Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ossify My Love

I’ve heard/read wildly varying reports about the new Dylan movie, A.O. Scott digs it. Frankie Lee and Anthony Lane say "nah, leave it." I had high hopes, but that’s always a sign that somebody’s gonna get hurt. I’d been meaning to post something from this record before Frankie Lee graced us with that Sun Ra-esque inter-planetary Marvin Gaye tune. The idea of the "singer as statuary" immediately brought to mind the cover to this disc. I’m sure that Michael Ochs could put together an entire book on the theme of musician-as-sculpture record covers, but I could only come up with a few.

There’s this album of the Gotham String Quartet playing Dylan tunes, on which it’s the singer not just as statuary, but specifically in the manner of the Beethoven bust. The other record that popped into my head is a terrible Uriah Heep record.

It’s one that I seem to recall picking up with Lefty, JP and Dewey Dell, at an antique store after a visit to the shore, possibly on the very day that the photographic kernel that inspired the concept of Driftwood Singing came into being. Whatever its auspicious beginning in my record collection, I have a memory of later, after actually listening to the thing, stuffing the record into a trash can and bringing it to the curb to be hauled away.

But, of course, one can’t discuss the concept of singer-statue imagery without mentioning the genre-defining video for Lionel Richie’s "Hello."

I’ve heard mildly interesting string-quartet versions of songs by Guns N Roses and Metallica. Kronos has done Ornette Coleman and Hendrix. I can’t think of a musician whose work is less suited than Bob Dylan to being adapted by a string quartet.
The singer-statue imagery seems to be a pretty good tip off that you’re dealing with some advanced-level sonic ossification.

"All I Really Wanna Do" - Gotham String Quartet

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Random Notes

Our favorite right-wing windbag Mister Fred (pictured, right) recently called our site ""The Emerson, Lake and Palmer of music writing," presumably because of our expansive and self-indulgent riffs fronting as actual content. Well, he's probably right. But I'd like to prove him only half right today by restraining my word count yet still keeping to the spirit of pointlessness. That is, I've got a hodge-podge of songs I'd like to toss out, but nothing much to say. That makes me a bit like "the Wings of music writing." So without further ado, some random notes:

1. The Revelers are part of the obscure Bill Fox family of great 1990s Cleveland pop. Fox's brother Tommy played drums and Bill recorded some of their early singles as Superfoxy Productions. I saw the Revelers reunite last spring and they exploded on stage. The kind and talented frontman Andrej Cuturic later sent me three gorgeous colored vinyl 7-inch singles in the mail and I've coveted them as objets d'art as well as objets d'rock. The Revelers were unfortunately a full decade ahead of the curve on retro rock, but there's a true-of-heart guilelessness to them that's deeper than what came after -- like, you know, it's actual rock and roll. These are great songs.

Meet Me at the Station - The Revelers

Little Kings of Rock and Roll - The Revelers

2. Widely believed it may not be, but true it is: the Bee Gees were the greatest pop band ever. I'm not going to qualify or contextualize that for now. Why bother? The first tune is the best rip-off of CSNY's "Helpless" you'll ever hear, pumped up with orch-pop grandeur and stretched well beyond a reasonable length. It's like the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of the Bee Gees. Then there's "Israel," the best and creepiest Zionist pop anthem ever written by goyim. These are from Trafalgar, circa 1971.

Don't Want to Live Inside Myself - Bee Gees

Israel - Bee Gees

3. I found a pile of 45s in my mother-in-law's attic recently, none in good condition. But these are both nice examples of the Jeff Barry/Don Kirschner sugar pop factory of the late 60s. The first was co-written by Phil Spector and says on the label it's both a "Leiber-Stoller Production" and "Stuyvesant Productions, Inc." So New York! The second pulls a bizarre copyright infringement on Hannah-Barbara, coming out the exact year "Scooby Doo" premiered. Not sure what they were thinking, but all's fair in love and Top 40. In this case, S.K.O.O.B.Y. isn't a slobbering dog detective with a dopey stoner sidekick, but a female teenage love interest. It's actually more wholesome than the cartoon.

Girls Can Tell - The Dixie Cups

Feelin' So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y-D.O.O.) - The Archies

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Of Interest

My judgment gets clouded. At the dinner table, at the work desk, at the grocery store – debating the merits of five different varieties of tin foil, having a drink, at night when trying to think myself to sleep. But the record store is the place where critical faculties fly the farthest and fastest out the window. I walk away with musty records by Santo and Johnny or late-era discs by Pentangle or the Move (not bad ones, but sort of undesirable ones). And I’m not sure what happened. It’s way worse if, as usual, I’ve brought in a stack of discs to trade in. My buying power seems purely hypothetical. Everything starts to look and sound good. I’ll lug a stack of vinyl to the turntable and clamp on the big world-suffocating headphones, and questionable or bad music becomes, at the very least, "of interest."

The listening booth at the record store is like the fitting room at the mall. There’s so much hope, possibility, and willing self-delusion. Fond wishes. Self-coercion.

I had a big lapse the other day in Amherst, at Mystery Train. I won’t divulge the full extent of my folly right now, but I walked out with a lot of music. I think that just about every purchase (except two) was by an artist that we’ve previously covered here. But year three of Driftwood Singing will be an age of double-dipping and deep-diving.

Still, one that we haven’t addressed here (probably with good reason) is Rachel Sweet. I first heard of Sweet when reading the "Last Night A Record Changed My Life" feature in Mojo a while back, and someone, I can’t remember who, was plugging Sweet’s debut, Fool Around. I found one of her later records once and was shocked by the badness, but this time, finding her 1978 debut, I stretched my ears toward some alternate reality. The fact that it was colored vinyl edition, something like the color of deodorant soap – that helped. And I hadn’t realized that Sweet was on Stiff Records. She also does a song by Elvis Costello called "Stranger in the House." A little cachet goes a long way.

And visually there’s the whole Lolita/bad-girl effect. Part Shangri-La, part Britney. She was 16 when this record came out. The Brill Building nostalgia gets distorted through bogus attitude and mid-70s bad recording techniques. The sound, well, it exists somewhere on the Sheena Easton/Bananarama/Tanya Tucker/Kate Bush matrix.

Is that a good place?

As one who tends to have the believe that "the people often know," I’m surprised by how empty the Bananarama really is. There’s a flicker of memorable chorus, but the rest sounds like music for a JCPenny ad. This is music that was almost good. It’s hard to disentangle the music from the monstrous shadows cast by the MTV pop-puppeteers. Some pop gets better with age, what happened here? To put it all in context, these songs make it easy to appreciate the genius of Katrina and the Waves’ "Walkin on Sunshine."

"Just My Type" - Rachel Sweet

"Robert De Niro’s Waiting" - Bananarama

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

To The Ramparts! Or The Nearest Liquor Store, Whichever's Closer!

     As the Rutles once sang, "Love is the meaning of life/Life is the meaning of love."  On the other hand (to paraphrase Woody Allen), satire is one thing, but bricks & baseball bats can really help you get your point across.  But seeing as how I'm non-violent (unless poked) I'll opt for a third way: the old cleverer-than-thou-song-selection-with-badly-punctuated-commentary-giving-cathartic-release-with-comedic-results maneuver.  For that, my friends, is the Driftwood way.  And who in their right mind would ever take issue with that?  (Oh, right...).
     Anyhoo, Irene Reid is a native of Savannah, Georgia (where some of my forbears once tromped) and was a singer with Count Basie back in the day.  She recorded this in '01.  The lyrics are credited to Joe Tex, though Google seems to think Bette Midler wrote it (?).  It's been done by a bunch of folks, including Big Maybelle (Mabel Louise Smith, native of Jackson, Tennessee) and it's also the title of a Goodie Mob cd.  It's probably one of those songs that's been around forever, and no one really knows who wrote it.
      Once in a while, a song just presents itself to you, as if to say "I'm the right tune for the occasion."  I think this pretty much sums it up.  In fact, we may want to adopt it as our ancillary motto.

     P. S.  Here's Big Maybelle's version, recorded in 1954 and credited to R. McCoy & C. Singleton (to make things even more confusing).  It's got a nice gritty sound,  and it's shorter and to the point, but it's lacking that great line about "fresh cash" that I love.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.

Brothers, Sisters, I beseech thee. Can't we stop the fighting? Let us recall our Driftwoodian mission statement: liner notes for lovers. Ease back on the sheepskin, dig out the headphone splitter so you and your sweetheart can sashay through the hi-fi stratosphere hand-in-hand, starry-eyed. And here is the soundtrack — two who started it all for us: Electric Light Orchestra and Olivia Newton-John, united always and forever in one film, one Broadway play, one life, one God.

I've spent many an hour trying to imagine the cosmic cocaine forces that must have been at play in the creation of the 1980 film Xanadu. What misled geniuses thought it wise to bring together Rita Hayworth's 1947 Down to Earth, roller disco, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", musical comedy, ONJ, ELO, supernatural love, Michael Beck (the lovely from Warriors), The Tubes, and GENE KELLY! The story is a blur: the 9 muses jump in and out of immortality through a Venice Beach mural. ONJ is sent to earth to inspire a lowly Beck, an album cover airbrush artist. She does it on roller skates. Kelly and Beck, driving the moral of the tale home, hold fast to their dreams to open a roller nightclub where the muse Terpsichore -- ONJ -- packs the club with her band the Nine Sisters. Peace rules. Love conquers all.

Like eating an entire lemon chiffon pie, it was so good it made you feel sick to your stomach. Xanadu has wisely been revived as a Broadway show, the earthly form it probably always should have manifested. It returns now to remind us of what life was like before everything went to hell. And at long last the swelling subculture of folks who refer to themselves as "Xanadudes" and "Xanadames" have found a home. Two kind friends who have already seen the play four times will return for a fifth night in order to escort Lefty and myself. But for those of you living far from the lights on Broadway I offer two triumphant gems.

Don't Walk Away - Electric Light Orchestra
Suddenly - Olivia Newton John and Cliff Richard

Let the Games Begin

Holy shit! Now even our favorite neocon warmonger David Brooks is dropping the bomb on the white boy crew, writing an op-ed on the fragmentation of rock music and Little Stevie's desire for a tangible rock'n'roll canon. It's like we're back on campus in 1991 preparing to fight the PC wars again, with Harold Bloom hoisting the righteous sword of a Dead White Man Literary Canon against the incoming hordes of brown people. Great stuff!

And it couldn't come at a better time, just as one of Brooks' right-wing acolytes on an obscure Google Group is doing a full frontal assault on your very own Driftwood Singers. It started out with a kind and reasonable fellow named William telling his pals on the message boards that he was a fan of this site. But then came a gaggle of geriatrics with canes a-waving, led by a dude named Fred -- or as I like to call him, Winchester from MASH-meets-John Houseman-meets-Harold Bloom-meets-Rich Little-meets-E.F. Hutton-etcetera. Here's a taste of his elegant skewerings:

Fred contra Mr. Poncho's post on Melanie's cover of "Lay Lady Lay":

You manage to jam nineteen (19!) hyphens into a little more than two sentences. I realize you are aiming at a certain off-handed (one!) breezy tone, but please remember; everytime you abuse punctuation, the soul of everyone who ever tried to teach you proper English is consigned to another century in Hell.

Fred contra Harry Smith:

Distilling is a process of reduction. Nothing new is
created through distilling. Smith was a brilliant archivist, but he
created nothing new. The highest function of intellect is synthesis.

Fred contra Lefty, accusing me of self-Googling:

I suspect he googled "driftwood singers" and got the link. It should
come as an indication of their low profile otherwise that the
reference in this group comes up in the top three.
[Note: Factually inaccurate. We are HUGE in Cleveland.]

Fred contra new ideas:

The reasons things get to be conventional wisdom is because they
contain wisdom, not because they are meant to be conventional.

Fred contra William, the poor bastard who had the gall to enjoy our site:

If you mean that you cannot separate your own opinion of them from the
opinion of the person who introduced you to them, you need to spend
less time with the theorists and more time using, and trusting, your
own faculties. It's an opinion, and you are entitled to have them.

On why he doesn't post more often (except when he does, and boy does he!):

It isn't writer's block. The silence is a result of very high standards as to what is worthy of posting in public. I thought I made that clear. As for what goes on here, the level of dialog is precisely where it should be, given the participants.

I must say, we've been surprised by the attack. But also secretly delighted! As Mr. Poncho put it to me, we thought we were just "some dudes swigging whiskey, eating beans, singing a little and talking music" around the campfire. Turns out we were doing it in the student union at Brown and the fire marshal just showed up.

Ah, I should have more sympathy. Sources tell me Fred and his boys are all in their 60s, so as they barrel towards death they're just trying to teach the whipper snappers some values before the godforsaken world starts liking obscure Melanie tunes.

Well, screw sympathy. Good sir, this is war! And in honor of the occasion, I recall the wonderful gate-fold photo of the Bee Gees doing their historical reenactment of the death of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. We may die in the battle, dear friends, but these fuckers are the French and Spanish. Count on it!

Trafalgar - Bee Gees

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Focus Is Where A Crack Begins

Long before I ever fancied myself a writer, I used to fancy myself a musician, but even before that I fancied myself an artist. I know, a lot of fanciful self-regard. That’s me. I maintain that, even without much innate talent, giving these creative endeavors some thought is worthwhile. I learned a lot about seeing from sitting, methodically drawing, trying to render shapes, contours, proportions, gestures and light and dark on paper. You learn about how light and shadow co-exist, how the darkest folds of fabric are set off by the brightest reflections. You learn about how disconnected from visible reality our ideas of lines and discreet contours are. The outlines we draw on a sheet of paper bear little resemblance to the way the we actually see shapes in space. Things don’t have that clarity or sharp delineation. I remember the way that I would start a drawing, of a face say, and I would home in on some feature, maybe the eyes or the lips, and I could never maintain that level of focus and concentration on everything else, so, as I drew, the ears, the hair, the shoulders would be rendered with less intense single-mindedness, which may or may not have resulted in some kind of precision. As a result, when finished, or given up on, I could always see the place that I had started with such ambition, and how everything sprawled and bent and stretched in a distortion that grew with the distance from the focal point. It was always a little embarrassing too to have such a clear trail of my gaze.

As I mentioned before, I’d been planning to share some of this righteous Nathaniel Mayer when my car got broken into and my bag containing a bunch of discs got swiped. These intensely weird and raw soul doo-wop jams summoned up all the thoughts about focus and distortion because it seems like on every track there’s some sonic detail – a piercing flute, an aggressive tambourine, brushes on a snare, or a falsetto vocal – that just zooms out ahead of everything else in the mix, causing all the backing vocals, tremolo guitars and distant bongos to sort of melt and fold like hot wax, all disfigured, and surreal, blurred, distressed, and abraded in places. The mixes are way too hot, overdriven to where certain instruments and tracks get all distorted. It’s a little like organic, real-time dub.

A few years back JP and I came home from work on a windy fall day and found that there were pages of notebook paper blowing through the grass and on the sidewalks in the neighborhood. Evidently someone had cleaned out a box that had one of their kid’s homework, circa 1978, and they’d put it out in the trash, but it had gotten picked up by the wind. We found several excellent bits of unusual quizzes. Our favorite piece of found art was some sort of 5th grade earth sciences test involving plate techtonics and volcanoes. There’s a map of the world with several markings in different hot spots, and underneath the map, the student wrote "Focus is where a crack begins." We hold these truths to be, if not self-evident, then at least excellent.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Return of Tu Madre!

[Ed. note: We got a letter today from our long lost Driftwood brother, Tu Madre!. He and Ms. Madre are finally coming home from mystical travels in the Far West and T-Ma! has promised to write a 10,000-word post on the pleasures of early Toto as soon as he gets back East. A sestina, no less. We missed our brother.]


I recently caught up on the Driftwood Singers, after a month or so of internet avoidance. Once again, I'm amazed, delighted, chastened even; humbled by the pitchperfect combination of wit, perspicuity, and fanboy bloat. You've created a framework for understanding. Thanks.
(I particularly enjoyed the post-carbreak posts and Lefty's midnight rant/summation with the embedded EVH treatment.)
Sorry for writing you in tandem like this, but I'm trying to maximize my internet time. I've attached some pictures from my revels & travels. Speaking of which, it seems they now are ended. Ms. Tu Madre! got a job offer in NYC that just wasn't to be rejected, so she's there now subletting until I join her in Jan. I'm negotiating a part-time schedule with my old firm, which will allow me to work on a poetry MFA at [redacted], starting next fall. I'm beginning to record a smudgemetal record.

See you soon, I hope.
Keep on Truckin',

Tu Madre!

PS: Here are a couple of tracks. I would send you some indigenous music of the Pacific Northwest (i.e., heavy)))), but I'm saving that for something else. The Japanese track is "Dead or . . ." from "Don't Forget to Boogie!" by Tetuzi Akiyama. The other is Current 93 doing an old Wesley hymn, vocals Shirley Collins. Really it's just Shirley Collins and some sort of squeezebox.

死か、それとも… - 秋山徹次

IDUMÆA - Current 93 (vocals: Shirley Collins)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Man of Action

One of life’s lessons is this: never write off Robert Pollard. The booze-fueled rock-and-roll roundhouse kicker (in khakis!) just bubbles forth with bite-size absurdist jams. Circus Devils was one of his many post-GBV sideprojects. It came out this year on Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records. It’s by no means without its flaws. But Pollard’s music is like that bitumen-filled sand up in Alberta: it takes a lot of work to sort the fuel from the rubble, and the process may in fact be toxic, but you need your nutjob rockers, so what are you gonna do? Pollard sits around doing collages, scribbling down bits of surreal wisdom in his pad. Just the titles of some of these tracks are enough to earn the guy a Driftwood Singers life-time achievement award: "Bogus Reactions," "Hot Lettuce" and "French Horn Litigation" – that’s a man who’s hot on the trail of the steaming, stinky truth. To paraphrase a drunk I met in Charleston, S.C. many years ago, after my first out-of-town rock gig - "he plays what I feel."

Lefty and I cranked a few of these tunes in the Drift-o-tron during our concentrated weekend time-space warp tour over the summer. And if "Love-Hate Relationship With the Human Race" doesn’t say it all, or most of what needs saying (aided, to be sure, by ample cowbell), then I can’t see anyone else conquering that challenge in under two minutes.

"Love/Hate Relationship With the Human Race" - Circus Devils

"George Took a Shovel" - Circus Devils

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Contact, Pt. 2: In Which Marvin Gaye Funks Up Space

      Two of my recent themes dovetail rather nicely in this one:  The singer as statuary (see "Buckeye Funk") and wacky space songs (see "Contact").  Granted, it's over eight minutes of space funk, so you may not have the stamina.  It's got some priceless lines, though, and a nice groove.
     What was it that made people want to sing about outer space in the Seventies?  Was it Skylab?  Star Wars?  Mork & Mindy?  Who knows?  David Bowie was the artist most likely to sing about/look like/ be an alien back then, but to me it's more interesting that acts like the Carpenters and Marvin Gaye tackled the subject.  This album was supposed to be a kiss-off/alimony payment to Marvin's ex-wife (Berry Gordy's daughter), but I doubt she reaped much from it other than confusion. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Past Sure Is Tense

Lefty’s rumination about the temporal retardation of the record geek got me thinking.
As someone who lives in a radio market where the recent arrival of a "‘90s alternative"-style station got a lot of people, including me, excited, let me say that the past is (almost) always getting better. How else to explain the way that songs by bands like Soundgarden, Cracker, and even Stone Temple Pilots start to somehow sound not as terrible as they once did? It must have something to do with our limited ability to accurately remember pain. The same reason we end up looking back fondly on the miserable camping trip where your feet blistered, you ate half-cooked lentils, you slept in a puddle and didn’t think to include coffee among all the crap you lugged into the wilderness. The fading synapse recall. The reason women who’ve endured the pain of childbirth are willing to go through it again. We forget. Or maybe it’s a can’t-step-into-the-same-river-twice scenario, more Heracletian business.

Our minds invert the values of past, present and future. It’s some kind of rods-and-cones-type adjustment. Turning everything upside down and inside out. Or maybe it’s temporal stereoscopy, with three-point perspective, allowing us to get a sense of what’s happening now only by blurring our vision of the future. We’re told that the present is all we have. All there is is now. And then there’s the whole "the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past" concept. Our minds just ooze and push and catapult themselves backwards and forwards. With the exception of futurists like Sun Ra, Kraftwerk, Moondog, Esquivel, there are few compelling visions of the future. And even those tend to be based in some transfigured and idealized version of the past anyway. Space Age fantasies were often refitted retro fashion with tinfoil hats and tights. Vacuum tubes and fish tank helmets. In the mid-60s, Sun Ra’s interstellar jazz was, in part, the last vestige of 30s and 40s big band music given a sci-fi upgrade. Listen to the forward-thinking music of the Ramones, X, T. Rex and Roxy Music and they were all attitudinal retreads of 50s doo-wop, early rock and roll and Brill Building pop, add some ripped jeans here and face paint there.
In short, I never met a Jeremiad I didn’t like. With the entirety of the past and the infinite possibility of the future to compete against, the present never fares too good by comparison.
When the subject is recorded music, it’s all, by its nature, past, a relic. It’s surprising that all the critical theorist-type characters – the Susan Sontags and Roland Barthes - came up with elaborate concepts about why photographic images have a haunting effect on us – because they’re "traces" of life that basically provide a spark, forcing us to recognize our mortality. Every photograph is a reminder that we don’t last. But doesn’t recorded music do the same thing?

This isn’t the bestest Beefheart, and it’s not even the most mind-bending tune off of Ice Cream For Crow, but it says it all, or at least it did.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Clint Sings

     And not too badly, either.  This is from an old compilation featuring people like Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Dean and Merv Griffin (!) singing the hit songs of the era.  Apparently, back when Clint was on tv he was marketed as a singer as well, and he recorded tunes such as the Sons of the Pioneers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and other cowboy classics.  I actually think he does a pretty good job on this one.  It gets elevated to something more than just a curiosity.  You can imagine David Lynch using it in one of his creepy movies.  It's evocative...of what, I'm not sure.   (Oh, right--some mountains somewhere).
     It's a hell of a thing, singin' a song.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sing Sweetly For Tobacco

I’ve got a thing for the English Renaissance. I’m not exactly sure what my infatuation is all about. William Byrd. Orlando Gibbons. Shakespeare. Maybe slide in a little Samuel Pepys. The Fire of London. I guess if you spend any time as an English major in college, you pretty much have to come down in favor or stand in opposition, which would obviously be silly. Somewhere along the line I got hot for the Tallis Scholars, a sublime singing group. And I scored this Glenn Gould disc of pavans and galliards by Byrd and Gibbons. I like the way the music hints at Bach but also retains some weird medieval quality. A couple years back I ordered a copy of The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, based on a recommendation from Christopher O’Riley, the guy who hosts that show on NPR and has released records of "classical" piano versions of songs by Radiohead and Nick Drake. I can hardly play any of the stuff, with all the crazy ornaments and weird notation. But even stumbling through it is lovely. It definitely gives you the feeling of being an extra in Barry Lyndon. Maybe get a game of whist going. Powder the wig. Later, my friend Martin tipped me off to the sound-painting brilliance of Byrd’s "The Bells," which is included in the Fitzwilliam book. One of my first finds and obsessions was this disc of Elizabethan and Jacobian Ayers, Madrigals and Dances by New York Pro Musica. It included some Street Cries of London by Gibbons, which pretty much flash-fried my brain – choral renditions of vendors and hawkers selling their wares on the street, vegetables, brushes, pots and pans, oysters. The record also had this tune, "Tobacco," by Tobias Hume. It’s basically about how awesome tobacco is. But it contains the clencher of a line, "Love maketh lean the fat man’s tumor, so doth tobacco." As far is reasoning goes, I thought this was unimpeachable. I grew so attached to the line that I made a very limited edition batch of screen-print T-shirts emblazoned with those words for the earth-shattering, and steady-smoking, band Harvey Milk. I just read in yesterday’s NYT about the viola da gamba player Jordi Savall who played in the city the other night, rocking some pieces by Hume, which reminded me of this song.

"Tobacco" - by Tobias Hume, performed by New York Pro Musica


Last night I wondered: What is the purpose of music nerds? Why do people cling to archival collections of LPs and constantly fuss over the canonization of past episodes of rock and country and jazz and pop? Why have indie bands become like the rest of the yuppie industrial-complex that includes wine and organic food, fragmenting into boutique and rarefied blends refined within an inch of their lives?

After some meditation, I struck on the idea that it must be a collective attempt to slow down, absorb and hold on to our ephemeral pop culture before it evaporates, to solidify it and give it meaning. I think of Harry Smith, the historical revisionary who reminded us that we were old and weird by saving all those 78s from the wax factory. Indeed, the entire Internet often seems to me a swarm of termites chewing over the last 50 years of recorded history, digesting it over and over again. The speed of change being what it is, it's not a difficult impulse to understand. That's the sympathetic view of the Gen-X and Gen-Y will to archive and nerdify anything ever recorded. We're a giant generation of amateur historians recreating the past in a giant indie Renaissance Fair of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Alternately, music nerd-dom can be seen as a human weakness, a wallowing decadence resisting forward motion, even social change. In that view, Kelefa Sanneh is better than you or me because he's a declared post-rockist who listens only to Puerto Rican Reggeton and obscure Southern hip-hop all day. Good for him. But I'm given to sympathy for the music nerd, especially considering I'm guilty as charged on all counts.

Where does the impulse come from? Why has an entire tier of musicological elite sprung up at this hour in our history? Last night I read in The New York Review of Books an essay about economic history and realized how utterly unique our era really is. Consider: The material standard of living of the average English person -- their food, clothing and shelter -- was completely static until 1800. People didn't collect shit, they just tried to find something to eat and if a good song came along, they did a jig and that was it. A flat line ran across the centuries, starting shortly after Jesus died, then suddenly rocketed up from the early 1800s to 2007, dwarfing the old flat line like a skyscraper. It was called industrialism. Although there had been ups and downs before, there was no long-term improvement for anyone until very, very recently. "Nobody would have been talking about 'growth,'" the writer says of past English peoples.

And yet that's all we've talked about our entire lives, isn't it? That's America. That's capitalism and globalism and military power and patriarchal dominance and all that shit your read about in The Nation.

So my supertheory is this: The so-called "monoculture" of mainstream America that lasted from the advent of TV in the 1950s to about the year 2000 was an historic anomaly, a unique moment in world history when approximately 200 million Americans watched the same three TV channels, the same 10 Hollywood movies and listened to same dozen or more radio hits every year. It was 50 years of post-World War II American growth, broadcast through the looking glass of NBC, ABC, CBS, Atlantic Records, Capital Records, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM and United Artists. Out of that were created all the pop icons and mythologies that form the edifice of our culture, from James Dean to J.F.K. to Elvis to Madonna to Alf to Nirvana. In 1977, a housewife in Peoria and a teenager in Southern California were both very likely to have watched Eight Is Enough or heard Donny & Marie on the radio. They had that much in common, they could share a 10 minute conversation about Dick Van Patten. It was what passed for social cohesion, a sense of collective reflection and identity. Think of All in the Family and the social service it performed for viewers, bringing left and right viewpoints into the same screen. The country was jarred by cultural change and economic growth in the 60s and 70s. So it granted more power to Hollywood and the media to tell the story back to it in films and TV programs and pop songs. Everybody listened.

Things slowly fragmented, of course, first with cable TV, then with right-wing talk radio and finally with the neutron bomb of the Internet. After 9/11, our insulating cover was finally blown off for good and our myths were exposed to the elements, left twisting in the wind. We now cling to the 20th Century's faded mainstream iconography like a blanket, fingering the old coins of the realm nervously. We listen to the old songs over and over again, watch the old TV shows, pour through the driftwood, reinterpret it, reinvent it, subvert it, mythologize it, teach it to our children. The Sopranos is post-9/11 The Godfather; Bionic Woman on NBC is...The Bionic Woman on NBC. As the country cracks at the seams, our housewife in Peoria is watching the shopping channel, our SoCal teen is watching Spike TV. They're bowling alone and they don't listen. Why should they?

As the philosopher Bob Pollard once sang, As we go up, we go down and seek the truth, yeah. Perhaps we peaked and are now calcifying, going Baroque, our Dorian columns turning Corinthian. It's exhausting being a "growth" nation. And maybe what we're seeing today is only the cracked mosaic that we've always been, brought finally to the surface, staring us in the face from every direction, overwhelming us, forcing us into our nerdy silos for any hope of comfort. Perhaps the average music nerd, having soaked in the warm bath of the 20th Century's musical narrative, motivated by idealism and nostalgia and good taste, is simply clinging to the grand illusion that that era created: that America is teleological, headed toward the greatest pop song of all time. But no savior is coming. This is it. You can't build a paradise out of a pyramid of great LPs, a shelter of 20th Century modernism to protect you from 21st Century postmodernism. You can only remix, destroy the old icons or subvert them, turn them into art, into something new. Consider this brilliant piece of sound editing that reimagineers Eddie Van Halen as an idiot savant:

Or you can forget the remix and just live in the past, which is also fun. In the 1960s, England, having worn itself out with Empire, was already doing what we're doing today in our own culture: recycling, clinging to the past, calcifying, starting its transformation into a giant Epcot Center version of itself. And yet, I find myself listening to it and saying: That sounds great. I like that. Turn it up. Play it again. To wit: Gilbert O'Sullivan, 1970.

As a synthesis of these opposing ideas, I offer my own humble remix, a Song of Myself, which is really an all-thumbs-and-two-left-feet editing job to produce a ham-fisted mashup. In it, you'll hear Jamie Lidel (beats), Harry Nilsson (guitar), Joni Mitchel (vocals), Willie Nelson (guitar solo), the Louvin Brothers (vocals), Animal Collective (backing vocals), Rolling Stones ("What say? Sha-noo-bay"), Kaoru Abe (sax solo), Jane's Addiction (bass), Thelonious Monk (piano), Hall & Oats (beats), and the Webb Brothers (vocals).


Friday, November 02, 2007

Hey, Porter

     I thought someone should pay tribute to good ol' Porter Wagoner, who passed away at the age of eighty earlier this week.
I happened to see him a couple of times in person (on the Grand Ole Opry, no less), and even though he had probably sung the songs he sang a million times before, there wasn't anything perfunctory about his performance.  You couldn't help but feel as though you were watching a legendary figure do his thing.  And the suits he wore--you can't write about him and not mention the Nudie suits.  It's the closest those guys ever get to drag, I guess.  His album covers were awesome, too.  I have a copy of The Bottom of the Bottle, which pictures a nice clean & sober Porter holding a liquor bottle, inside of which is standing the drunken bum version of Porter.  (The album features the songs "Wine" and "Wino"--he was probably the first country star to do concept albums).   There's another one called You Got-ta Have a License, which shows him dressed as a game warden in a rowboat.  (I guess the theme of that one is "Golly, you hafta have a license to do anything nowadays!")  There was a lot to admire in the guy, beyond the fact that he helped launch Dolly Parton's career.
     "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" is a classic.  It was written by Bill Anderson, and it's probably my favorite Porter tune.  It's one of the all-time great cheatin' songs.  So go ahead--drink a fifth of courage, and walk in.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

We Are Not Two

It’s typical of me and my delusional/pathological look-on-the-bright-side-ism, my self-loathing-fueled blame-the-victim philosophy. Now I’m thanking the guy who smashed my car window for all he’s shown me. After having my car broken into and my CD player (among other things) swiped last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of radio (or, as often, turning off the stereo and driving in silence). Well, this morning I decided to rummage through the trunk and dig out some old cassettes (for real). As a result, I found some dusty mix tapes, and I found myself listening to tunes I hadn’t heard in years, thinking "I’m glad all my shit got stolen." There’s a handful of old gems that I’ll have to foist on you all. I’ll start with this one. I’ve already multi-dipped on the Kinks here, but I can’t get enough of the strange brother-on-brother antagonism/inspiration. "Strangers" is one by Dave Davies. He probably got all the girls, but he certainly wasn’t the better songwriter. I love his vaguely congested singing voice. I’ve even read his autobiography, Kink, which generally just makes you feel like if you were Ray you’d find Dave a little annoying, too. There’re some wonderfully inarticulate bits about spirituality and UFOs. Rock and roll. This song never really goes anywhere, but where it stays is a nice enough place, and I love the impressively simple-minded drumming.