Monday, August 31, 2009

High Time

Marijuana use is, of course, illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin and peyote) and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations. But according to this article that appeared in yesterday’s L. A. Times, marijuana is going mainstream: so-called “cannabis culture” is purportedly “coming out of the closet.” For instance, just this past June, roughly 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo Hemp and Art show in downtown Los Angeles. In addition, Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock 40th anniversary by selling $78 “Hashish” candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves. Cheech and Chong recently concluded an international tour and claim to be at work on another movie.

Once depicted as a drug that could incite a murderous rage (Tell Your Children, aka Reefer Madness, 1936) and recently blamed as the cause for burger runs gone awry (2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), marijuana is now just another banal fixture in film and popular music. According to the L. A. Times article, cannabis crops up on shows such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood and Desperate Housewives, and on animated shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy. The article goes on to say:

Marijuana’s role on TV and in the movies is no surprise, says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers - a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana’s presence in society, but probably as consumers themselves of it.”

“As a result,” Thompson said, “it’s almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks - their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag - that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk.”

I thought it might be interesting to assemble a brief cannabis culture chronology, beginning with its emergence as part of modern life with its use by jazz musicians in the 1920s and 30s.

March. Louis Armstrong, a lifelong pot smoker, is busted outside of an L.A. jazz club. Gage, tea, muggles, and reefer are some of the many names for marijuana among jazz musicians.

The cautionary tale, Tell Your Children, is first released; it is re-titled many years later as Reefer Madness.

Devil's Harvest (thanks Bent for providing a link to the poster art! Go here)

Actor Robert Mitchum is busted for marijuana possession during an undercover stakeout in Laurel Canyon.

The TV documentary, A Boy Called Donovan, about the British pop singer Donovan, reveals the singer smoking pot with friends. Later in the year, Donovan becomes the first high-profile British pop star to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Members of The Rolling Stones are busted several times this year.

May. Easy Rider premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, depicting scenes of marijuana use. The same year, Tommy Chong hires stand-up comedian Richard “Cheech” Marin to perform between the bands and strippers at his family’s Vancouver, Canada, night club. The rest is history.

Sometime during this period, future President Bill Clinton experiments with marijuana, but doesn’t inhale.

New York-based magazine High Times is first published; the magazine does for pot what Playboy did for sex.

Reggae musician Peter Tosh releases the album Legalize It.

The first classic stoner flick, Up In Smoke, is released starring Cheech and Chong.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with Sean Penn as a bong-smoking surfer.

The Breakfast Club: five high school stereotypes bond as a consequence of smoking of a joint.

Dr. Dre’s The Chronic—taking its name from a slang term for powerful weed and its cover art from a package of Zig-Zag rolling papers—is released. It and 2001 (1999), the latter with a marijuana leaf depicted on the cover, together sell over 10 million copies.

Set in 1976, the pro-pot Dazed and Confused is released with tag lines such as “Weed rules.”

California voters pass Proposition 215 allowing the medical use of marijuana.

October. Dazed and Confused star Matthew McConaughey is busted at his Texas home by officers who arrest him after observing him dancing naked and playing bongos.

Showtime’s Weeds depicts a widowed suburban mother played by Mary-Louise Parker becoming pot peddler. The show recently began its fifth season.

March. The UK Daily Mail publishes a story indicating that Keith Richards says he smokes weed “all the time.” He admits, “I smoke my head off. I smoke weed all the damn time. But that's my benign weed. That’s all I take, that's all I do. But I do smoke, and I've got some really good hash.”
August. Cannabis comedy Pineapple Express opens and becomes a hit.
November. Michael Phelps, the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history, is photographed at a South Carolina party smoking pot.

April. Kalpen Modi, who as Kal Penn played stoner Kumar of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), accepts a position as the associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs.

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.