Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Down To The Last Man

Today’s paper carried the news (news to me) that Billy Bob Thornton’s band, the Boxmasters, canceled the remainder of its Canadian tour, no doubt the result of the damaged relations with audiences that occurred as a consequence of the actor saying during a contentious radio interview on CBC radio’s “Q” program that Canadian fans were “mashed potatoes but no gravy.” The movie star apparently didn’t like the fact that the “Q” program’s interlocutor, Jian Ghomeshi, began the interview with references to his film career, a subject the actor had proscribed as off limits. The actor also took strong offense to Ghomeshi’s question as to whether he was passionate about music, a question which the actor felt, so it would seem, was motivated by the underlying perception that he was nothing but a musical dilettante.

Despite his protestations, though, perhaps he is a dilettante. Movie stars wanting to be pop stars are nothing new, but Thornton’s situation reveals something else about life in Western societies today, true for many, many people as well as the actor, that it is difficult to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one can be deeply passionate. Apparently, in Thornton’s case, he is not deeply passionate about movie acting. Hence he faces a choice many confront today: the choice between leading a comfortable, satisfying life of material wealth and pleasure, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause – the choice, in other words, between what Friedrich Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism.

The modern malaise was diagnosed over a century ago by Nietzsche, who observed that Western civilization is moving in the direction of what he called, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the last man” – an effete, apathetic human being with no great passion or commitment to anything. Weak-willed, filled with ennui, unable to dream, the last man eschews risks and seeks only security and comfort: “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink” (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 130). The last men of today are those who reject all “higher” Causes and choose instead to dedicate their life to the pursuit of narrow, artificially aroused pleasures – like pursuing the life of a pop star, for instance.

As Thornton’s situation reveals – not at all that unusual – the last man does not wish his private fantasies to be disturbed, which is why during the interview he felt he was being “harassed.” His putative “difficulty” during the interview was merely a form of lashing out, a way of condemning the cloying proximity of another human being, with his own interests and desires, his own “agenda” as is sometimes, pejoratively, said. For two issues determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude toward others: an openness toward Otherness (as long as that presence is not intrusive), and an obsessive fear of harassment. In other words, one displays an openness to the Other as long as his or her presence does not spill over into “harassment,” which is not really tolerance of the Other at all: Do not harass others as you would have them not harass you. What his radio interview painfully reveals is that the central “human right” in our society these days is the fundamental right not to be harassed – to be allowed to have safe distance from all others. Today’s form of liberalism, therefore, maintains that the experience of the Other must be deprived of its Otherness. Hence Thornton’s “mashed potatoes” comment is, in fact, disingenuous. He said, “We tend to play places where people throw things at each other. Here [in Canada], they just sort of sit there. And it doesn’t matter what you say to ‘em . . . . It’s mashed potatoes but no gravy.” But the painful reality is, his metaphorical elaboration reveals the way he really wants things to be – for the Other to be devoid of the substance that actually defines it as distinctly Other.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I mentioned yesterday I awoke preoccupied with songs about animals (see W. J. T. Mitchell’s fine work of theory and criticism, Picture Theory, and the chapter titled “Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking”), and while I was compiling the song list yesterday, I paused when I remembered Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire,” which seems to have retained a remarkably persistent market presence in the thirty-four years since its release in 1975. An example of mid-70s “soft rock” (see my blog on the subject of soft rock here), it also is strongly influenced by both folk and cowboy music, but it is a folk song that also happens to have an appeal to children. While it is arguably part of the same tradition of fabled animals as Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” (1962) and “Stewball” (1963), as well as Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn” (1967), to my knowledge it is seldom grouped with these songs. It was probably largely inspired by Roger McGuinn’s “Chestnut Mare” (1970, inspired in turn by “The Strawberry Roan”), although I can prove this influence only indirectly, by the fact that when Michael Martin Murphey (as he is now called) recorded an entire album of songs about fabled horses, The Horse Legends (1997), he curiously failed to include McGuinn’s famous song—the tell-tale sign of an unconscious repression. Another musical influence is also, obviously, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” a so-called “cowboy legend” about a cowboy who has a sublime vision of a herd of demonic cattle stampeding across the sky pursued forever by the ghosts of damned cowboys.

There are other sources. My wife Rebecca and I watched just last week a film titled WILDFIRE: THE STORY OF A HORSE (1945), standard “B” western stuff starring Bob Steele and Sterling Holloway, included on the DVD collection, Darn Good Westerns Vol. 1 (VCI, 2009). In the 1945 film, the horse named (by Bob Steele) “Wildfire” has the same beauty and intelligence as other screen horses such as the Lone Ranger’s Silver, Fury, Flicka, Black Beauty, and perhaps most importantly, the horse in the Disney film, TONKA (1958), in which Sal Mineo, playing a young Sioux warrior growing to manhood in the 1870s, proves his courage by catching and training a wild pony he names Tonka—“tonka wakan,” “The Great One.” The Mineo character has a deep rapport with the horse, a horse that embodies for the young warrior the values of bravery, strength, grace—and a vast, untamed spirit. The song “Wildfire” also trades on certain occult fantasy elements that can be found, for instance, in the “Metzengerstein” segment of HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (1967), a film of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The “Metzengerstein” segment features the transmigration of a human soul into a horse. Hence the horse is an ideal object for the projection of human desire, a creature that is both “tamed” (civilized), but also wild—an emblem of Marvell’s oxymoronic “wild civility.”

The lyrics to “Wildfire” are as follows:

She comes down from Yellow MountainOn a dark flat land she ridesOn a pony she named WildfireWith a whirlwind by her sideOn a cold Nebraska night
They say she died one winterWhen there came a killin’ frostAnd the pony she name WildfireBusted down his stallIn a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling WildfireShe ran calling WildfireShe ran calling Wildfire
By the dark of the moon I plantedBut there came an early snowThere's been a hoot owl howlin’ by my window nowFor six nights in a rowShe’s coming for me I knowAnd on Wildfire we’re both gonna go
We’ll be riding WildfireWe’ll be riding Wildfire
On Wildfire we’re both going to rideWe’re going to leave sodbustin’ behindGet these hard times right on out of our mindsRiding Wildfire

“She” remains unnamed, but like many of the women portrayed in rock songs of the 60s and 70s, “she” is a benign female fantasy figure, a quasi-supernatural creature existing in a dreamlike and unreal world. Her intimidating supernaturalism is suggested by the “whirlwind by her side” (think of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”), and her dark feminine power is also suggested by her having tamed the potentially dangerous, impetuous, and unpredictable horse, Wildfire. That we’re in a fantasy world, or mythical realm, is suggested by the improbable existence of “Yellow Mountain” in Nebraska—there are no mountains in Nebraska. The singer also refers to leaving “sodbustin’ behind,” “sodbusting” a Western movie colloquialism for farming, which also makes the setting in time of the song ambiguous, that is, mythic. The lyrics invoke certain venerable superstitions about the time of year and human calamity (think of the warning given Julius Caesar, “beware the Ides of March”), a classic confusion of Nature and Culture. Her death (in the Fall of the year?) both frees the horse’s obligation to her but also drives it mad, and is an instance of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which Nature itself responds to human disaster and suffering (think, for instance, of the faithful dog in a Disney animated film that is sad when it its owner is sad or despondent). The horse is “lost,” which I take to mean, “never seen again,” although it’s possible to understand it to mean the death of the horse; it is also possible to interpret Wildfire’s running off after the death of “she” as meaning the soul of “she” has transmigrated into the body of the horse: she is now the horse, that now runs free. The reference to the “hoot owl” is taken from the song “Stewball,” a song about a horse on which the singer should have bet everything, but did not: “If I’d have bet on ol’ Stewball, I'd be a free man today/Oh the hoot owl, she hollers, and the turtle dove moans/I’m a poor boy in trouble/I'm a long way from home.” According to The Owl Pages, “To hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all predicted by an Owl.” But unlike “Stewball,” which leaves the singer’s situation unresolved, the singer in “Wildfire” imagines his own imminent death. His death, however, will not be an ending but a transcendent experience, the beginning of a new life or new form of existence, in which he leaves behind his dreary life and rides off, “into the sunset” as it were, with, literally, the woman of his dreams. The song’s insistent melancholy, so remarked upon, is perhaps no more insistent than that of “The Unicorn” or “Stewball,” musical melancholy being the aural equivalent of a failed love song, a love song not based on the fulfillment of need, but one in which the object of affection is recognized as dead (as in “The Unicorn”).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Great Speckled Bird

Today is Easter Sunday, and I woke up this morning thinking of songs about animals. My thoughts inevitably turned to songs about birds, and perhaps because it is Easter, the one that first came to mind was The Great Speckled Bird (click the link for the lyrics). Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the lyrics were apparently written by the Reverend Guy Smith. The image of the “speckled bird,” most experts agree, is a reference to Jeremiah 12:9: Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her. The use of “heritage” here means the life one must lead as a consequence of the way one was “raised,” but also the one determined by dint of personality: in contrast to an oral tradition, in which thought is spirit, from the outside (as from God), the song is an example of psyche, the experience of literacy, in which thought comes from within. Although the lyrics would suggest gospel music inspirations (they were written by a minister, after all), the music was inspired by a song from the secular realm, and as such the song would seem to be a fierce statement of self-reliance, perseverance, and the perils of the individual within a mass society. Most sources I’ve come across claim the melody is traditional, used first (in recorded history; it is no doubt much older) in “I Am Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes,” a song recorded in the 1920s. The same melody was also used in Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” and in Kitty Wells’ answer song to “The Wild Side of Life,” titled “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” To my knowledge, the fact that the four songs all used the same melody was first pointed out, in recorded form anyway, by David Allan Coe, on the best album he ever did, RIDES AGAIN (1977), and the song, “Punkin Center Barn Dance.”

Despite the lyrics’ rather obvious allegorizing and the rhetoric of righteousness, the Modernist influence is quite noticeable — using difficulty as a means to protect an art work from mass appropriation. The lyrical content of “The Great Speckled Bird” is elusive for many listeners, as I discovered after a short web search. Hence, while the song has been recorded many times the past seventy years and is something of a country music “standard,” its meaning is hardly transparent.

Friday, April 10, 2009

White Out

I apologize for not being the best of bloggers this past week. I’ll plead the usual: too many things going on, too many irons in the fire. I’m writing at the moment from New Orleans, where I’m attending the PCA/ACA Annual Conference. Most of this past week was devoted to putting the finishing touches on my paper, which I delivered yesterday morning and went very well. I suppose, since I’m in New Orleans, I ought to talk about the food—strongly associated with this Southern city in the popular imagination—which is, of course, excellent. Cutting my lunch hour short yesterday in order to attend a session on popular music (one particular paper on the role of stuttering in The Who’s “My Generation” was fascinating, which I’ll discuss in a forthcoming blog), I ordered fish and chips in the bistro of the hotel where the conference was being held, and even this so-called “fast food” sort of meal was very good—the fish was fresh and delicious. More importantly, the conference sessions I’ve attended have been extraordinarily stimulating intellectually, and on the personal side I’m delighted to have hooked up with some old friends I haven’t seen in years, as well as met some new ones. In short, attending this conference has been a great experience for me.

For whatever inexplicable reason, I woke up this morning thinking of Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle.” None of the sessions I attended these past couple of days discussed this example of psychedelic music; in fact, none of the popular music sessions I attended discussed psychedelia at all. My thoughts moved from “My White Bicycle,” to the wider use of “white” as an adjective within rock music. I say this because in the late 1960s—a result of the lore that emerged surrounding Albert Hoffmann’s first experimental use of LSD-25 while riding home on his bicycle, the anecdote that prompted Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” and other songs as well—“white” seems linked, not always but early on, with the drug experience. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” also seems to confirm this initial impression of the adjective’s use. The adjective “white” thus has a rather interesting place in the history of rock, and while in Melville’s Moby-Dick Captain Ahab sees evil symbolized in the “whiteness of the whale,” “white” seems to be associated in rock culture with the drug experience, a sort of shorthand for a startling revelation, a new way of seeing, a keen insight. Of course, there are racial uses of “white,” as in Three Dog Night’s “Black and White”—musical tropes for social “harmony” are centuries old—the number of rock songs using “white” in the title without obvious racial connotations is worth remarking upon, as I realized today while jotting down some titles during my lunch hour. I haven’t included songs such as Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” or George Jones “White Lightning,” but I easily could have done so. One famous band—The Average White Band—employed the word in their group’s name. And while the song isn’t listed below, I’d always assumed the title of Wild Cherry’s biggest hit was “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” but I learned I was incorrect: it is simply “Play That Funky Music,” as I discovered after a quick web search displayed the label of the 45 rpm single. Incidentally, the root of the word “album” is from the Latin, “albus,” meaning blank, or white. So the common reference to the Beatles’ The Beatles as “the white album” is actually redundant. The color of the album was a pun on the meaning of the word album.

The White List:
Elvis – “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)”
Tomorrow – “My White Bicycle”
Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit”
Procol Harum – “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
The Moody Blues – “Nights in White Satin”
Cream – “White Room”
The Beatles – The Beatles (aka “The White Album”)
Merry Clayton – “Poor White Hound Dog” (Performance soundtrack)
Big Star – “Life is White”
Jimmy Buffett – “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Crustacean)”
Boz Scaggs – “Sail On White Moon”
Billy Idol – “White Wedding”
MX-80 Sound – “White Night”

Friday, April 3, 2009

Magneto and Titanium Man

While there’s a rather obvious connection between comics (“sequential narratives”) and motion pictures, the connection between comics and popular music is less obvious. Although it’s unusual to see a reference to comics invoked in the context of popular music, this article, on Esoteric’s new SERVE OR SUFFER hip hop album, reveals some interesting connections between the two media. One of the earliest explicit connections I remember between comics and music, revealing that the two could come into confluence, was Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Magneto and Titanium Man,” from VENUS AND MARS (1975), a sort of ekphrastic attempt at a comic book. The music on Esoteric’s new album may not appeal to everyone, but it is interesting to see a concept album focused on the idea nonetheless.

In the 1960s, there was perhaps a closer connection to rock culture and the so-called “underground“ comics of the time--the cover of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s CHEAP THRILLS, for instance, was drawn by R. Crumb. Some years later, John Byrne would create the Silver Surfer illustration used on the cover of Joe Satriani’s album SURFING WITH THE ALIEN; a webpage of album covers drawn by comic book artists can be found here. So far as I’ve been able to discover, the first rock band inspired to take its name from a comic book was Suicide. According to Simon Reynolds (Rip It Up and Start Again, p. 143) the band took its name from the title of a Ghost Rider comic titled “Satan Suicide,“ “an issue of [Alan] Vega’s favorite comic book.” In 1979, Marvel Comics released a comic book (pictured) based on the characters in Alice Cooper’s FROM THE INSIDE (1978). The typographic design for The Cramps’ name was inspired by EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt (EC Comics’ influence can also be seen in the cover of the Alice Cooper comic).

I’ve assembled below a playlist with references to comic characters. I’ve listed The Jam’s version of Neil Hefti’s “Batman Theme,” which has been covered many times over the years; it’s interesting that all the rock songs that I could find with comics references appeared after the Batman TV series premiered in January 1966.

A Rock Comic Con:
Donovan – “Sunshine Superman,” Sunshine Superman (1966)
The Kinks – “Johnny Thunder,” The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
The Beatles – “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (“So Captain Marvel zapped him right between the eyes”), The Beatles (1968)
T. Rex – “Mambo Sun,” (“I’m Dr. Strange for you”), Electric Warrior (1971)
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – “Sergeant Fury,” The Impossible Dream (1974)
Paul McCartney and Wings – “Magneto and Titanium Man,” Venus and Mars (1975)
The Jam – “Batman Theme,” In The City (1977)
Suicide – “Ghost Rider,” Suicide (1977)
XTC – “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me),” Black Sea (1980)
Joe Satriani – Surfing With the Alien (album of instrumentals), 1987
Prince – “Batdance,” Batman (1989)
Crash Test Dummies – “Superman’s Song,” The Ghosts That Haunt Me (1991)
Spin Doctors – “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” Pocket Full of Kryptonite (1991)
Esoteric vs. Gary Numan – “General Zod,” Pterodactyl Tubeway (2007)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Soft Rock

Perusing the used record bins in the local Goodwill Store the other day, I came across the worn, tattered cover (no LP inside) of a K-Tel compilation album consisting of “Soft Rock” hits, issued in 1975 or thereabouts. I don’t remember all the songs listed on the back cover, but I do recall the album including, for instance, Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Three Dog Night’s “Old-Fashioned Love Song,” Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain,” Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston,” Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You,” and America’s “Tin Man.” Since coming across that old album cover, I’ve been thinking about what constitutes “Soft Rock,” its features and characteristics.

What the phrase “Soft Rock” refers to, musically speaking, is very elusive. I don’t recall hearing the term prior to the mid-70s, when compilations of the K-Tel kind (pictured) began to be heavily marketed and sold through television advertisements. Obviously “Soft Rock” is feminine-coded as opposed to the masculine-coded “Hard Rock,” thus linking “Soft Rock” to the “Singer/Songwriter” tradition, also feminine-coded (Carole King, James Taylor). “Soft Rock” suggests that there’s something about the contents of the K-Tel album that fundamentally distinguishes it from other forms of rock, rather like “light” sour cream is different in some basic way from “regular” sour cream, or “fat free” Half and Half from regular Half and Half. If, by analogy, “Soft Rock” is different from “normal” rock in the same way fat free Half and Half is different from “normal” Half and Half, then presumably it refers to rock music purged of some feature of “normal” rock that is perceived as pernicious or “unhealthy.” Of course it is much more complicated than this (based on list of songs I remember being on the album, I would say that Soft Rock is characterized by traditional romantic themes, for instance), but as a rhetorical gesture, perhaps it is enough to understand what it, at least in part, refers: as a phrase peculiar to the 1970s, “Soft Rock” means, this music ain’t that 60s “free love” and “got to revolution” crap. As opposed to being “raw,” Soft Rock is “cooked”—that is, it has so-called “high” production values, medium tempos, orchestrations (“strings”), pop-like melodic hooks, and lyrics focusing on traditional romance (and heartbreak): “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” “Old-Fashioned Love Song,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Laughter in the Rain.” And while the designation is rife with problems (as Simon Frith and others have pointed out), the general consensus at the time, as I remember, was that Soft Rock was commercialized rock—an accusation bolstered by the aggressive marketing of K-Tel albums, among other sorts of compilations, on TV. The K-Tel compilation albums of the 1970s are the antecedent of the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series of CDs currently found in stores and on-line.

In fact, the phrase “Soft Rock,” rather like that of “Garage Rock,” represents the reinterpretation of the past by a later generation. “Garage Rock,” as a term, didn’t exist until 1972, thanks to Jac Holzman and Lenny Kaye’s NUGGETS anthology, in which the value and significance of aspiring rock musicians rehearsing in their parents’ garage was reinterpreted as “authentic,” that is, non-commercialized, rock. The same principle applies to the history of “Punk Rock.” “Punk,” as a term used to describe the culture gathered around a particular type of rock music, had no musical application until around 1975. Immediately afterward, the word “punk” gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started stitiching together a history, memorializing certain figures that came before them and ascribing to those figures their own desires--which those illustrious predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some historiographers memorialize the MC5 and The Stooges as punk precursors, while others memorialize the Velvet Underground. The narratives that grew up around punk are, in effect, reinterpretations of the past, establishing predecessors on the analogy of the pilgrims who settled America, who sacrificed for a future they could not have fully known or understood. To refer to, say, The Byrds or The Beau Brummels as “Soft Rock” would have made no sense in the mid-60s; the term can only make sense in retrospect, as a consequence of the reinterpretation of the past by a later generation.