Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I’m Singing With My Laptop

Slightly over a week ago, in my February 1st entry, I observed that it is possible now to make a record simply by recombining fragments of sounds sampled by other records—you don’t even need to know how to play an instrument. In the context of that argument, I cited Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, who said almost twenty years ago:

We don’t like musicians. We don’t respect musicians…. In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music. Trained musicians are not ignorant of music, and they cannot be innocent to it. They understand it, and that’s what keeps them from dealing with things out of the ordinary…. [Public Enemy is] a musician’s nightmare. (Keyboard, September 1990, pp. 82-83).

Perhaps instead of citing Hank Shocklee, however, I should have simply included the following commercial advertisement for Microsoft’s Songsmith as proof enough of my claim. Clicking on the link also brings up on the sidebar examples of what is fast becoming a new cottage industry, twisted versions of pop songs (re)made with Microsoft’s Songsmith. Among the most byzantine of these new songs are versions of the Police’s “Roxanne” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.” Anyone yet tried "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"? In the words of Hank Shocklee, Songsmith is a musician’s nightmare, and even more evidence that rock music has received a silicon termination notice.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dewey Martin, 1940—2009

The local paper reported this morning that DEWEY MARTIN (second from left), the former drummer and singer for Buffalo Springfield, has died at the age of 68. Apparently he died over a week ago (accounts vary whether it was on Saturday, January 31 or Sunday, February 1), but this was the first I heard about it. According to this report, Martin was found dead in his Van Nuys apartment; a friend indicated that he’d health problems the past few years, and believed he died of natural causes. Born September 30, 1940 as Walter Dwayne Midkiff, Dewey Martin was one of three Canadians in Buffalo Springfield (the others being Bruce Palmer and Neil Young). At the time he joined the band, he had already been on the road with Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Roy Orbison. Jimmy McDonough, author of Shakey, the biography of Neil Young, wrote:

A few years older than the rest of the Springfield, Martin was perhaps the most incongruous addition to a band full of mutual misfits. Cocky, aggressive and sporting mod attire, he behaved more like an extra from a cop show than some folk-rocker. Dewey liked showbiz: He’d be the only Buffalo to appear as a contestant on The Dating Game. (157)

A short-lived band that stayed together only slightly more than two years, after Martin left Buffalo Springfield his career became rather elusive, but an excellent article on Martin’s post-Buffalo career can be found here. Yesterday, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay issued a statement on Dewey Martin that can be found over here. Bruce Palmer, a fellow Canadian and founding member of Buffalo Springfield, died in 2004.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Virtues of Misreading

In literature classes in our high schools and colleges, the preferred method of study is hermeneutically driven and formally conservative: it favors interpretation and encourages fidelity to the text—to established methods of (re)production through interpretation. There’s a perfectly defensible reason for this method: the acquisition of rereading skills, and the inculcation of the virtue of fidelity, leads to scholarship.

But as literary critic Harold Bloom has argued, creativity (as opposed to scholarly endeavor) must be understood not as a rereading, but as a misreading, of the inherited tradition. Applying Bloom’s insight to rock culture, those artists we perceive to be innovative and influential have actively misread the music that has come before. As Michael Jarrett writes:

Steering a course between repetition (redundancy) and incomprehensibility (entropy), he or she parlays an aberrant or perverse reading of the past into an authorized reading for the present. Elvis Presley’s “misreading” of Dean Martin (a conventionalized version of the saloon singer) offers a good example of this. (196)

Chris Spedding has an excellent article on exactly this idea, “Elvis & Dino,” in which he explores just how Elvis misread Dean Martin. Spedding recounts the anecdote told by Marion Keisker, the office manager of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis:

. . . Marion Keisker . . . tells of a not entirely successful first audition Presley had with Phillips. According to Marion, Sam asked Elvis to run through some of his repertoire, which seemed to lean so heavily on Dean Martin stuff, she thought Elvis had decided “. . . if he was going to sound like anybody, it was going to be Dean Martin.”

Spedding argues that by looking at Elvis’s early career in this way, “we can see how many of those actions previously dismissed (or considered perverse when they could not be conveniently ignored) now fall into place. . . . Elvis was naturally fair-haired. He dyed his hair black. . . . Filmed later in Technicolor, Elvis’s obsidian do had that same almost blue-black sheen you can see in Dean Martin’s movies.” Comparing Martin’s [1955] hit, “Memories Are Made Of This,” with “the song that Elvis always claimed was his favorite cut, “Don’t Be Cruel,” a hit in the summer of the following year,” Spedding observes:

Now, apart from the fact that Elvis borrowed that descending-bass-run-followed-by-guitar-chord ending from the arrangement on Martin’s record, other common elements are that sexy, wobbly, almost hiccuping baritone vocal not yet identifiably “rock” until Elvis made it so and Martin’s novel use of a four-piece male gospel-type vocal group which we may assume helped inspire Elvis, steeped as he was in traditional gospel music, to introduce the Jordanaires on his cut, effectively integrating them into a unique blend with his own lead vocal, thus establishing another rock archetype. Another obvious nod in Martin’s direction, released when Elvis was well established as a pop mega-star in the summer of 1959, was Elvis’s “My Wish Came True,” which had an opening four-note motif identical to Martin’s “Return To Me,” (both titles having four syllables!) released in April 1958. Even the key is the same.

Thus, through his misreading of Dean Martin, Elvis created an individual style and helped both to popularize and to institutionalize rock ‘n’ roll. There are other examples of such perverse misreading contributing to the reinvention of rock, of course: the perversity of Dylan performing American folk with a rock band (“going electric,” Newport, 1965), for instance, or the Sex Pistols’ burlesque of 1960s and early 1970s American pop records (1976-77).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lux Interior, 1946-2009

Lux Interior (born Erick Purkheiser, second from left), leader and voice of The Cramps, died yesterday from a heart ailment at the age of 62. Formed by Lux Interior and his wife, guitarist Poison Ivy, The Cramps were the crucial link between Elvis, Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, and the late Seventies punk era, the period in which aberrant, unconventional readings or interpretations of early rock ‘n’ roll were both allowed and encouraged. Lux’s vocal style got Elvis wrong in the same way that Elvis got Dean Martin wrong (if there were one singer he wanted to sound like, Elvis famously said at the beginning of his career, it was Dean Martin), thus allowing him playfully to explore the image of himself as Elvis returned to life as a zombie—serendipitously, the band’s first Alex Chilton-produced singles were recorded right around the time of Elvis’s death. But despite the band’s so-called “psychobilly” posturings, juvenile gothic trappings, and its aura of sexual decadence and fetishism (Lux often wore high heels on stage and occasionally would get up close and personal with audience members of both sexes) lifted straight from from the New York Dolls, The Cramps played straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, heavily influenced by the guitar stylings of surf and garage band and the so-called “dirty boogie” of Link Wray, and, perhaps most important, an aesthetic derived from low-budget horror movies. The Cramps’ first LP, SONGS THE LORD TAUGHT US (1979), recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ recording studio and produced by Alex Chilton, remains their strongest album in my view, because it isn’t hampered by deadly self-consciousness or self-parody. True, the album contains songs with titles such as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Sunglasses After Dark,” “Zombie Dance” and a pretty good cover of Johnny Burnette’s “Tear It Up” (check this out), but they are all good rock 'n' roll songs despite the titles; they had a distinctive sound. My personal favorite track by The Cramps, though, is probably “Goo Goo Muck,” from PSYCHEDELIC JUNGLE (1981). For various reasons, I lost track of them after A DATE WITH ELVIS (1986), the last album of theirs to which I gave a serious listen, but The Cramps circa 1979-1984 will always remain one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll bands. An interesting article on Lux Interior can be found here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rave On

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) died fifty years ago today in a plane crash that occurred just a few miles from Clear Lake, Iowa. Of course, this is not “news” as such, but the commemoration of the event serves two important functions. One is that such anniversaries give newspapers and websites (and bloggers) a readymade topic. Always on the search for information to fill a news hole (blank space on the page), the dredging up of old news, using as an excuse its intrinsic historicity, gives editors (and bloggers) a slight reprieve from the daily grind. Even stories tangential to the core event, such as the identity of Peggy Sue, becomes news fodder. The second function of such commemorations is, of course, a commercial one: it helps sell merchandise and helps sell tickets to nostalgic concerts. A recent article in the newspaper discussed the economic boon that Clear Lake, Iowa has received as a result of its historic relation to the rock ‘n’ roller’s death: the small resort town has a multimillion-dollar tourist industry as a consequence of being near the location of the fatal crash.

There are very few individuals living today who can claim they knew Buddy Holly. I don’t mean those individuals who claim to have run into him at the drug store one day, or once filled his gas tank. I mean those individuals who were personally close to him. I say this because, even though I was “alive” at the time he died—I was a small boy at the time—he has never existed to me as anything more than a media construct: his image, the lore, the movies and music about him all are products of the mass media. There’s the biopic, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978), which garnered Gary Busey an Academy Award nomination, and there’s THE REAL BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1986), which Paul McCartney produced in response to the biopic because he was unhappy with it. And there’s LA BAMBA (1987), the biopic of Ritchie Valens—has anyone made a biopic or documentary on J. P. Richardson? The cultural memory desires Holly to not fade away. There is a waiter dressed up as Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi) in PULP FICTION (1994), and the John Milner character (Paul Le Mat) in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) laments the fact that “Rock ‘n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died,” a line that makes perfect sense as art, but is implausible in the given historic context of the film (set in the fall of 1962, the characters do not have the requisite historical perspective for the line to resonate properly, although presumably it did to audiences in 1973 when the film was released, and perhaps still does). And there’s the instance of 1980s nostalgia for the Fifties in the Kathleen Turner-starring movie PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).

There have been several songs written about Buddy Holly: Eddie Cochran’s “Three Stars,” The Smithereens’ “Maria Elena” (for Holly’s widow), and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” are a few examples, but the most famous, and perhaps most successful is, of course, Don McLean’s willfully obscure “American Pie.” A web search will lead to several sites dedicated to the interpretation of the lyrics to McLean’s song, but the song’s meaning has never seemed that difficult to me. Perhaps I’m jaded. Elvis’s phenomenal popularity in 1956 enabled nascent rock ‘n’ rollers to respond in at least two ways: imitate him (which was artistic death, although many tried), or opportunistically use the space he opened up to create one’s own unique form of expression, which is precisely what Buddy Holly did. His records never achieved the phenomenal sales of Elvis, but he is a nostalgic figure nonetheless. His life resonates as myth because of what might have been. I’ve always wondered what sort of album Buddy Holly might have made once he heard the Beatles. It’s one of those great “lost albums” of rock history.

Don McLean’s “American Pie,” released in 1971, is a response, on the one hand, to the events of the winter of 1958-59 (“A long, long time ago/I can still remember/How that music used to make me smile”) and on the other to the Sixties (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own”). Elvis had been in the service about five months (departing for Germany late September 1958) when Buddy Holly was killed on 3 February 1959. Hence, within the space of only a few months, both of them were gone: Elvis was overseas in the service, in figurative terms never really to “return” (“While the king was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown/The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned”), and Buddy Holly was killed (“February made me shiver”). Both events are condensed into the hyperbolic, cryptic phrase, “the day the music the died.” Most of the lyrical content is devoted to the Rolling Stones and Beatles, those two emblems of the so-called “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s; the song is at least in part a reaction to the usurpation of American rock ‘n’ roll by the British “pretenders” (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own/And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone/But that’s not how it used to be”). Of course, interpretation is not meaning in the sense that “decoding” this phrase or that symbol reveals to us what the song is “all about.” But most certainly it is not simply or only about Buddy Holly; the allusion to his death is really only the point of departure, the starting point. To me, the song expresses a sort of conservative reaction against the Sixties, a compressed social history that contains both an expression of belatedness (having missed, or arrived too late for, the Golden Age) as well as nostalgia for a “simpler” time. Most of us form emotionally strong attachments to the music of our youth, in this case the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, and the song expresses that, but it is a mistake to think the song is merely “about” Buddy Holly. As far as I know, Don McLean didn’t know him, and that makes all the difference.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Download This

Yesterday, soon after posting my blog, “Post Rock,” I happened to read about Neil Young’s hilarious new single, “Fork in the Road,” in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1071, February 5, 2009, p. 68). Having watched the video for the song on youtube.com, I was so struck by the similarity of theme between his single and my blog on “Post Rock” that I’m providing a link to the video here. The video depicts Young rocking along to a blues groove holding what appears to be a pair of iPod earbuds plugged into a big red apple. He sings, “I’m a big rock star/My sales have tanked/But I still got you... thanks.” But he then continues, “Download this,” he sings as he holds up the apple, “it sounds like shit,” only to then take a bite out of the apple and throw it away in disgust, and then pines for the old days of radio. The difference, of course, between his form of communication and mine is that my presentation is more conventional, expository in nature, written for an audience that is expecting me to deliver a particular kind of information. His video, on the other hand, is an example of what Gregory L. Ulmer has called “a dramatic, rather than an epistemological, orientation to knowledge” (Writing and Reading Differently, p. 39). The ideas contained in the two forms, however, are remarkably similar. Rarely has Young been funnier: “There’s a bailout comin’, but it’s not for me/It’s for all those creeps watching tickers on TV.” I urge you to check out the video by clicking on the link above.