Saturday, November 7, 2009

B's Wax

B side—Sometimes referred to as the “flip side” during the era of the 7” vinyl, 45 rpm single, meaningful only in contrast to the A side, which contained the more heavily promoted song, presumably the “hit.” The alternate (non-hit) song on the B side could well become a hit, of course, revealing the slipperiness of the A/B distinction. In contemporary marketing terminology, the B side could be considered the equivalent of “value-added content,” but in the era of the compact disc the B side has largely been supplanted by value-added content referred to as the “exclusive” or “unreleased” track, the “bonus” track, the “non-album” track, or “rare” track (which may once have been a B side if the group has been recording long enough). The “outtake,” which once referred to a performance of a song left off a release, is now sometimes disingenuously referred to as an “alternate” version, and is considered as an additional, exploitable revenue stream by the “content provider” of the artist’s music.

In its song about the hellish, self-destructive life of the rock star, “Burnin’ For You,” Blue Oyster Cult’s vocalist laments all the time he’s sacrificed to his life on the road, speaking of “Time I’ll never know,” and realizing “Time ain’t on my side.” He also wryly observes that unlike his fans, he has no time “to play B sides” (the mondegreen version of this line widely available on the web renders it, “Time to play besides”). For the music consumer, the collectable value of the B side exceeds its potential aesthetic value. Just as the automobile exceeds its strictly utilitarian value as a means of transportation and possesses a symbolic cultural capital (“status”), so to does the B side to music collectors. To possess all of a band’s released singles means that one also possesses all of the B sides. The B side gives the collector a sense of completion, of plenitude, but it also exemplifies a world of chronic overchoice and oppressive abundance. To lack all of the B sides, though, is to render one’s life incomplete and unfulfilled, and contributes to the development of obsessive behavior and excessive monetary expenditure.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Perusing a portion of my vinyl LP collection the other day, I noticed how many of them bore the tell-tale mark of the cut-out bin. (A cut-out was a record deleted from a company’s catalogue, either because the record failed to sell, or did not sell a requisite number of copies within a specified period of time.) Some have a hole in the cover (some clearly punched through, some done with what seems to have been a screwdriver, tearing the cover unnecessarily), and some have a cut corner. I suppose that’s one activity I miss from the old vinyl record store days, perusing the cut-out bins, searching for a bargain and occasionally finding a great record in the process. But in addition to the cut-out bin, there was the import bin; I frequented both places. As one might imagine, the records in the import bin were normally priced a bit higher than domestic LPs, but the imports were always worth checking out, and many titles were only available there. My vinyl LP copy of King Crimson’s Earthbound, for instance, bears the cover sticker marking it a “Jem Records Import,” as does my copy of The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson.

One band that seemed to dwell nowhere else but in those two places—the cut-out bins and the import bins—was Nektar (ancient Greek spelling of nectar). I came across these albums the other day, and I noticed that I had purchased every single one of them as a cut-out. Not that I have a complete collection of the band’s albums. I have only a few of the albums that were issued domestically by Passport—A Tab in the Ocean (1972), Remember the Future (1973), Recycled (1975), and my favorite, Down to Earth (1974). Nektar was composed of five Britons who played psychedelic-tinged progressive rock à la Hawkwind or Gentle Giant. Their first records were issued by the German Bellaphon label, which is why the band’s records could be found in the import bins. Not nearly as popular as progressive bands such as Genesis or Yes, as I mentioned above I never found any of Nektar’s albums issued by Passport anywhere but in the cut-out bins. I know Nektar maintains a small cult following, largely (I’m speculating) because of Roye Albrighton’s hot guitar playing. I first heard them on FM radio as a consequence of the local DJ’s fondness for Remember the Future (1973), or at least, one side of that album. Remember the Future is a concept album that only a group of spacey hippies could produce, and is so profoundly corny, so painfully silly, and so woefully déclassé that I find it impossible to write about seriously. It’s about an extraterrestrial bluebird that allows a blind boy to see the future. The only reason this sort of hokum (however sincerely meant) has never been parodied is because the band’s records never existed anywhere but in the bargain basement, and therefore wasn’t a big enough target for a parody.

Lest I seem too harsh, however, I will say that I’ve always had a special fondness for Down to Earth (1974), although Recycled (1975) is very good as well. Down to Earth is a sort of loose concept album, in which the band’s music is presented in the context of a circus, with Hawkwind’s Robert Calvert acting as the “ringmaster.” Rather than sprawling jams (or Remember the Future’s single composition spread over the LP’s two sides), the band tried its hand at shorter, more melodic compositions, eschewing the bombast of previous albums, and created a minor classic of “space rock”—“Astral Man” is the album’s first track, followed by equally catchy tunes such as “Nelly the Elephant,” “That’s Life,” “Fidgety Queen,” “Oh Willy,” and perhaps the album’s finest track, “Show Me the Way,” which in 1974-75 received a good deal of airplay on FM radio. It seems to me that to understand the way Nektar’s cult reputation developed is to understand the way the way economics shapes the patterns of consumption of popular music. Nektar’s cult reputation revealed the market that existed in parallel to the mainstream commercial market, and it may be that its existence is what allowed the mainstream market to flourish—spurring it to be more imaginative and productive.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

High School Confidential

Legend has it that Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll generation’s first “wild man,” was troubled by the sinful nature of his songs, particularly those that contained scarcely disguised sexual content. Nonetheless, in May 1958, while on a British tour, it was revealed that Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown, was a mere thirteen years old; he was twenty-two, and had been married previously. Apparently, Myra Gale Brown also happened to be Lewis’s third cousin twice removed (thus raising the issue of incest), but the basis of the scandal that followed the revelation was clearly because of her age. Legend also has it that at the time of their marriage, the young girl still believed in Santa Claus. Predictably, the ensuing scandal ruined Lewis’s promising career as a rock musician. Comparisons to fellow Southerner Edgar Allan Poe are inevitable, I suppose, as it has been well-documented that Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822–1847), when she was thirteen years old (he was twenty-seven). Some of Poe’s biographers have argued the couple’s relationship was more like a brother and sister than husband and wife, meaning the marriage may never have been consummated. Whether one can claim pedophilia in Poe’s case is therefore contestable.

The term paedophilia erotica was coined by nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his study Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Jerry Lee Lewis does not fit Krafft-Ebing’s profile for a pedophile, and indeed, he is not, despite his marriage to his quite young female cousin. But other known rockers do fit the profile of the pedophile, such as British rocker Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender. In November 1997, Gary Glitter was arrested after files containing images of child pornography were discovered on his laptop. He was later charged with having sex with an underage girl, an event that the victim claimed occurred two decades earlier. In any case, some years later, in 2005, Gary Glitter was again arrested and charged with molesting two girls, ages 10 and 11, at his home in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam. The specter of pedophilia has lurked on the fringes of popular music for many years, as the following list of songs suggests. Pete Townshend and Carlos Santana have both acknowledged being child sexual abuse victims, so the issue is hardly incidental one. Please note that I am not suggesting that the artists who recorded these songs are pedophiles. The point is the that issue has lurked in the shadows of pop music for many years, and perhaps it is time to listen to these songs anew.

Neil Diamond – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon
Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
Major Lance – Hey Little Girl
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Younger Girl
Oingo Boingo – Little Girls
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Claire
Plan B - Charmaine
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap – Young Girl
Tommy Roe – Sheila
Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs – Li’l Red Riding Hood
Syndicate of Sound – Little Girl
Bobby Vee – Come Back When You Grow Up

Monday, November 2, 2009


The pedal steel guitar is to drunken self-pity what the amplified, distorted electric guitar is to drunken licentiousness. Two instruments, two forms of implied behavior as expressed in American popular music. When Elvis was growing up, country music was the music of community, of a shared culture. That community was represented by the Carter Family, who sang about home, about death, and about the acceptance of limits. In contrast, the so-called “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers, was actually country music’s outlaw, a man who refused to live within proscribed limits. The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers thus formed two sides of the same coin, and each has their advantages and their downsides (see Greil Marcus, “Elvis: Presliad,” in Mystery Train). The community side could be intolerably oppressive and stifling, while the outlaw side led to exclusion and tragedy.

According to Marcus, what had virtually disappeared from country music by the time Elvis came along was the celebration of the outlaw style, the refusal to live within established boundaries—country music had become too moralistic and realistic. It lacked, Marcus says, “excitement, rage, fantasy, delight” (Mystery Train 131). Elvis dreamed of making the transgressive side of country music—the wild Saturday nights—the whole of life. Instead of being merely a temporary escape from established limits, the music Elvis made at Sun suggested that escape from limits could be established as a permanent way of life, but one in which acceptance alternated with liberation. Arguably, the Beatles kept alive the transgressive side of Elvis’s music and it was this feature upon which Sixties rock was founded. Feedback, distortion, playing loud—noise—became the aural equivalent of transgression, to the giddy excesses of being completely drunk and totally stoned. The so-called “Nashville Sound” that emerged in the Sixties became the aural equivalent of the virtues of the (staid) community, and hence of boundaries and limits. Rock and country music thus came to embody certain values, and music became an expression of ideology. The Western shirt was to country what the tie-dyed T-shirt was to rock. Music was worn like clothes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


There is a long history of mixed couples in American literature and popular culture: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chigachgook, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Daniel Boone and Mingo, Jay Leno and Branford Marsalis. I’ve written before about the way many American pop songs belie a certain repressed anxiety about black Otherness. Within the most avid white believer in the virtue of black Americans, there may reside a modicum of repressed anxiety about black bodies. As Calvin Hernton has written, “There is a sexual involvement, at once real and vicarious, connecting white and black people in America that spans the history of this country from the era of slavery to the present, an involvement so immaculate and yet so perverse, so ethereal and yet so concrete, that all race relations tend to be, however subtle, sex relations” (Sexism and Racism in America, p. 7).

Songs Linking Sensuality With Anxiety:
Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd. – Black Pearl
Merle Haggard – Irma Jackson
Janis Ian – Society’s Child
Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder – Ebony and Ivory
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Reuben James
The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar
Stories – Brother Louie
Three Dog Night – Black & White
Tribe “Supremes” Trio – White Boys (from the musical Hair)
Neil Young – Southern Man

Friday, October 30, 2009


During this happy Halloween season, let’s not forget Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and its doomed, hypersensitive protagonist, Roderick Usher. As many have observed, Poe’s writings have been eerily prescient of the changes that have overtaken American society, particularly his tortured characters’ sense of misery, alienation, and inner turmoil that eventually drive them to death and murder. For among his other hyperesthetic maladies, Roderick Usher suffers from hyperacusis, an extreme sensitivity to loud sound. Poe thus anticipated that peculiar malady of the rock star, and the consequences of live concert performance. (Remember Emerson’s insight: Nothing is got for nothing.) For Roderick Usher is troubled, like many rock stars, by having the volume in his head always turned too loud. He is not losing his hearing—au contraire: it has become more and more acute, so acute, in fact, he claims to be able to hear his twin sister’s fingernails clawing at the lid of her coffin, even though the coffin lay in a vault deep within the catacombs beneath the House of Usher. Roderick Usher’s hyperesthetic, disordered mind reasserts the philosophical problem of perception: What mechanism in the brain determines what we hear, that is, which sound(s) we attend to, and which we ignore? Do we inflate the meaning and significance of things that go bump in the night, or ignore them?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The emergence of psychedelic rock in the late 60s was fueled by the same cultural interest in exotica that inspired the 50s exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. The (Hawaiian) steel guitar is to country/western music what the sitar is to psychedelia: both instruments invigorated these forms of pop music through their novel, non-Western, that is, exotic sound. Exoticism and primitivism (both forms of essentialism) were terms used within the discourse of authenticity—that which is considered to be trustworthy or genuine—to sell exoticism to music consumers—“there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” The Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto bossa nova hit, “The Girl From Ipanema” (1964), as well as the Getz/Charlie Byrd LP, Jazz Samba (1962), were to lounge exoticism (cool detachment) what Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and “Oye Coma Va” were to hippie exoticism. Authenticity is merely a marketing tool, a way of validating certain popular music forms.

The embrace of the exotic became a form of bohemian expression. As Simon Frith has observed, “music is more like clothes than any other art form” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Harvard UP, 1996). Bohemianism substitutes aesthetics for politics, which is why songs such as “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones—the first true bohemians to become rich through rock music—is nothing but sheer posturing. By the late 1980s and the era of digital sampling, artists such as Peter Gabriel employed the sampling of so-called “world music” as a way to enhance—and therefore validate as authentic—his music within the marketplace. He wasn’t the first.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Sleeve—the protective cover in which a vinyl LP record is packaged and stored, normally with distinctive graphics. According to Michael Jarrett, it was Impulse! Records founder Creed Taylor who consciously attempted to change the look of jazz by concentrating on the graphics of the record sleeve or album cover. He said:

“I thought that the audience for jazz was, generally, of a higher level of intelligence,” says Taylor. “Gil Evans’s Out of the Cool, if you recall, has a photograph of Gil seated on a stool; he’s holding a manuscript. Instead of making him seem like the shadowy artistic type, it was set up to give him a Madison Avenue look, to make people think, ‘He’s a pretty good looking guy. He’s intelligent looking. I thought jazz was down-in-the-basement and seedy.’” (Sound Tracks 170)

Taylor, along with George Avakian at Columbia, Reid Miles at Blue Note, and Norman Granz at Verve, all consciously attempted to shift the connotations of jazz from “left-leaning bohemian values,” widely associated at the time with folk music. (p. 170) By consciously altering the graphic signifiers on the album covers, they successfully changed the public perception of jazz to urbane—Modernism as understood by the middle class.

Which sleeve in the history of rock music was the first to try to shift the connotations of rock from “teenybopper” or “pop” to “art” through the use of cover art and design? Certainly the black and white photograph by Robert Freeman used on the cover of Meet the Beatles! (January 1964), was consciously “artistic,” but it did nothing to alter the widespread association of rock with folk, and therefore its left-liberal bohemianism. In fact, the Meet the Beatles! cover became the prototype of all rock album sleeves to follow, as it became common practice to use a formally arranged picture of the band on the LP sleeve. The black and white cover of the Stones’ The Rolling Stones (April 1964) was clearly modeled after Meet the Beatles!, as well as all subsequent Beatles albums, e.g., Beatles For Sale (December 1964), although the latter was in color. Rubber Soul (December 1965) continued the practice of using a group photo on the cover, slightly modified in this latter case by the use of what might be termed psychedelic expressionism. So which album cover in the annals of rock consciously attempted to alter the perception of rock music from that of left-liberal bohemianism, lower working class values (“garage”), down-in-the-basement seediness, and the gaudy day-glo, paper cut-out signifiers that signaled stoned-out psychedelia? I initially considered the Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (March 1967), but ruled it out because the name of the band is so stridently bohemian, and because Andy Warhol’s famous banana peel cover smacked of Pop Art and was too deliberately outré anyway.

My nominee, therefore, is the Beatles’ The Beatles (December 1968), aka “The White Album” (the word album from the Latin albus, meaning blank, or white) with its minimalist art approach. Early issues of the album had the band’s name embossed on the cover on a white background, with a unique serial number printed on each cover. In subsequent issues, the band’s name was no longer embossed but printed in gray, with no serial number. In both instances, though, the album art was startlingly different than other sleeve art at the time, and the cover design, inspired by minimalist art, was quintessentially modern, and therefore urbane. Of course, the Beatles’ bold effort was all for nothing, as Charles Manson hijacked the album shortly after, and rock remained as “controversial” as ever, and hardly a sign of urbanity. I suspect, however, that the cover art concept demonstrated on The Beatles cover sleeve inspired countless graphic designers, and initiated what we now call “rock album art” as a distinct artistic form.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I’ve observed on this blog once or twice before that so-called progressive rock (or “art rock”) developed in order to assuage pop guilt. The founding work of the movement is no doubt the Beatles’ heavily engineered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), although some would argue that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) is the foundational work. Either way, both of these albums were made with “high” or “serious” aspirations as opposed to mere “pop” aspirations, thus making them, among other things, acutely self-conscious examples of rock music (isn’t self-consciousness a characteristic feature of a so-called guilty conscience?) As a frequenter for many years of garage and yard sales and record conventions, as well as the used record bin at my local Goodwill store, I remember a time when you couldn’t give away albums from the art rock camp, e.g., Supertramp, 10cc, The Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson, Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, and Emerson, and Lake and Palmer on the British side, or Kansas, Styx, and Boston on the American. By the early to mid-1980s, many of these bands, and others, of course, representing the art rock movement, were considered “dinosaurs,” that is, extinct giants that once walked the earth. And if not yet extinct, certainly déclassé, because by the 1980s many critics considered these bands’ best work was behind them.

But new media technology developed for systems such as the Xbox—the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series of games, for example—has introduced the music of these antique bands to a new, younger audience. As Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago, the content of the new media is the old, and the music contained on Rock Band (and Rock Band 2) are good examples of this insight. I was reminded of McLuhan’s observation the other day when I heard my son John (sixteen years old) playing his Xbox guitar along with Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son,” a big hit when I was, alas, not a whole lot older than he is now—in my early twenties. I believe John happened to be playing Rock Band 2, but the song is also on Guitar Hero II, or so I’ve been told.

There is, perhaps, no better example of a Seventies-era arena rock dinosaur than Kansas. To lift a phrase from Michel Foucault, Kansas is a band that lives in the Seventies as a fish lives in water, that is to say, it can live nowhere else. The Beatles had shown that a rock band could sell out a stadium, and the subsequent rock festivals of the 1960s, and the so-called “arena rock” of the 1970s (a term used in lieu of “stadium” since not all rock concerts were held in them) rode the massive wave—tsunami—the Beatles had created. The American counterpart to British bands such as King Crimson and Yes, Kansas, being Midwestern, was perceived as less innovative (“derivative”) than these bands, but the band was composed of six viable, hard-rocking musos nonetheless—who unfortunately never quite understood the valuable cultural cachet of the album cover, as Yes, for instance, with its arty SF/fantasy covers by Roger Dean, did. (The cover for Kansas’s first album was taken from the Modernist mural painting of John Brown in the Kansas state capital painted by John Steuart Curry.) The band’s first album, the eponymously named Kansas, was released in 1974. The last album featuring the original band members, Audio-Visions, was released in 1980. During those seven years the band released eight albums, one of them, Two For the Show (1978), being a double LP live set. Soon after the release of Audio-Visions, the band began drifting apart. A couple members became born-again Christians, and through the 1980s the band was known primarily as a Christian rock band, and never again had the popular success it did during the years 1974-80. The band’s biggest charting single, “Dust in the Wind” (“All your money won’t another minute buy-hiiiiiiiiiy”) from 1977’s Point of Know Return, was, I think, appropriately criticized by Charley Walters, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979), as “sophomoric philosophizing” (p. 200), and therefore appropriately pastiched, years later, in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). The doom-laden “Dust in the Wind” remains the band’s most popular song, although to my taste the band’s best album from those first six years is Song For America (1975, cover art pictured), which I think also contains the best side (side 1) of music they ever recorded: “Down the Road,” “Song For America,” and “Lamplight Symphony,” all written or co-written by guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren. His departure after 1980’s Audio-Visions dealt the band a serious blow. Kansas’ first album was released the year, 1974, I enrolled at the University of Kansas (not as a true freshman, however). That fall was the first I heard of the band, as it played a free concert in Lawrence coinciding with the beginning of the semester. Given that the band was from Topeka, the state capital, just down the road from Lawrence, it was, as the saying goes, a “big deal” for them to play a concert locally.

The apparatus supporting bands such as Kansas (and Pink Floyd, and so on) was the technology of the synthesizer, the modern recording studio, and FM radio. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, FM radio defined itself by its high brow opposition to Top 40 (“teen,” that is commercialized, music). FM radio was, then, the place to go for more “serious” music, whether that was psychedelic surrealism (called “head” music at the time) or lengthy jams by West Coast bands such as Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane. And that’s just it: FM radio supported, even encouraged, the extended, “orchestral” arrangements by bands such as Kansas. Most certainly Kansas wrote short songs purposefully designed as hits for Top 40 radio (“Down the Road,” as well as the aforementioned “Dust in the Wind”), but the band’s forte was extended compositions and classically styled arrangements. The band’s arrangements, in contrast to its compositions, were always its strongest suit. In this sense, it drew, as did many bands, from the brief but fruitful interchange between the classical and pop worlds.

Perhaps the best way to understand Kansas in the context of the 1970s is to contrast the noise, that is, violence and aggression, of British heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath with the benign, pop stylings of Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles. Although American, Kansas was arguably part of the same outgrowth of British post-Yardbirds experimentalism as Cream, Led Zeppelin, and King Crimson, inheriting, in part, the latter band’s lyrical imagery (mystical and apocalyptic). But the American part of the equation, though, was its allegiance to working class heavy metal bands such as Grand Funk Railroad—which is why it never had the cultural cachet of the other prog-rock bands of the time. For Seventies prog-rock was, just as heavy metal was, the venerable Lester Bangs once observed, born “from machines and electronic appendages.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Throat Culture

Having mulled over the issue for the past couple of days, I’ve concluded that those collections of bad cover versions of pop songs performed by celebrities included in the Golden Throats series (4 volumes) are perhaps best understood as examples of travesty rather than burlesque. The difference between the terms resides in intentionality. A burlesque is any work purposefully designed “to ridicule a style, literary form, or subject matter either by treating the exalted in a trivial way or by discussing the trivial in exalted terms (that is, with mock dignity).” Burlesque is a form of derisive imitation achieved by exaggeration. In contrast, a travesty is any novel, play, poem, film, opera, or other creative work that reveals the incompetence of its author/performer. A travesty trivializes a serious subject or composition. “Generally, a travesty achieves its effect through broad humor and through incongruous or distorted language and situations.” Unlike a parody or burlesque, the purpose of which is intentional mockery, a travesty is any work in literature, music, or art that is “so poorly done” that it fails to meet “even the minimum standards” for style, technique, form, and so on.

I used “perhaps” in the first sentence because we no longer adhere to notions of art’s autonomy—any formalist evaluation of the remarkable cover versions included in the Golden Throats series (I say remarkable because they’ve been collected and hence been “distinguished”) is bound to fail, as exemplified, for instance, in those art historians who tried to explain Duchamp’s Fountain (pictured) by appealing to the (traditional) aesthetic category of “beauty.” Duchamp was one of those artists who enabled the transfer from modernism to postmodernism—from art as “work” to art as “text.” Because it is impossible to list the properties of those works susceptible to Duchampian “remotivation” (what he did by placing a urinal in an art gallery), it’s no longer possible to refer comfortably to Golden Throats’ cover versions of rock and country songs as “camp.” In the 1964 essay “On Camp,” Susan Sontag argued, “not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder” (Against Interpretation, p. 277). The trouble is, of course, it is. What sort of text (or event) cannot be radically re-read, that is, transformed into a travesty? Think of Duchamp’s goateed version of the Mona Lisa, or Mel Brooks films such as The Producers or his remake of To Be Or Not To Be, which send-up Nazism.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Books and Pictures

The Picture of Dorian Gray—the picture acts as a “magic mirror” (as in the story of Snow White), absorbing Dorian Gray’s spiritual ugliness while he remains young and handsome. “In Godard’s A Bout de Souffle Jean Seberg pretends to be happy and insouciant, but, pinned to the wall, just behind her head, life-size photographs of herself looking sad and thoughtful give the game away,” writes Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings). Thus pictures, rather like so-called “Freudian slips”—slips of the tongue—give a person away, betraying the actual reality hidden behind the mask, the disjunction between image and reality. It is also possible for pictures within movies to attack characters in a similar fashion: in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, for instance, a laughing clown points his finger at Anny Ondra as she, knife in hand, backs away from a corpse. While pictures can incite the imagination (as in The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” or the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”), pictures can also hide or conceal actuality: in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex attacks the cat lady with a large plastic sculpture of male genitalia, crushing her skull with it as the camera cuts away to the garish contemporary paintings on the walls. But pictures of the lost object of desire also serve up painful memories of loss, serving as a constant reminder of one’s current singular situation—the Reality Principle. A picture of one’s self can function merely to increase one’s own intense loneliness and isolation, as in George Jones’s romantic ballad, “A Picture of Me (Without You).”

“Who wrote the Book of Love?” a famous song wants to know, and, of course, there is no answer. Books, archives of wisdom and repositories of cultural knowledge, cannot be read—it’s as if they were written in a foreign language. Proclaiming to make the world legible, books, paradoxically, are often indecipherable. “Tell me where the answer lies,” sings Neil Young in “Speakin’ Out.” “Is it in the notebook behind your eyes?” Books also supplement one’s memory—they are the place where things are written down, where lists are compiled, where experiential narratives are recorded, serving as reminders of what to do—or warning of behaviors to avoid. Thousands of words have been written about pictures, and books contain thousands of words; the lyrics to songs about books and pictures are frequently about both the failure of language and of the discrepancy between thought and action.

Books And Pictures A-Z:
ABC – The Look Of Love
The Beatles – Paperback Writer
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Everyday I Write The Book
Deep Purple – The Book of Taliesyn
Echo and the Bunnymen – Pictures On My Wall/Read It In Books
Filter – Take A Picture
The J. Geils Band – Centerfold
Hüsker Dü – Books About UFOs
The Incredible String Band – Antoine
George Jones – A Picture of Me (Without You)
The Kinks – Picture Book
Love – My Little Red Book
The Monotones – The Book of Love
Nazareth – Why Don’t You Read the Book
Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me
? and the Mysterians – Ten O’Clock
Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story
Status Quo – Pictures of Matchstick Men
Talking Heads – The Book I Read
U2 – When I Look At the World
Son Volt – Out of the Picture
The Who – Pictures of Lily
XTC – Books Are Burning
Neil Young – Southern Man
The Zombies – Imagine The Swan

Monday, October 19, 2009


Vergeltungswaffen—German for “vengeance weapon,” as in V-2 rocket, a weapon of revenge, retribution, and reprisal. Prompted by the box-office success of the Gerard Butler-starring vigilante movie Law Abiding Citizen this past weekend, an article in today’s L. A. Times explores the link between vigilantism and vengeance in American movies. The link is indisputably true—the vigilante is as old as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which a rogue terrorist organization, the Klan, is depicted heroically—but vigilantism (the act of operating outside the law) should not always be equated with vengeance (retribution). Revenge is a force that crosses film genres, as the article observes, and it is true that there are indeed “affinities between vigilantes and superheroes”—the character of Batman, for instance, whose traumatic origin was in witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his parents. The character’s origin is, of course, a conceit, revealing more about the logic of entertainment than about the motives for vigilantism.

Vengeance, retribution, reprisal—getting even—is a powerful motivating force, and the cinema seems to be the ideal medium in which to enact its violent display. The reason seems obvious: justice is an abstraction, and because it often unfolds slowly, it makes a poor subject for drama. Moreover, stories of vengeance ideally fit the Modernist paradigm, the individual pitted against (corrupt) society. Since the justice system is an incalculably complex bureaucracy, and filled with corrupt officials, the individual necessarily operates outside the system, as a rogue (vigilante), often using a gun as his or her vergeltungswaffen. The American vigilante descends from the gunslinger, the streets of the big city analogous to the lawless frontier. Although the gun is the vigilante’s preferred weapon, I’ve always found figures such as Dr. Phibes and the Crypt Keeper much more imaginative in the way they enact a form of poetic justice.

V For Vengeance (x13):
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Tales From the Crypt (1972)
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Walking Tall (1973)
Death Wish (1974)
The Exterminator (1980)
An Eye For An Eye (1981)
Vigilante (1983)
The Brave One (2007)
Taken (2009)
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)