Thursday, August 21, 2008


According to, citing the Columbia Encyclopedia, obbligato is a musical term embodying a contradiction (an antilogy):

(ŏbləgä'tō) [Ital.,=obligatory], in music, originally a term by which a composer indicated that a certain part was indispensable to the music. Obbligato was thus the direct opposite to ad libitum [Lat.,=at will], which indicated that the part so marked was unessential and might be omitted. Misunderstanding of the term obbligato, however, resulted in a reversal of its meaning; when a violin part, for example, is added to a song it is called a violin obbligato, whereas it may be a superfluous ornament for which ad libitum would be a more precise direction.

In other words, obbligato can mean a part is either essential (indispensable) or superfluous (optional). But according to another source, obbligato is a classical musical term for countermelody:

In a piece whose texture consists clearly of a melody with accompaniment (i.e., a homophonic texture): a countermelody is an accompanying part with distinct, though subordinate, melodic interest. If the melodic interest were not subordinate, the texture would be polyphonic: two or more melodies of more or less equal melodic importance.

A notable instance of obbligato:
Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (Matthew Fisher, Hammond organ obbligato)

A notable instance of melody/countermelody:
Billie Holiday (vocal, melody), Lester Young (tenor sax, countermelody) – A Sailboat in the Moonlight

A notable instance of polyphony:
Derek and the Dominos – Layla (Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, guitars)

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Cheerful Insanity of Creation

Previously, in my entries of May 16, May 31, July 1, and July 22, I have discussed at length 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 inherent pitfalls). Since it is rather late in the month, I've gone ahead posted September's listening schedule, for anyone following along. There are far fewer releases, you'll notice, than in previous months, although the number of releases increases again after September's lull. As I’ve stated many times before, I cannot claim my list is infallible, but I continue to work to improve it. I continue to add to, and modify as needed, each month's list, as you'll notice if you look back and examine each list. Here's the (rather short) list of albums I have put together for September 1968:

Deep Purple, Shades of Deep Purple [UK]
Giles, Giles & Fripp, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp
Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation
Steve Miller Band, Children of the Future
Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (9/26-28) [1969]
The Who, Magic Bus: The Who on Tour [US]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Down Inside the Gold Mine

For almost forty years, Jim Morrison—memorably christened by Lester Bangs as “Bozo Dionysus” in an article published in 1981—has remained a seductive, if dangerous, teen icon. In order to understand the way Morrison’s artistic reputation has been cultivated and maintained over the years, one need only to acknowledge the role of the mass media. The first step cementing Jim Morrison’s immortality occurred about a decade after his death, at age 27, with Jerry Hopkins’ and Daniel Sugarman’s 1980 biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, which also served to rekindle interest in the Doors’ music. At about the same time, Francis Ford Coppola used the Doors’ “The End” on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now (1979), which, combined with the subsequent biography, implied that the Doors, the debacle of Vietnam, and the 1960s were all inextricably linked, in some dark, self-indulgent, and death-worshiping way. The fact is, certain rock stars associated with the so-called Sixties “counterculture,” such as Jimi Hendrix, were not at all opposed to the Vietnam War. Whether Jim Morrison was opposed to the Vietnam War, or cared a jot whether it was happening or not, is a question I cannot answer. I’ve read the biography, and I conclude that he was most interested in his career (although that might have been as a poet and not as a rock god).

A decade later, Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), while if not precisely about the Doors, served to renew interest in the so-called “Lizard King” for yet another, younger, generation. Despite the fact that Hopkin’s and Sugarman’s biography demonstrated, as Lester Bangs observed, “that Jim Morrison was apparently a nigh compleat asshole from the instant he popped out of the womb until he died in a bathtub in Paris….” (216), Stone’s bio-pic managed to transform Jim Morrison—whose life, suggested Bangs, amounted “to one huge alcoholic exhibitionistic joke” (218)—into the seductive, Romantic image of the self-destructive artist. The Doors is a movie that Hollywood would call “high concept”: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (& Satanism). The question remains as to why anybody born after 1970 should care in the least about Jim Morrison; to enjoy the music of the Doors is another issue entirely.

Despite my skepticism, the reissue of Oliver Stone’s The Doors this week on Blu-ray Disc (Lionsgate) is yet another indication of the film’s resilience and remarkable durability over the past seventeen years. The question for me, when watching the movie last evening—which looks spectacular in high definition, incidentally—is what it is actually about. What, precisely, is the putative attraction of the film? What's the story? Is it about Jim Morrison, or about the 1960s? Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s? Clearly it is not about the Doors as such, as a rock band, although the members of the Doors are featured in it. The movie is clearly about Jim Morrison, but only insofar as he embodies the pagan impulse of the 1960s. In the film’s first extended scene, Morrison is shown as a small boy witnessing an accident involving Native American Indians. We are encouraged to believe that the spirit of an elderly, dying Indian lodged itself, however remarkably or improbably—mystically—in the body of the young white boy who serendipitously witnessed the man’s dying moment. (By the way, I have severe doubts whether the biographical incident, mentioned in the Hopkins and Sugarman biography, ever actually occurred, but that is another issue.) The premise of the film is that Jim Morrison, as an emblem of the turbulent 1960s, is in fact a pagan: not anti-Christian so much as non-Christian. That’s the thesis of the film as I see it: the 60s was a moment of pagan resurgence, of paganism. (From the lyrics to Hair: “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.”)

But there’s a problem with this idea: don’t confuse historical processes with individual, idiosyncratic, and perhaps dubious biography. Here’s Lester Bangs:

In a way, Jim Morrison’s life and death could be written off as simply one of the more pathetic episodes in the history of the star system, or that offensive myth we all persist in believing which holds that artists are somehow a race apart and thus entitled to piss on my wife, throw you out the window, smash up the joint, and generally do whatever they want. I’ve seen a lot of this over the years, and what’s most ironic is that it always goes under the assumption that to deny them these outbursts would somehow be curbing their creativity, when the reality, as far as I can see, is that it’s exactly such insane tolerance of another insanity that also contributes to them drying up as artists.... this system is . . . why we’ve seen almost all our rock ‘n’ roll heroes who, unlike Morrison, did manage to survive the Sixties, end up having nothing to say. Just imagine if he was still around today, 37 years old; no way he could still be singing about chaos and revolution. (218-19)

As Slavoj Zizek has observed, in a typical Hollywood film, the film’s historical background most often serves as the excuse for what the film is really about. He says:

In Reds, the October Revolution is the background for the reconciliation of the lovers in a passionate sex act; in Deep Impact, the gigantic wave that inundates the entire east coast of the US is a background for the incestuous reunification of the daughter with her father; in The War of the Worlds, the alien invasion is the background for Tom Cruise to reassert his paternal role....

Employing the same logic, The Doors uses the turbulent 1960s as a background for Val Kilmer to allow the alien soul within him to be reclaimed by the old Indian he witnessed, as a child, to be dying on the edge of the highway. I know that to suggest that this is the actual plot of The Doors sounds ludicrous, but most certainly it is more accurate than to say that The Doors is “about” the 1960s—a discursive site, but not, as portrayed in this movie as in many others—a period of recent "history."

Friday, August 15, 2008

“That Cat Shaft Is A Bad Mother—”

As a follow-up to my earlier post on Isaac Hayes (and the earlier post on the wah-wah pedal), I thought I’d mention Film Score Monthly’s/Screen Archives Entertainment’s forthcoming release Shaft Anthology: His Big Score and More! (click on the title for additional information). Although not planned as such, the anthology is a fitting tribute to Isaac Hayes in the form of one of his most famous film scores, which features the unheard original score by the musical legend. The forthcoming release is not an attempt to exploit the musician’s recent death: as FSM/SAE’s website indicates, the anthology had been in preparation for years and its release by Film Score Monthly days after Hayes’ untimely death is sheer serendipity. I reproduce the following from FSM’s website:

From FSM and SAE: This anthology has been in the works for three years and its release is coincidental to the untimely passing of the great Isaac Hayes. In fact, it was sent to the pressing plant for manufacturing three weeks prior to his death. Mr. Hayes, we salute you!

Yes, they’re talking about Shaft! On the famous record album, the lyric is “that cat Shaft is a bad mother—.” However, the name “Shaft” is omitted above because this is the film version of the legendary score—not the familiar record album—and this is one of many differences, both subtle and large, in the two versions of Isaac Hayes’s seminal work. This pioneering 3CD set features the previously unreleased original soundtrack to the 1971
Shaft along with music from the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score!, and 1973-74 TV series. It is the Shaft Anthology: His Big Score and More!

Shaft is one of the landmark characters and films not just of 1970s “blaxploitation” cinema but all of pop culture. For the first time, a black leading man (provocatively named and dynamically played by Richard Roundtree) talked back to white authority and acted like a cool James Bond who did whatever he wanted...and he was the hero. The character starred in seven novels, three feature films (with a fourth in recent years) and a TV series. FSM has compiled the best of Shaft’s 1970s previously unreleased-on-CD soundtracks as follows:

The original 1971 Shaft was one of the seminal films of “blaxploitation” movement, as Shaft gets involved in the Harlem rescue effort of a gangster’s kidnapped daughter. The score by Isaac Hayes not only set trends in film music but pop and R&B, with its spoken/sung lyrics, disco-era wah-wah guitar and high-hat cymbals, and lush, soulful orchestrations. The soundtrack was widely distributed on a 2LP set (later a CD) by Enterprise (Hayes’s personal label on Stax Records) but that was a re-recording done in Memphis. For the first time, this CD presents the original Hollywood-recorded film score featuring primordial versions of the source cues as well as all of the dramatic underscoring (little of which was adapted for the LP). It is a fascinating glimpse into Hayes’s creativity and an important archiving of this legendary work. As a bonus, disc one of this collection adds Hayes’s two singles released in 1972 related to M-G-M productions: “Theme From The Men” (a TV theme) and “Type Thang” (used in Shaft’s Big Score!).

The second Shaft film, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), was scored by the director of the first two installments, Gordon Parks, when Hayes was unavailable. Parks was a multitalented musician, poet, author and photographer, in addition to filmmaker, who had scored his directorial debut, 1969’s The Learning Tree, and was technically assisted on his film scores (as was Hayes on Shaft) by Tom McIntosh. The Shaft’s Big Score! soundtrack called upon an earlier, Duke Ellington-style of sophisticated jazz compared to Hayes’s Memphis-style R&B, with a bravura climactic chase (“Symphony for Shafted Souls”) that has long made the soundtrack LP a treasured collectible. The complete soundtrack is presented here.

The third Shaft film, Shaft in Africa (1973), is not presented here for licensing reasons (though most of it was included on a 1999 compilation, The Best of Shaft). That film’s composer, Johnny Pate—the brilliant arranger for Curtis Mayfield on Superfly and other projects—returned for the short-lived Shaft TV series in 1973-74 (starring Roundtree), which had seven 90-minute episodes produced for CBS. Pate provided inventive adaptation of Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft” as well as his own groovy and suspenseful scoring—from an era in which most TV crime music sounded like Shaft, this is, delightfully, the real thing. Pate provided three full scores and two partial scores for the Shaft series (with the rest tracked with earlier cues), almost—but not all—of which are presented at the end of disc two and all of disc three of this set.

This entire collection is in excellent stereo sound, meticulously remixed from the first-generation M-G-M session masters. There are lots of afros in Joe Sikoryak’s art direction. The comprehensive liner notes are by Lukas Kendall.

I've pre-ordered my copy, how about you?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chickens' Hits

There are lots of songs about food, but I suspect that of this group a large number of them have to do with the chicken. “Anyone seeking an understanding of American music,” writes Michael Jarrett, “could start by pondering the chicken” (287). If you stop to think about, the chicken is ubiquitous. Besides all the songs about the chicken, musical groups have named themselves after the chicken as well (Chicken Shack, Christine Perfect’s—aka Christine McVie’s—first band; The Dixie Chicks), and the chicken frequently shows up in the movies, on television, in old minstrelsy jokes (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”), and as a figure of poetic justice (“The chickens have finally come home to roost”). A few years ago, a hit movie starred chickens: Chicken Run (2000). And none of us who love ‘toons could fail to mention that great Southern star of Warner Brothers cartoons, Foghorn Leghorn. Speaking of roosters, the French, who when pondering anything think first about how they might cook and eat it, have even managed to make use of an old, tough rooster, and in doing so transformed the method into a world famous dish—Coq au Vin. But why does one need to ponder the chicken to understand American music and film? Because surrounding the chicken are several issues, including sex, race, class, and—of course—rhythm.

For your aural pleasure, here’s a 16-piece variety big box meal of chickens’ hits. Bon appetite!

Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack (Back at the Chicken Shack)
Cab Calloway – Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird (Are You Hep to the Jive? 22 Sensational Tracks)
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – Chicken an’ Dumplins (At the Jazz Corner of the World)
Charles Mingus – Eat That Chicken (Oh Yeah)
Mel Brown – Chicken Fat (Chicken Fat)
Little Feat – Dixie Chicken (Dixie Chicken)
Steve Goodman – Chicken Cordon Bleus (Somebody Else’s Troubles)
Ry Cooder – Chicken Skin Music (1976)
The Beastie Boys – Finger Lickin’ Good (Check Your Head)
Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow, Chicken (Songs With Legs)
The Meters, Chicken Strut (Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology)
Rufus Thomas – Do the Funky Chicken (The Best of Rufus Thomas: Do the Funky Somethin’)
Little Jimmy Dickens – Take an Old Cold ‘Tater (and Wait) (I’m Little, But I’m Loud: The Little Jimmy Dickens Collection)
Southern Culture on the Skids – Eight Piece Box (Peckin’ Party)
Big Joe Turner – The Chicken and the Hawk (Up, Up and Away) (Big, Bad & Blue: The Big Joe Turner Anthology)
Link Wray – Run Chicken Run (Rumble! The Best of Link Wray)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Soulsville USA

A comment left by fred in connection with yesterday's Issac Hayes post reminded me that I neglected to provide a link to Memphis' great Stax Museum, "Soulsville USA." As I mentioned yesterday, Hayes got his start as a session musician at Stax back in the early 1960s. We visited Memphis three summers ago with the explicit purpose of visiting Graceland--a visit which we thoroughly enjoyed--but while we were installed at the Peabody Hotel there I also used the opportunity to visit a number of Memphis' historic sites, including the Stax Museum. Visiting the Stax Museum was not only a great educational experience, but a great thrill for me as well, as so many legendary musicians recorded at Stax's studios, among them Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and in a series of sessions in 1973, Elvis Presley. While the numbers of visitors who trek to Memphis every year in order to visit Graceland numbers in the millions, the Stax Museum is one of Memphis great treasures, and I urge anyone planning a visit to Memphis to schedule a visit there also.

Perhaps because of the Scientology connection, Isaac Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley were close friends; I was going to post a picture of the two together, but given everything surrounding Elvis's image is so heavily guarded and copyrighted, I have posted the following link instead. Hayes happened to pass away at the beginning of Elvis Week 2008, a celebration of Elvis and the culture from which he came. I strongly suspect that Elvis, were he alive, would give "Soulsville USA" a strong endorsement.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes: Soul Man, 1942-2008

By sheer serendipity, a few blog entries ago I wrote about Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" as being one of the more famous instances of rock songs that used the wah-wah pedal. Thus I was saddened to hear the news that Hayes died today at the age of 65. Apparently a family member found Hayes unresponsive near a treadmill and he was pronounced dead an hour or so later at a Memphis hospital. While the cause of death was not released to the media, my guess is that it was caused by a heart attack. A session pianist for Stax Records in Memphis beginning in the early 60s, he began co-writing songs with David Porter, composing hits for Sam and Dave such as "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man." But before achieving fame in the 1960s, apparently he held down a number of low-paying jobs, including shining shoes on Memphis's famous Beale Street.

Isaac Hayes anticipated the cool romanticism of crooners such as Barry White by virtue of his sensuous, laid-back records like Hot Buttered Soul (1969), the jacket cover for which consisted, memorably, of the top of Hayes' bald head. As a black musician, he struck a powerful image, looking rather like an Egyptian pharaoh with his shaven head and ornate, vaguely oriental multiple gold chains regally draped around his neck. At the 1972 Oscar ceremony, Hayes performed the "Theme From Shaft" decked out in lots of gold, subsequently receiving a standing ovation. According to the Los Angeles Times obituary, TV Guide "later chose it as No. 18 in its list of television's 25 most memorable moments." He also won a Grammy that year for his 1971 album Black Moses, next to Shaft one of his best known works and perhaps his best.

But it was the "Theme From Shaft," which became a #1 hit in 1971, that cemented his fame and made him a household name. A few years ago we visited Memphis--the primary purpose for which was to visit Graceland--and stayed at the Memphis Peabody Hotel in order to see the famous "Peabody ducks." While staying there, a member of the hotel staff told us that Isaac Hayes' restaurant was within short walking distance of the Hotel, so we thought we would try it out. Our dinner at his establishment became one of the highlights of our trip--a soul food extravaganza.

It is easy to forget that Hayes also had an extensive film career--for me, one of his more memorable roles being that of "The Duke" in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981)--and in 1997 he became the voice of Chef on TV's South Park. He quit the show in 2006 after an episode of the show apparently mocked Scientology, his religion. "There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," he said. Apparently a subsequent episode of the show killed off his character, suggesting there was a degree of animosity between him and the show's creators.

Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Isaac Hayes was an influential figure in rock music, the co-creator of several R&B hits and sole (soul) creator of a handful of significant records in the late 60s and early 70s. Ironically, his death occurred at the beginning of this year's annual "Elvis Week," reminding us that Memphis has lost another of its famous sons.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Getting A Kick

A "kick" refers to any form of instant or sudden pleasurable sensation, perhaps even of the unexpected sort, while "to kick" means to cast off any sort of heavy physical dependency, especially to drugs, as in the phrase “to kick [off] the habit.” I suspect that “kick” is a form of American slang that likely dates its origin back to the Jazz Era, when to get a “kick” was a popular expression referring to an instant sensation of pleasure, either from drugs or alcohol (a stiff drink could have a "kick like a mule"). By the process of metaphorical elaboration, “kick” or “kicks”came to mean any sort of pleasure, social (“fun”) or otherwise. In 1934, Cole Porter was able to write “I Get a Kick Out of You” for the Broadway musical Anything Goes, containing a set of lyrics consisting of

Some get a kick from cocaine
I'm sure that if
took even one sniff
hat would bore me terrifically, too
et, I get a kick out of you

By the 1936 Hollywood film adaptation of the play, however, made soon after the advent of Hollywood’s “production code” (under the watchful eye of the Hays Office), because of the drug reference Porter was forced to alter the lyric from “a kick from cocaine” to the less offensive “the perfume in Spain.”

Later, by the 1960s, “kicks” was a slang term closely associated with teenage behavior--a form of non-productive social expenditure stereotypical teenagers were quite interested in pursuing--and could refer to the benign sort of fun known as “cruising” to more sordid activities such as sex, underage drinking, and juvenile delinquency ("pranks"). But the word never kicked its association with drugs, especially at a time such the 1960s when drug use was associated with freedom, both from convention as well as middle-class sexual Puritanism.

Songs Containing a Kick (of the Instant Pleasure Sort, of the Unrestrained Freedom Sort, or just the Plain Vindictive, Right in the Ass Sort):

Cole Porter – I Get a Kick Out of You
Bobby Troup – (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66
Paul Revere & the Raiders – Kicks
The Association – Along Comes Mary
The MC5 – Kick Out the Jams
The Residents – Aircraft Damage
Kinky Friedman – Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life
Eric Clapton – Cocaine
Don Henley – Dirty Laundry
INXS – Kick
Quiet Riot – Get Your Kicks
The Undertones – Teenage Kicks

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I've been extremely busy this week hurriedly finishing an article on Ingmar Bergman's film The Serpent's Egg (1977) for a forthcoming (UK) book publication titled European Horror Cinema, and I haven't been able to focus as I'd like on a couple blog topics that I've been desperately wanting to write. (The article I agreed to write for that publication is already a month overdue.) Rather than fail to post at all, however, I thought I'd post instead an essay I wrote recently in response to an article that was widely circulated in a newsletter on my college campus. While you do not have the opportunity to read the article to which I was responding, I think you can nonetheless piece together the gist of that article's argument based on my copious references to it. I should tell you that I was told in person by the individual to whom I was responding that I didn't "get" his essay, but with all due respect, I think I did "get" it, loud and clear. I hereby post my response, I suppose unfair to the writer of the original article because you don't have in front of you his article to which I was responding. I hope you enjoy my essay anyway--it stands on its own merits. There's nothing like reading other people's mail. What follows is the original text I sent to the editor of the newsletter: what was eventually published, in a subsequent issue of the newsletter, was substantially cut. Here, finally, is the original version of my essay, for all the world to see.

Dear [Editor]:

Sorting through the several issues raised in your article, "Literature No Longer Matters" (The Examined Life 15:4), I conclude that you believe there's literature and then there's Literature. "[M]ost Americans do not read" Literature, but rather "literature," that is, the pages of "Sports Illustrated, People, and Time" (p. 1). You, one who teaches Introduction to Ethics classes, should know better than to formulate an argument based on a false dichotomy between ill-defined concepts. Literature is produced by "Dostoevsky, Hugo, Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Dickens, Chaucer...whoever wrote Beowulf...[and] Phillip [sic] Roth" (p. 3). Given other names you reference in the article, I assume to this list one should add Plato, Aristotle, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard. Those who produce "literature" are (by inference) journalists (all of whom one assumes would be much younger than Philip Roth, whom you've placed among some pretty august company, I might add) and the unnamed author who may write "a novel about a character whose movements are determined by his genetic makeup and his chemical reactions to the environment" (p. 2). Since no author or title is named, I assume this is merely a caricature of a fictional fiction–again pointing to a severe flaw in your argument, namely that both "Literature" and "literature" remain ill-defined concepts–just as do the collocations you employ later on, "good fiction" and "bad fiction." You write, "Good fiction is heroic, revealing the struggles of a contemplative soul overcoming himself and his environment" (p. 2). Given this formulation, what would you make, for example, of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, in which Jim's final heroic act is also deliberately suicidal, an attempt to erase his earlier act of cowardice? Jim "overcomes himself," true, but I can conclude that only because the term (category) "overcoming" contains enough qualities to be sufficiently broad (transitive) in application. Likewise, it is also possible to say that suicide is a way of "overcoming" oneself. It can also be said of Jim that he "overcame" the theological injunction against suicide as well.

In contrast, you claim that "Bad fiction is anti-heroic, depicting sociological characters who lack an imagination and a will, being simply a reflection of society, a cheap product of the environment" (p. 2). Again you provide no examples or illustrations and omit any definition of "sociological characters," whatever they are, meaning that once again you have omitted the evidence essential to the logic of your argument. I would agree with you that there are some poor books out there, but this is neither a new insight nor a profound one, nor a feature peculiar to our age. I'm inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written," thus avoiding the problem(s) of using moral categories to talk about the content of a book. (Translation: Since certain books contain knowledge that you do not value, what they contain doesn't count as knowledge at all.)

The other issue you raise, and which I find is a rather important one, is that of a putative opposition between word and image, or the opposition between verbal art and visual art, again revealing your tendency to lure your reader into dichotomizing traps. As many intellectuals interested in the history of art and literature have observed, this opposition between word and image is based on the so-called "metaphysics of presence," that is, the Word is more proximate to the Truth than the Image (which is debased, and trivial, and deceptive, and so on, which your use of the parable of the Cave as an example emphasizes). This conceptual opposition is expressed in your article in several ways: Literature vs. TV, Literature vs. movies, Literature vs. the computer screen, and also in a very specific way in an anecdote about the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings vs. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings. "As good as the movie is, my fourteen-year-old daughter [omitted] said the book [of The Lord of the Rings] is better [than the movie]. Why? 'Because the book has the characters' thoughts.' That is right: the mind is quicker than the eye, the reader's imagination is richer than a movie producer's images...." (p. 2). Using this logic, you therefore would discourage [omitted] from reading any dramatic literature because dramatic literature–and certainly movies are a form of dramatic representation–demands that the reader/spectator make inferences about characters' thoughts and motives rather than employing a narrator to provide explicit statements about them. If this were so, you would have her avoid a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, because the reader has no direct insight into Hamlet's motives. Not true, you might say: Shakespeare uses the device of the soliloquy, in which the character externalizes his or her thoughts. Rightly so, but then why have generations of readers puzzled over the character of Hamlet? Perhaps because there remains a contradiction between what he says and what he does, so we're back to square one: since we lack any direct insight into his motives, we have to rely on other ways to uncover them. Likewise, I assume you would not condone Greek dramatists, and no modern classics such as Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons, Tennessee Williams's A Glass Menagerie, or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Certainly you don't believe this, nor have you told [omitted] to avoid Shakespeare or any of these authors. Since it is clear that you can't take this part of your own argument seriously, neither can I. However, the effect of all this is that your discussion of The Lord of the Rings boils down to the proposition that the book is better than the movie, an assertion so painfully banal that I can't believe you actually made it. Anyone familiar with the literature of deconstruction will recognize this "logocentric" opposition, founded on the notion of "presence." Pitting the book against the movie is yet another version of the opposition that pits original against copy. But I am not interested in demonstrating the untenability of the authentic/conventional (pure/popular) opposition. I don't wish to recapitulate what has become the most standard sort of deconstructive reading.

Your insistent denigration of vision and of the visual, however, is of great concern to me. (I'll neglect pursuing your rhetorical slight-of-hand when you substitute "the world of appearances" for "images" [p. 1]). A revealing moment in your essay occurs during an off-hand remark, presumably intended to be humorous, that "Bad fiction edifying as watching a colonoscopy" (p. 2). I assume you had at least two purposes for making this remark: to juxtapose the categories of bad fiction and excrement (nothing new there), while also, simultaneously, referring to the historic moment when Katie Couric had her colonoscopy televised nationally (March 2000). It was, perhaps, a rather bold and audacious event, certainly unique, which invites a number of readings: that of the prurient "spectacle," that is, of mind-numbing mass entertainment that invokes associations with the Roman coliseum. For some, no doubt, the experience of watching one of America's sweethearts having her colon examined proves once and for all that nothin's sacred–yet another indication of our hopelessly degraded culture, typical of any argument, such as yours, that employs a rhetoric of degeneration. Such arguments chart social trends as a downward course, relying on readers to decode such a journey Platonically, as a deviation from the Good. Of course, one might argue, on the other hand, that she, Katie Couric, had the general Good in mind, to raise public awareness of colon cancer despite the general squeamishness on the subject. Her concern is justifiable: colon cancer is the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer. Current statistics show that about 76,000 people die from it a year. In fact, Couric's husband, NBC legal commentator Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer a couple years before her broadcast, so it is probable that she had personal reasons for calling attention to the virtues of preventive health care technology, which took precedence over any "sensational" aspects of the broadcast.

Your incidental remark about a colonoscopy thus belies an issue suppressed in your discussion, namely, to avoid any mention or reference to the value of vision and seeing in the sciences, particularly the medical sciences, a discipline in which the word/image antithesis, that so animates your essay, is simply not applicable. Certainly you wouldn't claim that the establishment of the study of microscopy in the eighteenth century, which led to the discovery of microorganisms and the formation of sciences such as dermatology, was just an uncritical preoccupation with the "merely" visual, or "the world of appearances" (p. 1). Of course, it is true, as Barbara Maria Stafford points out, that while microscopy became a scientific enterprise in the eighteenth-century, moral concerns quickly came into conflict with "exploratory curiosity" (Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, p. 180). She observes:

Our contemporary interest in playful learning, in computer sketchpads, and in video games relying on children's fascination with electronics was already predicted in eighteenth-century interactive technology.... Lurking beneath the surface of various attempts to make scientific training graphic and attractive was the much broader polemic concerning the right or wrong presentation of information. Long before the onset of nineteenth-century Positivism, arguments were mustered for severing enjoyable watching from exacting observation. This dichotomy was promoted by the rise of the logocentric critic as rational censor, external to the inferior sensory field of inquiry being judged. (180)

Thus, over two-and-a-half centuries before Katie Couric's broadcast, moralists had already raised the aesthetic issue of the proper presentation or exhibition of empirical observations.

Yet Henry Baker's controversial vivisection of frogs, during which "the skin of the belly was slit from the anus to the throat and stretched with fish hooks in front of the microscope" in order to demonstrate the circulation of blood (Good Looking 181) is a far cry from a televised colonoscopy, despite issues that could be raised regarding the right or wrong presentation of information. Perhaps Philip Roth wouldn't find it edifying, but it is reasonable to assume that if his doctor (does he have one? does he have one who reads literature? who uses a computer?) found some symptoms indicating that he, Philip Roth, may have colon cancer, he would order his patient, Philip Roth, to have a colonoscopy. Assuming that Philip Roth respects his doctor's opinion, and assuming he values his life, I think that he would consent to having the exam, that is, to allow a prosthetic device to microscopically expand the range of human vision in order to confirm or deny the nature of the symptoms. Edifying or not to the patient, what the doctor could see would provide him knowledge.

As you can see, I read Roth's remark differently than you do. I see it as a statement occurring within a larger discourse. Like any industry, the publishing industry has a discourse, organizing itself around certain naturalized oppositions. Publishers organize their product around categories of legitimacy. By way of analogy, so, too, does the American institution of higher education, via The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which is published every year a list of Ph.D.-granting institutions, a list arranged according to the legitimacy of the program(s), figuratively named a "ranking." I say that publishers have a "product" in the sense that the book was first invented (the cover and binding, the leaves or pages, and its divisions: the title page, the table of contents, the chapters, the index) and like any human invention is therefore a form of technology. (It also happens to store information, like a computer's hard drive or a CD-ROM, although its storage form is alphabetic rather than digital.) Like any technological apparatus, the book is manufactured and distributed and obtained through institutions (primarily bookstores, which may or may not have a "Starbuck's" [p. 1]) that are organized around categories of legitimacy, for instance, "Romance Novels," "Art/Photography," "Popular Music," "Classics," "Cliff's Notes." The point is that the institution itself has sanctioned the antithesis that holds that "authentic" books are something distinct from "commercial" books, though both categories remain ill-defined. This authentic/commercial antithesis is sufficient to generate the real/fake distinction that informs your essay. Like Roth, you understand the history of literature as a series of authentic Literary moments that have deteriorated into conventionalized (popularized, vulgarized) expressions (literature, movies, TV), transforming the history of Literature into a field of "commercial" or debased imitations of some real thing, and thus you have organized Literary history around the proper names of acknowledged masters of the book (p. 3), dismissing the rest.

For these reasons, I don't see Roth's statement as particularly insightful; rather, it expresses his irritation that the authority for the transmission of culture has shifted from books to TV and the movies, that is, to what Walter J. Ong, S.J., in Orality and Literacy, calls "post-typographic" or "electronic" media, which Roth perceives to be illegitimate means. Why this is cause for such alarm or lamentation I'm not sure; perhaps he feels that he no longer has the Pharisee-like control over ideas–proper ideas–that he once had. Alternatively, perhaps time has shown that he isn't an acknowledged innovator on the order of Chaucer or Shakespeare. I also think that his argument is just plain wrong. My experience, which apparently contradicts yours and Roth's, is that there are not only more and bigger bookstores now than ever before, but bookstores which in fact have several floors in them, such as the Borders bookstore on Dodge Street in Omaha. How you arrive at the conclusion that "We have cycled back to the dark ages" or that "Literature No Longer Matters" (p. 1) in the face of such empirical facts is beyond me. Literature, and the book, is alive and well.

Therefore, when you claim hyperbolically that "no one has sat down with them [our students] to read literature" (p. 2), you can't really believe that they haven't read a work of literature in their college career. What you're really saying is that the students are not reading the literature you think they should, that what they're reading is illegitimate or conventional, that they are reading books which contain knowledge that you don't count as knowledge. Personally, I think some of the students in your "control group" of 25 were "pulling your leg," to use a colloquialism. At any rate, it may be that they are poor readers, and need to become better readers; on this point I think we'll agree, and you and I can do something about improving this ability. But this is a different matter than claiming they don't read literature–or rather, Literature. Just so the point can't be conveniently neglected, the late Cliff Hillegass, who began Cliff's Notes and named the form eponymously, acquired his rather significant fortune because teachers across the country were teaching canonical literature–check out the titles available as Cliff's Notes. I suspect that there are very few of these titles you would say fall outside the recognized body of canonical Literature. So don't tell me Literature isn't being taught; I know better, and the fortune Cliff left behind confirms it. Whether students are actually reading the assigned books is a different issue entirely, unrelated to the question of whether Literature still matters.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Great Lost Albums: Two

Last month, under the rubric The Great Lost Albums: One, I wrote about John Simon’s first album, John Simon’s Album (1970), arguing that it is one of those “great lost albums” in the history of rock music (others that come to mind would include the Beach Boys' Smile, for instance, or Big Star's #1 Record, although John Simon's album is by no means that famous). I found John Simon’s Album to be an amazing, unaccountably neglected but grand record, and an essential piece of Americana. (I recently purchased his second solo album, Journey [1972], in vinyl format on eBay, but it only just arrived in today's mail and I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.) While I have no intention of beginning a semi-regular column on “great lost albums” (I didn’t use the subtitle “One” in the earlier post to indicate the first in a series, but simply to say, “here’s one”), I couldn’t resist the temptation to write about a second "great lost album" that I'm quite sure is obscure, so obscure, in fact, that is virtually unheard of: Tim Dawe’s Penrod (1969).

I cannot say that the idea of a “great lost albums” column does not appeal to me, because in fact I think there are a great many “lost”--in the sense of unaccountably neglected--albums in the history of popular music that I'd love to write about. But I have a strong hesitation to create a “great lost albums” column, primarily because of a deeply held conviction that such a column requires a grand informing myth, a myth in the sense of fiction. This myth can be conveniently stated in a rather succinct form: initial rejection is the sign of worth, and I can't say that I'm entirely inured of the idea's appeal. As Robert Ray has observed about the first true artistic avant-garde, Impressionism—initially reviled and rejected by the critical establishment—eventually gained credibility because “rejection and incomprehensibility” were transformed into signs of “ultimate value” (82). In other words, the initial rejection and neglect of a work is a sign of artistic greatness. Ray writes:

In initiating this move, Impressionism prefigures postmodernism’s diminished concern for the work of art itself, as opposed to the contexts in which such work might occur. With the rise of what Gerard Genette has called “the paratext,” meaning and value become highly negotiable, just like commodities, just like the paintings themselves. And theory and publicity turn out to be the principal tools for influencing the ways in which art will acquire meaning. (82)

And publicity, observes Simon Frith in his essay “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music,” is one of rock’s “ideological effects.” Discussing the role of myth in rock criticism, Frith observes:

Rock criticism depends on myth—the myth of the youth community, the myth of the creative artist. The reality is that rock, like all twentieth-century pop musics, is a commercial form, music produced as a commodity, for a profit, distributed through mass media as mass culture. It is in practice very difficult to say exactly who or what it is that rock expresses or who, from the listener’s point of view, are the authentically creative performers. The myth of authenticity is, indeed, one of rock’s own ideological effects, an aspect of its sales process: rock stars can be marketed as artists, and their particular sounds marketed as a means of identity. Rock criticism is a means of legitimating tastes, justifying value judgments, but it does not fully explain how those judgments came to be made in the first place. . . . the question becomes how we are able to judge some sounds as more authentic than others: what are we actually listening for in making our judgments? (136-37)

All of this discussion has served as a sort of preamble to my actual discussion of Tim Dawe’s Penrod, improbably re-issued on CD in March of this year by Collector’s Choice Music. My preamble, I hope, explains why the very idea of writing about a “great lost album” carries with it any number of problems, the primary one being, as I've previously indicated, that it depends upon the myth that neglect guarantees greatness. Ironically, the album's scarcity on vinyl, the relatively few copies of it in an actual material sense, has guaranteed that it will fetch a premium price on eBay (on the rare occasions it shows up for sale), especially since it was originally issued on Frank Zappa’s highly collectible Straight Records label, which also issued Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Alice Cooper’s first three albums, among others. These albums went on to great success--in the case of Trout Mask Replica, achieving "classic album" status--although its "classic" status may be an effect of the myth mentioned above. Why do I think so? Because one strategy of modernist art (the twentieth-century term for Romanticism, what Frith refers to above as the myth of the artist) was to protect artistic works from mass appropriation by appealing to their aesthetics—by using their difficulty—as an essential category determining their artistic supremacy. Stated another way, this idea means that any really great work of art should be difficult—that is, it should stubbornly resist mass appropriation (resist being enjoyed by the masses). For the cognoscenti, the more difficult to listen to the music is, the better it must be. There's a great scene in Elvis's Jailhouse Rock which enacts in dramatic form this very idea, when Vince Everett (Elvis) visits Peggy Van Alden's (Judy Tyler's) parent's house, during a discussion about "atonality" in jazz music (I'm not going to describe the scene--see the movie).

Of course, I'd heard of Tim Dawe prior to buying the CD issue of Penrod, the one reason why I was prompted to buy it in the first place. It was through the Bizarre/Straight promotional LP Zappéd (1969) that I first heard of Tim Dawe (“Little Boy Blue”); because it was issued on Frank Zappa's label (I was a fan of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention), I'd always been motivated to buy it. But I never ever saw Penrod in the record bins, back in 1969, the year of its issue, in 1970, ’71, '72, or any other time (until I saw it for sale on eBay decades later). And in fact, I’m still astonished that the album has been issued on compact disc, but I thank Collector’s Choice Music very much for the inspiration to do so. (Someone else must believe it to be a good album, too.) It took me almost forty years, but I finally had a chance to play and listen to Penrod. Today, I took a walk of almost sixty minutes, and I played the album on my iPod the entire time. It was a short sixty minutes.

I’ve been calling the album Penrod, although Richie Unterberger, in his excellent liner notes to the CCM CD re-issue of the album, remarks on the album cover’s basic indecisiveness: is the name of the musical artist Penrod, or Tim Dawe? Is Penrod the actual title of the album, or the name of Tim Dawe’s band? If the artist is Tim Dawe, why is his picture so small, and placed in the lower left-hand corner on the cover, while the album’s apparent title is displayed in such large print? Moreover, there’s even confusion about the actual identity of Tim Dawe: it is widely reported on the web, so I've discovered, that Tim Dawe is a supposed pseudonym of Jerry Penrod, the bassist on Iron Butterfly’s first album, Heavy (1968), and later a member of the rock band Rhinoceros. However, according to Richie Unterberger, Tim Dawe is not a pseudonym of Jerry Penrod--his name is actually Tim Dawe. In order to clarify whether Penrod is the album title or the name of the band, Unterberger (thankfully) got hold of the album’s producer, Jerry Yester, who informed him that Penrod was the name of the band fronted by Tim Dawe. Despite the clarification, which designation is correct? To refer to the album as simply Penrod, Tim Dawe's Penrod (as I have been), or the group Penrod's eponymously titled first album? I can't definitively say.

Perhaps more importantly, who are the members of the obscure band, Penrod? No one you or I have heard of, I'm afraid. Penrod was composed of:

Tim Dawe-(acoustic) guitar, vocals
Arnie Goodman-keyboards
Chris Kebeck-(electric) guitar
Claude Mathis-drums
Don Parrish-bass

But even more importantly, why, in my estimation, is Penrod a "great lost album"? How do I establish its greatness without appealing to the notion of what Frith calls "authenticity" in one of its many guises?

"Anything but the boring," Roland Barthes wrote, and I heartily agree. That's the peculiar strength of Tim Dawe's Penrod: anything but boring. Richly varied musically, it has a broad palette, featuring consistently good songwriting and excellent musicianship. As Richie Unterberger points out, it's rather obvious that an album issued on a label named Straight "would never be a 'straight' or conventional rock record." Thank goodness. He calls the album's assembly of songs "an enigmatic mixture" of tunes and styles, and that is true--that is its peculiar strength. Does the album reveal the influence of psychedelia? Yes, occasionally. Country-western? Yes. (A great single release, which could have been sent to country radio stations, would have been comprised of "No Exit (Cafe & Gallery)" b/w "Nothing At All.") Folk? Yes. Blues? Yes--the stand-out track being, by everyone's estimation (everyone who's actually heard the record, that is) "Junkie John," a dark, funereal meditation on drug addiction containing the marvelous lyric, "when he walked into a room, you got the feeling that somebody just left."

I don't wish to speculate on why the album sank like a heavy stone all those years ago, other than to point out that the proper functioning of a record label's publicity office heavily depends upon the myth Frith mentions above, the Romantic myth of the creative artist. The album's fundamental ambiguity regarding the identity of its artist--Penrod, or Tim Dawe's Penrod, or Penrod's eponymous first album (featuring Tim Dawe), violates the basic myth upon which publicity rests, and in turn operates. Roughly forty years on, perhaps its time for Tim Dawe's Penrod to find the audience it so richly deserves.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

And so Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, one of the great figures of Russian literature, primarily known in the West as a chronicler of Communist atrocities in Russia, died Sunday at the age of 89. That he lived to such an old age is remarkable considering his unusual life, marked with cancer, prison, labor camps, exile, controversy, and, frequently, condemnation. Deported from Russia in 1974 for his insistent criticism of the Soviet government, and subsequently stripped of his Soviet citizenship, Solzhenitsyn lived first in West Germany and then, for a short time, in Switzerland. Eventually he was invited to the United States under the auspices of Stanford University, which enthusiastically vowed to allow him to continue his anti-Soviet writing. He eventually moved to Cavendish, Vermont, where he (ironically, given his years in prison and labor camps) enclosed his property with a fence topped with barbed wire and set up a closed-circuit television system. According to the obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “He once claimed to have made no more than five phone calls from the retreat over 20 years.”

Known in the West for The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes, 1973-78), a scathing indictment of Stalin’s repressive police state, Solzhenitsyn was in fact an excellent novelist, author of novels such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), The First Circle (1968), and Cancer Ward (1968). These are all very fine books, concerned with any number of important issues, not simply with (Soviet) politics, but it was his lot—which he apparently came to resent—to be used by the Western media primarily for his functional, propagandistic value as an individual who suffered terribly at the hands of an enemy state--the U.S.S.R. (One of the standard ploys of the propaganda system in the United States is to emphasize the crimes and atrocities of an avowed enemy while minimizing the importance or significance of its own.) While there is no question of Stalin’s brutality—that has been so well documented that I hardly need rehearse it here—Solzhenitsyn’s exclusive value to the United States during the period leading up to the collapse of the Berlin wall was as someone who could document the crimes of a Communist state—too bad, because it diverted attention away from his considerable gifts as a novelist.

Solzhenitsyn enthusiastically returned to Russia in 1994, after spending roughly eighteen years in the United States. He bought a country estate near Moscow—in yet another irony, the retreat once used by Stalinist henchman Lazar Kaganovich—and resumed the reclusive way of life that characterized his years in Vermont. His books on Stalin's gulag were valuable to the West during the years of the Cold War, but it is his novels that now attest to Alexander Solzhenitsyn being one of the great figures of Russian literature, no small feat considering the number of great writers from that country.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Although the word “groove” is generally understood as a musical term referring to a song’s rhythm—its groove—the word can refer to a number of issues besides rhythm, among them sex, class, and whether you're "high," that is, on drugs. Although the word is strongly associated with the 1960s—The Young Rascals had a #1 hit in 1967, for instance, with “Groovin’,” and there was also a hit song titled “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”—the word dates back to the 1930s, if not earlier. A quick search of the word at indicates that the origin of the word is 1937, but it is highly likely that the word was introduced (first) into jazz vocabulary by Louis Armstrong—who has been credited for coining and popularizing slang words such as “cool,” “cat,” “pops,” and “daddy”—sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. One can imagine that, for Armstrong, "to be groovy" meant in the mood to make a record (since all records had grooves), or high, since he was admittedly a life-long user of marijuana (referred to as a "joint" in the 60s, marijuana imbibed in the form of a rolled cigarette was, in jazz culture, referred to as a "viper").

The first to be in the groove were African-American jazz musicians, early in the 1930s. They are no longer around to tell us where this groove came from, but scholars have speculated. Maybe it began with that relatively new invention, the phonograph, whose sound came out right when the needle was in the groove; maybe the musicians—virtually all of them men—were creating yet another metaphor for sex.... “The jazz musicians gave no grandstand performances,” wrote an admiring reviewer in 1933, “they simply got a great burn from playing in the groove.”

Apparently the word was defined in 1937 as meaning a “state of mind which is conducive to good playing,” but by the process of metaphorical elaboration, soon most any pleasant or pleasing activity could be “groovy.”

Before long, there were groovy audiences as well as groovy performers, and by the 1940s things in general could be groovy. Love was groovy, skating was groovy, even pitching a no-hit baseball game was groovy.

In the 1950s the word was adopted by the Beats, whose music of choice was jazz; from jazz culture Beat culture borrowed both a vocabulary and a sensibility (for Beat Jack Kerouac, the preferred form of jazz was “bop”). By the mid-60s, the word was adopted by the rock culture, which borrowed a number of styles, including a strong non-conformist posture, from the earlier jazz culture (the Dionysian one descending from Charlie Parker) including drug use, which presumably put you "in the groove," that is, enhanced your musical creativity.

Groovy was in the air everywhere in the hip, laid-back counterculture of the 1960s, when feeling groovy was the ultimate ambition and praise, as well as the title of a hit song. To groove was “to have fun.” “Life as it is really grooves,” declares a fictional letter from a group of groovy young dropouts in a 1969 short story by John Updike.

By the mid to late 1970s, however, “groovy,” as an indication of approbation, had fallen out of favor. “In the groove” could still refer to musical rhythm (or a great sex life), but no one who wanted to be perceived as “cool” dared use the word “groovy.” Hippies were no longer hip, and if you were “feelin’ groovy” it meant you were decidedly un-hip, an anachronism, déclassé. I suspect that no one born, say, after 1970 ever considers using the word "groovy," although it does crop up occasionally, in pastiches of the 1960s (Austin Powers), for instance, or when used by nerdy protagonists (such as Ash in the Evil Dead films).

The Groove Tube (1974)
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Army of Darkness (1992)
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)