Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On The Town

Raymond Williams observed in his classic, The Country and the City, “’Country’ and ‘city’ are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities.... In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation. . . . On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition . . .”

F. W. Murnau’s justly famous film Sunrise (1927) realizes the contradictions Williams identifies in a rather revealing way: a (naïve) country bumpkin goes to the big city and his life is almost ruined by a wicked temptress. Only the last-minute realization of his deep love for his guileless wife prevents him from certain destruction at the hands of the city woman, the femme fatale. Hence while the city is associated with sophistication and learning, it is also associated with temptation and corruption–feminine guile. In Pretty Woman (1990), for instance, the film that made Julia Roberts into a Hollywood star, the city is also associated with corruption, its opening scenes set on Hollywood Boulevard, with its long parade of hookers and prostitutes. The city woman from Sunrise is among them somewhere.

The word town is derived from the Old English tūn, meaning enclosure, village, or town; the word city is generally used to designate a community of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village. By way of analogy, town is to city as creek is to river, or sea to ocean, although city and town are often used interchangeably, and in any case both actually refer to some geographic place of some indeterminate size. Since the size of the population is irrelevant, to refer to one’s town or hometown is to refer to a community in which one’s identity is remorselessly known and rigidly fixed, a place where one is “stereotyped” and boxed in. In his song, “Small Town,” John Mellencamp sings:

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
eah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

But this is a myth, of course: since anonymity in a small town is impossible (unlike the liminal space opened up by the anonymity of New York City in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town), people will never let you be just what you want to be. Here’s Gene Pitney:

If we stop to gaze upon a star
People talk about how bad we are
Ours is not an easy age
We’re like tigers in a cage
What a town without pity can do

He goes on to ask, “Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?” In a small town, as in a big city, the familiar “townspeople” can very easily transform into the members of a faceless and hostile crowd, as they do in, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The horror realized in that film isn’t that people are replaced by pods, but that anonymous crowds aren’t supposed to exist in small towns. It’s not surprising, then, that popular music expresses the same ambivalence toward the town and city: songs like “Downtown” may talk about the fun of being where the action is, but songs like “Poor Side of Town” talk about the hope of escaping rigid class distinctions.

Twenty Songs On The Town:
The Beach Boys – Leavin’ This Town
Petula Clark – Downtown
Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld, Eric Andersen – Wrong Side Of Town
The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
Steve Earle – Guitar Town
Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown
Gene McDaniels – It’s A Lonely Town
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Roy Orbison – Uptown
Gene Pitney – Town Without Pity
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Stan Ridgway – Lonely Town
Johnny Rivers – Poor Side of Town
Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes – Love On The Wrong Side of Town
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town
The Stray Cats – Rock This Town
U2 – Red Hill Mining Town
The Vogues – Magic Town
Bill Withers – Lonely Town, Lonely Street

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

About Ten Perfect Pop Songs

Yesterday, I came across this list put together by guitarist Jay Ferguson, in which the artist has assembled what he considers as the ten perfect pop songs ever recorded. While I found the list and his accompanying discussions quite fascinating, I also found myself wanting to take issue with his choices, but then I remembered that the whole purpose of lists is to be provocative. Early punk rockers were fond of posting lists (I Like…/I Don’t Like…) for precisely the purpose of being provocative, and they were frequently successful. Since we live in an age of aphorisms (statements of personal taste) rather than one of axioms (universally accepted truths that are potentially falsifiable), it is impossible to post a list consisting of “the ten perfect pop songs” without the list appearing as capricious, nothing but a highly individualized statement of personal taste.

So what makes a perfect pop song? Rather than appeal to formal qualities only (melody or hook, for instance), I think the perfect pop song must 1) have achieved some degree of notoriety at inception (it was successful, controversial, provocative, etc.); and must 2) have transcended the historical moment in which it first appeared. These criteria thus allow for the inclusion of the “one-hit wonder,” many of which have remained remarkably persistent over the years, but also allow for a certain “timeless” quality in the song, in the sense that it has demonstrated an appeal to more than one generation. The real trick is to limit oneself to ten—why? Why pick only ten flavors of jellybeans when you’re in a store with literally dozens of flavors? Thus to limit oneself to ten is really just a parlor game, but that’s fine. I’ll play—but because I’m recalcitrant, I’ll list eleven instead. The following list tries to avoid naming only what I would consider my “personal favorites,” and also tends to avoid naming only rock ‘n’ roll songs.

One of the things that struck me about Jay Ferguson’s list of the ten perfect pop songs is that he did not list any songs by perhaps the most famous pop singers of all time (in America at least), figures such as—to name a very few—Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Patsy Cline. My list tries to acknowledge these figures. After all, Louis Armstrong created the image of the pop singer as artist in the first place, and without him establishing this image, the whole idea of “ten perfect pop songs” would be literally unthinkable. And how can you ignore Frank Sinatra, one of the most highly successful and popular singers America has known, and who created the idea of an album being a unified whole, not a haphazard assembly of 2-3 minute songs? Limiting a list to so very few is rife with problems, but nonetheless here is my list of eleven perfect pop songs:

1. What A Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
Armstrong’s rough, gravelly voice is instantly recognizable and is known world-wide. Despite the limitations of his voice, he was a great singer, and “What A Wonderful World” has proved its durability by being a hit single several times over several decades—when it was first released in 1968, when it was re-released in the early 1970s following his death, and a hit again when it appeared on the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Remember that it was Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964 that knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard chart, which they had so long dominated.

2. It Never Entered My Mind, Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra’s album In the Wee Small Hours (1955) is one of pop music’s finest records. Every song on the album is an expression of a different dramatic persona. Sinatra approached a song like an actor approaching a role, seeking to express not himself but a character, with the song being like an inner monologue. There is no singer today who hasn’t been influenced by Sinatra’s use of the microphone; whether he or she is conscious of this fact is irrelevant. I love this song for its dramatic idea and for his phrasing—pop music at its finest.

3. Yesterday, The Beatles
The success and durability of this pop ballad goes without saying. Certainly it is among the greatest of Lennon-McCartney’s pop songs. If the Guinness Book of Records is correct, “Yesterday” has the most cover versions of any song ever written. Most certainly it gave rise to the short-lived Sixties genre known as “Baroque rock.”

4. Smoke From A Distant Fire, The Sanford Townsend Band
Session players and songwriters Ed Sanford and John Townsend struck gold with this one huge hit, and what a song it is. Again, I love the idea of this song, in the same vein as the Righteous Brothers’ “You've Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” except it is more raucous and less lugubrious. If one were to make a list of those pop songs ideally suited for Top 40 radio, most certainly this would be one of them.

5. Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley
The music made by Elvis during and after his 1968 “comeback” has to be some of the finest music of his career. In this song—and every song on 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis for that matter—his singing was strong, dramatic, and heartfelt. I loved this song when I first heard it forty years ago, and I still do—it is impossible for me to turn off the radio if this song is playing. It features a great arrangement, a strong melody, and of course wonderfully emotive vocals.

6. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Aretha Franklin
Former President Bill Clinton named Aretha Franklin “a national treasure,” and songs such as this flawless pop recording indicate why he did so. She of course has many hits and many fine albums, but this song is an ideal demonstration of her voice.

7. She’s Got You, Patsy Cline
Make no mistake: Patsy Cline was a pop singer, not a country singer, and man, could she sing. She recorded many fine songs, but I’ve always liked this one (this, and “Poor Man’s Roses”) the best. The song structure is very economical, to be sure, but the lyrical content is more about loneliness than heartbreak—and that’s what Patsy Cline’s voice could capture so very well—loneliness.

8. 867-5309/Jenny, Tommy Tutone
Perhaps it’s a “one-hit wonder,” but I think this is very nearly a perfect pop song: a great hook, chiming guitars, a driving rhythm, and a brilliant idea—improbably, a love song to a fallen woman the singer has never met.

9. Everybody Plays the Fool, The Main Ingredient
This is a pop song that is warm, genuine, melodic—and carries the sting of truth. Although by no means a group known primarily as being a one-hit wonder, “Everybody Plays the Fool” became The Main Ingredient’s biggest and best-known hit, and an auspicious beginning to the group’s Cuba Gooding, Sr. period. Gooding’s lead vocal has a humanness to it that the best pop singers have always had.

10. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Willie Nelson
There’s no doubt in my mind that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the all-time best pop albums ever made—and no, it ain’t “country.” Willie Nelson is a great songwriter, not a great country songwriter. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is a sparse, haunting ballad that rests on the painful truth that love is either waxing or waning (in this case the latter), and features only Willie’s distinctive voice and his old, battered, Spanish guitar.

11. Rainy Night in Georgia, Brook Benton
Is it possible for a song to break your heart? If it is, this pop song from 1970 does it to me. “Rainy Night in Georgia” was written by Tony Joe White, but Brook Benton got the hit from it. Haunting, melancholic, impossible to turn off if it is playing on the radio, “Rainy Night in Georgia” is nothing less than perfect studio production coupled with superb pop songwriting. It is also a perfect realization of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which nature seemingly reflects one’s inner state of mind (psyche).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Teacher's Pet

The role of the teacher can be best understood as someone who provides the student with two kinds of knowledge. Following Gilbert Ryle, these kinds of knowledge are knowing how and knowing that. A teacher who “knows how” may teach a special form of craftsmanship (knowing how to make, build, play, design, or draw something), or may teach a specialized vocation (how to install, repair, rebuild, or fix something, for instance). But the form of knowledge of knowing that is different than knowing how: just because I know how to ride a bicycle, for instance, doesn’t mean that you know how to ride a bicycle, while on the other hand, you and I may both know that it is cold, rainy, and windy outside, and therefore not the best time to learn to ride a bicycle. Most teachers are entrusted with their students’ minds, to teach students the way to know that something is true or false (“practical reason” or rationality): mathematics and formal logic, for instance, but also history and politics (“political reason”), and so on.

Within the institution of schooling, teachers are the people entrusted with the minds of students. Hence teaching is, as Tracy Kidder has observed in Among Schoolchildren (1989), one of the few occupations in which any form of measurable success rests on the skill and inspiration of those people “at the bottom of the institutional pyramid” (p. 52). In this sense, teaching is much like police work, and perhaps it’s no wonder, therefore, that both types of people are depicted as virtuous and dedicated, on the one hand, or tyrannical and hypocritical authority figures on the other. These contradictory representations of the teacher are reflected in popular music, in which the male or female teacher often has a special form of attraction distinct from the (repressive) institution itself. The teacher has been the subject of erotic fantasies, in which the pupil desires the teacher to teach a form of knowing how that is not the academic subject itself (“Abigail Beecher,” “Teacher’s Pet”), a figure of hypocrisy (“Society’s Child”), a brutal authority figure instilling mindless submission to power (“Another Brick in the Wall”), or a highly idealized father figure (“To Sir With Love”). Books have been written exploring the depiction of teachers in the movies (see Ann C. Paietta, Teachers in the Movies; McFarland, 2007), and while I know of no book doing the same for popular music, no doubt the range of representations is quite similar. The first movie to link rock music, the school, and the teacher is, of course, Blackboard Jungle (released March 1955), the film that, as Thomas Doherty has observed (Teenagers and Teenpics, p. 76), was also the film that alerted Hollywood filmmakers to the way rock music could contribute to a movie’s appeal. No rock recordings could have represented the teacher in any fashion prior to 1955.

Songs About Teachers And The Lessons Learned:
Abba – “When I Kissed the Teacher”
Chuck Berry – “School Day”
Alice Cooper – “School’s Out”
Freddie Cannon – “Abigail Beecher”
Doris Day – “Teacher’s Pet”
Elton John – “Teacher I Need You”
Janis Ian – “Society’s Child”
Hall & Oates – “Adult Education”
Lulu – “To Sir With Love”
Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall”
The Police – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”
Van Halen – “Hot For Teacher”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Kiss Kollectibles

An interesting comment left in response to my blog entry yesterday concerning popular musicians who have appeared in comic books indicated that the rock band Kiss also appeared in a comic from Marvel, issued around April 1977, written by the late Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber. The comic was notorious at the time because the red ink used in the printing of the comic was mixed with blood taken from each Kiss band member, a story authenticated as true by Apparently Marvel published a second Kiss comic in 1979, but without the garish sensationalism that the marked the publication of the first, and in 1997 Image began publishing Todd McFarlane’s Kiss: Psycho Circus, obviously an attempt to revise Kiss’s cultural capital by avoiding the juvenilia that marked the band’s first appearances in the comics. Apparently Kiss comics have become a cottage industry of late, with Dark Horse publishing a Kiss comic book series authored by X-Men writer Joe Casey in 2002. I suspect that the sheer amount of Kiss-related merchandise probably rivals The Beatles; I couldn’t begin to name to vast number and kinds of product tie-ins and memorabilia available, but most certainly these products are distributed world-wide.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

From Big Band To Rap

Moments after posting my entry on Jack Kirby and Paul McCartney this morning, my friend Dion Cautrell sent me an email with a link to today’s press release announcing that Marvel Comics has teamed up with Eminem to create a limited series comic featuring the famed rapper and Marvel’s provocative vigilante, The Punisher, in Eminem/Punisher: Kill You. Apparently Marvel discovered Eminem is a fan of The Punisher, and worked out an arrangement with the musician to issue a comic coinciding with the release of his new album. Click the link on my blog entry from earlier today (below) to go to my initial discussion of the relation between rock music and the comics. I admit to being hard-pressed to think of another popular musician appearing as himself in an original comic book story; I’ve previously cited Alice Cooper’s From the Inside, a comic featuring Alice as well as characters from his 1978 album of the same title. I don’t think the now defunct “Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics,” published by Revolutionary Comics, qualify, as they largely consisted of a rock star’s or rock band’s biography told in graphic novel form.

The only other popular musician I can think of who appeared as himself in a comic book with an original story is big band leader Kay Kyser, who appeared with Batman and Robin in DC’s Detective Comics #144 (February 1949; pictured), in an episode entitled “The Mystery Broadcast.” Kay Kyser’s band was one of the most popular of the big band era, and no other bandleader of the swing era can boast such an extensive filmography as Kyser. Although hugely popular during the late 1930s and the 1940s, especially with his “College of Musical Knowledge” radio show, Kyser permanently retired from the music business shortly after Detective Comics #144 appeared in 1949. He hosted a TV game show sponsored by Ford Motor Company in 1950, but retired by the end of that year, largely explaining why he is virtually unknown to “Baby Boomers.” The fact that he appeared as a character in a comic book suggests just how popular he was at the time.

Magneto and The Crimson Dynamo

Early last month I wrote about the connection between comics and popular music, observing that it’s unusual to see a reference to comics invoked in the context of popular music. I mentioned that 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 song about two obscure villains from the Iron Man comics.

I have been told that a couple of days ago, over at The Cool Kids Table blogspot, “KP” posted a picture of famed comics artist and occasional Iron Man writer Jack Kirby with Paul McCartney, taken backstage at a Wings concert around 1976. As it turns out, KP found a link to a Beatles photo blog (the link to the photos is available by clicking on The Cool Kids Table blogspot link above) that has several pictures of the backstage meeting between Kirby and McCartney. KP also posted an excerpt from an interview he conducted with Lisa Kirby, daughter of the artist, in which she says the former Beatle introduced her father to the audience during the concert, then went into “Magneto and Titanium Man.”

Many thanks go to my friend Dion Cautrell for finding this information and sharing it with me.