Friday, April 22, 2011

Armageddon Days Are Here Again

On this Earth Day, what more appropriate topic than the Whole Earth Catalog? The Whole Earth Catalog was a thick, oversized paperback largely written by Stewart Brand. Issued twice yearly from 1968 to 1972, and sporadically thereafter, its purpose was to provide information and access to “tools” in order that a reader could “find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Widely associated with the counterculture movement of the 1960s as well as with the environmentalist movement, the Whole Earth Catalog actually contributed to the survivalist movement that began in the 1960s and gained momentum in the 1970s, appealing to libertarians and conservatives alike. The Whole Earth Catalog wasn't merely a handbook for hippies trying to live off the land; it was also a survivalist's bible, useful in making preparations for Armageddon.

Serendipitously, the first Whole Earth Catalog was issued just about the time George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was released in theaters (October 1968), a movie about a group of humans trying to avoid being eaten by zombies. The protagonists of Night of the Living Dead are, if you think about it, prototypical survivalists. Although they were completely unprepared for the social disruption caused by the rise of the living dead, they clearly understand the need for self-sufficiency, even if they are unable to obtain it. They also understand the need for self-defense, by fitting out an existing building in order to protect themselves against a zombie siege of uncertain duration.

I happened to screen last night the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Shelter” (September 1961), a Cold War-era adaptation of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper. The same fable was the inspiration for Philip Wylie's 1954 novel Tomorrow!, in which two fictional Midwest towns undergo a nuclear attack, but only one of them is prepared for it. (One version of the fable has it that the grasshopper idled away his summer hours doing nothing, while the wise, forward-looking ant stockpiled food for the winter. When winter inevitably arrived, the grasshopper found itself starving. Predictably, the grasshopper begged the ant for food and was rebuked for his indolence.) In "The Shelter," a wise doctor has spent months building a bomb shelter in preparation for a possible nuclear attack. When such an attack seems horribly imminent, the wise doctor installs his family in the shelter, refusing admittance to his friends and neighbors. Like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, the doctor's neighbors and friends are reduced to frightened helpless creatures, viciously turning against themselves and the doctor for refusing to give them refuge. They begin an attack to smash down the door of the shelter in order to get inside to safety. Of course, prior to the "The Shelter," the theme of survivalism had been used by many science fiction writers, but I think it is interesting that between the airing of "The Shelter" and the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog seven years later appeared Don Stephens' Retreater's Bibliography (1967) containing instructions on how to build and equip a remote survival shelter. A 1968 supplement to the Retreater's Bibliography was later issued, and there were subsequent reissues of the book as well. I should make it clear that I'm not claiming any cause-and-effect influence between Don Stephens' book and the Whole Earth Catalog. Rather, it was a matter of convergence of ideas, a prevailing belief in imminent social collapse and a suspicion that modern industrial society was about to undergo a disaster of apocalyptic scale -- the fragility of the social contract.

While certainly not its intent by any means, the Whole Earth Catalog arguably gave rise to a number of associated publications, among them William Powell's The Anarchist Cookbook (1971), which contains instructions for the manufacture of homemade explosives, rudimentary telecommunications phreaking devices, and other things. A few years later, in 1975, Kurt Saxon started The Survivor, a newsletter urging subscribers to build fortified survival structures in rural or lightly populated areas where they might hold out against so-called "killer caravans" of looters from nearby urban centers -- that is, instructions to prepare themselves for the night of the living dead.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ordinary People

The Rolling Stones' album Black and Blue (1976), a minor record in the Stones' vast oeuvre and the first made after the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor, was released 35 years ago today. This fact in itself is trivial and hardly worth mentioning. More interesting, historically speaking, is the controversy surrounding the manner in which the album was promoted (pictured, left). The Rolling Stones, one of the earliest rock bands to model itself consciously on the 1950s jazz subculture (or counterculture), successfully blurred any clear distinctions between being bohemian and being deviant.

The trend began, at least in terms of the band's album covers, with the graffiti-covered bathroom wall of Beggars Banquet (1968), which invoked the stereotypical site, in the popular imagination, of the male homosexual encounter. The origins of the S&M themed promotional image for Black and Blue came out of trends in fashion photography in the mid 70s, in particular the work of photographers such as Helmut Newton and Chris von Wangenheim. A year before Black and Blue's release, Newton had created a controversial May 1975 Vogue spread, "The Story of Ohhh…," which featured an image of a man sadistically grabbing hold of a woman's breast, linking sex, violence, and danger. On his part, Von Wagenheim had created a advertisement depicting a bejeweled model being bitten on the wrist by a Doberman pinscher. Although I no longer remember the moment when I first saw the promotional image for Black and Blue, studying it now it seems to be both a deliberate provocation as well as something of a put-on, perhaps another instance of Pop Art irony, possibly yet another illustration (for some) of art's fundamental donnée, to disturb. While the poster's visual pun on "black and blue" is hardly subtle -- a kid in junior high can get it -- that doesn't seem to be the real point. Album cover aside (in which the Stones seem strangely mannequin-like, alienated, and unfocused, perhaps to suggest the state of the band at the time), the poster for Black and Blue links sexual adventurism with S&M. The poster's self-conscious S&M theatricality, with its cuffs and ropes and its staging of violence and humiliation and the model's unambiguous sexual invitation, suggests domination and enslavement as well as outre´ sex as an exciting way of life. Hence the Stones represent everything hip and Modern--they are with it, man.

In her 1975 essay, Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag observed that this sort of imagery is "a logical extension of an affluent society's tendency to turn every part of people's lives into a taste, a choice; to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental." While Black and Blue's poster is perhaps stereotypical in the way it associates rock music with transgressive behavior, Sontag might argue that the poster's self-conscious imagery of sadomasochism acts as a sort of enticement, suggesting that while rock music to some is ultimately a harmless form of transgression (like driving through a red light at 3:00 a.m. when no cop is around), to the enlightened it is altogether more significant, promising the sort of extravagant life to which only Sade himself aspired, filled with dominance and submission, sex and humiliation, made even more exciting because "it is forbidden to ordinary people." In other words, to consume rock music (especially the Stones) is to surpass the limits of your dull, profane existence. In her essay, Sontag cites Leni Riefenstahl, who said, "What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me." Sontag writes, "As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting." In other words, Altamont was not the disaster that is usually depicted, but rather life at its most extreme, with all of its promise of excitement and danger. Anything but nice. Nice was Woodstock.

Which is also to say, rock itself is a form of gratification that is indirect and vicarious. But that is the way the Stones seem to want it: listen to the music and get your rocks off. The Stones, the dark double of the Beatles, the bad boys of rock, however they wanted to be perceived, certainly it was never as "nice." The Black and Blue poster is certainly not "nice." To be "nice" is to be civilized, which means to be alienated from, or deprived of, the savage experience the poster image promises -- even if that experience is theatrically staged.

Friday, April 15, 2011

History And Myth

According to This Day In Rock, on 15 April 1955 CBS talent scout Arthur Godfrey turned down the chance to sign Elvis Presley. However, according to several biographical sources, April 15 is not the date Elvis, Scotty, and Bill actually auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show in New York City; the actual date was March 23. The April 15 date therefore may represent the date they received formal notification of their rejection. It would turn out that the audition for Arthur Godfrey was not an insignificant moment in Elvis Presley's career, primarily because of the widespread misperceptions of Elvis's career to which it later gave rise. For the March 1955 trip Elvis made to New York City later was used by Eileen Southern as evidence that Bo Diddley was the inspiration for Elvis's "diluted versions" of black music (The Music of Black Americans: A History, 1971). Southern claims that Elvis copied Diddley upon "many hours listening to and watching [his] stage shows produced at the Apollo Theater in Harlem" (p. 499). And yet, if the information over at is correct, it would have been impossible for Elvis to have seen Bo Diddley at the Apollo Theater in March 1955, as Diddley did not make his first appearance at the Apollo until August 20. That date may be incorrect, of course, just as This Day in Rock's date of April 15 inaccurately suggests the actual date of Elvis's audition for Arthur Godfrey. It is true that Diddley had recorded his first single, the eponymously titled “Bo Diddley,” early in March 1955, and it may have been released by the end of March (some sources indicate April), but it was Ed Sullivan who saw Diddley perform at the Apollo and booked him for his popular television show on November 20. I have been unable to determine precisely the date(s) when Sullivan saw him perform at the Apollo. Still, Eileen Southern's assertion that Elvis - who did not leave the South until achieving notice for his singular performance style - was merely an imitator of Bo Diddley has remained such a powerful myth that it was mentioned in this 2008 Bo Diddley obituary notice. Michael T. Bertrand, in his excellent book Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2005), argues it may have been Bo Diddley himself who disseminated the story that Elvis had "appropriated his performance style."

"I think maybe Presley copied my dance steps," he said in [October] 1956. "I met him once about a year ago. He was just like any other kid coming backstage at the Apollo. I don't remember much about that meeting except that he asked me a few funny questions, but what the hell they were I don't remember. He said something about sitting out front for a bunch of shows. If he copied me, I don't care - more power to him. I'm not starving." (qtd. in Bertrand 192).

Assuming Bo Diddley was interviewed by Charles Gruenberg (for the 4 October 1956 New York Post story in which the above comment appeared) in September 1956, then Diddley's recollection that he'd met Presley "about a year ago" would seem to suggest that he was indeed performing at the Apollo in September 1955, that is, the August 20 date marking his first appearance may be correct. (The date could be determined by simply researching the archive; I haven't yet had the chance to do so. I'll get around to it; in the meantime, be my guest.) And yet, as Bertrand observes, Diddley's description is vague enough ("like any other kid," "I don't remember") to make it easily adaptable "to the subsequent conviction held by Bo Diddley and many others that Presley 'stole his act' from black artists, Diddley included" (192). It's possible that Elvis could have seen Bo Diddley in late August 1955, as this list of Elvis's live performances in 1955 reveals, but he would have had to make the drive to New York City on his own dime, not as a consequence of his concert schedule taking him there.

The factual accuracy of the matter is important, for to adhere to what might be called the "minstrelsy interpretation" of Elvis's career is really an attempt to undermine his legitimacy. The attempt to discredit and distort his accomplishment is not especially difficult to understand: to depict him as an uneducated white Southern redneck usurping black culture is to suggest his "crime" was becoming financially successful while performing, as Bertrand observes, "a music associated with working-class black culture. . . . He became rich and famous while more qualified black contemporaries remained poor and obscure" (195). Of course, the truth is far more interesting and complex than the one offered by the minstrelsy interpretation. Bertrand suggests that by examining Elvis's early life and career, "it is possible to see how rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll became a shared vehicle of expression for various groups the mainstream had ignored, maligned, or rejected" (195). Bertrand's fine book explores how Elvis was drawn to black musical forms in order to forge an identity within an unfamiliar, post-war urban world, a far more interesting story than the Elvis-in-blackface myth.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Music Box

I haven't yet had the time to explore thoroughly all of the contents included in The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, but one pleasant discovery is the inclusion of several additional tracks, totaling 35m, on the specially-designed USB drive that comes with the set. The USB drive contains mp3 files (192 kbps) of every track on the 16 discs in the set on a program similar to iTunes, thus eliminating the need to rip every CD to iTunes (you can if you wish, obviously). The additional twenty-one tracks on the USB drive are mostly short demos, alternate takes, and outtakes. Also, the DVD included with the set, titled A Conversation With Danny Elfman & Tim Burton, has a running time of 67m 15s (65m 53s of interviews and a 1m 22s promotion trailer for Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). The DVD carries a 2010 copyright.

Listed below are the bonus tracks included on the USB drive (WB Records, 2011):
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
28. Snakey (worktape) - 3:44
29. Reprise (early demo) - 1:16
30. Oogie Boogie - Alternate Melody (demo) - 1:50
31. Mayor's Theme (demo) - 1:26
32. Jingle Bells - 0:14
33. Here Comes Santa Claus – 0:25
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
34. Theme (demos) - 4:09
35. More Dreams (alternate version) - 1:20
Planet of the Apes (2001)
36. Ape Suite (orchestra only) - 2:44
Big Fish (2003)
37. The Hoe Down - 1:58
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
38. Gloop Takes a Plunge (orchestral cue) - 1:29
39. Everlasting Gobstopper (orchestral cue) - 0:48
40. Eye on the Prize (orchestral cue) - 0:40
41. Augustus Gloop (early demo) - 2:03
42. Augustus Gloop (instrumental demo) - 2:28
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005)
43. Erased (alternate vocal) - 1:56
44. Unused Bride Theme (worktape) - 1:00
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
45. Alternate Titles - 0:46
46. The Parapet – 1:21
Edward Scissorhands Ballet (2005)
47. Kim’s Music Box (unused score demo) – 0:37
The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box (2011)
48. Music Box Suite - 3:02

Saturday, April 9, 2011


I'd never noticed the similarity before, but last night while watching the new Blu-ray release of Soylent Green (1973), I realized how its opening montage sequence provided the blueprint, or set of instructions, for Godfrey Reggio's later film Koyaanisqatsi (1982). The opening montage of Soylent Green begins with a series of late nineteenth-century photographs depicting rural, agrarian (pastoral) life in America, quickly displaced by images of growing industrialization, clogged superhighways, urban clutter, and a polluted environment—Eden despoiled. The entire logic of the montage of Koyaanisqatsi is sketched out in a conveniently truncated fashion. The opening of Soylent Green also employs the same rhythmic montage followed by the later film as well.

Moreover, like Soylent Green, the true focus of Koyaanisqatsi is what is usually the background: the background has become the foreground. The collapsed infrastructure, the streets in which people live in abandoned cars (an index of overpopulation), the oppressive heat caused by the so-called "greenhouse effect," the environmental catastrophe that eventually explains the terrible secret behind "soylent green," all point to the film's actual subject, ideological failure. In addition, both films address oppressive social conditions by means of a process that Slavoj Žižek calls the paradox of anamorphosis:

If you look at the thing too directly at the oppressive social dimension, you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background. . . . This fate of the individual here remains a kind of prism through which you see the background even more sharply.

Although Koyaanisqatsi was first released on the film festival circuit in 1982, like Soylent Green it is a Seventies film. Soylent Green was filmed the late fall of 1972 and released in May 1973. Koyaanisqatsi was created 1975-80, with virtually all of the footage shot for the film (excluding the found footage) done in the 1970s. Although both films depict the consequences of industrialization, arguably the event linking the films is the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of which (pictured above) forms a key montage sequence in Koyaanisqatsi (one of the movements in Philip Glass's music is named Pruitt-Igoe). Pruitt-Igoe was a federal housing project built in St. Louis in the mid-50s intended for poor and low-income families, consisting of roughly 2,800 apartments in 33 eleven-story buildings. By the late 1960s, the crime and squalor associated with Pruitt-Igoe had become a national embarrassment, and the project was closed. In early 1972—only 16 years after construction was finished—the federal government began to demolish the complex, a process eventually completed by 1976. Pruitt-Igoe has lived on, symbolically, as an emblem of failure. It has been immortalized in documentary films and in fiction (J. G. Ballard's High Rise, 1975). Both Koyaanisqatsi and Soylent Green were made in the years following the ideological failure represented by Pruitt-Igoe. Moreover, both films employed technical advisors from the world of academia actively engaged in addressing social problems: Frank R. Bowerman (Soylent Green) and Langdon Winner (Koyaanisqatsi).

Žižek uses as an illustration of anamorphosis Holbein's famous painting The Ambassadors: if looked at straight on, there is a noticeable "stain" or blur in the lower center of the painting, but when looked at from from the proper lateral standpoint, that is, from an anamorphic perspective, the blur reveals itself to be a skull. In Koyaanisqatsi, the background becomes the foreground, allowing us to approach reality anamorphically. The time-lapse photography used in Koyaanisqatsi, for instance, in which an endless stream of automobiles is transformed into a stream of light, is an example of anamorphosis, allowing us to see contemporary life not in its actual form, but as it really is.

Of course, unlike Soylent Green, Koyaanisqatsi also draws on several cinematic traditions, some of them dating to the cinema’s origins in the late nineteenth century: its use of the phantom ride, for instance, and its use of photogénie. Nonetheless, while I haven't yet decided on the validity of the association, I was struck by how similar the viewer of Koyaanisqatsi is to Sol Roth during his assisted suicide, as he watches spectacular film clips of an Edenic Earth while listening to light classical music.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Optic Nerve

Both music and perception are psychophysiological processes (psychophysiology studies the relationship between physiological processes and thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). In the same way that Op Art (short for Optical Art) exploits the illusions or optical effects of perceptual processes, the echoes and reverberations of psychedelic music suggest the illusory interior space of a medieval cathedral. Despite the fact that album covers are now celebrated as a form of art (an expression of art-as-object), with only a few exceptions Op Art, surprisingly, never especially influenced rock album art during the Psychedelic Era (unlike, say, the sculptural illusion of Trompe l'oeil, as revealed by the many rock album covers of the time featuring the work of M. C. Escher), even though Op Art was popularized in 1965 and is characterized by the perceptual ambiguity favored by the psychedelic artists of the Sixties. Several sources indicate the term Op Art was first used in an (unsigned) article in the 23 October 1964 issue of Time magazine, and was soon used to distinguish two-dimensional structures which suggested potential, but not actual, movement (in contrast to Kinetic Art, often lumped together with Op Art). The first Op Art exhibition, curated by William C. Seitz and titled "The Responsive Eye," was held 23 February - 25 April 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (See Mike Wallace's interesting documentary on the MOMA show here; Brian De Palma also made a 1966 documentary short about the exhibition, also titled The Responsive Eye.) Significant Op Artists included Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Josef Albers, but it was the latter who actually created album covers, all of them for Enoch Light's Command Records label, and all created before the popularization of Op Art in 1965. In 2009, the Minus Space Gallery in Brooklyn held an exhibition of seven album covers designed by Josef Albers for Command Records during the period 1959-61. Interestingly, the exhibition also included additional Command Records album covers designed by other artists, such as Charles E. Murphy, Barbara Brown Peters, and Gerry Olin. The album covers displayed in this exhibition reveal the application of Op Art to album cover design, as revealed, for example, by the cover for Vibrations (1962, pictured, but not by Albers), the lines and reiterated shapes suggesting the energetic pace of modern life. As noted on the Minus Space Gallery webpage posted in connection with the Albers exhibition, Enoch Light

went to extraordinary technical lengths, and often great expense, to create recordings of the absolute highest quality possible that took full advantage of new technical capabilities of home audio equipment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Light specifically perfected stereo effects that bounced sounds between the right and left channel speakers, which was called a “ping-pong effect.”

Hence Light took full advantage of the improved technical reproduction made possible by magnetic tape, which offered him and his engineers a broad range of sonic possibilities. To understand more clearly the significance of what Light was trying to achieve with his Commodore label, I turn to Stephen Struthers' observations in "Recording Music: Technology in the Art of Recording," (Avron Levine White, Ed., Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event, Routledge 1987):

The idea of a contemporary musical recording as a reproduction of a real musical event is not tenable as, using a multi-track magnetic tape recording, the final recording is assembled and "reconstructed" from a number of fragments, and so there is no "original" of which that published recording can be a reproduction. Indeed a significant amount of popular music has never existed in a prerecorded stage, being created as it was being recorded, or as a unique combination of previously recorded process first heard together during editing. Many recordings today are made with the circumstances of reproduction uppermost in mind, either on the radio or for domestic listening. (244-45)

Josef Albers cover, 1961
Thus, as Struthers suggests, sounds are made, not "captured." The Enoch Light records are, among other things, feats of engineering. He emphasized the high sonic quality of his records in order to sell his records not to radio stations but to the home stereo enthusiast (here I mean just that, stereo equipment as opposed to monaural). The stereo effects that characterize his records -- sound-as-movement -- have their analogue in Albers' covers, which imbue the two-dimensional plane of the album cover with the optical illusion of movement. Albers' visual configurations allow for imaginary movement just as Light's stereo recordings suggest an imaginary, three-dimensional space ("concert hall") containing music.

I suspect the reason why Op Art was never a major influence on the album art of the Psychedelic Era was because the drug that came to represent the movement, LSD, was rendered through the swirling, Day-Glo, subtractive colors suggestive of a drug trip, very unlike the achromatic colors preferred by Op Artists such as Josef Albers, whose paintings suggested movement created by lines and patterns in black and white. Perhaps the best known album art influenced by the Op Art movement was Mike McInnerney's cover for The Who's Tommy (1969), but by then the influence of the Op Art movement had waned.