Since we've all heard that Alan Greenspan is retiring, to be replaced by Bush's chief economic advisor, I thought it'd be nice to reflect on some of his achievements: pragmatic economic policy (or dumb luck), closely guarded economic secrets, and...
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.-RSS
My wonderful girlfriend got me a fantastic (and wonderful) birthday present a couple of weeks ago. I had mentioned that Gang of Four were playing in Northampton that weekend, and that I might like to take her. When I asked her if she wanted to go, she turned the tables and offered to take me. I enthusiastically accepted. I'm sure I spoke of their importance in late 20th-century popular music, and I probably even admitted that I felt like a total geek-boy when faced with the possibility of seeing such a seminal band. What I didn't and couldn't really speak about was whether they were any good. I had Entertainment! on Vinyl, and had given it a few listens, but the somewhat flat quality of the recording kind of turned me off--a topic deserving a longer post at a later date.
However, what I, and most everyone else I know understood was that so many bands that we loved (and plenty that we didn't) would not exist without this band. Although it pains my "indie cred" to say it, my friends and I didn't go to hear music. We came to hear a legacy, a tradition--we were looking for the source.
(Just an aside--Somebody needs to write a book about indie rock and the importance of tradition. Endless referentiality in the form of influences and styles forms an entire discourse among a huge group of people in North America, and as far as I know, that seems like a relatively modern phenomena. I want to know the circumstances, history, and the power dynamics involved in this particular cultural form).
For better or worse, a legacy is what we got. Most of the set came from Entertainment! and Solid Gold , Gang of Four's first two records. A few new songs were sprinkled in, but this was a reunion show, first and foremost, and like all reunion shows, the hits had to be trotted out for the kiddies. How different was this than seeing Bachman-Turner Overdrive play "Taking Care of Business" at the Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Iowa?
Let me be very clear--I had a tremendous time at this show. The band were ferocious (but how much of a pose was that?), and all of us danced our hearts out, even break out into an exuberant mosh pit during "At home he's a tourist". Jon King danced around the stage, pounding the air with his fists in time with the beat, and Dave Alexander and Andy Gill thrashed their instruments across the stage, playing at times in barely tolerable registers of noise, and all through, the tribal pounding of Hugo Burnham's drums, locking all the chaos in place, tying the morass of the experience into something knowable--a pulse, jagged and disjointed though it often was, like the pulse of our collective heartbeats.
Dancing is certainly part of Gang of Four. Their post-punk jitters and funk paved the way for an incalculable amount of more recent music of numerous sub-genres (insert trendy name here). But from their name on down, their music was always incalculably political. In the late 1970s, especially at British universities (where Gang of Four first met) social theory was undergoing one of its many radical transformations. Simplistically, the "post-punk" in the cultural world was prefaced by a whole series of "post-"s in the academic and philosophical world. The structuralist approaches of the 1950s and 60s were giving way to new understandings of the way that power was mobilized in social relationships, and what is now known as "cultural studies" was burgeoning in academic departments everywhere.
What this field of knowledge argued (at least as I understand it), was that Western cultural forms, especially popular culture, needed to be interrogated and understood as part of interal power dynamics within societies. People wrote books on punk rock and mod subcultures, television, Disneyland, and romance novels, anything that had previously been considered worthless, ephemeral, and vulgar by the academic gaze.
Gang of Four were part of this world, and they consciously espoused its theories and politics consciously. Their songs touched on the vague relationships between appearances and essences, the mysterious nature of love in the traditional pop song, the stultifying air of suburbia, and numerous other topics within the purview of the (explicitly Marxist) field of cultural studies. What they, and the fields of knowledge they represent argue for was that the aesthetic experiences we associate with popular culture are molded and shaped by unequal power
relations inherent in society.
Which is why it's hard for me to write a glowing review of the Gang of Four show that I saw. The show was powerful, certainly one of the best live concerts I've ever been to, and the band was everything I'd hoped they'd be. But what does that mean? Would I have felt the same if I had never heard of Gang of Four? If I hadn't read about their influence on the Dismemberment Plan, the Liars, Rage against the Machine, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and hundreds of other bands who, at various times in my life, had meant so much to me? Would I have felt the same if they had only played songs no one knew?
How can I trust my own feelings in a world where, at every turn, I'm told how to feel by the pop-culture I love (what does that mean?). My personality is a process of cultural apparatuses acting upon my being, trying to get me to respect the authority of governments, treat myself as more valuable than others, and above all BUY!!!! BUY!!!! BUY!!!!! I certainly partake of all those things at various times during the day--where is the real "me" in all of that? Or to conclude by paraphrasing, if our essence is rare, as Gang of Four seem to argue, what room is there for appreciating something as simple as a great rock and roll show by a great rock and roll band?
Just a quick note...if the words Gang of Four pop up in your local paper under upcoming music listings, run, DO NOT WALK to go and get yourself some tickets. I checked them out at Pearl Street the other night and they blew my hair back. I'll write a little more about them later, as the show gave me some things to think about.
The art of the arrangement is being lost. In times gone by , musicians were considered skilled if they arranged, in interesting ways, other peoples music. Songwriting was a separate art altogether. No one would argue that Cole Porter was somehow a ''better'' musician than Ella Fitgerald, just because he wrote songs and she interpreted the songs of others.
Within the last fifty or so years, that seems to have changed. I'm not sure where are it started, although I have some ideas (Beatles, I'm looking in your directions), but nowadays you're only a good musician if you can write a good song, and arrangement and performance have been relagated to that sticky catchall term of ''cover''.
I do think it's no accident that musical copywright has intensified along with this trend. The record industry is only too happy to cordon-off more and more spheres in which to accumulate capital. It may be that people have been disenchanted with ''covering'' songs because of a sea change in popular music and the industry has gone along with that, or it could be that because of stricter copywrights, people are less capable of arranging songs legally. Either way, interpretation of great music has taken a nosedive.
I find this to be really sad, as I became a musician not because I had delusions of grandeur about my own talent and ability to be famous, but because I love music—I'm a fan before I'm anything else. Music is such an integral part of my life that I can imagine being a musician without it. Every time I play a D major chord on the guitar I think of ''Crazy little thing called love'' by Queen; C major reminds me of ''Patience'' by Guns'n'Roses; B minor starts ''Exit music for a film'' by Radiohead playing in my little inner radio. I'd like to think that I'm not the only picker who has that kind of musical memory. There have been so many great songs that have touched my life in some way, and playing them by myself, with friends, or on the stereo drives every feeling home to me.
My friend Juan and I were getting drunk one night while watching ''1 Million Years B.C.'' and talking about music. He's quite a good songwriter and musician himself, and while Rachel Welch's breasts made their way across the fictional prehistoric landscape of clay dinorsaurs, Juan and I tossed back and forth the idea of making an album in one day. We have enough equiptment between the two of us, but we thought to do it right, we'd need the songs already written. We would take an album that we both knew and loved, churn it around in our heads, and rerecord the whole thing. To figure out which one to do, we put a bunch of albums on pieces of paper, dropped them into his Detriot Tigers cap, and drew one out. We had a lot of ideas: ''The joshua Tree'', the first Violent Femmes record, ''Wish'' by the Cure, the third Velvet Underground record, and a bunch more. But when we open the piece of paper that we drew, it said ''The first Weezer record''.
I've been listening to that album since I was fifteen. A girl that I was in the process of breaking up with played it for me on one of our last car trips together. My friends and I would listen to it when we camped out back of Dan's house, shooting the shit, playing DnD, and enjoying our youth. It's an album I've got a lot of love for, and when I thought of the possibilities of rearranging it, I was really stoked.
Somewhere along the way, our friend Chris got involved, and two weeks ago, we ended up over at his house at ten in the morning, ready to rock it out.
And we did. Although it was slow going (the first two songs took us four hours), we finished at 11:30 at night, and I went home with my 8 track filled with bizarre covers of Weezer songs. I'd love to post them here and get everyone's opinion on the slash-job we did, but I imagine that the folks at DGC and whoever owns the song credits would be none too happy that I've so flagrantly violated their copywrights. Still, I thought I'd post brief descriptions of how we changed the songs and what other crazy crap we did.
MY NAME IS JONAS—I've always liked the ''workers are going home'' part of this song, so we started with that—just bass and vocals, with guitars building and building until we spill over at the verse. Chris programmed a beat on his drum machine that gives the song a bit of a tribal feel.
NO ONE ELSE—Chris sang this one, but he didn't know the words. I played his wurlitzer organ and sang a guide track. With the thumping beat, and Chris's off-kilter ethereal vocals, the song sounds like the grisly conclusion to a stalking.
THE WORLD HAS TURNED AND LEFT ME HERE—Juan sang this, and he loves Belle and Sebastien, so it kind of sounds like them. I played a little violion part underneath one acoustic guitar
BUDDY HOLLY—Chris later described this as sounding like ''sweaty robots having sex''. We slowed it way down, put some funky guitar and bass on it, and turned it into a distorted doo-wop number. During the “bang, bang, knock on the door” part, Chris read a poem in German called ''The panther'', then laughed manaically when he finished.
THE SWEATER SONG—Everybody knows this song. The acoustic guitar riff is instantly recognizable—almost to the point of being hideously annoying. We played it on three different instruments and just looped it for like five minutes. The sketch in the beginning has changed form a little, but still gets the same points across: lonliness, alienation, and the haughtiness that comes from being an outsider. We put in a strange inside joke as the "sketch section" involving Ron Perlman, the character actor.
SURF WAX AMERICA—A few years ago, I played in a Hawaiian band in Boston. Hawaii has a music scene that is absolutely huge, wonderful, and that no one on the continent ever hears. It's basically folk music with ukelele's. I didn't have a uke, so I just played acoustic guitar. Chris provided a little slack-key solo and Juan played a nice bouncing bass.
SAY IT AIN'T SO—This is probably my favorite Weezer song. For a band that thrives on power rock, this mournfull little ditty is like looking over a cliff at the waves of distorted guitar. We slowed it way down and played a really minimal guitar riff with lots of reverb, along with a bass and Chris's digitech effects pedal for some flava-country. Then at the ''Dear Daddy'' part, all hell breaks loose. This song turned out scarily good.
IN THE GARAGE—By this point in our recording, it was about 9 at night and we were getting tired. Chris put on a fast techno beat, I played a distorted part and just kind of shouted out the words. It made me think of my first recordings with a casio keyboard in my room when I was 14. I guess we kind of captured the spirit of the song, even if it's not terribly interesting.
HOLIDAY—We had literally no idea what to do with this song. None of us really liked it, and we all wanted to get to ''Only in dreams'' anyway. After just kind of farting around for a while, Chris found this shimmering guitar sound on his digitech and started playing two chords in the song while I was doing a vocal check with various lines. We looked at each other and realized that it would sound pretty good as a spacey, dream-like holiday, instead of the raging cruise-ship of a pop-song that is the original.
ONLY IN DREAMS—Each of us took turns singing verses. We moved the two choruses together, and sang one quiet, and then one with all the energy we had left in us. We didn't do the extended jam at the end, which I always thought was kind of pretentious anyway. We just left it with a strummed acoustic guitar and a fadeout. Not a bad way to end the thing, if you ask me.
Despite the hard work, we had a great old time. While I may not listen to the album very much after the initial excitement wears off, I'm gonna remember that day until I die. It proved to me that the joy of music isn't in writing some deep meaninful song, or even in playing something technically complicated. It come from moment and presence and feeling, like most joy in life. Play music, anyone's music for yourself, and revel in it's power to evoke the greatness of experience.
The Blues is a craft or a practice, not a genre. It came from Black folks, who've had to endure enough pain and suffering for the history of the world in the last 400 odd years. But white folks have picked up on it too—the idea that you can practice the blues, and the pain you've got will be revealed for the diversion that it is. It's not unreal, just something you have to embrace, instead of rejecting. Here are the tunes that have made me embrace my pain.
''No Surprises'' by Radiohead
on the Album OK Computer
I only liked this song until I saw the video. It has a plaintive melody and some pretty lyrics, and it provided a nice quiet moment to the very dark second half of OK Computer . But when I saw the video with Thom Yorke's head slowly sinking, and heard him sing ''Such a pretty house and such a pretty garden'', I was moved to tears. One of the many sadnesses of modern life is that our only escape is to drown into the soft silence of suburbia.
''Nothing'' by Reel Big Fish
on the Album Turn The Radio Off
The summer that I heard this song, I was living in a basement in Des Moines, Iowa, where I didn't know anybody, working at a job I hated because it paid good money. My social contacts were almost zero, and my only solace was driving around Des Moines, blasting CDs in my worn out Ford escort. The first half of the song is straight-up punk lamentation, but then it slows down into a nice bigbeat riff and even though it all sucked, I knew, as the Aaron Barrett says, that ''it's gonna be alright'' because ''I don't fucking care anymore''. After that, the summer was over before I even noticed.
''Oh Sweet Nuthin'' by The Velvet Underground
on the Album Loaded: Fully Loaded Edition (US Release)
It sounds way older than it's thirty years. What a great piece of old-time lamentation, in the tradition of ''I can't be satisfied'' and ''Walking Blues''. This is one of the truest blues songs ever written by white folks. Who else but the Velvets?
''Whiskey Bottle'' by Uncle Tupelo
on the Album No Depression
The mournful country intro and verse belie the fiery-loud chorus. Just like drinking alone—you start out sipping and talking slowly, smiling, maybe even singing a little, and then your inhibitions go, and you scream at all the contradictions in your life, break and smash your things, cry and bleed and wonder how your going to get through. But ''somehow life goes on in a place so insane''.
''Have you ever been lonely?'' by R.L. Burnside
on the Album A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey [Explicit]
I have no idea how the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion found R.L. Burnside. New York hipsters honking out blues tributes tossed into a room with a Mississippi Hill country moaner once convicted of murder—there's almost no way it could've worked, but on this song, they just play until they bleed. R.L. and Jon have this weird conversation about what it means to be lonely, and in between, they play their guitars like they're on fire; they scream and wail and revel in the pain of looking around the room and seeing not a soul. The answer to the question of the title is: ''Yeah, a lotta times, you know?''
''Respect is Due'' by the Dismemberment Plan
on the Album The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified
When I saw these guys live last years, they refused to play this song because it was ''a twelve minute dirge'', and they were out to have a good time on their last tour. I have to admit that the song gets a little long at times, and it's certainly not something I listen to very often anymore, since I've found myself in a fairly stable adult relationship. Still, I've had my heart broken enough for reasons I didn't understand to know what it means when Travis Morrison says ''If I ever let down the walls that protect me from you, I could say respect is due. But not in this lifetime.''
''Jesus doesn't want me for a sunbeam'' by The Vaselines, performed by Nirvana on the Album MTV Unplugged in New York
See my previous post about covers. Nirvana were great in part because they loved paying homage, and they had no pretensions about where their influences came from. When Cobain says that this was based on an old Christian song, he may have been right, but what matters is that the song sounds old—even eternal. There's always been that tension in the blues of fervent belief and feeling as though God has abandoned you. The Vaselines, and Nirvana, made it clear that even though they were beyond divine help, they didn't care. In an age when fundmantalist religions seem to be asking our lives of us every second of the day, this song brings home that our relationship with God or his son, or whoever is always way more than dogma.
''Divorce Song'' by Liz Phair
on the Album Exile In Guyville
I lived part of this song, from the other end. An ex-girlfriend of mine, who I loved more than my own life at the time, broke up with me the day before we were going on a weekend vacation to Maine. I had rented a bed and breakfast for us to stay in, and shelled out a bunch of money for gas and food and whatnot. Needless to say, I was a pathetic wreck the whole weekend, pestering and bothering (and far worse) this girl who wanted nothing more than to enjoy the outside in peace, and not be bothered by my constant questions about why she didn't want me anymore. It's not harder to be friends than lovers, it's almost impossible, and the worst thing for someone to figure out is that I was as much responsible for my own pain that weekend as she was. Now that's the blues.
''Good Feeling'' by Violent Femmes
on the Album Violent Femmes
The viola solo on this record is one of the most beautiful sections of music ever committed to tape. It says more than the words ever could. As the Buddhists say, existence is suffering; the constant wheel of desire and fulfilment make always wish that the good feeling would stay ''just a little longer'', but it never does. That's why this is great blues—the blues at its best is a constant reminder that we create the world around us. Our own suffering is caused by our own desire, and the pain the blues roots us in is always tempered by the knowledge that we have at least some power to see the world as something that we can change, and that we don't have to take part in.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists tore up the Pearl street Club in Northampton. I mean they took the place apart; Ted Leo cut his forehead open, and threw sweat and blood into the audience, and played like a hellion--and we all helped, in our own way, singing and dancing (waltzing in one case) and even moshing, and screaming out requests and questions and nonsensical cries. I took a friend of mine who I turned onto Ted Leo's music a few years before, but who had never seen him live. I was worried for a while that he would put on a mediocre show, and she'd come away feeling let down; but no way—his destroyed. Or no, he created. His music isn't nihilistic destruction. It's soaked, steeped, painted with the kind of idealism that seemed to attract the crowd that he had.
After we left the show, my girlfriend commented that we were probably some of the oldest people in that club. Ted Leo had been giving a button by an audience member sometime during the show, and she told him that it was her birthday. When he asked her how old she was, she told him she was sixteen, and he blanched a little at the difference in their age. She was not alone either, as maybe 75 percent of that audience was under 20. I think there's something to that, because being a teenager, as much as it sucks a whole lot of ass, is one of the few times in your life when you feel urgency about almost everything. Once you hit college, it's all job training and (for the most part) you don't have parents peering over your shoulder, and you fall in love in a real way, but you also track and process yourself into being an adult. When your sixteen, as that girl demonstrated, you feel oppressed by everything, and everything seems to be a way out—everything is urgent. And everything is about getting somewhere better than where you are. It's that kind of idealism that makes adolescence both inspiring and ultimately tragic.
Of course, idealism isn't enough. Everyone's idealistic to a certain extent, I think. We all see the shit piling up around us, and we all complain about the smell, but then what? And this is where the Bolshevik communists and the enlightenment rationalists had it wrong—they thought, all you have to do is reveal the contradictions of society, make them clear, teach and educate “the people” (they never define that term very well) of their own ignorance, and they'll come flocking to your banner, overthrowing the powers that be and bringing us all into a new horizon. I think a lot of so-called ''liberals'' today think the same thing—all you have to do is say ''Bush lied, kids died'', and that will somehow be self-evident reason for his tar-and-feathering. What is often forgotten is that life, from wandering in animal skins to wearing them on your Ipod, asks a whole hell of a lot of us—it's huge and fast and powerful, and disorienting, and more than a little depressing a lot of the time. We've gotten really good at living with contradictions, because life has gotten really good at breaking us, and the natural response to that kind of pain is to turn inward, put your nose to the grindstone, let things that aren't in your immediate radar pass by you without notice.
Ted Leo goes further than that, at least in whatever small way a rocknroller can. His relations with his fans are some of the best I've ever seen, and his constant conversation with the crowd is almost as entertaining and fulfilling as his music. His albums (The Tyranny Of Distance , Hearts Of Oak, and Shake The Sheets , plus some great E.P.'s) are all fantastic, loaded with killer rockandroll of most energetic stripe. Plus, unlike most modern rockers who put three 10 words over a drop-d guitar riff and call it a song, Ted Leo fills his songs with huge soliquays, and long spiraling verses. When sung above his quicksilver downstroke picking, he sounds desperate to get so many words out, and the energy with which he does makes him all the more enjoyable and worthwhile.
What Ted Leo does, with his music, with his relations with his fans, is to construct a vision of the future that might be less horrible than what we currently have. He does reveal contradictions, but he also offers solutions—he makes a path to a better world, and he struggles with us to walk down it. It is only through being together that we arrive out of darkness—education and revelation are a beginning, not an ending, and after a certain point, we have to move from complaining to envisioning, and then from there, to creating. Ted Leo does all three of these, and he wants you to do the same and make a better world. His music is righeous and idealistic in the best way possible—it asks for more than world as it is, it envisions an idealistic world that could be, that should be, if the stars were right, and the Gods were smiling, and all of us weren't so hung up on guns and fear and buying things. Let's hope some of that righteousness is contagious like the plague, and we all of us rats spread it the far corners of the globe, and turn this ball of mud and rock and a few twitching carbon-based things into a great and beautiful place to be.