City, whom they found to be much more agreeable than the stuffed shirts at the Federal Radio Commission. Like all radio stations licensed in Mexico, the border stations were given call letters beginning with XE, a brand that added to their mystique. To compete with the wide coverage of the established multistation networks, these operators created what were essentially single-station networks, stations with such extraordinary power that their signals could cover much of the United States and, in some cases, most of the world. Border radio operators accomplished this feat by hiring expert engineers to build special transmitters. While most radio outlets in the United States broadcast over transmitters with about 1,000 watts of power, border stations boomed their programming across America with transmitters humming at as much as 1,000,000 watts [station XERA].

Essential Recordings (with thanks to Mike Jarrett)
ZZ Top, “Heard It on the XFandango (Warner Bros., 1975)
Warren Zevon, “CarmelitaWarren Zevon (Asylum, 1976)
The Blasters, “Border RadioThe Blasters (Slash, 1981)
Wall of Voodoo, “Mexican RadioCall of the West (I.R.S., 1982)
Dave Alvin, “Border RadioKing of California (Hightone, 1994)

Essential Viewing
American Graffiti (1973)
Border Radio (1987)
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (Ken Burns, 1991)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Mellotron

The Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that was featured in early psychedelic music and later became an essential fixture of “Progressive” bands, was made possible by one of the spoils of World War II—electromagnetic tape. As Michael Jarrett notes in Sound Tracks (1998), "When U.S. troops invaded Radio Luxembourg, they "liberated" a tape machine and shipped it to the Ampex Corporation; further development was financed by Bing Crosby" (214). Technically considered, the Mellotron is a polyphonic, sample-playback keyboard system, the basis of which is a large bank of pre-loaded electromagnetic audio tapes, each of which consists of a pre-recorded sound. Each of the several magnetic tapes has roughly eight seconds of playing time: early user manuals strongly recommended that no key should be held for more than ten seconds. Playback heads underneath each of the keys allowed for the playing of the pre-recorded sounds, hence the reason it is considered a "sample-playback" system. Early Mellotron models, the MK-I and the MK-II, contained two keyboards set side-by-side: the right keyboard consisted of various selectable "instrumental" sounds (e.g., strings, flutes, various brass instruments), while the left keyboard consisted of rhythm tracks. The first Mellotrons--intended for the home, not for the arduous rock concert circuit--were made in Birmingham, England (although the prototype was initially developed in the United States), the reason why the earliest uses of the instrument were by British bands. Musician Mike Pinder (pictured above in the foreground, with the Moody Blues, playing a Mellotron MK-II) worked for Streetly Electronics, the company that manufactured the Mellotron, for about a year and half before joining the Moody Blues in 1967; he and the band are largely responsible for popularizing the Mellotron in popular music. Like the Moog synthesizer, also an electronic instrument, the Mellotron underwent development and refinement. The years of manufacture of the various models of the Mellotron are as follows:

Mellotron Mark-I (1962-63)
Mellotron Mark-II (1964-67)
M-300 (1968-70)
M-400 (1970-86)

The M-400 model, first sold in 1970, become part of the signature sound of the so-called “Progressive” bands of the 1970s. This model included tape banks that could be removed with relative ease and loaded with banks containing different sounds, including percussion loops, sound effects, and other noises. Hence, like pop music itself, the Mellotron is a consequence of electromagnetic tape.

Ten representative rock songs featuring the Mellotron, 1967-1973:

1. The Beatles - “Strawberry Fields ForeverSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
2. The Moody Blues - “Nights in White SatinDays of Future Passed (1967)
3. The Rolling Stones - “2000 Light Years From HomeTheir Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
4. The Zombies - “Brief CandlesOdessey & Oracle (1968)
5. Cream - “BadgeGoodbye (1969)
6. David Bowie - “Space OdditySpace Oddity (1969)
7. King Crimson - “EpitaphIn the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
8. Genesis - “Watcher of the SkiesFoxtrot (1972)
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd - “Tuesday’s Gonepronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd (1973)
10. John Lennon - “Mind GamesMind Games (1973)

For those interested, a short demonstration from the mid-60s of the Mellotron MK-II, can be found here, while an interesting history of the Mellotron, by Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, can be found here.

Cheap Thrills and the Wonderful Undead

Previously, in my blog entries of May 16, May 31, and July 1 I have discussed my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the calendar year 1968 in the order in which they were released. I'll refer readers to my earlier blog entries for the explanation for such an unusual project (and all the pitfalls inherent in such an ongoing activity). Since I've already assembled it, I've gone ahead and posted August’s listening schedule. As I’ve stated many times before, I cannot claim my list is infallible, but I continue to work on it and to try and improve it. What I've discovered is that there were many albums released during the months of July and August 1968--more so in terms of numbers of releases in a single month than in any previous month--so as you can see, August’s list is rather long (assuming the information I've come across is accurate). Here's the dozen albums I have put together for August 1968:

The Beach Boys, Stack-O-Tracks
The Bee Gees, Idea
Blue Cheer, Outsideinside
Country Joe & the Fish, Together
Donovan, In Concert
The Everly Brothers, Roots
The 5th Dimension, Stoned Soul Picnic
Fleetwood Mac, Mr. Wonderful
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, You're All I Need
The Grateful Dead, [Two From the Vault] [8/23-24] [1992]
Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills
Jeff Beck, Truth
Ten Years After, Undead

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Great Lost Albums: One

I suspect I’m like most people who, faced with a long road trip, grab a stack of CDs to take along with them in the car. (I've never adopted the habit of taking my iPod; if I listen to an album, I have to first hold the actual material artifact in my hand, a habit acquired from the vinyl LP days, no doubt.) Listening to them in the solitary isolation of the car allows me to focus exclusively on the music, when I'm free of annoying distractions (Roland Barthes observed in Sade/Fourier/Loyola that pleasure is heightened through hermetic isolation, the sealing off of the outside world, which is how a libertine such as Sade can co-exist in a study along with an ascetic such as Loyola). Thus, in preparation for my trip this weekend, I selected five CDs from this month’s listening schedule (see my list of July 1968 albums)—and, at the last minute, a sixth, John Simon’s Album (released ca. February 1970), which has been available on CD for a couple of years now. I purchased the album on CD three or four months ago, but for various reasons I hadn't had the opportunity to listen to it. So, along with a few of the July 1968 albums, I took along John Simon’s Album (39:39), planning to listen to it if time permitted. I had every intention of listening to the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord (released forty years ago this week), but I never made my way to it. Instead, I put on the John Simon album, and I’m really glad I did. I liked it so much I never got past it, playing it over and over--so much for In Search of the Lost Chord, unfortunately.

Let me say that I have known about the first solo album by John Simon for thirty-eight years, having learned about it, way back when, through a Warner Brothers Records sampler, one of those various artists anthologies WB started releasing in the late 1960s in order to promote and advertise the pop and rock artists then recording on the Warner Brothers/Reprise label. I first got hooked on WB samplers through a record titled October 10, 1969 (which I purchased for the sum of $1 via mail order), and subsequently started picking up the other samplers then available. If my memory serves, WB Records issued the 3-LP sampler box Looney Tunes - Merry Melodies (3 records for $3) in February or March 1971, which included, on Side 2, John Simon’s “The Song of the Elves” (his picture from the booklet included with that 3-LP set is reproduced above). I very much liked "The Song of the Elves"--Robert Christgau says it is the best song on the album--rightly saying that it is about elves who (falsely) imagine they are very tall, but gives the record a mere “B+”--and had I ever run across the album in the record stores, I most certainly would have bought it. I never did, because I never saw it--it went virtually ignored at the time, and no doubt vanished rather quickly. But recently, when I made the startling discovery that the album was available on CD, I immediately snapped it up. But I hadn’t listened to it . . . until this weekend.

There are many "great lost albums" in the history of rock music--the Beach Boys' Smile, say, or Big Star's #1 Record, for instance, this not including those "lost" records that were never recorded, such as the album Buddy Holly might have made had he heard the Beatles--and John Simon's Album is most certainly one of them. It is an utterly amazing, unaccountably neglected but grand record, an essential piece of Americana. It belongs in the constellation that would include the pre-World World II, pre-Swing Era music favored by Randy Newman, The Band (one of the songs on the album, “Davey’s On The Road Again," was co-written with Robbie Robertson; Simon produced Music From Big Pink and its follow-up, 1969's The Band) and Allen Toussaint (think of Toussaint's, not Glen Campbell's, haunting, evocative, "Southern Nights." Not surprisingly, both Allen Toussaint and John Simon were involved in the Band's landmark 1978 film, The Last Waltz.) As Mark Keresman observes in the CD's liner notes, John Simon's music "does not 'sound like' The Band; rather, it is like The Band," meaning it is a sophisticated amalgam of blues, R&B, country, turn-of-the-century pop music, and, on John Simon's Album, ragtime and early New Orleans jazz. Given his highly successful history as an album producer (in 1968 alone, he produced most of Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends; Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills (albeit unacknowledged), Blood, Sweat, and Tears's Child is Father to the Man; the Band's aforementioned Music From Big Pink; Leonard Cohen's first album; others), he was able to assemble a remarkable group of musicians: Leon Russell and Eddie Hinton on guitar; Alice deBuhr and Jean Millington (Fanny); Harvey Brooks (The Electric Flag); Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson (The Band); John Hall and Wells Kelly (later in Orleans); legendary jazz sessionmen Richard Davis and Grady Tate; Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock, and Carl Radle (all three later members of Derek and the Dominos); Delaney Bramlett; and others.

As history would have it, John Simon's Album was released by Warner Brothers within the same three/four month period which saw some albums released strongly favored and endorsed by the critical establishment: Van Morrison's Moondance, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, and The Small Faces' The First Step. Were these records the reason it went (popularly) ignored at the time? No, but with the rather uninspired title, the fact that John Simon was better known as a producer (assuming he was "known" at all), and the fact that the critical spotlight was focused elsewhere, the album, alas, sank like a stone. It is one of the virtues of the CD Era that great "lost" albums such as this have been rescued from oblivion.

How to explain the "lost" records that fell through the cracks (without succumbing to what Robert Ray calls "the myth of the avant-garde," that is, that the initial neglect and failure of a record suggests its brilliance?) It is true that popular music, rather like the Darwinian "state of nature," is a hopelessly over-crowded, over-populated field, but can that explanation alone account for why a great album virtually ignored upon its release? Yes . . . in the sense that at any given time there are many, many albums out there, and some are bound to be overlooked because of sheer numbers. No . . . in the sense that some records are, frankly, "harder to sell" than others, more difficult to assimilate--the problem of the avant-garde. Remember that singer-songwriters immersed in Americana, such as Randy Newman, achieved some degree of success because his songs were successfully merged with the mainstream, meaning they were interpreted by others: the Three Dog Night had a big hit with "Mama (Told Me Not to Come)," for instance, and Harry Nilsson did an entire album of Newman covers (Nilsson Sings Newman, 1970). Of course, John Simon wasn't as prolific a songwriter as Randy Newman, it is true, perhaps another reason John Simon's Album is one of those "lost" records. On the other hand, despite its strong critical endorsement, and lingering reputation, Randy Newman's 12 Songs (1970) has never earned massive popular acclaim, in the sense of sales.

But no matter: John Simon's Album has earned the endorsement of Time, reminding us that greatness is not merely sales, but durability. It's that sense of durability that allowed me, finally, to hear it. I'm very sorry, John Simon, to be so late (the critic's worst nightmare): it took me 38 years to find it, but I finally did, and it is remarkable.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Psychodramas and Traumas

The decades-old debate over the meaning of The Association’s first big hit, “Along Comes Mary,” is due to the basic slipperiness of its lyrics. Who, or what, is “Mary”? A standard interpretation is that “Mary” is short for “Mary Jane,” a coded reference to marijuana. If so, there’s nothing regarding that particular drug, lyrically speaking, that makes it the least bit desirable or attractive (“does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains/She left the night before”). Indeed, if Mary were a female character in a movie, she’d be a femme fatale. I reproduce below what I believe to be the accurate set of lyrics:

Every time I think that I’m the only one who’s lonely
Someone calls on me
nd every now and then I spend my time in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the trials and tribulations
No one ever sees

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks
Whose sickness is the games they play
And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks make jokes
As who is most to blame today

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to set them free and let them see reality
From where she got her name
And will they struggle much when told that such a tender touch as hers
Will make them not the same

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

While “Along Comes Mary” is more redolent of meaning than it is explicitly meaningful, I think the proper noun “Mary” functions as an empty signifier, a placeholder in the phrase, “And then along comes ________, meaning the next “craze,” the next fad, the next “Big Thing"--the latest way to get your "kicks." As a signifier, it substitutes for any popular social or cultural practice that promises individuals a transcendent experience (“And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”), but one that is ultimately empty and without value ("Will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them/Realize their urgent cry for sight no more"). In this sense, “Mary” may not be necessarily short for “Mary Jane” (although perhaps intended to invoke it), but might represent the drug culture’s endorsement of LSD as the preferred drug of choice: “sweet as the punch” is perhaps an oblique reference to LSD-laced sugar cubes or Kool-Aid. “My empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch” strikes me as another way of saying, “I’ve got plenty of nothing" (if the line said, "My cup tastes as sweet as the punch" it would mean something else entirely. The fact that the cup is empty makes all the difference.) The irony is that the song is often perceived as advocating drug use (at least marijuana use), but in fact it would seem to be doing just the opposite, a song that was reactionary in nature, one that, at the time, would now be called an “anti-drug” song. “And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”: one wonders whether there might be a subtle joke embedded in this lyric. Is "her name" . . . dope?

Thanks to fred for his welcome correction to my original set of lyrics (see comment).

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Bent Sørensen of Aalberg University (Denmark) left a comment in connection with my blog entry yesterday on Susan Atkins. I encourage everyone to read the complete text of his post, but I must say I was struck by his speculation, “One wonders whether she [Atkins] does not continue after all these years to be a victim, first of Manson’s manipulations, now of the continued hatred and fear of this dark American icon.” Actually, the same thought had occurred to me as one of the reasons why a virtually helpless woman would not be released from prison simply in order to die, but I chose not to include it in yesterday’s blog, so I thank Bent for giving expression to the idea. As familiar an icon in American popular culture as Darth Vader and Nazi SS troopers, Charles Manson (whose stylized icon is pictured) has become a conventional symbol of evil (perhaps as well-known as the image of the Devil with horns and tail), even by those who know next to nothing about him or the crimes for which he is infamous. (If you don't think so, click the link to the Los Angeles Times news article I made available on yesterday's blog and look closely at the nature of the responses and comments to Susan Atkins' petition for compassionate release.)

I encourage those interested to read Bent's fascinating discussion of Charles Manson as an icon of transgression, which is available on his lectures page at his university website. I've also included a link on the list on the right to Bent's Rarerarefind blogspot.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Quality of Mercy

Those who follow my blog will remember that this past May, in a series of entries, I followed the forensic excavation that took place at the Barker Ranch in Death Valley, California, where Charles Manson and his followers purportedly buried up to three murder victims in 1968 or 1969 (no bodies were found). The latest development in the ongoing Manson saga occurred yesterday, in Sacramento, where the parole board heard the plea for compassionate release for terminally ill former Manson family member Susan Atkins. The 12-member California Board of Parole voted unanimously to deny her request for compassionate release, which would have allowed her to die outside of prison. With the petition denied, the process that would have allowed her to do that is over, meaning that she will surely die behind bars, in what doctors say will be the next few months.

Surely it is well known that Atkins (now 60) played a central role in the Tate-LaBianca murders in a violent two-night rampage in the Los Angeles area in August 1969. Convicted of murder, she has served 37 years in prison. Now ill with brain cancer, with one leg amputated and the other paralyzed, doctors report Atkins has only a few months to live. According to an article posted on the Los Angeles Times website yesterday,

The initial request for release consideration was made by doctors and prison officials after it was determined that Atkins had less than six months to live. Officials at her prison in Chino approved her release, as did officials at corrections headquarters in Sacramento. “She can't care for herself, she can’t feed herself or even sit up in bed by herself,” said her attorney, Eric P. Lampel. In addition to the cancer, Atkins had her leg amputated. “The reality is, even if she gets this compassionate release, she won’t leave her hospital room.”

The reports indicate that Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (and author of Helter Skelter) supported Atkins' release largely because of her failing health. According to yesterday’s report,

In an e-mail to Atkins’ attorney in support of her release, he [Bugliosi] wrote that the notion that “just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her” was wrong, Bugliosi said.

I strongly agree with Bugliosi: mercy is an essential part of our very humanity. (Perhaps Bugliosi had in mind Nietzsche's insight, that if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.) Vengeance is sweet, but it is not justice. Justice is not the issue here. Justice, in the sense of punishment, already has been enacted by the State. Atkins' petition should ask us not simply to rehearse the heinousness of her crimes: they have been endlessly reiterated in sensation-mongering documentaries and true crime books, so there's little need for me to review them yet again. Rather, her situation requires us to listen to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." If vengeance is sweet, mercy is sweeter, as Portia said in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d [constrained=forced]
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice . . . .
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

As Shakespeare reminds us, when we ourselves ask for mercy, we hope and pray to receive it. Why is it so easy to withhold it from another? Are there those among us so accursed that they are beyond the act of mercy? Is there no shred of humanity in them? To paraphrase Bugliosi: Just because she showed no mercy doesn't require or demand us to act likewise. Moreover, I think Shakespeare anticipates an insight that Dostoevsky made in Crime and Punishment, and one we are well to remember: there is no justice in this world ("in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy"). If we all got what we deserved--if we all got what's really coming to us--none of us would be saved. Most certainly this understanding is essential to the Christian message: Christ tempers justice with mercy, and if you don't hold to that, then you're not a Christian. Make no mistake, dear reader: all our sins shall be remembered--yours as well as mine.

Soon, in so many days, she shall be no more. And perhaps you shall imagine, then, that justice has been done. But if you hold any sort of religious belief, then she shall be judged--in a method and manner that you and I cannot conceive: the wind bloweth where it listeth. The act of grace is beyond you and me. But mercy is not, and that's the real issue: these events reflect on you, the disposition of your own self, not on one who has already inherited the accursed share.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Soul Stealer

Cover illustration courtesy of Michael Easton and Christopher Shy

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading Michael Easton’s and Christopher Shy’s wonderful new graphic novel, Soul Stealer (DMF Comics). Dark, original, and sophisticated, Soul Stealer is just simply a beautiful, marvelous book, one whose imaginative depth enchanted me in a way that I haven’t been for years. I love the vivid quality of its storytelling and its deft, seemingly effortless synthesis of world mythologies—Egyptian, Greek, Celtic—into an highly unusual syncretism that allows for unpredictable plot swerves and unexpected linkages of characters. A recent news update at Christopher Shy's Studio Ronin website indicates that Soul Stealer has exceeded half its print run during its first week of sales, suggesting that I'm not alone in my assessment of the book's value.

The story’s protagonist, Kalan, is a young, Etruscan warrior once cut to pieces by a brutal, hulking savage named Apis Bull, part man, part ox. Like the Frankenstein monster—whose remorseless loneliness and parentless lineage Kalan shares—Kalan is less a man than an assemblage (“there were days I wasn’t even sure who was calling the shots inside”), re-membered and restored to life by a magician named Strabo, the father of his lost beloved, Oxania. Motivated by his profound, eternal love for Oxania—taken from him by the capricious Gods—he can do nothing but wander for all eternity through time and space, searching for a sign, some way that he might re-unite with her. His undying love is both a blessing and a curse.

Kalan has been cursed, but has also been compensated with a special gift. The quest for Oxania may form the continuing narrative, but Kalan’s gift forms the story’s special intrigue. The God Osiris has given him the ability to traverse between worlds: he is able to enter hell, find an individual soul, and deliver it to the land of the living—hence the title of the series, Soul Stealer, of which this initial codex forms the first book, titled “The Beaten and the Damned.” The novel’s fluid narrative consists of interludes of a blissful, lyrical quality (composed largely of Kalan's memories of his time with his beloved) that punctuate explosions of action, all augmented by Christopher Shy’s beautiful artwork, distinctive for its masterful control of light, poised between functional representation and evocative (non-representational) expressionism.

I could go on and on about Soul Stealer, just simply a great imaginative accomplishment. Happily, it promises to be the first by Michael Easton, who has co-written yet another in a different (forthcoming) series, The Green Woman, with author Peter Straub—the latter having provided an excellent Introduction to Soul Stealer, incidentally. As Straub rightly notes, Soul Stealer “rings with . . . the voice of a true storyteller, big and capacious and truthful.” He goes on to say, "Michael Easton and Christopher Shy have made a wondrous book," and I heartily agree. I look forward to reading the subsequent books in the series, and, of course, the pleasures of returning to Soul Stealer once I've emerged from my recent euphoria.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Having my abscessed wisdom tooth pulled a couple of days ago has to be one of the most miserably painful experiences of my life despite the use of so-called "painkillers," the reason, at least in part, why I haven't been the most diligent blogger the past few days. However, today I pulled myself up by the proverbial bootstraps in order to compose this blog, prompted by this being--so I learned this morning--Roger McGuinn's 66th birthday. The daily paper carries a column, “Today in History,” followed by a short column listing "Today’s Birthdays" (meaning the birthdays of celebrities). While perusing the paper this morning, between occasional sips of my Slim Fast (when I shall eat solid food again I have no idea), I read that Roger McGuinn turned a mere 66 years old today. I say "mere" because, for some reason, I thought he should be older in age, making me realize that all those great Byrds albums were made when he was a young man in his 20s. To put things in perspective, he’d barely turned twenty-six years old when the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released in July 1968, forty years ago this month. Roger McGuinn (born James Joseph McGuinn III in Chicago in 1942) was always the understood leader of the Byrds, the band whose debut single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was recorded in January 1965, when McGuinn was a mere twenty-two years old. Former Byrds member David Crosby is on record as calling Roger McGuinn a “genius,” and perhaps he is. Most certainly he is an individual possessing an indomitable spirit, a deeply resilient and persistent individual, with great musical instincts, which is why the Byrds lasted as a band as long as it did.

Perhaps because of my age at the time, the Byrds’ earliest hits—“Mr. Tambourine Man” “All I Really Want To Do,” "Turn Turn Turn"—while undeniably powerful, influential songs, now seem to me to be the most dated, the most “stuck in time.” Recorded late in the folk era and after the Beatles’ annus mirabilis of 1964, they are folk songs played as the Beatles might have played them, distinguished by their marvelous harmonies (the lingering influence of folk harmonies) and McGuinn’s uniquely amplified Rickenbacker guitar. For me personally, the Byrds really took flight with Fifth Dimension (1966); with all due respect to their earlier hit singles, I think “Eight Miles High” is more sonically interesting than these earlier tunes, a song that in retrospect reveals the band’s willingness to experiment, to push themselves and at the same time push musical boundaries, and not to continue on with more of the same. I cannot say with certainty that Fifth Dimension is my favorite Byrds album, nor can I say it is their “best,” but then nothing about the band or its distinguished career compels me to make such claims. Put on any album from Fifth Dimension onward and there’s nothing at all dull or uninteresting happening musically; each one is unique in itself, a thoroughly engaging musical soundscape that makes listening to their albums one after the other a grand and fascinating musical adventure—a claim that, no doubt, is made by fans of the the most adventuresome bands—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and so on. Make no mistake, the Byrds do not pale beside these legendary bands, but stand side-by-side with them as a peer.

I must be one of those few fans and admirers of the Byrds who don’t think they missed a proverbial beat between Younger Than Yesterday (released February 1967) and The Notorious Byrd Brothers (released early January 1968 but recorded for the most part in August and November 1967), the latter album being the one made during the departure first of David Crosby and then Michael Clarke, both original members of the band (Gene Clark had left earlier, in the spring of 1966). I agree with David Fricke, who wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, “Falling apart as a rock band, they became an art project, a brilliant, intrepid studio entity abetted by a fine complement of hired hands (guitarist and soon-to-be Byrd Clarence White, electronic music pioneer Paul Beaver, steel guitarist Red Rhodes, future Eric Clapton drummer Jim Gordon) and a sympathetic and imaginative young producer . . . named Gary Usher” (liner notes to the 1997 Columbia/Legacy Super Bit CD reissue). I think Fricke is exactly right: in Gary Usher the Byrds could not have found a more sympathetic producer, and the result, issued the first week of 1968 but recorded primarily in August and November 1967, is a record of great beauty and originality, if entirely a product of the studio.

I hardly need mention the record that followed, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (released 40 years ago this month) is now considered one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. Previously consuming the Byrds through confiscation of singles purchased by my older sister, and borrowing LPs from friends, I’m proud to say that the first Byrds album I ever purchased with my very own stack of quarters was Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (1969) which—this again according to David Fricke—“has the humiliating distinction of being the lowest-charting album in the group’s original studio catalog.” I’m delighted to know that at the time, unbeknownst to me, of course, I helped out the album’s meager sales by +1. To this day I think the musically schizoid “King Apathy III” is one of McGuinn’s best avant-garde compositions, and “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” co-written by McGuinn and Gram Parsons, a classic, a satire of the sort matched only by Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.” The album also has the distinction of including both “Candy” and “Child of the Universe,” both written for the utterly byzantine (and now "cult") film Candy (1968), although only the latter song was included on the soundtrack, the former having been rejected by the producers. Indeed, I bought every Byrds album subsequently released, all made with the line-up of McGuinn, Clarence White, Skip Battin, and Gene Parsons: Ballad of Easy Rider (1969); Untitled (1970), which, as everyone knows, contains one of McGuinn’s greatest compositions, "Chestnut Mare"; Byrdmaniax (1971)—the death masks qualifying it as one of the great LP covers of all time--and Farther Along (1971), the band’s warm and serene final album (before, ironically, the 1973 over-hyped reunion album made by the original line-up, which bombed). I still possess all these vinyl LPs, and know them as well as old friends.

Thanks to CD technology, recordings from the late 60s period of the Byrds have emerged, such as Live at the Fillmore—February 1969, issued on CD in 2000, recorded—putatively—at the band’s commercial nadir, and more recently, Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971, featuring the McGuinn-White-Battin-Parsons lineup—just simply a great live band—issued by Sundazed about six weeks ago. One can hope that more such releases shall be made in the future. Outside of the Byrds albums themselves, I recommend, for those interested, McGuinn's Live From Mars (Hollywood Records, 1996) as an excellent place to start, as it serves as a sort of musical autobiography, as McGuinn takes the listener on a musical journey, discussing and playing his own music, its sources and inspirations, as well as the music which influenced him, beginning with Elvis's rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel."

And so, as of today, Roger McGuinn is 66 years of age and--who knows?--a member of the AARP. Perhaps so, but I hope not. I think not. Occasionally I have met a person in my life whose attitude and behavior makes me wonder if that person were ever really young, "young" as in youthful, having experienced the excitement and newness of the world through young eyes. (I must be thinking of "youth" because the experience of the past few days has made me feel, physically at least, old.) This meaning of "young" is the meaning of the word that Dylan sings about when he urges one to be "forever young." Perhaps it is only appropriate, therefore, that at 66, one should offer Roger McGuinn the birthday wish of being "forever young," or perhaps, phrased another way--to remain younger than yesterday.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Falsetto A-Z

Surprisingly, one discovers the word falsetto, literally meaning “false soprano,” actually has two different meanings at One definition reads, “A male voice in an upper register beyond its normal range,” while the other reads, “The treble range produced by most adult male singers through a slightly artificial technique...” What precisely, then, are we hearing when we hear falsetto singing? For a form of singing that is so essential to popular music, I find it somewhat surprising that its status is so culturally ambiguous: abnormal on the one hand, “slightly artificial” on the other. To call it a form of singing by males that is artificial associates artifice with femininity, a linkage that Michael Jarrett identifies as ultimately deriving from use of the castrati in Italian opera, the castrati being emasculated men whose physical alteration when boys allowed them to sing like women when adult men. The castrati were known as voci artificiali, "artificial voices."

But as Majorie Garber has pointed out, the operatic use of the castrati eventually gave rise, after the social practice of creating them ceased, to the bel canto singing style, the style favored by Italian-American pop singers (255). And, as Michael Jarrett has observed, that style "helped fashion the rock universe" (231). He writes:

Dean Martin's croon profoundly affected Elvis Presley, but it also attracted the black gaze of desire. Chuck Berry comes from this tradition (though perhaps by way of Slim Galliard). And Marvin Gaye readily admitted: "My dream was to become Frank Sinatra. I loved his phrasing, especially when he was very young and pure.... I also dug Dean Martin and especially Perry Como (quoted in [Gerald] Early, ["One Nation Under a Groove," New Republic, 15-22 July 1991] 30) (231)

Doo-wop popularized falsetto because, according to Simon Frith, the male voice was broken "into its component parts such that the combination of all its sounds, from low to high" defined masculinity ("Brit Beat: High Signs," Village Voice, 7 June 1994). No wonder, then, that most successful male pop groups always had a member capable of singing falsetto; in the Bee Gees' case, when Barry Gibb (pictured) decided to sing falsetto with "Nights on Broadway" on Main Course (1975), the Bee Gees were, de facto, transformed into Barry Gibb's band.

Falsetto A—Z, A Primer
Little Anthony & The Imperials, “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop”
The Bee Gees (Barry Gibb), “Nights on Broadway”
[Canned Heat (Al Wilson), “Goin’ Up the Country”] (see comments)
Lou Christie, “Lightnin’ Strikes”
The Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”
Elvis (Presley), “Blue Moon”
Art Garfunkel (Simon & Garfunkel), “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Eddie Holman, “Hey There Lonely Girl”
The Impressions (Curtis Mayfield), “People Get Ready”
Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), “Emotional Rescue”
Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations), “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"
Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant), “Whole Lotta Love”
Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”
Aaron Neville (Neville Brothers), “Mona Lisa”
Roy Orbison, “Crying”
Prince, “Kiss”
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Smokey Robinson (& The Miracles), “Ooo Baby Baby”
Leo Sayer, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”
Tiny Tim, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”
U2, “Lemon”
Frankie Valli (The Four Seasons), “Sherry”
Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), “Good Vibrations”
Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), "Don't Worry Baby" (see comments)
X (John Doe), “White Girl”
Neil Young, “Tonight’s the Night”
The Zombies (Colin Blunstone), “She’s Not There”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rare 1960s Ephemera Showing Today on TCM

Turner Classic Movies is showing some rare and unusual films from the 60s today for those interested. A couple of the films aired on TCM about a month ago, but some, to my knowledge, have never shown on TV. None of these films are considered classics, but as museum pieces they are well worth screening. All times are Central Daylight Time (CDT).

Herman’s Hermits travel to England for a high-stakes greyhound race.
Cast: Peter Noone, Herman’s Hermits, Stanley Holloway. Dir: Saul Swimmer. Color, 95m [LTBX]

6:36am—From The Vaults: THE BACKGROUND BEAT (Short, 1965)
A short doc by director Ralph Nelson exploring how he uses music and scoring in his pictures. Includes examples from Once A Thief (1965). B&W, 7m

7:00am—HOLD ON! (1966)
Rocket scientists consider naming a space ship after Herman’s Hermits.
Cast: Peter Noone, Herman’s Hermits, Shelley Fabares. Dir: Arthur Lubin. Color, 86m [LTBX]

8:30am—WINTER A-GO-GO (1965)
A teenaged ski bum tries to turn the lodge he’s inherited into a hit music club.
Cast: James Stacy, William Wellman, Jr., Beverly Adams. Dir: Richard Benedict. Color, 88m [LTBX] Note: Includes the tune, "Hip Square Dance."

10:00am—UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE (1963)
A lecherous landlord tries to steal a woman from her fiancie.
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Carol Lynley, Dean Jones. Dir: David Swift. Color, 110m [LTBX] [CC]

A sophisticated crook mounts an intricate plan to rob an airport bank.
Cast: James Coburn, Camilla Sparv, Harrison Ford. Dir: Bernard Girard. Color, 107m [LTBX] Note: Includes a very early film appearance by Harrison Ford.

2:00pm—DUFFY (1968)
A playboy tries to rob his father with the help of a gentleman crook.
Cast: James Coburn, James Mason, James Fox. Dir: Robert Parrish. Color, 101m [LTBX] Note: all existing versions of this film on video are missing one minute of footage when Duffy tries to force himself on Segolene. Plus it is letterboxed!

3:45pm—THE HAPPENING (1967)
A kidnapped gangster joins forces with the hippies who abducted him.
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Faye Dunaway, George Maharis. Dir: Elliot Silverstein. Color, 101m [LTBX] Note: Too bad this rarely shown film wasn't paired with Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1968).

5:30pm—HOMICIDAL (1961)
A nurse and her husband conspire to collect a rich inheritance.
Cast: Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich. Dir: William Castle. B&W, 87m [LTBX] [CC] Note: not all that rare, but TCM is airing it letterboxed.

When a one-night stand results in pregnancy, a musician and a young girl try to resolve the issue together.
Cast: Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood, Tom Bosley. Dir: Robert Mulligan. B&W, 100m.