Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pop Aphorisms: XI

1. Keith Richards drinks and smokes, Madonna works out—while the display of the body is central to rock culture, their bodies reveal distinct obsessions: one with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, the other with money and power.

2. Spandex is to flannel what Arena Rock is to grunge: each reveals the impact of commercial budget on musical form, but more importantly, how musical taste determines fashion.

3. There would have been no such thing as “Art Rock” or “Progressive Rock” had not the vinyl “Long Play” record—the LP—been embraced as the basic material artifact of rock ‘n’ roll.

4. Rock ‘n’ roll privileges the record, while jazz privileges the live performance: the unstated reason why rock music’s most successful acts always sound, in concert, like their records.

5. Mixing is to recording what editing is to the cinema: the assemblage of fragments into a simulacrum of live performance.

6. Alternative: Punk Rock that makes money.

7. Silver Threads and Golden Needles—poetic expression for an aging rock star with a drug habit.

8. The greatest recordings in rock history were a consequence of making all the right decisions about technical problems.

9. Cult Album: record made by an artist or artists who understood that high-minded political correctness equaled artistic death.

10. Rock stars, like movie stars, seldom grant interviews: the secret of their success is to make it impossible to determine the fictive from the real.

No Fun: Ron Asheton, 1948-2009

Ron Asheton, guitarist with The Stooges, has been found dead at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, according to this report; he was 60 years old. Police indicated the musician’s death appeared to be from natural causes. Ranked as the 29th greatest rock guitarist by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003, Asheton also acted in a few low-budget horror films beginning in the late 80s, most recently appearing in the horror comedy FROSTBITER: WRATH OF THE WENDIGO (1996). The Stooges, which included Asheton’s brother Scott on drums and the late Dave Alexander on bass, are among the nominees for the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class this April. One hopes that they will be inducted.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Year One: Reflections

Yesterday, January 4, represented the first anniversary of 60x50. I made my first post one year ago yesterday. As of yesterday, I have posted 222 entries on this blog, which averages out to about one post every forty hours over the past year. Not bad—considering that during that time I also completed an extensive essay on Ingmar Bergman’s THE SERPENT’S EGG (1977) for a forthcoming book on European horror films, continued to write reviews for VIDEO WATCHDOG (although the number was down from previous years, which doesn’t please me at all, as Tim and Donna Lucas are my friends as well as editors), completed two book proposals (one of which I mentioned on this blog just a few entries ago), presented one conference paper, and directed two plays for my University Theatre: Eugene Ionesco’s THE LESSON this past spring and Mary Chase’s classic comedy, HARVEY, this fall. Directing those two plays was a wonderful experience for me, as well as a privilege, and in that sense 2008 was a great and productive year. And I continue to work on POE PICTURES, to be published by Tomahawk Press (UK). I anticipate completing that book this summer, and I thank Bruce Sachs very much for his patience with me given my other commitments this past year—one of which has been this blog.

The task I set for myself with 60x50 (you can read the full explanation on the right)—to find a process that will bring about new things I would not have thought of if I had not started to say them—has, for the most part, been successful. I discovered things by writing for this blog, things I would not have learned had I not imposed this writing requirement upon myself. I cannot say that there weren’t some duds among my posts of the past year: if Sturgeon’s Law is correct, then 96% of them were duds—which means only about 4% (i.e., about nine of them) were any good. Some achieved more success than others: my interpretations of pop songs such as “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and “Crimson and Clover” consistently garner hits through web searches, and certain posts—such as the one on Bob Dylan and existential cool—did extremely well, as did my “pop aphorisms” series (a series I promise to return to very soon). My discussion of the relationship between psychedelia and bubblegum has also done very well. Are those the nine posts of quality that verify Sturgeon’s Law? A few kind souls, Tim Lucas and Bent Sørensen among them, have been generous enough to serve as blog rollers for me (providing a link to my blog on their respective blog sites), and all in all the experience has been a positive one.

There is, however, a downside, and it is the amount of work this blog requires given the number of page views it receives. I checked the page views a moment ago; subtracting those that have visited since midnight last night, I calculate a grand total of 24,119 views over the past year. (Just think if my friends weren’t blog rolling for me.) I’m quite sure there are sites that receive that number every day, other sites that receive that number every week, and others that receive that number every month. Subtract from this grand total the hits that can be attributed to roving web bots and such, then it becomes an even more paltry number. Foolishly, I neglected to attach a site meter until the end of February last year, meaning the figure above really reflects about a week plus ten months, but the fact is, the amount of work this blog has required hardly seems worth it given the number of visitors. Given that the first month’s visitors would have been negligible because I had just started up the blog, the total number above is reasonably accurate, I think. Make no mistake—I appreciate each and every visitor I have had over the past year, and I appreciate those who return to my blog on a regular basis. I am grateful for all the visits I’ve had over the past year. But as a wise old mentor of mine used to say, “Sam, always ask yourself whether the increment is worth the excrement.” If I were to apply that sage piece of advice to the question of whether to maintain this blog, then the answer would be very simple: NO.

My blog has a number of problems. For one thing, to employ the language of cyberspace, my site is “sticky”—it doesn’t consist of “news,” where readers come for current or up-to-date information, then move on. In other words, readers have to make a dedicated effort to get here (by web searches, mostly), and to get out. Moreover, it’s focus is not entirely clear. It has gravitated toward popular music (primarily the Sixties, as the blog title would suggest), but not the current scene (although I would hope that most if not all of the insights I’ve made are applicable in theory to the “current” music scene nonetheless—the pop aphorisms, for instance). Additionally, my posts are for the most part unusual in that they read more like essays than blog entries. I am not claiming that this is bad, since it’s a form I prefer. The topics I write about I have set as assignments or tasks for myself, in order to teach myself something. So when I look up information, and track down information, I pass those sources of information on to others, but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t read like an academic essay—a form many readers, I’m sure, dislike. Lecturing for most people often is, as it is for myself, counter-productive. I think this is why my posts such as the pop aphorisms have been so successful, because they fit the sound bite form preferred in the cyberspace environment—the technology drives the form, in other words (nothing new there).

So, in reflecting upon the past year, I’ve concluded that 60x50, while not an utter failure, isn’t a success, either. It exists in that liminal space somewhere between (mediocrity?), which, rather like a visit to the “twilight zone,” isn’t an ideal place to be. I’m not quite ready to give it up, as I still have hopes for it (although don’t ask me to enumerate precisely what they are), but I don’t see myself continuing on at the rate I have—posting over two hundred times during the next year, for example. The research component for many posts is extensive, and while I hope readers have found my research valuable, I have done it for free. I will continue to assess this weblog’s personal importance to me as well (I have many other proverbial “irons in the fire” to which I can dedicate my time), and set out to determine the answer to that fundamental problem, a problem I’m quite sure other bloggers struggle with as well: whether the increment is worth the excrement.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Twitch And Shout

The death of a rock star is not without commercial potential. I was reminded of this truth by this afternoon’s programming on TV LAND, which has devoted several hours of its programming to Elvis Presley, whose birthday is fast approaching (January 8). While the deaths of Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, and Brian Jones antedated the 1970s, the sheer number of deaths of rock stars in the 1970s—Elvis’s among them—was significant, and the number of books published since serve as constant reminders that they are still dead (see the partial bibliography below).

Having recently submitted a book proposal on the subject of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (June 1975), the issue of those who “lived and died for rock and roll” has preoccupied me (even if that dedication is perhaps ironic). Young’s album is dedicated to his friends, guitarist Danny Whitten (died 1972) and roadie Bruce Berry (died 1973), but there were any number of other deaths that preceded the release of Young’s classic album:

Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band), 1971
Darrell Banks (“Open the Door to Your Heart”), 1970
Bobby Bloom (“Montego Bay”), 1974
Graham Bond (Graham Bond Organization), 1974
Bill Chase (Chase), 1974
Miss Chrissie (GTOs), 1972
Arlester Christian (Dyke & the Blazers), 1971
Brian Cole (The Association), 1972
Jim Croce, 1973
King Curtis (“Charlie Brown”), 1971
Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash”), 1974
Nick Drake, (Bryter Later), 1974
Don Drummond (The Skatalites), 1971
Cass Elliot (The Mamas & the Papas), 1974
Mary Ann Ganser (The Shangri-Las), 1971
Pete Ham (Badfinger), April 1975
Lee Harvey (Stone the Crows), 1972
Jimi Hendrix (The Jimi Hendrix Experience), 1970
Janis Joplin (Big Brother & the Holding Company), 1970
Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. (son of Jerry Lee Lewis), 1973
Billy Marcus (New York Dolls), 1972
Clyde McPhatter (Dominoes; Drifters), 1972
Robby McIntosh (Average White Band), 1974
Jim Morrison (The Doors), 1971 (Parisian grave is pictured)
Barry Oakley (The Allman Brothers Band), 1972
Lowman Pauling (The “5” Royales), 1973
Rod “Pig Pen” McKernan, 1973
Gram Parsons (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers), 1974
Steve Perron (The Children) 1973
Bobby Ramirez (White Trash), 1970
John Raynes (Monotones), 1972
James Sheppard (The Heartbeats; Shep & the Limelights), 1970
Billy Stewart (“Summertime”), 1970
Rory Storm (The Hurricanes), 1972
Vinnie Taylor (Sha Na Na), 1974
Tammi Terrell (duo partner with Marvin Gaye), 1970
Gene Vincent, 1971
Clarence White (The Byrds), 1973
Paul Williams (The Temptations), 1973
Al Wilson (Canned Heat), 1970
Harris Womack (Valentinos), 1974

Gary J. Katz, Death By Rock ‘n’ Roll. Citadel Press, 1995.

R. Gary Patterson, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses. Fireside, 2004. Note: A revision and expansion of Hellhounds on Their Trail: Tales From the Rock ‘n’ Roll Graveyard. Dowling Press, 1998.

Jeff Pike, The Death of Rock 'N' Roll: Untimely Demises, Morbid Preoccupations, and Premature Forecasts of Doom in Pop Music. Faber & Faber, 1993.

Jeremy Simmonds, The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches. Updated Edition. Chicago Review Press, 2008.

Dave Thompson, Better to Burn Out: The Cult of Death in Rock ‘n’ Roll. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1998. Note: Dave Thompson is also the author of Never Fade Away: The Kurt Cobain Story.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Collecting—whether autographs, beer cans, baseball cards, comic books, stamps or records—is an activity that borders on the autistic. Autists, obsessed with the most obscure minutiae, are noted for their strange and unusual collections: birthdates of minor character actors of the silent film era, for instance, or even bus transfers. What distinguishes the autist collector from other collectors is the value of the collection: a collection of hundreds of bus transfers or obscure birth dates has little if any monetary value, while a record collection, in contrast, does, although the value of the latter may fluctuate wildly over the course of a decade.

Collecting of any kind is a parody of scientific endeavor. Like the scientist, the collector engages in empirical research, fieldwork, meticulous cataloguing, systematizing, and the diligent recording of exceptions, variations, and one-of-a-kind specimens. But like the stereotype of the exotic butterfly collector lost in the immensity of a vast and tangled rain forest, collectors are committed to a life of obsessive compulsion coupled with a willingness to engage without compunction in wasteful and extravagant expenditure: no sacrifice—typically of a financial kind—is too great. For the record collector, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of manufactured consumer goods (similar to the bewildering diversity of nature), dedicates himself or herself to the mastery and ownership of a discrete kind of material object. The activity borders on the autistic because its pleasure is derived from the illusion of mastery over what is essentially a vast, bewildering complexity, which is why collecting—in its excessively narrow focus—is a parody of the scientific enterprise. Record collectors gather pressings, editions, and variations with the single-mindedness of the most obsessive butterfly collector.

The goal of the collector—a mock profession in the sense that there is no income resulting from it, only a guarantee that the collection is, metaphorically, much like an investment—is the wunderkammerthe cabinet of wonders. The power of the wunderkammer is premised on being the biggest, the most complete, the strangest, the most outré—an assemblage premised on plenitude, extravagance, and—presumably because of its totality—beauty.

We ought to remember that collecting, as Theodor Adorno observed almost seventy years ago, is enabled because one can transform experience (for instance, the recognizing of a specific tune) into an object, thus making it capable of ownership.

Theodor Adorno with George Simpson, “On Popular Music,” in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941), pp. 17-48.
Dave Marsh and James Bernard, The New Book of Rock Lists. Fireside: 1994.
Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Stephen Jay Gould, Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors. W. W. Norton, 1992.
Lewis Shiner, Glimpses. Avon, 1993.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Day

I’d like to be able to say that the world is fundamentally different this morning from the way it was last night when I went to bed, but alas it is not. The daunting political and economic problems that existed last night still exist this morning; they didn’t vanish into thin air overnight. And so while change may be in the air in 2009, and holds the potential for positive change, on this New Year’s Day I can think only of these lyrics from U2’s “New Year’s Day”:

And so we are told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you,
To be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Years Day