Friday, January 22, 2010


Historian David Morton indicates in Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (2000) that the first significant mass-market success of audio tape technology in America was the “Stereo 8” cartridge system, otherwise known as the 8-Track. Introduced in 1965, the 8-Track was promoted by William Lear (after whom the Learjet is named), who built it “around an existing endless-loop cartridge for background music applications, the Fidelipac” (159). Morton writes:

After modifying the cartridge enough to win a set of patents on it, he [Lear] wisely combined his company’s resources with those of several other top firms: the manufacturing capability of the Motorola corporation, the record catalog of RCA-Victor, and the marketing organization of the Ford Motor Company. (159-60)

Priced at $128, the Ford 8-Track player was instantly successful, and quickly, Morton indicates, “other U.S. auto manufacturers and third-party equipment retailers offered it as early as 1966” (160). Hence the 8-Track’s success was a consequence of its portability, a factor that has determined the direction of research in home electronics and popular music for the past 45 years (think of the small, inexpensive transistor radio). The 8-Track was to the automobile what the Sony Walkman (in the 1980s) was to jogging, revealing the crucial connection between the home audio system and the need for portable music, otherwise known as compatibility. In other words, the crucial factor determining the consumption of popular music the past several decades is not “high fidelity,” but portability. Since World War II and the rise of home audio, the audio manufacturers have typically touted “high fidelity” as a major factor in determining home audio purchases, and while this feature is still no doubt crucial for many enthusiasts (so-called audiophiles), for the majority of consumers, the crucial factor is mobility. Hence, like so much other cultural activity, the automobile has organized our behavior.

The compact disc brought about the demise of audio tape technology, replacing the cassette (which replaced the 8-Track) with the iPod. Hence the iPod is to the CD what cassettes and 8-Tracks were to the vinyl LP. Reshuffling (randomization) replaces the predictability (stability) of the record, and the déclassé technology assumes the status of a found object, the technological equivalent of the fossil record. The archeologist is replaced by the antiquarian.

Monday, January 18, 2010


There’s an old saw that avers suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher, and this may express a certain truth. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson uses “lead” as a metaphor to approximate mental and emotional suffering: “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” during which “The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” She goes on to write:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow—
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Traditionally, lead has been associated with the planet Saturn; hence, the emotional feeling Dickinson is trying to describe by “the hour of lead” is called saturnine. Freud suggested the mental energy required for this “letting go” was the difference between mourning and melancholy. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), Italo Calvino suggests that “melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness,” just as “humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight” (19). Calvino also observes that the ancients thought the saturnine temperament the one “proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent worlds” (52). Calvino contrasts the saturnine temperament with the mercurial one, the former “melancholy, contemplative, and solitary,” the latter, mercurial one, “inclined toward exchanges and commerce and dexterity” (52). I can think of no better poetic example of the contemplative, solitary artistic temperament than that of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” in which Thomas writes:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

My astrological sign is Cancer, the crab, one who carries his home on his back. Hence my temperament is to prefer the solitary. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve always been attracted to Thomas’ poem, and especially the description of his writing as “spindrift pages.” Spindrift typically refers to the telltale spray blown from cresting waves during gale force winds, but the word is also used to describe the fine sand that is blown off the tips of sand dunes, or the fine snow that the wind blows off the top edges of snow drifts. Thomas’ “spindrift pages” are those pages that are whisked like fine snow from his writing desk, destined for an unknown reader, or perhaps no reader at all. Therefore, for me the image that best captures the saturnine temperament, or melancholy, is one of the ocean, or desert, or hilltop that displays the telltale wisps of spindrift. My personal image of melancholy is not necessarily one that is common or widely endorsed, of course, because it partakes of the wholly personal and private, eluding public endorsement. The musical equivalent of melancholy is perhaps private as well, just as the personal image of melancholy is, and so my list of some melancholic songs may not match those of others.

A Personal List Of A Few Musical Equivalents To Spindrift:
The Beatles – In My Life
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
Neil Diamond – Solitary Man
Elton John – Rocket Man
The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
Harry Nilsson – Everybody’s Talkin’
Phil Ochs – Boy in Ohio
Roy Orbison – In Dreams
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Spindrifter
Marty Robbins – Saddle Tramp
Bob Seger – Turn the Page
XTC – My Bird Performs
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush

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