Thursday, July 22, 2021

 




There’s a telling scene in Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s grainy 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan’s stormy 1965 tour of England. Dylan is in a hotel filled with tour members, local celebs, musicians, and varieties of hangers-on. The Maestro is rifling through a British paper and happens upon an article on Donovan, the Scottish singer-songwriter who’d been gigging around the folk scene in the Isles and had recently scored a sizeable with his song “Catch the Wind.”


He was about 19 years old, and the influence of Dylan on the younger singer was obvious in the hit with its acoustic guitar and Donovan’s nasal, twangy singing of the especially poetic lyrics. The only article missing from the song was a wheezy, crestfallen harmonica break. The tune's success led journalists to call him “the new Dylan” or “England’s answer to Bob Dylan.” Dylan was reportedly bemused at how the press seemed to call for younger folkies to knock him from his supposed throne. This is where we find him in Don’t Look Back, staring at Donovan’s picture in the paper. Alan Price, the former keyboardist for the Animals, who was along for much of the tour, sits next to Dylan, a bit drunk, and gives the American the lowdown on the man in the newspaper. 

“…He’s a perfect guitar player,” says Price as he weaves to and fro. “He’s better than you.” 
“Yeah,” says Dylan. “Right away, I hate him.”

It’s not likely Dylan hated Donovan in any sense. Donovan instead became part of the entourage that followed the charismatic Maestro around. Later, a scene has the Scottish minstrel in another crowded hotel room with Dylan. Donovan plays guitar and sings “To Sing for You,” which earns him a round of friendly applause. The guitar winds up in Dylan’s hands, who then gives a snarling version of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Eyes are on Dylan, and the room is rapt as the harsh surrealism rings from Dylan’s mouth. 

Donovan didn’t fall prey to the fate of many other “new Dylans” who wound up in relative obscurity after an initial flash of attention. In short order, over the next couple of years, he shed his emulation of the Man from Hibbing and evolved into a diverse artist. His lyrics remained on the poetic side but gone were the feigned mannerism of rural expression. Rather than pretend he was from the backwoods, he became more urbane, worldly. His voice matured, becoming more supple, melodic, versatile, and expressive in the wide swath of styles in the eclecticism that became his calling card. His songwriting came to us elements of jazz, pop, blues, a distinct form of acid-rock, and alluring takes on what soon would be called world music. Fans and pundits stopped comparing him to Dylan as Donovan’s personality and broad style came into their own There was a time in the artist’s career when other local pop music snobs and I thought Donovan had jumped the shark a bit with his 1967 release From a Flower to a Garden, notable, among other things, for being rock’s first double studio album. Though, the two discs stressed the nerve endings of too-serious teens like yours truly who wanted it grim, dark, and bleakly existential. Donovan had caught the Summer of Love virus with this release, appearing to go off the rails. He was now the Uber Hippie, transcendental in all matters in the Age of Aquarius. Flowing robes that dragged along the floor, an overkill of love beads, an equal overkill of fresh-cut flowers, bare feet, a haircut that made it looked like the man had combed his mane with an eggbeater—all this plus an expensive acoustic guitar are clues to someone of considerable talent who had started to take himself too seriously. 

His career, however, has been remarkable for his capacity to change styles and meld diverse ways of writing and singing about the world and the larger spiritual universe. The musical baseline was in continual flux, morphing in sound, mood, attitude. And there is, to be sure, a refreshing strain of skepticism, aesthetic distance, and a firm grasp of irony in much of his songwriting that has gone overlooked. The image of Donovan, the counterculture seer, still tends to cloud much of the public reception when we approach his songwriting craft. His oeuvre needs a major reappraisal by professional critics and high-minded fans, as there are wonderfully made and even sardonic masterpieces among the glitzy paraphernalia of the Youth Quake. Let’s take a look at three songs: “Sunny Goodge Street” (from his second album’s1965 Fairytale), “Epistle to Dippy” (a single released in 1967), and “Young Girl Blues” (from the Mellow Yellow disc in 1966) are quite a bit more cynical and knowing than his later reputation suggests. 

“Sunny Goodge Street” is a panorama of a particular urban hip scene commonly portrayed in flashy and groovy terms in the ’60s. Still, Donovan’s version of it makes it seem unpredictable, violent, paranoid, and incoherent. It is closer to William Burroughs than to Scott McKenzie’s version of John Phillip’s saccharine paean to hippiedom, “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair).” As with Burroughs, the air appears to depict a drugged-out state on its own terms. Donovan seemed to understand that the counterculture was as much a creep scene as it was a gathering moment for truth seekers, poets, and sensualists who desired both sex and innocence. While the cost of reaching all sorts of forbidden knowledge, drugs, and the attending hype was unknown, and Donovan had a foreboding rarely expressed by a generation of musicians that was self-infatuated. It has a jazz-ballad feel—slow, swaying, almost precariously—the lyrics suggesting a denizen who’s smoked too much trying to stay awake until he finishes saying what he’s determined to get out. 

On the firefly platform on Sunny Goodge Street
Violent hash smokers shook a chocolate machine
Involved in an eating scene 
Smashing into neon streets in their stoned ness
Smearing their eyes on the crazy Kali goddess
Listenin’ to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic 
My, my, they sigh, my, they sigh 
In dollhouse rooms with colored lights swingin’
Strange music boxes sadly tinklin’
Drink in the sun, shining all around you 
My, my, they sigh
My, my, they sigh 
The magician, he sparkles in satin and velvet
You gaze at his splendor with eyes you’ve not used ye
I tell you his name is love, love, love 

My, my, they sigh

My, my, they sigh 


Nothing specific, profound, or stirring uttered, though, as each sentence chops off the sentence that came before, one idea and detail of the street canceling out the other, the details are blurred rather than a vivid impression of the neighborhood. This probably is what Donovan meant, preferring to give us an indefinite scenario rather than words extolling drug use or hippie culture. We find here that Donovan has mastered the Great Poet’s superpower, as did Eliot and Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop, which is to rise to the challenge of not making literal sense in the subject matter yet still giving us a sense of what the experience was like. No lecture, no propaganda, an accord shattered and pieced back together. Under the sweet music of the lyrics lurks a dead zone of imagination; it is among the more disturbing I remember from ’60s FM radio. 

“Epistle to Dippy” is nothing less than a direct address of a try-anything scene maker who dashes from drug to scene to fad in an irrational attempt to outrun their own vacuity, their utter lack of soul or genuine sensibility. In his liner notes for a Donovan box-set Troubadour, writer Brian Hogg relates the song, written in letter form to a friend, which abounds with a strong pacifist message while teeming with psychedelic imagery. Hogg further writes that the song's actual subject, who was serving in the British military, soon resigned from the service after hearing Donovan’s words that convey a strong extolling of pacifist philosophy. That is the story behind the headline, but I felt something darker into the song since my first listen decades ago. This is a cutting critique, more potent than the Beatles’ polite poo-poohing tune along the same theme, “Nowhere Man.” 


Look on yonder misty mountain.
See the young monk meditating rhododendron forest
Over dusty years, I ask you
What has it’s been like being you?

Through all levels, you’ve been changing.
Getting a little bit better, no doubt
The doctor bit was so far out
Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see I had your fun

Doing us the paperback reader.
Made the teacher suspicious about insanity
Fingers always touching, girl.


Through all levels, you’ve been changing.
Getting a little bit better, no doubt
The doctor bit was so far out
Looking through all kinds of windows
I can see I had your fun
Looking through all kinds of windows
I can see I had your fun

Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see I had your fun
Looking through crystal spectacles
I can see I had your fun


Rebelling against society,
Such a tiny speculating whether to be a hip or
Skip along quite merrily


Through all levels, you’ve been changing.
Elevator in the brain hotel
Broken down but just as well-a
Looking through crystal spectacles,
I can see you’ve had your fun…

“Young Girl Blues” is a doleful, world-weary observation, a bittersweet recollection of an ingenue who had gotten tired of her own hipness and the chronic scene-making. The details are spare, bone tired. They create a bleak view of such a noisy and hip scene of the fever-pitched Sixties. Donovan senses the isolation—none of the scene makers can break away from or cure with brand names, loud music, and chemicals. There is through it all. An implied yet emphatic sense that youth and beauty fade and that the impulsiveness and egocentricity of being young must evolve into maturity lest someone, a young girl or young man, remain stunted, incomplete in their humanity.


It’s Saturday night
It feels like a Sunday in some ways
If you had any sense
You’d maybe go ‘way for a few days
Be that as it may
You can only say you were lonely
You are but a young girl
Working your way through the phonies


Coffee on, milk gone
Such a sad light unfading
Yourself you touch
But not too much
You hear it’s degrading

The flowers on your stockings
Wilting away in the midnight
The book you are reading
Is one man’s opinion of moonlight
Your skin is so white

You’d like maybe to go to bed soon
Just closing your eyes
If you’re to rise up before noon


High heels, car wheels
All the losers are grooving
Your dream, strange scene
Images are moving

Donovan is a perceptive witness to what unfolded. He skillfully sets a scene with telling details, artfully establishes the era's mood, and is not reluctant to examine the emotional and psychic dead ends that fester under the utopian hoopla. Donovan realized he was observing a generation waste its potential on trivial frolics. “Young Girl Blues” crystalizes the unwelcome truth that beauty and youth fade and the weight and of existence must be faced. This is The Bard’s way of letting listeners know that one can grow up or grow old. He has the skill to insinuate an anonymous narrator, privy to and sympathetic with the character’s internal struggles, and adroitly outline a small cataclysm as the protagonist journeys from self-delusion to an inevitable rueful clarity. Donovan is a master of compressed tragedy. 

Donovan has been given the short shrift among the immensely popular songwriters who emerged from the Sixties revolution. Hardly ignored, of course, but it’s a mystery that there hasn’t been much in the way of broadly circulated critical reappraisals of his music and lyrics considering his extraordinary evolution as an artist. The work has varied in quality over the decades, but what good musician’s work hasn’t run hot and cold in a career that lasted five and a half decades? Donovan very much merits another visit. A closer look, another listen, a reacquaintance of this man’s remarkable oeuvre will bring more masterpieces to the fore, a better sense of what a bright young talent comprehended during a complicated era. It’s my hope that his best and most interesting music, created through fad and fancy of a great many years, finds a broader listenership.

The songwriter’s best work holds up, and it holds up for the same reason Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night or Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test hold up; each is an exquisitely etched portrait of the Sixties that bypassed the mass-mediated brainwashing fostered by Time and Life magazines, which spoke of Youth Culture and revolution that was as problematic as the Establishment activists and idealists said needing radical changing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

THE DIFFERENCE WRITING ABOUT ROCK AND JAZZ

 Rock is subject to and suitable for analytical methods derived from literary studies and criticisms. It was proclaimed that rock and pop lyrics were the new poetry in the Sixties, and though not many writers have made a big deal over that issue lately, the close reading, interpretation and subjective critique of lyrics is central for the majority of rock writers to this day, regardless of the genres they prefer. There are areas where musical knowledge is helpful in assessing how well a band writes songs, does its arrangements, and how well (or how poorly) their instrumental skills accomplish their intentions. All that , though, is in service to matters of attitude, world view, social impact, the expression of experience. Rock lyrics, like real poetry, try to express the unexpressable in terms of the unforgettable, to paraphrase John Ciardi.

 Audiences want songs they can "relate" to on some visceral level, and applying literary habits of mind to the lyrics seems the surest way to comprehend what a lyricist is trying to tell the masses. Jazz is pretty much a different matter, as it has been around for over a century constantly evolving, morphing, with succeding generations of jazz players adding their innovations to a rich and complex history. As jazz players and composers constantly cite, musically, works and styles that came before them and adapt them for more contemporary use, writing about jazz, either as journalist or critic, requires a working knowledge of the forms, the styles, the players ...one could on and on about this. 


Jazz has become America's Art Music, our own version of the European classical traditions , and though it might come across as knee-jerkingly elitist to say, I think it's the obligation of anyone who wants to write competently rendered reviews and analysis of jazz to know the music evolution and history, have familarity with styles, to know the canon, the landmark recordings, the iconic innovators. Rock and roll criticism can be as rigorous as one wants to be, but there is a large amount of room for hot-takes and other ways of winging it ; the impulse of many rock writers through the decades has been to become known as literary writers of some measure, hence a lot of prose has been written under the guise being a critique that is more about the writer's emtional life than the actual music or the artist. This approach borders on outright autobiography, and is valid only if the writer has had a life quite different than most people, and if they write sufficiently well to hold a reader's interest. Lester Bangs kind of exhausted that method (not always to good effect).Jazz writing leaves no room for those indulgences or flourishes. One can study and speak of jazz in larger cultural/political framework, but that is a matter done best if , again, the writer has knowledge, more than passing, of musical traditions and how jazz was an effective element in changing the musical and social landscape.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

CREAM'S BEAUTIFUL, ELEPHANTINE LIVE VERSION OF "SPOONFUL"


 I have a number of live Cream bootlegs, and the quality of the playing from night to night varies wildly. Much of that is due to the fact that Bruce and Baker considered themselves jazz musicians above all else and were going to play around with three , sometimes four chord changes the way they would approach more complex and subtle things by Mingus or Dolphy. They played around with the beat, playing every coherent note that related to the chords, rather than lock into the changes like must rock rhythm sections did and give the singer / lead player a solid and dependable backing while they performed. I give Clapton credit for what he was able to do with the dueling improvisations Jack and Ginger were tossing at him.

 On Spoonful, I'm so Glad and especially Crossroads (WoF and Goodbye releases) he upped his game and at times made his limitations a virtue. His machine gun ostinatos, rapidly picked, created excitement . But the bootlegs reveal the limits of the approach when you have a guitarist who is technically outclassed by the rhythm section. He repeats his ideas, his energy level obviously drops , his playing becomes messy, bad enough that you wish Larry Coryell or John McLaughlin were in the guitar spot and not poor Eric. And, lets be clear that Clapton was using an awful lot of heroin back in the day, a drug that never gave anyone musician a long term benefit. 

A big guilty pleasure of mine is live Cream, especially this track, Spoonful, from Wheels of Fire. Sixteen minutes of loud, plodding, colliding, rolling, intermittingly brilliant riffing based on the two-chord Willie Dixon masterpiece. Jazzbos Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker , by Bruce's own admission, wanted Clapton to be their Albert Ayler. Clapton, alas, was just a blues guitarist with a great tone and solid sense of phrase and skilled in creating tension and release during a solo, but he wasn't a jazz player. He had, in fact, a pretty limited scope as a player, but in concert Bruce and Baker went to town on their lead player, shifting rhythms, playing counter melodies, weaving bass and drum patterns around Clapton's stunted -albeit gloriously expressed riffing. The style and temperament of the guitarist would have made for a different sound, for sure. Bloomfield could play the blues far better than could Clapton, but he was definitely jazzy, a man who does not get enough recognition for his contributions to jazz -rock fusion's creation with his work on EAST/WEST. The long improvisations would have been more fluid, jazzier. Something like I'm So Glad, for example, might have the guitar sound resemble Bloomfield's guitar break in the Electric Flag's "Another Country".

The maximal improvisations of Bruce and Baker forced Clapton to play harder, faster, slicing and dicing his minimalist blues playing, creating, in their best moments of hyped up jamming, a beautiful mesh of sonic assault. Spoonful is a amorphous mass of rampaging dissonance struggling to break free into some free jazz phantasm , but never growing the wings to soar as they must. The beauty was in how hard they tried to b e something more than a blues based band, encumbered by the fact that the blues wouldn't let them go. I get mocked for liking their live records much more than their studio efforts, but I don't care.


THIS JUST IN: "Some Girls" is a fine Rolling Stones album



SOME GIRLS is a fine rock and roll record that revives the quality that marked their best work, "ragged but right." The addition of Ron Wood on guitar began to pay out some king-size dividends, and it's my belief that his gritty chord work woke up a 'til-then somnambulant Keith Richards. Watts and Wyman never worked better as a rhythm section as well. As the story goes, they had something to prove with the influx of punk rock, and prove it they did. The album has some stone-cold gems on it, "Beast of Burden," "Just My Imagination," When the Whip Comes Down," "Lies," and certainly the fantastically pulsating "Shattered." The insistent throb, the grind of the rhythm, and the low-slung riffing give a manic foundation for Jagger's speedy, hyperlinked yowling of verbal shrapnel is more than enough to put this on the same level with any of the Stones' canonical work.

QUEEN JANE APPROXIMATELY

 Lately, considering this list, I've been attracted again to “Queen Jane Approximately”, one of Dylan's best "list-making" songs. One the sharpest songs on his 1966 double-album Blonde on Blonde, this love-sick lament is deceptively simple, It first reads as the moaning agony of a young man moaning in the moonlight, but the closer look, the harder listen avails us a tour of the troubled sideroads and detours a saddened might wander. The song is a lament, a plea, the wishful thinking of a rejected suitor holding out the hope for reconciliation for a lover who has left. Dylan’s lyrics on Blonde on Blonde were the best he’d ever composed during his long and quarrelsome career, a sardonic mash-up of kitchen sync surrealism and hallucinogenic Symbolism that brought the demented perceptions of Rimbaud and Verlaine into the American idiom.

 

The album is to be felt, not understood. It's a visceral experience.  The lyrics defied literal interpretation but still resonated with you in ways that made you think of your circumstances that defy the easy explanation. “Queen Jane Approximately”stands out for the opposite reasons; the language is simple, direct, and sharp. The lyrics, with only the lightest surreal tint attached to them, investigate a purely human experience. The stanzas are an inventory of interpersonal failures, the collapse of a world upon someone who imagined they were the center of it. Being the center of the universe is too much because gravity will eventually crush you.

 

When your mother sends back all your invitations

And your father, to your sister, he explains

That you're tired of yourself and all of your creations

Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

 

The basic idea is that we have a personality at the center of this entreaty, someone suffering the agonies of frustration, unfulfilled dreams, incredible, horrible ennui who, it seems, has been in stasis for a very long time. We are hearing someone assessing how their life has gone wrong and what choices made have to make it a different and more beneficial situation, a contemplation so severe that we witness, I suspect, the "paralysis of analysis." The estrangement of even the most severe narcissist from the self-gratifying, self-admiring activities that gave them their most precious reason to live which drags one to the bottom floor of their devastated justification to continue breathing the same air as the rest of us: a life in tatters, shattered, cursed with an acute view of self-designed schemes, agendas, world-classifying agendas that failed one after another, Queen Jane, we suppose, is slump-shouldered, smoking too many cigarettes, engaging in various means of self-destruction by the inch. Dylan's narrator, a former lover, perhaps, a jilted suitor who realizes what a full-blown mess this person is and yet still desires company, intimacy, still strives to be a rock to anchor her despair upon, offers himself, his fellowship, his support quite despite all the sharply described failures he recounts as he makes his offer.

 

Now, when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you

And the smell of their roses does not remain

And all of your children start to resent you

Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

 This is Dylan's lyric writing at its best, a bit disgusted, surreal in ways that match the speechless experiences of the soul without the lard of banal introspection. There is an endearing and enduring. This is fatalism and "Queen Jane Approximately" is discreetly the song of a man who is a glutton for punishment. Even without the profession of unconditional love, there is the sense of a young man deep in his intoxication.  He imagines himself as a saint, a martyr for a more significant cause, the delicious delusion that one has an inexhaustible store of patience to accept the consequences of loving a person committed to making decisions based on self and garnering misery and self-pity as the reward. This is a preview of a tragedy under construction. The suitor being as damaged as the woman he is making his overtures.

 

Now, when all the clowns that you have commissioned

Have died in battle or in vain

And you're sick of all this repetition

Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

  The language is a finessed balance between comprehensible plain-speak and Dylan's penchant for surreal sizing the details; this makes the situation plain as glass yet quaintly familiar. And the fact the guitar and piano sound a bit sour, out of tune (perhaps) adds to the alluring strangeness. This is what one sees at the intersection of Desolation Row and Positively 4th Street.

 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

SHANIA TWAIN'S EVIL PLAN TO DESTROY MUSIC CRITICISM

 Speaking of the evolution of country-rock fusion, it seemed some years ago that the movement has gotten to the point where the songs, the arrangements, are painted by numbers affair, a kind of assembly line professionalism where songs contain elements of rock and country--power chords, blues guitar licks, hard backbeats for rock, pedal steel guitars, fiddles, harmonica flourishes for the country--that lack all authenticity or conviction. I am thinking specifically of Shania Twain, a Canadian who is an outstanding example of country pop-rock that has been grimly calculated to appeal to a broad audience. 

Quantity, remember, reduces quality.

 It seems the same thing happened to the exhilarating jazz-rock genre when in a short period, it got formalized to a very recognizable set of riffs, solos, resolutions, all-flash, speed, and no improvisation. "Rock this Country" likewise is all riffs and no heart, teeter-tottering between the rock accents and the country lilts. It is something of a Frankenstein monster, neither alive nor dead, ganglia of nerves pulling the beast in different confusing directions. 

Maybe the saddest part of this whole Cuisinart method of music for mass audiences is the engineered homogeneity of the music, which is to say strains of melody and phrases vaguely familiar but rootless and inspiring no listener reflection nor reaction (save for a twitch of a muscle that might have been stimulated to get up and dance), is it leaves one void after listening. It's like bad sex, in the respect that after the Big Event, one or both partners stare at the ceiling or rise from the bed wordlessly, exchanging no sounds except for frustrated grunts. Critics come up with a string of songs like this one and find themselves challenged to add anything new to a genre that refuses to up its game concerning quality; all one can do is rewrite the initial invective, reword it, try to reshape arguments already made elsewhere,  until such a time that the critic resigns their post to seek honest work as a carnival worker. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

THE GENIUS OF "ODE TO BILLY JOE"


Ode to Billy Joe by Bobby Gentry is    a song I go back to at times and wind up rediscovering what an amazing  song it is all around, from the sad, simple melody, Gentry's smoky , country embossed vocal and the subtly insinuating string arrangement that actually manages to enhance the lyric's feeling of a small town's buried secrets. 

While much has been made trying to decipher a lot of sophomore surrealism in the early years of lyrics-as-poetry , focusing  on songs and albums that honestly haven't aged well over the decades, Gentry's stanzas are simple but not  dumb, being convincingly idiomatic, a first person narration with a encroaching oddness  worthy of Flannery O'Conner or Carson McCullers. Hemingway would have been impressed with the deceptive ease of  the writing; there is no poetic language to adorn this tale, no lead-footed adverbs, no creaky stabs at philosophical sophistication. It's a one act play, nearly, in the guise of a single narrator's voice which recollects the gossipy tone, the snotty opinions on the behavior and character of others, the sudden intrusions of gestures or abrupt interruptions . "Ode to Billy Joe" has an intense air of the things, the facts, the truth of things not said . Someone in this room, around this table is doubtlessly dying to utter what will not be named , but the silence is maintained, the pact is kept. What is unsaid seems to suck the life out of the room, reducing family talk to empty, distracted banter.

It's a wonderful telling of a world we  recognize, it has the quality of an intriguing conversation or snippy gossip we might lean closer to overhear. The setting of a family meal as the present tense location and the telling details--pass the black eyed peas, wipe your feet--and the fragmented chatter about Billie Jo McAllister which subtly brings you back in time to some blurrily recollected event--have a cinematic effect.There is a tragedy in this narrative that begs to be revealed, but Gentry, like the discussants in the song, isn't offering the big reveal. What works for the alluring mystery is that perhaps the song's narrator does not herself know anymore than anyone else around the or in the community. She tells what she knows in simple, effective language Hemingway would have admired, perhaps withholding information, keeping secrets, compelled by various small town mores to keep her mouth closed.  This element of does-she-or-doesn't-she know something makes this song even more confounding.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

SHAG V MULLET

I was gullible enough in the formative 70s to have a shag haircut for a year or so d. I borrowed twenty bucks from my Dad, who thought I was going to get a flat top and thus appear neat-as-a-doctor's office coffee table, and paid a guitarist who called himself Ramada to take the scissors to what was then an impressive, shoulder length cascade of curls. Ramada was also a badass guitarist for a local band called Madame Beast, who specialized in British rock--Small Faces, Spooky Tooth--and over all , I thought he looked cool, bitchen, the shit. I couldn't play guitar, but damn, I wanted his hair cut. A half hour later, I emerged from the bath room, tight ringlets of clipped curls on the floor waiting to be swept up, a skinny, glasses-wearing kid in jeans and a layered hair cut that made me look, well, ridiculous. And chubby-cheeked. And incredibly self conscious. I would try the trick of trying to catch my profile as I passed store windows, I'd linger in Sears clothing sections checking myself out from many sides in the three-mirrored fitting rooms, I would spend time in the bathroom trying to get my hair to seem to fall just so, like Keith Richard or Ron Wood. My Dad was pleased with neither the haircut nor the time I spent in the bathroom doing, apparently...nothing. No, the haircut didn't make me a hit with the ladies. But I did get stared at a lot.

The Sixties died when rednecks starting wearing their hair long, and you knew that the bloom was forever off the rose for British rock and roll when the shag haircut morphed into the mullet, a style intended for the ambivalent white twenty somethings stranded between a gas station and a pancake shop just off the interstate who couldn't decide which was a better ideal to live up to, military respect or rebel-yell hoo-hah. As with a conflation of two bad choices, we have results that are worse than if one chose to do nothing at all. The mullet does not look good on anyone, at any time, in any era. Like much of American life itself, where the fabled opportunities and boundless avenues of choice have shrunk to the most scant options, the mullet is a haircut that isn't selected to someone so much as assigned, like a military issue. It's symbolic of one's willingness to dedicate themselves, in order, to family , flag, and God and yet retain the revolutionary spirit of our country's founding, a nice trick if you can manage it, but too often what we see are listless and angry young men working against their own interests, ready to bash gays, blacks, beat wives, girl friends, any one they suspect of being a terrorist merely because they don't resemble them in skin tone , speech, or accent. And perhaps also because they aren't wearing a mullet.




Friday, June 4, 2021

ROCK OPERATICS

 

Rock snobbery has been going on ever since the first white kid ventured into the black part of his home town and bought some obscure black music from a record store where the good tunes were available, and however the music is distributed there is going to be a permanent and localized set of zealots who think their enshrined and personally blessed musical canon is not to be fucked with, never to be questioned, never to be to surpassed. In many ways it is no less intense and crazy as music, except with better guitar solos. 

It’s been debated for years as to what caused rock and roll’s fall from grace , that source that caused a revolutionary force for change become no more than more material for Corporate minds to sell us back our own history. It had been though that intellectuals were the source, the critics who wanted rock and roll to be more than a Life Force and become instead an adjunct for literature, philosophy, political discourse. All the troubles that were aroused in American during the Sixties seemed to constitute the formation of a Great Resistance to what were seen as the connected and overlapping sins of War, Oppression, and morbid materialism, and it was rock and roll that united all the energy and shaped into an energy with which positive altering of the world could be made. Or so the thinking went as the writers went to work, mapping out rock and roll’s guiding lights in a prose that borrowed from many an abstract discourse. 

The problem, as remarked by Barry Alfonso, isn't that rock has fallen from favor or has died, but is, rather, no longer at the center of a fan's universe. With the advent of the internet and the technologies that have made access to styles absurdly convenient, the generation defining sturm and drang is merely another flavor on the menu of musical genres that listeners listen to. From appearences and what I've heard , the music is as furious and impassioned as it ever has been--the ferocity of amplified chord bashing speaks across generational lines. The difference is that virtually no one thinks that particular albums or emerging artists constitute an Historical Moment, an Epochal Event. Albums get reviewed, the notices appear in small comment boxes on internet portals, and the music is downloaded, hopefully purchased, just as likely not, and that's it. The rattle and thrash goes right down the sink hole, although one can barely discern the sound of guitars, fading drumbeats and a screaming lead singer dissapating as the experience of the increases. We don't remember what it is we've just listened to. But still go about our way acting like this stuff still matters it used to, when there were only television and the movies to compete for our entertainment dollars. 

Somewhere the life force and vitality was sucked out; it was no longer about what you felt from a drum beat or a pounded chord on an electric guitar; rock and roll was no a catechism you had to learn. What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging with this tenuous thesis, weren’t rock critics, but rather fans that bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listener’s retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience whose tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknown explainable or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers, though, for the murder of a music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make album go double platinum. But let’s forget that everyone gets old, the brain is rearranged in endless ways since the time of youthful impulse, the world requires a more pragmatic approach to changing it. Living within the world becomes more important. It could also be as simple that our tastes change. 

Punk is racist because it eschews black influences? It may be a matter of style, and that preference may have its roots in some lumpy, swirling matrix of cultural forces one may term "racist" in some inconclusive, knot-headed reliance on aimless lefty jargon, but the exclusion of African American influence in a music does not make it "inherently racist" as you rather narrowly maintain, nor does it make it "stupid". Given the particulars, that absence may make it more honest. Rather than attempting to appropriate musical culture to the exclusion of all other comprehension, musicians in given communities--and communities have their niches in areas even great critics, theorists, or grouchy , partisan fans can imagine-- may chose, independently , non-judgmentally, to assimilate and reconfigure melodies that they find appealing to them. One plays a particular way because they want to play that way: the how and the why of that want is mysterious, but its existence cannot be attributed to racism. To say that it is racist is bone-headed. Let me rephrase that: it's ignorant and cheap.

I don't follow the argument that this topic wants to make. It sounds as if some one has the feeling that they've fallen from grace, that the keys of the musical kingdom are lost to them, and that it's the critics, always the critics, who have to take the rap for making the Perfect World all wrong. What would be more useful is some harder thinking, less flame-throwing generalities, and crisper distinctions, starting here. 


What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.  

Rather, I think its criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine futurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structuralist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit / Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.   My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between technique versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new. 

Rock, like the blues, its closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Literary Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel. Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivity of art making, be it music or something else.The crux of the argument is that the Garden of Eden was nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, and that, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over a lumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is demonstrably empty of content. 

Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop along side the growth of an industry that started recording and distributing increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen market shares. The hand of the business man, the soul of the capitalist machine has always been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and roll genius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire to get paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travails avail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselves still as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and finance their wants, like the rest of us. There has always been a market place where the music is played, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, the marketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and new technologies. 

Some of the thinner skinned among us are stressed and snottily mournful for an era when only the music mattered, and something inside me pines for that innocence as well, but innocence is the same currency as naivete, and consciously arguing that the way I formerly perceived the world was the way it actually worked would be an exorcise in ignorance, as in the willful choice to ignore available facts that are contrary to a paradigm that's sinking into its loosely packed foundation. 

It's my suspicion that for the typical young music listener now, this is the Eden they expect never to end, which means that it’s the best time in the world for rock and roll for some mass of folks out there. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily. I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed. I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. As music and musicians have always done. 

Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarians of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative. 

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo's portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

TARANTULA

 Bob 
Dylan is a word slinger, maybe a genuine poet during some parts of his oeuvre. Still, he is not a writer, not as we understand the word, a craftsman, an artist, a professional of words, instructional or artistic, who crafts sentences that start someplace and create precedence for the sentence that follows, one idea organically following another until the journey of words, paragraphs, pages, concludes somewhere far from where one started to write. That is, writers write things that make sense in some respect, as in you understand clearly the thing being described, or that you understand it more abstractly and realize that the writer is undertaking a task that tries to deal with several things--philosophical notions, contradictory arguments, overlapping historical data --and bringing a coherent framework to understand complex matters, or that, or at least come away with a sense of what the writer is getting at. Even Dylan's wildest lyrics, from Desolation Row to his more recent brilliance noteworthy Rough and Rowdy Ways: surreal or non sequitur as the stanzas may be, the line limits and the need t rhyme imposed restrictions on Dylan's musings. But let's keep in mind that these aren't actual musings since musings are the sort of thought process that, though occurring while the subject is at rest, nonetheless come to a point or offer, at best, stand-alone masterpieces of coherence.  Dylan's mind is neither at rest nor looking to connect ideas in any fashion that have a resemblance to the world you both live in. As with the other great and threatening modernists, Pound, Eliot, Stern, he wants to change the way you see, feel and smell the world.

Unresponsible Black Nite Crash

the united states is Not soundproof – you might think that nothing can reach those tens of thousands living behind the wall of dollar – but your fear Can bring in the truth … picture of dirt farmer – long johns – coonskin cap – strangling himself on his shoe – his wife, tripping over the skulls – her hair in rats – their kid is wearing a scorpion – the scorpion wears glasses – the kid, he’s drinking gin – everybody has balloons stuck into their eyes – that they will never get a suntan in mexico is obvious – send your dollar today – bend over backwards … or shut your mouths forever

the bully comes in – kicks the newsboy

you know where – & begins ripping away

                                                                    --from Tarantula 

The book goes on like this, one-liners of light bulb brilliance extended to the breaking point of where all associations are gone, and the brain is dead with the ravages of whatever drugs were being passed around the tour bus and found their way into the hotel room. All that can be done in the center of the night when the rest of the hotel room is either asleep or murmuring their own serenades to the dawn no one is sure will for them is to type, even more, an attempt to fill the page with a verbal world that is rhythm, cadence and shattered images crushed together in a representation of the existence that assaults the senses when exhaustion is passed by. Consciousness seems to hover by a delicate string between one last grand illumination and the final resolute darkness. 

 Well, yes, if you made through that tortured sentence and its unhinged and perhaps uninteresting associations, you correctly detect a hint of parody in my construction or lack of building. This is to suggest that the fault of the Dylan book is not his exuberance as word slinger or the genius he has at his most manic moments to come up with a punctuated stammer that resides very close to poetic genius--no, the fault is the mistake many a young man or woman jacked up on drugs and coffee and unfiltered cigarettes, that is the attempt to live in a permanent present tense. No past, no future, just right now, always, just us, the things in the room or in the street, things with names or no names, just us seeing, uttering names, and slapping the labels on anything that does not match. Good poetry takes time to...catch its breath, reflect, to...discover things, ideas, connections, what have you, the would-be bard hadn't the slightest idea existed in any sense. As startling as Tarantula's language seems at first, it stops surprising you even in the book's short length because the writing itself seems the very thing from which writing, as a process, was supposed to for a period free you from distractions. The writing seems a distraction. One might compare the book entirely to the proverbial over-stuff pantry that finally bursts open through the doors.                  

 He needed to wrap up his investigations into his more obscure imaginings. He gave you something to talk about. Tarantula was written on the road, in hotel rooms, on tour, rattled off in high doses of speed, and maybe other drugs too inane to bother talking about, and it certainly reads like it, snub-nosed Burroughs, Kerouac without the jivey swing. Some parts make you laugh, some good lines abound. Still, it suffers in that readers wanted their hero, the poet of their generation, to write a genuinely good of poetry or some such thing, with true believers tying themselves in self-revealing knots to defend the book that is interesting as an artifact to the historical fact of Dylan's fame and influence and not much else. There is a part I like, effective as poetry, a bit of self-awareness that shows that Dylan realizes that his persona is false, a conspiracy between himself and the major media and that somewhere in the future, he might have to account for the construction of the whole matter.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Live at the Bee Hive - Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Columbia)

 Live at the Bee Hive - Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Columbia)

 Live at the Beehive is a wild and wooly document of the excitement of the jam session. Recorded in a Chicago bar in 1955, the audio quality  is not the best, as the sound is muddy and flat, there's an excess of surface noise, and the continual buzz of customers ordering drinks and talking through the best solo moments are sn annoyance. The music from the bandstand easily overcomes and transcends the grouchy ambience. The collective sound is lively, rambunctious and packs the punch of a chain-mail glove.The several extended forays of the late Clifford Brown are especially exciting. Before his sudden death, Brown had established himself as possibly the premier trumpet player on any jazz scene, and this record, especially the workout on Sonny Stitt's "Cherokee," reminds us of his incandescent powers as a soloist. Clifford possessed a big, fat sound, and was alternately lyrically sublime and frenetically rapid in his choice of note. Bee Hive is a handy display case of this man's brilliance. The other players hold their own as well. The searing sax work 'of Sonny Rollins and Nicky Hill, the shimmering guitar of Lou Blevins and the pulsating time kept by pianist Billy Wallace and drummer Max Roach is featured. Audio quality is ragged, which is to  be expected, but these things are remedied and the music proceeds, quickly regain momentum. Live at the Bee Hive exists as an example of superb musicians just flat-out playing their  hearts out.

THE EAGLES MOVE NEXT DOOR . THE FLOWERS DIE IN YOUR GARDEN AND THE BIRDS FALL DEAD OUT OF THE TREES

 Quit defending the Eagles! They’re simply terrible - Salon.com:



The first thing that one has to do is give the Eagles their due, which is their ability to write tunefully, maintain tight harmonies and sustain an impressive level of musicianship. To their credit, these guys have always had a sound that makes them stand out in a crowded field, and they've always sounded like a real band, not an assembly of hired professionals. Normally t hose would be items that would lead to be an additional 500-700 words of praise for a particular album or live performance, but I've always hated this band . They are distinct and professional the way Disney Products, especially Marvel Movies, are professional, which is to say their efforts are superbly assembled works composed of elements skillfully, artfully, cynically chosen for their capacity to appeal to a mass audience of males who have a self-righteous and self-pitying chip on their shoulder and the women who love all those misunderstood and misunderstood men. Don Henley's voice is a nasally and grainy combination of Rod Stewart and Neil Young and reduces the calculated pathos of the lyrics to an aggravating noise, like the ice machine goes off next to the motel room you rented just when you're entering a select acre of nod. Their sense of telling sagas of heartbreak, stoicism in the face of hard choice, and despairing about the end of innocence after the party balloons have shriveled and the last flake of cocaine has been wiped from the mirror and rubbed some last-gasper's gums are soilless , overwrought, overwritten , and overacted. Their narratives are goon show narcissisms that are designed to impress, not express; they skip the dramatic all together and settle over the melodramatic. Theirs is the suicide -prone "code" of Hemingway, the arrogance that rather than cope, grow, move on with a life to which change ,significant change has inevitably come to , one instead nurtures the hurt privately, does not complain and carries on as before, exhibiting a pretense of "grace under fire" (Hemingway's coinage) while stewing in their own private hell of resentment, jealousy, anger, self-loathing and compensating arrogance in the conceit that their ability to take a punch, to take many blows to the head and to the ego, makes them a higher caliber of human, male human, white male human, than the lesser masses who inhabit the planet. Everything about their message and sound--the guitarwork that is too tasteful in country accents and too rubbery with the more rocking workouts--props up this multi-platinum hoax. I am very fond of Joe Walsh, having seen him a few times from my Detroit days when he played with the James Gang at area venues and festivals, but his personality seemed all but erased when he joined this egregious unit. His persona, a bohemian for whom there are no big deals and that what whatever travails and tragedies befall are likely because he made a decision that was  ill chosen and that life, such as it is despite the bad luck, is good so far ("Life's Been Good"), seemed an odd fit for this professionally pessimistic posse. His sense of humor and life-preserving irony couldn't keep them from absorbing Walsh into their uniformly sense of weltschmerz. Even Joe's famously chunky brand of blues rock guitar couldn't lift the band's  music anymore. The truth of this band  is plain: The Eagles blow.


The serious Eagles fan would come to the defense of this band--seemingly as much despised as they are loved by fans--and maintain that their cynicism, despair, and weariness were anything than the routine posturings of experience-glutted rock stars, the more being that they were artful and could write good song hooks and manage to keep their songs under a certain length. Granted, although a tune like "Hotel California" , paced at a tortoise crawl and it is slow in duration, is a notable exception, notable in that it contains everything that is objectionable to this band a collective projection of the zeitgeist. The lyrics are laden in down cast metaphors where the secreted meanings are grandiosely proclaimed, exhibiting a "you know what I mean " vagueness that is an  bullet to interests in whatever forbidden knowledge these musicians gleaned from their adventures at the edge of their own limitations.  An amazingly successful rock band with some indisputably talented musicians, the Eagles are a band I never cared about. Even in their best songs they seemed, smug in the depths of despair, depression and bad-luck stories their songs evoked. Tuneful, well crafted, laden with nicely arranged guitar textures and incidental instrumentation,the sweetly harmonized lyrics were a first rate evocation of bankrupt imaginations trying their best to out -bottom the rest of rock and roll's iconic desolation row residents. In meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous there there is the tradition of a having a leader "qualify" , that is, telling their tale of what it was like, what happened and what it's like now. The telling, or testimonial , if you will, would normally contain some sordid tales of their past that their  powerlessness over alcohol led them to, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly; the point is to make the listener understand the inevitable destruction this path results unless the alcoholic or drug addict has their moment of clarity and grasps a solution, which are the components of the "what happened" and "what its like now" parts of the formula. There is the habit of some members with years of recovery (such as it might be for them personally) who eschew the solution and instead tell one horrible anecdote after another; this is not generally appreciated by other group members seeking a confirmation of the hope that is supposed to be contained in the rooms where those meetings are held. This turns testimony in a drunkalogue and the effect is of someone who takes an inordinate pride in the horrible things they have done--each instance of bad luck,lying, theft, jail time, divorce, traffic accidents, job loss,  sexual misbehavior become like bullet points on a resume. 

Whether they intended to or done, those who overshare such things wallow in the gloom and their words become pointless. So with the Eagles, who have spent decades writing songs as if they are the only witnesses to the end of the world, a world where only they are citizens worth listening to. Theirs was a music akin to an old car with a great, shiny new paint job; attractive surface gleem, noisy and tired under the hood. For all their gold records and fanatical fan base, they have proven to be even more tiresome than U2. 

GREATEST SCREAMER OF ALL TIME

 Dickie Peterson, bassist and lead singer for the proto heavy metal band BLUE CHEER,  ascended to the giant E CHORD in the sky in October of 2009, which is another way of saying that he's dead still dead to this day. But lately, I've thought of him as I've done my research into outre electric guitar solos. His bandsaw -on-steel vocals, joined with guitarist Leigh Stephens' PULVERIZING ATONAL GUITAR SOLOS and drummer Paul Whaley's trash can demolition, Peterson and crew lay the groundwork for a generation of metal and punk bands to come: MC5, STOOGES, MOUNTAIN, LED ZEP, RAMONES, MOTORHEAD, DEAD BOYS. Even the Velvet Underground, with their feedback skronk, couldn't match Blue Cheer's steel-belted forays into electrified abandon; the Velvets merely taunted the strings of their guitar, Blue Cheer sounded like they punched holes in oil tankers. And Peterson's vocalizations were the perfect match, screech, rasp, and banshee wail all rolled into one bag of verbal outrage, maintaining a punk's slouch. He was the white-blues belter who deserved the praise. Sorry, Janis. It's appropriate to remember that their early manager, a fellow named Abe "Voco" Kesh, bragged that Blue Cheer played so loud that they killed a dog at an outdoor concert. They indeed played so loud that they recorded parts of their second album on piers in San Francisco, amps and speakers faced toward the bay because they kept blowing out the studio soundboard.

HIP HIP, VULGARITY

 

Kalefa Sanneh weighs in on the renewed focus on hip-hop's intransigent vulgarity in the New York Times and offers a typically middle of the road position about the music's part in encouraging violence and the furthering coarsening of American life. Don't blame the music, Sanneh writes, these words, these jokes, these attitudes have been part of African American and urban culture for generations, evolving from   

the tradition of "toasting" and graduating from the streets and the rent parties to the airwaves, discos, and television. The point of it all was to shake up the mainstream, upset the comfortably settled, and give voice at the same time to a vital life that boiled and roiled in the heart of every poor neighborhood languishing in the shadows of corporate America. Blame the corporations for disseminating the material to the larger population, blame your own uptightness if you are offended and taken aback by the rough language and general ugliness of much of the work. Some points well taken, and I'm of the mind that music and lyrics, whether Muddy Waters, Elvis, the Ramones or NWA in themselves cause people to have unprotected sex and buy "cop killer" bullets--this is a controversy that gets replayed every few years when media critics and their employers have exhausted the current crop of pseudo events for their capacity to inspire unending opinion-mongering whose collective outrage seems more scripted and assigned than spontaneous and reflecting real offense.What's irritating is the casual implication that if we'd relax and take a broader view we wouldn't get so upset. Some terms of  insult are like the half life of plutonium 239, which is roughly 24,000 years.  The comparison is this: frequent exposure to plutonium will still kill you no matter how much it ages in  our collective lifetimes, and there are words that have a seeming permanent capacity to offend and create havoc, discord , gross results. The N-word is so freighted with a foul history that repetition of use does not make it harmless, does not leach of it's  destructive purpose.

That's the old Lenny Bruce theory on foul language, that words are only words and that if we use them frequently and openly, they would lose their shock value and their capacity to offend. Nice theory, but very Fifties in fact, and one that does not travel well. Lester Bangs, writing of the N-word in a seventies piece called "White Noise Supremacists" in the Village Voice, examined his own adherence to Bruce's notion to defang the quarrelsome words and found the formula lacking. The word is generations old, used as powerful weapon to reinforce cultural and institutional racism and oppression, so much so, he found, that no matter how ironic one tried to be in their attempt to liberate the term from it's originating pathology, the N-word hurt, it hurt deep, it still caused anger, as it was designed to. Violence is an inevitable consequence for some when this word gets used, and so it goes with the hip-hop's street-level idiom. The language isn't going to be less upsetting merely because most of us shrug our shoulders and do nothing. The republic will survive, and the language we might object to will cease finding it's way into our public spaces only when the reality the words reflect ceases to be attractive, enviable, romantic. We return to our original and ongoing problem as a country: the transformation of a political apparatus into a means that allows people to achieve lives worth living. 
                                                                                       --Originally written in 2007.