Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Velvet Underground
Warner : 1970
[Buy It]

Van Morrison
Veedon Fleece
Polydor : 1974
[Buy It]

Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele
Sony : 2000
[Buy It]

Staple Singers
Available on : The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 2: 1968-1971
Stax : 1993
[Buy It]

Gene Vincent
Available on : The Road Is Rocky: Complete Studio Masters 1956-1971
Bear Family : 2005
[Buy It]

George Jones
Available on : Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years
Polygram : 1994
[Buy It]

Harry Nilsson
BMG : 1977
[Buy It]

Wynonie Harris
Available on : Big Band, Blues & Boogie: Roots Of Rock 'N' Roll, Vol. 1
President : 2003
[Buy It]

Bull Moose Jackson
Available on : Greatest Hits: My Big Ten Inch
King : 1994
[Buy It]

I had guests over at my house this week, including some I didn't know very well, and I had to decide where to set my level of curiosity. Pitch it too low and people feel neglected. Pitch it too high and they feel scrutinized. I think I worked it out, but it's a struggle for me and always has been, not because I find it hard to ask questions, but I find it hard to stop once I've started. Maybe it's curiosity, or a mix of curiosity and boredom, but it's always been that way. As a kid, I dressed up as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween, and that authorized me to look at things closely, squint, and then ask a number of inappropriate questions. (Some years, when the nearby adults got lazy or my dad didn't have a spare pipe, I was a cat burglar, and I imagined that I was committing crimes that Sherlock Holmes would have to solve the following year.)

For these reasons, I've always been drawn to question songs. There are all kinds of inquiries, from "Where did our love go?" to "When will I be loved?" but I prefer who songs. Not Who songs, but "who" songs, though "Who are you?" is both. Who made who? Who do you love? Who says a funk band can't play rock? Who knows where the time goes? Some of those who songs are the jumping-off point for broader inquiries. The Velvet Underground's "Who Loves the Sun," which is a kind of pessimistic response to "Here Comes the Sun," features what might be Doug Yule's best lead vocal, which isn't saying much. But "Who Was That Masked Man" features what might be Van Morrison's best lead vocal, which is saying much:
Oh ain't it lonely
When you're livin' with a gun
Well you can't slow down and you can't turn 'round
And you can't trust anyone
The title comes from the Long Ranger and possibly from Lenny Bruce, but the song comes from somewhere far stranger. It's on Veedon Fleece, Morrison's strangest and most elemental album, which was written and recorded (quickly) after his divorce from Janet Planet. Morrison uses a mournful falsetto, which is a vocal approach that he didn't employ often in his earliest records and almost certainly can't employ anymore. It's eerily effective here, where Morrison contemplates the value of stardom, not to mention identity itself, and comes down on the fence:
When the ghost comes round at midnight
Well you both can have some fun
He can drive you mad, he can make you sad
He can keep you from the sun
When they take him down, he'll be both safe and sound
And the hand does fit the glove
And no matter what they tell you,
There's good and evil in everyone
Question songs don't have to be ontological. Some are specific challenges, like Bill Withers' "Who is He (And What is He To You)," in which romantic doubt hardens into jealous certainty. (The song, complete with its unforgettable central eight-note clusters--four up, four down--later received a lesbian makeover from Me'Shell Ndegéocello.) Some are games, like the overlong Ghostface skit that rates potential bedmates: Lil' Kim or Foxxy Brown? Lady of Rage or Rah Digga? Janet or Chrissy? And still others are polemics: The Staple Singers' "Who Took The Merry Out of Christmas," which is a kind of unholy holy cross between "Inner City Blues" and "Be With Me Jesus."

Then there are the who songs that pose true mysteries. The first one takes us all the way back to 1956. Gene Vincent was already well along the road to rockabilly immortality, thanks in no small part to the guitar of Cliff Gallup, when he recorded "Who Slapped John." In the song, there's a party. There's a question of relations. And then there's a crime, sort of:
Well I heard John say, "Man, she's my gal"
I heard another say, "Man, she my pal"
Well John jumped up, then he screamed
"Well, she's my gal, man, and that I mean"
Well, who-who, who slapped John?
Who-who, who slapped John?
Baby, who slapped John when the lights went low-oh?
Who-who, who slapped John?
Three years after the lights went low-oh, George Jones co-wrote and recorded "Who Shot Sam." It's an echo of and possibly even an answer record to "Who Slapped John," but it's also connected to the folk tradition of complex story-songs that would later reach its apogee/nadir with Bob Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts"--the Jones song counts among its characters Sammy Samson, Silly Milly, Flirty Mirty, the police chief, the judge, and the narrator. There's also a lyric that might be cryptically filthy:
We met Silly Milly, everything was all right
Her eyes started rollin', we shoulda went a-bowlin'
Wham-bam, who shot Sam, my-my
"Who Shot Sam" is mentioned in the opening line of Elvis Costello's "Motel Matches," in 1979. Within two years Costello would be covering and performing with Jones.

"Who Slapped John" and "Who Shot Sam" remain unsolved. And in the end, they're minor crimes, mere party (or roadhouse) mayhem. Neither has the production values or the narrative drive of Harry Nilsson's "Who Done It?" Nilsson had already recorded a murder mystery, of sorts, with "Ten Little Indians," and "Who Done It?" revives the calypso stylings of "Coconut" for a closed-door manor-house case that's straight out of Agatha Christie. The song is from the underrated album "Knnillssonn," whose double-exposure cover image doubles its doubled typography, and it's pushed along by a lovely, confusing string part that sounds like a sample in a hip-hop song. Nilsson's vocals are not as angelic as they once were; rupturing his vocals cords while making "Pussy Cats" with John Lennon had taken care of that. But it's a committed performance, if you mean commitment to irony. There are Smythes, Sloans, Chopin (a snatch of the Piano Sonata No. 2, "pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you"), and a superb alibi from Nilsson's narrator ("I was in Colorado, having breakfast, with a nun!") In the end, like much of Nilsson's best work, it's a high-level novelty record, and all the more personal for its impersonality.

We close with the saddest mystery of all. "Who Threw The Whiskey In the Well?" is credited to Wynonie Harris, though in fact the song was originally released by Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra, with Harris as a vocalist. The song became a big R&B hit, and Harris, who was not restricted by Millinder's recording contract, went off to seek his fortune as a solo artist. In addition to producing that solo career (which yielded such immortal hits as "Mr. Blues Jumped The Rabbit," "Bloodshot Eyes," and "Good Rockin' Tonight"), the song produced an answer record by Bull Moose Jackson, who had replaced Harris in Millinder's orchestra. So who did throw the whiskey in the well? Find out yourself. No need to ruin a good mystery.

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posted by Ben

Monday, November 26, 2007
Liquid Swords
Geffen : 1995
[Buy It]


An excerpt from The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
by Carlos Castaneda
Simon & Schuster : 1968
[Buy It]

Sunday, 15 April 1962
As I was getting ready to leave, I decided to ask him once more about the enemies of a man of knowledge. I argued that I could not return for some time, and it would be a good idea to write down what he had to say and then think about it while I was away.

He hesitated for a while, but then began to talk.

'When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives. His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague. He hopes for rewards that will never materialize, for he knows nothing of the hardship of learning.

'He slowly begins to learn - bit by bit at first, then in big chunks. And his thoughts soon clash. What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid. Learning is never what one expects. Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly. His purpose becomes a battlefield.

Clint Mansell & Kronos Quartet
Requiem for a Dream OST
Nonesuch : 2000
[Buy It]

'And thus he has tumbled upon the first of his natural enemies: Fear! A terrible enemey - treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting. And if the man, terrified in its presence, runs away, his enemy will have put an end to his quest.'

'What will happen to the man if he runs away in fear?'

'Nothing happens to him except that he will never learn. He will never become a man of knowledge. He will perhaps be a bully or a harmless, scared man; at any rate, he will be a defeated man. His first enemy will have put an end to his cravings.'

'And what can he do to overcome his fear?'

'The answer is very simple. He must not run away. He must defy his fear, and in spite of it he must take the next step in learning, and the next, and the next. He must be fully afraid, and yet he must not stop. That is the rule! And a moment will come when his first enemy retreats. The man begins to feel sure of himself. His intent becomes stronger. Learning is no longer a terrifying task. When this joyful moment comes, the man can say without hesitation that he has defeated his first natural enemy.'

'Does it happen at once, don Juan, or little by little?'

'It happens little by little, and yet the fear is vanquished suddenly and fast.'

'But won't the man be afraid again if something new happens to him?'

'No. Once a man has vanquished fear, he is free from it for the rest of his life because, instead of fear, he has acquired clarity - a clarity of mind which erases fear. By then a man knows his desires; he knows how to satisfy those desires. He can anticipate the new steps of learning, and a sharp clarity surrounds everything. The man feels that nothing is concealed.

The Black Album
Def Jam : 2003
[Buy It]

'And thus he has encountered his second enemy: Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds.

'It forces the man never to doubt himself. It gives him the assurance he can do anything he pleases, for he sees clearly into everything. And he is courageous because he is clear, and he stops at nothing because he is clear. But all that is a mistake; it is like something incomplete. If the man yields to this make-believe power, he has succumbed to his second enemy and will fumble with learning. He will rush when he should be patient, or he will be patient when he should rush. And he will fumble with learning until he winds up incapable of learning anything more.'

'What becomes of a man who is defeated in that way, don Juan? Does he die as a result?'

'No, he doesn't die. His second enemy has just stopped him cold from trying to become a man of knowledge; instead, the man may turn into a buoyant warrior, or a clown. Yet the clarity for which he has paid so dearly will never change to darkness and fear again. He will be clear as long as he lives, but he will no longer learn, or yearn for, anything.'

'But what does he have to do to avoid being defeated?'

'He must do what he did with fear: he must defy his clarity and use it only to see, and wait patiently and measure carefully before takng new steps; he must think, above all, that his clarity is almost a mistake. And a moment will come when he will understand that his clarity was only a point before his eyes. And thus he will have overcome his second enemy, and will arrive at a position where nothing can harm him any more. This will not be a mistake. It will not be only a point before his eyes. It will be true power.

Dismemberment Plan
De Soto : 2001
[Buy It]

He will know at this point that the power he has been pursuing for so long is finally his. He can do with it whatever he pleases. His ally is at his command. His wish is the rule. He sees all that is around him. But he has also come across his third enemy: Power!

'Power is the strongest of all enemies. And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in; after all, the man is truly invincible. He commands; he begins by taking calculated risks, and ends in making rules, because he is a master.

'A man at this stage hardly notices his third enemy closing in on him. And suddenly, without knowing, he will certainly have lost the battle. His enemy will have turned him into a cruel, capricious man.'

'Will he lose his power?'

'No, he will never lose his clarity or his power.'

'What then will distinguish him from a man of knowledge?'

'A man who is defeated by power dies without really knowing how to handle it. Power is only a burden upon his fate. Such a man has no command over himself, and cannot tell when or how to use his power.'

'Is the defeat by any of these enemies a final defeat?'

'Of course it is final. Once one of these enemies overpowers a man there is nothing he can do.'

'Is it possible, for instance, that the ma who is defeated by power may see his error and mend his ways?'

'No. Once a man gives in he is through.'

'But what if he is temporarily blinded by power, and then refuses it?'

'That means the battle is still on. That means he is still trying to become a man of knowledge. A man is defeated only when he no longer tries, and abandons himself'

'But then, don Juan, it is possible that a man may abandon himself to fear for years, but finally conquer it.'

'No, that is not true. If he gives in to fear he will never conquer it, because he will shy away from learning and never try again. But if he tries to learn for years in the midst of his fear, he will eventually conquer it because he will never have really abandoned himself to it.'

'How can he defeat his third enemy, don Juan?'

'He has to defy it, deliberately. He has to come to realize the power he has seemingly conquered is in reality never his. He must keep himself in line at all times, handling carefully and faithfully all that he has learned. If he can see that clarity and power, without his control over himself, are worse than mistakes, he will reach a point where everything is held in check. He will know then when and how to use his power. And thus he will have defeated his third enemy.

Svarte Greiner
Type : 2006
[Buy It]

'The man will be, by then, at the end of his journey of learning, and almost without warning he will come upon the last of his enemies: Old age! This enemy is the cruellest of all, the one he won't be able to defeat completely, but only fight away.

'This is the time when a man has no more fears, no more impatient clarity of mind - a time when all his power is in check, but also the time when he has an unyielding desire to rest. If he gives in totally to his desire to lie down and forget, if he soothes himself in tiredness, he will have lost his last round, and his enemy will cut him down into a feeble old creature. His desire to retreat will overrule all his clarity, his power, and his knowledge.

'But if the man sloughs off his tiredness, and lives his fate through, he can then be called a man of knowledge, if only for the brief moment when he succeeds in fighting off his last, invincible enemy. That moment of clarity, power, and knowledge is enough.

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posted by Brian

Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Loudon Wainwright III
Career Moves
Virgin : 1993
[Buy It]

Ray Davies
Other People's Lives
V2 : 2006
[Buy It]

Graham Parker
Your Country
Bloodshot : 2004
[Buy It]

Massive Attack
Blue Lines
Virgin : 1991
[Buy It]

Horace Andy
Available on : Feel Good All Over: Anthology
Sanctuary Trojan : 2002
[Buy It]

Thelonious Monk
It's Monk's Time
CBS : 1964
[Buy It]

The Godfathers
Hit By Hit
Link : 1986
[Buy It]

Sometimes, there's a long table. Sometimes, there's a large table. Sometimes, there's a small table. Three old men sit around it, eating. Someone prefers the white meat. Someone else prefers the dark meat. Someone else waits for the wishbone. All three carve.

The room is warm. Someone cracks a window to let the air in. There's a song coming from a car out on the street. There's a young man in the car bobbing his head back and forth. There's a young woman in the front seat next to him. The young man and the young woman kiss.

"Diamond in the back," someone says.

"This isn't the original," someone else says. "The singer's different."

They listen. It isn't the original. The singer's different. The car pulls away. Someone closes the window. Someone else begins to hum the song, and then to hum another song. Someone else taps out a beat on a glass with a spoon. The tapping stops. It is dark outside the window. The room is white with silence.

Someone leaves the room to make a call. Someone else can hear him making the call. The call is as warm as the room. "Thanks for coming by the other day," someone says. "I was very happy to see you. I don't always remember to tell you how great you are."

Someone comes back into the room. Someone else leaves to make a call. The call is as cold as the air that came into the room. "Thanks a lot," someone says. "I can't say that I'm surprised. Listen, I need to go."

Someone comes back into the room. Someone else leaves to make a call. "You don't have to thank me," someone says. "Being kind to you isn't a burden. Eventually you'll see what you mean to me."

Someone comes back into the room. Someone sits. Someone else sits. Someone stands up and opens the window again. Someone else thinks he hears another song. Someone else can't hear a thing. The window is closed again. Someone slides back from the table. Someone else angles his chair to the side. Someone else stretches and sighs. All three leave.

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posted by Ben

Monday, November 19, 2007
Drawing Voices
Drawing Voices
Hydrahead : 2007
[Buy It]

Michael Harrison
Cantaloupe : 2007
[Buy It]

It Had Wings
Migration Media : 2007
[Buy It]

Sometimes I like to get really high and try to read books. I say "try" because I'm seldom able to do so - more often, a sentence or two will comprise a feedback loop in my head, a current guided by the relentless, interior annularity of pot-thought that becomes rich with the mineral silt of whatever else happens to be rattling around in my mind. I don't get much reading done this way, but find the activity profoundly relaxing, and conducive to the formulation of new ideas. In this state, instead of passively absorbing a text, I'm actively engaging with it, mingling with it, which is a profoundly different experience than *reading* a book, one to be employed strategically.

Other times, I just wind up tripping out on the utter weirdness of language itself. A book or a magazine does strange things to my sense of conceptual space - they're compact objects that feel much larger as you approach them, their conceptual depth like a vertical column of light inscribed through them. You can feel yourself diffuse along this column as you read, and that sense of feeling larger than you are - that awareness of your essence being extended through someone else's thought - can be exhilirating. When I look at my car, its conceptual dimensions fit within its physical dimensions, but when I look at at a book (or an iPod, for that matter), I see a small physical object with a great glowing quantity of web-like data around it. The conceptual exceeds the physical.

Despite the ubiquity of language, when I really think about it, it never ceases to amaze me that it's possible to condense something as anarchic as thought into these orderly, compact symbols, which, on the receiving end, are reverted to thought, albeit thought inevitably transformed from its original dimensions by the shape of the medium. The process is very similar to sending someone a zip file over the Internet: content is compressed for transmission, then extracted. This is miraculous, and perilous, because our actual language still represents only a minute sliver of total language, which is why we're always fumbling over our words and having to explain ourselves. Total language is total knowledge. The minute sliver of language to which we've access is insufficient for expressing the total knowledge we have within us. What I can think is not the same as what I can say. When these two quantities align, the essence of humanity as we understand it will be irrevocably changed.

It's often been said that a million monkeys with a million typewriters would, given world enough and time, eventually produce Shakespeare. This chestnut is meant to illustrate something about probability, but its undermining of the assumptions we make about our relationship to language is more compelling. Since Shakespeare has already produced Shakespeare, I'm more interested in the texts these millions of monkeys would produce that *have yet to be written*. And why wouldn't they? Let's take "monkeys with typewriters" out of the equation, subbing in simply "computers." In my mere 28 years on Earth I have seen the rise of technologies that would have seemed unthinkable within my lifetime. Being generous and assuming I'll live for fifty more years, I place very few limits on the wonders that might emerge within my lifetime - at this point, nothing seems too far-out (this is why the best science fiction writers of the nineties and aughties have given up on the future to write about the present - flying bubble cars seem absolutely quaint compared to the Internet). Our technological reality already exceeds our imagination.

So let's imagine our modern monkeys with typewriters, an array of supercomputers, endlessly configuring and reconfiguring the whole of language available today into every possible combination. Let's imagine some software filters that disregard the pure gibberish while weeding out any randomly generated text that scans as remotely coherent in a syntactical sense. Let's imagine a team of humans who pore over these results, and what, with persistence, they would eventually discover: Shakespeare, perhaps, but also scientific breakthroughs, philosophical insights, great poems and novels, plans for weapons of incredible destruction or cures for currently incurable diseases, et cetera...

All of these secrets are locked within our language, if only we could find the key. Traditionally, human thought has been that key - the idea precedes the langauge. Ideation is fundamental to our self-image as humans, to our sense of personal agency. But in this new paradigm, the process would be inverted: language would precede thought. What would a Shakespeare text mean to us if it had been generated via computer algorithms, if ideation was a game not of intent but of chance? Is the beauty of Shakespeare's writing inherent in the symbolically condensed thought it contains, or in the fact that a human produced it? What if we truly learned to produce knowledge without thinking? We currently regard conceptual problems as tests of the human intellect, but in this new paradigm, their solution wouldn't be a matter of intellection, it would be a game with trillion-sided dice, a matter of combining words in the correct order, aided by tireless machines, using only the language that is already available to us. On the upside, we already have a cure for AIDS, we just haven't gotten the right words in the right order yet. On the downside, we already have a recipe for a bomb that could detonate the whole world, we just haven't gotten the right words in the right order yet. The secrets lie not in our minds, but in knocking down the walls in the labyrinth of our language.

I have read and loved many writers in my life, but there are a few I can isolate that changed my worldview forever. One of those is Jorge Luis Borges, who first put this idea of total language into my head. Borges intuited this linguistic supercomputer in stories like "The Library of Babel" and "The Book of Sand." In the former, he writes about a great library in which every possible permutation of extant language is rendered in its own tome; in the latter, he maps the same concept onto a single book, which you can never quite open to the first or last page, and never find the same page twice. He was circumscribing the infinite, which he embodied in language, where the infinite is partitioned off into discrete, digestible units. These are not fantasy stories - in the conceptual realm, the Library of Babel *exists* - we just haven't become able enough as librarians to catalog more than a fraction of its stacks. And in fact, it probably isn't within the realm of human pontential to be those librarians. But to build them is.

Once Borges taught me that total language embodied total knowledge, my conceptual filter was irrevocably changed. I had previously thought of my words as something I generated to contain my thought, but now I regard my words as little splinters plucked haphazardly off of the total mass of language, which create my thoughts. And once I perceived language as a total mass, it was impossible for me not to view art the same way: a mass of generative potential from which we steal little bits, mostly at random. I then understood myself, when I created something, as a conduit for a force that had nothing to do with me beyond being shaped, ever so minutely, by the contours of the vessel (i.e., little me.)

The randomness bothered me, and suddenly, process-based art was the only kind I was interested in creating (all the songs on today's post are in some way constained and guided by a process or technical imperative). I've since come to terms with that randomness. A common critique of poets, especially modern free-form minimalists, is that you can just put any combination of words on the page. This is true - any combination of words on a page will create a radically specific vector of thought, coherent or otherwise, and if this approach seems infertile, it's only because too many poets are using the same combinations of words in the same way. So that random element of accessing the great art mass can be fertile, if we're careful about choosing the words that call out to us and not the words that worked well for other poets. But it's still process-based art that has the greatest foothold in my imagination. (Not that process-based and intuitive art are mutually exclusive - most of my processes have aleatory agents and vast fields of unfettered play built into them. (Yeah, I know - we'll talk John Cage and Jackson Mac Low some other time.) And I still love to improvise in paint and music and words, although I tend to feed these extemporaneous acts of creativity into constrained processes after the intial fact.)

Think about it like this, as I did on a recent camping trip. Making art without a process is like sitting in the forest. You occupy a radically specific location and have a circumscribed panorama (this represents a portion of the art-mass, which is far too large to be viewed as a whole) in your field of vision. It's then up to you to choose which parts you want to write or draw or sing about, and in what order. Making art with a process in place is like doing the same thing from within your tent. You still occupy a radically specific location, and the same circumscribed panorama surrounds you. But you can only see a tiny portion of it, through a small window you've unzipped in the tent. This window represents your process, whatever concept or algorithm or intuition your project is operating under, which will desposit you at a radically specific point of entry in the art mass, perhaps allowing you to travel a continuous path toward the art-mass's interior, should you pursue the logic of your process far enough, instead of slicing random slivers from different points on its surface.

Paradoxically, by cutting yourself off from the hell of infinite options and focusing your creativity into a thin beam, you can attain greater artistic freedom, since your will, left to its own devices, will always be threatened by the pull of the market, vanity, insecurity. Enslaving yourself to a process makes that process into a shield, creating a protected field of play on which one can be free. And in making process-based art, I've been able to create texts that I've learned from, rather than texts that embody my meager learning. If I have to choose a master, I'll take a process of my own devising over the market any day.

Wow, was that discursive? I swear I'm not high.

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posted by Brian

Friday, November 16, 2007
The Who
The Who Sings My Generation
MCA : 1965
[Buy It]

The Who
The Who Sings My Generation
MCA : 1965
[Buy It]

Chuck Berry
New Juke Box Hits
Chess : 1961
[Buy It]

Boyce Day
Love Is the Lie That You Believe
Black Fly : 2003
[Buy It]

Sony : 1972
[Buy It]

Private Stock : 1976
[Buy It]

The Posies
Available on : At Least, At Last
Not Lame : 2000
[Buy It]

Rev. Isaiah Shelton
Available on : Goodbye, Babylon
Dust-To-Digital : 2003
[Buy It]

This week someone lied to me. The lie was not huge, but it was not tiny, either. It made me angry. No, angry is an understatement. It made me livid. I won't shame the person further by revealing the details of the lie. Let's just say that it was a shortsighted, cowardly, selfish, blockheaded, foolish, and destructive thing to do. The air eventually cleared, but for a little while, the stink of the lie was on everything. I don't really like lies. I really don't like them. You could even say that I overreact to them. Once, years ago, a guy I worked with brought a plate of cookies to the office. Another woman came by, picked one up, and took a bite out of it. They were raisin, not chocolate-chip, and she was done with them. She put the bitten cookie back. The guy returned. "Hey," he said. "Who took a bite of this cookie?"

"Ben did," the woman said. "I saw him."

"You did!" I said.

"Don't get so angry," she said. "It's nothing to worry about. It's just a cookie. He doesn't care if you took a bite out of it."

"I don't," the man said.

"Fine," I said. "But I didn't. She did." I pointed at her. I raised my voice above appropriate office volume. I was not in my right mind. But I was right.

My inability to handle other people's lies may seem paradoxical, or maybe even hypocritical, because I'm a fiction writer. But like most fiction writers, I will insist that every event in every story in every book I have published is true. Or rather, just because they're not technically true doesn't mean that they are lies. If I write a story about a man who sleeps with a woman and is then banished to the moon, I may not be writing nonfiction, as such, but I am not lying. People come to fiction with an understanding that the stories have truth in them. Sometimes the truth is even greater than in nonfiction, because fiction frees us up to talk about things we couldn't address directly. We can confess our feelings for others, our fears about moving through the world, our insecurities and superstitions.

Rock music has less tolerance for lying. At some level, of course, rock music is built on lies: white British kids pretending to be black American bluesmen and R&B shouters. But that's imposture rather than deception. Truth--or at the very least, the appearance of truth--is at the center of rock music. Partly, this is because many (most?) rock songs are about love and about ego, and those are the two substances most likely to combust when a lie is introduced. Take the Who's "La La La Lies." Like most early Who, there's a tension in the song between the boyish, almost tame vocals (not to mention Nicky Hopkins' jaunty piano) and the epochal drums and guitar--the Moon/Townshend's eruption after the second chorus pushes the song rudely past pop into rock. The lies under consideration here are pretty vague, which probably means that they're pretty specific:
I don't insist that you feel bad
I just want to see you smile
Don't ever think you made me mad
I didn't listen to your lies
A few songs later, "It's Not True" sharpens the focus: here there are specific rumors that need to be debunked:
I haven't got eleven kids
I weren't born in Baghdad
I'm not half-Chinese either
And I didn't kill my dad
The Who wasn't the only foundational rock act to demonstrate a preoccupation with dishonesty. Chuck Berry, four years earlier, had reworked Tampa Red's 1940 blues "Don't Lie to Me," speeding up the tempo and using a tricky shuffle beat (I think it's Fred Below drumming) but keeping many of the lyrics:
There's two kinds of people that I just can't stand
Well that's a lying woman and a cheating man
Don't lie to me
'Cause that makes me mad and I get shook up as a man can be
Getting shook up in this fashion is unpleasant, and not just for the person who's being lied to: a verse later, Berry explains that the lies make him "evil as a man can be." The Rolling Stones took a crack at the song in 1964, and they reordered the choruses, getting evil before they got all shook up. It's all a question of where the lie's effect eventually lands.

If you start collecting songs about lying and liars, you'll find that there are a million, and that all of them are good. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's not a lie. Big Star's "Don't Lie to Me," which isn't the same song as the Tampa Red/Berry composition, is the hardest-rocking three minutes the band ever put on record. Jackie Wilson's "Stop Lying" preaches cold, hard emotional truth underneath a cotton-candy arrangement of horns, chimes, and backup vocals. There are songs about the romantic benefits of untruth, like Fleetwood Mac's aerodynamic "Little Lies." There are songs about its drawbacks, like Asha Puthli's erotically vengeful "Lies." There are songs with deception woven into the plot, like Pedro the Lion's "Bad Diary Days." There are broader political settings, like John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth." There are manifestos, like the Castaways' Liar Liar" and the Sex Pistols' "Liar." If anyone ever lies to you, you're not going to have to look far for a mix tape.

Some of the best songs are the subtler ones. Boyce Day's "Love is the Lie that You Believe" catalogs various types of deception, and concludes that self-deception is sometimes the only thing that can start the engine of the heart:
You can tell me that the world is flat
I don't think I'm going to fall for that
At the end of the rainbow a pot of gold
Well that's a story that leave me cold
You can tell me all about Santa Claus
The Fountain of Youth and the Wizard of Oz
I don't believe God took the form of a dove
So how come I believe in love?
Self-deception of a different sort is the prime mover in "White Lies." Grin was the band led by Nils Lofgren, who was a teenage veteran of Neil Young's band and went on to play guitar for the E Street Band. "White Lies" is a massive hit that was only a cult hit, complete with angelic harmonies, a punch-it-out chorus, and a thrilling false ending, but the message is tricky. Lofgren seems to be warning a woman not to spread the rumor that he loves her, but he seems to be lying mostly to himself:
They'll see where but I fear I traveled here alone 'cause of you
Think I may be daydreamin' baby but I know I know what I still don't mean to you
While I try, while I try, while I try, don't start tellin
White lies, you better talk it over
White lies, everywhere I go I'm hearin'
White lies
Tellin' everybody that I love you
And Blondie's "Little Girl Lies" is a girl-group update that puts straightforward carnality where euphemism used to be:
She loves you right now, so don't close your eyes
She'll be talking and laughing with six other guys
Flirtatious and cute, she'll take you the route
Telling little girl lies
He loves her so much, he don't wanna lose her
And there's no other girl he likes to ball better
But he's busy tonight, "We'll make it tomorrow"
He's telling his little girl lies
Most of these songs are about lying in love. That may be at the root of the Posies' "Everybody is a Fucking Liar," but the band widens the scope considerably:
Just as God in his his infinite infancy thinks he's in control
That's when God in his infinite infamy decides to damn our souls
Let's throw it all in
And think of places to back up and begin
To build something higher
'Cause everybody is a fucking liar
The Rev. Isaiah Shelton believes in a somewhat different relationship between truth and God. The song is a driving R&B number beneath the gospel -- it provided the melody for Ray Charles's "Leave My Woman Alone" -- but when you're talking about something as serious as lying, it's better to end on a comic note. I once dated a woman who insisted that the funniest lyric in pop music came in Nine Inch Nails' "Terrible Lie," when Trent Reznor, after lamenting the meaninglessness of existence, raged to the Lord above, "Hey God, I think you owe me a great big apology." She had a mental picture of Reznor standing beneath a stormy sky, shaking his fist furiously, as if God had wrongfully accused him of taking a bite out of a cookie. "A great big apology!" she said. "Can you even believe it?" She started laughing every time she thought about it. I don't exactly remember why we broke up, but I know it wasn't because of a lie, and that's why I remember her fondly.

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posted by Ben

Wednesday, November 14, 2007
UGK feat. Rick Ross
Underground Kingz
Jive : 2007
[Buy It]

Kanye West feat. the Game
Late Registration
Roc-a-Fella : 2005
[Buy It]

some damn mixtape
circa 2005 (?)

Young Jeezy
The Inspiration
Def Jam : 2006
[Buy It]

Killa Season
Asylum : 2006
[Buy It]

Today I was torn as to whether I wanted to follow up on Ben's post about language or James's post about crack; both topics are of high interest to me. I sat at my desk with a copy of Borges's "Library of Babel" at my right hand, Young Jeezy's The Inspiration at my left. A cursory sweep through my iTunes revealed that I have more music directly pertaining to crack than music directly pertaining to linguistic metaphysics, and some MW readers have recently indicated that they prefer our posts that pertain directly to music over our more discursive efforts (if the latter have seemed scarcer lately, it's because I, the greatest offender when it comes to, er, "untraditional mp3 blogging," have been on vacation, opening up a space for Ben's bravura run). So I decided to take the rock (groan) from James instead.

But first, here's a picture of the terminally insane Pete Doherty making his cat smoke crack.

Crack's place in the popular culture is no less prominent now than it was in the scare-mongering '80s (even Kanye West, the surburban child of an academic, wanted a piece of the crack-trend action, troublingly asserting that "This is crack music nigga/ That real black music nigga"). But if crack seems less scary now than it did then, it's because a) crack became such a pervasive topic in mainstream rap and b) mainstream rap has become a pop phenomenon. Crack, in short, has been demystified, and at this point one might reasonably expect a white suburbanite who doesn't know a crack rock from a Fraggle Rock to know that "trap" means a place where one goes to buy or sell drugs and that "white girl" doesn't refer to Natalie Portman. Thanks to documentary-style trap-hop, we're all armchair experts in the terminology and tenets of moving weight (although the experience of *smoking* crack has received a lot less attention than the experience of selling it). This is a far cry from my '80s childhood, when all I knew of crack was that it was ambiguously yet urgently bad, like nuclear war, killer bees, and satanic heavy metal, and that black people were doing it. The implication of the news reports, as I recall them, was that the real danger wasn't to the poor black communities who were using crack, but to the white families they might rob, or entice into deviant sexual practices, who were just trying to go about their business of politely sniffing uncooked cocaine and dancing awkwardly amid banks of flashing lights.

Before crack, there was cocaine (I remember once telling a friend, who asked me what I meant by the term "post-capitalism," to think of crack as "post-cocaine"), on which Bun B provides many informative tidbits in the UGK song of the same name. It's often known as "yayo," and comes from Columbia and Peru. It's been around for hundreds of years, "exploited by the rich," and they used to put it in Coca-Cola. It's a global economy with a rigid chain of production: "Grown by the cartels, protected by guerillas/ Transported by the best, to the ghettos, to straight killers." The sale of cocaine is the most glamorous enterprise, while its use is reviled. "Everything was cool, I was ice cold," Pimp C says earlier in the song, "Until I let that bitch get up in my nose."

The idea that selling crack is glamourous while using crack is reviled is dominant in modern mainstream rap, as is the idea that venting toxins into one's community is justified by the genre's rapacious drive toward amassing wealth. Cocaine rap is so compelling because it embodies the American dream - of individual success at any cost, of being one of the few winners in a field crowded with losers - at its most ruthless logical conclusion. In "Eghck," Clipse turn out many clever puns about trapping - "I pedal (peddle) to the corner like a child on a bigwheel" and "So much shake in the streets they measure my weight in Richter" - but the song most poignantly demonstrates the capitalism-rap mindset when it turns personal. The part goes: "And I'm not proud, in fact, I hate this route / It's the same game got my brother strung out / So I count the ways that it fucked up his life..." And here we hold our breath for some expression of remorse, confliction, or even renunciation. " I don't have a problem with upping my price."

Young Jeezy, who according to the lore parlayed a successful crack dealing career into a successful career rapping about crack dealing, takes a similarly ambivalent stance to the consequences of his wealth on "Dreamin'." This is a standard up-from-squalor motivational rap song that only becomes exceptional when Jeezy is seized by a rare bout of introspection:

Mom's smoking rocks
Same shit I'm selling
So who's wrong, her or me?
She addicted to the high
I'm addicted to the cash
I almost put my hands on her
When I caught her in my stash

In both of these examples, crack dealers are personally and viscerally confronted with the destruction they're wreaking, feel troubled, and yet, looking at their fat wallets, decide, "yeah, it's worth it" - that is, they same way an environment-raping corporate CEO or corrupt politician might feel upon surveying the fallout from their various reavings and pillagings. In retrospect, one wonders if there was more than racial hysteria at play when mainstream America was so terrified during crack's '80s vogue: perhaps we caught a glimpse, however subliminal, of the true nature of our doctrines of competition and conspicuous consumption.

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posted by Brian

Monday, November 12, 2007
Audio Two
I Don't Care (The Album)
Atlantic : 1990
[Buy It]

Elektra : 1988
[Buy It]

Reprise : 1987
[Buy It]

The Dogs
The Dogs
J.R. Records : 1991
[Buy It]

Kenn Kweder
Kwederology, Vol. 1
[Buy It]

Big Black
Hammer Party
Touch & Go Records : 1986
[Buy It]

Corey Harris
Greens from the Garden
Alligator Records : 1999
[Buy It]

Sage Francis
Personal Journals
Anticon : 2002
[Buy It]

Ghostface Killah
Def Jam : 2006
[Buy It]

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Roc-a-Fella : 1997
[Buy It]

Juelz Santana
What the Game's Been Missing!
Def Jam : 2005
[Buy It]

I Believe You Are A Star
Flying Nun : 2001
[Buy It]

If you are of the certain age and the certain whiteness that I am, then you can't think of the 80s without thinking of crack. Crack was huge in the 80s. Juat like that, Styx was no longer the country's favorite white rock. It was pretty impressive - for this little upstart drug to become, in a few short years, a modern American plague. I like to imagine those first Shuttle astronauts looking down from space and seeing our nation's crack pipes ablaze, like a thousand points of light. Crack had a very candid resume: it was cheap, available, and promised instant returns. Even so, the boom it enjoyed was amazing. In a blink, the crack habit became an emblem for all habits, its mechanism the mechanism for all addictions. There was no wiggle room with crack, no recreational crack smoking, no loud, bohemian couple at your dinner party offering the crack pipe around, no lifestyle that included crack smoking except the crack smoker's lifestyle. The crack boom brought a parallel boom in new, sinister compound nouns: crackheads, crackmoms, and crackbabys - a whole new citizenry overnight.

Crack devastated America's black urban communities. But for white America, crack was a great phantom. For the white community, crack's grip was mostly on the imagination, but that didn't make it any less potent or twitchy. The way a white person thought about crack said much about the way they thought about race, and money and the city. It was something of a prism to be looked through, or maybe a more accurate, if equally lazy, metaphor would be a kaleidoscope, whose optics caught each tiny personal flaw and projected them into a uniquely, fantastically colorful spectacle of predjudice.

Crack became one of our great racial bogeymen. The history of race in America is stocked with racial bogeymen, but in the 80s, conditions seemed uniquely moist for the seeds of rapid fear.

The national tone was conservative and cocky. For the typical Reaganite, black America may as well have been a foreign country. The Establishment had never done or seen crack, or had any friends or friends-of-friends who had done or seen crack, or ever shown any previous interest in the welfare of America's inner cities. Yet the Establishment was obsessed with crack.

Politicians, economists, urban planners, the people in charge, were all exactly unqualified to handle the crisis. But they all took a furiously inexpert shot, like the crack epidemic was a Rubik's cube they had been handed for the fist time. I'm pretty sure at some point someone declared war on crack. Scientists gave crack to animals and announced importantly that the animals chose the crack over food. (I'm not sure what the benefit of these studies was --as we all know, one of the great evolutionary bonuses of being human is the ability to choose drugs AND food.)

Meantime, news from the crack front was being delivered to us by a new, accelerating media. A faster, noisier, sleazier, more voyeuristic, more entertaining media. A small-picture media obsessed with trend-spotting and tabloid magazine shows hosted by loud Australian men. This media loved crack. Do you remember, at the end of the 80s, when crack's ability to shock was on the wane, how the media didn't want to let it go? I remember a desperate spate of stories about new, more deadly drugs that were about to sweep into the suburbs and turn your Honor Roll daughter into a cheap hooker. Rolling Stone ran a big cover story on a drug called "Ice" that was supposedly going to make crack look like Flintstone's chewables. Ice was cheaper, more addictive, more deadly. I think some gangs in Hawaii were making it. Of course it was the Hawaiian gangs. That's an old Rolling Stone trick, because they know nobody fact checks the Hawaiian stuff.

The changing media reflected a change in media consumers. The audiences were younger. For white suburban kids, there was suddenly a new familiarity with black style and black music. White teens were dressing black, talking black, listening to black radio, admiring black athletes. They were even venturing into the city on weekends, where they mingled with black kids on the racial frontiers, swapping cultural chips, like the early stages of a game of Othello. Ahh, Othello, the 80s chess! But it was mingling, not mixing. We walked the same blocks, but passed each other on opposites sides of the street. For white kids, this new intimacy brought into relief very real divisions in a way we had never quite considered. Joseph Conrad, in a famous book he wrote about a crackhead called Mister Kurtz, described a phenomenon whereby the "glow brings out a haze." For kids like me growing up in DC, this bright new fog created a queasy kind of segregation anxiety. We laughed at our parents for being so ignorant, for getting it wrong when it came to all things black, but at the same time, we didn't know specifically in what ways they were getting it wrong. We couldn't debunk their myths with any evidence based on actual experience, we just did so on faith. The everyday invisibility of black people in our lives was embarrassing to us, and so we over-compensated, nurturing our own counter-fantasies about what real black people were all about, and we did foolish things like go to Kid 'n Play concerts.

I guess I don't really have anything in the way of a conclusion. What got me thinking about our old friend crack, was a link someone sent me a few days ago. It's a nasty link, nasty in so many ways, absolutely unsafe for work, and in fact, best left unclicked.

Here it is.

Instead of clicking that link, why not hop on the comments board, anonymously if you like, and give us some good personal crack stories. I know you got em. If I'm sure about one thing, it's that moistwork readers love to hit the pipe.












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posted by James

Thursday, November 08, 2007
The Pop Group
WEA Int'l : 1979
[Buy It]

Sly & The Family Stone
Available on : Who in the Funk Do You Think You Are: The Warner Bros. Recordings
Rhino Handmade : 2001
[Buy It]

Laurie Anderson
Home of the Brave
Warner Bros. : 1986
[Buy It]

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Available on : Complete Motown Singles 8: 1968
Hip-O-Select : 2007
[Buy It]

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Available on : The Ultimate Collection
Motown : 1998
[Buy It]

Smokey Robinson
Timeless Love
New Door : 2006
[Buy It]

Last time I wrote about the limits of language, the way that our most complex (and, in different ways, our simplest) feelings are betrayed by the words we use to try to express them. People wrote in to agree or disagree, using language. Some extended the argument. Some distended it. Others still upended it, claiming that the issue isn't that language fails, but that it succeeds at diversion and obfuscation, which are the only true roles of language. In the comments section, Yuval Taylor posted one of the epigraphs from Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which is credited to R.P. Malagrida: "Speech was given man in order to hide his thoughts." Plenty of people have agreed with Stendhal. Mark Stewart, of the Bristol post-punkers Pop Group, concurred a century and a half later:
Truth is a feeling
But it's not a sound
Truth is a feeling
But it's not a sound
We don't need words
Throw them away
The point's made again in "In Other Words," a surprisingly guitar-heavy Sly and the Family Stone demo from the early eighties:
When I hear you talking and I feel what you say
It sounds a little funny cause the words are in the way
I get the meaning that the words can't steal
In other words, I hear what you feel
And it's (re)made (yet) again in "Language is a Virus," a funny little Laurie Anderson number in which a friend suspects her of performing her speech rather than feeling it. (The title and chorus are taken from a William S. Burroughs quote, "language is a virus from outer space"; he's her Malagrida.):
Well I was talking to a friend
And I was saying
I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn't find you
I couldn't find you
And he said: Hey!
Are you talking to me?
Or are you just practicing
For one of those performances of yours?
Some may hold that the limits of language are the limits of the world, but others insist that language must be set aside before you can feel your way down to the truth. I was thinking about that last week, during a difficult (but rewarding) conversation with a difficult (but rewarding) friend of mine with whom I have always had a rewarding (but difficult) relationship. Over the years, there's been lots of talking. You might even say a surplus. Maybe it would have been easier, all along the way, to dispense with language. But then what? Semaphore? Anyway, dispensing with language has never been a possibility, because we're both highly verbal, which is to say that we're both highly limited by language, which is itself highly limited. I keep saying that, in that same dumb way, to make my point and at the same time prove it. But the point is more capably proven, to the point of disproof, by Smokey Robinson. His argument comes on "When the Words From Your Heart Get Caught Up in Your Throat," a B-side from 1968 that was completed in the studio forty years ago today; I'm going to quote the whole lyric, because that's what you do with literature:
My heart has been trying to express itself
And it's really getting me down
There's a strange effect that comes over me
Whenever you're around
I have so much confidence when I'm by myself
It's like my nerves wore an armored coat
But baby now you're such a charmer you melt that coat of armor
And the words from my heart get caught up in my throat
Maybe I'd better write a note

My heart is getting discouraged with giving me line after line after line
But my lips can't relay what my heart has to say
They stutter and stammer each time
If I don't tell you soon what my heart wants to say
My chance will get more remote
But each time you've given me the opportunity
The words from my heart get caught up in my throat
Maybe I'd better write a note

I make the same promises to my heart every morning
That the very next time we met
I would tell you that I loved you and make you mine
By the time the sun starts to set
I rehearsed my lines a thousand times
Read some sweet poetry I could quote
But when you open your door to greet me
Smiling oh so sweetly
The words from my heart get caught up in my throat
I think I'd better write a note

I want to say the words but they're caught up in my throat
I'm gonna find myself a pencil cause they're caught up in my throat
The music lets the lyrics down somewhat, which can happen with late Miracles songs. And while a hyper-articulate song about being tongue-tied may be a peculiar kind of grandstand play, that's the genius of Smokey Robinson. In the last verse, when he says that he prepared for his date by reading "some sweet poetry [he] could quote," he might be talking about Shakespeare, about Beatrice's lament in "Much Ado About Nothing" that "men are only turned into tongue"; or the way Iago, in "Othello," describes Emilia's reticence by saying that "she puts her tongue a little in her heart"; or how the Clown, in "Twelfth Night," explains that "words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them." But it's just as likely that he's talking about his own lyrics--that he's not reading Shakespeare, in other words, because he's writing it.

If the song recognizes that clear communication is an illusion, it also implies that is is only one of many. You may not be able to say what you mean or mean what you say, but you also can't believe what you see or you feel, as he explains in "The Love I Saw in You (Was Just a Mirage)." It's a justly famous song -- it went top twenty and appears on all the anthologies -- that remains the most devastating account of romantic illusion in pop music history. The story is simple. It always is: boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl pretends to love boy, boy wakes up one day to discover that his heart has been ripped out of his chest by girl's deceitful ways. It's been around as long as there have been boys, girls, and hearts. But the lyric is peerless. People like to mention the famous Bob Dylan quote in which he referred to Smokey Robinson as "America's greatest living poet." I just wish it was clear how unironic a statement it was:
We used to meet in romantic places
You gave the illusion that your love was real
Now all that's left are lipstick traces
From the kisses you only pretended to feel

And now our meeting you avoid
And so my world you have destroyed
Just a minute ago your love was here
All of a sudden it seemed to disappear
The way you wrecked my life was like sabotage
The love I saw in you was just a mirage
The idea of a mirage may have been a little bit abstruse for a pop song, so Smokey offered a compact two-line definition that, when sung, is one of the best lines of poetry in the song:
Just like the desert shows a thirsty man
A green oasis where there's only sand
This song, of course, gives the lie to the other one, which also gives the lie to itself, and as a result it's an instrument of tremendous hope beneath its message of hopelessness. This is exactly what language can do when it's not concealing or misrepresenting the truth--it can tell the truth in so many words.

Time moved on. Age came to Smokey, as it comes to everyone. Plastic surgery came to Smokey, perhaps more than it comes to everyone--in fact, sometimes it looks like he underwent some extra procedures that were earmarked for others. In 2004, he released a gospel album, "Food For the Spirit," that was also a tie-in with Smokey Robinson Foods ("The Soul is in the Bowl"). In 2006, he released an album of standards, "Timeless Love," that was, in its own way, just as divided between art and commerce. Rod Stewart had just gone quintillion platinum or whatever with his American Songbook series, and others like Carly Simon had followed, so Smokey probably felt that it made sense to redeploy those songs with one of America's iconic voices. The album was recorded with a small jazz combo, and the strings were added later to give the project more sonic foliage. Smokey's wavery tenor was still a thing of great beauty. And there was a clear, strong geneaology that linked the standards of the forties and fifties to the standards he had written in the sixties. "Fly Me to the Moon" had already been remade as a soul song, by Bobby Womack, but Smokey's version went back to the beginning, to 1954, when the song was written by Bart Howard and recorded by Kaye Ballard. It was originally called "In Other Words," and that was the meaning in addition to being the title. "Fly Me to the Moon" (the title was changed when Johnny Mathis recorded it in 1956) reiterates that true feelings don't require flowery language, that sometimes words get in the way of a simple message, but it also locates the consolation prize. If words didn't disobey us, if the words in our heart didn't get caught up in our throat, if we had no fear, we might also have no poetry:
Fly me to the moon
And let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
In other words hold my hand

Labels: ,

posted by Ben

Friday, November 02, 2007
Little Richard
Available on : King of Rock and Roll: The Complete Reprise Sessions
Rhino Handmade : 2005
[Buy It]

The Velvet Underground
1969: Velvet Underground Live, Vol. 1
Mercury : 1974
[Buy It]

Frank Sinatra
Songs for Swingin' Lovers!
Capitol : 1955
[Buy It]

Art Tatum
The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1
Pablo : 1953
[Buy It]

The JBs
Available on : Funky Good Time: The Anthology
Polydor : 1995
[Buy It]

A friend of mine returned from a trip recently. We spoke a few days later. I'm sure that the thing I was supposed to do was to say, "Welcome back" and leave it at that. But you know how it is with friends -- they're not acquaintances. So we got into a discussion about life and what it means. At some point, philosophy slid into soap opera. She wanted to talk about a relationship she's in and I was reluctant at first because I didn't think it was a wise idea. The relationship, I mean, not the talking about it, although it turned out that the talking about it wasn't such a great idea, either, because what I said caused additional tension. What I said was that this relationship of hers seemed to have an element of opportunism, and a section of my mind felt that was unfair. The man she was seeing seemed to me to be spending intimate time with her under somewhat false pretenses, not in a malicious way but not in an especially provident way either, although I recognized that it was condescending to suggest that she wasn't capable of seeing that on her own and making her own judgment about how much the false pretenses were offset by the genuine pleasure and comfort. I was worried about someone I cared about standing in harm's way, even voluntarily, but opening up my mouth to begin to express that worry was not necessarily my right. I didn't say that. How could I? It was a conversation, not a symposium. But what I did say failed me, and her, and our friendship. I was bossy. In working things through in my mind, I came uncomfortably close to telling another adult how to live her life. I grew angry at myself -- I should have laid out and said nothing -- and then I grew angry at language.

Why was I mad at language? Well, let me explain, using more language. Language has limits, particularly when it is charged with expressing complex emotions. Or rather: there may not be any theoretical limits, but there are operational limits. The operators of the language (in this case, me) are hobbled by conflicts of interest, by positionality and personality, by temerity and timidity. There were no words, or there weren't enough words, or there were too many words that got in the way. Stupid language.

Songs seemed like a better way to go. They have one foot in language, but that foot is tapping. They have meaning but also the spell of melody and the force of rhythm, which improves their ability to address situations that touch on emotional and physical issues along with intellectual ones. This is a contentious stance -- again, stupid language -- until it's demonstrated. Exhibit A: Little Richard. In the early seventies, Little Richard, like many iconic artists from the fifties, was in limbo, uncertain how to respond to the quickly changing times. The electric blues giants who were still alive released heavy blues-rock records with psychedelic flourishes (Muddy Waters had Electric Mud, Howlin' Wolf had Howlin' Wolf's New Album), but the rockers faced equally severe identity crises. Each of them dealt with it idiosyncratically, sometimes desperately, and not always to their critical or commercial advantage. Elvis had been to Memphis and was already slouching toward Vegas. Jerry Lee Lewis had shifted over into country. Chuck Berry experienced a pyrrhic victory when "My Ding-a-Ling," the worst song he ever recorded, hit number one. Bo Diddley soldiered on at Chess, covering many of the artists who had imitated him. The remaining giant of fifties rock, Little Richard, signed to Reprise and recorded a quartet of records: The King of Rock and Roll (1970), Second Coming (1971), The Rill Thing (1972), and Southern Child. They were roots records, reaching back into country and jazz as well as taking a stab at the rock-and-roll of the time. The vocals weren't as volcanic as the Specialty sides, but they were more than just respectable, and the songwriting was sometimes fascinatingly personal.

Respectable and fascinating sold poorly. Sales were so sluggish that the fourth album of the series, Southern Child, wasn't even released at the time, and only saw the light of day thanks to bootleggers and, eventually, a Rhino anthology of the Reprise years. Southern Child is of a piece with the others, with some key differences: more original songs, subtler vocals, and a more mellow feel. It also contains Little Richard's mid-career masterpiece, a country-folk composition called "If You Pick Her Too Hard (She Comes Out of Tune)." The song has many assets (arresting title, peaceful acoustic guitars, unorthodox structure) but its real strength is in its wordless opening, which consists of some two dozen sweet exhales and then a rousing cry that communicates some kind (and maybe all kinds) of freedom:
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Whoa whoa whoa yeah yeah yeah
The song has other lyrics, and they're not bad.
If you pick her too hard she'll come out of tune
If you pick her too hard she'll come out of tune
The sound of your breath mixing with my breath
It's the only sound that's true
The touch of your back pressing on my back
Gives us both a place to play out back
If you subtract the sexual implications (which make up about 50 percent of the song) and the strangeness of Little Richard addressing a love song to what seems to be a woman (40 percent), there's not much left over, but what there is conveys a simple message: don't pressure your intimates lest you throw your relationships with them into crisis. It seemed like a good lesson regarding the benefits of laying out rather than charging ahead. And while the song isn't expressly about using language injudiciously, the argument is elevated, and maybe even made true, by the nonsense syllables in the lyrics.

Connected to this apology was my own need for reassurance that I hadn't caused any permanent damage to the friendship. I couldn't ask directly. That would mean more language. Instead, I turned to another song that turns on wordlessness, the Velvet Underground's "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together." The lyrics aren't artful or even anthemic, but they're not exactly placeholders either:
We're gonna have a real good time together
We're gonna have a real good time together
We're gonna have a real good time together
We're gonna laugh and dance and shout together
Na na na na na na na na na na na hey hey hey baby
Listening to it restored my hope. So now I had two song-messages, one about my understanding that I should have backed off and the other about my hope that good faith would return intact, and they said what they needed to say without any words at all. Whoa whoa whoa yeah yeah yeah, na na na na na na na na na na na hey hey hey baby.

Little Richard and Lou Reed weren't the first songwriters to recognize that the language that they depended upon for their livelihood was iffy at best. The great Johnny Mercer, who once dismissed a musical he didn't care for by saying "I could eat alphabet soup and shit better lyrics," copped to the problem in 1937, when he fit words to a song by Richard Whiting for the film "Ready, Willing, and Able":
You're just too marvelous
Too marvelous for words
Like glorious, glamorous
And that old standby amorous

It's all too wonderful
I'll never find the words
That say enough, tell enough
I mean they just aren't swell enough

You're much too much, and just too very very
To ever be in Webster's dictionary
And so I'm borrowing a love song from the birds
To tell you that you're marvelous
Too marvelous for words
The song became a standard. Everyone recorded it: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine. In 1947, a version by Jo Stafford was used in the film, "Dark Passage," which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the film also incorporated an instrumental version. The irony of stripping "Too Marvelous For Words" of its marvelous words was not confined to the film. Art Tatum recorded a coruscating solo piano version of the song (as wordless pieces go, it's pretty wordy--all those notes!) and the song even supplied the title of James Lester's biography of Tatum. "Too Marvelous for Words" is about love, of course, but love is just one of many possible sites of failure for language; pretty much any emotion that requires explanation also thwarts explanation.

When I spoke to my friend a few days later, I didn't plan on raising the issue of her relationship. She raised it. She said that she had thought more about the situation and why she was in it. She then explained herself, badly. "Things will either get better or they will get worse and when it's better or worse than I'll know which way it's going," she said. She was trying to tell me something, and probably trying to tell herself something, but she ran afoul of language. Then, that night, I was listening to the JBs perform "You Can Have Watergate (Just Gimme Some Bucks and I'll Be Straight)." The lyrics are largely the title, repeated over and over again, along with a few other short chants and some James Brown punctuation. The song is officially listed as an instrumental, but in this case the small amount of language does everything it needs to do:
You can have Watergate
But give me some bucks and I'll be straight
I need some money
You can spend all your time discussing the large issues of corruption in society or the complexities of an imperfect relationship, but when it comes down to it, people have needs that have nothing to do with fine-grained discussion, precise rendering of interior states, or persuasive argument. Those things are luxuries. My friend just wanted her bucks and she'd be straight. I was going to call her and recommend the song. But then I'd have to explain the connection, and maybe who the JBs were, and that would mean more words, and maybe picking too hard. I remembered that Little Richard had said "whoa whoa whoa yeah yeah yeah," and also something else that he said. He said "Shut up!" That was good enough for me.

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posted by Ben