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Wednesday, March 17, 2010
BARON OF LOVE, PART 2
Like Flies on Sherbert
LET ME GET CLOSE TO YOU
Big Time: 1987
Available on: Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story
Big Beat: 2008
IT'S YOUR FUNERAL
A Man Called Destruction
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 "It's Your Funeral" is an instrumental. There are no words.
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
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.
Labels: ben, chilton, pop, rock, soul
posted by Ben
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Close To You
A&M : 1970
Close To You
A&M : 1970
Close To You
A&M : 1970
MY BODY KEEPS CHANGING MY MIND
Available on: Karen Carpenter
A&M : 1996
STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Available on: Karen Carpenter
A&M : 1996
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 brownThe 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.
Bare November led to December's frozen ground
The seasons stumble 'round
Our drifting lives are bound to a falling crescent noon
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.
Labels: ben, pop
posted by Ben
Friday, February 26, 2010
DON'T YOU SEE HOW THIS WORLD MADE A CHANGE
Blind Wilile McTell
Available on: The Complete Blind Willie McTell, Vol. 2: 1931-1933
Document : 1990
THE BIG CHANGE
Big Mama Thornton
Available on: Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings
MCA : 1992
TIME CHANGES EVERYTHING
Now, There Was a Song!
Sony : 1960
THINGS HAVE CHANGED
Every Grain of Sand
Linn : 2002
LORD I'VE BEEN CHANGED
Anti : 2006
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 touchI 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.
The human mind can only stand so much
You can't win with a losing hand
Labels: ben, blues, change
posted by Ben
Monday, February 22, 2010
YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING
The Wicked Pickett
Atlantic : 1966
YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING
Sam & Dave
Available on: Sweat and Soul
Rhino : 1993
YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING
Available on: Voices of Americana
Edsel : 2009
YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham
Moments from This Theatre
Proper American : 2007
YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING
Available on: The Otis Redding Story
Atlantic : 1989
YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING
Available on: Beautiful Dream Sessions, Volume 3
Zane : 2005
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.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.
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.
Labels: ben, soul, tim, water
posted by Ben
Saturday, February 13, 2010
THE GRIP OF LOVE
Elektra : 1979
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 moonThe 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.
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
Labels: ben, love
posted by Ben
Monday, February 08, 2010
WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN
Polydor : 1974
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.
Labels: ben, football
posted by Ben
Thursday, January 14, 2010
LENBA, LENBA SOU LEMO
Available on : Alan Lomax in Haiti
Harte Recordings : 2009
[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 outOne 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.
Lenba on top of Lenba
Lenba, Lenba triumps over death
Ay, Lenba rises over Lenba
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.
Labels: ben, haiti
posted by Ben
Monday, January 04, 2010
DANSE A LA MUSIQUE
The French Fries
Epic : 1968
[Out of Print]
The French Fries
Epic : 1968
[Out of Print]
SKIN I'M IN
Sly and the Family Stone
Epic : 1973
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 FreddieThe 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:
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 third piggy's name was Sylvester Sylvester SylvesterFourteen 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:
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
Say a letter has come from Uncle SamuelThese 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:
He's a dude
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, ohIs it weird to treasure your own flawed self--the self that cannot do otherwise--even as it undoes you? Ain't that weird.
If I could do it all over again
I'd be in the same skin I'm in
The clothes I wear
And the things they dare me to do
Places I go
People I know
The things I gain
Sometimes they rain on me
Skin I'm in
And the things I never, never win
Labels: ben, sly
posted by Ben
Thursday, December 10, 2009
EASY TO BE HARD
Available on : Love Lifts Us Up: A Collection, 1968-1983
Raven : 2004
HEAVEN HELP US ALL
Available on : David: The Unreleased Album
Hip-O Select : 2004
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 peopleTime 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.
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
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: ben, birds, soul
posted by Ben
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Other People's Lives
V2 : 2006
Wrong Side of Memphis
Munich : 1998
Between Daylight and Dusk
Lost Highway : 2007
Loudon Wainwright III
Virgin : 1993
ALMOST THANKSGIVING DAY
Available on: Bloodied But Unbowed
Bloodshot : 2006
TURKEY IN THE STRAW
Available on: His Folkways Years: 1963-1968
Smithsonian Folkways : 1998
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: ben, holidays
posted by Ben
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Atco : 1969
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 FamilyThe 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.
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
Labels: ben, voodoo
posted by Ben
Friday, October 30, 2009
BO MEETS THE MONSTER
Available on : I'm a Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958
Hip-O Select : 2007
COSTUME MAKES THE CLOWN
Oral Fixation, Vol. 2
Sony : 2006
Lost Highway : 2007
THINLY VEILED DISGUISE
Interscope : 1997
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.
Labels: ben, rock
posted by Ben
Thursday, October 15, 2009
LIFE AFTER DEATH
You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic
Chrysalis : 1979
DON'T GET EXCITED
Squeezing Out Sparks
Arista : 1979
Yep Roc : 2007
ALL BEING WELL
Don't Tell Columbus
Bloodshot : 2007
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.
Labels: ben, rock
posted by Ben
Friday, October 09, 2009
Press To Play
Capitol : 1986
HE MAKES ME SO MAD
Available on : One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found
Rhino : 2005
Columbia : 1967
Prince and the N.P.G.
NPG Music Club : 2001
GOD IS MAD WITH MAN
Rev. T.E. Weems
Available on : Goodbye, Babylon
Dust to Digital : 2003
I AIN'T MAD AT ALL
Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age
Def Jam : 1994
SICK OF MYSELF
Volcano : 1995
From diary, 1977:
"Mom and Dad were both mad at me today. I was mad at people at school and acted bad and they noticed. I felt bad because of school so I wanted them to be more nice but they were less nice because of how I acted. Six Million Dollar Man was the end of a two parter about trained sharks."
From this site, right now:
"Feel like I made some people mad this week. Didn't mean to. Might have miscalculated. Can be bossy and overbearing at times with friends. If so, am sorry. Am taking foot off gas so as not to additionally antagonize. Should concede, though, that I might be wrong, that people might not be mad at me at all, that instead it might be a matter of indifference. Should also concede there's something in me that rebels more strongly at that possibility than at the prospect of anger. Anger at least signals investment. Indifference is divestment and worse than an affront. It's a null set. Not to mention that if people aren't mad at me, then maybe it's just that I'm displeased with myself, and that's intolerable, because that requires locating myself within myself, as the damn dirty hippies say, and processing my own error without any engagement, challenge, or friction furnished by others. It requires standing still, and who can do that? Not me. Not sharks. Maybe trained sharks."
Labels: ben, gospel, jazz, pop
posted by Ben
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Double Nickels On the Dime
SST : 1984
This morning there was a weight pressing down on my mind. This morning it was windy. I mean there was wind, not that my mind wound, though my mind did wind. My mind wound because I heard, in quick succession, about a series of projects undertaken by friends and acquaintances: a book, a movie, a television series. All were being undertaken by people for whom I have fondness, so I was happy to hear that they were working on new things. And yet, the news exhausted me. Sometimes, other people's projects have this effect by way of envy (if it's a project I'd like to be doing) or disappointment (if it's a project I think they don't want to be doing). This was something different. To the last, these projects sounded like they were, for lack of a better word, stunts, slightly desperate ways of passing time and acquiring attention while contributing nothing to the self, the world, or to a sense of how one might profitably exist within the other. And because they were stunts, the people performing them seemed stunted: powered by disinterest rather than interest, filled with anomie and irony rather than energy. It wasn't a question of whether or not these people were taking their projects seriously, only that they weren't taking on serious projects. This is a judgment, and a fairly severe one, but it is rooted in an uncertainty regarding the real value of these projects and a certainty of the strong need for real value within these people, and as a result I came away displeased, with a weight upon my mind.
That last sentence is even windier than this morning was, so let me clarify. All these projects I heard about began in anxiety. Here, when I say anxiety, I'm talking not about my anxiety, but about Kierkegaard's, which he defined as the result of freedom. Freedom created boredom and also choice and was consequently the thing felt acutely just before a leap of faith. For Kierkegaard, this leap of faith was a leap into faith, into Christianity, but let's say that it can be secular or creative or even carnal: a leap into love, into sex, into friendship, into art. I am not saying that it is better or worse to write a paragraph about your spiritual condition or to plan a series of sculptures or to end up in a midtown hotel with your arms tied to bedposts and your memory stuffed full. You decide. But if you decide to take something seriously, whether mind or body or soul, you will have found that your anxiety has worked like a charm, or at the very least a spur--it will make you tremble at your freedom and then motivate you to take that leap. But if that anxiety is treated with trivia (and what is more trivial than stunts?) then it's a kind of sin that just compounds anxiety by enacting meaningless freedom. Objections will be raised. I'll even raise them. How do I know that these projects are stunts, or trivial? How do I know that they're not heartfelt? How do I know that they're not intimately connected to the mainsprings of the people in question? How dare I be so presumptuous? All I can say is that I believe that I am right in this regard, and that I believe that these projects are inconsequential stunts because they address no real issue apart from that of relieving boredom. Eighty percent of media is an answer to this question, both for creators and consumers, and while projects/stunts that take this as their central mission are not crimes and their creators not criminals, they are not crime-solvers either. They are, in the sense outlined above, sinners, and they are sinning by spending their energy on unworthy pursuits. The miasma of anxious opinion and media-enabled yammering is a morbid emanation.
Kierkegaard had plenty more to say about this issue, as did other philosophers, artists, prophets, and fools. The issue crystallizes and falls out of focus. When I was seventeen, the clearest formulation I knew came from the Minutemen, and particularly "Anxious Mo-Fo," which kicks off the philosophical tract "Double Nickels on the Dime."
Serious as a heart attack! And from there, I guess, I'll wind over to Charles Bukowski. I don't have a great investment in the man, though I love "Factotum" and I wince at "Women" (isn't it responsible, at least in part, for "Californication"?). But Bukowski once said "An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way," and for that simple formulation I'd like to thank him, and thank the Minutemen, and thank Kierkegaard, and put my fingers in my ears at the rest of it, if not for all time, just for a little while, as a form of relief. I am not wishing ill for the projects or the people who are involved in them. I am only turning away.
Makes me feel this way...
No device to measure, no word can define
I mean what I'm trying to say is how can I express--let alone possess?
Serious as a heart attack!
Makes me feel this way...
Labels: ben, rock
posted by Ben
Friday, September 25, 2009
FEAR IS A MAN'S BEST FRIEND
Island : 1974
MY FRIEND GEORGE
RCA : 1984
Big3 : 2003
SEE MY FRIENDS
1000 Years of Popular Music
Cooking Vinyl : 2003
Every year at this time I go into a defensive crouch. There are lots of reasons: years of training in back-to-school wariness, the High Holidays and the corresponding high level of vigilance they demand, my birthday. It's last on this list, my birthday, because I want it to be least. I don't like it. Birthdays are occasions of increased expectation, which necessarily means they are times of disappointment. No matter how many times I try to convince myself otherwise, it turns out that the day has no special capacity for ecstasy or surprise.
This year, my hostility toward my birthday is even more pointed because it's a big year, though I won't say which one. Okay: you twisted my arm. I'm turning eighty. As a result of this event, I have been thinking about everything, all the time. Mainly I have been thinking about the way that life limits you. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get to live in enough places or work enough jobs or write enough books or love enough women or hear enough music. If you submit to the limits, you can start to feel defeated. If you complain about them, you come off as churlish or, worse, idealistic. Everyone knows this, but it's hard to let the thought crystallize, because then it's so sharp it wounds. About a month ago, my five-year-old was looking at the clock, and he said, "Time is the thing you can't get out of, right?" Now he will begin the endless process of trying to repress that fact.
So with the impending cake and candle, this has been on my mind, and my mind's been on it, and as a result I have felt a little caged, and as a result of that I have been a little cagey, and as a result of that, the other day, in the midst of all this thinking, I did something thoughtless. I was talking to a friend of mine and I mentioned a piece of news, something interesting and maybe good that's about to happen. She was surprised that she was only hearing about it now, and not pleasantly surprised. She suggested, in no uncertain terms, that I should have told her the news earlier, because she's my friend, and because she deserves to know. About an hour later, she said she wasn't bothered by it, but I was.
In most cases, I don't care if I upset people. In some cases, I prefer it. Call it a character flaw if you like; when you turn eighty, see how much goodwill toward your fellow man you have left. But in a few cases, where a few people are concerned, I care tremendously if I upset them. I care so much that "care" is a precious, polite, desperately insufficient little word that can cast neither light nor shadow on the fact of the matter. Which is this: I have made most if not all of the close friends I will make. The other day, when i was talking to this friend, who is maybe my closest friend, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I haven't been clear. Sure, I say nice things, friendly things, supportive things, but I'm not positive that I'm ever exactly straightforward about how important (some) people are to me. The older I get, the fewer of them there are, and the more central they become. The ones in the innermost circle have a tremendous amount of power, maybe more than they know, maybe more than they want. As a younger person, I thought that if one friend disappeared, another would appear as a replacement. It may have even been true then. Now I know that's not true. If any of these friends disappear, it will be like losing a limb, and I'll have phantom pain in that lost limb for decades and decades, until I am taken off the case. So I didn't like the idea that I had disappointed this friend by not sharing my news. (It also occurred to me that maybe this friend was displeased with me for receding in the days surrounding my birthday. On her last milestone birthday, she had a nice big party and invited people. I am being a shut-in, relatively.)
Of course, I may be missing the mark by a wide margin. She may not be upset for these reasons or even upset at all. When she said an hour later that she wasn't bothered, she may have been telling the truth. So maybe the point is that I'm upset, possibly as a result of unease brought on by an impending eightieth birthday. As commentary, as cure, even as celebration, I am posting a set of songs that look at friendship, and particularly the way that it takes hold of you over time. The most pointed and pertinent is John Cale's "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend." The funniest is Lou Reed's "My Friend George." The most energetic is Cheap Trick's "Best Friend." And the saddest is Richard Thompson's cover of the Kinks' "See My Friends," which Ray Davies wrote about the his older sister, who gave him his first guitar on his thirteenth birthday and who died later that day after falling ill while dancing at a nightclub. He wrote about her absence often, from every angle; even a song like "Come Dancing" is shot through with melancholy because of it. Davies is sixty-five, and he'll probably feel the loss unti he's my age. You know: birthdays, seen friends, phantom pain.
Labels: ben, rock
posted by Ben
Friday, September 11, 2009
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Capitol : 1970
Last winter I published a limited-edition book/box that lamented the death of letter-writing, and when it came out, my wife sent a copy to Yoko Ono, one of her heroes, who she thought might appreciate an elegant object designed to collect and display worry over the lack of connection in modern humanity. We didn't hear back and after a while we assumed that it had been tossed. Maybe Yoko even ululated as she threw it away. Then about a week ago, we received a card from her office. The woman who wrote the enclosed letter apologized for the delays but explained that due to Ms. Ono's practice of answering all requests personally, response can sometimes take a while.
I thought about the card, and the woman, and the message created by one to fit inside the other, during Beatles Week, which peaked this past Wednesday in an orgy of product release and rerelease (Rock Band, remasters, Magical Mystery Tour-themed Halloween costumes--buy now!). I admired Yoko's decision to thank me for a book about letter-writing with a hand-signed card, and I didn't think that she was either ironizing or mocking the original work. I wondered whether John Lennon would have still been interested in the handwritten artifact if he was still alive, or if he would have been swept into the vortex of technology. I wondered because that's all you can do with John Lennon these days: wonder. Somehow, by this morning, my feelings of admiration for the two of them had evolved into a need to articulate my particular hatred of the Internet.
I am probably not the first person to say this, and I hope I am not the last, but the Internet is punching humanity in the stomach, and humanity is just standing there and taking it. In New York, at least in the mediacentric part of it, there is, increasingly, only one way to know that you exist, though there are many iterations of that one way. Existence is contingent upon electronic ink. If you want to know you are real, write a blog post. Use your Twitter account. Change your Facebook status. Or, if that seems too self-promotional, get someone else writing or using or changing to link to you. There have been studies this last month that online technology is harming the ability of people, particularly young people, to communicate face-to-face. This seems maddeningly obvious, and it also seems to soften the blow. The fact is that the Internet, for all its theoretical promise as a storehouse of information and a network that links people in disparate places (Iranian democratic activists with interested American observers, for example), has become most noteworthy as a drug peddler peddling the worst of all drugs, fame. People are growing addicted to getting noticed, to collecting friends on social networking sites, to heedlessly dumping into the filthy cesspool of opinion that's going to break its tank and flood everything. Reserve, once a virtue, is now seen as invisibility, which means that it's not seen at all. The addictive effects of fame are worsened by two facts. First, it's happening earlier and earlier to people who are less and less equipped to survive it. It's happening to kids, who somehow learn that it's okay--and even desirable--to broadcast their opinions, their images, and their inner lives to a world that, in the vast majority of cases, has no use for them except as fuel for the engine of distraction. And second, the fame that everyone is skinpopping isn't even the pure stuff--it's cut with irony and impermanence and venality. None of this is new save the speed and efficiency of the delivery mechanism. What are the consequences? I refuse to list them. I may not be capable of imagining them. But I feel certain they're not, on balance, good.
This isn't a reasoned argument. It's an emotional response. This isn't an attack on any individual endeavor. There are of course plenty of blogs, tweets, and statuses that are hurting no one. Rather, it's a broad reaction to a host of minor infractions. I've seen them this week, this month, this year. People worry that they're not famous enough because no one's writing about them. They worry that they're not having thoughts because those thoughts aren't being expressed in full view of the world. They worry that they'll vanish and as a result they go all-out with the flightless plumage. (But then again, they're not to blame They're only human, a victim of the insane.) Damn you to hell, Internet.
As always you can find us at moistworks.com.
Labels: ben, isolation
posted by Ben
Sunday, August 16, 2009
RIGHT HERE NOW
Where'd You Hide the Body
Sony : 1995
Days of disconcertion, days of imbalance, days of rage. They happen less often than they once did, but they still happen. Once a wise old man told me that these days are a blessing, because they are a sign that vitality is still coursing through your veins. "Without these days, you have death in life," he said. I slammed the window on his beard. I stopped at a bar on the way back and stayed until last call. That old man's voice was echoing in my head and I needed the anger to drain.
Days of frustration, days of impatience, days of choler. This used to be the only reason to listen to music, and it was a substantial one. It's hard to overestimate the therapeutic efffect of that first Pretenders record, or Public Image Limited, or even AC/DC. I defy chiropractors to claim with a straight face that what they do straightens your spine and resets your alignment better than playing "Precious" at top volume.
Days of displeasure, days of judgment, days of narrowed eyes. As old or at least older age advances, it's easier to see those medicinal songs simply as vitamins. They give you energy but what else do they give you. And it's easy to resist the songs that other people insist are sources of comfort: "Thunder Road" or "Let It Grow" or even Tricky or Radiohead. To paraphrase David Bowie, if they don't do it, they don't do it: it's only false claims.
Days of suspicious, days of perceived injustice, days of moral exhaustion. In those times, it becomes a kind of quest, to find a song that works without exerting too much effort, or at least without appearing to. This week, there were a number of frustrating days. I don't mean to overstate the severity of what happened-it was nothing much, maybe nothing at all, but it was getting to me. I went searching for something calm. This is what I found. As a bonus, it even has football-related lyrics:
I remember a ball game I watched as a kidWhich songs get the job done for you?
Neglecting my homework as I often did
Joe Namath scored on a seven-yard run
His knees barely held him, but they got the job done
And there'd be no last call if they elected me king
And if you were here with me, I'd tell you these things
Labels: ben, rock and roll
posted by Ben
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Life's Like Poetry
Bear Family : 1992
SILENCE IS A STRONG REPLY
Say It Ain't So
Island : 1976
DAY OF SILENCE
Universal Spiritual League : 1970
The Whitey Album
Enigma : 1988
Most days I speak to people, like most people. One day this week, I spoke to almost no one. It wasn't planned. I didn't do it to make a point. I got a new computer at the office, and it was a lemon, so I took the day off while they replaced it. I went out for a little while and left my cell phone at home. I had no way to communicate and so I was out of communication, if not exactly uncommunicative.
Usually I speak to one person, at least. I don't mean a generic person. I mean a specific person. There's one friend I check in with every day. I haven't always had a friend like this, but it's been the case more often than not. Every once in a while, this friend will go on vacation, or I will, and we won't speak, and it's disorienting. It's as if the days don't really exist. It's like time is executing a feint. This week, one day, I didn't speak to this person. To be fair, the silence and non-speaking didn't last all day, but they lasted for part of the day, intensely. If making no conversation and making no sound were experiments, my participation in them was at once semi-committed and ultra-compressed. I was out for a walk with no way to communicate with ohters. I listened to music instead.
The songs I heard were, in part, songs about silence. I let the iPod search for them. The first one was Lefty Frizzell's "Silence," from 1958, and it was a disconnect, for the most part, because Frizzell is singing about silence as loneliness, and I wasn't lonely at all, just out for a walk, listening to music, not talking to a friend of mine. Frizzell, too, isnt talking to a friend of his, but this is the cause of his silence rather than an effect of it:
I will die in the silenceAgain, silence here isn't the absence of sound or even of conversation. It's the absence of one specific person, without whom any sound or conversation is meaningless. It's hard to recover that idea in today's world, where there are a million options for connecting with others. I assumed--correctly, as it turned out, though I wouldn't know until later - - that my friend would try to make contact with me during the day, via phone or email. Was the silence my friend was experiencing, where attempted contact went out but nothing came back, different from what I was experiencing, when I felt the fact of attempted contact but could not add to it? I walked and listened.
Where no one hears me when I cry
When the clock ticks
When the wind blow
When the rain falls
Or when it snows
I think of you
Oh yes I think of you
And your face I can see
After I heard some Simon and Garfunkel and some Paul Westerberg, I got to Murray Head, in whose hands silence is another kind of statement- - a proportional response to an injury.
The sleeping dog in me won't lieAgain, here, silence is a romantic substance, and again, the absence he feels is in fact a sign of a more powerful presence. After that song, I wanted to call my friend, just to make it clear that the fact that I wasn't replying didn't mean I was Not Replying. It's easy to mistakenly feel this in today's world, where the million options for connecting with others makes silence echo even louder.
But when I'm woken you can't deny
When you fall in love right from the very start
You give your love and then they break your heart
When dreams are broken silence is a strong reply
Murray Head's song sounds a little like something Pete Townshend would have written away from the Who, for himself, in the early seventies. Townshend did in fact write something similar, "Day of Silence," though it wasn't for himself--it was from an album called Happy Birthday, which he recorded with a group of friends in 1970 as a tribute to Meher Baba. From this communal environment, Townshend managed to extract a song about solitude and mindful silence:
When you're feeling lowI wasn't feeling particularly low, and I couldn't find a hedgerow, but otherwise, I followed Townshend's prescription to the letter. In his song, in my day, silence wasn't about intake but rather output. It was the decision to produce no noise. That was the song I decided to mention to my friend when I returned to the land of communication: in fact, the one I decided to mention to all the friends I gave the silent treatment to, accidentally or purposefully, mindfully or matter-of-factly.
Try a day of silence
Take things very slow
Listen to the wireless
Never speak a sound
Sit up on the hedgerow
Watch the world go round
Peace will let your mind go
My iPod moved on from the Townshend song to others: Van Morrison's "Hymns to the Silence," Pavement's "Silence Kit." All of them, no matter what their philosophy, contained a central irony, the one Townshend was talking about when he recommended listening to the wireless: they are noise about silence, as conflicted at their root as, say, an essay about noncommunication. For actual silence, marked and measured, I went and found a song that I was surprised my iPod couldn't find on its own, Sonic Youth at its most experimental, recording as Ciccone Youth. The Ciccone Youth album is a riot of experiments and shattered expectations--the fact that it was released on Enigma almost seems redundant--and so it only makes sense that one of those experiments finds the noisiest of noise-rock bands monumentalizing the non-noisiest state imaginable. "(Silence)" is shorter than John Cage's "4'33",", which renders it both less committed and more compressed. Below I have reprinted the lyrics in full.
Labels: ben, rock and roll, silence
posted by Ben
Monday, July 27, 2009
HEAT OF THE MOMENT
John Lee Hooker
Hooker 'N' Heat
Elektra : 1971
The Negro Problem
Joys & Concerns
Aerial Flipout : 1999
I'M NOT ANGRY
My Aim Is True
Columbia : 1978
Yesterday was the first day that was too hot. I didn't check the temperature, but I felt the temperature. A few people disagreed with me, insisting that it was summery but comfortable, so it is possible and maybe even likely that temperature is subjective.
Yesterday was the first day of the summer that I lost my cool. Three separate people in my house--all the people in my house who aren't me--told me that I was too hot-tempered. It started early in the morning, when my five-year-old decided that he was going to talk back, make faces, push things off shelves, lean his chair back on two legs, and generally be five years old. I snapped at him, snapped at him again, told him what he could do to avoid further snapping, but he would not rehabilitate no matter how many opportunities he was offered. My wife and the eight-year-old, more circumspect than I was, tried to rein him in, but they failed as I had failed before them, and as I would fail after them. The morning was bad enough. Then we went to lunch. He started in immediately. The table was shaped weird. The lemonade was too bitter. Give me my cookie. I glowered and scowled and did my best to lessen the swelling, but it got worse over the course of the afternoon. Dinner was a repeat engagement: he mocked my voice and my wife's, stuck his tongue out at his food, laughed inappropriately. Five. Finally I was finished with it. I took my plate to the kitchen, dropped it next to the sink, and left the room. He came to find me and apologize, but somehow managed to turn that into a demand for a trip to the park. "Park, park, park," he said, stamping his foot. "Now, now, now."
"Go away," I said. He didn't. I went for a bike ride by myself. A storm was coming in. The air was nearly liquid. When I came back, he was still defiant. He rolled his eyes and then narrowed them. I yelled a little, which may have seemed like more than a little to him. It was the heat of the moment. Incidents arose from circumstance. The five-year-old went to bed without any resolution, and before he went to sleep he told my wife that he didn't like me. "Dad's always mad," he said. Temperature is subjective.
I have several wise things to say about child-rearing, but none of them relate to the behavior I exhibited yesterday. When the kids were off to sleep, my wife told me that I had acted poorly and I reminded her that five-year-olds can be jerks. "I wonder where he gets it from," she said.
"Stop it," I said. I thought I was joking, but evidently my face wore an expression of rage. I gave in to it. "I'm boiling mad," I said, and as a result I was. She went to bed, tired of me, and I stayed up alone and listened to music. Mostly I listened to John Lee Hooker, who isn't my favorite blues guitarist or singer but usually trances me out a little bit. This time, the first song was "Burning Hell," not the original but the version he recorded with Canned Heat. It starts with a bit of studio chatter in which Hooker gives the producer instructions. "Nothing but the best and later for the garbage," he says. I went in to look at my kids as they slept. The eight-year-old was peaceful; there was a book open beside him. The five-year-old had his jaw set angrily, even in sleep. I lay down next to him for a minute, rubbed his head, and then wrote an apology on a Post-It Note. "Sorry I yelled at you at dinner," I said. "Love, Dad."
Last night a storm dumped rain on the city. Rain is supposed to cool things off. This rain didn't. This morning my five-year-old woke up mad, mostly mad at me. While his brother read and got dressed, he stalled, challenged, got his back up. I went to force him into his shoes and socks, and saw the note I had written him, crumpled up in his trashcan: later for the garbage. A few minutes before we had to leave for camp, he asked me to play some music for him. He likes music with energy: the Hives, the Who, the Ramones. I tried playing him Public Image Ltd.'s "Rise," which explains that anger is an energy, but he wasn't interested in a lesson plan. He insisted on AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." "There was a storm last night," I said.
"So what?" he said. "Who cares?"
I walked him to camp. "I'm hot," he said. "And tired." I resisted saying "Who cares?" We talked about kids and parents and arguments and time. Talking about time was his idea; he wanted to know what it was and how we all got in it and if there was any such thing as being outside of it. I said there wasn't. To support my point, I told that when I was his age, I had a very similar personality to his. "I got in trouble because I argued and talked back," I said. "I didn't like listening to grownups."
"I know," he said. "Why would you?" I turned my head to look at him, assuming he was joking, but his face had an entirely different expression. I didn't ask him if he was still mad. It was obvious. When we got to camp, he asked me to carry him upstairs. "I like being here," he said, "with you." Then he said he had to tell me a secret. I leaned in. "I love you," he said. "Now go away." I did.
Labels: ben, rock and roll
posted by Ben