Monday, March 30, 2009

“This Record Was Made To Be Played Loud”

Trivia question: What was the first album in the history of rock to include the disclaimer, “This Record Was Made To Be Played Loud”? I cannot provide a definitive answer to that question, but in my (limited) experience, it was an album by Mountain, titled Climbing!, released in March 1970 (which includes the band’s biggest and perhaps best known hit, “Mississippi Queen”). Of course, loudness is not noisiness, but at the time that album was released, the terms were often used interchangeably, and the injunction to play the record loud was meant to suggest that if the listener would play the record at a high volume, it would sonically recreate, as closely as possible, the live concert experience.

Loudness has to do with volume level; noise typically refers to disagreeable sounds (which may be loud) rather than to music. Early on, “noise” (and “noisy”) was a pejorative term applied to rock, which meant that [fill in the blank] was not music at all. Hence the word “noise,” as Jacques Attali has pointed out (Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 1985), is really a category of taste. I remember hearing the word “noise” quite a bit in 1964, the year the Beatles were introduced to America. For those Americans born before the war who grew up listening to jazz and swing, what the Beatles played was not music but noise, which, translated, meant that the music challenged what were presumed to be clearly defined notions of good and bad taste.

Hence, while there is such a thing as noise, noise-as-noise, in rock music, because it is a product of culture and technology, noise is never noise, but rather noise-as-code. Even so-called “feedback,” which might be considered as an accident or a form of error, can be considered noise-as-code: because of the theatrics of the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and The Who, by the late 1960s rock concerts often concluded with guitarists leaving their instruments on the stage in order to generate self-sustaining feedback while the audience left. At the very least, this practice challenged conventional notions of taste. Yet because “change is inscribed in noise” according to Attali, it also, obviously, represented rebellion, but perhaps more importantly a new, perhaps “revolutionary,” order outside the hegemonic norm (the “mainstream”). Feedback, in other words, was not noise; it was ideology.

Noise-as-code pre-dated Elvis, but he was certainly aware of its existence. By the late 1960s, noise-as-code could be deployed both as an individual statement as well as a critique of cultural violence and chaos, and there is perhaps no better illustration of noise-as-code in the history of rock than Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in August 1969. That the performance was understood to be an ideological statement was revealed by the cultural debate that occurred almost immediately after the release of the film WOODSTOCK in March 1970 (coincidentally, at about the same time as Mountain’s Climbing!). As is typical of much public discourse, the issue quickly became polarized: was his rendition of the national anthem an anti-war statement, or a statement on the divisiveness that characterized America in 1969? Idealism or disillusionment? In retrospect, the moment was so significant that subsequent developments of noise-as-code, as exemplified by movements such as “industrial music,” “electro-industrial,” and “industrial rock,” can be understood as mere gloss on this historic moment.

Update: 31 March 2009 9:02 a.m. CDT: Ian W. Hill wrote in (see comments) and indicated that the first rock album to carry the disclaimer was Let It Bleed, by The Rolling Stones, released November 1969, which contained the injunction to “play it loud” on the inner sleeve (as well as a note to play side one first). Thank you very much, Ian, for writing in and supplying the information. I forgot that the Stones album contained the injunction; for some reason I remembered the Mountain album instead. Given that the albums were released just a few months apart, I suspect we now know not only the first album to contain the disclaimer, but the second as well.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Angels In Red

In her book, Women and Popular Music (Routledge, 2000), Sheila Whiteley is interested in identifying and examining female archetypes in popular music. She has observed that there are benign female fantasy figures (“inscribed within a dreamlike and unreal world”), but fantasy women can sometimes become supernatural (as an example, think of The Eagles’ “Witchy Woman”), and therefore dangerous and unpredictable. But there is also the highly idealized woman, the object of the (male) singer’s devotion and desire. The flipside of these highly idealized women are highly sexualized, fallen women, and in songs about them they are defined exclusively by their sexual availability. This morning I sketched out these categories, along with some songs that typify each. Whiteley’s primary interest is in images of women in Sixties rock songs, but in the following list I haven’t confined myself exclusively to songs from that era. Obviously many other examples could be cited; I restricted my list to ten songs in each category. While this is nothing more than a sort of parlor game, it is revealing nonetheless.

Benign Fantasy Women:
(The ideal woman, the “dream lover,” often appears only in dreams; while these songs are about fantasy women, they are also about male fantasy)
The Beatles – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“
Johnny Burnette – “You’re Sixteen”
David Allan Coe – “Angels In Red”
Bobby Darin – “Dream Lover”
Electric Light Orchestra – “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head”
John Mayer – “Love Song For No One”
Roy Orbison – “Dream Baby”
Roy Orbison – “In Dreams”
Sugarloaf – “Green-Eyed Lady”
Neil Young – “Cinnamon Girl”

Dangerous Women/Malignant Fantasy Women:
(In which the female becomes predatory and is often unmanageable; they are often given names, but names such that only a writer like Poe would use)
The Beatles – “Girl”
Derek and the Dominos – “Layla”
Fleetwood Mac – “Rhiannon”
The Four Tops – “Bernadette”
Hall & Oates – “Maneater”
The Hollies – “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”
John Fred and His Playboy Band – “Lucy in Disguise (With Glasses)”
Chris Rea – “Stainsby Girls”
Rod Stewart – “Maggie May”
Neil Young – “Like A Hurricane”

The Earth Mother (and Itinerant Men):
(In which women are nurturing, patient, long-suffering, metonymically associated with the “comforts of home.” In contrast to the Earth Mother, however, the male singer is itinerant, shiftless, financially irresponsible, and unable to “settle down”)
The Rolling Stones – “Angie”
Glen Campbell – “Gentle on My Mind”
David Allan Coe – “Under Rachel’s Wings”
Hall & Oates – “Sara Smile”
Waylon Jennings – “Amanda”
Kiss – “Beth”
Looking Glass – “Brandy”
Chris Rea – “Standing in Your Doorway”
Marty Robbins – “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife”
Conway Twitty – “I’d Love to Lay You Down”

The Sexually Available Kind:
(These contain rather obvious sexual innuendo in which the women are defined by their sexual availability, preferably to be dominated as well)
Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”
Cher – “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves”
Confederate Railroad – “Trashy Women”
Def Leppard – “Pour Some Sugar on Me”
Kiss – “Lick It Up”
Billy Paul – “Me And Mrs. Jones”
The Rolling Stones – “Honky Tonk Women”
Shocking Blue – “Venus”
Conway Twitty – “Tight Fittin’ Jeans”
Neil Young – “Saddle Up The Palomino”

Women figure in songs featuring the carpe diem (“sieze the day”) theme, such as Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young,” in which the male singer pleads with the female (“Virginia”) to give up her virginity. Such songs would also include Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” but I would argue that because the erotic scene of such songs is so highly theatricalized, or “staged,” it strongly suggests their subject is male fantasy and not women at all.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gun Club

On this day in 1982, David Crosby fell into a drug-induced slumber while taking a spin on the San Diego Freeway. Although he crashed into the center partition dividing the freeway, he emerged from the accident physically unharmed. He was arrested on drug charges, however, after the police discovered cocaine in his vehicle. The police also discovered a gun in his car, a gun that Crosby claimed he had purchased over a year earlier, in the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder in December 1980. He may have been telling the truth about why he had the gun in his car. After all, John Lennon was murdered in America, where the gun is ubiquitous.

The gun is a central feature of American culture, as essential as money (and sex, of course). John Lennon’s murder was a terrible tragedy, but he wasn’t the first figure associated with rock culture in America whose life and destiny became bound up with the gun. It is now widely accepted that Dylan’s putative motorcycle crash in July 1966, while it actually happened, was subsequently exaggerated in terms of its physical injury in order to allow Dylan to remove himself from public life (for safety reasons). In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Al Kooper says as much, averring that he was afraid to tour with Dylan after 1965 because he didn’t want to play John Connelly to Dylan’s JFK. The fear of being shot and killed was very real, long before John Lennon’s slaying.

The lives of many figures associated with rock culture have ended by the gun. On 11 December 1964, at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, Sam Cooke was shot and killed by Bertha Franklin, the motel’s manager. Some years before that, in 1954, Johnny Ace, who had a hit with “Pledging My Love,” accidentally killed himself while playing Russian Roulette. And there are other examples: Arlester “Dyke” Christian, leader of Dyke and the Blazers, was shot to death on 30 March 1971. On 23 January 1978, Terry Kath, guitarist with the band Chicago, apparently accidentally shot and killed himself while cleaning his gun. In April 1983, Felix Pappalardi, Cream producer and Mountain bassist, was shot and killed by his wife Gail Collins. A year later almost to the day, Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father. The gun has also been used, of course, to achieve self-murder: Danny Rapp, of Danny and The Juniors, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1983. Country singer Faron Young also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (1996), and Wendy O. Williams, vocalist for the short-lived Plasmatics, killed herself with a gun in 1998. And famously, on 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain was discovered having murdered a rock star with a gun, the closest one he could find: himself. As the gun is to the culture, so the gun is to the music.

An A-Z Of Blue Steel Poetics:
Aerosmith – “Janie’s Got A Gun,” Pump
The Beatles – “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” The Beatles
Johnny Cash – “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” The Fabulous Johnny Cash
Depeche Mode – “Barrel of a Gun,” Ultra
Elvis Presley – “In the Ghetto,” From Elvis in Memphis
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town
Grand Funk Railroad – “Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun,” Good Singin’ Good Playin’
Jimi Hendrix Experience – “Hey Joe,” Are You Experienced
Ice-T – “Big Gun,” Tank Girl: Original Soundtrack
Jethro Tull – “I Am Your Gun,” The Broadsword And The Beast
Kiss – “Love Gun,” Love Gun
Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Saturday Night Special,” Nuthin’ Fancy
Ethel Merman – “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” Annie Get Your Gun
Nine Inch Nails – “Big Man With a Gun,” The Downward Spiral
Phil Ochs – “The Men Behind the Guns,” I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore
Gene Pitney – “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance,” 25 All-Time Greatest Hits
Queen – “Another One Bites the Dust,” The Game
Rollins Band – “Gun In Mouth Blues,” Do It
Steely Dan – “Don’t Take Me Alive,” The Royal Scam
George Thorogood and the Destroyers, “Cocaine Blues,” Move It On Over
Ultravox – “Cut And Run,” Quartet
Violent Femmes – “Add It Up,” Violent Femmes
Hank Williams, Jr., “I’ve Got Rights,” Family Tradition
XTC – “Melt the Guns,” English Settlement
Neil Young – “Powderfinger,” Rust Never Sleeps
Warren Zevon – “Lawyers, Guns And Money,” Excitable Boy

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Love is the Drug

For Georges Bataille, who thought a great deal about what constitutes human pleasure, for pleasure to be what it is, it has to exceed a limit of what is perceived as “wholesome” or “healthy”—it must be transgressive. The demands of pleasure (as opposed to, say, mere “happiness” or “contentment”) force us to confront the limits of our being. One way to exceed or surpass this limit is through chemical prosthesis—the use of drugs. Indeed, “addiction” is a common idiom for the way our culture perceives any excessive pursuit of pleasure, whether that be “sex addiction,” “shopping addiction,” or “drug addiction.” Our colloquialisms, however, also reflect the double nature of pleasure: we don’t “enjoy” or “really like” something—we “love” it, or perhaps “crave” it. When something strikes deeply in our being, it is “stunning.” “You send me,” Sam Cooke sang decades ago, employing a quaint metaphor of being sent into orbit, by which he meant, “You send me off the planet,” synonymous with the expression, “out of this world.” But since pleasure is also structured as destructive excess, we can also say we are “blown away,” or “knocked out,” or “floored.” “It stoned me,” Van Morrison sang, but he might just as easily have sung, “It almost killed me.”

Our popular music, particularly jazz and rock, traces the double nature of pleasure as excess. “Within jazz mythology,” writes Michael Jarrett, “drugs corroborate an ideology of control: playing one’s body as if it were a horn. Within the realm of rock, the reverse obtains. Drugs underwrite an ideology of freedom; they promise loss of control—the bliss of one’s body played as if it were a horn” (248). In effect, one’s self is either pumped up, or depleted, by chemical prosthesis: the limits to the self are surpassed either by the illusion of omnipotence or by the illusion of possession by an ego alien.

The number of popular songs about chemical prostheses—drugs and alcohol—is vast, so vast and so innumerable that it is impossible to name them all. But here are thirteen more unusual ones outside of the standard playlist that have the virtue of equivocating pleasure and addiction:

“For My Lover” – Tracy Chapman
“Pump It Up” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
“Emma” – Jonathan Edwards
“Sister Morphine” – Marianne Faithfull
“Gold Dust Woman” – Fleetwood Mac
“White Lightning” – George Jones
“Addicted to Love” – Robert Palmer
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
“Comfortably Numb” – Pink Floyd
“She’s My Cherry Pie” – Poison
“Something Happened to Me Yesterday” – The Rolling Stones
“Love is the Drug” – Roxy Music
“Carmelita” – Warren Zevon

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Parlor Game

According to Roland Barthes, virtually all music criticism “is only ever translated into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective” (Image-Music-Text, p. 179). Seeking to find a new way to listen to music and a new way to write about what he hears, Barthes says about typical music criticism:

Music, by natural bent, is that which at once receives an adjective. The adjective is inevitable: this music is this, this execution is that. No doubt the moment we turn an art into a subject (for an article, for a conversation) there is nothing left but to give it predicates; in the case of music, however, such predication unfailingly takes the most facile and trivial form, that of the epithet. (179)

For Barthes, adjectival music criticism—or what he later calls “predicative interpretation”—is the most common (“institutional”) form of critical writing about music. Predicative criticism typically perceives a piece of music as being simply a codified form of expression, to which the critic is obliged to ascribe an ethos (qualities and traits, i.e., adjectives).

Having picked up at the bookstore yesterday a remaindered copy ($3.98) of the hardcover edition of The New Rolling Stone Album Guide: Completely Revised And Updated Fourth Edition (2004), I thought I would test Barthes’ theory whether predicative interpretation inevitably resorts to the epithet. Since the potent tome purports to represent “three years of work by more than 70 writers and editors”—a declaration which I assume means a selected group of writers and editors—I think the book would qualify as a good indicator of common, or institutional, popular music criticism at the present time. Below I have reproduced a few passages from the book, on a particular musician, band, or album, which I think is illustrative of Barthes’ observations about music criticism’s penchant for the epithet. I have also selected few statements that I think are illustrative of how the critic seeks to identify an underlying ethos (traits, rendered as adjectives) in an individual piece of music.

On The Beatles:
It [Revolver] contains their prettiest music (“Here, There, and Everywhere”), their bitchiest (“And Your Bird Can Sing”), their friendliest (“I Want to Tell You”), and their scariest (the screaming-seagull acid-nightmare “Tomorrow Never Knows”). (53)

On Fleetwood Mac:
After striking such a perfect balance between self-expression and commercial appeal, Fleetwood Mac succumbed to studio artiness. The double-disc Tusk reveals Buckingham’s secret fixation: to become Brian Wilson with a touch of Brian Eno thrown in. (304)

On Daryl Hall & John Oates:
But it [Voices] did have “Kiss on My List,” a slick, bouncy #1 synth-pop smooch that taught Hall & Oates the way to make rock girls, disco girls, and new-wave girls scream together. (359)

On Kiss:
Kiss’ early albums are thin, cruddy-sounding hard rock recorded on the cheap, with only occasional lapses into catchiness. . . . (461)

On Led Zeppelin:
The [cover] image [of the band’s first album] did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe, and things blowing up. (479)

On Midnight Oil:
…The Oils’ U. S. debut, 10, 9, 8 is a stunning, sunbaked answer to London Calling. Midnight Oil’s ferocious jeremiad against corporate greed and American military imperialism is powered by the apocalyptic delivery of bald singing colossus Peter Garrett and the twin-guitar assault of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey. (541)

On Ted Nugent:
“Journey to the Center of the Mind” (1968) would be just another pleasant psychedelic excursion without that lead guitar: Nugent makes the instrument snarl and stutter like a Harley-Davidson in low gear, shifting into a high-pressure whoosh on the solo breaks. (594)

On Neutral Milk Hotel:
Although psychedelic retro-pop and neohippie experimentalism defined the cadre of affiliated bands known as Elephant 6 . . . Jeff Magnum’s Neutral Milk Hotel stands out as the unique, even visionary, one of the collective—and the most enigmatic. (579)

On Ratt:
Ratt may be the platonic ideal of ‘80s pop metal/hard rock. (679)

On Patti Smith:
Teeming with ambition, primitivism, anybody-can-do-this chutzpah, and casual androgyny, Horses demands a reaction. (751)

On Warren Zevon:
With a head filled with ideas lifted from “cyber-punk” paperbacks and an imposing synthesizer arsenal, Zevon [with the album Transverse City] set out to do for art rock what he had done for the singer/songwriter movement—kick it in the ass. (905)

Let’s play a game: Try to revise each of the above epithets without employing any adjective at all or without the various traits attributed to the individual piece of music, and also without the various conceptually elusive taxonomies (e.g., “'80s pop metal/hard rock,” “psychedelic retro-pop,” “neohippie experimentalism”), and see what you’re left with.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pop Quiz

I’ve noticed pop-ups consisting of “IQ Tests” seem to have become ubiquitous on the web lately, an interesting phenomenon that I cannot let go unremarked. For behind every pop-up window (every advertisement) there’s a product pleading for an avid consumer, inviting him or her to participate in a process that Louis Althusser called interpellation, the process by and through which individuals are constructed as “subjects” when they are forced to respond to the solicitations of ideology: “the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection.” Pop-up windows frequently contain requests for individuals to respond to a question or questions, that is, they contain a quiz (a form of entertainment based on questions and answers). Quizzes function “phatically,” to use linguist Roman Jakobson’s term, by which he meant a type of (verbal) communication that implies nothing more than a simple willingness to converse (for instance, talking about the weather with your neighbor). Hence quizzes select, establish, and ultimately decide the kinds of knowledge (“bodies of knowledge”) that any particular culture, or subculture, considers “important,” marginalizing as irrelevant other kinds of knowledge. Determinations of importance, in turn, enable people to perform comfortably culturally symbolic gestures such as the expression of (preferred) taste; in turn, preferred tastes serve to enable (support and encourage) consumption and consumptive patterns—watch HGTV sometime. Or better yet, open the pages of any popular music publication. You are likely to find within its pages a quiz—which serves the same interpellative function as a pop-up window. Hence the quiz and the pop-up window are parts of the same communicative network that channels communication into consumption. Quizzes are simply pop-ups in disguise.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bathroom Humor

Jacques Lacan observed that public life in the Western world, rather like the majority of primitive communities, is subjected to the laws of urinary segregation. The bathroom serves the function of sorting society into men and women. Ludwig Wittgenstein once told a few of his students that one of his strongest childhood memories was the bathroom of his parents’ house, in which on the wall there was a discolored patch of broken plaster that suggested a sort of terrifying duck. No wonder, then, that he was attracted to the theory of the “duck-rabbit”: he wished to transform that demonic duck into a friendly rabbit. And perhaps the most influential work of the twentieth century is Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a urinal.

Today’s date should remind us that in the history of rock the principle of urinary segregation led to one of its more celebrated episodes, one that took place in England at a roadside petrol station on Stratford’s Romford Road. In the late evening hours of 18 March 1965, a Daimler carrying Rolling Stones’ members Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones, their chauffeur and various others, pulled up to the station. Bill Wyman got out and asked the manager, Charles Keeley, for permission to use the toilet. Wyman was told by Mr. Keeley that the public toilet was out of order, and he wasn’t about to let the long-haired Wyman and the rest of the motley crew use the staff bathroom. The need to urinate being rather severe, Wyman, Jagger and Jones out of necessity relieved themselves against a nearby wall, violating Mr. Keeley’s sense of public decorum. At a hearing the following July, the three Rolling Stones were each fined 5 pounds, roughly equivalent at the time to about 8 dollars. Subsequently, the toilet contributed to the rock community sorting itself out into rival camps: there was the Beatles camp (clean and wholesome), and the Rolling Stones camp (dirty and dangerous).

Of course, the toilet has always figured highly in both the formation of rock culture (urinary segregation as a consequence of racial segregation in the South in which Elvis grew up; Elvis would later die in his bathroom) and in its depiction (George Michael being charged with “lewd conduct” in a public toilet in Los Angeles in 1998). In order to commemorate March 18 as the day which acknowledges our social practice of urinary segregation, I have assembled the following playlist, to be listened to, of course, in addition to the Rolling Stones’ album Beggars Banquet (1968; pictured).

Ten Songs Of The Commode:
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window – The Beatles
Norwegian Wood (“I . . . crawled off to sleep in the bath”) – The Beatles
Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room – Brownsville Station
God’s Own Drunk (“I wasn’t . . . commode huggin’ drunk”) – Jimmy Buffett
Mirror in the Bathroom – The English Beat
Bathroom Wall – Faster Pussycat
Rockstar (“And a bathroom I can play baseball in”) – Nickelback
Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilet – The Soft Boys
867-5309/Jenny – Tommy Tutone
Why Does It Hurt when I Pee? (“I got it from the toilet seat”) – Frank Zappa

Update (3/18/09, 4:25 p.m. DST)Subterranean outhouse blues: Apparently some of Bob Dylan’s Malibu neighbors are complaining about a portable toilet that has sat for seven months on the singer-songwriter’s estate. They say at night the sea breeze delivers odors strong enough to drive people from their bedrooms; see the complete story in the L. A. Times about the ghastly smell blowin’ in the wind here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Dream and the Nightmare

In theory, rock ‘n’ roll is an egalitarian artform, having derived from an ideology of amateurism (as opposed to professionalism). Because of this ideological underpinning, it has consistently struggled with the problem of how to redress the gap separating the fan from the star. In its positive form, the problem of the gap is overcome by a version of the Horatio Alger myth, in which a working-class stiff is kissed by Lady Luck, and the dream comes true: he becomes, as John Lennon memorably sang, a “Working Class Hero.” Think, for instance, of Tommy DeCarlo, once a credit manager at a Home Depot store in North Carolina, now the lead singer for Boston.

The recent, much publicized events surrounding Rihanna and Chris Brown represents the dark parody of the Alger myth: the star-struck, working-class stiff on whom fortune has smiled, but because of some failure of character, some moral weakness, he throws it all away (Bad Company’s “Shooting Star”). Tommy DeCarlo is the emblem of the (generative) dream, Chris Brown the emblem of the (destructive) nightmare. One can understand these two stories as the myth of “the rising star” and the myth of “the falling star.”

Historically, “the star” became distinct from what was known at the time as “the picture personality” around 1914. There were (at least) two consequences of this transformation: 1) the cinema became disassociated from the theater, from the theatrical mode of representation (hence rock stars are more like movie stars than stage actors, and are more likely to become movie stars than stage actors); and, 2) the studio relinquished control over the “picture personality’s” public image. The emergent discourse on the private life of the picture personality created what is known as “the star,” the star by definition having a private life that is open to the press and to fan magazines; fan magazines, the subject of which is the life of stars, are premised on open access to the private life. In other words, the life of the star forms a narrative that is separable from the roles that he or she plays and have made him or her a star in the first place. One’s private life comprises a narrative that is utterly distinct from the narrative forming one’s professional life, although as is clear from Chris Brown’s recent case, when problems presumably concealed in the private life emerge, there are real and drastic consequences on the professional life. Why? Because the generative or positive version of the myth must be preserved at all costs. Because it is inviolate, those who have transgressed against the benign myth must be made examples.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Et Tu, Bono: You, Too?

As if in response to the massive media campaign that has geared up to promote U2’s latest album, NO LINE ON THE HORIZON, Andrew Gumbel has penned the following article for The Wrap, “Bono, U2 Blasted as Hypocrites and Sell-outs.” Gumbel chides U2 for turning its back on its fans as revealed by the band moving its business operations offshore in order to escape Irish taxes. While Gumbel may have a point, one might do well to remember that the history of rock is marked by continuous controversy: the strongly negative reaction to Bob Dylan’s going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965, for instance, or the commercialization of the Woodstock 1999 festival, and the violence that erupted there. While I sympathize with Gumbel’s position, I think his article is, in part, a response to the problem of feeling disenfranchised. Alienated from the products and services of mass culture, one feels drowned by consumer goods.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Nabokov Letter

In my and Rebecca’s book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006), we discussed Donald Cammell’s proposed film of Vladimir Nabokov’s “unfilmable” novel, Pale Fire (1962). As his biographers, we were told of a letter Donald had received from the famed author regarding Donald’s proposed adaptation of the novel, but the letter written by Nabokov—of which Donald was justly proud—was never recovered during the many years my wife Rebecca and I worked on our book, which went to press three years ago this month.

We are happy to report, however, that the letter from Vladimir Nabokov to Donald Cammell was discovered by David Cammell, Donald’s brother, just a couple of months ago, in December 2008, among his personal papers. During the writing of our biography, David assured us of the letter’s existence because he’d read it—but was unable to locate it despite his best efforts. Although the letter now has been found, its discovery, obviously, has occurred too late for inclusion in our book. And yet, now that the letter has been recovered, happily it is available for all the world to see. Although all of the late author’s work is closely guarded, Dmitri Nabokov has kindly given his permission for the letter to be distributed in cyberspace. We are deeply grateful to him for granting permission. If anyone wants confirmation of this permission, you may contact Dr. Stephen Blackwell, Professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville and moderator of the NABOKV-L discussion boards, with whom Dmitri Nabokov is in close communication. I have discussed Donald’s proposed adaptation at length on the NABOKV-L, and a copy of the letter was sent to all list members who wanted one.

Becky and I were mildly surprised by the date of the letter—July 30, 1971—as the treatment Donald had written of Pale Fire—the treatment we have a copy of and have read, anyway—is dated May 1974. Although we knew he was always at work on various film projects, we were confident that during the 1970-71 period Donald was entirely focused on a film project titled Ishtar (not to be confused with the Dustin Hoffman-Warren Beatty film released in 1987). But it is now clear that he had begun thinking of adapting Pale Fire during this period, perhaps even earlier. Donald admired Lolita and also Kubrick's film adaptation of it, and also admired Nabokov's novel Despair, filmed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1978. In July 1971, when the letter was received, Donald and Myriam Gibril were living in David Cammell’s flat on Old Church Street in Chelsea, literally just around the corner from Mick Jagger. Somehow, the letter must have subsequently remained in David’s flat, over the years eventually getting mixed in with David’s other papers, only to resurface thirty-seven years later, and almost thirteen years after Donald’s death in April 1996. As Nabokov was not profligate of praise, we can certainly understand why Donald was so proud of the letter. Below is a copy of the heretofore unpublished, and largely unknown, letter. Although Nabokov suggests a possible meeting, I am quite sure that no meeting ever took place between the two men.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Diarmid and Broccoli

Happily, Diarmid Cammell’s good friend, Carol Staswick, wrote to me last night in regard to my recent post on my memories of Diarmid, supplying me with some additional information and also correcting some information I’d included in it. I’m pleased to able to share that information here, in order to set the record straight. I am thankful Carol wrote to me. First of all, I’m happy to report that she and Diarmid did, in fact, see Donald’s film White of the Eye, some time before 2000. She remembers Diarmid’s reaction to the film being “mixed, along the lines of: it’s disturbing that Donald chose that subject, but the camera work was very artistic.”

Regarding his childhood acting career, she remembers his view toward it differently than I do. It seemed to her that he was not so dismissive of his early acting. She says he seemed proud of having been part some successful TV dramas. In addition to The Prince and the Pauper, which I’d mentioned, she mentioned a TV play by John Mortimer titled David and Broccoli (1960), which I’d forgotten about, but remember being told about. I don’t recall Diarmid specifically mentioning this TV play to me, although David Cammell had mentioned it to me, as he personally knew the barrister and dramatist John Mortimer (who died just this past January at age 85) because of his career in film production. I’d claimed that Diarmid dismissed his early acting career, saying he referred to it as an “embarrassment,” and I mentioned this because I specifically asked him about his acting career on two separate occasions. The second time I asked him about it, I clearly remember him saying to me, “Oh, it’s an embarrassment really. I don’t want to talk about it. Someday when I know you better, maybe.” My reply was simply, “Fair enough.” Actually, the only reason I knew about his career as a child actor in the first place was because David Cammell had told me all about it prior to my first introduction to Diarmid, in 1999. And even before he angrily called us demanding that his name be removed from our book (for reasons detailed in my previous post), he’d previously written me an email requesting that I remove all references to his acting career (we had been sending him document files of the chapters in draft form as email attachments). So all of these instances contributed to my perception that he was highly dismissive of that portion of his life; perhaps I am wrong in that assessment. Personally I thought it was fascinating and I wanted to know about it, not because I intended to go into it in any depth in our biography of Donald, but because I was actually interested in knowing about it. Perhaps rather than using the word “embarrassment,” I should have said that he was “ambivalent” about it, which seems to be more accurate given Carol’s recollection. And most certainly she knew him much better than I did.

As for his knowledge of Arabic, she believes I misunderstood something Diarmid said, and I believe she’s right. She says that in the 1970s, Diarmid translated from the French a book titled The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual by Abdallah Laroui, for which his knowledge of Arabic was useful. But she writes, “He never mentioned to me any professional translations from Arabic (at least I don’t recall any such mention), nor did he put any on his resume. He did say that his Arabic script was quite good.” On this latter point I’m sure she’s right: what he must have told me was that his Arabic script was very good, a remark which I mis-remembered as him saying that his Arabic was very good--a big difference. So I apologize for including incorrect information in my earlier post.

Carol appended to her email the last picture she took of Diarmid, taken just this last December, while he was preparing to barbecue salmon. I thought I would share it. He has much more gray hair than the last time I saw him a few years ago, but then again, I suppose I do, too. And of course he was ill. The picture is very much like him--his smile, that impish twinkle in his eye; but what particularly strikes me about the picture is the strong family resemblance to Donald, which I’d never noticed before as being so pronounced, but it sure is in this picture. Carol asked me to take special note of his green Tibetan wool socks and his custom-made sandals—so inimitably Diarmid! I am privileged to have known him; would that we could have patched up our disagreement before he passed away.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Diarmid Cammell, 1945-2009

Today I received the incomparably sad news that Donald Cammell’s youngest brother, Diarmid Cammell, died this past Friday, February 27, at the age of 63. Becky and I both were fortunate to meet Diarmid some years ago, spending a couple of memorable occasions with him over bottles of fine wine, during the research phase of our book on Donald. We spoke to him on the phone many times during our research, during which he would frequently regale us with stories of his father, Charles Richard Cammell (1890-1968), whom he adored. I suspect that Diarmid’s appearance in this world was something of an unexpected surprise for his father, Charles Richard Cammell, who at the time of his youngest son’s birth was a few months shy of 55 years old; Diarmid’s mother, Iona, was in her mid-40s. Perhaps he was conceived during a celebration toward the end of the second world war.

Reading our book, however, one would think that Diarmid had very little to say about his famous brother, but that was due to Diarmid’s demand that we remove all references to him, and quotes by him, just prior to the book’s publication in April 2006, due to his extreme dislike of the controversial theory we put forth in our book, that his brother Donald suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the result of being sexually molested as a small boy. Diarmid demanded that we remove all references to the years of his youth, when he was a successful child actor on stage and in film, his later career as a photographer in both the UK and Europe, and his personal views of Donald’s films—he loved Demon Seed, thinking it Donald’s best film, had never seen White of the Eye, and detested Performance—he had a strong dislike of Mick Jagger based on a brief run-in with the rock star in the mid-60s, during an occasion when Donald had invited Mick to visit his parent’s home. We were allowed to include in our book a brief mention of his troubling and debilitating mental illness, but beyond this and very few other instances, very little mention of Diarmid remains in the published version of our book. But his views and insights are, nonetheless, reflected throughout, and he was an essential source of information and of contacts.

Diarmid Victor Charles Cammell was born in London on 21 July 1945, the third and youngest child of Charles and Iona Cammell. A precociously gifted child, he achieved early renown as a child actor, appearing on the London stage in one of Robert Bolt’s first plays, The Flowering Cherry (1958), which starred Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson (and, later, Wendy Hiller), at age 12. Subsequently, he appeared in the Boulting Brothers’ sex comedy A French Mistress (1960), starring the French sex kitten Agnes Laurent, although was mistakenly billed in the film’s credits as David Cammell. He later appeared in an episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Disney, The Prince and the Pauper: The Pauper King (1962). He also appeared on some LP recordings of medieval British plays issued in the early 1960s. When I asked him about his career as a child actor, he dismissed the whole thing, saying it was an “embarrassment,” and refused to talk about it.

In late adolescence, he developed a mental illness that plagued him the rest of his life. He told me it was manic-depression, and after one particularly violent episode, he was jailed for his behavior. One person told us she remembered him ranting he had “the power of God,” while another told us he at times could hardly care for himself. Certainly he had some form of mania, based on the anecdotes Donald’s friends and acquaintances related. In an email one time he referred to his illness as “the curse” of his existence. But in the 1960s, he became a reasonably good photographer, living for a time in France with Patrick and Mijanou Bauchau, whom he spoke very highly of, and for a short time with Donald and Deborah in Paris, this prior to Donald and Deborah’s break-up late in 1967. As I understand it, his first marriage failed; his second marriage also failed, but a lovely child was born, Karima. Because of his second marriage, he spent the majority of his life in the United States, in and around the Bay Area of San Francisco. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, studying both Arabian culture and the Arabic language; he would later serve as translator of Arabic texts for various scholarly studies.

I first met him in a pub in Berkeley in 1999, accompanied by his brother David, whom I had arranged to meet in San Francisco earlier that day. The night I met him, Diarmid was in fine form. He spoke of his brother Donald’s film career, insisting that Donald should never have given up painting, for which his talents were ideally suited. He talked about staying up all night helping Donald prepare for his first painting exhibition, in London in 1959. He strongly disliked Performance, claiming that the reason the film couldn’t get released was because Mick Jagger couldn’t act, which is why Jagger is in the film for so little of its running time (a controversial thesis, to be sure). He claimed on the first night I met him, and many times after, that he thought Donald’s finest film was Demon Seed, which he greatly admired; he hadn’t seen White of the Eye, and I don’t believe he ever saw it, or Wild Side, either. He spoke fondly of his visits to Los Angeles when he would stay with Donald and China in that little house on the hill on Crescent Drive, saying that he always appreciated the fact that on the occasion of his visits, Donald would always have fine bottles of red French wine available for consumption. But there was an age difference between the two, of eleven years, and Donald’s life took a much different direction than his. I believe the age difference separated him emotionally from his older brothers; brotherly love was there, but they were not extremely close.

Our BPD thesis, as put forth in our biography of Donald, both offended and angered him. As one who—despite his mental illness—believed in good old Cartesian common sense, he found our BPD thesis an instance of what he said was the “liberal disease” and thought that we had utterly no idea what his brother Donald was all about. He demanded that all references to him, and all quotations by him, be removed. But it is important to know that Diarmid was extremely conservative: he was, for instance, the English translator of Jean-Francois Revel’s post-9/11 attack on European complacency in the face of terrorism, Anti-Americanism (2003), a book whose purpose was to defend America against its European detractors. (Revel is famous for authoring many years ago the book Without Marx or Jesus, a positive social critique of the America of the 1960s.) Diarmid became a conservative reactionary in his final years, but then again, according to many individuals we interviewed during the writing of our book, so did his brother Donald.

According to Diarmid’s very good friend, Carol Staswick—a lovely person who wrote us this afternoon with the news of his death—Diarmid realized he had liver problems by the spring of last year and had made a valiant effort to get well. But it may have been too late, and in any case, after some months without alcohol, he went somewhat manic, and that drove him back to the wine, and to developing an alternative theory about his physical condition. He was never quite normal, she said, since some time in September of last year. I found some comfort in Carol’s observation that Diarmid seemed to be at peace with his life, and despite his illness he said he had enjoyed the past year. When she finally called the ambulance, several days ago, things went very fast, which, she said, “was merciful.” Diarmid died this past Friday, February 27, 2009.

She told us, though, that despite his frustration with our BPD thesis, Diarmid read our book and found it quite well done, and had meant to write us praising it, but alas, he never did; nor shall he ever. The last I spoke to him was probably three years ago this month. I feel deeply saddened by the news of his death; as I write these words, I feel like lead. I am thinking of his father’s second book of memoirs, Heart of Scotland (1956), in which he proudly speaks of his son Diarmid’s birth, and his son’s love of all things Scottish. And now I write of his death. I can think only of a paraphrase of the statement made by the Beat comedian Lord Buckley many years ago, that people are the flowers of life. Diarmid Cammell was one of the more unusual, but lovely, flowers I have happened to come across in this, the short stroll in the garden that we call our life. A wonderful photo of Diarmid as a young man can be found here, on his lovely daughter’s, Karima’s, blogspot, a site which I only found today. I’m so glad I did.