Monday, March 27, 2006

For the Record.

My first post to this blog was a transplanted message-board post. I tend to get deeply into discussions at that message board, and write insanely long screeds. So this post is going to be grabbing some of those long screeds and putting them here, for posterity. (And because I’m lazy and don’t want to write anything new.) The intros link back to the original threads, for the morbidly curious.

On recommendations for early female blues singers:

Bessie Smith, absolutely. The thing baby boomers say about Bessie to make her sound interesting is that Janis Joplin claimed to learn how to breathe from Bessie Smith records, but of course Bessie can hand that skinny white chick's ass to her any day.

Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" was a triple-first: the first million-selling record in history; the first pop record by a black artist, thereby inventing the "race" market; and the first blues on record, though not the first recorded song with blues in the title. It was released in 1920, and the world was never the same again.

There were thousands of these women, some of whom recorded only a couple of songs, and they kickstarted the record industry as we know it, a generation before what most of us think of as the record industry began. The 50s have no monopoly on rebellion, or the 60s on sexual liberation. There are, in fact, some completely obscene songs among that first generation of vaudeville-trained female blues shouters. Though most of it is metaphorical, it takes no imagination whatever to figure out what "he puts his key in my keyhole" means, and that's without hearing how she sings it. Many of these women were the next thing to prostitutes (some of them were prostitutes), and their sudden popularity in the 20s and 30s is one of the amazing untold stories of American popular music.

Not all of them were black, either: Sophie Tucker, Norah Bayes, and Marion Harris were white (read: Jewish) vaudeville acts who sang bluesy songs with panache. They have been ignored, though, because they were white, because their songs were written by professionals, because they didn't just sing blues, and because they were very famous for their time. (Although except for being white, Mamie Smith was the same. There's a curious inverted racism to blues history which isn't entirely a bad thing.)

I really recommend Mississippi John Hurt, too. The quietest, gentlest blues singer ever, and a beautiful guitarist. The twelve tracks he recorded in 1927-28 are, I think, my favorite body of work by a bluesman.

There is an alternate history of the blues, too, which tracks its development through the publishing world via W. C. Handy, emerging into white culture in the music of George Gershwin and every jazz band ever. Duke Ellington wrote blues songs that swept the nation, which the bleary-eyed collectors who treasure Charley Patton outtakes will never call legitimate blues, apparently because the Duke could read music and had a publishing deal. The story of the blues was the story of jazz until the communist folk-scholars of the 50s rewrote history so that guys with guitars who sang in Deep-South dives were more authentic than Louis Armstrong's "Wild Cat Blues." But the cult of authenticity is rooted so deeply in our understanding of American music that to tear it out now would be unacceptable to almost every music fan ever. Too bad.

By the way: the story of early country is the story of white Southerners singing blues songs. Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley all released blues songs as their first record. Yazoo Records, previously mentioned, has done a fantastic job of documenting the overlap between blues and country in the 20s and 30s.

On what the best era for pop singles was:

I have four separate but equal favorite periods for the pop single.

The first is the era of the 78rpm record: 1915 to 1945, or thereabouts. The wealth of incredibly great and absolutely essential music released in this format staggers the imagination. Louis Armstrong's "Wild Cat Blues," Bix Beiderbecke's "Riverboat Shuffle," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Bert Williams' "Nobody," Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call," "Black Beauty," and "The Mooche," Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail," Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," Noel Coward's "Love in Bloom," Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards' "Fascinatin' Rhythm," the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower," and on and on and on. Jazz, blues, country, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, crooners, classical (Enrico Caruso's "Vesti la Giubba" contains one of the century's great pop moments), and other, weirder, more uncategorizable stuff -- it's all here, the forgotten foundation of 20th-century popular music.

Then there's the 50s and early 60s. [
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Carmen McCrae, Mel Torme] covers about half of the picture (and there, I'd add Julie London, Blossom Dearie, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mose Allison); the other half is, of course, rock & roll and its collaborators in r&b and country. Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Holly, Phil Spector, Wanda Jackson, Bo Diddley, DOO frigging WOP, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner, Professor Longhair, and, if we must, Elvis. I tend to overlook this decade because I like the Teens-Twenties-Thirties and the Sixties-Seventies-Eighties so much. But taking both "generations" of music together, as it were, it may be the most broadly brilliant period of all.

Then, of course, the Sixties. It's possible to listen to three-minute Sixties pop singles nonstop for a week and never repeat a song and never hit a lousy tune. (The Ultimate Playlist, perhaps?) Motown, the British Invasion, Stax/Volt, San Francisco, garage rock, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who's ever tried to find just how deep the Sixties-pop rabbit hole goes is never the same again. (For initiates only: try the Millennium, the Cake, and Twiggy's two singles.) And there's everything: Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood's "Some Velvet Morning," and Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" is, to grab three songs out of the air, indicative of the range, yet they all work together. Throw in Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music" and Marianne Faithfull's "As Tears Go By," and don't forget Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and you have an unbelievable smorgasbord at only six songs. (There are some acts that I can't decide about. Does Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" belong in the 50s/early 60s, or in the Sixties proper? Actually, I never have to decide; I just listen to it all on random.)

The last period is, roughly, 1976-1983. (Not, I should mention, that there's not good, even great, even life-without-it-would-be-unlivable stuff in between and outside of these periods. But these are the peaks.) From, that is, "Blitzkrieg Bop" to "Radio Free Europe": from punk to indie. Again, the historical record -- the charts -- only tell 10% of the story; maybe 15% in Britain. I should mention, this is only the "punk/new wave/left-of-center pop-rock" part of the spectrum; I'm not even counting, say, "You Shook Me All Night Long," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," or "Super Freak." But any period that produces (to pick just one band) the Buzzcocks can hold its own with any pop period ever.

Well, that's my answer.

On whether, and if so, why, music from the 90s is overlooked:

It always happens. No sooner do we move out of a period than we leapfrog over it when we look at the past. The early 90s, for example, liked to pretend that the 80s hadn't happened; and the punk/new wave movement of the late 70s/early 80s was a direct revolt against the influence of the late sixties and early seventies.

Perhaps we're still too close to the 90s to really see them clearly. (Some of us are still living in them, if the music we consistently talk about is any indication.) Or maybe we feel overfamiliar with the music of the 90s, and need to pursue other interests while that decade sorts itself out in our collective memory.

The primary difference so far between the 90s and the 00s is the dominance of hip-hop in the pop landscape. The 90s was the last time rock could pretend it was still the primary musical expression of youth culture. Which is why grunge fizzled out (well, that and it wasn't really a coherent genre): the audience for it simply didn't exist in the numbers it needed.

Another difference is the return of sprightly, catchy guitar-pop. Belay the chorus of "derivative," folks; fact is, the Strokes and White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand and the rest do represent a shift in taste. It's a shift away from boring, whiney guitar-plod: say, Matchbox 20 and Nickelback.

The other difference has more to do with the consumption of music as with its sound. The parallel here isn't with the Sixties-Seventies shift or the Eighties-Nineties shift, but with the Forties-Fifties one, when the 78rpm record was replaced by the LP and the 45, which gave rise to the jukebox (the iPod of fifty years ago). Documentary evidence to the contrary, it felt like a period of creative exhaustion (especially to young people), with the music of the previous generation being given artificially extended shelf-life by a corrupt industry, and nauseating novelties like "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" being allowed to dominate the pop charts. (The modern instance might be "Who Let the Dogs Out?") The fresh, lively music that was happening came from underground, from "race radio" and urban streetlife. When this came topside a half-decade later, it was called rock & roll.

It's a change in technology, while the aesthetic remains in something of a holding pattern. Not that there isn't great music coming out all the time from everywhere; but the mass audience is a thing of the past. A music industry predicated not just on record-breaking hits, but on every hit breaking the previous hit's record, is feeling the repercussions. So the charts are dominated by acts who appeal to people who aren't really all that fond of music, and the rest of us get what we need elsewhere. (Shoutout: Johnny Boy's "You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve" is something like the Pop Song of the Decade.)

My two cents, only they're the size of that penny in the Batcave.

On why pop music sucks today as compared to the golden days of 1967:

The fragmentation of the market is due to a fragmentation in American culture (which, by extension, means most of what other countries hear, or copy, too). On the most obvious level, in the forty-year span under consideration, we've gone from having three networks control everything on television to the shocking plenitude of even basic cable today. The rigorous scheduling of television too much for you? Fine, there's the internet, where virtually unlimited content is available for no effort at all. Our grandparents had limited options for entertainment; there is literally no limit today.

Psychologically, the excessive availability of options works a curious trick on our minds. Most of us retreat, in some way, from all the options out there, just for the sake of coherence. (One famous study on children in playgrounds showed that children ran freely all around playgrounds that were fenced in, but huddled towards the center of playgrounds that had no barriers between them and the rest of the world.) Similarly, supermarkets know that the vast majority of their customers aren't comparing prices or reading nutritional-value labels; they just buy what they've bought before.

The hegemony of the major labels, top 40 radio, and what are still fondly referred to as "the music video channels" (ha ha) has been accepted by the majority of music consumers to be that fence between their playground and the rest of the world. It's a protection racket, in a way: the majors get their money, and in return the consumer is protected from having to make a decision.

This, of course, does not ring true to anyone's experience, and I'm not suggesting this is a conscious thing on anyone's part. Because stupid as "information wants to be free" sounds, it's a little bit true in the sense that nobody can have a monopoly on good music, and with the pseudo-democracy of the internet (not free, but cheaper), even distribution is getting harder to monopolize. Not that they won't find a way; I'm reminded of the way radio went from being the province of a million amateur hobbyists in the 20's to being two coast-to-coast networks subject to government regulation in the 40's. Already, most web surfers never leave their tightly-scheduled round of regular stops, almost invariably professional-grade sites.

I'm wandering. (Actually, does that last paragraph even make sense?) Basically, I meant that when there were fewer options, it made financial sense to "run quality programming" (like the BBC); you had every right to expect that at least a certain percentage of your audience will go for it, since there's nothing brighter or shinier available. Today, in the midst of so many options, the people still attempting to make a profit under the old model have no choice but to keep dumbing it down to appeal to the broadest possible market, even if the appeal itself is watered-down. I like a lot of modern radio music, but I don't own any of it; it's enough to hear it a couple of times at random, and then get on to the really cool stuff I'm interested in that doesn't get played on the radio. And that just seems normal now.

On music history what-ifs:

What if the Velvet Underground had been the huge pop band and the Beatles had been an underground, hard-to-find, word-of-mouth act revered by the cognoscenti alone?

What if Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens had taken a train? What if it had an accident? How would rock & roll have changed if they'd died in a train wreck instead of in a plane crash?

What if a massive plague had struck inner-city New York in the mid-to-late 70s, decimating the black population and destroying the community from which hip-hop sprang? What strange, ungodly music would we have had instead?

What if James Taylor had been in a death-metal band instead of a folk-pop band before going solo?

What if John Lee Hooker hadn't died a few years back, but was still alive and pumping out variations on the music he was recording in the 40s?

What if, in the 20s, jazz and blues had been white people's music and country & western had been black people's music?

What if John Lennon, instead of dying, had been nursed back to health, realized that all his love-and-peace crap hadn't saved him from a single deranged fan, and decided to strike back at the criminal underworld instead, and as he was trying to figure out how to do this, a bat had fluttered in through an open window, and he thought, "Aha! This is how I will strike fear into the hearts of that cowardly and superstitious lot!" Wouldn't Yoko have made a strange Robin? (Or would she be Alfred?)

What if disco-punk had caught on in 1980 instead of 2004? Would Gang of Four be thought of the way Foreigner and Journey are today?

What if Rod Stewart had died in 1974? What if Tom Waits had? Or John Lydon? Or George Jones? Or Stevie Wonder? Or the Captain and Tenielle?

What if the technology to record music hadn't come into being until 1987?

What if classical music had never faded in popularity, and composers were treated like rock stars?

What if musical theater had never faded in popularity, and Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Simon, Wilson, Bowie, Reed, and Gaye were all primarily famous as composers of show tunes sung by irritatingly chipper people?

What if Jimi Hendrix had been the guitarist for Led Zeppelin? What if Keith Moon had been their drummer? What if Bill Wyman had been their bassist? What if Tiny Tim had been their vocalist? How would undergraduate theses on "Stairway to Heaven" be different?

What if hip-hop had been birthed first, then morphed into funk, then soul, then rhythm & blues, then swing, then New Orleans jazz, then ragtime, then black minstrelsy, then traditional African music? Wouldn't that just be nutty?

So, yeah, I find the whole project of imagining alternate histories faintly ludicrous. There are always too many variables.

On the lack of beauty, humor, love, and fun in modern rock:

I've said it before, and I'm gonna keep saying it until everyone realizes it's the truth:

Rock music is not the pop music vernacular anymore. Rap is.

Rap is where the fun, the creativity, the white-hot heat of pop-cultural imagination and enjoyment are happening today.

Rock music is either too aware of its fifty-year past, too ground down to a blah generality, or too much the product of a singular (often very odd) vision to recapture the Shock of the New like it did in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. Rock fans who hate rap today are where jazz fans who hated rock were in the 60s. The word for rock's state is decadence. The root word for that is decay. This is not an insult, just an observation. (I tend to prefer rock-based stuff myself.) It's a natural cycle, and it reinforces the idea that I always bring up in these conversations, that there are no absolute standards in pop music.

This isn't quite what you asked, I understand. (Please, please, please don't let this turn into another stupid anti/pro rap thread, for the love of God.) Of course any hip-hop fan is gonna laugh at the idea that ironic detachment isn't present in hip-hop; Eminem built his whole career on it. But the cancer has spread throughout the system. It's not music's fault: it's culture's fault.

One thing about living in the Information Age (I wanna say something in these parentheses that will ironically detatch me from that capitalized phrase, but I can't think of anything) is the numbing effect of mediated experience (paging Dr. Lacan). Jane's Addiction made the point on a record cover: nothing's shocking, not even naked Siamese twins on fire. The Age of Aquarius was a bad trip; everyone's scarred and scared of getting hurt again. Plus, there's the generational thing: whatever mom and dad like isn't cool. Well, but what if when mom and dad have good taste? So now the shaggy teenage rebels who want to be the Rolling Stones are the previous generation's marching-band dorks. How can you be special and brilliant when you sport the same ten influences as every other guitar band in the country? (Uh, we sound like the Beatles meets the Velvet Underground. Which is every indie act since REM.)

Musical revolutions (as opposed to simple evolution, which is American music from 1930 to 1963) happen due to cross-pollination: when people raised in one musical tradition are exposed to a completely different one, and try to recreate the experience. That's the Birth of Jazz simplified, and remember the quote from Brian Eno, that hearing rhythm & blues music on a shortwave radio was like hearing music from outer space? His generation (which includes everyone from the Beatles to the Pistols) transformed popular music. (It's hard to remember today, but the punks weren't the children of the hippies; they were their younger siblings.) The problem is that no one is so insular anymore; everyone's heard everything, and those people who haven't heard everything are the ones content to churn out the same old sludge because simple chord changes are always beautiful when they're new.

So we'll mashup the past and create a new world out of the fragments of the old. This isn't anything new; Dada did it a century ago. (And it's a very old game in religion.) But it'll never quite have the flavor of that dear, sweet vanished past, because too much water is under the bridge, and we have our own ways of having fun and falling in love and finding things funny today.

I could go (and have gone) on rants about how much we've lost by not playing and loving the music of the early 1900s, but that's how culture and history work. Much as we as a society love to pretend that we're at the end of history and because of this Internet thing nothing good ever has to die (it can instead be cherished forever by a small group of slightly demented enthusiasts), we're in the time we're in, and the beat the world dances to is programmed instead of live.

It's a mistake, I think, to try to talk about music in the abstract instead of tied to a specific time and place (though I'm not going to stop trying). Beauty, humor, love and fun may be eternal qualities (it's all in Plato, all in Plato), but the way a mass society responds to them and idealizes them will inevitably change, as anyone who's paged through a magazine from 1913 can see. The beauty I hear in operetta, the humor in vaudeville, the love in a Jerome Kern show tune, and the fun in New Orleans jazz are entirely unavailable to the majority of listeners, for whom beauty might be melismatic singers, humor a shock-jock skit, love an explicit ballad, and fun the whole clattering, zooming mile-a-minute production.

I mean, have you heard "Hey Ya"?

Dear God, I’m an egomaniac.

The Neglected Ordinary.

Interesting book review at the New York Times. The byline is Nellie McKay, one of the freshest and smartest pop stars in decades. (Her new album, unreleased because she was dropped by her label, is wonderful. It may end up being another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when it finally gets released. I’m not sure she’d take that as a copliment.)

Anyway. The book she's reviewing is about seven pop stars of the 1950s who have been somewhat unfairly neglected, according to the author. Patti Page is the one I’m most familiar with; the others are Frankie Laine, Pat Boone, Fabian, Georgia Gibbs and Tommy Sands. I’ll get on board any Patti Page revival bandwagon. Pat Boone, though . . . dude's stuff doesn't even work as camp. Not for me, anyway.

Still, some excellent points about the difference between Music History As It Is Written and the actual experience of pop consumers, most of whom don’t value the things a lot of critics do. (Seriously, who wants to be Lester Bangs? He was a loser.) It’s something I’ve been thinking about here and there, lately: Ordinary Music. The stuff that gets supplanted by the Great Musical Revolutions that people get excited about. Like light opera, killed off by jazz; über-innocent 50s pop, killed off by rock & roll; AM pop, killed off by new wave; adult contemporary, killed off by hip-hop. Except the deaths have always been greatly exaggerated by the people who liked what supplanted them. The people (usually girls, and what precisely is wrong with girls?) who like the Ordinary Music, the lovely, charming, sweet, wholesome, romantic, and uplifting music, have never been unduly bothered by those great revolutions that people with unshaven beards feel so strongly about.

Nellie McKay has one foot firmly in both camps, which is something that always interests me. She’s fully conversant with the lovely, shimmery Broadway/Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building/Barbra Streisand stream, but she’s a child of the magpie 90s, too, and won’t shy away from a beat or a sample or a riff or a curse. Marketed as the anti-Norah Jones, she’s in some ways really the anti-Clear Channel. You know, forget all the goddamn market shares and demographics and high walls shutting out the other kinds of music; it’s all good stuff. She gets me excited about modern music the same way Outkast and Shakira and Gorillaz and other genre-busting acts do.

There’s not even anything wrong with Norah Jones, so long as she’s taken in her proper context. Like the old Saturday morning commercials used to say, part of this “balanced breakfast.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

One-Trick Ponies.

Browse around the web for opinions on pop music, and you’ll frequently come across the assertion that diversity is a good thing: one of the reasons given for the Beatles being the Greatest Band Ever is how musically diverse they were, from “Eleanor Rigby” (chamber pop) to “Helter Skelter” (sonic assault) to “Within You Without You” (raga-pop) to “Got to Get You into My Life” (cod-Motown) to “Revolution 9” (musique concrète) to “Tomorrow Never Knows” (psychedelia ground zero) to “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” (embarrassingly white calypso). People who like to think of themselves as Serious Music Listeners will often rank diversity up there with innovation, technical ability, and pleasantness of sound in their lists of things that make music objectively good.

I (as is probably obvious from the preceding paragraph) disagree.

Or, at least, kind of.

Don’t get me wrong; diversity is a great thing. I’m so unabashedly a fan of diversity that whenever a reviewer grumbles about a band’s penchant for style-jumping getting in the way of the coherence of their album (and they say this all the time), my ears perk up. I like to compile CDs that lurch from style to style, bossa nova to ragtime to lo-fi punk to slick hip-hop, and get really excited about unlikely combinations. (Am I the only person who really, really wishes that the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” actually contained any “funky Dixieland”?)

But. There’s something hugely attractive about a record in which every song sounds exactly like the one that came before; so long as the sound itself is great. And, I suppose, is immediately identifiable with that artist and no other; or even that album and no other.

An example: Suzi Quatro’s debut album.

You haven't heard it? (This is me being shocked.) Okay, whatever. You’ve heard “Can the Can,” right? Okay, now just add ten more of those, one of which is a cover of “All Shook Up.” The same sound on each: pounding toms, chunky guitars, boogie-glam rhythms, fuzzed-out electric keyboards, and Suzi’s hoarse shout/squeal.

Another example: The Ronettes' Greatest Hits. Yes, they’re pop masterpieces, every one. But they’re the same pop masterpiece, every time: just a lush, echoey background for Ronnie’s cracking, secondhand-princess voice — and often re-using the same melodies, or at least the same chord changes.

Another example: the Buzzcocks’ oevure, but primarily Singles Going Steady. “Spiky pop” remains the descriptive tag nonpareil, but it can be fleshed out: the chugging motorik-meets-Buddy Holly guitars, the splashy drums, Pete Shelley’s adenoidal yelp.

There are more. The Pogues. Chuck Berry. (You don’t mess with perfection.) The Specials. Johnny Cash’s Sun recordings. The Supremes before 1967. This Year’s Model. Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Left Banke. The Beach Boys up to “California Girls.” The Byrds up to Fifth Dimension. Jerry Lee Lewis. The Clash. Del Shannon. John Lee Hooker. If You’re Feeling Sinister. Patsy Cline. Wreckless Eric. Electric Warrior. Joan Jett. Big Star. James Brown, 1964 to 1974. The B-52’s. Bo Diddley in the 50s. Adam & the Ants. Motorhead. AC/DC. And, of course, most famously and longlastingly, the Ramones.

Which brings me back to:

And, I suppose, is immediately identifiable with that artist and no other; or even that album and no other.
The Ramones have an immediately-identifiable sound. Nearly every punk band to follow them did not; which is why only the early Clash and the Buzzcocks show up above. The pleasure in listening to a band that sounds only microscopically different from the next band is entirely different from the pleasure of listening to an act that could never be mistaken for anyone else.

So, anyway, I’ve been devouring a lot of these samey albums (they’re best when they're short: twelve songs at most) and enjoying the hell out of them. In a way, they hark back to what people like to call the Golden Age of Pop, meaning the years 1955-1965, when (say) Chubby Checker would have a hit, then put out an LP of nine variations on that hit. But when the sound that’s being repeated is a good one, it can be a golden experience, and the reviewers’ whining about “consistency” and “coherence” begins to make a little sense.

Still, I’m not about to throw out the White Album in favor of Please Please Me. That’s crazy talk.

Friday, March 17, 2006


For some reason, whenever I’ve let my mind drift recently, a recurring word that comes up is “thunder.” Possibly this is because I live in Arizona, where rain is always an Experience; still in the middle of a years-long drought, we tend to freak out over precipitation in ways that would make anyone from New England or the Pacific Northwest look concerned and back away slowly. Anyway, my mind moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform, and I’ve decided to riff for a bit on the idea of thunder.

First, let’s just begin with the word. How much art, or culture anyway, can I think of with that word? There’s Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers (but I like his solo stuff best). And speaking of which, there’s “Johnny Thunder” off the Village Green Preservation Society album by the Kinks, about a James Dean-like small-town rebel. There’s “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, and there’s also a song (or is it an album?) called “Such Sweet Thunder.” I vaguely associate it with Joe Henry, but can’t give a reason for doing so.

Moving into comics, there’s Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt (a slapstick inversion of the Aladdin myth, with the genie a magical pink sprite who looked rather like an advertising mascot for an electric company), a goofy 40s comic-book feature only remembered today by superhero fetishists because he was the comic relief in the first superhero team, the Justice Society of America. DC Comics used the name again for a Western hero in the 50s, with beautiful art by Gil Kane, and in the 80s came up with a variation on the original concept called, I think, Jonni Thunder a.k.a Thunderbolt, who turned into the electrical being herself, and was so much cooler because she was yellow instead of pink. There have been other inheritors of the Johnny Thunder mantle since (alas, Kiko, we hardly knew you), and apparently there’s a new version of the property on the racks in hardcore geek stores now. Whatever. There was also a stiff, unsmiling Wally Wood series in the 60s called T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and God no, I don’t know what the acronym stands for. Oh, also Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, by the elegant and canny Peter A. Morisi.

There’s a book called Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which I know nothing about. I think it must be some sort of Young Adult classic, possibly about a difficult African-American (or South African, or Australian, some primeval instinct warns me) childhood. There’s also Thunderhead, Son of Flicka, which is only in my memory because the Lux Radio Theater did a radio adaptation of the movie adaptation of the sequel to the book My Friend Flicka. Probably plenty of books now with the title Thunder Road, not all of which are biographies of Springsteen. There’s that quotation from Lear which I don’t dare attempt because I won’t get it right, but you know, it’s when the King’s madness breaks full on him in the midst of the tempest. Doesn’t the wicked Queen also allude to it in the transformation scene in Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to see Thundercats (because I thought Cheetara was hot), but I don’t recall that I ever actually did. Oh, God, I just remembered fourth-tier villains from the 80s New Teen Titans comic book: they were twins, and one of them was named Lightning. Do I need to spell out the rest? And Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was a movie, wasn’t it?

Thunderclap Newman had a hit with “Something in the Air,” and the rest of their self-titled (and only) album is pretty decent sub-Who (circa Tommy) psychedelia. Oh, and Garth Brooks had a hit with “The Thunder Rolls,” which is probably a pretty decent song if I would bother to listen to it. Either John Paul Jones or John Entwistle, and possibly both, did an album with thunder in the title. The phrase “thunderthighs” is hovering at the edge of my memory, but I don’t know what it's from; Spinal Tap sounds like as good a culprit as any other.

Now for the clichés. There’s thunderous applause, the thunder of armies or stampeding herds, stealing other people’s thunder, brows as black as thunder, dawn coming up like thunder (or is it just the Cowardly Lion who says that?), the sound of distant thunder, any number of comparisons to loud sounds being like thunder, a realization coming over a person like a thunderclap, what in thunderation?, thundering in the sense of morally outraged shouting, and a loud crack of thunder. Is the crack of doom a reference to the sound of the sky breaking that you sometimes get in a good storm, or is it supposed to be some kind of yawning abyss opening up in the ground?

That’s enough to start with. What thunders can you think of?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Just wanted to point out that John Cale’s Paris 1919 is a great record to play when washing your car in the fading light of an early spring day.

But don’t play it in your car until the battery dies and you have to push your car single-handed around the block to the driveway where you can get a jump. That’s not quite so recommended.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Miss Dinah Shore-ah.

For no reason at all, I had the thought while driving today that Dinah Shore might be the least-recognized of the great midcentury vocalists. She’s usually lumped in with Dorothy Lamour and Jo Stafford in the “other popular singers forced down the public’s throats by Hollywood and radio” category, and yes, she had her own radio show, and yes, she was one of Bing Crosby’s many foils during his golden thirty-year run, and yes, her naïve Southern-girl persona is a little sickmaking, but she was a good singer, too. Not, I suppose, in the voice-teacher sense, but in the sense that she’s more than pleasant to listen to. She arrests my attention, at least.

One of the earliest, and best, of the great popular songs that the Broadway/Tin Pan Alley team-up gave us was 1914’s “They Didn’t Believe Me,” by Jerome Kern and some lyricist. (Okay, Herbert Reynolds. But he’s no P. G. Wodehouse or Dorothy Fields.) My favorite version of the song, notwithstanding my usual predilection for the earliest possible version, is
Dinah Shore’s from the horrible 1946 Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. (Bing got the title song, and that’s a great version, too.) Dinah neither tries to swing the song anachronistically nor belt it in a cod-operetta style, which is what you get today when you want to hear people sing songs from the 1910s. She inhabits the song and lets it out easily, naturally, like Bing or Frank would. Her phrasing is delicious, too; a little like early Judy Garland, before she became the female Al Jolson.

On the same disc as “They Didn’t Believe Me” is her reading of Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” another favorite of mine, not because it’s better than any other version, but because she sings it so quietly, barely more than breath escaping her lungs, like she’s Elliott Smith or something. Norah Jones’ style of sleepwalking-as-singing is here foretold, and, incidentally, trumped.

Finally, in this scattershot appraisal, I have to mention what is probably my favorite hour of old-time radio ever, “Dick Tracy in B-Flat.” Bing Crosby is the titular Tracy, and Dinah is his Tess Trueheart. It’s a parody of the comic strip, naturally, and one of the funniest (still, today) things ever. Dinah’s delivery of the line “my heart will always be true, but if we don’t get married soon, the rest of me may wander a little!” is a choice fruit for any connoisseur of midcentury comedy. It also features Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Cass Daley, Jerry Colonna, and the Andrews Sisters. It’s really, really funny.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Maestropolis Penultimis

Disc Five:

01. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros “Coma Girl”
Everything good about rock & roll, from the tough-guy swagger to the eyeliner romanticism. Bruce Springsteen circa Born to Run but without the stadium effect. Hints of psychedelia, reggae, and punk, but mostly just good ol’ Joe, from the opening shot on his last record, getting to quote the Chiffons. From the Hellcat LP Streetcore, 2003.

02. The Broadcast “Pendulum”
I don’t know if it’s still appropriate to call this glitch (or glitch-something), but the beautiful 4ADeseque music sounds like it’s being generated from a machine that is being strangled to death very slowly. I have no idea why they file this under “dance/electronic”; nothing has ever felt less celebratory while being so hypnotically gorgeous. From the Warp LP Haha Sound, 2003.

03. Blur “Out of Time”
Blur famously (for those who care about this sort of thing) decamped to Morocco to make this record, and this is the only song on the record that sounds like it was worth it. Cod-exoticism is one thing, but a song that so perfectly meshes trad Western songcraft with dusty Saharan sonics deserves all the mixtapery it can get. From the Virgin LP Think Tank, 2003.

04. Dogs Die in Hot Cars “I Love You Cause I Have To”
I had to have it pointed out to me that this was ska; all I could hear was the Andy Partridge voice, so I assumed it was an XTC rip-off. So it’s an English Beat rip-off with XTC vocals, instead; and, by the way, a damn good one. And on the evidence of a line like “so now I spend most of my time playing computer games/and wishing I was loving like most of my friends,” it might even be the voice of a generation. From the V2 single I Love You Cause I Have To, 2004.

05. Loretta Lynn feat. Jack White “Portland, Oregon”
When you tell people who’ve been listening to this song that Loretta Lynn is over seventy, that she wrote the song, and that she loves Jack White’s production, their jaws slowly unhinge. It is pretty staggering that a country legend, no matter how proto-feminist she was in the 70s, is trading come-ons with a kid young enough to be her grandson over feedbacking guitars. From the Interscope LP Van Lear Rose, 2004.

06. Café Tacuba “Eres”
A beautiful ballad. This album was compared to Radiohead’s Kid A in a review. Then someone else wrote a review that said there was no comparison; this was so much better. Well. It’s not as experimental or as open-heart-surgery emotional, but it is a beautiful ballad. In Spanish. From the MCA LP Cuatro Caminos, 2003.

07. The Streets “Dry Your Eyes”
What have we come to when the best breakup song of the last decade is a white British guy rapping — no, not even that, talking — his way through lines that don't even rhyme? (“The softness she’s blessed with?” Are you even trying, Skinner?) What have we come to when it can still move you to tears on the last chorus? From the Vice/Atlantic LP A Grand Don’t Come for Free, 2004.

08. The Raveonettes “That Great Love Sound”
Excellent stomping beat, huge fist-pumping chorus, sickly-sweet girl-boy harmonies, thinly-veiled camp references, massive Wall-of-Noise production; basically, it’s the Jesus & Mary Chain meet Phil Spector with Johnny Cash’s rhythm section. Ooh yeah. From the Columbia LP Chain Gang of Love, 2003.

09. Richard X feat. Jarvis Cocker “Into You”

So Richard X is this guy who made his name by stealing the synth riff from Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?” and spinning it into a massive (well, UK-massive) hit for the Sugababes. So he puts out an album of similar mashup-inspired songs. And this one, which doesn’t so much sample Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” as add different verses, is one very sexy older man of a song. From the Astralwerks LP Richard X Presents His X-Factor, 2003.

10. The
Detroit Cobras “Shout Bama Lama”
The lead singer is an ex-stripper. All they play is obscure covers from early rock & roll and soul. They’re part of the whole
Detroit “back to 1965” aesthetic (see also: the Von Bondies, the White Stripes). This song was Otis Redding’s first single, and contains references to old-time racist minstrelsy routines. From the Sympathy for the Record Industry LP Life, Love and Leaving, 2001.

11. Tom Waits “Top of the Hill”
Bronchial hobobilly hip-hop, from the man who did more than any other to rescue popular music from potentially dire consequences at the fag-end of the twentieth century. If pop must eat itself, we can only pray that its regurgitation will always be as thrilling, as funny, as catchy, and as potentially nervewracking as this. I’ll never roll a number seven again, either, Tom. From the Anti- LP Real Gone, 2004.

12. The Strokes “Under Control”
When their second CD was coming out, all the promotional interviews with frontman Julian Casablancas had him dropping Sam Cooke’s name. And you can almost hear it, here. It might be too much to call the song a langorous “You Send Me” for the post-alternative generation, but it can definitely bear comparison with, say, the Commodores’ “Easy.” (Like, you know, Sunday morning.) From the RCA LP Room on Fire, 2003.

13. Belle & Sebastian “Your Cover’s Blown”
And then, on the eighth day, God said “let there be Belle & Sebastian remixes.” And God saw that it was good. Bedsit indie isn’t just for bedsits anymore, which tends to makes people who loved the band before everybody loved the band cranky, but if people must fill dancefloors with sweaty primitivism, why not do it in the most wittily literate fashion possible? Anyway, it’s not like he gets the girl. From the Rough Trade EP Books, 2004.

14. Sam Phillips “Love Changes Everything”
Did I mention that when I was about ten years old the most thrillingly sexual musical artist I knew of was Leslie Phillips? This was because she didn’t smile on the cover of the Christian-contemporary LP my parents had, and, well, she was kind of hot. Also, there were loud guitars on the record, and I did not hear a lot of loud guitars growing up. Being able to love her new music is one of the greatest pleasures I’ve had in growing up. And she’s still kind of hot. From the Nonesuch LP A Boot and a Shoe, 2004.

15. Ian McLagen & the Bump Band “The Wrong Direction”
I bought this album because I’m a Faces junkie. Ian McLagen was the keyboard player for the Faces. (Other members of note include Ron Wood, later of the Rolling Stones, Kenny Jones, later of the Who, Ronnie Lane, later of Ronnie Lane, and some singer.) This is a great song, not least because the singer claims that he’s on God’s shitlist. Who can’t relate to that? From the Gaff Music LP Rise & Shine!, 2004.

16. The Notwist “Pick Up The Phone”
In the winter 0f 2002, I spent more time than I dare remember downloading songs from various Top Ten CD Lists around the Internet. Very few of them have stuck around, inspiring actual-record-buying or even a second listen. This one took some time to get its hooks into me. I think it was the weird, glitchy rhythm that did it. Or the dude’s English, too free from any distinguishing accent to be real. Great stalker song. From the Domino LP Neon Golden, 2003.

17. The Scissor Sisters “Take Your Mama”
This song makes me want to be gay just so I can have a coming-out as fabulous as the Scissor Sisters say it should be. I heard it for a while on a
UK radio station before listening to the Scissor Sisters album, and I realized that I had thought it was an old Elton John song from the 70s every time I’d heard it before. I don’t know why, but the little blurps my mind plays like that fill me with joy. From the Universal LP Scissor Sisters, 2004.

18. The Libertines “Music When the Lights Go Out”
The swooniest swan song from an album chock full of nothing but swoony swan songs, their second. Neither Babyshambles nor Dirty Pretty Things will ever have my full, naked, unashamed, unswerving devotion like the Libertines did. Maybe I’m too old and jaded now, or maybe they are. But it was a great couple of years, even though on my end it was pretty much all through the computer. From the Rough Trade LP The Libertines, 2004.

19. Warren Zevon “El Amor de mi Vida”
I love songs that make me want to cry. I’m not sure this would make anyone else want to cry, though. It’s kind of personal. Although the fact that Zevon was dying when he recorded it certainly doesn’t make it any less poignant; I love to think of the (totally imaginary, I’m sure) girl he’s singing to hearing this only after he died and her heart breaking. Chorus in Spanish. From the Artemis LP The Wind, 2003.

20. Banda Ionica “Lorenzo in Sicilia”
Oh, hey, this is another relic from the Great Music Hunt of Christmas 2002. So Banda Ionica is this band from
Sicily, right? Only they’re a good old-fashioned Italian brass band, what we’d call a marching band here in the States. Only they seem to be on the same wavelength as, say, Tom Waits and Radiohead. This is a kind-of-sort-of cover of the theme to the film Lawrence of Arabia, hence the title. From the Felmay LP Matri Mia, 2002.

Four CDs and a DVD.

So I just got back from Tower Records, and I guess I’m in my general-music-fan phase. Which means that I’m devouring music from every time and place except, usually, the current time. The Maestropolis stuff is only one side of my musical interest; most of a year is spent, for me, listening to music made before I was born, or at least before I listened to music with any attention.

The four CDs I bought today are:

Everything Is Possible, an Os Mutantes compilation put out by David Byrne’s Luka Bop label. Maybe it’s just my impression that Os Mutantes are starting to get the sort of widespread of-course-they’re-important attention that, say, Can and the Velvet Underground have enjoyed for a couple decades now, but my curiosity has just now reached the proper pitch of pique.

Flying Funk, a Northern Soul-at-the-intersection-of-funk-and-jazz compilation, because a record containing both Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron has just got to be interesting, though my interest cooled slightly when I read the liner notes and realized that its roots are in the acid jazz movement, which I’ve always thought had a cooler name than the music actually deserved.

Mott the Hoople, that band’s first record, which I’ve wanted desperately for a long time, but which was reiussed in the U.S. last year to such little fanfare that I only discovered it by accident today. It’s glorious Stonesy stuff, with enough musical limitation that it could be considered a precursor of punk: if that’s the kind of thing you need to hear in order to enjoy plain old-fashioned rock & roll.

And a Philadelphia Orchestra recording of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” because last night I re-read one of my favorite recent pieces of music writing (it was a travesty that it was left out of the Best American Music Writing 2005 anthology), an essay called “Listen to This” by Alex Ross (the music critic, not the kitsch superhero painter) in the Feb 16-23, 2004 issue of the New Yorker. Here’s Ross:

I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, “Ah, civilization.” That wasnt what Beethoven wanted: his intention was to shake the European mind. I dont listen to music to be civilized; sometimes, I listen precisely to escape the ordered world. What I love about the “Eroica” is the way it manages to have it all, uniting Romanticism and Enlightenment, civilization and revolution, brain and body, order and chaos. It knows which way you think the music is going and veers triumphantly in the wrong direction.


For many, popular music is the soundtrack of raging adolescence, while the other kind chimes in during the long twilight of maturity. For me, it’s the reverse. Listening to the Eroica reconnects me with a kind of childlike energy, a happy ferocity about the world. Since I came to pop music late, I invest it with more adult feeling. To me, its penetrating, knowing, full of microscopic shades of truth about the way things really are. Dylans Blood on the Tracks” anatomizes a doomed relationship with a saturnine clarity that a canonical work such as Die Schöne Müllerin can't match. . . . If I were in a perverse mood, Id say that the Eroica is the raw, thuggish thing — a blast of ego and id — whereas a song like Radioheads Everything in Its Right Place is all cool adult irony.


When people hear classical, they think dead. The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its resistance to the mass what it is not. You see magazines with listings for Popular Music in one section and for Classical Music in another, so that the latter becomes, by implication, Unpopular Music. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are so commonplace.

Ross is writing for a New Yorker audience — an audience he can safely assume has some interest in classical music. But they can also be the ah, civilization folks, and he gives a hilariously merciless description of a classical novice’s attempt to attend a performance of the 3rd Symphony in which the people who take it seriously are the ones who get in the way of the actual music.

So, anyway, I figured I’d give the “Eroica” a shot, armed in advance with both Ross’s description of the music’s primal power and his warnings about how it takes a while to get it. I’ve been listening to the local classical station off-and-on (it’s the default station when I take a CD out of my car stereo), and I’m starting to get seriously interested in the music. But this will make only the second classical CD, after a Gershwin’s Greatest Hits that I’ve owned; and there’s so much non-classical ground left for me to cover, too. It’ll take a while, probably.

The other day I got a DVD called Cavalcade of Comedy, issued by those wonderful humanitarians at Kino Video. Its subtitle is The Paramount Comedy Shorts 1929-1933, and it has eighteen short films starring some of the last great vaudeville acts, including Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, George Jessel, and Smith & Dale. This was the generation that stepped from the stage to radio (and then to television), and they’re usually the ones whose names are listed when anyone wants to point out how cool vaudeville was. But the history of vaudeville is so much richer (and, duh, older) than that, and it’s a shame that sound didn’t come in early enough to capture Montgomery & Stone, Fields & Weber, Williams & Walker, Elsie Janis, Sophie Tucker, or Norah Bayes at their prime. (Though, as a silent-film fan, for me the coming of sound has its downside too.)

Anyway, just wanted to mention that vaudeville was not just a bunch of sitcom stars. When I dip back into a book called No Applause, Just Throw Money: the Book that Made Vaudeville Famous, I’ll be talking about some more of the phenomenon.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Reissues; Clarifications.

I first began contemplating this blog last summer; in fact, one day I even sat down and wrote a first post that, frankly, kicks the actual first post’s ass. But I wasn’t online at the time, so it all came to naught. Doing some research for the current post, I looked up that ghost of a post, and have decided to run it in full. The excuse for this post follows.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

“Welcome,” says Marianne Faithfull early on in her chatty live CD Twentieth Century Blues, “to the New Morning.” I’ve never been sure whether that was the name of the club she was playing, the name of her show, or a more general allusion to the somewhat decadent idealism of the Weimar Republic; the music she goes on to sing is mostly Weill/Brecht, with a little Warren/Dubin, Coward and Nilsson thrown in for good measure. It’s one of my favorite albums (though I rarely listen to it) because Faithfull’s voice, a pensioned prostitute’s croak with perfectly posh diction, is a modern exemplar of that very decadent idealism which Weill’s music and Brecht’s drama exude, and the way she finds thematic touchstones in Tin Pan Alley, West End Theatre, and 70’s freak-pop is inspirational. It’s, frankly, my ambition, or one of them: to tease out the synchronous strands in the vast tapestry of . . . of—hell, I don’t know what to call it; Twentieth-century popular art, maybe, with the caveat that some of it isn’t twentieth-century, some of it isn’t popular, and some of it isn’t art—and figure out what such synchronicity means, if anything.

That is a very poorly-constructed paragraph (I mean, really, two overly long and complicated sentences, one right after the other, that begin with “It’s”?), but I’m going to let it slide because this is a blog and no one expects blogs to be of great literary merit. And maybe it’ll teach me to write readable sentences.

This blog isn’t called the New Morning or anything like that. But when I tried to imagine my opening sentence, “Welcome . . . to the New Morning” kept obtruding itself in Ms. Faithfull’s breathless pant. So I wrote that instead.

So welcome to [Don’t Stay Up Too Late]. Especially welcome to those insomniacs who’ve stumbled on some much later posting, and liked what they read so much that they’ve worked their way all the way back to this one; bleary-eyed, slightly hungry, and determined with the obsessive determination of the truly exhausted, maybe even a little light-headed (when you revisit this blog a week later, will it still have that wholly original voice, that passion and humor which you found irresistible tonight?), but above all curious to see what the hell I can find to jabber on about for thirty more paragraphs, you are my ideal reader. Don’t worry, though, I like all the rest of you just fine too.

I intend for this blog to be (O, the vain schemes and plans of man!) a record of what I’m reading. Not just reading, though; I wish that there were a word besides the too-vague “experiencing” that would denote assimilation of all varieties of art: music, movies, radio, television, the plastic and performance arts to some degree, not to mention those aesthetic experiences which are not planned and cannot be recaptured. (Uh… what?) You know, like those moments that happen when you’re driving and you see the most beautiful sky. Nobody made that work of art (at least nobody who can receive royalties); it just happened.

That’s enough Introductory Logorrhea; on with the Lists.

(My mother informs me that it’s a sign of Asperger’s Syndrome—a mental condition related to autism—to make lists. I will probably someday have a room of filing cabinets with nothing but lists on them. Nick Hornby and Paul Collins, who know something about autism, are very list-oriented writers. At least I assume Hornby is; I’ve never read High Fidelity, but I saw the movie.)

What I bought today, and why:

This is (primero Dios) going to be a regular feature, maybe the primary feature of this blog, a list of items scavenged from the day’s or week’s shopping. Today’s haul is unusual not necessarily in its size, but in its bookishness. It was a relatively expensive day, too; Erasmus’ “When I have money, I buy books, and if I have any left over, I buy food and clothes” stopped being funny a while ago.

In order of size (surface area, really):

Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, LP
Elton John by Elton John, LP
The Pointer Sisters by the Pointer Sisters, LP
Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, LP
Jack Kirby’s New Gods by Jack Kirby, graphic novel
Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch Boy #3 by Grant Morrison and Frazier Irving, comic book
The Defenders #2 of 5 by Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire, comic book
An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis, book
The Rising Gorge by S. J. Perelman, book
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, book
Grendel by John Gardner, book
Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, edited by Kevin Smokler, book
The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, book
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep by Ludwig Bemelmans, book
Behind the Beyond by Stephen Leacock, book
The Glorious Pool by Thorne Smith, book

Superfly because I’ve been wanting to buy it for ages, ever since I downloaded “Freddie’s Dead” because recommended it as an instance of Soul Music, but I could never bring myself to shell out the $14.99 the CD is new, the $9.99 it is used, or the $24.99 it is in some new deluxe-with-all-sorts-of-bonus-tracks edition. But $4.00 for the LP? And it’s a 1972 record, and I’ve been collecting 1972 LPs ever since I bought a record player six months ago? I believe the only thing that could have kept me from buying it would be actual physical violence.

Elton John I bought because I could produce no compelling reason not to. Earlier in the day I had thought, as one does, that Elton John’s early—say, through Captain Fantastic—records would make a fine series to have all on vinyl. I already have Honky Château and Tumbleweed Connection, so when I found an Elton John that wasn’t so used that his ugly mug was peering out of as much white as black, I broke down.

The Pointer Sisters I bought because I have their second album, That’s A Plenty, and I told myself I really should hear their first album before I hear their second one. (Delayed gratification, as a moral virtue, is much easier to practice after a purchase has been made than before, I find.)

Sticky Fingers I bought because I’d always heard about the working zipper but never actually seen it before. And Exile on Main St. is perhaps my favorite album ever, but I’ve never listened to Sticky Fingers. Such is the humiliating lot of the rock ’n’ roll autodidact.

New Gods I bought because I’ve been meaning to for quite some time, and I wanted to get something with a decent price point to justify using my debit card in the comic book store, because I was out of cash. I already have the Mr. Miracle trades, so from here it’s halfway to the Forever People and Jimmy Olsen trades, and I’ll have the complete Fourth World saga. And for the vast majority of the blog-reading public, I just spoke Greek. No, seriously—it’s really good. Not in the read-it-and-you’ll-see sense, but in the an-informed-

Pepper’s-no-matter-how-many-glossy-magazine-lists-the-latter-tops sense. You have to be something of a comic geek to get it, just like you have to be something of a music geek to get post-surfin’ Beach Boys.

Seven Soldiers is a currently ongoing “limited series” written by Grant Morrison (the Charlie Kaufman of comics) and all tying into the DC Universe, the fictional universe where Superman and Batman exist but Spider-Man and Captain America don’t. This is fairly popular, as far as comic books go, especially with a certain breed of comic book fans who are smart enough to see through the rank shittiness of the average superhero comic but who aren’t willing to let go of genre tropes entirely. Morrison, a Scot, is something of a god in these particular circles; I know one very smart journalist who believes, with a straight face, that Grant Morrison’s comics—which are a cleverly-written amalgam of Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson, John Barthes, and Futurama—are the future of literature. Not of comics, or of science fiction, but of literature, art, and human experience. . . . I haven’t read any of the Seven Soldiers comics, though I’ve dutifully bought them (the series is about halfway to completion), telling myself and the clerk at the comic shop that I’ll read them all once they’re done. Privately, I have my doubts.

The Defenders is a Marvel comic featuring the Hulk and three characters who haven’t had movies made featuring them. (Not that I mean to be snarky, you understand; I’m just scared of sounding stupid, and “Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Silver Surfer” is pretty stupid-sounding no matter which way you slice it.) In the mid-eighties, Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis (writers) and Kevin Maguire (artist) took a struggling DC title, Justice League of America, and turned it into something, if not particularly hip or innovative, at least non-insulting to an adult’s intelligence. They did this, largely, by playing for laughs. They weren’t allowed to use DC’s “big guns” (Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash) due to editorial politics (I can actually recite chapter and verse of everything that was going on at the time, both in the real world and in the comics, but you’re not interested), so they brought in a bunch of second-string characters, played up the goofiness inherent in the idea of superheroes, and managed to eke out a fanbase and some semblance of editorial clout that lasted until the Next Big Thing came along and they were yesterday’s news, corporate comics being about tied with corporate pop music for general shittiness of behavior. One of their secret weapons was Kevin Maguire’s art, which maintained a sort of cartoony naturalism as a deadpan style which both accentuated the sheer goofiness of grown men and women in these costumes and heightened the humor. It doesn’t look so good today; Maguire’s fallen in with the latest trends and is going for an overmuscled look. And his line, which was a thing of almost Mucha-like grace in the late 80s, is obscured by the overpowering digital coloring no corporate comic can do without these days. Ah, well.

An Experiment in Criticism I bought because I’ve been haunting the Literary Criticism shelves at my local Borders lately, and I only just saw it. My adolescence was spent in large part reading C. S. Lewis, but for one reason and another I’ve never picked up his more scholarly books.

To deviate from my order a bit, I bought The Sunday Philosophy Club because it’s buy-two-get-one-free time at Borders, and it was the only reasonably cheap book I could find to go along with Screwtape Letters (I know it almost by heart, but I happened not to have a copy) and Grendel (just read On Moral Fiction, figured this was the next logical move). I know nothing about Smith (McCall Smith?), other than that his books have been unobtrusively breeding in the Mystery and New Books regions. Also, they appear to be some of the last extant instances of a nearly-vanished genre, light fiction. Not beach reading or chick lit or any other of a number of healthy and, if I may say, offensively robust marketing niches, but the genre that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s, of which P. G. Wodehouse is practically the only surviving record. (No, there are other modern practitioners. John Mortimer leaps to mind, as does . . . uh . . . well, I suppose that’s it really.) I’m looking forward to being slightly disappointed as Smith’s books turn out to be either not light enough or just plain banal. Or I’ll have a new favorite author. A win-win situation.

Bookmark Now (a book of “state of the artform” essays by youngish, newish writers) I bought because at lunch I started reading the Paul Collins essay (he is suddenly one of my favorite current writers; I tend to love essayists, memoirists, and journalists more than novelists, at least among the living), then read the foreword (bit too starry-eyed and “every day in every way, the Current Literary Scene is getting better and better,” I thought), then read Glen David Gold’s winning confession about Googling himself, then realized I’d better get back to work. I don’t really hold much hope about the other writers being as good—by which I mean entertaining—but apparently I’ve become a Collins collector. Someone had to be.

The Rising Gorge I bought because I figured it’s really about time I had some Perelman in the house. A Sub-Treasury of American Humor isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep I bought because I can’t remember any time I didn’t enjoy Bemelmans.

Behind the Beyond I bought because it is by Stephen Leacock. It’s also, physically, a very charming small hardbound book published by the Bodley Head in 1928 and I’m a sucker for old books that look nice, nevermind the contents.

The Glorious Pool I bought because I only had three Thorne Smith novels in the house and they were getting lonesome. It’s a cheap Sixties paperback edition, and has the wink-wink nudge-nudge tone on the front and back cover to prove it, but at least I can read it.

Phew. Writing of necessity about so many books—before I read them, no less—is a great way to encourage me to save my pennies.

What I was thinking about when I sat down to write this:

I doubt this will be a regular feature, but I booted up the computer in order to write something approximating the following paragraphs:

I’ve been reading Hatchet Jobs by Dale Peck. For some inexplicable reason, I can’t bring myself to actually buy the thing, but I’ve been reading chapters here and there in Borders. (There’s a chair not five feet from the Literary Criticism shelves, and no one ever sits there. Bliss.) Peck, for those not in the know, caused a ruckus gosh, three years ago now, when he opened a review of a book by Rick Moody with the paragraph “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.”

I was reminded last night that I had read Rick Moody before reading that review. In the Best American Essays 2005 book, curated by Louis Menand, he has an essay about “cool.” Peck says that after he finished whatever book of Moody’s it was he was reviewing, he scrawled “Lies! Lies! All Lies!” on its cover; I had a nearly identical reaction to the essay, an intolerable piece of Kerouac-worship—I don’t think I despise any literary outcropping quite as much as I do the Beats—that had nothing of substance to say, even within the very narrow limits he set for himself.

Anyway, Peck’s book is a collection of similarly nasty reviews (and a couple of glowing ones), fronted and backed (and peppered) with rather sweeping This Is What Good Novel-Writing Should Be pronouncements. (As if it mattered, what I’ve read about his own novels doesn’t encourage me to seek them out.) I noted above that I recently read John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction; Peck’s contentions make him a sort of Brian Setzer to Gardner’s Elvis. (Of course, Gardner admired Joyce and Faulkner. But they share an antipathy for well, pretty much everything since, or at least everything that’s been revered by the literary establishment, such as it is.)

Peck ends his book with a call for “a new materialism.” Apart from being hopelessly vague, I don’t think it’s even accurate as to the need of the present moment. Not that I know what is, necessarily—but I am tired of hearing that a healthy respect for religion or spirituality is “dangerous” (apparently every cultural pundit in the country thinks they’re the first to make the connection between religious fundamentalism at home and abroad; none of them are the first to mistake fundamentalism for all of a religion). Sorry; this last bit came out as a reaction to a cursory reading of an essay in this month’s Atlantic, which—not very coincidentally—rejected Gardner’s moral vision of fiction as both trite and setting the bar too high. (Uh . . . what?)

Every writer wants to change the world, says Peck. Perhaps. One unspoken theme I’ve been coming across, in Peck’s book, in the Atlantic article (wish I could give you a name, but it was unfamiliar to me, and I’m offline at the moment), and in the online reactions to Peck—and, come to think of it, in Smokler’s introduction to his collection—is relevance. Fiction, in order to regain the position of prominence it once had, or just in order to be any good, or in order to be relevant (huh?) must be . . . you guessed it, relevant.

I disagree. Relevance is the bugaboo of literature in exactly the same way as authenticity is the bugaboo of popular music.

(Good God, this is getting long.)

Popular music doesn’t need to be authentic; in fact, it can’t be. No musician can live up to the ideal of authenticity implicit in its fans’ and critics’ (and fan-critics’) adulation. Rappers who talk about the streets while buying mansions, bluesmen (and, come to think of it, is there a more reductive, imperialist term? Nobody’s life can be defined by playing one genre of music) who left the Delta to get rich in the city, the Beatles letting Phil Spector produce Let It Be; all of these are a betrayal, in some sense, of what some people want the music to stand for. But because music, as music, can’t stand for anything, because it’s always available to interpretation, reinterpretation, appropriation, reappropriation, and on down the line, because recorded music is, in a fundamental way, separate from not only the intentions but the very existence of the people who make it, it follows that it’s also separate from the intentions—and, yes, the existence—of the people who listen to it. You can project a folkie radicalism onto early Dylan, but you’ll only be pissed off no end when he finally plugs in. You can project a punk puritanism on the early Clash, but “The Magnificent Seven” will always be there to break your heart with its disco beat.

And you can demand that literature be relevant to the time it’s being written in, but all you’ll ever get is journalism.

Heh. I began typing this at 11:00 PM. It’s 1:41 AM. Welcome to the new morning.

Sorry about that. I do go on, don’t I? Anyway, the thing I wanted to post about was that I finally tracked down the Atlantic article I froth at the mouth about above (and, the sharp-eyed, note, below). It’s called “Moral Fiction,” it’s by Mary Gordon, and it’s in the “Fiction Issue 2005” of The Atlantic Monthly. Now I have to get my hands on a copy of the article so I can quote exactly what my problem with it is. Hopefully my memory won’t have played the funhouse-distortion tricks it finds so amusing.

I’ll leave you now; I’ve got a couple of DVDs to watch, and a long day tomorrow, so . . . continue to find me of interest, and I’ll attempt to be of interest.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Notes on a Buckethead Show

I am not well-suited for intimate jazz-metal concerts. The first half of the show blew me away and nearly brought me to tears (blues-metal isn’t dead, by the way; it is merely unemployed); the second half pummelled me, and I was half dead by the time I staggered out. I’d been overly warmly dressed, and not excited enough about the music to be able to ignore the discomfort of standing for four hours in dress shoes.

Buckethead, for those not yet familiar with the phenomenon, is a tall man who wears a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket upside-down on his head, covers his face with an expressionless white Mardi Gras mask, and plays electric guitar like the mutant robot offspring of Jimi Hendrix, Tom Verlaine, Eddie Van Halen, and Tom Morello. He’s an associate of Les Claypool, Bernie Worrell, Bill Frisell, and that bunch, and is something of a favorite within the jam-band culture (eye-rolling as that culture can be, it at least has the virtue of appreciating technical brilliance, something far too lacking in the general indie world). His stage show abounds in a junk-culture aesthetic which includes samples from video games and Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” ride; displays of Napoleon-Dynamitish “skills” like breakdancing, doing the robot, and nunchucks; and, of course, heavy metal. If angry white boys anywhere cherish it, he’s probably used it — and subverted it. There’s a childlike innocence about his stage presence that’s either charming or infuriating, depending on your taste in musical showmanship.

Generally, though, he uses heavy metal the way, say, John Coltrane uses the blues: as a mode through which he expresses avant-garde ideas. There were too many rote funk-metal riffs for my taste (though both the frat boys who are starting to love Buckethead and the fat bearded stoners who shouted “fuck yeah” at random, mostly in my ear, seemed to love them), but compositionally, they worked as the departure point for his often-lovely solos. When he managed to make Van-Halenesque tapping more about texture than about showing off (“look ma, no soul!”), it was redeemed.

As mentioned, however, I am not built for endurance. Much of the second half of the show was spent trying to work the crick out of my back and the cramps out of my legs (I’m not used to standing, more’s the pity), and while I certainly don’t want to suggest that any given fifteen minutes of the show was less valuable than any other, I can’t help feeling that conscientious editing is always an artist’s best friend

Not that you’d know it from me.