Friday, June 30, 2006

Pride and Shame

I first heard the reggae vocal trio The Mighty Diamonds on a dub record called Planet Mars Dub, which has some compelling cover art of stereo speakers flying like UFOs through the sky and visiting some red planet Rastafarians -- space travel via ganja rocketry, I guess. A consortium of producers known as The Icebreakers use the Diamonds' sweet harmonic cooing as a just another layer in the sonic palette, which turns out to be a strange and wonderful choice. Listen to "Dub With Garvey," at how they ignore the actual lyrical content and just let odd vocal fragments come echoing through the smokey haze.

And what gorgeous vocal fragments! So I was thrilled last week to find the first Mighty Diamonds LP, Right Time, from 1976. If you loved the soulful zealotry of the first Wailers album, you'll love these guys, all jacked up on Jah and reefer, sweetening every syllable with Motown. On the title track, "Right Time," Robbie Shakespeare's talking bass keeps murmuring subliminal profundity as a counterpoint to all the high harmonies. The blissed-out Biblical prophecies are skunkified by the bottom end; it's the riddim land that was Promised.

The Diamonds are wearing green fatigues and red berets on the back of the album, complete with the requisite army-issued spliff. The apocoalyptic religious stuff is interesting, yes, but the vocals really bloom when they focus on more worldly pursuits, namely girls. "Shame and Pride" gives lead singer Donald "Tabby" Shaw his moment to wax Delphonic about his school yard sweetheart, drawing out some extra honey in the falsetto. I imagine this courtship happening in some underfunded British-run primary school in Kingston where they wore white shirts and ties but no shoes.

Which reminds me of a little of the outfit worn in this photo. I love the leg warmers! I can never tell if I love Steele Pulse's "Roller Skates" because it's qualitatively good or because I allowed it into my life during an emotionally vulnerable time in high school. The synthesizers must have seemed like a good idea back then, but they weren't. And using one in place of a bass is nearly heretical. That said, the whole storyline of this song is so patently absurd we've already entered a funhouse world in which a rich guy smoking a cigar in a limo decides to pull over and steal a boom box from a Rasta man on roller skates. Even as allegory for oppression, this is just retarded, the kind of crap you'd come up with if you were really, really ... high. But I want to believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here. Plus, you can have a lot of fun imagining the early 80s music video for this song as you listen. As you imagineer this thing, I would suggest similar production values to this .38 Special video for "Back Where You Belong."

Alas, I can't not mention "Steppin' Out" . There's some kind of J.C. Penney TV commercial flair to this song that really makes me question my own judgment. Open Sesame, here comes Rastaman! He sounds like he's wearing a Dr. Seuss hat and has gold teeth. What's funny is both of these songs are on the 1984 record called Earth Crisis, with the forbidding cover painting of a world gone mad with Reagan, the Pope and nukes. Merciful Fate could have used this album cover. Well, these guys were able to hold two opposing ideas in their heads at the same time, which is probably why they're still kicking it, hooking up with Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley and playing Bonnaroo.

By the way, let's not forget the hair. Splendid.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pack-It-In Paradigm, Pt. 2: Way of the Hippie

The sun finally came back after three days of intense rain, the creeks and rivers having swelled their banks and washed out nearby route 212 for a spell. Apparently some of the locals were holed up at the Bear Cafe last night till midnight, drinking beers at the bar, waiting for the cops to open up the road again so they could drive home. That's what the aging hippie in the Hawaiian shirt said at the organic food stand this morning, while getting his java and New York Times.

Yes, we finally did it. We packed it in, as we'd hoped we would. For all of June, we've lived far from the employment-industrial complex of New York, near the village of Woodstock, where three long-ago days of rain-drenched hippie music have left in their wake a strip of incense-fumagated tie-dye shops and a smattering of weatherbeaten 60s dudes (now in their 60s) who live in the woods out of backpacks and occasionally stand on the side of 212 mumbling their own mysterious monologues, poking at dead birds with their walking sticks. They just stare at you when you wave.

The neighborhoods tucked back in the woods resemble those in Marin County, little 1920s bungalows with homegrown additions added in the 1970s (retrofitted glass domes, triangular windows), giving them the look of adult tree houses or hippie forts where some long-forgotten acid test or another took place. Christmas lights are popular year-round adornments. It's also what you'd expect, Volvos and overpriced organic food, silver-haired witchy women in purple peasant dresses and Guatamalan vests. But you also meet guys like Bill, our neighbor, a former Manhattanite in his late 50s who left for the rural life eight years ago. Last night he was walking his dog in the rain, smoking a hand-rolled cigaratte and watching our flooded local brook gush and gurgle like a Grand rapid. As we'd stopped to chat from our car, his smile was as warm and welcoming as any you'll find anywhere, his beatific face taking on a vaguely Native-American tincture. "We left and we never looked back," he says, flicking his ash, water drizzling down his matted hair. "Come back soon." He seemed to mean it.

Question: Could time spent in the woods crack our citified veneer and reveal the dirty hippie within? Rigorously-obtained data tells us it can. In the last month, I've barely bathed. I no longer wear underwear. I've grown a passable beard. Our calendars clear as the sky, we just sit here, gazing at the woods, listening to birds, breathing. We read books. We drink wine. We play guitar. We sing:

Gillian Welch's "Summer Evening"

"Paul's Song" by M. Ward

The Louvin Brothers' "The Christian Life"

Bobby D.'s "Oh Sister"

We play Bonnie Prince Billy's "A Beast for Thee" on the car stereo because the guitar part is too hard for me.

At night, we watch the wild smear of stars materialize in the big top overhead. You forget about those in the city -- and I mean totally and completely forget. Here, you breathe them back in like the homiest hometown you've ever returned to. Here's a recording of the babbling brook we hear while lying in the grass looking at them. Imagine fireflies dotting the darkness under the overhanging trees (also: adjust your volume DOWN at first).

Some days, we drive down remote dirt roads and find bright orange salamanders wriggling in creek beds. We watch the white-tailed deer and its spotted fawn nibbling in the back yard, wonder at the excitable finch pecking at our window like it wants to come in, chase the squirrel off the bird feeder every morning. You can sure as hell get used to it. (Above, that's a picture of a sleeping deer on the lawn here, as seen through a spider web in the window.)

We go hiking in the woods, down long, winding trails, where whole primeval ampitheatres of forest open up like mystical, open-air meditation chambers, one after another, one dark and dense, another light and airy, some wet, some dry, endlessly unfolding as you walk and breathe, eventually setting the internal sun dial you forgot you had back to zero: the beginning, the end.

On a Sunday, a young fella hiking back down the trail from Mt. Tremper wearing a bright tie-dye, his eye-lids pink, mouth bent in a stoned grin, tells us he saw a black bear up there "standing not fifteen feet away from me." It ran away, he says, but we do a lot of loud clapping on the way up, for good measure. It starts raining hard on our way down, and we gingerly hop-scotch the wet rocks, our clothes heavy, hair matted, sheets of water pouring off the dark canopies above in a steady, wet roar. When we get to our car, we're waterlogged and primitive, grinning like idiots. We dump our clothes in the trunk and drive home naked. Once there, Dewey Dell starts a crackling fire, I pour a glass of Kentucky bourbon (Bulleit, highly recommended) and I fall asleep reading Cormac McCarthy.

Later, I learn the three guitar chords to "Light Green Leaves" by Little Wings (C-G-Fmajor7) and we sing the interlocking lyrics together.

Light green leaves
(Beneath your windshield wipers whip around)
From the trees
(You comb your hair and walk back into town)
Traffic breathes
(The same breath that I breathe when I'm around)
And it seems
(We best enjoy them before they turn brown).

Light green leaves
(Like feathers on a bird that's standing still)
From the trees
(They flock upon the branches and they wilt)
Never leave
(As long as they're alive when they are found)
And it seems
(They're hanging in the trees but soon fall down).

Light green leaves ...

Tomorrow, it's back to the city, where surely the inner sun dial will crank back to ten and all thing's peaceful and mystified will be sobered by the daily warp and woof of the capital markets. I'll always have Kyle Field to keep me in the mystic loop. And fear not, my fronds, I've also got souvenirs, including a pile of LPs I've picked up in the sticks, some of which can surely summon the old spirit. I've even got an album of Peyote Songs by a peculiar offshoot of the Sioux tribe, recorded live during a mystical psychedelic rite. There's also some early ZZ Top I'm excited to lay on the people. Where there is vinyl, there is hope, I hope. Now I just need my turntable, a razor and a bar of soap.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Rolling Down Hill

I’ve always been a fan of the Jeremiad. The Golden Ages are long gone. Everything’s in decline. It’s clear. Why not come out and admit it? There’s no one better at bemoaning the state of things than Merle Haggard. And no song encapsulates Merle’s the-world-has-gone-to-hell outlook better than “Are the Good Times Really Over?”

The first time I heard it I was driving my 83 Honda Accord up the mountain toward Asheville, North Carolina on I-26. The car didn’t have a tape deck, and only the AM radio worked. This limited your options. But you’d get some good syndicated oldies stuff – “Hubbard’s Cupboard” from Chicago; they’d play the Association and Herb Alpert and Sinatra and Glen Campbell all together. And every once in a while you’d hear some wonderfully apocalyptic preaching, some good church singing and decent country.

Listen for the ominous, fog-horn low-notes; Merle’s tooth-baring pronunciation of “Chevy” (shivy); the cheap word play; the implication that microwaves, Elvis, the Beatles and Nixon all brought ruin to America.

Seeing the record sleeve on a footrest, my wife said “Did you buy a Warren Beatty record? Because if you did, we’re gonna have to have a talk.”

Merle Haggard – “Are the Good Times Really Over?”

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Manichaean Candidates

From All The King’s Men. Willie Stark, the corrupt (but essentially good) governor is addressing Adam Stanton, the young idealistic patrician doctor.

“You can’t inherit [plain, simple goodness] from anybody. You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. And you know why, Doc?” He raised his bulk up in the broken-down wreck of an overstuffed chair he was in, and leaned, forward, his hands on his knees, elbows cocked out, his head out-thrust and the hair coming down to his eyes, and stared into Adam’s face. “Out of badness,” he repeated. “And you know why? Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of.”

I heeeeaared that.

Here are two bands that took the badness and made good.

It’s not exactly overwhelming praise to say that a record reminds you of the Grateful Dead’s “Blues For Allah,” an album that marked the Dead’s studio slide into delusional disco, symphonic frippery, distended suites and a generally soggy sound. Still, that’s what the Court and Spark’s “Hearts” reminds me of. There are the same meandering baked quasi-fusionistic soundtrack-worthy instrumentals. But, like “Blues For Allah” (and way more frequently) occasional moments of brilliance force you to stop shaking your head in bemused derision. The Court and Spark are songwriters of the MFA school; there are clever narrative nuggets, odd bits of dialogue, and a general feeling of smarts at work. “Let’s Get High” is a good example. Check out the sort of subverted reggae of the keyboard pulse and the Jacques Cousteau guitar effects. I also love that you can always count on the weed heads to know when and when not to use the accusative case.

And then there’s Priestess. Entirely unrelated except that I think both of their records came out in the past month or so. And somehow, too, they transmute an essential wrong (pop metal) into good. After listening to the new Wolfmother, Ladyhawk and this, a coworker commented that there was some sort of “White Goddess” thing going on with bands these days. Priestess is from Montreal and they have got persuasively catchy and explosive pop-metal choruses. They make me think of the Darkness, minus the codpieces, the bad teeth and the irony. “Two Kids” won me over because there’s a slight “River’s Edge” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” factor to it. The singer can do Diamond Dave and the band can do Motorhead.

The Court and Spark – “Let’s Get High”

The Court and Spark on MySpace

Priestess – “Two Kids”

Priestess on MySpace

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Real vs. the Possible, Part 1: The Other Neil

Neil Young is a player who has recently made his impression felt once again, in a familiar though not ineffective manner. “I’m as predictable as a Holiday Inn” was a favorite quote from his 2005 Time interview. In the meantime, I’ve been fleshing out my collection with recordings I had missed for one reason or another. Though the heated fight to get Reprise Records to release Time Fades Away as a CD rages on, the 'used bin' at a major online dealer was admittedly a good place to get some of my other cavities filled (several months ago, after a few clicks, I caught up with 6 or 7 awesome N.Y. discs for about $45 all told).

Though I haven’t bothered to track it down, Neil supposedly once appeared on a National Lampoon list of “Ten People Dolphins are Definitely Smarter Than.” This collegiate jab notwithstanding, (and as milk-and-cookies as it sounds) musically I often feel like the Neil version of a kindergarten platitude: everything I needed to know about music I learned from Neil Young. How to rock, how to love, how one may indeed stretch limited technique to create grand expressions, that country music is cool, that it’s o.k. to change your mind about things, and so much more.

There are a lot of ostensibly independent-minded hippie geeks out there that share my general sentiment for the Old Man, but who have imposed a literal, historical set of expectations on their idol. This divide came to my attention when I caught comments on a popular Neil fan blog to the effect that the album Prairie Wind was “Neil Young Lite.” Sad for me to think I have anything emotionally-in-common with the Crusties that just want another Zuma, another Tonight’s the Night, another After the Goldrush, basically another bit of the collective wax that has fixed The True Neil into his proper place in the heavens. What would be the point for the living artist or the active listener? Granted, Neil can be counted on to strike the rock’n’roll anvil every 5 years or so—if only because it feels so damn good. But wouldn’t you be similarly compelled if you had a band like Crazy Horse?

When you’re twelve, the morse code rock of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon Girl” are enough. A true musical archetype is a difficult thing to form, especially in a world cluttered with mere entertainment, and Neil managed to achieve one at a tender age. But my admiration over the long haul of witnessing his meandering and varied career has more to do with Neil’s ability to blindly lunge into new or atypical territory with no intention of answering to an existing body of work (remember this was the guy David Geffen sued for $1M for producing ‘uncharacteristic material’ in the mid-80s).

While many artists struggle with a dichotomy between the “reality” (either really real or simply subscribed to) of their own sensibilities and the other possibilities they see and imagine, Neil is able to bring some of these roads-not-taken back to us as listenable artifacts without losing a perceptible artistic self in the process. The contrast between Neil and pal Bob Dylan in this regard is stark, in that the latter has, by his own covert admissions, spent the same 40 years striving to really become the artistic personage he only imagined or projected during his years of creative adolescence.

Some of the Canadian's 'possibilities' can first come across as mediocre ideas, or even weak performances. But give Mr. Disappointment (from 2002's Are You Passionate?) half a dozen listens in different settings or states of mind. The session, for those unfamiliar, teams Neil up with old pals Booker T and Duck Dunn (of MG's fame) to do a fried-out R & B record that works like a plate of Memphis ribs and a couple of beers. This bizarre take on the hallowed subgenre of spoken lyric songs and the overall texture of the mix form a singular musical place that starts out kind of cornball, to say the least. The fumbling guitar lines between verses say all they need to (perhaps: that in life’s travails, some of us are disappointed, some gratified), and there’s something about the voice of Disappointment that reminds me a little of Tricky Dick himself (another legendary Neil Young spiritual nemesis), a resemblance helping to drive home a bittersweet feeling that would be hard to convey on a less intuitive level.

From another place entirely comes Misfits, a tune which the original Rolling Stone review of 1985’s Old Ways called “as strange as a meteor falling on the farm.” I guess the Crusties might get away with saying this song is simply another parable ala “After the Goldrush” or “Ride My Llama,” but yes, that’s Waylon Jennings on BVs, and probably the only song on any purportedly ‘country’ album ever recorded that mentions either a space station or Mohammad Ali (word to Mr. Poncho for the boxing riffs, although I'm not sure if there's a genuine sports metaphor here). I keep trying to imagine a song stylist that could make a living delivering tunes of this sort, one after another (I am thinking here of the Johnny Cash interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in which Cash explained “I’m not a singer, I’m a song stylist”). Roy Orbison may have been the only rocker to have actually given it a fighting chance in his own more elegant style. But "Misfits" is a masterpiece of a genre that doesn’t exist to my knowledge, other than in the minds of the believers. Gotta love the strings. For a moment, the possible prevails over the known facts—Crosby, Stills and who?

My last example was actually released as a promotional CD single for the 1996 album Broken Arrow, and definitely falls into the lower-than-porpoise intelligence category. I am trying to imagine the DJ intro: "Neil and those Crazy Horse boys are really setting the airwaves on fire with this one, a hoppin' little number called This Town!" Ponytailed, paunchy, and strangely preadolescent, the track evokes a sense of place that I feel I can personally can relate to, living in an asphalt-dominated ‘New South’ city, but only paints around the edges of a discernable picture. This could be a garage band’s first recording but, as it happens, comes here from a 30-year veteran and Rock Hall of Famer. A younger man might care to give a few more concrete details . . .

The lesson of Neil Young in these and other instances is that sincerity in the pursuit can take an artist a long way toward realizing possibilities beyond the creative visage set forth in hallmark moments. Whether it is agility of mind, faith in the subconscious, or barrels of homegrown doobage, something is present that allows the seeker to forget himself long enough to make work that reaches toward an as-yet-undefined strain of self.

Meanwhile, the position of many critics and fans takes as given that we all know who The Real Neil is by the moments that forged the legend in the first place. Yet with the pins in different spots, the map could change entirely. In art and life, ‘the real’ is sometimes simply a collection of that series or set of possibilities we repeatedly prefer over others. Our moments of forgetting these preferences may be, for some of us, our few fleeting glimpses of true freedom.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

I Did Wot I 'Ad Ta Do!

It’s not a good idea to blog about work. But let’s say for the sake of argument that if I recently quit my job of 7 years I might be feeling a little reflective. I might be relieved not to have to look at the big piles of work on my desk. I might miss the camaraderie. I might be proud of the fact that I walked in the door expecting a 3 week data entry gig as a temp and I walked out with a new career in hand. I might be happy my new job pays better. If I did leave my job, I might offer you these songs on the topic of leavings and endings:

Before They Make Me Run – Steve Earle/Supersuckers

My Way – Sid Vicious

Summerland – Everclear

Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone – Abbey Lincoln


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Leopold Bloom's Skittish Approach

Cemetery tunes are ornery to execute, and often aren’t as difficult to digest as they should be, but even a cursory listen to Sunn O)))’s "Candlegoat” from their 2005 release, Black One, should do the death trick for us nicely. Lyrics from Mayhem are quoted as a summons: Mayhem's singer Euronymous was killed in 1993 by Varg Vikernes of Burzum. Low-end manifestations in this piece are likely to invoke uneasy funereal postures and the incoherence of mortality. At the least they’ll inspire intestinal loosening. The gaseous intro to “Candlegoat” is faux ambient when sonic waves begin to alter the chemistry of the listening space and black wooly worms as long as hairbrushes appear outside the door. If you find yourself taking the ritual seriously, make sure your loved ones are out of town and any hatchets are locked away in the garage or woodshed. However, in actual swine life, you know these guys would be fun to eat corn dogs with while watching Barry Lyndon, and this is probably superb music to fly a small engine plane to as you soar above a fried desert landscape, hollering into the wind the law of Austin Osman Spare, looking for “that party” at a Caliph’s palace. Choronzon awaits.

Next we encounter the devilish Serbian trumpets of Boban Marković Orkestar doing "Vlasinka", from 2000’s Srce Cigansko (Heart of Gypsy). I think the underlying thump juice on this tune is as unbelievably organ shifting as Sunn O))), but swarthy fuckers getting ready to embark on a midnight vodka run (deer blades in belts) while their gals pile out of the house onto the porch to watch them go, waving silk handkerchiefs, is the Shiznit. Don’t drink too much coffee!

This cut will definitely inspire grafts of wood needed to sculpt human stumps, and it refuses to allow a handhold to escape the cliffs of sedentary thought...from 1930-1933, Harry Partch recorded the text from Shigeyoshi Obata: The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet, and who knows how many celestial trains he had to ride before he finished. As a composer, Partch catapulted microtonal branches after early emanations (also laden with the Book of Psalms). “A Dream” is taken from The Seventeen Lyrics of Li Po, released in 1995 on Tzadik, and was recorded on February 29, 1932. All is One on the climb to the mountains of the sky: “How can I stoop obsequiously and serve the Mighty Ones? It stifles my soul.” Shadoobie. I often pander to the slopes of my raising on the Appalachian starvation diet.

“For Today I Am a Boy” is from Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 album I Am a Bird Now and suffices for the song we knew we needed when life was blessed with goodness and there was nowhere to turn but the skies, and mortal rains didn’t come like we thought they should. What is delicate is in us all and favors no one: Molly.

Hasil Adkins is the maestro of rocking thighs, and we only need to sample one of his early grumplets to ascertain how jelly things can go. For summertime moves, “Teeny Weenie Waddy Kiss” is from his mid-50s LP Out to Hunch and will get any Southern girl you know to confess belief in some ulterior and baneful type of ‘crunk’—just don’t get her too privy to his tunes about cut-off heads. A good buddy of mine always tells a story about Hasil waiting out in his car until it was his time to go on stage, so stacked up on the winds of fate that nothing mattered to him. With patience be blessed.

While we thumb back through Ulysses (June 16!), in the elder regions there is this scrap of mental porridge (Psychic TV): “Base Metal (remix).” Let us cable Leopold the Jew as we thunkingstock our days. We can be all cock-a-hoop about our modern craze for sound. And then there’s also Pollard’s way, the fever of the routine, our snake that hides: “How’s My Drinking.” If we weren’t guided somehow who would forgive us anyway? What is the word of days that might transmogrify our beings? Feeling, I tell you.

And finally we reach the end of this garble wheel, the black action that we started, but with a warrior’s amplifier set in our hearts. High on Fire recorded Blessed Black Wings very yesterday but I have poured over “Brothers in the Wind.” As it pertains to our burnt norbs, the energy is palpable as a battleaxe turd. For lost brothers we are now able, through an axis of perpetual slaughter, to contact and beat them to death with our lamb love...on and on and on and on. Played in decibels reserved for an evening of blue inebriation, it’s almost summer. Ain't James Joyce coming for some golf shirts, sumbitch? Tighten up.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sweet Scientists

Where would we be without the sporting metaphor? No photo finish, no fumbles, no hitting one out of the park, no playing against the clock, no stiff-arming. The appreciation of competive sports is -- similar to the appreciation of cigars, fly fishing, internal combustion engines, and Civil War history -- some sort of deeply male activity. And there's probably no sport more thoroughly fouled up with testosterone stink than boxing. As it happens, boxing also seems to be where we get the most sporting metaphors -- against the ropes, saved by the bell, sucker punch, below the belt, down for the count, and, of course, the knockout.

David Remnick has written a couple of excellent pieces on boxing for the New Yorker. I was reading the Mike Tyson piece from Reporting, Remnick's new book of collected writings from the magazine. In it he mentions that during his prison time Tyson had become something of a history buff. Hannibal was one of the figures Tyson took an interest in. "He rode elephants through Cartilage," Tyson told Remnick. There's also a great explanation by one of Tyson's trainers of the whole Roman, bread and circus component of boxing.

"People are full of shit. They want to see something dark," Tyson's former trainer Teddy Atlas told Remnick. "People want to feel close to it and in on it, but, of course, only from the distance of their suburban homes. They want to have the benfeit of comfort m security, safety, respect, and at the same time the privilege of watching something out of contril - even promote it being out of control -- as long as we ca be secure the we're not accountable for it. With Tyson, the dark thing was always the aniticipation that someone was going to get knocked out. ... But we wanted to believe that the monster was also a nice kid. We wanted to believe that Mike Tyson was an American story: the kid who grows up in the horrible ghetto and the converts that dark power into a good cause, into boxing. But then the story takes a turn. The dark side overwhelms him. He's cynical, he's out of control. And now the story is even better. It's like a double feature now, like you're getting Heidi and Godzilla at the same time."

He's right. We want to see some motherfuckers thrown to the lions. We want blood to flow. We think of life as combat and struggle. Destructive, explosive violence -- even better if it's controlled in a ring -- somehow confirms our ideas about the nature of things. But brute force isn't always the way to win -- poetry, finesse and endurence all come into play. I guess the same is true with rock and pop: volatile emotions are let loose -- briefly, for, say, 2 minutes and 45 seconds -- and then resolved, harnessed, put back in the bottle. Distortion, electricity, operatic singing, martial drum beats, it's all a kind of chaos that gets controlled by form. The compositional emulation of the male orgasm, set to wax.

Taking inspiration from Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio show, which you can hear at White Man Stew, I've put together a little thematic sampling of pugilistic musical favorites.

I think it was Greil Marcus who famously asked "What is this shit?" about Dylan's monumentally offputting Self Portrait record, from which the following track comes. Obviously, including Dylan's transcendantly horrendous version of the Paul Simon song "The Boxer" serves two purposes: It justifies not including the Simon and Garfunkle version and it also allows for exclusion of Dylan's most famous boxing song, "The Hurricane," a great song, but one that you can hear elsewhere, occasionally on classic rock radio or even better, in the scene in Dazed in Confused where Mathew McConoughey's character delivers the famous lines "high school girls -- I love 'em -- I keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age."

Dylan's version of "The Boxer" is really a marvel -- you can almost see the executives at Columbia Records listening to this stuff as their heads smolder and then finally explode. Dylan has never been very good at harmonizing -- listen to some of his stuff with Joan Baez (not entirely his fault) or listen to "Girl From the North Country". Here, he ups the ante by harmonizing with himself. One of his vocal tracks loosely follows the original melody while the other wanders, darts and ducks, maddeningly. It's almost like he's just pissing in the wind and calling everyone over to take a look at his soaked trousers. Then again, there's the other possibility that
it's some sort of veiled put down of Paul Simon. Unlikely, I know, but I remember when Lefty and I saw the two on a double bill at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 2000; though they sort of honored each other a bit, from the stage Dylan seemed to exude a contempt.

Obviously, a batch of boxing music probably should include the theme music from Rocky (but you all know that one), and I thought about putting the Stones "One Hit to the Body" -- from Dirty Work, the final frontier of Stones appreciation -- but I figured that was just an assault/love song, of which there are many. Next is "The Upset," by Paul Kelly, from the masterful Numero Group's masterful Eccentric Soul series which does some deep excavation of obscure regional soul labels and oddball vintage vanity vinyl pressings.

I've already foisted some of the Rev. J.M. Gates here before. This is a sermon/rant about the Brown Bomber. Tunes about Joe Louis are a part of their own subgenre of boxing tunes. Louis was so monumental a figure in the 1940s that many blues and jazz singers sang about him (he was among the most famous black men of the decade). Rounder Records released a compilation devoted to songs about Joe Louis in 2001. What I love about this track is the response of the congregation. Every time Gates pauses, one of his Deacons says "That's right!" It's like clockwork. It might sound funny, but it's also very much an extention of something that you read about regarding the jelis or griots or West Africa. When jelis speak there's often someone on hand who says the word "namu" (which means "truth") after each small phrase. The person even has a name which translates to "the one who says namu." The namu sayer has a crucial position, because it's an affirmation of the power of sacred speech. Somewhere, I have a great example of a "namu sayer"on a recording of a jeli singing along with some Guinean drumming. Fittingly, the rhythm is one of the many that are a part of the family of rhythms known as "dununba" -- or "the dance of the strong men." ("Konowulen II," featured here, is a dununba, though not the one with a "namu sayer," though some of the same principles of call and response are evident, and it kicks ample ass). Dununbas were traditionally performed as a part of ritualized violence in the form of a dance where men would dance in a circle and lash each other's backs as a means of demonstrating endurance and resolving conflict. Namu.

Bob Dylan - "The Boxer"

Paul Kelly -- "The Upset"

Rev. J.M. Gates -- "Joe Louis' Wrist and His Fist"

Famadou Konate -- "Konowulen II"

A Quick One, For Satan

Happy 06-06-06 everybody!

Supersuckers - Born With A Tail

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Fight the Power

It was easy to like the Dixie Chicks even before they got vilified by Red State America for being ashamed of shrubya Bush. Now that 75 percent of the country is also ashamed of the POTUS, maybe it’s not so bold for the Chicks to make a record that’s basically one big "fuck you" to country music conservatives and Bush. Still, of all the Neil Youngs, Bruce Springsteens, Dan Berns and Steven Colberts out there fighting the power, the DC’s are the ones who aren’t preaching to the choir (It hurts a little to hear them rip Lubbock, Texas a new one). That said, their latest is thoroughly cushioned with bland-o-country-rock pop powder puffs, and they now have much more in common with Sheryl Crow and Tom Petty than they do with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith, but there are a couple righteous radio mega singles. I’m particularly fond of "Voice Inside My Head," which isn’t really about the Bush-bashing incident (but it does employ fake sitar – take that!, Hot New Country), and which somehow manages, improbable as it is, to sound like Aimee Mann and Wilson Phillips.
"Voice Inside My Head" – The Dixie Chicks

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Crossing Over

Country, as you know, is all about cheating. Few songs approach the subject of infidelity with such a legalistic interpretation as "Don’t Let Me Cross Over," done here by Jerry Lee Lewis and his sister Linda Gail Lewis. Jerry Lee adds a nice gospel touch on the piano, which seems to fit with the inverted sacred imagery of the song. From the title you might guess that this song has something to do with reaching that distant shore, passing on, crossing the great divide, going to the roundup in the sky, dying, but it’s actually about getting the most out of being unfaithful without being punished for breaking the rules, milking a little something on the side without getting caught. It’s "love’s cheating line" that they don’t want to cross. The paradise of intemperate passion is just on the other side of the line. One step closer would be "heaven divine," but the lovers are trying to exercise some restraint. You get the feeling they may have already undone a few buttons though.

"Don’t Let Me Cross Over" – Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Gail Lewis