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When Elvis Died

Named after an essay by Lester Bangs, a rock journalist and one of the my favorite authors, this blog is my scratch pad for ideas, commentaries, and links.


T-Shirts of the past Pt. 5: Robert Johnson


It's hard to overestimate the importance of Robert Johnson to the 20th century.  Though he only made 42 recordings over the course of his short life, they have lived on, and inspired many, long after his violent death in 1938.  His life has been mythologized to an extent that doesn't seem possible our modern, materialist age, where myth has supposedly disappeared in favor of reason.  He supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical talent.  He was poisoned (possibly) by a jealous husband of a woman he was flirting with in a bar. He was only known to have been photographed twice as an adult, including the photo on the shirt.  And his music, haunting and powerful, was long thought to have been played and recorded by two people, until contemporaries confirmed that he had done it all with his own two hands. 

Click to read more ...


Have a poster or three!

I've finally moved most of my crap back to Toronto, and am currently doing some spring/summer cleaning.  I have a whole slew of posters that I've accumulated over many years, which have hung on walls of various bedrooms and apartments.  I've just photographed them for sentiment, in a similar fashion to my t-shirts of the past, but I'm planning on getting rid of them, once and for all.  

So here's your chance.  Check out the Flickr Set that I've made of the posters.  If you want any of them, send me an email (whenelvisdied at gmail dot com) or leave a comment on this post, and we'll work something out.  I'm not looking to make any money, but I might ask you to shoot a few bucks into my paypal account to cover shipping and packing costs.  

And tell your friends!  These will be available on a first come-first serve basis, and I'll only be doing it for the next 10 days (until June 20th, 2010).  After that, they're going to the recycle bin.  


T-Shirts of the Past Pt 4:  Tool




I think I bought this shirt when I was 16 or 17.  Tool's first three albums (well, technically, an EP and two full-lengths) were in almost constant rotation in my life during the first years that I owned this shirt. 

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T-shirts of the past--pt 3 Henry Rollins

"Won't sleep, won't shut up"...words to live by.    

I bought it on a Washington High School Orchestra Trip to Kansas City.  We used to do these crazy trips with High School choirs, bands, and orchestras, where we would travel, and play some music, and then get set loose on wherever we ended up.   On this particular occasion, we decided to visit scenic Kansas city.  I'm pretty sure DHP was there, but I definitely remember Michael Busha, and Dylan McCort (Rest In Peace).  We were wandering around some mall, and I found this shirt in a Spencer gifts-type shop.  I was astonished, as I had just discovered Henry Rollins spoken word stuff, thanks to the Minister of Intrigue, I believe.  

If anyone could be said to have been in the right place at the right time, it's Henry Rollins.

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T-shirts of the past pt 2--Tastee Inn and Out


My dad grew up in Sioux City, Iowa.  Sioux City is an interesting place, and it's a pleasure to listen to him talk about its folklore.  He has a whole map in his head with all of the town's hidden mysteries, and I've been priveleged to take that tour more than once. 

One of the points of reference in Sioux City is the Tastee Inn and Out.

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T-Shirts of the past Pt 1--Intro and Amadeus

I have many, many t-shirts.  I've always liked T-shirts--they're one of the most referential forms of clothing you can buy, and for an obsessive nerd like me, a t-shirt with a logo, a band, a phrase, or something else was a way of distinguishing myself.  In some ways, it was kind of like a hyperlink--an object that points to an entirely separate series of information.  The irony of distinguishing myself through a commodity is not lost on my faux-marxist brain....

But of course, like all artifacts, T-shirts (or any clothing for that matter) carry emotions, memories, and associations independent of their production.  It's one of the great ironies of capitalist life--we're always subverting and reconfiguring the things we buy toward new ends, undreamed of by people who made them and sold them to us.  For clothes, this is especially salient, I think, because clothes are so embodied--we carry them next to our skin, and they are with us in almost all of our daily interactions with other people.  

Thus, I always have a hard time when I'm cleaning out my closet.  I have T-shirts that I love, and would never want to part with, but simply can't wear, for any number of reasons.  But, I hit upon a solution, and I figured that I would get started enacting that solution today.  

I've taken pictures of T-shirts that I'm discarding, and using them as an excuse to write about the memories and feelings they inspire.  It's maybe a little self-indulgent, but it's also a means for me to get rid of some old clothes, and exorcise/exercise the memories that I have attached to them.  I've created a Flickr set of my t-shirts, which you can see here, and I'll do a post on each shirt in the series over the coming weeks.  

When I was 14, my High School drama department held auditions for "Amadeus", and I tried out on a lark.  I had always liked theater, and had done some smaller plays and other skit-type things when I was a little kid.  Plus, I loved the movie, and F. Murray Abraham's searing portrait of Salieri, a man pulled in two by his own jealousy and his love for music, inspired me to want to play the same character.  Of course, I had never acted before in my High School, and I totally expected to not get a part, or to get a background role. 

I wandered into school the day after auditions to find the roles list posted on the door of the drama office.  I scanned the list, starting at the bottom, and as I moved upward, I didn't see my name, and assumed that I simply hadn't been cast.  It was only when I got to the top that I found my name, next to the part of Mozart.  At first, I didn't believe it.  There is a role in the play for a "Mozart Double" and I assumed that I had been given that role.  But after a minute, I realized that I was playing the real deal.  As Emperor Joseph II says:  "Well. There it is"

I really threw myself into the part, working on my high-pitched giggle, learning to play the piano part that Mozart uses to show up Salieri in front of the Emperor by rote, and teaching myself to breathe slowly and slightly when Mozart died.  Somehow, during the dress rehearsal in the dark of the back-stage, I managed to walk into an old water pipe, and cut my head open enough to get six stitches. Fortunately, we had wigs that covered our foreheads and my injury remained hidden through the performance.  

It was a wonderful experience, and I'll never forget it.  I kept up with Theater all through High School, playing Shakespeare, musicals, Greek comedies, farce, high drama, and more.  In college, I was involved with a great group called "Theater for Engineers" and spent a few more fleeting moments onstage with some amazing people.  Since I've come to grad school, time and interest for acting have faded from my life, but many of the skills I learned have come in handy in teaching--poise, clear speaking, and comfort at talking in front of a crowd among them.

So here's to acting, and to a time in my life when nothing seemed more natural than putting on a costume and talking with someone else's voice. 


Thanks a lot

The senate finance committee voted against the "public option" today.  I call it like I see it. 


One Track Mind: Good Feeling by Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes self-titled first record has stayed in rotation in my playlist since I heard it at age 15, and "Good Feeling" is one of the reasons why. People talk a lot about opening tracks on records--I'm reminded of the "Side 1, track 1" scene in High Fidelity--but sometimes the closing track of a record reveals a context to the previous songs that might not be apparent.  Violent Femmes is a artistic monument to self-worship, most it revelling in anthems to feeling alienated and isolated, and the strength that you can find when you face the world alone.  "Kiss Off" and "Add it up" perhaps best exemplify this, but it's clear on songs like "Blister in the Sun"--surely one of the greatest anthems to self-love--or "Promise" where singer Gordon Gano gets so caught up with his internal struggle between his "logic" and his "defenses" that he ends up pleading his paramour for "some sign to pursue, a promise" because "your unhappy--this only a guess."  Even the vocal arrangements exemplify this.  Gano and his bandmates sing together on many of the songs, but it's almost always call-and-response--someone is invariably singing alone. 

"Good Feeling" is the last track on the original record (newly pressed versions have bonus tracks), and it represents perhaps one of the most violent (ho ho ho) right turns in all of popular music.  The previous songs had been snarls and frantic spasms of music and words, but "Good Feeling" is slow and sad--the sigh at the end of the argument.  Gano's nasal voice trades in its anger for longing, longing that the good feelings would stay, "just a little longer". Bandmates Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo (and Martin Hecke) provide the perfect backdrop of piano, bass, and softly played drums, and Gano plays a simple, yet achingly beautiful violin solo about half-way through.  The first note of that solo is still one of my favorite sounds on any album, ever. 

Eventually, we discover the source of the good feelings, when Gano sings "Oh Dear lady, won't you stay with me, just a little longer".  It's a cry for companionship at the end of an album stubbornly devoted to isolation, and suddenly Gano's previous urgency and snarky rejection of those around him feels weak and defensive.  As if to bring that point home, the song ends with the band, for the first time, singing in harmonies together.  It's an outro worthy to be included with the likes of "Hey Jude", and the seemingly meaningless final words say more than meaningful lyrics ever could.

 "Good Feeling" transforms Violent Femmes  from a collection of singles into a cohesive and timeless album.  There is a lot on this record about frustrtation, alienation, and anger--emotions often associated with being a teenager--but "Good Feeling" reminds me that all emotions come in cycles, and continue to, long after we grow out of our adolescence.   We may get caught up in them from time to time, but what brings us out is other people.  The connections we make, the love we share, the friendship we hold--these are the things that give context to those darker emotions, and the small strength we often need need to find as we stare inward gives way to the peace we can find when we reach out our hands to someone else.   


Review: Frightened Rabbit @ The Iron Horse,  7-25-09


I came away from seeing Frightened Rabbit feeling happier and more full of joy than I had from seeing a band in a long time.  As I wrote earlier this year, I was a huge fan of their 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight.  Unfortunately, all of the things I loved about the record--the almost-humiliating honesty, the exuberance of emotion, and the wild-eyed desperation--seemed like prime candidates for touring fatigue, where the intensity and forthrightness of the recorded sound would gradually dissipate with the necessity of playing the same songs night after night. Some of my favorite bands disappoint for that very reason. 

Thankfully, Frightened Rabbit did not disappoint.  In many ways, the album's spastic emotional bursts exploded even more on stage, with brothers Scott and Grant Hutchinson as the focal points of that energy.  Scott (singer, guitar player, and songwriter) seemed ready to burst at any moment, his voice pushing its own limits, the guitar clasped in his hands like the last rung of a rope ladder above the ocean. 

But the real surprise for me was Grant Hutchinson.  His meticulous drumming on the album provided a rhythmic complexity that the songs, played on their own, might not have suggested.  But with the first few beats of "Modern Leper", once you hear those drums, you can't imagine the songs without them.  Hearing the songs live, I realized how necessary and powerful the drums were, as powerful as Scott Hutchinson's pleading voice--the drums were an emotional counterpoint to the lyrics. And on top of that, Grant's singing would rise out of the speakers, its source not immediately determinable until Scott would thrash away, and you would seem him straining against the mic, his eyes closed and his arms a blur as he pounded out rhythms on the drums.

Between songs they were funny, self-depreciating, and engaged, laughing and joking with each other, and with us.  They invited the audience to sing along on "Poke", which Scott played sans-microphone or amplification, which somehow made the embarrassingly intimate song even more intimate and less embarrassing. 

If you don't have the record, buy it .  If you haven't seen them live yet, find a way to do it. 




Some thoughts on Ideology

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Healther Skelter - Obama Death Panel Debate
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Healthcare Protests


I love this clip--it encompasses everything the Daily Show does best, and brings into stark relief why the health care debate (if you want to call name-calling and screaming matches a debate) is a great example of capitalist ideology in action. 

"Ideology" is an interesting concept.  Historically, it came out of the contradictions of the French revolution, as the late anthropologist Eric Wolf pointed out.  In practical terms, it is often used as an epithet, to polemically charge an opponent with what Wolf termed "interested error".  Thus, conservatives see a "liberal ideology", liberals a "conservative ideology", al qaeda terrorists "ideologies of hate", this or that public figure has a "radical ideological agenda", etc..... If you can prove your opponent is "ideological", they lose, and you win. You don't even have to justify whether your own position is also "ideological". This, of course, pre-supposes that there is a purely un-ideological way of looking at the world, and that ideology is deviation from that. And of course, it also supposes that "I" am looking clearly, without warping effects of ideology.

But whenever you try to carry the term beyond whatever shouting match you happen to be in, this version of ideology loses coherence.  This kind of political ideology has no necessary conditions in race, class, gender, age, or geography.  There are some correlations (African Americans tend to identify as liberal, for example), but there are also enough counter examples to make ascribing political ideology to social factors a thorny prospect. 

And if the alternative is that we simply choose our ideologies based on preferences, then which ideology is right? Right now at least, the seems to be something called a "moderate" or "independent". Agreement is reached that both ideologies are extreme, and the goal is common ground. Which is why I reject the idea that ideology comes down to "interested error". If that's true, it means that all the fights, and all the bluster about who's right ultimately in politics comes down to making both people right. Difference, so important polemically, disappears in the face of comprimise.

A broader notion of ideology instead sees it as a way of explaining and justifying the world as it exists, and of maintaining that world.  For us, that means that ideology is ultimately about sustaining and reproducing capitalism.  Under this reading, ideology is not about difference, but about same-ness; about keeping the world, and the people in it, in the same patterns.  Liberalism and conservatism may have disagreements on how to do this, but they ultimately agree that it should be done.  Or, to get back to the clip above--we can disagree on what the death panels should do, but we all know that we need them. The problem of ideology then is not which one you choose, but of the circumstances that make those choices the only ones available. 

If that's a little too  satirical for you, consider this.  The Democrats Health Care bill, H.R. 3200 is called the "America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009".  Despite all the talk about socialized medicine, the two salient words in that title are "affordable" and "choice", both of which point toward markets and consumption.  The bill does very little to attack market forces in the health industry--the whole concern about a public option is ultimately about setting up another consumer "choice", in the interests of "keeping costs down".  These are important ideas, but as ideologies, they ultimately tie us to the world as it is, rather than as it could be, or should be.