Sunday, August 31, 2008

Chill, Baby

The word “cool” emerged out of 1940s American jazz culture known as bebop. Bob Yurochko observes: “[One] phenomenon that rose from bebop [of the 1940s] was a new language or slang used by musicians called “bop talk.” Musicians communicated with each other with words like “hip,” “cool,” “man,” “cat,” or “dig” to form their own lexicon, which became part of the jazz musician’s heritage” (A Short History of Jazz, p. 103). “Cool” became a word used to describe an entire way of behaving and managing the self, in short, a behavioral style. Robert S. Gold, in A Jazz Lexicon, calls the word the “most protean of jazz slang terms” and meant, among other things, “convenient . . . off dope . . . on dope, comfortable, respectable, perceptive, shrewd—virtually anything favorably regarded by the speaker” (65). In other words, anything the speaker regarded as Good was “cool.” The approbation, “That’s cool,” first used by the members of the jazz culture, was later enthusiastically adopted by rock culture.

For Beat figure Jack Kerouac—he himself an exemplary figure of cool as both attitude and behavior—bebop was the music that represented modern, that is, hip, America.

At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America, but it hadn’t developed into what it is now. The fellows at the Loop [in Chicago] blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charley Parker Ornithology period and another period that really began with Miles Davis. (On the Road: The Original Scroll, p. 117).

The form of cool associated with Miles Davis is what Michael Jarrett calls prophetic cool, a form of cool “characterized by barely harnessed rage” (19). Exemplary figures of prophetic cool are the young Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Ice-T. But Kerouac himself epitomized what Jarrett calls “philosophical cool,” which might also be called existential cool—the self as an effect of performance. Besides Kerouac, exemplary figures epitomizing existential cool are Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Keith Richards, Nico, Snoop Doggy Dogg—and the old Bob Dylan.

Addendum: 1 September 2008, 11:43:43 a.m. CDT: See Bent Sørensen's article on Kerouac's language titled "An On & Off Beat: Kerouac's Beat Etymologies" available on-line here. Thanks, Bent, for providing the link.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Quiet Sun

In the history of rock music there have been several musicians whose mental illnesses have severely impaired their careers. Immediately one thinks of the troubled lives of the late Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, of Roky Erikson of the 13th Floor Elevators, of British jazz-rock pioneer Graham Bond, of Derek and the Dominos’ Jim Gordon, and of Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, the latter the subject of a recently issued documentary. Many legendary rockers have suffered from depression—Nick Drake, perhaps Kurt Cobain—and many have sought treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Of course, these sorts of maladies are not peculiar to rock musicians (although one site wants to suggest that there is a connection between rock music and mental instability, as if there were a cause-effect relationship), but rather an instance of the statistical probability that some members of the general population who suffer from mental illness may become rock musicians. Whether the entertainment industry in general—“Show Biz”—has a statistical higher probability of having sociopaths (and psychotics) than the general population as part of its membership is not a subject I feel competent to discuss; if there has been a study done exploring this subject, I would love to read it. I suspect that such a research project would be fraught with problems, however.

I do think, however, that because they are in Show Biz, these individuals as a consequence are more visible to the general population. It is therefore interesting that an article in today’s Los Angeles Times about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson foregrounds his fragile psyche and his “psychological torment.” The article appears as part of the publicity apparatus employed to promote the 66-year-old Wilson’s new album, That Lucky Old Sun. The press seems to view each new Brian Wilson album as a significant achievement, an arduous hurdle for the troubled artist whose “storied masterwork Smile, the long-abandoned Beach Boys project . . . plunged him into an abyss of psychological torment,” that is, initiated his professional decline at the height of his popular success. Hence it seems impossible to discuss Brian Wilson without invoking the Romantic myth of the tortured artist. Most certainly his latest album doesn’t carry with it the heavy mythology of Smile, and hence isn’t likely to have that album’s impact. But it is certainly a happy occasion to learn that one of rock’s great mythologists—who almost single-handedly created the myth of Southern California as a place of expenditure without consequence, of endless of fun and sun—is still at work and seemingly content with the way his life has turned out. His example is a counter-myth to one of rock's most cherished (and Romantic) myths, the self-destructive artist.

Friday, August 29, 2008

ED 4

Today is Michael Jackson’s birthday. Born in Gary, Indiana in 1958, he has turned 50 years old. The event has caused barely a ripple in the media, another indication that the pop star’s fame may have begun to dwindle somewhat—not especially unusual, really, since fame is like love, either waxing or waning. Other pop stars who celebrated the Big 5-0 this summer, also born in 1958, were Prince (born 7 June in Minneapolis, Minnesota) and Madonna (born 16 August in Bay City, Michigan).

Another Michigan-born celebrity also turned 50 this year—the inimitable Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead films. He had the good fortune to be born on my birthday, June 22, but I’m afraid I passed the 50 mile marker much sooner than he did. Sam Raimi’s three Evil Dead films are some of the great syncretic works of the cinema, fusing slapstick and horror, making them examples of perhaps the most under-theorized of film genres, horror comedy. For fans of the series such as myself, Campbell’s remark to MTV News, made a week and a half ago, that he will star in Evil Dead 4 if the sequel goes ahead, is great news indeed. It’s hard to believe that it has been almost sixteen years since Army of Darkness was released (filmed 1991, released early 1993)--during which, incidentally, a robust cottage industry sprang up comprised of Evil Dead merchandise--and perhaps it is time for the latest installment. Rumors about ED 4 have circulated for years, but perhaps his latest remarks suggest a new installment is no longer merely possible, but probable, and we can all take our boomsticks off the rack and dust them off. As Mr. Campbell correctly observed, "You don’t have to appeal to the studio. You’re already pleasing them by giving them part 4." Groovy!

Thursday, August 28, 2008


In popular literature, song, poetry, and film, the femme fatale is a wicked, dangerous, irresistibly alluring woman who seduces and then leads her lover to his doom. She represents the male fear of female sexuality, that is, the danger of the single woman unfettered by conventional restraints: marriage (monogamy), home, church, family, motherhood. In ancient Greek mythology, she’s variously represented, by the Sirens (think of Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses”: How his naked ears were tortured by the Sirens sweetly singing) and by Circe, who turns men into swine. In the Judeo-Christian, or Biblical, tradition, she has received various incarnations, proper names such as Lilith, Eve, Jezebel, Delilah, and Salomé. Actually, these five female figures embody all the characteristics of the femme fatale: witch or pagan (Lilith), complete ontological destruction (Eve), sexual seductiveness (Delilah), apostasy (Jezebel), and cruelty (Salomé).

In popular song, especially rock and country music, the femme fatale is widely celebrated, and upon occasion has been given a new proper name, but remains the same old belle dame sans merci.

A Few Exemplary Songs About the Femme Fatale:

The Beatles – Girl
Big Star – Femme Fatale
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Derek and the Dominos – Layla
Duran Duran – Femme Fatale
Bob Dylan – As I Went Out One Morning
Hall & Oates – Maneater
Lefty Frizzell– Long Black Veil
Chris Isaak – Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing
George Jones – The Grand Tour
Tom Jones – Delilah
Roy Orbison – Leah
Dolly Parton – Jolene
Stan Ridgway – Peg and Pete and Me
Marty Robbins – El Paso
Marty Robbins – Devil Woman
Kenny Rogers and The First Edition – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Kenny Rogers – Lucille
Billy Joe Royal – Cherry Hill Park
Simon & Garfunkel – Cecilia
Rick Springfield – Jessie's Girl
The Faces – Stay With Me
Rod Stewart – Maggie May
The Velvet Underground – Femme Fatale
ZZ Top - Pearl Necklace

(Under) Cover

In the discourse about popular music, you’ll find that that the re-recorded version of a song previously recorded by an earlier artist is referred to as the “cover version” or, more often, “cover.” The implications of the word “cover” merit exploring. If you explore the issue in depth, then you’ll find that the word “cover” is a contranym or an antilogy—a word that is its own antonym (it is what it is not). A cover is an open response, a challenge made, to the received understanding of a previously existing musical text, but it also conceals (hides), and also protects (to ward off damage or injury). Hence the existence of the “cover version” invokes one of the many sets of oppositions animating popular music criticism, in particular the opposition between original and copy. What this means is that the original recording must be regarded as definitive (authentic), while any subsequent version must be considered a copy (a simulacrum, or a “fake”). But there are any number of other implications of the word “cover,” one of which means to efface or erase the original: to do a “cover version” is “cover up” (hide) a previous version. It has been argued that white rock musicians (e.g., Elvis Presley) covered (hid) “the blackness” of the songs they made famous to white listeners. A case in point would be Elvis’s cover of “Tutti Frutti,” made more palatable in his version to white listeners than Little Richard’s raunchier (first) version. Did Elvis’s version also efface the meaning of the song title in Italian, “all fruits,” one meaning of which is bisexuality? Is this what is meant by “cover,” as in hide, to obscure?

Viewed less pejoratively, that is, more benignly, the cover version is the re-interpretation of song previously recorded by another artist. But why is the “cover version” always singled-out or announced as a copy, that is, stigmatized as debased, as a duplicate? Why should anyone care? The paradox is, Americans generally have always privileged the re-interpretation, the re-invention, of an existing work. That is, since the Jazz Era, the improvisation—the artistic response—has been valued higher than the composer (the source of intentionality, the origin). Popular music privileges improvisation, while classical music privileges the composer. In other words, American popular music since the Jazz Era has valued idiom (style) over strict adherence to any pre-existing text.

The history of rock has numerous examples of the “cover” effacing the original (first) version. Where does one begin? Where does one stop?

Elvis Presley – That’s All Right (Mama)
The Beatles – Ain’t She Sweet
John Lennon – Stand By Me
Ringo Starr – You’re Sixteen
The Carpenters – Ticket to Ride
U2 – Helter Skelter
Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man
José Feliciano – Light My Fire
Van Morrison – It’s All in the Game
Shadows of Knight – Gloria
The Blues Brothers – Soul Man
Carl Carlton – Everlasting Love
Vanilla Fudge – You Keep Me Hangin’ On
Van Halen – You Really Got Me

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Waiting For The UFOs

In Tikaboo Valley, Nevada, the only significant landmark along a long, lonely stretch of Nevada’s Highway 375—officially named the “Extraterrestrial Highway”—is the so-called black mailbox. (The actual object is painted white, however.) The white mailbox is referred to by the name of the object it replaced, a black one, and is located near the infamous Area 51, largely accounting for the notoriety of such a banal, quotidian object such as a receptacle for the daily mail. The nearby proximity to Area 51 has allowed for the black mailbox to gain notoriety through the operation of metonymy, or reference by association.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the black (white) mailbox on Highway 375 has become a holy shrine of sorts, a gathering place, for UFO pilgrims, who travel for miles upons miles just to get a look at it, and presumably, to touch it. According to the L. A. Times report,

Over the years, hundreds of people have converged here in south-central Nevada to photograph the box—the size of a small television, held up by a chipped metal pole. They camp next to it. They try to break into it. They debate its significance, or simply huddle by it for hours, staring into the night.

Some think the mailbox is linked to nearby Area 51, a military installation and purported hotbed of extraterrestrial activity. At the very least, they consider the box a prime magnet for flying saucers.

A few visitors have claimed they saw celestial oddities. But most enjoy even uneventful nights at the mailbox, about midway between the towns of Alamo and Rachel. Alien hunters here are surrounded by like-minded—meaning open-minded—company. In a place where the welcome sign to Rachel reads, Humans: 98, Aliens: ?, few roll their eyes at tales of spaceships, military conspiracies and extraterrestrials that abduct and impregnate tourists.

The modern UFO era began in June 1947 with pilot Kenneth Arnold’s report that he saw flying aircraft moving at a high speed near Mount Rainier, Washington, that were shaped like saucers or discs. Given his description of the ships, the media, always inevitably in search of the sound bite, dubbed these craft “flying saucers.”

Since the beginning of the modern UFO era is virtually simultaneous with the beginning of the rock era, it therefore should be no surprise that rock ‘n’ rollers have been fascinated by UFOs, and now and then have written songs about them. Jimi Hendrix allegedly was fascinated by The Urantia Book, a text known to many UFO enthusiasts, one that mixed stories about Jesus with tales of alien visitations on Earth (Urantia being an occult name for the Earth). And according to his biographer Albert Goldman, Elvis also owned a copy of The Urantia Book. Rock groups naming themselves The Foo Fighters and UFO also acknowledge the cultural fascination with UFOs. Here are a few examples of songs from the rock era (including one album) alluding to aliens, flying saucers, and spaceships, and science fiction themes in general. At least two of them ("The Flying Saucer," "The Purple People Eater"--who plays "rock and roll music through the horn in his head"--, both from the late 1950s) are "novelty" songs, but perhaps all the following songs might all be considered as such.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - My Flying Saucer
Bill Buchanan & Dickie Goodman - The Flying Saucer
Ry Cooder – UFO Has Landed in the Ghetto
Béla Fleck & The Flecktones 
- Flying Saucer Dudes
Hüsker Dü – Books About UFOs
Klaatu - Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft
Kyuss – Spaceship Landing
Nektar – Remember the Future (LP, 1973)
Graham Parker and the Rumour – Waiting for the UFOs
Parliament – Unfunky UFO
Styx – Come Sail Away
Sheb Wooley – The Purple People Eater
Yes – Arriving UFO
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush