Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Nudie Suit

Gram Parsons in Nudie suit © Jim McCrary 1969 All Rights Reserved.
Having spent the past couple of days reading Bob Proehl’s excellent new book—published just this month—on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ classic country album THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN (1969), my thoughts have turned to the enigma of the late Gram Parsons (1946-1973), who died at the painfully young age of twenty-six of a drug overdose. In his discussion of Parsons and the Burrito Brothers, Proehl devotes a chapter to Nudie Cohen (1902-1984) and the highly individualized costumes he designed for country & western entertainers, including the Burritos. Unique and highly distinctive—“individualized”—Nudie costumes frequently served as memory aides for audiences, helping them to identify particular performers: Porter Wagoner, for instance, had suits created with wagon wheels on them, a distinctive emblem obviously derived from a wordplay on his surname. Proehl rightly notes that Gram Parsons’ famous Nudie suit (pictured, modeled by Parsons, the suit he was wearing in the picture used as the album cover for The Gilded Palace of Sin) was made by Manuel Cuevas, the most gifted protégé of Nudie Cohen. Here’s Proehl’s detailed description of Parsons’ Nudie suit:

The white coat, cut high to show off a handtooled leather belt, had large multicolored pills along the sleeves: white-crossed amphetamines, red barbiturates, and green and blue capsules to symbolize some combination of the two. Kelly green cannabis leaves snaked up the front, and bright pink poppies stood out at each shoulder. The lapels bore carefully embroidered naked women, the cartoonish renderings recalling the cover girl from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, stripped bare. The pants flared out at the bottom with bright red inserts, and flames rose up from the flares, licking at the poppies that sat at the point of each low-cut hip. But the centerpiece was the jacket’s back, emblazoned with a red cross, rays of light streaming out of it like a massive prison tattoo, a cholo cross. (27-28)

Proehl, importantly, actually quotes Manuel Cuevas about the significance of Parsons’ suit. Cuevas made the observation many years later that Parsons’ costume “was actually a map for him to follow to his death” (28). There may be some truth to this claim. The question is, did Gram Parsons purposefully design his suit so as to announce both the manner of his death, as well as his subsequent cremation? While the omission doesn’t detract from his discussion, I’m not sure whether Bob Proehl was aware of the interview Michael Jarrett conducted with Manuel Cuevas (July 1997), in which the artist is even more explicit about the symbolic meaning of Parsons’ suit. Cuevas’ comments tend to support the uncanny speculation that Parsons was aware both of the manner of his death (drugs) and his subsequent cremation:

I never realized until way past his death that that’s what we were talking about. The fire on the cross—that’s the way he wanted to die. Although we have been friends forever, Phillip Kaufman [the Burritos’ former road manager who stole Parsons’ body from the Los Angeles airport and burned it in Joshua Tree Desert] and I hadn’t really talked about Gram, but Gram had talked to him. Phil had promised Gram that, if he died, he would burn his body. I was just making the outfit according to all the ideas that we put together: the nude girls, the pills and the marijuana plants, and the California poppies. The fire up the pants. The cross in the back. Although I captured the idea—we developed it into a great form—it wasn’t until a few years after his death that I really started thinking about it. “This boy was really telling me how he was going to die.” (63)

Despite the designer’s assertions, the question of whether Parsons inscribed the suit as a sort of unconscious death wish remains only an intriguing possibility--but it most certainly reveals the the manner in which myths are made.

A Few Album Covers Featuring Distinctive Nudie Suits:

Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M)
Dolly Parton-Linda Ronstadt-Emmylou Harris – Trio (Warner Bros.)
Elvis Presley – 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2 (RCA)
Hank Snow – The Essential Hank Snow (RCA)
Porter Wagoner – Big Rock Candy Mountain (Gusto)
Hank Williams – 40 Greatest Hits (Polydor)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rock Of Ages

Last time, in the context of writing about Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series of books on important rock albums of the past four decades, I briefly discussed Dave Marsh’s excellent recent book, THE BEATLES’ SECOND ALBUM, published by Rodale Books. What I neglected to mention is that Dave Marsh’s book is part of Rodale Books’ new “Rock of Ages” series, which to date has issued four books as part of that series. I was so impressed by Marsh’s book (reviewed here) that I was compelled to track down the other books available in the series, and I confess I am extremely impressed with the factual information contained in them, the quality of the analysis, and the sheer enthusiasm with which each author has approached his chosen album. Currently I’m reading Pete Fornatale’s book on Simon & Garfunkel’s BOOKENDS (1968). While I have no evidence to prove it, I suspect the Rock of Ages series emerged in response to Continuum Books’ series, which began about five years ago. Similar to the books in the 33 1/3 series, they are books of monograph size, of uniform dimensions (in this case, roughly 4 7/8” x 7 1/4”), each dedicated to a classic album of the rock era. But in contrast to the books in the 33 1/3 series, however, the books in the Rock of Ages series are issued in sturdy hardcover rather than paper; the price is slightly higher as a result. Since last I wrote, I ordered the three books of the series I did not have, and so far I have received two of them in the mail.

Apparently there was a fifth book in the series to have been published, but the best evidence indicates that it has been canceled—the book by Billy Altman on The Rolling Stones’ BEGGARS BANQUET (1968). The cover art of the book is still posted on amazon.com, but an ISBN search indicates only that the book has been canceled by the publisher. I do not know whether this means Rodale Books has abandoned the Rock of Ages series, or if there are forthcoming volumes yet unannounced. If the series has been abandoned, too bad, because I very much like the books in the series: so far, the books have focused on albums issued during what I would call the classic rock era, which most interests me, frankly, and happily the quality is excellent. I encourage readers to pick up a volume in the series, assuming of course there is an album that you find compelling. Only one of the books in the Rock of Ages series duplicates an album discussed in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series—Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, otherwise known as LED ZEPPELIN IV (1971). Rodale has issued four books during the past two years, while Continuum is publishing the 33 1/3 books at the rate of about one a month (ten or eleven a year). For those interested, here are the books published so far in the Rock of Ages series; again, I have found them quite good. Dates of issue are those dates currently indicated on amazon.com.

Barney Hoskyns – Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin (11/28/06)
Jan Reid - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos (11/28/06)
Pete Fornatale – Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (10/30/07)
Dave Marsh – The Beatles’ Second Album (10/30/07)
Billy Altman – Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones (originally scheduled 3/6/07)

If anyone has additional information about the series, please contact me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

1 In 33 (And A Third)

This morning, David Barker, editor of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books on significant albums of the past forty years, posted the master list of proposals he received as a result of his latest call for books to be published in the series—all 597 of them. That’s 147 more than he received last time. Shows you what I know. I thought there would be fewer proposals this time, not more. Last time he received 450 proposals, and accepted about 20 of them: the odds of getting accepted were about 1 in 25. But his time, assuming about 20 or so are again accepted, the odds are . . . well, roughly 1 in 33.3. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

The list is remarkably diverse, which pleases the editor. And although they rescinded the “one book, one artist” rule for this round of proposals, he’s also pleased by the relatively few number of proposals on albums by artists already the subjects of books in the series. “I was really expecting a deluge of Dylan, Pink Floyd, Velvets, Smiths, Stones and Radiohead pitches,” Mr. Barker writes, but “Instead, we get Slint, Ween, and Britney….” This fact may suggest something about the demographic reading and hoping to write for the series, I'm not sure. But excluding the fifteen proposals for “Various Artists” compilations, the band with the greatest aggregate number of proposals is the Talking Heads (8), followed by Slint (7, all on 1991’s Spiderland), Liz Phair (5, all on 1993’s Exile in Guyville) and Ween (5). For my part, I was pleased to see this time around proposals on Van Morrison (Astral Weeks), the O’Jays (Back Stabbers), Phil Ochs, Public Image Ltd. (Metal Box), Scott Walker, The Specials, The Mekons, The Residents, Underworld, John Cale (Paris 1919) and The Zombies (Odessey & Oracle)—and someone, lo and behold, finally proposed a book on Elvis Presley! (The Moses figure to the 33 1/3 series—he enabled the series in the first place, but will never be a part of it.) There were some surprises: 10cc, Gene Clark, Dennis Wilson (Pacific Ocean Blue), the Electric Prunes (Mass in F Minor), and, of all things, Steppenwolf’s Steppenwolf Live. The choices for Bob Dylan albums were unusual as well, but there’s no way of knowing until you see the proposals, of course. And there were the usual number of obvious—too obvious—choices. The oddest proposal: Wilco, “Forthcoming 2009 album.” Isn't that a lot like calling dibs?

Unless the series turns itself over strictly to books about cult albums of the past two decades or so, the toughest nut to crack, in my opinion, is another book on The Beatles, although a few proposals were submitted this time (Beatles for Sale and The Beatles, aka “The White Album”). I say this not because a Beatles album is already the subject of a book in the series (Let It Be), and not because another book doesn’t need to be written about their albums. I say this because it will be hard to surpass Dave Marsh’s book, The Beatles’ Second Album (Rodale, 2007), a model text of how you go about writing about rock music. Not everyone shares my opinion about his book, of course (see the reader comments on Amazon’s website by clicking on the link), but for sheer passion about a subject, characterized by good writing based on solid research, it is hard to surpass. Essentially Marsh used the The Beatles’ Second Album as means to gauge the band’s immense impact not only on popular music, but American culture as well, and in that regard he succeeds admirably. He’s attempting something very difficult, which is, as he calls it, to bridge “a canyon of time,” attempting to invoke precisely what sort of musical and cultural revolution The Beatles’ initiated, using the band’s second American album to do it. I don’t think, as some have claimed, he’s trying to compete with the fine books on The Beatles by Bruce Spizer, but rather to attempt a colossal act of historical reconstruction. My memory of those times—and the significance of The Beatles—jibes with his. For instance, one insightful observation (out of many) Marsh makes is as follows:

One of the great discrepancies between living through Beatlemania and the way that Beatles history has been recorded is the small role that the rock ‘n’ roll haters play in the annals. As the tale is usually told, it’s as if there were a few days, maybe a couple months, during which general disapproval of the Beatles, individually and as a group, and of the music—theirs, what they drew upon, what they inspired—ran rampant. Then adults quite jovially saw the light and, with the release of “Michelle,” all became sweetness and a quick transformation took place to “All You Need Is Love.”

That’s not how it played out—not in my hometown, and not for anybody I’ve ever talked to who lived through it. (48)

It wasn’t like that in my hometown either, Dave. It wasn’t just about the music, as anyone who lived through those times perfectly well knows: it was cultural warfare: about politics, morals, race—it was about whether you were an American or not. Those four lads from Liverpool were perceived by some as a menace, out to corrupt American youth. Of course, it wasn’t just about The Beatles; I remember the days when buying a Dylan album was a transgressive act. But, I digress. My point is that some of the latest proposals have a tougher hill to climb than others, although I admire those who have chosen to take this more challenging and arduous route.

The editor of the 33 1/3 series, David Barker, is entertaining a plan to whittle the roughly six hundred proposals down to a final one hundred. While I hope my proposal is among those ultimately accepted, if it is not—as strange as it may sound—I hope it is cut in the initial round rather than remaining in limbo, as it were, among the final 100. Even if it were one of those final 100, it would, in fact, be no closer to the final goal, to be selected for publication, than it was at the beginning of the selection process.

Now the waiting starts. Whatever the result, I look forward to further books in the series, as the quality has been very high. Good luck to all.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dave Dee, 1943—2009

British pop star Dave Dee, born David Harman—who holds the distinction of having one of best whip cracks on record in pop music history—died early this morning at the age of 65 following a long battle with cancer, the BBC has reported. Originally a police officer before entering the music business (legend has it that he was one of the officers at the scene of the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran and injured Gene Vincent in April 1960, although he would have been a mere seventeen years old at the time), Dave Dee was the lead singer of the inimitable Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, a group named after the members’ nicknames. Incorrectly perceived as a bubblegum act, the music of DDDBMT (as the band is referred to in its acronym form), actually employed a number of musical styles, and while they didn’t shy away from the fuzzy, distorted guitar of early psychedelia, they might best be characterized as “power pop,” although that term didn’t gain currency until the early 70s, by which time DDDBMT had disbanded. The band learned its chops in the same Beat clubs in Hamburg in which the Beatles played, and during their career the group had a run of eight Top 10 hits in the UK, including a #1 single in early 1968, The Legend of Xanadu (click on the link for the video), in which Dave Dee, famously, cracks a whip, a la Zorro. Other hit singles included “Bend It!,” “Save Me,” “Zabadak”—and of course “Hold Tight!” (1966; check out the video), the song on the radio in Quentin Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE (2007) feature, Death Proof, during the brutal car crash scene.

According to the BBC report, in the 1970s Dave Dee “was a founding committee member of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity and was actively involved in fundraising and increasing the profile of the organisation for more than 30 years. He later worked as a magistrate in Cheshire,” although DDDBMT continued on as oldies act; they’d in fact recently performed dates in the UK and in Germany. No doubt, due in large part to Quentin Tarantino, a younger generation has discovered the music of DDDBMT, and that is a good thing. The band’s first album (1966) has been released on CD with a number of singles-only tracks, B-sides, and other rarities, and is well worth tracking down. Gotta love that whip!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Buffalo Springfield Again

A few days ago, in my post titled “Year One: Reflections,” I mentioned that my interpretations of pop songs such as “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and “Crimson and Clover” have consistently received hits through web searches over the past few months. I neglected to mention in that list my discussion (from last June) of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—the entry is available here—which has also received a good number of hits over the past few months as well. Looking back on that post after the distance of a few months, however, left me dissatisfied with my discussion, not because I think I was especially “wrong” about the song, but because the discussion stopped short, leaving unstated the larger point I was trying to make.

While I think my essential point is correct—that the song, upon close inspection, really doesn’t express a coherent position about much of anything—in retrospect I think I was foolish, for one thing, to expect a pop song to express a coherent position about politics, much less complex social problems: pop songs are basically reactionary in nature. But more importantly, the larger, theoretical, point was left unstated. What I was trying to say is that the song is a sign without a referent: it means, but it doesn’t refer. The song doesn’t depict any “real” or actual event, despite being putatively inspired by the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot” in November 1966. (“Riot” was the word used by the media to represent the event, presumably instigated by discontented youth; whether it actually was an event of such proportion I have no idea.) Bertrand Russell illustrated the distinction between meaning and reference in his famous example, “The King of France is bald.” The sentence means, but it doesn’t refer—because there is no King of France.

Records, like movies, are signs without referents. As Robert Ray explains:

...behind Casablanca or “Fight the Power” lies no single, “real” event that has been transcribed and reproduced…. In 1967, situationist leader Guy Debord warned that in “societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (How A Film Theory Got Lost, 69)

Debord’s last sentence can be amended to say, “What was once directly lived has moved away into a construction”—whether that is a record titled “For What It’s Worth” or a movie called Riot on Sunset Strip (1967). Simon Reynolds observed, “The power of pop lies not in its meaning but its noise, not in its import but its force” (Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, 10)—as this performance of “For What It’s Worth” from American television in 1967 should remind us. The television appearance occurred in 1967, the same year as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was initially published. Ironically, Neil Young explicitly acknowledged the replacement of the live by the recording during the TV appearance.

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.