Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Last Time

The last – it speaks of fatality and finality, the end of one historic moment and the beginning of another, but without the reassuring comfort of any continuity between them. The last (of anything) names an apocalyptic rupture, an unrecoverable end marking death and extinction—the last Passenger Pigeon, for instance, named Martha, which died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 p.m. on September 1, 1914. The last thus reaffirms our perception of time as linear, and the moment that is the last, as in “our last breath,” is a point in time that is inevitable and unavoidable, although we ourselves, ironically, will not actually observe it. The last is a point in time that erases the past but therefore also leaves the future radically open to new, and therefore terrifying, possibility. Last, of course, can mean an earlier or previous time, as in “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” And the expression, “at last,” names a long anticipated moment that has finally come to pass. But songs such as “Last Kiss” are about a moment in time that is both fatal and final, the conjoining of Eros and Thanatos, the embracing of the beautiful corpse.

Ten Lasting Moments:
The Band – The Last Waltz
The Drifters – Save the Last Dance For Me
The Eagles – The Last Resort
Edward Bear – Last Song
Don Henley – The Last Worthless Evening
The Monkees – Last Train to Clarksville
The Motels – Suddenly, Last Summer
The Rolling Stones – The Last Time
Bruce Springsteen – Last To Die
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers – Last Kiss

Saturday, August 29, 2009


An interrogation—a lengthy and methodical series of questions used by the police and the military to acquire crucial information—typically occurs after some sort of crime has been committed. The interviewees—the individuals who are asked this series of questions—are considered sources of information, or else suspects believed to be involved in the crime in some way. Linguistically speaking, an interrogative is a function word, used to acquire information that is stated in the form of a declarative statement. Interrogatives are sometimes also called WH- words because the majority of interrogatives in English start with WH-. They are used in questions (e.g., Where is she going?) and interrogative content clauses (I wonder where she is going?). Interrogatives include which, what, whose, who, whom (human), what, which (nonhuman), where (place), whence (origin), whither (goal), when, how (manner), why (motive), wherefore (reason), and whether (a question posed as alternatives among a series of choices).

Many pop songs employing the interrogative (“question songs”) are orthographically incorrect because they almost always omit the question mark. The wherefore behind this omission may be to suggest that while the song title is written using a wh- word and would therefore seem to be a question, it is really being asked by someone who already knows the answer—in other words, it is a question posed for its emotional effect (e.g., “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”). Question songs may therefore be considered as posing what is known as a “rhetorical question,” a question asked for its persuasive effect without expectation of a reply (e.g., Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?).

Interrogatives A—Z
Ace – How Long
Jimmy Buffett – Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)
The Cramps – Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?
Derek and The Dominos – Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad
The Everly Brothers – When Will I Be Loved
Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like We Do
Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On?
George Harrison – What Is Life
The Isley Brothers – Who’s That Lady
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Where Have All The Good Times Gone
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Do You Believe in Magic?
Lee Michaels – Do You Know What I Mean
Nine Inch Nails – Where Is Everybody?
The Offspring – Why Don’t You get A Job?
Elvis Presley – Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Who Do You Love?
The Rolling Stones – Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?
The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow
The Tubes – What Do You Want From Life?
U2 – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Van Halen – Could This Be Magic?
Hank Williams - Why Don't You Love Me
XTC – Are You Receiving Me?
Neil Young – Are You Ready For The Country?
Frank Zappa – Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Primitivist Myth

A few months ago I wrote a blog dealing with adjectival criticism and music, complaining that many popular music writers—like the AMG sort, for example—have a limited repertoire, preferring to label rather than to critique or interpret. Part of the problem is in understanding music as an art, and part is that the writing is shallow. The fact is, most writing on popular music, perhaps unintentionally, has the effect of dumbing it down. It is difficult to translate sonic experience into definition, and the standard deployment for some writers is predication of names on (adjectival) descriptions.

One individual who came across my blog a couple of months ago wrote to me personally (I hesitate to mention his name because he wrote to me in a private email, not in a blog comment), largely agreeing with me, observing that there are, of course, some good writers on popular music: Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Rob Bowman, James Lincoln Collier, Gunther Schuller, and Nat Hentoff, to name a few. These individuals are all exceptionally good writers—learned, passionate, insightful, dedicated, who demonstrate a remarkably vast erudition. He also made the point—and I think he’s right—that some of the best writing on music is on so-called “legitimate music,” observing that the problems of writing about “legitimate music” (jazz, for instance) are intrinsically different than those of popular music, simply because the rhetoric, diction, style, and assumptions about audience are so different. Much of the writing about pop music is purposefully dumbed down on the assumption that its presumed audience views anything remotely intellectual with utter contempt. He mentioned to me that one of his favorite books happened to be Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988), which he characterized as exploring jazz by channeling Walter Benjamin.

Two decades after the fact, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of Ted Gioia’s slim volume (152 pp.), and read it all in one sitting. For what it’s worth, I found it rich, learned, well-written, and—yes—thought-provoking. I was particularly taken with the chapter, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth,” which explores how jazz was embraced as a modernist art form because its earliest and most enthusiastic writers (mostly European) were also immensely interested in the idealization and theorization of the primitive. He observes that primitivism was a source of modernist art, but also served as a critique. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “primitive” and “exotic” others of non-Western cultures started attracting the attention of Western artists and became sources of new ideas and new forms: Picasso’s “Cubism” for example, or Puccini’s “Oriental” operas such as Madame Butterfly and Turandot. (The plundering of so-called “world music” by many contemporary pop music artists is an expression of the same impulse.) In other words, primitivism and exoticism became a fashion and also sources for “high” art. Gioia points out that one of the distortions of jazz by its early theorists resulted from the treatment of jazz as “natural” and “primitive”: French theorist and jazz lover Hugues Panassie—the “Venerable Frog”—was capable of writing:

primitive man generally has greater talent than civilized man. An excess of culture atrophies inspiration, and men crammed with culture tend too much to play tricks, to replace inspiration by lush technique under which one finds music stripped of real vitality (qtd. by Gioia, pp. 29-30)

Such presuppositions led to critiques of Louis Armstrong, for instance, as a “primitive genius.” Robert Goffin was to observe about Louis Armstrong, in Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, that Armstrong “is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music.”

Thus primitivism became a source for modernist art, and an individual who claimed to be a “modern” embraced jazz, even if he or she didn’t quite understand what it was doing musically. The influence of African masks on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, pictured), for instance, is an illustration of the way primitivism influenced modernist art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses. But their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes, their eyes are lopsided, and two of them have masks for heads. Their faces were influenced by African masks that Picasso assumed had once functioned as a kind of apotropaic magic—protection against evil spirits. Indeed, he was to say later that this painting was his “first exorcism painting,” and a particular danger he had in mind was life-threatening sexual disease, a source of considerable anxiety in Paris at the time—after all, these were days before penicillin.

Of course, as Gioia points out, “jazz is not primitive art. Nor, like the works of Picasso or Modigliani, is it imitative of primitive art. The jazz artist could not achieve the naïve attitude of the Lascoux cave painter even if he tried. And far from trying to imitate such artlessness, the jazz musician has strived, from as far back as we can trace, to increase his level of sophistication and his knowledge of his craft” (p. 45) But such was the power of the “Primitivist Myth” to distort perceptions of jazz music. As Gene Lees (b. 1928, author for years of the monthly Jazzletter) observes in his review of Barry Singer’s Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf (1992):

If the work of black songwriters and performers emphasized the torrid and wanton sexuality that was supposed to be a racial characteristic, it was because that was the way white publishers and producers perceived black people and because they demanded that black people be shown as lascivious exotics in entertainment designed for white audiences. Jazz as we know it emerged not as a black music meant for black audiences but largely as a black music for white audiences; blacks were barred from the audiences of Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Valuable Vinyl

According to ElvisMatters, the Belgian website dedicated to all things Elvis, MusicStack has tried to put together a list of the ten most valuable vinyl records, using different sources to come up with the list (eBay, Record Collector magazine, and others). The most expensive vinyl record? A copy of John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy, autographed by Lennon five hours before he was murdered. Beatles-related material holds the top three spots, followed by early stereo pressings, containing songs later removed, of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in the 4th most expensive spot. A record by Elvis comes in at 8th place, a one-sided promotional release for Stay Away, Joe (US, RCA Victor UNRM-9408, 1967), which sold for $25,000.

The complete Top Ten is as follows:

1. John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (Geffen, US LP, 1980) Autographed by Lennon five hours before Mark David Chapman assassinated him. Value: $525,000

2. The Quarrymen, “That’ll Be the Day”/“In Spite Of All The Danger” (UK 78 RPM, Acetate in plain sleeve, 1958) Only one copy made. Value: $180,000

3. The Beatles, Yesterday and Today (Capitol, US LP in “butcher” sleeve, 1966) Value: $38,500. Typically prices range from $150-$7,500

4. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (CBS, US LP, stereo 1963) Contains 4 tracks deleted from subsequent releases. Value: $35,000

5. Long Cleve Reed & Little Harvey Hull, “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” (Black Patti, US 78 RPM in plain sleeve, 1927) Value: $30,000

6. Frank Wilson, “Do I Love You?” (Tamla/Motown, US 7” 45 RPM in plain sleeve, 1965) Value: $30,000

7. Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico (US Album Acetate, in plain sleeve, 1966 with alternate versions of tracks from official release) Value: estimate $25,200

8. Elvis Presley, Stay Away, Joe (US, RCA Victor UNRM-9408, 1967) One sided promotional album. Value: $25,000

9. The Five Sharps, “Stormy Weather” (US, Jubilee 5104, 78 RPM, 1953) Value: $25,000

10. The Hornets, “I Can’t Believe” (US, States 127, 78 RPM, 1953) Value: $25,000

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Generation Jones, or Killing By Category

The mass media is fond of “sound bites,” utterances that, putatively, compress a great deal of information within a few words or a short phrase. The sound bite is a wonderful example of the way technology impacts the form messages take, in the same way, for instance, that cell phone texting has led to verbal constructions such as “THX” (thanks), “OMG!” (Oh My God!), “TBH” (To Be Honest), “L8R” (later), and so on. In the early days of internet discussion boards, there arose a phenomenon referred to as “flame wars” (another sound bite), the mutual misunderstanding of a series of messages that eventually culminated in vicious ad hominem attacks and name-calling. The so-called “flame war” is yet another consequence of technology impacting communication: e-mail and other forms of electronic communication tend to emphasize what rhetoricians call the “perlocutive” dimensions of a message (the meaning, the “point”) rather than the elocutive dimensions (how the message is worded and phrased). Just as eloquence is a consequence of literacy, so too is the sound bite a consequence of the (electronic) mass media. It’s an example of what Marshall McLuhan meant by his slogan, “The medium is the message.” I’m distrustful of sound bites, although I use them. The problem is that they distort and reduce the complexity of issues and problems, and because they are short and often alliterative, they are easy to remember, and hence to repeat. As a consequence they are frequently invoked and get passed around perhaps too easily, and give their user the illusion of intellectual mastery of a topic or issue that he or she knows actually very little about.

I instinctively distrust someone who doesn’t wish to debate or argue. When someone tells me something is “clear” or “obvious,” then I immediately know it isn’t. To tell me that something is “clear” or “obvious” is, in effect, telling me the discussion is over, that the conversation is ended. Imagine my reaction, then, when a reader of my previous blog, which I titled “Dead Elvis” but which was about how both “dead Elvis” and “Woodstock” are now collective constructions (those who remain or come after have the right to speak for those who are gone), left a comment calling my blog “interesting.” When someone tells me something I’ve written is “interesting,” my reaction is the same as that when someone tells me something is “clear” or “obvious”: I immediately know it isn’t. So an “interesting” blog is really “not interesting,” or, more likely, poorly written and argued, or intellectually shallow, simplistic, and probably just plain wrong. Of course, he or she may be right about my previous blog, for while I had, of course, heard of the “Baby Boom Generation” and “Generation X,” until I read the comment I had never heard of the sound bite “Generation Jones”—and that’s just what it is, a sound bite, a consequence of the mass media disseminating a phrase which gives its user the illusion of mastery of a tremendously complicated issue:

Arguably, the biggest legacy of Woodstock is its huge impact on the real children of the sixties: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). This USA TODAY op-ed speaks to the relevance today of the sixties counterculture impact on GenJones:

Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report forcast [sic] the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

My initial reaction to the comment was that the phrase, “Generation Jones,” as opposed to “Baby Boom Generation,” is a distinction without a difference. Moreover, if commentators have picked up the phrase so quickly and it is moving with viral-like speed through the media, then I’m immediately suspicious, because it is not the function of the mass media to educate. The function of the mass media is to amuse, entertain, and inform (e.g., gains and losses on the stock market, relative humidity, weekend box-office receipts, baseball scores, amounts of rainfall, etc.), and, perhaps most importantly, to inculcate individuals with the “proper” values (one aspect of advertising). That is to say, the primary function of the mass media is not to give us the truth, but to disseminate hearsay, conjecture, assumptions, speculations, opinions, and theories, and to reduce tremendously complex issues to matters of assent, that is, “for” or “against,” as if issues are that simple.

For a sound bite such as “Generation Jones” is not particularly informative or insightful. It may be generating a lot of heat within the media, but I suspect very little light. What’s more, it is an essentializing concept. The whole point of my “Dead Elvis” blog was to avoid the limitations of an essentialist understanding of the “Woodstock generation.” Essentialism, Trina Grillo writes,

is the notion that there is a single woman’s, or Black person’s, or any other group’s experience that can be described independently from other aspects of the person—that there is an “essence” to that experience. An essentialist outlook assumes that the experience of being a member of the group under discussion is a stable one, one with a clear meaning, a meaning constant through time, space, and different historical, social, political, and personal contexts. (qtd. in Sherene H. Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, p. 157)

In other words, to essentialize is to kill by category. For in fact, multiple scripts determine people’s lives, and their complex interaction cannot be comprehended by essentializing concepts such as “Generation Jones.” However, I invite all those who care or are interested to read the article on Generation Jones available through the link above, and I thank the reader for taking the time to write the comment on my previous blog.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dead Elvis

Elvis Presley died 32 years ago yesterday (August 16). Preoccupied as it was with selling Woodstock this past weekend, the mass media failed to commemorate Elvis’s death with similar aplomb. Indeed, so far as I know, there was no mention of the fact that while the Woodstock festival as going on, precisely at the same time, Elvis was at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the midst of doing four weeks of sold out shows, making some of the finest music of his career. (His successful return to the stage is the subject of an excellent new book by Ken Sharp, pictured at the left.) By the end of October 1969, “Suspicious Minds” would reach No. 1 in the charts, the culmination of Elvis’s so-called “comeback” after eight years of making largely mediocre films—25 of them since he was discharged from the Army in 1960. He made 27 films 1960-69, but The Trouble With Girls would not be released until September 1969, and Change of Habit, his final dramatic feature film, would not be released until November.

For those who care, Elvis Presley shall always be a daunting hermeneutic enigma. The Woodstock festival and Elvis are similar in that they have both become collective representations, but the fact is, the Woodstock festival simply doesn’t hold the same daunting, elusive mystery as Elvis does. In his book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Greil Marcus calls the invention of dead Elvis, “a great common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?” Because dead Elvis is a collective representation, it both legitimizes and subverts “Elvis” the man. Perhaps the whole issue is irrelevant, except that Marcus can’t get past the vast amount of cultural expenditure invested in constructing dead Elvis. Nor can I. But a great deal of cultural production has gone into the invention of “Woodstock” as well, and the event, too, has been both legitimized, and subverted, the past four decades. The difference between the two cultural emblems, though, is that dead Elvis is largely perceived as an exemplar of tastelessness (inauthenticity), while Woodstock is perceived as a genuine expression of cultural yearning (authenticity), of a generation’s “innocence.” What are the reasons for these distinct cultural perceptions?

The reasons underlying these perceptions are astutely explored in an essay by Linda Ray Pratt, “Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity,” which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, Dr. Pratt, writing as a Southerner herself, discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis is held in such contempt by so many. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was “the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants”.... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis “remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music,” she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern “paranoia” because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape the Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners. The contempt for his Southern cracker origins may have been why he was never allowed to be the great actor he could have been. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn’t escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy.

It is widely accepted as fact that over the years many people have claimed to have been at Woodstock although they actually were not, as if being there is a badge of honor, symbolic cultural capital like having received a wartime medal of valor. One wonders whether Woodstock would still have its aura had it been held in Mississippi or Alabama. I suspect not, for “Woodstock” has had the fortune of being attached to no place (it wasn’t actually in Woodstock, it was on a farm), while in contrast, Elvis has never escaped the widespread stigma of being from the South.