Sunday, January 17, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Led Zeppelin’s first album (cover pictured) was released 41 years ago today, on 17 January 1969, during the band’s first American tour. Other sources, however, aver it was released a few days earlier, on 12 January. Perhaps the release dates for the album were different in Britain and America, but in any case the lack of positivistic certainty regarding the album's release date is as elusive as the music the band played—what is it? Led Zeppelin’s music has often been characterized as “heavy metal”—but what is that? Heavy metal as idea, heavy metal as product, heavy metal as mass phenomenon—which one is heavy metal? It has often been observed that Led Zeppelin was to the Seventies what the Beatles were to the Sixties, and there may be some truth to this claim, assuming one believes that the history of rock is the history of a few moments of genuine authentic expression that quickly deteriorates into what might be called “commercial” imitations employing a similar sound—e.g., Led Zeppelin devolves into Heart.

Perhaps there is another way to conceptualize the band’s music. As Ingeborg Hoesterey has observed (Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature, 2001), the term “pastiche” is often used in a negative sense, but the term can be understood more positively. While her study is predominantly interested in the visual arts, she does touch briefly on popular music, observing, “pastiche structuration has been a feature of innovative popular music for more than a decade, registered for the most part under different labels” (p. 112). Her use of the term “pastiche” in this context refers to the conflation or mixing of different kinds of music, the creation of “impure” blends including “funk-rap-rock,” “hiphop/techno/jungle,” “country and hiphop,” “Afro-Celtic,” “Afro-Pop,” “Ethno-Punk,” and so on (p. 113). Whatever one wishes to call it—“hard rock,” “heavy metal,” rock-infused blues and folk—Led Zeppelin’s music was pastiche—a flagrant, ostentatious borrowing from the musical archive of Western culture. A conceptually elusive term, the term pastiche rather obviously has fuzzy boundaries, overlapping with a number of other aesthetic categories. I have extracted of few of these categories from Hoesterey’s book and used them below. The term pastiche overlaps with a number of semantic categories, and I have listed only a few of them here, for purposes of illustration.

Appropriation – A term that gained widespread use in the eighties to stress the “intentionality of the act of borrowing and the historical attitude of the borrower” (p. 10). In the Sixties, the blues, along with folk, came to represent authenticity, what Simon Frith has labelled the widespread perception of “music-as-expression” (as opposed to “music-as-commodity”). White blues musicians considered African-American music as “authentic,” an outpouring of genuine feeling, and authenticity was defined by closeness to the blues. To play authentically, therefore, was to play the blues. Among other kinds of music, Led Zeppelin appropriated the blues, primarily electrified Chicago blues. While “Chicago blues” most certainly was the effect of industrialization (requiring an industry and circulation), Led Zeppelin appropriated the music of Chicago blues artists such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, sometimes without the proper attribution of authorship (e.g., “How Many More Times”). Of course, the music industry had exploited the music of Afro-Americans for commercial profit since the jazz era—it literally banked on their music . . . as did the members of Led Zeppelin. For how appropriation is linked to imitation, see below.

Bricolage – The bricoleur describes a “creative persona who draws his/her work upon heterogeneous models and sources” (p. 10). A number of sources claim Led Zeppelin incorporated rockabilly, reggae, soul, funk, classical, Celtic, Indian, Arabic, pop, Latin, and country. Hence the band members can be considered legitimate bricoleurs.

Farrago – “One of the meanings of pasticcio [from which the French-language word pastiche comes] in common Italian is ‘mental confusion’” (p. 12). Hence the origin of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” a farrago.

Imitation – “The basic structure of pastiche is a degree of imitation. What happens beyond this determines the artistic sense of both the traditional and postmodern pastiche” (p. 12). The band’s first album includes a cover of Otis Spann’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby" and the aforementioned “How Many More Times” first recorded by Howlin' Wolf. It also is worth mentioning that in their stage performance Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to use Krin Gabbard's phrase (Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture, 2004), were “borrowing black masculinity,” that is, imitating the performance styles of the black artists they admired. Gabbard cites John Gennari on the subject of the white male appropriation of black masculinity, suggesting that it “operates through gender displacement, i.e., sexual freedom and carefree abandon . . . [being] . . . expressed through feminized gestures (emotion, flamboyance, etc.) that, paradoxically, end up coded as masculine. I think here of Elvis's hair styling . . . Mick Jagger's striptease . . . the spandex, long-hair, girlish torsos of the cock rockers. To try to get this point across to my students, I show footage of . . . Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talking about how everything they did came out of Willie Dixon and other macho black bluesmen. Then you see them aggressively pelvic thrusting through “Whole Lotta Love,” looking like Cher and Twiggy on speed.” (Gabbard, Black Magic p. 33)

Refiguration – The art of refiguration “takes formal elements of past styles, and brings them forward into a contemporary context, resulting in a sometimes disquieting synthesis of past form and present context” (pp. 12-13) Led Zeppelin’s extraordinarily loud, spacey and druggy refiguration of the Chicago blues might in fact be what is meant by the term “heavy metal.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wild Civility

The soundtrack to the film Pretty Woman (1990) contains Christopher Otcasek’s cover version of Johnny O’Keefe’s 1958 hit, “The Wild One” in its retitled form, “Real Wild Child (Wild One).” The serendipitous linkage is highly revealing, as it suggests that “wildness,” as opposed to “civility,” concerns the projection of proper social behavior, that is, decorum (social appearance), or what we now call “image management.” For the dramatic intrigue of Pretty Woman revolves around the issue of how to behave properly, socially speaking. The special problem of the film is how the Julia Roberts character, a prostitute, must learn proper social decorum from below. Rather like Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), she must make the difficult transition from an ill-mannered street waif (low) to proper lady (high). But the story demands she make this complex negotiation from (private) individual goodness to (public) spiritual elegance (conferred by exposure to “high” culture, such as opera) look easy, and eventually commit to a higher love (monogamy).

Robert Herrick’s much-anthologized poem, “Delight in Disorder,” from which the expression “wild civility” comes, is a poem that interrogates Neoclassical assumptions of decorum—that is, the management of social appearances, the courtier’s emulation of correct models of behavior as set forth by Castiglione (and others). Herrick expresses a certain erotic interest in women who exhibit a “wild civility,” or, in modern parlance, engage in “double articulation,” speaking two different messages to two audiences using one (symbolic) utterance. “Wildness” as such therefore might be understood as a form of Bakhtinian “carnival,” mocking and subverting the mainstream culture rather than a form of “harmless” fun. Hence being “wild” isn’t just about having fun, but about mockery and subterfuge.

What Some Wild Things Are:
.38 Special – Wild-Eyed Southern Boys
The Beach Boys – Wild Honey
Brook Benton – Walk on the Wild Side (from the motion picture)
Donald Byrd – Wild Life
Marshall Crenshaw – Little Wild One (No. 5)
Duran Duran – The Wild Boys
The Escape Club – Wild Wild West
INXS – Wild Life
Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch – Wildside
Paul McCartney & Wings – Wild Life
Mötley Crüe – Wild Side
Johnny O’Keefe – The Wild One AKA Real Wild Child (Wild One)
The Peddlers – Walk on the Wild Side
Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side
Dan Seals – (You Bring Out) The Wild Side of Me
Slaughter – The Wild Life
Steppenwolf – Born To Be Wild
Talking Heads – Wild Wild Life
Hank Thompson – The Wild Side of Life
The Troggs – Wild Thing

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


French filmmaker Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) has died, at age 89, and has been widely written about and eulogized, even by commentators who obviously have seen only a handful of his films. This article by Agnès Poirier, for instance, gets the biographical details correct, although she overemphasizes his contribution to the French Nouvelle Vague, calling him the movement’s “father,” when in fact Rohmer was neither revolutionary in his aesthetics, as was Godard, nor audacious in his film criticism, as was Truffaut—after all, Rohmer didn’t make his first film until he was almost 40 years old. She is no doubt correct, though, in her observation that Rohmer “always followed Rimbaud’s mantra: ‘One must be absolutely modern’,” but then the same also could be said of Godard and Truffaut. Rohmer’s first film that actually showed an active interest in exploring the lives of adventurous young moderns, La Collectionneuse (filmed late 1966, released 1967), was made when he was 46. Featuring Haydée Politoff (pictured left), Patrick Bauchau (right), his wife Mijanou Bardot, and painter Daniel Pommereulle, one would be hard-pressed to say his film unequivocally embraced the sexual mores (and, in one instance, drug use) of hip Parisian bohemians (at least as Rohmer saw them) of the 1960s. According to Sally Shafto (in her important monograph, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, published 2000), Rohmer cast La Collectionneuse with individuals he perceived to be at the forefront of the “Sixties Generation,” in their behavior, attitude, and sensibility. A revealing fact is that Rohmer refused to cast the painter Frédéric Pardo in the film because he thought his hair was too long.

The first film by Rohmer I actually saw in a movie theater was The Marquise of O (1976), which I found utterly fascinating and have always found to be his best film. Ironically, although it is perhaps his most feted film behind My Night at Maud’s (1969)—which I didn’t see until its home video incarnation well over two decades after it’s release—it’s typically neglected in favor of the films that comprise the Six Moral Tales, privileged by critics, I suspect, because they themselves were ambivalent about the provocative sexual lives and sensibilities of young people in the 60s. Although compared by some to a painter, it was actually Robert Bresson—who died just over ten years ago, in December 1999—who’d studied to be a painter, and with whom Rohmer most closely identified, even if Bresson was the better filmmaker. As a consequence of his death, many writers have written rhapsodically about his films, but it seems strange to me that they ignore what was his most significant contribution to film studies—the formation of the auteur theory. For it was the book on Alfred Hitchcock that he co-authored with Claude Chabrol, titled simply Hitchcock and published in 1957 soon after the release of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), that not only bolstered Hitchcock’s critical reputation but was a foundational work of auteur criticism—but not the Nouvelle Vague (they are not synonyms). Hence I would like to see Rohmer’s contribution to the formation of the auteur theory acknowledged every bit as much as his films, for in a very real sense he made the important contribution of making modern film studies thinkable in the first place.

I have found this article by Dave Kehr to be the most balanced of the many obituaries to be found on the web.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hey! Ho! Let's Go!

Songs with nonsense syllables serve to remind us that American music since the jazz era always has been more a matter of sound than sense—scat singing is perhaps the prototype in this regard—but the more important issue is the privileging of sound over sense. These types of songs also reveal the difficulty of writing about music, since those critics who find it difficult if not impossible to write about music as music tend to overappreciate the lyrics, especially those lyrics having a so-called “political” theme. Of course, rock was political—but not because of what it said (think of Elvis appearing on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in 1956 singing “Flip Flop & Fly,” which prompted any number of critics to condemn rock as the sort of music enjoyed by cretinous goons), but because of its revolutionary sound. Indeed, early on, people didn’t even know what to call rock music. As is well known, it was Alan Freed who popularized the use of the term “rock and roll,” but before that the music was often called “bop” (as in Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”), after the postwar rise of “bebop” or “rebop” to describe the contemporary form of jazz, these latter words probably derived from “Arriba! Arriba!” (essentially, C'mon! Let’s go!) used by Latin American bandleaders to strike up their bands. The R&B mutation known as “doo-wop” also popularized the use of nonsense syllables, but there are many instances of its use—Lionel Hampton’s R&B hit “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” from 1946 is an example—in the years prior to Elvis’s popularization of rock ‘n’ roll in 1956. We musn’t forget Frank Sinatra’s famous scat singing consisting of “dobedobedo,” of course, nor should we forget Scooby Doo’s immortal, “Scooby Dooby Doo!”

Hey! Some Blitzkrieg Bop:
Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
The Beatles – I Am the Walrus
The Crystals – Da Doo Ron Ron
The Edsels – Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong
Shirley Ellis – The Name Game
Lionel Hampton – Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop
Little Richard – Tutti Frutti
Barry Mann – Who Put the Bomp (in The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)
Manfred Mann – Do Wah Diddy Diddy
The Marcels – Blue Moon
The Merry Macs – Mairzy Doats
Roy Orbison – Ooby Dooby
The Police – Da Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da
Slim and Slam – The Flat Foot Floogee (With The Floy Floy)
Frank Sinatra – Strangers in the Night
The Ramones – The Blitzkrieg Bop
Gene Vincent – Be-Bop-A-Lula

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Ghost Has Left The Building

Were he alive today, this would have been the human Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday. The story is quite familiar: he was born in 1935 to parents Vernon and Gladys at their home in Tupelo, Mississippi, arriving 35 minutes after his stillborn twin, Jesse Garon, buried in a shoebox in an unmarked grave. The human Elvis died in 1977 at age 42, thirty-three years ago next August, leaving a sole heir, Lisa Marie, born 1968. The Elvis brand still makes tons of money—for years Forbes has ranked Elvis among the top-earning dead celebrities. In 2009, dead Elvis earned roughly $55 million. With a new “Viva Elvis!” Cirque du Soleil show opening in Las Vegas, he is projected to top that figure this year. The place Elvis once owned and called home, Graceland, is the second most visited house in America after the White House, averaging about 700,000 visitors per year. Sales of Elvis CDs and records purportedly have topped one billion. There are more than 350 “official” Elvis Presley Fan Clubs around the world.

But there is another Elvis, an Elvis whose image has come free of his body and moves around the world seemingly enjoying itself, an Elvis who, figuratively speaking, lives on, and not just in the form of impersonators. Greil Marcus calls this free-floating Elvis image “dead Elvis,” and even wrote a book about it, titled Dead Elvis (1991). Marcus called this Elvis “an emptied, triumphantly vague symbol of displaced identity” (p. 33), but it also happens to be the condition of the android, the experience of the ghost having left the building. You can find this Elvis on coffee mugs, ashtrays, crushed black velvet, ties, T-shirts, scarfs, wine labels, billboards, Pez dispensers, limited edition dinner plates, clock faces, and appropriated for album covers. You can find it all over. It’s ubiquitous. Elvis’s meteoric rise to prominence roughly coincided with the new technology of television, so in a sense Elvis has always been an image, in a way like, for instance, Princess Diana, but unlike Elvis, she didn’t actually do anything. Elvis, at least, sang and made some feature films.

The Elvis image is, in fact, the brand of a corporation known as Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE). What EPE did was to go around the world gathering up all the free-floating images of Elvis, collecting these images for its own purposes. So what is being celebrated today isn’t the birthday of Elvis, but Elvis the android, the ghost who’s left the building, a brand manufactured by EPE. Whose birthday are we, in fact, celebrating? Or rather, what?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Behold! A Plucked Chicken

According to legend, at the point when Aristotle and his students had refined their definition of “man” to a creature having the qualities of “featherless biped,” the cynic Diogenes burst in holding aloft a plucked chicken, and announced, “Behold, your man!” Legend also has it that Diogenes lived in a large tub (or barrel, as depicted in many paintings), and purportedly walked through the streets of Athens in the daytime carrying a lamp, claiming to be looking for an honest man. Immodestly, he performed all bodily functions in public, and when criticized for publicly masturbating, replied he wished he could satisfy hunger merely by rubbing his stomach. Greatly admired by Alexander the Great for the freedom exemplified by his way of life, the great conqueror approached the cynical sage on a day when he, Diogenes, was sunning himself. Alexander the Great asked him if there were anything he could do for him. “Yes,” said Diogenes, “Get out of my light.” It is also reported that he asked to be buried standing on his head, because, so he thought, one day down would be up, and up would be down.

We find Diogenes to be quite modern, for he was the anti-Socrates. We can hear Diogenes in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” when Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows.” We can hear him in the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud.” We can also hear him in Muddy Waters’ brutal honesty:

I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep my home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you

A Few Diogenesian Performances:
The Cardigans – Hey! Get Out of My Way
Dramatics – Hey You! Get Off My Mountain
Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
Ian Hunter – Standin’ In My Light
Dave Mason – You’re Standing In My Light
? and the Mysterians – 96 Tears
Stan Ridgway – The Last Honest Man
The Rolling Stones – Get Off Of My Cloud
The Rolling Stones – I’m Free
Roy Rogers – Don’t Fence Me In
Steppenwolf – Move Over
Muddy Waters – I Just Want To Make Love To You
Hank Williams – Move It On Over