Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Alex Chilton
Like Flies on Sherbert
Peabody: 1979
[Buy It]

Alex Chilton
High Priest
Big Time: 1987
[Buy It]

DOWNS (demo)
Alex Chilton
Available on: Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story
Big Beat: 2008
[Buy It]

Alex Chilton
A Man Called Destruction
Ardent: 1995
[Buy It]

Alex Chilton, who died, wrote songs. He recorded songs. He made songs. He unmade them. In the end, the life was largely in song, and the songs all had life, and that's all there is to say, and there isn't anything that can be done. Once he covered "Let Me Get Close to You," which was Goffin-King via Skeeter Davis:
How long I'll never know
I've waited to tell you that I love you so
Now I have finally said it
Come on baby don't make me regret it
"It's Your Funeral" is an instrumental. There are no words.


With a few hours to absorb the news, some memories came into focus, mostly distant ones, like hearing Big Star for the first time in the early eighties in Miami, or buying Like Flies on Sherbert in college, or driving upstate with some friends some years ago and listening on the car radio to Stuff, which collected some of Chilton's songs -- you could say that they were his best songs, but it might be more accurate to say that they were the songs of his that sounded most like songs that might be on a car radio. I remembered beginning to date the woman I'd later marry, playing lots of Chilton's music for her, and trying to figure out his secret: the way his try-anything-once aesthetic was both forthright and evasive, how he could combine an anarchic sense of humor and an unironic ability to convey pain, his addiction to the brilliant throwaway, his graceless grace. He drew lines back to Slim Harpo and Ronny and the Daytonas and Danny Pearson, so many it seemed he'd get trapped in the tangle. He escaped, again and again--but escaped to what? The most recent memory was the blurriest: it was just last November when I saw him with the reconstituted Big Star (half original, half Posies) at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. I wrote a little piece about the show for the New Yorker that now seems dismissive to me, though I didn't mean it that way. I had no idea it would be the last I'd see of him.


NOTE: This is obviously not the first time we have written about Chilton here at Moistworks. Here is a piece by Alex Abramovich that investigates the end of Big Star and the beginning of Chilton's solo career.

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posted by Ben

Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Close To You
A&M : 1970
[Buy It]

Close To You
A&M : 1970
[Buy It]

Close To You
A&M : 1970
[Buy It]

Karen Carpenter
Available on: Karen Carpenter
A&M : 1996
[Buy It]

Karen Carpenter
Available on: Karen Carpenter
A&M : 1996
[Buy It]

Karen Carpenter would have been sixty today. I don't have particularly strong feelings about this fact, though I do, inexplicably, have strong feelings about her music, especially the ten top five singles she and her brother Richard released between 1970 ("We've Only Just Begun," which went to number two) and 1974 (a chart-topping cover of "Please Mr. Postman"). I heard them the way everyone heard them, on the radio, all the time. I was very small, on account of being very young, and so much of the music I heard was chaotic, exciting, and challenging: the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, the Who. The Carpenters, for me, were always a kind of oasis from energy and significance: Karen Carpenter's vocals were indisputably pretty (you could even say beautiful), but they seemed scrubbed of any emotional content. In contrast with her drumming, which could be improvisational and idiosyncratic (check out "Another Song," from the 1970 LP Close to You, and then feel free to write your own comparison of the Carpenters and White Stripes), her vocals were pristine, crystalline, perfectly meaningless. They were a thing that could not be imperfected on account of not really being there. The best example of this is "Crescent Noon," also from Close to You. "Crescent Noon," which isn't a clever play on words so much as a nonsensical phrase that appears to be a typographical error, is a kind of folk song that Richard Carpenter and his songwriting partner/lyricist John Bettis created to express their sadness at the passage of the seasons. It's in a minor key, which helps to set the mood, and the lyrics are gloomy, if insistently rhymed:
Green September burned to October brown
Bare November led to December's frozen ground
The seasons stumble 'round
Our drifting lives are bound to a falling crescent noon
The next song, "Mr. Guder," could not be more different on its face -- it's a sarcastic kiss-off in which Richard Carpenter and John Bettis tweak a former boss for being a company man -- and yet Karen's vocals have the same blank face. I don't think I heard either of these songs in the mid-seventies, because they weren't hits. But even the hits, catchy as they were, never seemed lived in. (I admired the songcraft greatly, and believed for a while that the duo took their name not because it was their actual name but from the fact that they built songs rather than felt them.) This was the fault of -- or, depending on your perspective, should have been credited to -- Karen's vocals; they are not so much empty as they are full of hollowness, placid in unsettling ways. There is sadness, but is it because the songs contain sadness or because they sadden me with what they do not contain? This is not to deny their beauty so much as to try to explain it.

The Carpenters got huge, of course, and then as music shifted toward disco and late-seventies arena rock, they fell out of favor. One of the group's last solid hits was a cover of Klaatu's trance-inducing UFO anthem "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." Karen was a superstar, of course, and dated celebrities like Tony Danza and Steve Martin. The Michael Jackson hit "She's Out of My Life" was written by Tom Bahler about Carpenter after she broke up with him. Then, in the late seventies, the band took a hiatus when Richard dealt with a drug dependency to Quaaludes. During that time, Phil Ramone was going around town trying to keep female vocalists contemporary by pairing them with slick modern arrangements and handpicked chart-ready songs. He did it to Phoebe Snow on Rock Away, which came out in 1980, and he did it to Carpenter at right around the same time. The results, which were intended for a solo album, displeased A&M Records chairman Herb Alpert, who paid a kill fee for the record. In 1996, it was finally released, and while it proved that Alpert's instincts were correct, it also proved that Carpenter's voice had lost none of its characterless character over the years. "My Body Keeps Changing My Mind," a bit of boudoir disco, is supposed to be seductive, and it is, if you like unoccupied spaces. Karen's cover of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" is equally emblematic of her gift, in that it doesn't sound regretful or passive-aggressive or foolish-fond. Rather, it doesn't sound anything. The duo reunited for another record, Made In America, after which Carpenter's anorexia accelerated rapidly and she died from heart failure in February 1983.

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posted by Ben

Friday, February 26, 2010
Blind Wilile McTell
Available on: The Complete Blind Willie McTell, Vol. 2: 1931-1933
Document : 1990
[Buy It]

Big Mama Thornton
Available on: Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
MCA : 1992
[Buy It]

Johnny Cash
Now, There Was a Song!
Sony : 1960
[Buy It]

Barb Jungr
Every Grain of Sand
Linn : 2002
[Buy It]

Tom Waits
Anti : 2006
[Buy It]

Recently, things changed. Try to read that without laughing. Then without crying. Then without shrugging. Change is happening all the time, everywhere, all at once. In that, these recent changes were like any other, at once unpredictable and predictable. But one of them in particular sunk in, in strange ways, and, once sunk, resurfaced. It isn't a change in my life, exactly, as much as a change near my life. I don't want to be unnecessarily cryptic but clarification is unnecessary. Is it enough to say that someone close to me passed through a major decision. That makes it sound far more ominous than it is. It could have been as simple as deciding not to be a vegetarian any longer or deciding to have a child. It wasn't either of those. It could have been as simple as deciding to move in with a girlfriend. It wasn't that either. It could have been as simple as deciding to give up a cat. We could go on like this for hours, but won't.

This decision also has affected me, very secondarily -- compared to the effect on the primary parties, the effect on me is so trivial that it's almost wrong to mention it. As a result, I won't. I will, however, post a series of songs about change. To prove that change is an ancient theme, I have picked songs that sound like they were carved from the earth, from Blind Willie McTell's Scriptural blues "Don't You See How This World Made a Change" (which is only eighty years old, but sounds eight thousand, at least) to Big Mama Thornton's "The Big Change" (old-fashioned, and addressed straight at the heart of an age-old dilemma: do you trade in/change your lover before you're changed/traded in?) to Johnny Cash's cover of Bob Wills' "Time Changes Everything" (Tommy Duncan, the singer and songwriter responsible, was born on January 11, 1911, a date so full of one's that it feels like it might be located at or near the beginning of time, which evidently changes everything). Rounding out the post if Barb Jungr's cover of Bob Dylan's towering "Things Have Changed." Jungr's performance, which comes from the generally excellent Every Grain of Sand album, is deeply flawed. It's played like a "Threepenny Opera" outtake; Jungr is more youthful than Dylan and doesn't reverse the gender of the narrator, which undermines both the song's weariness and its sexiness; and there's a chorus chant added into the song that is more distracting than affirming. Still, for all these changes, the song remains the same, especially lyrically, and amidst the clutter and the questionable choices there are lines that stand out searingly:
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can't win with a losing hand
I was going to end there, but at the last minute I tacked on Tom Waits's "Lord I've Been Changed," which is all about conversion, and how altering your religious identity can bring you closer to your true self. I think the friend I'm talking about used to like Tom Waits but as some point changed his or her mind.

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posted by Ben

Monday, February 22, 2010
Wilson Pickett
The Wicked Pickett
Atlantic : 1966
[Buy It]

Sam & Dave
Available on: Sweat and Soul
Rhino : 1993
[Buy It]

Barbara Lynn
Available on: Voices of Americana
Edsel : 2009
[Buy It]

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham
Moments from This Theatre
Proper American : 2007
[Buy It]

Otis Redding
Available on: The Otis Redding Story
Atlantic : 1989
[Buy It]

Eddie Hinton
Available on: Beautiful Dream Sessions, Volume 3
Zane : 2005
[Buy It]

It has happened to everyone: leaving the water running. But it hasn't happened to everyone in song. It happened to Wilson Pickett, though, and Sam and Dave, and Dan Penn, and a variety of other singers. "You Left the Water Running," which was written by Penn and first recorded by Otis Redding in 1966 as a demo for Pickett, made the rounds as a contemporary soul standard. Now, guest poster Tim Sutton (film art director at Getty Images, in case you've come here to network) will conduct a guided tour of six different versions. This is part of an occasional series of Moistworks posts called "Tim Sutton's Guided Tour Through Many Different Versions of the Same Song." Take it away, Tim:
1. Wilson Pickett had the first official version of the song, and here, as elsewhere, he is the ultimate bandleader. The band here is remade in his authoritative, energetic image: bouncing bass, driving rhythm, overlaid by calls and cackles and shrieks. You can imagine Pickett's bus pulling into the parking lot. He strides to the dressing room. He tugs at his cufflinks. He looks at his reflection in the mirror. Then he takes the stage and gives them hell, in a heavenly way.

2. Sam and Dave got to the song a few years later, Stax-style, and while this version is my least favorite, it is instructive for illustrating the duo's talent at linking crossover soul, Neville Brothers funk, blues rock, and even classic rock. Sam and Dave aren't the best singers, either together or apart, but Jimmy Johnson's guitar is outstanding. It's commanding and playful, with a lean and muscular tone--until I looked it up, I fantasized that it was Robbie Robertson, doing something like he did on Dylan's "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" at Royal Albert Hall. It has a sharp plow, and it moves forward with or without you.

3. Smooth but not silky, Barbara Lynn's take is precise and clear, with a backing group that sounds like it was airlifted in from Sam Cooke's "Cupid." I love the subtlety in all the playing, especially the drumming: there are fills that trip just a bit behind the beat, whispering the rhythm with brushes. With that said, there's a problem: Lynn doesn't connect with the lyrics, and she seems entirely directed by the producer. But if swing is your thing, this will be your thing, too.

4. Dan Penn wrote the song, and with Spooner Oldham backing him in a late-nineties concert, he turns in a performance that trumps anything in "Crazy Heart." The acoustic guitars sound fantastic, and it's proof that country rock and soul are next-door neighbors with a low fence between the properties. What would Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, or Buck Owens have done with the song? This gives us some indication.

5. If Barbara Lynn doesn't get to the heart of the lyrics, Otis Redding gets there and stays there. Originally recorded with Redding on a slightly out-of-tune guitar and, legend has it, accompanied by the most rudimentary percussion -- a hand drumming on a chair) his performance is stunning. Of all the versions I've heard, this is the only one that makes me believe in the "you" of the title, the only one that makes me see that the singer is singing to someone. Rhythmically, it's slower than many other versions, but not easier to hear. This past year, I was driving in Connecticut by myself, and this came on the radio, and I had to pull over. I knew what would happen before it happened, which was that I burst into tears. I almost wish there wasn't a horn section in the arrangement, because it would be even more spartan and powerful.

6. Otis may pour his life into the song, but Eddie Hinton uses it as life support. He's hoarse and spent; during the count-off, he can barely even utter the "three." He fills the spaces in the song not just with moans, but with explicit protests, and the rhythm section could be Keith and Charlie during the Sticky Fingers sessions. More desperate than urgent, this is my favorite.
So there it is: the water, the running. Each time we run a Tim Sutton tour, we will invite Moistworks readers to vote in comments on their favorite version or, if they like, suggest their own.

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posted by Ben

Saturday, February 13, 2010
Tom Verlaine
Tom Verlaine
Elektra : 1979
[Buy It]

Over the years, here at Moistworks, we've considered love in all its forms, at least as seen through the prism of the pop song. This year, we are standing down. Our weapons are holstered. Orders from above: the topic has been deemed too tragicomic. We got a note that explained the orders, from above. The note read, in part, "Give it a rest. If you see it out and about, arrest it. If you see something about it, give it back." The note had tears on letters like magnification and torn sides like amplification. But it's Valentine's Day, and we have a responsibility, so we're reposting last year's entry. Happy Unhurt Heart.

Why are people so quick to love movies, books, songs, paintings, restaurants, and sports teams but so slow to love other people? Sages have been debating this issue for centuries, and continue to the present day. Bill Sage, a kid I went to high school with, used to talk about the girl he was dating, how she was a hot girl who was smart or maybe a smart girl who was hot. "Maybe she's the overlap," he said. "I love the idea of the overlap." But he never loved her, and she found that out a few years later in college, and promptly slept with someone else. It wasn't me, but I knew the guy, and after she got rid of him, too, we became friends. Now she's living in a western state, where she works for a company that helps other companies manage inventory. I spoke to her not so long ago, and she said that her personal life was frustrating, not exactly loveless but not exactly love-filled. Work, on the other hand, was rewarding. "You wouldn't think it," she said, "but I like the purely logistical issues. For example, in most companies, sending things out of the warehouse is a relatively trivial matter compared to bringing things into the warehouse." She went on to explain that since no system is perfect, especially when so many moving parts are involved, a certain amount of management is management of inevitable errors in counting, logging, and ordering. "You have to be precise about imprecision," she said.

I digress. Or rather, she digresses. Or does she, and do I? Bob Sage, Bill's brother, used to say that it was easy to love people so long as they didn't look at you, and we would laugh at him, because he was always making these kinds of jokes, but it's entirely possible that he wasn't joking at all. People are quick to love movies, books, songs, paintings, restaurants, and sports because those things don't love back--or rather, can't love back. There is no expectation of reciprocation and consequently never any disappointment when reciprocation falls short. Each and every time you listen to "Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell," say, it produces the same experience for you. If the experience is different, you will quickly understand that the shift has occurred within you rather than within the work. And it's rare that love is withdrawn from a song or a book: you can come to see its flaws, or come to be embarrassed by your earlier ardor, but that might just make you drive your love deeper inside. It won't, for the most part, make you bring your love to a full stop.

Loving people, on the other hand, is a dangerous business, because love isn't just about what you feel. It's an economy in which what you feel must be matched with something of equivalent value, as well as one in which your expectations for ongoing supply can quickly reach self-annihilating levels. Not to mention the fact that you may feel you are not equipped to handle what you are receiving: expectations from another person that are as interdependent and volatile as yours. Love, or whatever you want to call it (pick a less romantic word if you'd prefer) is a frightening prospect. When you accept it, you are assuming risk at a level that often overloads the human organism. Two people acting with single purpose but retaining their separateness? That's an overlap, and nobody likes--let alone loves--the idea of the overlap. Giving love refines the spirit; worrying about getting it clouds and clots that same spirit. Or, to reinvest the digression, sending out of the warehouse is a relatively trivial matter compared to bringing things into the warehouse.

This may be obvious, but it's Valentine's Day, the commemoration of the obvious. My friend in the western state who manages warehouse inventory recently went through a breakup. I think maybe she was trying to hold on until Valentine's Day, but that became untenable for several reasons, some of which I have listed above. The person she was seeing was not a movie or a book or a painting, and so, in trying to love him, she quickly found herself concerned with trying to accept his love, which led to expectations he could not satisfy. These were not unreasonable expectations, not as far as I was concerned -- and, sometimes, not as far as she was concerned. They mostly involved him offering to drive her to work some mornings, or offering to pick her up some afternoons, or leaving little notes in her jacket pockets, or calling in the afternoon and assuming a funny accent to ask if she knew where he might find the "best little wharehouse in the state." Whatever. The specifics aren't important, not to me. The point is that all the things she admired about him statically, all the things that would have worked to his advantage if he was a TV show or a sculpture, dissipated when he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- understand the issues of inventory management. She was able to give him love, for a time, but witnessed repeatedly how pained he was to give in return, and that returned her to a point where giving seemed more like someone else's taking.

After the breakup, she said, she thought often about whether she had give him enough chances. "He made mistakes but so did I," she said. "Why should that be unacceptable?" This was a fair question with a fairly obvious answer. In love, or commitments, or relationships, you don't have to avoid error. In fact, you should embrace it. But you should embrace the proper type of error. This is another way in which static artworks are easier to love than people. As we have said, artworks don't change, really, so they can't disappoint you. But they also can't try to accommodate you and, in doing so, show you that they are utterly insensible about how to find your heart. My friend told me one story that stuck out like a stalactite. After the breakup, the guy came by her office. He took her to lunch. He ate a meal that he would never eat -- a big burger, she said, when he was mostly no-red-meat -- and asked questions he would never ask. "I know he was trying to be a different," she said, "but it only made me feel more the same. The root him and the root me didn't intertwine." It is easy to believe unverifiable things about a song or a book, but harder to do so about a person.

So for this unholy coming holiday, and for my friend, and for the guy, even -- who I never met and probably wouldn't have liked, at least from the description, but who has the same right to be happy as anyone else -- here's Tom Verlaine's "The Grip of Love," which not only contains some of the finest electric rock guitar of the last century (try it, you'll love it), but has a comprehensively elliptical lyric that says most of what I've been trying to say:
You do the moon
You do the snake
Everywhere you go
You make the right mistake
You take a picture
And lay it on my tray
Some kind of window
Just like the Milky Way
The song doesn't end well -- the girl tells him to get lost, and he says, desperately but slyly, "Well, don't that buckle my belt?" -- but it starts beautifully, and that's something. Inventory is managed, at least for a little while, and it's managed exactly as he says it is, exactly as my friend said it is: "Everywhere you go you make the right mistake." So find that person, get in the grip, do the moon, do the snake. Happy Valentine's Day.

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posted by Ben

Monday, February 08, 2010
James Brown
Polydor : 1974
[Buy It]

When I was fourteen or so, I went to a summer-camp-type-thing for kids interested in high school debate. I think that my parents were trying to find some way to make lemonade out of the fact that I argued all the time. When I was there, I met a girl from New Orleans. She was one of the first people I liked as a person, without reservation; she had what a hippie would call good energy, and was skinny and mile-a-minute, and said funny things that were rarely (but sometimes excellently) mean. She was a die-hard Saints fan who, at the time, wore her suffering as a badge. Those weren't the worst Saints teams, not by a long stretch--they were the .500 or so Bum Phillips squads, post-Chuck Muncie and Archie Manning--but I was from Miami, and the Dolphins were riding high with the Killer Bs and Dan Marino. I listened to her stories about her team with a mix of pity and fascination. It was the first time I saw fandom as a form of faith rather than a method for receiving a regularly scheduled reward. We've kept in touch faintly over the years, and when the clock ran out last night on Super Bowl XLV, she was the first person I emailed. She was over the moon and, I hope, stays there for a while.

Even when the Saints were unlucky, they were lucky, in that they had the best music. "When the Saints Go Marching In" was already a pre-jazz spiritual standard before Louis Armstrong got to it in the thirties, before Fats Domino got to it in the fifties, before Barbecue Bob and Professor Longhair and Bo Diddley and Dr. John and Blind Willie Davis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Precious Bryant and Aaron Neville got to it along the way. It's a song everyone knows and understands; it's about salvation and jubilation and absorbing the bad as part of a larger good. It fit the team when the team was unfit, and it fits them now. To celebrate yesterday's victory, I have picked one of the strangest versions: James Brown's proto-disco reading, from Hell in 1974 (coincidentally, those mid-seventies years, where John North was lucky to get five wins out of his team, were pretty hellish). There's blaxploitation guitar. There's an insistent shaker on the left side of the mix. Plus so much more: the showboating, the shouting, the for-rent female backup vocals, and the laughable lyric alterations ("Get on the Jesus crusade!"). If Drew Brees' performance was precise and perfect, this is baggy-pants and often wrong. But it's no less compelling. Congratulations, New Orleans, and congratulations, fourteen-year-old debate girl who loves the Saints to distraction.

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posted by Ben

Thursday, January 14, 2010
Unknown artist
Available on : Alan Lomax in Haiti
Harte Recordings : 2009
[Buy It]
[Donate to Earthquake Relief]

I was thinking about Haiti fairly regularly even before the earthquake this week. I have a friend who is working there, living and writing, and it hasn't always been easy for her, and sometimes this has resulted in frustration, and other times in measured analysis, and other times in resignation.

Earlier this week she wrote me to say that she was working on an article about the Haitian lottery, a surreal enterprise in which the numbers played are extracted, through a mix of soothsaying and self-deception, from dreams. (If you dream of a fire, you are encouraged by a sort of dream consultant to play the number 11, say; a cow may translate to the number 20.) The draft she sent me focused, correctly, on the strangeness of the lottery process as a vehicle of hope: it took people's dreams, turned them into numbers, then tried to turn those numbers into a different kind of number, money, that could satisfy dreams.

About a day later, the earthquakes snuffed out a great deal of hope. I wrote a bunch of emails to make sure she was okay, all the while thinking how strange it was to be distilling a nation's suffering into my concern for an individual. She eventually replied, and then went off to do her job, which is to try to explain (or at least present) the unfathomable to the rest of the world. I haven't talked to her about her experience during the earthquake, or the ways in which she believes (or knows) that this will change everything around her. And I'm left in a strange position for a writer: I'm not sure what to say, or what can be said, in the face of how much there is to be done. Another friend of mine said she can't wrap her head around it, and she's exactly right.

Since the earthquake, my friend in Haiti has been posting updates, and in one of them she mentioned that as night falls in Port-au-Prince, she can hear praying and singing. I don't believe in prayer, but I believe in music, and today is one of the days I'm happy I don't know the difference.

Over the last few months, I've been sending her excerpts from the recent box set "Alan Lomax in Haiti," which collects hundreds of field recordings that the pioneering ethnomusicologist made on the island in the late nineteen-thirties. I have been listening to the box set often, realizing that I understand almost nothing about the island, but still interested to hear the Haitian versions of blues songs, or children's rhymes, or booty calls.

When I heard about the earthquake, I thought I'd go listen to the box set, but I found that I couldn't. It was too much and not enough, all at once. No song seemed right. Then this morning I listened to "Lenba, Lenba sou lemo." This song is about Lenba, which is (according to the liner notes) a healing movement that "contributed to the growth of the Petwo movement in Haiti that helped to develop a revolutionary consciousness among Haiti's slaves." Petwo, which refers to a family of Vodou spirits, can also refer to a drum, or to a rapid style of drumming. This all goes deeper than what I know, and what I can understand. But I do know, and can understand to some degree, the lyrics, which talk about overtopping, if not exactly overcoming, death:
Lenba, I am shouting out
Lenba on top of Lenba
Lenba, Lenba triumps over death
Ay, Lenba rises over Lenba
One of the Petwo spirits is Bosou, who is represented by a bull and is in charge of fertility and protection. The spirits teach, among other things, that the power to heal and protect is closely allied with the power to kill. I'm not sure that this is a lesson I can absorb, though I am sure that it is a valuable one.

The Lomax set has ten discs. "Lenba, Lenba sou lemo" comes from the tenth and final disc, "Worship in Carrefour Dufort," in which Lomax went to the south of Haiti to record religious rites. It is not the last song on the last disc. It's the next to last. The simple act of picking something that wasn't quite the end seemed, for a moment, significant, and maybe even hopeful.

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posted by Ben

Monday, January 04, 2010
The French Fries
Epic : 1968
[Out of Print]

The French Fries
Epic : 1968
[Out of Print]

Sly and the Family Stone
Epic : 1973
[Buy It]

No one needs to hear more about how Sly Stone's racially integrated, mixed-gender band, the Family Stone, fused the lean funk of James Brown to the kaleidoscopic pop of the psychedelic era and yielded some of the most rewarding music of the century. They don't need to hear about how Sly then slipped into false optimism, deep pessimism, and drug addiction while continuing to make fitfully brilliant music. And they certainly don't need me to plug my novel, "Please Step Back," which relates the story of a Sly-like funk star named Rock Foxx. So instead I have a story about three little pigs.

In 1968, on the heels of the chart success of "Dance to the Music," Sly and the Family Stone -- anchored by Sly's brother Freddie on guitar, his sister Rose on vocals, and Larry Graham on bass -- recorded a French version of the song under the name The French Fries. "Danse a La Musique" is significantly stranger than its American counterpart: it pushes the horn section back and pulls the guitar up front, eliminates most of the lyrics, and fractures the ones that are left behind. Throughout, Sly speeds up his own background vocals until they're animated-animal chirpy. (Perhaps not coincidentally, 1968 was the tenth anniversary of the first appearance of Ross Bagdasarian's Alvin and the Chipmunks.) The whole proceeding is deeply perverse; it's as if Sly would only release his song into the international market after defacing it so that it could not do the record company's bidding.

But "Danse a La Musique" was only one side of fries. The B-side of that 1968 single, "Small Fries," has a pleasant pop melody over which Sly, still using his chipmunk voice, speak-sings a story of three teenage pigs named Freddie, Larry, and Sylvester (again, shades of Alvin and his brothers, or maybe of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary). The three piggies receive letters from "Uncle Samuel," ostensibly concerning military service, and each of them handles the request differently. Freddie's reaction relies upon spiritual conviction and medical exemption:
One little piggy's name was Freddie
Freddie Freddie Freddie Freddie
He built a house with headaches and religion
If he had chosen to try to get away
It would have been a very bad decision
The fate of the second pig, Larry, is more comic. He "tried everything in the book," but because he was "very lazy and only liked to eat," Uncle Samuel "made him a cook." In this already highly ironic world, the most ironic outcome is reserved for the third piggy, though Sly delays that part of the narrative until after a military drumbeat and some "Dance to the Music"-derived scatting. But when the third verse arrives, it arrives in style:
The third piggy's name was Sylvester Sylvester Sylvester
Ain't that weird
He hated to be told what to do
But fourteen stripes has changed his mind
Now he proudly wears navy blue
Fourteen stripes? Is this a distortion of patriotism, a commentary on the ways in which it is exaggerated to compel compliance? Possibly. Maybe it's just a joke. Whatever the case, this transition is figured as fiction, or rather negative fantasy: Sly is imagining what could happen to him if he were tempted by military rewards at the same time that he is insisting, by staging this scenario as a satire, that he will never submit. And yet, the power of the request remains compelling. Following the story of Sylvester the pig, Sly offers a chilling off-handed coda:
Say a letter has come from Uncle Samuel
He's a dude
These questions of obedience and duty, of service and selfhood, have been raised repeatedly over the history of this and every other country, and artists have always grappled with them. "Small Fries" handles them in an intensely strange manner, as befits one of the most idiosyncratic superstars in pop-music history (apologies to Shakira and Mary Margaret O'Hara). In light of the song, it's worth returning to an equally tortured, equally strange artist, Soren Kierkegaard, and one of his definitions of genius:
The case with most men is that they go out into life with one or another accidental characteristic of personality of which they say: Well, this is the way I am. I cannot do otherwise. Then the world gets to work on them and thus the majority of men are ground into conformity. In each generation a small part cling to their "I cannot do otherwise" and lose their minds. Finally there are a very few in each generation who in spite of all life's terrors cling with more and more inwardness to this "I cannot do otherwise." These are the genuises.
Five years later, Sly recorded the anguished, defiant "Skin I'm In," where he insisted once again on selfhood over service, even when the results are Pyrhhic:
Ah, oh
If I could do it all over again
Ah, oh
I'd be in the same skin I'm in
The clothes I wear
And the things they dare me to do

Ah, oh
Places I go
Ah, oh
People I know
The things I gain
Sometimes they rain on me

Hey, hey
Skin I'm in
And the things I never, never win
Is it weird to treasure your own flawed self--the self that cannot do otherwise--even as it undoes you? Ain't that weird.

Labels: ,

posted by Ben

Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I.R.S. : 1987
[Buy It]

Talking Heads
Remain in Light
Sire : 1980
[Buy It]

Talking Heads
Remain in Light
Sire : 1980
[Buy It]

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Africa 70
Coffin For Head of State
Kalakuta : 1981
[Buy It]

Hi. I'm new to Moistworks. I'll do my best to be as good to you as Ben and your other regulars. In fact, Ben's why I'm here in the first place. When I read his post a few weeks ago about distant pain and local pain and the ways in which the first may obscure our ability to deal with the second, it prompted a lot of thinking, which resulted in a lot of writing.

Two years ago, I got a copy of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, for Christmas. I was working on a novel concerned with memory and the senses, and when I read a chapter on Whitman's experience with wounded Civil War soldiers, a passage about phantom limb struck me as the perfect metaphor for memory: like the phantom limb, it's as invisible to others but as real to the self as an itch. The next day, I heard an interview on BBC with a survivor of the civil war in Sierra Leone. As he spoke, I wondered how he dealt with his phantoms – his memories, and the limb I imagined he lost, knowing that the conflict left countless amputees. His twenty seconds lapsed, the BBC anchor moved on, but the man's life continued. That, too, struck me as an application of the metaphor - the lives of survivors persist beyond media coverage of conflict, and are no less real for being invisible to us.

I fixated on phantom limb, and after some digging found that one treatment involves holding a mirror in such a way that the remaining limb appears in the reflection where the missing limb would be. The perceived reality is thus made to match the imagined reality, and the pain subsides. Could oral history be a kind of mirror treatment to survivors of war? Might rendering the invisible past assuage, even a little bit, the mind's longing for what is lost? I had long understood the importance of paying attention to atrocity, but Ben's piece gave me pause (and cause) to think about why I think it's so necessary for "us" to look. More than anything, it made me reflect on my own interest in conflicts far from home. Six months after I read the passage on phantom limb, I was interviewing landmine survivors in Cambodia Though I was ill-equipped - in language, time, or emotional know-how – to handle the stories I was hearing, I immersed myself. I abandoned my novel for this project. I strained my marriage. I left my four-year-old son for two weeks. I did it all because I believed that these were stories that needed to be told, yes, but also because it was the kind of work I wanted to see myself as capable of doing. And yet, when I read Ben's essays, I was reminded of some of the doubts that accompanied my conviction. Was I just one of his soulful solipsists, paying attention to far-flung conflicts to satisfy an image of myself as principled, and in so doing avoiding challenges closer to home?

I hoped not.

I'll admit that my engagement favors intellectual over inter-personal growth. I could think and write all day about the importance of creating space for survivors to speak out and be heard, to tell their own stories in their own words, but I will hold my own silence indefinitely in order to avoid confrontation with friends and family. And it is certainly easier to think and write all day than it is to actually do: the intensive research and planning I did for Cambodia was one of the most intellectually stimulating times of my adult life so far, but when it came time to do my first in-person interview, I choked. I am still reeling from my failure to live up to my own expectations for that trip, and am haunted by a sense of unmet responsibility to the people who entrusted their stories to me. Cambodia was a third rail in my mental life for a full year after I came home. It made me insular. I retreated, wrote fiction that was close to home.

If this was a return to the local, though, it was unfamiliar ground. The ease with which I could stop engaging with Cambodia made me deeply uneasy. I rail against how disposable distant conflicts seem here, the fetishized depictions of suffering and poverty that are as unsurprising as Tiger Woods' affairs yet eminently more dismissible: for their distance, for their anonymity, for their intractability. We feel pity, and feel better about our own lives, and feel like better people for having seen how much worse life can be, and are not really invited to wonder what, if anything, that life has to do with us. REM has addressed this issue--the distance between distant tragedy and our experience of that tragedy-in a song that often is read ironically but which seems to me entirely straightforward:
It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
Even if we do let it get to us, we don't always know what the "it" is that's getting to us, or what the "us" is that's being affected. This is in Ben's essay, too - - he says that by lamenting horrible conditions elsewhere we are "making a monument to my own powerlessness." Was that what I was doing? As I was mulling over all this the past few days, I read a lot of Carolyn Forche. These lines from her poem "Return" struck a chord with me:
Your problem is not your
life as it is
in America, not that your hands, as you
tell me, are tied to do something. It is
that you were born to an island of greed
and grace where you have this sense
of yourself as apart from others. It is
not your right to feel powerless. Better
people than you were powerless.
You have not returned to your country,
but to a life you never left.
That's what's missing from whatever alchemy of thought and feeling and experience feeds my moral imagination and informs my sense of what "we" should look at. My sense of my own life cleaves close to the lives of "people" in general. Ben draws a geographic distinction between the local and the distant - situations you can have a tangible impact on versus those you can't actually touch - but another distinction one might draw is less about distance than it is about perception. There are people I "know" because I interact with them. There are people I "know" because I hear their stories. And there are people I don't know at all, but imagine intensely. Still, for me, this act of imagining draws a line from me to that other person. Though this may expose boundary issues (feeling responsible for things that aren't my responsibility) it also establishes some foundational morality.

Ben draws a distinction between passive observers and people who feel international grief and then act upon it. I acted, to a degree. I went to Cambodia. But my experience there was not ideal by any means, and the way that it was limited activates many of Ben's questions about powerlessness. I had only ten days and no Khmer language skills, and my interviews were arranged through organizations and not organic encounters, and forcing the point in this way set me up to fail my own impossible expectations. But why do I spend so much energy caring about distant strangers in the first place? Here's one answer: At the core of this is my conviction that humans are interestingly complex to the individual; nothing compels me more than my desire to know or imagine other people in all their mess and nuance. It's why I write fiction. It's why I love stories. And my heart for people as individuals is why I feel so strongly when I hear about conflict or injustices that fragment and violate and extinguish the lives of so many. But this effect has two parts that pull at one another. It helps me imagine individuals, and I feel grief. But the the window that opens to such conflict or injustice often itself suppresses individuality. As Ben points out, and David Byrne confirms, people who feel grief far away are sometimes only
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out.
Individuals are subsumed, their stories essentialized, lost, mis- or not represented. There are not often particulars, and where a story is offered, it is told through a human-interest lens, made superficial and palatable for an American audience. So what to do? How to answer Ben's questions about my motives, or the overall importance of caring about things that are so far away?

I'm going to paraphrase Charles Simic. He once wrote something like, don't use a number like five million to indicate, for instance, the number of people who have died in the First and Second Congo Wars. Instead write 5,000,001. That dangling unit disrupts the statistic, reminds one what it means, gives the number some visual traction where statistics typically fail to gain hold. I thought of this over the weekend, when I saw Fela!, the Broadway musical portrait of the life of Fela Kuti. In the final scene, Fela brings his mother's coffin to the steps of an army general, demanding that the powers that responsible for her death look at what they've done. That happened, in 1977, and in the musical version, Fela's compatriots stacked tens of other coffins alongside his mother's, demanding in song:
Them no want take am
Them no want take am
Who go want take coffin?
Them must take am
Each coffin functioned like Simic's dangling "1," suggesting an individual, each a single death, a particular loss. And in the audience, I had my typical reaction. I felt compelled but I also I felt implicated: Who go want take coffin? I felt asked to carry that burden.

The work I wanted to do in Cambodia years back was impossible to accomplish with the time I had available. I couldn't be gone from my son for more than two weeks, and though I came home from Cambodia feeling like fiction was the best medium for me to explore the subject, instead I wrote fiction set in rural Ontario. Lately I've been ready to peek out again. I don't want to write safe, sturdy fiction. But what to write, when I'm tethered to Brooklyn? Imagination is leash-less, I know. It is for unleashing. I once heard Zakes Mda say, "Write what you don't know - write what you wonder." Fiction is the best way to explore, to activate empathy, I tell myself. But sticking close to home is hard. I always was driven to move, to wander. When I was nineteen and depressed, I left Georgetown for a semester in Turkey. When I was twenty and depressed, I left Georgetown for a semester in South Africa. I have a tendency to suggests trips to my husband when I feel the neighborhood closing in: let's go to Tanzania, Bali, Berlin. Let's go back to Cape Town. Let's move to Vancouver, Nova Scotia, Paris, let's go teach English in Bangladesh. But I stay in Brooklyn. I wanted to be a doer, and then a writer, and instead what I do is write.
You may ask yourself
How did I get here?
But what does it say, that I see that as one of my life's disappointments: my comfort, my family, my success? What a disgusting and childish thing. And who's to say I even would have survived any trial by fire? It's easy enough to picture myself at eighteen, starting down a different path, toward being eaten by a bulldozer in Gaza, or murdered in Khayelitsha, another half-formed American martyr. But that was never me. I was interested in nuance and stories even then, and I cared too much about living. I was open, but intuitively cautious when I needed to be.

So does this answer Ben's question about why we look at distant atrocities? It could be as simple as this: my attention to distant conflict is my way of engaging with my mind what I once hoped to grapple with in person. It seems patently obvious now that I could siphon or convert some of that energy toward attention to conflict closer to home, my inner push and pull. I said before that nothing compels me more than my desire to know or imagine other people in all their mess and nuance fiction. But I avoid my own mess at all costs, despite the fact that my secret inner wounds are where I am most essentially, individually human. It's near the place that pains when I hear stories of atrocity, and though I would never equate them, I shouldn't privilege the extreme pain of distant others over the emotional pain I feel or inflict.

--Posted by Nicki
[Photograph by Nura Qureshi.]

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posted by Ben

Willie Nelson
Available on : One Hell Of a Ride
Sony : 2008
[Buy It]

Silver Jews
Tanglewood Numbers
Drag City : 2005
[Buy It]

The Pogues
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Island : 1987
[Buy It]

The other day, a friend commented on the prevalence of alcohol in adult life. "All social events revolve around booze", he said, and I had to put my glass down just long enough to agree. Dinner parties should really be called wine parties. Office functions quickly descend into dysfunction. And special occasions are made for toasting. Yes, growing up and drinking seem inextricably linked. Not that I'm complaining. I like my beer and my whiskey and my anything else you hand me. There's comfort and convivial warmth in alcohol. A few glasses and your cheeks flush pleasantly, conversation sparkles, and the night takes on a hazy dazy glow.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of songs about booze. Indeed, many of them seem marinated in the stuff. Musicians like their vices, and so, there's an entire bar menu of approaches--Richard and Linda Thompson's hopeful determination ("I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight") and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone's woozy regret ("New Year's Kiss"). There's George Thorogood's cocky battle cry ("I Drink Alone") and the amusing musings of Stephen Merritt ("Too Drunk to Dream").

But a common thread throughout is love. Which makes sense. Booze is an emotional defense and well, love is a battlefield. We may have different orders to dull our pain (Guinness for me, please), but it all comes from the same wretched place. Take Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk". The title pretty much says it all. But he expands on the statement:
I sure do dread it, cause I know just what I'm gonna do
I start to spend my money calling everybody honey then wind up singing the blues
Sure, he'll regret it. But he knows himself well enough to know he's gotta do it anyway. This is the sort of content resignation all gluttons for punishment can identify with. And I am the biggest glutton of all. Week after week, I recall the consequences, and yet off I go into dimly lit dives and cocktail lounges, ready to dim my senses. In the same way, I know there's danger, and yet, every time, I offer up my heart with reckless abandon .

So why do we do what we do when we know that it hurts to do it? Well, human nature is a bit of an idiot. And apparently it likes a good glass of wine.

"Punks in the Beerlight" adds a drinking partner to the mix. Now there are two 'burnouts in love' discussing their rather regrettable habits. You get the feeling they're singing both about the perils of drinking and of loving each other. Like Willie, David Berman's lyrics are self-aware as he sings to his lady friend. Interestingly, her only line in the song is less so - in fact, it seems almost delusional:

"If it ever gets really really bad, if it ever gets really really bad.." she sings.

Without missing a beat, he shoots her down: "Let's not kid ourselves - it gets really, really bad."

And he's right. Both pursuits are intoxicating, and both can lead to mortifying disaster. But oh how fun they are along the way. Sure, I'd trade in a few hangovers if I could. But those misteps and mistakes in love - they're the things that shape that wonderful thing called experience. And the neurotic optimist that is me.

Perhaps the greatest anthem of love and drunkenness is the Pogues classic, "Fairytale of New York". And it's a fitting choice for this time of year, of course. The holidays are upon us, and so is that frenetic, almost desperate desire to be merry and not overly bright. Shane McGowan and the late Kristy MacColl do a glorious job of dancing between the happy holidays of two tipsy kids in love and the bah humbug of a failed relationship. And they do it all in perfect, drunken harmony.

Sinatra was swinging, all the drunks they were singing
We kissed on the corner, then danced through the night.
Now, this song could seem depressing--it is Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, after all. And yet, there is a strange optimism about the whole thing. Which is probably due to the setting. New York, like the night stretched before you, is always full of promise. And so, away they go, and live to tell the tale. Which is something we can do too. Drunkenness, like love, might leave us with a crushing ache. Our heads and hearts might be broken in the morning. We might swear off one or the other, vowing to be sober! To be single! And yet, all it takes is a little bit of encouragement--a greasy brunch, a new flirtation--and like fools, we're ready to take the plunge again.

Cheers to that.

--Posted by Madeleine

Labels: ,

posted by Ben

Thursday, December 10, 2009
Jennifer Warnes
Available on : Love Lifts Us Up: A Collection, 1968-1983
Raven : 2004
[Buy It]

David Ruffin
Available on : David: The Unreleased Album
Hip-O Select : 2004
[Buy It]

When I was first dating my wife, we used to get into fights because she cared about animals. That's a bit of a misrepresention. We got into fights because she cared about, or appeared to care about, animals more than people, and animals who were far away more than animals who were nearby. If a news show had a picture of a bird trapped in oil halfway around the world -- Turkmenistan, say -- she'd be wracked with sobs. "That poor bird," she'd say, eyes red. "Someone should help it." On the other hand, if I cut my foot on glass, she'd narrow her eyes (not red) and tell me to get a paper towel and a band-aid. I used to hate this behavior. I'd stand next to the TV as it showed pictures of birds in oil and say things like "If only there were a situation where you could actually affect the happiness of living beings." I called it Yoko Ono disease: a syndrome in which abstract ideas of pain and suffering eclipse concrete examples of it. The bud shooting up through the concrete, too, is ignored, and it withers.

When my wife acted this way, which was often, I used to think about that song from Hair, "Easy to Be Hard." Three Dog Night had a hit with it as a power ballad; Jennifer Warnes, who was in the Los Angeles cast of the musical, put it on her second album, "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me," in 1969. It's an unrequited love song about a man who is missing what's right under his nose and instead affecting concern for the broader world via activism and rhetoric. It's a fantastically efficient character sketch, and it argues that World Consciousness can sometimes be a cover for the most fundamental self-absorption. Take the bird in oil. For starters, it's delicious. (That's just a joke, pro-bird, anti-oil types! It's not the kind of oil that makes a bird delicious. (It might be.)) But that bird, the one on the screen, will drown long before any of us can make it over there to pull it out. And while we sit, sobbing, looking at a picture of a circumstance we can't change, we're erecting a monument to our own powerlessness, and that in turn can validate the idea that we have no effect on the real people in our immediate vicinity, and consequently need not try our hardest in the matters that directly concern us. This seems counterintuitive; aren't grief and anger about the injustices of the world a form of protest rather than a form of acceptance? Aren't people who care about the distant corners of the world more likely to engage with and attempt to influence events? Maybe here I am drawing, or should draw, a distinction between activists and activist-rhetoric addicts. I have friends who are activists of one kind of another, and I'm not indicting their interest in far-off places, particularly when they actually get up out of their chairs and travel to the trouble spots that interest or vex them. I won't argue that these people are making the world worse. It seems patently obvious that they are not. But I have other friends who come to value a sedentary form of world-worrying, a highly principled spectatorship in which the fact of fretting about Turkmenistani birds replaces other demands that are closer to home, make more specific demands, and are consequently not as appealing.

So, "Easy to Be Hard." My wife made me think about that song, and then that song made me think about her: vicious cycle, vicious sentiment.
Especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice
Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend
Time passed. The bird drowned. Another one did, too. Over the years, my wife's Yoko Ono disease subsided somewhat -- or maybe it's more accurate to say that my reaction to it changed. The same overwrought (and possibly overweening) sense of world consciousness that used to madden me now has the ability to comfort me, at least for a little while. It's not simply that my wife got better at conceding that local concerns mattered as much as global ones, but also that I have come around to the validity of worrying about the global. Traditionally, I am indifferent to the global. A bird in oil is an unfortunate thing, but I have never considered it my responsibility. Instead, I focus on a tighter circle; I am an aggressive investor, at least mentally, when it comes to people in my life. I expend a great deal of energy on my friends and the choices they are making. I brighten inside if I think the choices are correct ones. I darken if I think the choices are wrong. Some days the lights flicker off and on.

I have rationalized this meddlesome attitude as a means of escaping self-absorption--which can, remember, take the form of either isolation or its purported opposite (but secret twin), bird-in-oil soulfulness. But now, thanks to age, thanks to my wife's evolution, it occurs to me that my ideas about these matters might be wrong. For starters, manufacturing out a series of thoughts, theories, and feelings about your friends and loved ones isn't necessarily a protection again self-absorption. Other people get used as yardsticks; when I think about them, I may well just be thinking about myself. Involvement with friends and acquaintances can't even always guard against powerlessness. Ideas about choices made by those nearby aren't necessarily as futile as ideas about choices made far away, but in a purely instrumental sense, I have roughly the same amount of influence on whether a friend will start drinking again or whether a village in Indonesia will rebuild from tsunami damage. He will drink or not. The village will rebuild or not. The energy expended worrying over the decisions of others is technically squandered in either event. So if the bleeding crowd doesn't need my attention, does a needing friend? Or should I just accept all outcomes and aspire to total equanimity?

This is a false dichotomy, obviously, and even if it wasn't, it's a bad question. I will never be able to holster my weapon when it comes to situations that I care about, and I will always care about situations involving friends and loved ones more than I care about situations involving birds and oil. I am as unchangeable in this trait as an armchair activist is in the opposite respect. But it occurs to me that I might have missed a piece of the puzzle; what I once dismissed out of hand as abstracted self-indulgence might in fact be a more sophisticated method for administering the personal realm. You can't pull the bird out of the oil, and it's fatuous to imagine that you can put yourself in the bird's place, even for purposes of temporary empathy, but you don't have to accept that the division between what is far and what is near is a permanent one. Rather, they are complements. When you consider the world at large, and how small you are in comparison, the matters that are actually causing you pain -- whether your own fears about your job or a creative roadblock or your friend's drinking or your other friend's divorce -- are suspended temporarily , and you can delay dealing with them until you're better equipped, or (more likely) until the crisis has shifted in a manner that better equips you. Then, though, the burden is returned to you, and to the smaller circle inside the global. The problem is not with the bird in oil, or even thinking about the bird in oil. It's what happens when you stop thinking about it. The armchair activists and soulful solipsists who follow thoughts of birds in oil with more thoughts of birds in oil -- those who use it to fetishize their own insignificance or who commend themselves on their sensitivity to all forms of suffering -- are missing the solution, which is to use the situation as a kind of key. Take whatever sadness you feel about the bird's plight, or whatever joy you feel at the prospect of its rescue, and reinvest it in your own life. Understand that the bird's imprisonment in oil has some relevant similarity with your friend's bad job, and that assistance is needed, or that the conditions that caused the oil spill are being echoed, in some metaphorical way, in your own relationship: maybe there's not enough control, and too much poison. I suggest metaphor not because I think the reality of the bird should be erased, but because I think it is more profitably used as fuel. Feel what you want to feel about the global, and feel it as deeply as you wish, so long as you return to the local. To honor that perspective, and to concede the point, I'm going to add a second song, not by Yoko Ono, but by David Ruffin: his majestic cover of Stevie Wonder's bird-in-oil anthem "Heaven Help Us All."
Now I lay me down before I go to sleep
In a troubled world I pray the Lord to keep
Keep hatred from the mighty and the mighty from the small
Heaven help us all

NOTE: The art accompanying today's post, by the way, is by Brian Dettmer, who makes skeletons and other sculptures by melting down and shaping old cassette tapes.

Labels: , ,

posted by Ben

Thursday, November 26, 2009
Ray Davies
Other People's Lives
V2 : 2006
[Buy It]

Johnny Dowd
Wrong Side of Memphis
Munich : 1998
[Buy It]

Mary Gauthier
Between Daylight and Dusk
Lost Highway : 2007
[Buy It]

Loudon Wainwright III
Career Moves
Virgin : 1993
[Buy It]

Graham Parker
Available on: Bloodied But Unbowed
Bloodshot : 2006
[Buy It]

Dock Boggs
Available on: His Folkways Years: 1963-1968
Smithsonian Folkways : 1998
[Buy It]

I'm thankful for lots of things. They know who they are. And in the spirit of the holiday, I'm going to let you relax with you and yours. Get fed, get full, hang around the drinkwell.

If you insist, here are some songs to stuff your ears with: Ray Davies is sentimental despite the tone in his voice, Johnny Dowd is as unsentimental as his tone suggests, Mary Gauthier is in prison, Loudon Wainwright is in the prison of his family, Graham Parker is in the moment, Dock Boggs is in the straw. No Adam Sandler songs have been used in the making of this post.

Labels: ,

posted by Ben

Thursday, November 19, 2009
Dr. John
Atco : 1969
[Buy It]

Back in my teens, if you had asked me to dream up the ideal musician, I would have imagined an unholy combination of Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Roky Erickson, and I wouldn't have known that the thing I was dreaming already existed, and that it was named Dr. John. There's an occasion for this post, a birthday, and as a result it isn't a post where I'll speculate endlessly on the reticulations of relationships or the finer points of consciousness. I'll just say that Dr. John was born on November 21, 1940, and leave it at that. I mean, mostly. Maybe I'll also confess that while I have admiration for his New Orleans piano records like Gumbo and his eighties forays into standards (In a Sentimental Mood), the only records of his I really love, the only ones that are located at the eccentric trivium I described above, are the earliest solo records, the ones where he indulged his Night Tripper persona most extremely. There's Gris-Gris, of course, from 1968, but there's also Babylon from the following year. It's a lesser-known album, almost to the point of being unknown, and it's easy to see why: the vocals sound closer to Van Morrison than to a voodoo priest, the arrangements are sometimes chaotic, and the songs are weak both in conception and execution (nothing approaches "Mama Roux," let alone "I Walk on Gilded Splinters"). Still, it's an eerie experience, especially "Twilight Zone," which comes on like a treatment from the television show of the same name, if it had been set at the height of the sixties:
Martians kidnap the First Family
They're gonna demand New York City for ransom money
We're gonna outsmart 'em, leave a note for 'em to read
The best they can get is Milwaukee
The piano swells; Dr. John practices his supernatural medicine on the Kennedys and King. Like the rest of Babylon, it's overwritten and spacey--underwhelming despite a tremendous middle section with echoing female backing vocals and keyboards that sound like alien horns--and maybe that's why I have such affection for it. It's Dr. John, in full regalia, not quite getting over, sinking into the swamp of the time. The next song, "The Patriotic Flag Waver," is a funky urban portrait that begins with a children's choir singing "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" and imagines a protagonist who belongs to both the KKK and the NAACP, and it's normal--boringly so--by comparison. Whenever the album gets to that point, I go backwards, into the Twilight Zone.

Labels: ,

posted by Ben

Friday, October 30, 2009
Bo Diddley
Available on : I'm a Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958
Hip-O Select : 2007
[Buy It]

Oral Fixation, Vol. 2
Sony : 2006
[Buy It]

Ryan Adams
Easy Tiger
Lost Highway : 2007
[Buy It]

Ron Sexsmith
Other Songs
Interscope : 1997
[Buy It]

Years ago I knew a woman who was obsessed with Halloween. I remember one conversation I had with her in which she tried to explain that it was a night that put into practice, if only temporarily, every interesting idea about identity, theatricality, and sexuality. "As a children's holiday, it's amusing; as an adult's holiday, it's revelatory because of what it conceals," she said. She was a graduate student, which is a peculiar kind of disguise that involves taking highly personal and vexed questions and holding them at arm's length, in intellectual suspension. The costume comes with extra-long arms.

"I don't care," I said. I think we were going up the stairs to her apartment. She turned around to glower at me. "Turn back around," I said. "That way it's harder for me to hear you."

"To hear what?" she said.

"I'm assuming you're going to go on with this grand theory of Halloween."

She went on. She said that even though it's considered a holiday that honors the dead, it more accurately honors the dead parts of living people, the aspects of their personality they can't bring to life in their ordinary routine. "People dressed up as evil spirits to ward off evil, supposedly, but weren't they really dressing up as evil spirits to give voice, even if only temporarily, if only theatrically, to the evil impulses in themselves that they couldn't otherwise abide?" She then breathlessly mapped the holiday into literary history, linking it intimately with Twelfth Night, especially, and the way that Viola's decision to dress up as Cesario both validates and explodes everything that we believe about appearance, reality, self-knowledge, and attraction. The play, she theorized, was an interrogation of identity and imposture. Are we defined by the clothes we wear or by the clothes we don't wear? Are we most ourselves when we are dressing the part or when we are wholly undressed?

"I don't care," I said. We had gotten to her apartment by now, and we tested the various theories: dressing the part, wholly undressed. That year for Halloween, she went as a milkmaid and carried an oversize bottle that she labeled "deception." Go figure. I didn't dress up.

I won't be dressing up tomorrow night either. I like to say that it's because I'm so honest about every aspect of my being, but that's just an oversize bottle labeled "deception." The fact is that I have other ways of disguising myself--or, to be more honest, one other way. I do it in print. When I write, whether it's these essays, or a book of fiction, or any other piece, I put on a costume. I can be a little more introspective, a little more cavalier, a little more wounded, a little more dour. I don't have to be myself, exactly. This year, that's a relief. For a month or so, I've been slightly destabilized, mostly for stupid reasons: a birthday that affected me more than I thought it would, followed by some mild emotional distemper. I thought that some friends were mad at me. I snapped at other friends. I exhibited both churlishness and paranoia. I got past it, but the way I got past it was interesting: I explained it away as a voluntary strategy I employed to deal with a larger set of issues: in short, as a costume. That meant that it wasn't real, that I could just do away with the problematic feelings and behavior whenever I wanted. There's another option, of course -- that when that mask is removed the face beneath is identical, that the costume is a confirmation rather than a distraction -- but rather than confront that head-on, I'll proceed to the Halloween parade.

I know four people who are staying home tonight to put the finishing touches on their costumes.

I know three people who have the same costume from year to year (always a pirate, always a ghost), to the point where that other identity has acquired a stability of its own.

I know two people who have, in the past, gotten in trouble with their significant others because their costumes appeared to reveal some previously unknown truth about them.

I know one person who says that he will never dress up again because on a normal day he doesn't know who he is and doesn't feel confident enough to risk it.

I know countless people who (like me) aren't dressing up for the holiday, but who (unlike me) like to joke that they are dressing up as themselves, and who believe that this is a trenchant remark that reveals something about the way that society forces us to play certain roles (worker, partner, child) for which we may not, deep down, be any more suited than we are for the roles of "vampire" or "sexy barmaid." I know countless other people who handle the holiday more traditionally, who take on the vampire or sexy barmaid identities at face value, as id aids, and who want the rest of us to believe that's who they really are underneath the social roles, or who they could be if they were better at pronouncing their true selves.

I no longer know one person who, the year she dressed as a milkmaid, got her costume knotted up while she was trying to take it off. She was stuck inside her false identity, and she reacted to this problem with academic glee. "O time, thou must untangle this, not I," she said. "It is too hard a knot for me to untie."

"I don't care," I said. But then I started to feel her panic at being trapped inside there and went for a Bobby pin to help her free herself.

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posted by Ben

Thursday, October 15, 2009
Ian Hunter
You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic
Chrysalis : 1979
[Buy It]

Graham Parker
Squeezing Out Sparks
Arista : 1979
[Buy It]

Ian Hunter
Shrunken Heads
Yep Roc : 2007
[Buy It]

Graham Parker
Don't Tell Columbus
Bloodshot : 2007
[Buy It]

Ian Hunter and Graham Parker are two artists who have made frequent appearances on this site. They are paired, for me, because of the quality of their vocals, because of the honesty of their lyrics, because of the dedication they have both demonstrated over the years to rock and roll. I don't want to say too much about them here because tomorrow I'll be interviewing the two of them at (Le) Poisson Rouge for the New Yorker Festival at 7:30. Today, I offer two songs from each of them, one from 1979, one from 2007.

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posted by Ben